Mexican officials have finally captured one of the nation's most powerful drug cartel leader's, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.
Since 1997, Vicente Fuentes has been ruling the Juarez cartel, operating an extremely vicious and vindictive organization in the border town of Ciudad Juarez. Fuentes took over the cartel when his brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died during plastic surgery, an attempt to disguise him from authorities.
Though drug trafficking has decreased since his brother's death, the Associated Press notes that Vicente's leadership has led to "a much more violent era for the cartel." Battling against the neighboring Sinaloa cartel for the cocaine traffic heavy area of Ciudad Juarez, Fuentes' crimes led to at least 8,000 deaths.
Fuentes was wanted by both Mexican authorities and the FBI: Mexico's government offered a $2.2 million reward while the FBI offered up to $5 million for information leading directly to his arrest.
This is the second cartel leader captured recently, Hector Beltran Leyva of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel was arrested while eating fish tacos and was formally charged with multiple criminal counts this week.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/a-juarez-kingpin-is-captured/381319/
Three weeks before a congressional election is usually a peak in the never-ending political war between the two parties.
But Republicans and Democrats took a brief break from hostilities to issue a rare joint statement cheering a decision by the Federal Election Commission.
Naturally, the cause for celebration was money. The FEC voted to effectively double the amount that top donors can give to the parties to pay for the lavish national conventions they each hold every four years.
Currently, donors can give a maximum of $32,400 to a party committee every two years. But with the FEC's 4-2 vote on Thursday, donors will be able to give an additional $32,400 toward certain convention expenses that won't count toward the original cap. The caps are due to rise next year because of inflation.
The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee had jointly asked for the change to offset the loss of public funding after the passage earlier this year of the Gabriela Miller Kids First Research Act, which shifted taxpayer money designated for the conventions to the National Institutes of Health for pediatric research.
The hard-to-oppose bill passed overwhelmingly despite a longstanding push by Democratic leaders for full public funding of elections.
The parties figured they needed to recoup the money somehow, and without significant institutional opposition, the FEC agreed.
“We appreciate the FEC’s recognition that, as the party convention committees adjust to the loss of public funding, they have authority to raise funds that will help pay the costs of their national conventions," the two party committees said in their statement. "This is an important, if modest, first step for the parties in continuing to meet their historic responsibility to conduct conventions, which play such a vital role in our democratic process.”
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/the-big-dollar-ruling-that-brought-republicans-and-democrats-together/381318/
As the Obama administration dramatically scales up its response to the Ebola outbreak, it is trying to navigate a tricky course: Can officials increase public vigilance about the deadly virus without inciting a panic?
That challenge has been evident in almost every public pronouncement from the administration in recent weeks–from President Obama on down–as the government seeks to simultaneously emphasize the seriousness of the epidemic while projecting confidence that it can be contained and ultimately halted.
"Ebola is scary. It's a deadly disease. But we know how to stop it," Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director, said during a briefing Wednesday.
It's a succinct message that Frieden has delivered countless times in the past two weeks, as he has become the most familiar face of the Obama administration's public response. Since the first U.S. diagnosis of Ebola was confirmed last week, Frieden and other officials have conducted briefings and television interviews on a near-daily basis.
Frieden, 53, has served as the CDC chief since 2009, when Obama plucked him from the Department of Health in New York City. There he was the crusader who convinced Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch his aggressive public battles against smoking and trans fat.
Frieden is not excitable in public; he speaks calmly and clearly, sticking to an even pitch and avoiding the familiar political image of the whip-smart fast-talker.
Ernest DelBuono, head of the crisis practice at the communications firm Levick, praised Frieden's performance thus far.
"It's sort of a dry, factual delivery, which is good in the case of a crisis," DelBuono said. "You don't want someone who is inspirational. People just want to hear the facts right now."
DelBuono said he advises clients in a public-health emergency to project "confidence, control, and compassion."
Frieden has gotten solid marks, but the Obama administration has drawn criticism in other areas of its Ebola response.
International groups wanted the U.S. to step in sooner to help fight the outbreak in west Africa, while more recently some Republicans have called on the administration to ban travel from the most affected countries.
Frieden and other officials have said such a move would be counterproductive, citing lessons learned from the SARS outbreak a decade ago.
"The SARS outbreak cost the world more than $40 billion, but it wasn't to control the outbreak," Frieden said Wednesday. "Those were costs from unnecessary and ineffective travel restrictions and trade changes that could have been avoided."
The government announced Wednesday that it was stepping up protective measures at five airports, where authorities will screen travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea with targeted questions and fever checks.
But officials acknowledged that action was taken not only to stop the spread of the disease but simply to make people feel safer.
"That extra layer is something that I think would alleviate some of the fears of the American people and might catch that very, very rare person who actually slips through the exit screening," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on MSNBC on Thursday. "So that's the reason why it's being implemented, for those reasons."
And Frieden made sure to warn people that yes, they will see people sick at the airport, and no, they probably won't have Ebola, even if they are arriving from west Africa.
"We know that over the past couple of months, about one out of every 500 travelers boarding a plane in west Africa has had a fever," he said. "Most of those had malaria. None of those, as far as we know, have been diagnosed with Ebola."
So in a "See something, say something" age, the CDC does not want airport travelers to report anyone they see coughing or sneezing to the authorities. But it does want to know about anyone traveling from west Africa who may have come into contact with Ebola.
Frieden has said previously it is good if health workers are fearful of Ebola because it will prompt them to be on high alert screening patients who may be at risk.
The message, it seems to be, is this: Be afraid of Ebola. Just not too afraid.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/how-the-cdc-is-carefully-controlling-how-scared-you-are-about-ebola/381301/
"You know, Dave," Chicago children's entertainer Pogo reportedly said over dinner with two cops who'd been tailing him, "clowns can get away with murder." Pogo would know, because outside of his clown identity he was John Wayne Gacy, the notorious 1970s serial killer and maybe one of the worst things to happen to clowns since the 1892 opera Pagliacci.
Clowns, it's fair to say, are not currently having the best time of it, PR-wise. The fourth season of American Horror Story, which debuted Wednesday, features Twisty the Clown as the primary antagonist: a terrifying perversion of the profession with a mask of grinning, oversized teeth and distorted black lips. In the opening episode, Twisty bounds up to a young couple in broad daylight, knocks them both out with juggling clubs, stabs the young man over and over again, kidnaps the woman and locks her up with a young boy in a decrepit old school bus, and forces them both to watch him craft balloon animals (there being clearly no limits to his malevolence).
In addition to this new incarnation of the monstrous, murdering clown trope, rogue scary clowns have been spotted recently stalking the streets of Wasco, California. In July, a "creepy" clown wearing a red wig and clutching a handful of pink balloons was sighted walking through Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. The professional clown industry, for once, isn't smiling. Membership of the World Clown Association, a U.S.-based trade group for performers, has fallen from 3,500 to 2,500 over the last 10 years. In the UK, a similar group, Clown International, has lost almost 90 percent of its members from its peak in the 1980s. Earlier this year, Butlin's holiday camp, in the popular destination of Bognor Regis, withdrew its annual offer to sponsor the group's annual gathering thanks to a decline in overall clown approval ratings.
How, exactly, did clowns go from lovable children's entertainers to the bewigged, bone-chilling incarnation of evil? The answer is complicated, and spans a period of almost 200 years, even if the current trend of coulrophobia seems to have peaked with the ascent of online media.
Traditionally clowns are anarchic figures who defy the boundaries of normal social conduct, even before Heath Ledger's Joker just wanted to watch the world burn. In Edgar Allan Poe's 1849 story Hop-Frog, a physically deformed court jester who's consistently the butt of practical jokes encourages the king and his court of noblemen to dress as orangutans covered in tar, at which point he sets them all on fire. The unpredictable nature of a clown's behavior, and his or her tendency to transgress acceptable standards of behavior (by, for example, throwing pies in each others' faces, or squirting water on an innocent bystander with a trick buttonhole flower), probably makes us wary of what other lines they might cross.
The makeup, too, is a factor. Traditional clown face paint—a white base, with exaggerated red lips and cheeks—was pioneered by Joseph Grimaldi, a popular entertainer in the early 19th century, and can be manipulated to create a face that is either grinning in an absurd rictus or tragicomically sad. "At its roots, clownaphobia springs from the duplicity implied by the frozen grins and false gaiety of clowns," writes cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1999 book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: America on the Brink. "The clown persona protests too much; its transparent artificiality constantly directs our attention to what's behind the mask." The frozen smile of a clown makes his or her true expression impossible to read—yet another factor that leads us to ponder whether or not they can be trusted.
Despite all this, clowns were typically viewed in a positive light for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, even though Leoncavallo's aforementioned 1892 opera, Pagliacci, told the story of a clown who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover with a knife. (Se il viso è pallido, è di vergogna, the clown sings, or, If my face is white, it is for shame.) The turning point, culture-wise, appears to have been the arrest of Gacy, dubbed "the Killer Clown" by the media, whose grisly string of sexual assaults and murders contrasted so vividly with his alternate clown persona. As Pogo, Gacy performed at parades, parties, and charitable events, even meeting First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1978 thanks to his role as director of Chicago's Polish Constitution Day Parade. While on death row, he painted a number of portraits of clowns, many depicting himself as Pogo, claiming that he wanted to use the paintings "to bring joy into people's lives."
The national shockwave following the exposure of one of the most prolific serial killers in American history may have forever traumatized the country as far as clowns were concerned. In 1980, Gacy was sentenced to death. Two years later, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg released Poltergeist, a movie in which evil forces terrorize a household, in part by bringing young Robbie's Clown Doll to life and having it pull him under his bed and attempt to throttle him to death. In 1986, Stephen King published IT, a horror novel about the murderous Pennywise the Clown, who stalks children, terrifying them and occasionally ripping off their limbs. In 2009, King talked about the idea for Pennywise with Conan O'Brien. "As a kid, going to the circus, it'd be like 12 full-grown people piling out of a little car, their faces were dead-white, their mouths were red, as though they were full of blood," he said. "They were all screaming, their eyes were huge: What's not to like?"
Pennywise, as played so memorably by Tim Curry in the 1990 television movie of IT, emerged shortly after Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 movie, Batman. The Joker, at least in comic books, has always seemed to occupy an odd space between jester, clown, and harlequin, but Nicholson's depiction felt deliberately clown-like, both in his pockets full of tricks (the flower filled with acid instead of water), and the way he used poison gas to give his victims pallid white skin and distorted scarlet smirks. Ledger's Joker, coming almost two decades later in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, was more explicitly wearing surreal makeup to enhance his scarred Chelsea grin: less Bozo, and more Insane Clown Posse.
Can clowns be saved? At this point, given their popularity as fright masks, the rise of coulrophobia, and the decline of the wholesome, apple-pie birthday party, it’s hard to see a future for clown acts outside of the circus (which itself is suffering thanks to the impossible dominance of the global juggernaut that is Cirque du Soleil). There is some hope: Even though studies in the past have typically shown that children fear clowns, research conducted at Tel Aviv University this year found that children undergoing allergy testing were less anxious when a clown was present in the room. Maybe the future for clowns is less about Ronald McDonald (nothing’s scarier than diabetes, after all) and more about distracting nervous patients from the giant needles injecting allergens into their skin.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/how-clowns-became-terrifying/381306/
Throughout 2012, as signs mounted that militants in Syria were growing stronger, the debate in the White House followed a pattern. In meeting after meeting, as officials from agencies outside the executive residence advocated arming pro-Western rebels or other forms of action, President Barack Obama’s closest White House aides bluntly delivered the president’s verdict: no.
“It became clear from the people very close to the president that he had deep, deep reservations about intervening in Syria,” said Julianne Smith, who served as deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. “And the likelihood of altering those views was low, very low.”
This summer, events overwhelmed the status quo. In June, the radical group Islamic State, after seizing wide swaths of Syria, conquered Iraq's second-largest city and threatened Baghdad as the Iraqi army collapsed. The insurgents beheaded two American journalists, increasing U.S. public support for military action. Finally, U.S. intelligence agencies detected foreign jihadists who they believed had moved to Syria to plot attacks against the United States and Europe.
The radicals had undermined the administration’s argument that it had successfully ended the war in Iraq and were threatening Obama’s record of defending the homeland. The jihadists, said Smith, “turned the debate on its head.”
On September 18, Obama reversed his three-and-a-half-year opposition to military action in Syria and ordered open-ended airstrikes against militants. It wasn’t his first U-turn on Syria. In August 2012, Obama had warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that using chemical weapons was a “red line” Syria dare not cross; when evidence emerged that Damascus had gassed the rebels and civilians, Obama opted not to respond with force.
The bombing campaign, which could last for years, is a major course correction for a president with a famously cautious foreign policy. Obama’s handling of Syria—the early about-face, the repetitive debates, the turnabout in September—is emblematic, say current and former top U.S. officials, of his highly centralized, deliberative, and often reactive foreign policy.
These officials say Obama and his inner circle made three fundamental mistakes. The withdrawal of all American troops from neighboring Iraq and the lack of a major effort to arm Syria’s moderate rebels, they say, gave Islamic State leeway to spread. Internal debates focused on the costs of U.S. intervention in Syria, while downplaying the risks of not intervening. And the White House underestimated the damage to U.S. credibility caused by Obama making public threats to Assad and then failing to enforce them.
* * *
This week, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta joined Hillary Clinton and a growing list of former cabinet members and aides who said Obama made major mistakes in the Middle East. Panetta singled out the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. “It was clear to me—and many others,” Panetta wrote in his memoir, Worthy Fights, “that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.”
Such arguments were rejected at the time inside the White House, where the foreign-policy machine has grown dramatically in power under Obama and cabinet members and their departments have felt marginalized. The National Security Council staff, which coordinates U.S. defense, diplomatic, and intelligence policy from inside the White House, has nearly doubled in size on his watch. It has gone from about 50 under George H.W. Bush to 100 under Bill Clinton, 200 under George W. Bush, and about 370 under Obama.
Decisions small as well as large are made at the White House, often with scant influence from the Pentagon and State Department and their much larger teams of analysts and advisors. Senior Cabinet officials spend long hours in meetings debating tactics, not long-term strategy, the officials said.
Robert S. Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, recalled long meetings to debate small issues, such as which Syrian opposition members he could meet with and whether it was okay to give cell phones, media training, and management classes to a local Syrian government council controlled by the opposition.
Sometimes, this more centralized White House system becomes overwhelmed. “There’s a real choke point,” said Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the No. 3 Pentagon civilian, in Obama’s first term. “There’s only so much bandwidth and there’s only so much they can handle at one time. So, things start to slow down.”
Flournoy and other former officials who criticize the administration’s approach concede that the most important decisions—using military force—must ultimately be the president's call. They argue, though, that intensified White House control has resulted in the United States being behind the curve, whether in trying to counter Russian propaganda about the Ukraine crisis or battling online recruitment by jihadists.
Syria, where the estimated death toll has topped 190,000, is cited as a prime example. By the fall of 2012, covertly arming Syria’s rebels had been accepted by Obama’s top three national-security Cabinet members—Clinton, Panetta, and CIA chief David Petraeus—as the best way to slow radicalism in Syria. The president and his inner circle first rejected the advice, then mounted a small-scale program to arm the rebels, and now, two years later, after Islamic State has seized swaths of Syria and Iraq, embrace the approach.
Obama’s aides say tight White House coordination is a must in an era when the United States faces threats like terrorism, which requires harnessing the capabilities of the Pentagon, the U.S. intelligence community, the State Department, and other agencies. It’s the president’s duty to take ultimate responsibility for matters of war and peace, they say.
“Other than, of course, the men and women in uniform” and other officials deployed abroad, said Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security advisor, “only the president of the United States is assuming the risk of the cost of action."
* * *
This account of Obama’s national-security decision-making is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. government officials, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to President Richard Nixon.
In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security—a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.
On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.
The president, initially perceived as one of the greatest communicators of his generation, is now viewed as having done a poor job of defining and defending his foreign policy, polls indicate. A majority of Americans—54 percent—disapprove of Obama’s foreign-policy performance, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. That's one of the lowest ratings of his presidency.
Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest-serving national-security aides, says a series of complex world crises, not policy mistakes, has driven down the president’s approval numbers. More broadly, he says, Obama has been right to be deliberative in the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What he’s always said is that if there’s a threat against us, we will act,” Rhodes said. “But when it comes to shaping events in cultures that are foreign to the United States we have to have some degree of realism.”
Obama has had notable national-security successes. His record of protecting U.S. territory from attack remains largely unblemished. Current and former officials praise his policy on nuclear talks with Iran as clear and consistent. He is building a coalition against Islamic State that includes Arab nations participating in airstrikes with the United States, Britain, France, and others.
And while past presidents faced grave dangers, most notably the possibility of Cold War Armageddon, for Obama the world is very different. The decisions he must make on using U.S. military force have multiplied. This reality, supporters say, is overlooked by detractors.
Obama has launched a humanitarian military intervention in Libya; overseen counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; moved to end his predecessor’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; wrestled with lethal threats to U.S. hostages and diplomatic posts; and sent the American military to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola virus and search for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
Current and former officials say the globalized world of Twitter and 24/7 news creates an expectation at home and abroad that the United States will quickly take a position on any foreign-policy issue. The demand for instant American positions—and American leadership—can be overwhelming.
“One of the biggest problems in Washington,” said retired General James Jones, who was Obama’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2010, “is to find the time to think strategically, not tactically. You’d wake up and there would be a new crisis and you’d be scrambling to deal with them.”
Six years of grinding partisan warfare over foreign policy (and much else) have left Obama increasingly fatalistic about his critics. While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard in late August, he was widely criticized for golfing after making a condolence call to the family of murdered American journalist James Foley. Minutes after declaring Foley’s murderer—Islamic State—a “cancer” that had “no place in the 21st century,” Obama teed off with a campaign contributor, an old friend, and a former NBA star. He later told aides the criticism was inevitable. 'No matter what I do,' he said, 'my enemies will attack me.'
Far from being disengaged or indecisive on foreign affairs, as he is sometimes portrayed, Obama drives decision-making, say current and former officials. The president prepares thoroughly for meetings, has an encyclopedic memory, and methodically dissects problems, former officials who have been with him in meetings say. The former law professor dominates foreign-policy sessions, from small Oval Office gatherings to formal National Security Council meetings he chairs. Obama promoted open NSC debate, asked for dissenting opinions from cabinet members, and called on junior officials who traditionally don’t speak at such meetings, they said.
Some aides complained that alternative views on some subjects, such as Syria, had little impact on the thinking of the president and his inner circle. Despite the open debate, meetings involving even Cabinet secretaries were little more than “formal formalities,” with decisions made by Obama and a handful of White House aides, one former senior U.S. official said.
Obama “considers himself to be analyst in chief, in addition to commander in chief,” on certain issues, according to Fred Hof, a former State Department envoy on Syria. “He comes to a lot of the very fundamental judgments on his own, based on his own instincts, based on his own knowledge, based on his own biases, if you will.”
The president’s supporters say his approach is based on principle, not bias. He ran on a platform of winding down the Iraq War and made his views crystal-clear on military action in the Middle East. Obama believed that the human and financial costs of large-scale interventions weren’t worth the limited outcomes they produced. He held that U.S. force could not change the internal dynamics of countries in the region.
* * *
In August 2011, Obama issued a 620-word statement on Syria that his aides hoped would put him on the right side of history. After weeks of pressure from Congress, Syrian-Americans, and allies in the Middle East and Europe, he called for Assad to “step aside.” “It is time for the Syrian people to determine their own destiny,” Obama said.
Ford, ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, said he supported the statement, but now regrets it because Washington didn’t back up the words with action. He said the Syria case reflects a pattern in the administration of issuing public statements without developing a clear policy.
When Assad refused to relinquish power, it became clear that the administration and its allies lacked a plan—or the political will—to forcibly remove him. American and European credibility in the region suffered. Taking the removal of Assad into their own hands, Turkey and other Arab states overtly backed—or turned a blind eye to—the emergence of jihadist groups in Syria. American officials warned the countries that it would be impossible to control the militants, according to former U.S. officials. The Turks, according to one former official, replied that with Washington itself sitting on the sidelines, they had no choice but to back certain anti-Assad radicals.
As jihadists gained strength in the Syrian opposition in 2012, members of Obama’s first-term cabinet began to support covert U.S. action in Syria. In the summer of 2012, three senior advisors outside the White House—Clinton, Panetta, and Petraeus—proposed that the CIA train and equip the relatively moderate Syrian rebels operating as the Free Syrian Army. At about that time, Ford said, the Free Syrian Army was warning—and U.S. officials confirmed independently—that militant groups were luring away fighters with cash. The more Western-friendly rebels had few funds to counter with. In December 2012, Obama rejected the proposal.
Eight months later, in August 2013, U.S. intelligence concluded that Assad had used poison gas against rebels and civilians in a Damascus suburb, defying Obama’s public warning against chemical attacks. For a week, Obama appeared on the verge of launching airstrikes. After a walk with Chief of Staff and longtime aide Denis McDonough on the White House grounds, Obama changed course without consulting his national-security Cabinet members and announced he would seek Congress’ approval, which never materialized. Instead, Washington and Moscow agreed on a deal to remove Syria's chemical arms. The missile strike reversal was widely cited by officials interviewed as the clearest example of Obama not engaging in a full Cabinet-level debate before making a strategic decision.
State Department officials warned for years that extremists would benefit from a power vacuum in Syria. “We were saying this area is going to be controlled by extremists and they’ll link up with Iraq,” said Ford. Obama made the wrong decision, Ford concludes. “It’s clear, in retrospect, that they needed more help then to counter the extremism.”
Another former official involved in Syria policy defended Obama. He said that in the early years of the Syrian conflict, with the long Iraq War fresh in their minds, Obama’s senior lieutenants struggled to find any vital national interest that would merit American intervention. Warnings of terrorism were discussed, this official said. But the White House responded that there were “more efficient and cheaper ways of dealing with the threat than intervening in Syria.”
Smith, the former NSC aide, said the Obama years hold a lesson. "The instinct is to centralize decision-making with the hope of exerting more control," she said. "But that often limits the U.S. government's agility and effectiveness at a time when those two traits are most needed."
This post appears courtesy of Reuters.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/obama-micromanager-syria-foreign-policy/381292/
Most school field trips are to places the students might never go on their own: a museum, a play, a nature preserve. The idea is to open kids wide to the wonderful world. This past spring one grammar school in Silicon Valley started sending kids to a very different, but equally mind-blowing place: their own neighborhood.
On their own. Without an adult.
The idea was to get children walking around, playing outside, biking to the library—just normal kid stuff. Or at least, what was normal kid stuff. Today, only 13 percent of U.S. children walk to school. One study found that only 6 percent of kids age 9-13 play outside in a given week.
That’s not just sad, it’s a radical new norm: childhood spent under constant adult supervision, and, often enough, in a car. The results wreak havoc on kids’ bodies, the environment, and any parent with hopes and dreams (or even a paying job) beyond the minivan. With national attention focused on climate change, childhood obesity and “leaning in,” less chaperoning seems like a win-win-win solution: decreased emissions, increased exercise, and more time for moms (and dads) to focus on something other than how slowly the after-school pick up line is moving.
And considering the crime rate today is lower than when most of those parents were growing up—it’s back to the rate it was 40+ years ago—why shouldn’t kids be doing anything on their own? At least, kids in neighborhoods not wracked by shootings and drugs, where going outside unsupervised presents a real danger? That’s where the Free-Range Kids project comes in.
Quick backstory/disclaimer: The project is named for my book and blog, Free-Range Kids, which I began after a column I wrote for The New York Sun—“Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone”—went viral. A sixth-grade New York City public school teacher read it and asked me to visit with her students.
Meantime, she gave them the assignment: do something like Lenore’s son did. Something on your own that you feel ready to do. Just first make sure your parents approve! And so her students did great things: They took their younger siblings to soccer, made dinner for their family—one kid even got herself out of bed and to the bus stop on her own, no prodding, after years of making her mom beg her to get up and get going. And after that breakthrough day? She got up on her own every morning.
Of course, kids could conceivably propose crazy ideas. One year a boy made a raft that leaked as he sailed his local pond. He lived to write the essay. But since parental approval is required, parents can and should modify plans that are dangerous (or just plain dumb).
My favorite kid decided his project would be to pick up his younger brother. So when school let out, he hopped on the city bus—first time ever on his own—and started the ride. But … nothing looked familiar. In fact, things keep looking weirder and weirder. He had no idea where he was going and, as he admitted to the class, finally he got so scared “I was ready to scream at the bus driver!”
Instead, he held it together and asked the bus driver what was happening. The driver said, “Oh! You meant to go downtown but this is the uptown bus! All you have to do is get off, go one block over, and take the bus going the other direction.” He gave the boy a transfer.
As he was telling the class this story, the boy said, “Actually, I still have it.” He got out his wallet and showed us the slim slip of paper.
“Why do you carry it with you?” I asked. After all, it represented a day of terror and humiliation. (I didn’t put it that way.) The boy just shrugged. But then, of course, I realized what the transfer really represented: freedom. Independence. Courage. He’d been scared out of his wits, on the verge of a very public tantrum, but he had triumphed. The transfer was proof. His golden ticket! It gave him the confidence to go anywhere from now on, because he knew that even if he screwed up or felt scared, he’d be okay.
“Now imagine if his mom had come with him,” I said to an auditorium full of Silicon Valley parents at a lecture I gave there last spring. “She’d have gotten them on the right bus, no problem. Would the boy remember that afternoon … forever?”
Afterward, the administrators at Oak Knoll, one of the local grammar schools, came up to me and said: we want to do a project like that. Oak Knoll’s theme for the year was confidence and clearly the Project dovetailed perfectly. So the school sent its 700 parents an email announcing the undertaking, along with some materials by me saying basically the same thing you’ve just read: Kids don’t get a chance to do much on their own, but when they do, it changes them. So why not encourage your son or daughter to do a completely voluntary, ungraded Free-Range Kids Project?
I don’t know how many kids begged their parents, “Pleeeeease!” but about a third of the parents signed on and, reports co-principal Kristen Gracia, “It was a huge success.” With the school’s endorsement, even anxious parents were willing to loosen the reins a little. They let their kids ride their bikes to the park, play at the playgrounds unsupervised, take hikes, bake cookies, run errands—for a couple weeks, the highest tech place on earth was a throwback to 1972.
But the most amazing part was not the transformation of the kids or even the neighborhood. It was the transformation of the parents.
“This has really changed our lives!” wrote a mom named Gina on a post-project survey the school sent home. She’d allowed her fifth grade son to go to the store by himself and when he came back quickly, as she’d requested, she had proof positive that he was willing to be responsible. Since then, she wrote, “Almost all that we do now is an opportunity to be Free-Range. We did many ‘Projects.’ He baked brownies alone, he comes home now on his bike after school, and he is responsible for his swim bag (if he forgets his wet suit, oh well—soggy, cold and wet for practice!). Thank you!”
A third grader’s project involved talking to the cashier in a shop (ok, the American Girl store—look, it’s Silicon Valley). She’d never done this on her own before but the whole thing, she wrote, “Went great and fast!” Her mom, Melissa Engelkemier, added that she could see the effect on her daughter’s confidence, even at school. “Before, there were a couple of times people had asked her if she wanted to do a book review on KNOL”—that’s the school’s closed circuit TV show. “But she’d said no, because she was too nervous. But afterward, she was asked to do an announcement of the volleyball game, and she said she felt she was brave enough to make the announcement to the whole school.”
The project was so successful in so many homes—“Thank you for organizing this!” wrote one mom. “Can we do it more often?” wrote a dad—the school will be doing it again this year.
“It’s like we provided them a new lens to look through,” says co-principal Gracia. “Even parents whose kids didn’t do the full project started asking themselves, ‘Why am I afraid? Is it something I really need to be nervous about?’ It was very powerful.”
The Oak Knoll kids went to 1972 and came back changed. That’s a field trip they won’t forget.
This post appears courtesy of New America's Weekly Wonk magazine.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/10/let-your-kids-roam-free/381303/
A deluge of energy-drink consumers has crashed the site where anyone can claim $10—or, if they prefer, $15 worth of Red Bull. (That should be an ocean of Red Bull, or a negative amount of Red Bull, but the company is paying out according to "market price.") The offer is the result of a large class-action settlement, and it applies only to people who have purchased Red Bull in the last 12 years. But no proof of purchase is necessary.
Red Bull GmbH, the Austria-based company that sells the eponymous "energy drink," settled a lawsuit recently over false claims made in advertising the product—including that it will give a person wings. The company will pay out $13 million. The claim site went live yesterday to widespread celebration and consternation.
Red Bull is part of the trend in rebranding soda as energy drinks and, apart from setbacks like this, succeeding fabulously. Red Bull differs from traditional soda only in that it contains taurine (an amino acid) and B-vitamins. Unless you are deficient in taurine or B-vitamins, the energy promised in the marketing of the energy drink comes from the sugar and caffeine, just like soda. And the caffeine content, at 80 mg per can, is modest relative to other similar products. Another soda marketed as an energy drink, Rockstar, contains twice as much caffeine as Red Bull. Those ubiquitous little 5-Hour Energy shots outdo both at 208 mg. But all pale compared to coffee in the quantities it's now sold. A Starbucks venti has 415 mg of caffeine. And that's what upset plaintiffs.
In a legal notice of the initial settlement in August (the claim site didn't go live until this week), David Siegel at Law 360 reported:
Plaintiff Benjamin Careathers, who has been drinking Red Bull since 2002, filed suit in 2013, saying the company spends millions of dollars misleading customers about the superiority of the "functional beverage" and its ability to "give you wings," while ignoring reports by The New York Times, the European Food Safety Authority, and scientific journal Nutrition Reviews that found energy drinks like Red Bull to have the same benefit as the average dose of caffeine consumed in coffee.
Red Bull's ad campaign promised that the drink will increase performance, concentration and reaction speed, allowing the company to charge and get a substantial premium for their products over readily available and much lower priced sources of caffeine that provide the same results, the suit says. The allegedly misleading ads were intended to induce unsuspecting consumers into purchasing, at a premium price, millions of dollars worth of Red Bull energy drinks, according to the complaint.
A single 12-ounce can of Red Bull sells for $2.68 at Walmart. That's more expensive than a 12-pack of Coke.
According to the plaintiff's motion at the time of the settlement, Red Bull GmbH "denies any wrongdoing or liability, and while Red Bull believes that its marketing and labeling have always been entirely truthful and accurate, it confirms that all future claims about the functional benefits of its products will be medically and/or scientifically supported." The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has called energy drinks "a continuing public-health concern," reporting last year that they were responsible for over 20,000 visits to emergency departments in 2011. That's largely, though, because the drinks are combined with alcohol. Technically any caffeinated product could be as dangerous, or benign, depending on how it's marketed and consumed.
Last week, a similar toll for false claims beset caffeinated pants. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined two manufacturers $1.5 million, including Wacoal America, which sold a product called the iPant long-leg shaper for $60. The company claimed the product reduced cellulite by "mobilizing fats." It did not, because that is not a thing. The FTC also sanctioned Norm Thompson Outfitters, maker of caffeine-laden underwear called the Lytess "slimming garment." The company admitted in a letter to customers that it advertised that the product would "reduce the size of your hips by up to 2.1 inches and your thighs by up to one inch and would eliminate or reduce cellulite and that scientific tests proved those results." (Omission of commas theirs; resulting manic tone may or may not be due to heavily caffeinated pants.) Norm Thompson Outfitters "neither admits or denies liability."
Caffeine can be an appetite suppressant, so it's true that using it can result in weight loss. But applying caffeine topically to a specific part of the body should by no logic result in focal fat reduction. It's especially audacious to put specific inch-numbers in ads. But those sorts of claims are everywhere, lingering often for years until the FTC or a lawsuit calls them to question. The Lytess products have been around at least since 2011, when an E! News segment revealed them as Kim Kardashian's secret, and told viewers they, too, could wear the caffeinated underwear to "drop extra pounds without working out."
The Red Bull class-action site that hosts the claim form has been intermittently inaccessible, but you can also make a claim by calling (877) 495-1568 or or by writing to Energy Drink Settlement, c/o GCG, P.O. Box 35123, Seattle, Washington, 98124. Claims can be made until March 2, 2015. The payments max out at $13 million, at which point that amount will be divided by the number of claims, and people could get less than $10. At the rate people seem to be taking advantage of the claim site, those payouts could be a lot less. But at least people are taking a stand for what they believe in.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/red-bull-sad-soda/381276/
Soccer clubs in the English Premier League, the richest in the world, are considering playing a week of games abroad. The Associated Press was told that the league is conducting a feasibility study into the matter, with alternatives to regular-season globe-trotting that include extending the slate pre-season exhibition matches and expanding the existing Premier League Asia Trophy tournament.
This is inevitable. Professional soccer has expanded globally at an incredible rate, fuelled by ever-increasing overseas TV rights. According to Sporting Intelligence, overseas TV rights earned English soccer £40 million ($64 million) for the five-year period to 1997. Broadcast deals now run for three years, and the latest overseas-rights agreement, covering 2013-16, was auctioned for a whopping £2.2 billion:
English Premier League TV Rights Deals
The biggest chunk of cash comes from Asia, whose TV-rights revenues grew by 77 percent in the latest deal. Tiny Singapore paid £190 million alone. It’s natural, then, for the Premier League to try to capitalize on this interest abroad. The league is also inspired by American sports muscling in on its turf. The NFL is playing three regular-season games at London’s Wembley Stadium this year, and the NBA also holds games in England. The Premier League is more than capable of returning the favor—more than 360,000 fans, including a record 109,318-crowd in Michigan, saw Manchester United’s pre-season U.S. tour this summer. It’s no wonder that the club is now exploring playing midweek friendlies abroad.
Why hasn’t this been considered before? Actually, it has. Premier League clubs play 38 regular-season games a year. In 2008, the head of the league proposed adding a 39th game abroad, which was viciously rebuked by the passionate (and parochial) fans of English soccer, where two clubs can exist in tiny towns, families are divided by the color of the shirt of the teams they support, and supporters debate endlessly what real fandom means.
These sorts are no fans of “home” games held halfway around the world, however lucrative for the clubs involved. “The 39th game is a grotesque idea,” said one fan on an online Liverpool forum, “and anyone who advocates for it really doesn’t understand what the basic DNA of English football is about.”
The head of European soccer’s governing body, Michel Platini, isn’t keen either. When the 39th game was first proposed, he said: “In England, you already have no English coach, no English players and maybe now you will have no clubs playing in England. It’s a joke.” The 39th round was shelved (as was the non-English national team coach), but the idea has never completely disappeared. And now, it is back.
What’s lost in the debate is what more games abroad will mean for the players. The matches would come on top of an already hectic schedule of international matches and regional tournaments. The Economist cited German researchers who found the deterioration in motor function of athletes after long trips lasted for as many days as the number of time zones they crossed. And that could be the irony of all this—so much time, effort, and money spent to play matches abroad that may not being any good to watch.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/premier-league-games-abroad-a-paradoxical-bad-idea/381280/
Last week, at an event in West Hollywood, New York Times reporter and author Mark Leibovich spoke at length with Reza Aslan about his book This Town and his views on Washington culture. I was asked to introduce the event. Figuring out how to describe Leibovich was no easy task. So I decided to read from the profile that Mark might write about himself. The result is below.
* * *
The Man in the Mirror
By Mark Leibovich
Mark Leibovich arrives for his interview with the studied nonchalance of the Beltway elite.
“Hey,” he says—casually and with a practiced warmth.
Leibo (as he is known by the class of people he calls “friends”) arrives without handlers, broadcasting the kind of “I'm not of D.C.” image that has made him famous in D.C.
Of course, it’s not lost on Mark Leibovich that were he to arrive with a coterie of staffers, Mark Leibovich would certainly write about it in the piece.
But that is his genius. He eschews D.C. by embracing it.
I note this irony to Mark.
“Totally!” he replies, master of the D.C. nod, made famous by Hillary Clinton.
I later accompanied Mark to a reception in honor of Chris Matthews and the stick that keeps Charlie Rose awake. It was held in the tony section of D.C. called Embassy Row. I caught up with Leibovich as he talked with Arianna Huffington and Mike Allen about ISIS while eating truffled macaroni-and-cheese out of Japanese spoons.
I asked Mark, “Mark, how do you decide which of these parties to attend as a guest, and which to attend as a reporter who hates these parties and would never go to them?”
“Exactly!” he says, laughing.
I laughed too. Then I was like, “Hey, wait a minute.”
Mark Leibovich just Mark Leibovich-ed me.
“But Mark,” I say, “isn’t the fact that writing This Town about these parties leading to you being invited to more of these parties—isn’t that exactly what This Town was about? Are you not reminded of the mythical Greek figure of the Ouroboros? Are you familiar with that weird reference?”
“Totally,” he said, as he jumped into Joe Scarborough’s Miata and raced off into the night.
I was left there alone, trying to avoid making eye contact with David Gregory.
It was then that I understood: Mark Leibovich is the reporter D.C. deserves—and the one we need, the one to expose the corrosive bullshit that may well ruin us yet.
Yes, Leibovich can mock D.C., and he can expose D.C. for its fecklessness and vanity, a service to all of us, because he understands D.C. to its core.
Not because he is above it. Because he is it.
And he hates it. Or at least he wants you to think he does.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/through-the-washington-looking-glass/381088/
Carlos Romero’s apartment is marked with remnants from his former life: a giant television from his days playing World of Warcraft and a pair of jeans the width of an easy chair. The remnants of that time—when he weighed 437 pounds—mark his body too: loose, hanging skin and stretch marks.
“I lift weights and work out and work hard, but there’s lasting damage,” said Romero.
Yet for all the troubles he had dating when he was obese—all those unanswered requests on dating web sites—shedding weight left him uneasy about how much to reveal. “If you were to say to someone on the first date, ‘I lost 220 pounds,’ you’re indicating that you had a very serious issue at one point and that you may still have that issue,” he said. “So it’s not something I put on a dating profile because I don’t want people to judge me for it.”
Indeed, the stigma of obesity is so strong that it can remain even after the weight is lost. Holly Fee, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, has conducted some of the only research on dating attitudes toward the formerly obese. In 2012, Fee published her findings in the journal Sociological Inquiry.
She found that potential suitors said they would hesitate to form a romantic relationship with someone who used to be heavy. “The big dragging factor in why they had this hesitation in forming this romantic relationship was that they believed these formerly obese individuals would regain their weight,” Fee said.
The prevailing belief is that people who have never been obese can control their weight, and those who’ve been heavy have less will power, said David Sarwer, a psychology professor and the director of clinical services at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the Perelman School Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He said the physicians and the general public tend to think that obesity is “a moral failing, and that they can’t push away from the table.”
For men and women who have lost a significant amount of weight, fears about excess, hanging skin can hold them back from dating and being intimate. Health insurance almost never pays for costly plastic surgery to correct the problem, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
“I think they can be particularly self-conscious about this issue and be worried about the first time the partner sees them undressed,” Sarwer said. “How are they going to respond? Are they going to be grossed out? Are they not going to want to have sexual intimacy with them a second time?”
But it wasn’t sex or romance that sparked the big change in Carlos Romero two years ago. That’s when, at age 28, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Romero knew if he didn’t lose weight, his condition could worsen quickly. He stopped eating pizza, Ramen noodles, and Dr. Pepper and began exercising. Then, a year ago, after he dropped a number of jean sizes, he tried Internet dating again. Romero updated his old profiles and pictures and started sending out messages.
“It was amazing at the time,” he said. “The girls that I was like, ‘I’ll never hear back from this girl. And then I’d hear back from them, and I was like, ‘Holy crap! This is so different.’ It felt like a whole other world had opened up.”
Now, Romero spends many nights on dates with his new girlfriend, Kate Rowe. They met on OkCupid.com after he sent her a message. “I saw, ‘Carlos a new message,’” Rowe recalled. “And he’s into climbing and I read his profile and I was like, ‘Why not? I have nothing to lose.’” It didn’t hurt that he looked “smoldering and broody” in his picture, she says.
Their third date happened to be Romero’s 30th birthday party, and he decided to tell Rowe about his massive weight loss, which he thought could be “a potential deal breaker.” “I don’t want to like this girl any more than I already do without having her know,” he remembers thinking. “I said, ‘I have to tell you this thing. Please don’t judge me.’”
Romero knew the risk he was taking. He thought, “What if she doesn’t want to be anywhere near me?” Instead of being repulsed, though, Rowe said she was inspired by his hard work and commitment to good health.
If she had seen Romero’s old profile, back when he was bigger, she probably would not have responded, she says. But now, he's into rock climbing and being active, and they have things in common.
For Carlos, there are still physical and psychological hurdles to being in love. It’s difficult for him to be intimate. He says shyly, “She’s seen everything.” And when he looks in the mirror, he still sees a 400-pound man. His mind hasn’t quite caught up to his body.
This article has been excerpted from Sarah Varney's XL Love: How the Obesity Crisis Is Complicating America's Love Life. It appears courtesy of Kaiser Health News.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/dating-while-formerly-obese/381284/
The Dutch National Prosecutor's Office has been conducting an in-depth criminal investigation of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy. Today, the office revealed that one passenger, an Australian, was found with an oxygen mask around his neck.
Office spokesperson Wim de Bruin told CBS the mask is being checked for fingerprints, saliva, and DNA, but that did not produce any results. "So it is not known how or when that mask got around the neck of the victim," he said.
The revelation of the lone mask invites a number of questions as to what the 298 passengers and crew knew about the attack while it was happening, the period of time between the missile strike and the plane's descent, and the immediate reaction of the pilots. De Bruin mentioned the mask casually while appearing on a Dutch late-night TV show.
The notion that not all passengers died immediately when the plane was struck has upset many family members of the victims, who reached out to de Bruin after his comments. "The last thing I want is to add to their suffering in any way," he said in a statement. "I shouldn't have said it."
This is the second piece of key information made public by the Dutch in regard to the MH17 investigation. A preliminary report from the Dutch Safety Board in early September determined the flight was brought down by "high-energy objects" hitting the exterior of the plane.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-one-mh17-passenger-who-wore-an-oxygen-mask/381295/
Ford, as part of its publicity push on the occasion of Mustang's 50 years on the road, recently conducted a survey. The basic idea was to get a sense of Americans' sense of adventure as it stands in 2014. And part of that sense, adventure being what it is and Americans being what they are, has to do with technology.
In an online survey of "1,000 nationally representative U.S. adults ages 18+"—a sample size that, caveat, is not large—Ford asked a series of questions about Americans' relationship with both new tech and new experiences. Among the findings: Almost half (45 percent) of the respondents who use social media think that their friends and followers come across as more adventurous on those platforms than they actually are in, as it were, "real life." Men are also slightly more likely than women to think that they'll be the first to try new technologies (33 percent to 25 percent). And, when asked which people are most likely to convince them to try something new, the respondents replied that spouses and significant others were more influential, at 32 percent, than friends (23 percent), family (21 percent), and children (19 percent).
The most striking stat, though, is one that has to do with the particular reasons people take on adventures in the first place. When Ford asked its survey participants, "Have you ever, even once, done something just so you could post about it on social media?" 16 percent of them replied, "yes, more than once." And 13 percent of them replied, "yes, once." Which means that nearly a third of Ford's respondents have done something simply to write or tweet or post or talk about it online.
It's a percentage that is both revealingly high and revealingly low. On the one hand, the idea of doing something not to experience it, but to talk about it, is ... sort of sad. And a third of us are doing it!
On the other hand, though, that number might be misleadingly small. It's likely, I'd figure, that more than a third of social media users have done something IRL to talk about them on the w-e-b; it's likely as well that they're a little embarrassed to admit to it. In the America of 2014, the line between experience itself and experience-as-mediated-through-the-Internet can be difficult to discern. The Ford survey talks about "social media" versus "real life," but that, of course, is a false distinction. Social media is real life. It's just that we're hesitant, at this point, to admit it.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/a-third-of-you-guys-admit-to-doing-things-just-to-talk-about-them-on-social-media/381181/
As with any artistic awards-giving organization, it can often seem like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exists less to honor achievements and more to start arguments. Certainly a few squabbles will spark off the just-announced class of nominees for induction in 2015:
- The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
- Green Day
- Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
- The Marvelettes
- Nine Inch Nails
- Lou Reed
- The Smiths
- The Spinners
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Bill Withers
It goes the same every year. Pick your snub of choice (Deep Purple? Janet Jackson?), your always-a-nominee-never-an-inductee of choice (poor Chic), and you’re how-are-they-not-already-inducted artist of choice (Lou Reed, N.W.A.). Then fight.
Judging from the headlines so far, the newest and splashiest commentary-creator will be Green Day. The pop-punk act’s first album was in 1989, the latest year of eligibility for consideration, and their presence on the list has been received with some head scratching. “Green Day?” asks Jesse David Fox at Vulture. “Yep, Green Day—that band from your childhood bedroom.”
Your childhood bedroom: The “your” is very specific there. It’s Millennials. Green Day’s presence, in a way like no nominees before it except perhaps the Red Hot Chili Peppers, ushers in a distinct era of music that almost butts up against the present.
That’s not to say that previous nominees weren’t in Millennial bedrooms. Nirvana joined the hall last year, the first year of its eligibility. Millennial me kept new nominee Trent Reznor on my dorm wall. And of course, people all over the planet of all ages are plenty acquainted with the classic rock and pop icons that the hall is built upon. But all of those acts’ heydays of influence, acclaim, and commercial success were last millennium. That probably contributes to the feeling that they're plausible candidates for canonization in a way that Green Day may not be yet.
Billie Joe Armstrong & co.'s cultural reign really lasted from the mid ‘90s to, arguably, very recently. Their 2012 album trilogy sold relatively poorly and spawned no lasting hits, but it was only five ago that their record 21st Century Breakdown went platinum partly on the strength of single “Know Your Enemy.” Part of their achievement was remaining successful even as the wider popularity of guitar rock began to flag. The band's presence on the nominee list reminds that as the years roll on, the hall of fame will be faced with fewer and fewer traditionally "rock" acts to honor, and may need to embrace the pop, rap, and dance artists that Gen Y loves (which means it probably should get around to inducting more foundational non-rockers like N.W.A. and Kraftwerk).
Does Green Day belong in the hall on their merits? It’s hard to deny that they helped change the sound of modern music by popularizing pop-punk, that they united disparate audiences with projects like the American Idiot Broadway production, and that we're all fated to hear "Good Riddance" played over graduation photo montages for eternity. But should that translate to glory in Cleveland? Argue away.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/the-millennials-are-coming-for-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame/381289/
Late in August—early for fall, I thought—I stood dutifully in line at Starbucks with a friend as she awaited her first pumpkin-spice latte of the season. Once she had it, she offered me a sip. The drink didn't remind me very much of pumpkins. So what was it? Nothing homey or autumnal here: just lactones, ketones, cyclotenes, vanillin, and pyrazines.
The flavoring, despite the cozy simplicity it evokes, is divisive. It definitely has its followers: Starbucks' pumpkin-spice latte has been estimated to bring in as much as $80 million per year. Many of its devotees have even been inspired to attempt at-home replication. At the same time, it's reviled by natural-food activists because of its long list of synthetic ingredients. But for all the debates about the syrup's merits, little is known about the industry that produces it.
For starters, where does it come from? Starbucks sells a "Pumpkin Sauce" on its website that's meant to be added to coffee at home, and it's made by an Illinois-based flavoring company called Fontana. A spokesperson for Starbucks insisted that the pumpkin-spice syrup in stores differed from the "sauce" offered online. Fontana never responded to my interview request, and Starbucks wouldn't agree to put me in touch with, let alone identify, their supplier. Dunkin' Donuts was similarly tight-lipped.
Connoisseurs may disagree about the legitimacy of these various pumpkin-spice flavorings, but they all have their origins in the same place. Traditionally, “pumpkin spice” refers to the spice mixture accompanying pureed pumpkin in pumpkin pie—a combination of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. "Pumpkin spice," as a concept, has morphed from this mixture to an artificial flavor that's concocted in a lab and then mass-manufactured.
The New Jersey-based Flavor and Fragrance is one such manufacturer. The company produces many different flavorings for all sorts of companies, many of which prefer confidentiality. Flavor and Fragrance makes pumpkin-spice essences that can be tailored to soaps, candles, perfumes, cakes, butters, and pasta, among other products. This year, the company tested out pumpkin-spice foie-gras mashed potatoes.
Flavor and Fragrance began producing pumpkin-spice flavoring in the 1990s at the behest of coffee shops looking for a seasonal sales boost, said Dianne Sansone, the company's director of technical services. Sansone has overseen the scientific side of developing a range of pumpkin-spice flavors over the years.
Different products demand different pumpkin-spice compounds, she told me. “With coffee, is it a brew basket or a single-serve concept? Is it a direct addition or a finished version, like a latte?" Sansone said. "[For a latte], it could be creamier, but for skincare, we could have something more spice-forward, with ginger, nutmeg, and clove. For fragrances, you’re working around alcohol, which dictates the formulation chemists work with." She went on: "Spice is not wearable, and you don’t want to smell like a pumpkin pie. But married with vanilla and more like a brûlée? Yeah.”
Michele Fitzgerald, Flavor and Fragrance's director of marketing, told me that in the end, it's about what the consumer expects in a pumpkin-spice product, even if that doesn't involve very much pumpkin or recognizable spice. “Most customers desire everything to be natural and derived from spice, but the majority of products are natural and artificial flavors using spice oils and spice-oil resins,” Sansone said. “There’s very little pumpkin and often none at all. Using actual pumpkins is the exception.” She adds: “Have you ever tasted a pumpkin out of the can? It’s a squash and has no flavor!”
However, she says, as unnatural as things like lactones and cyclotenes sound, some of these are just as natural as actual spices. “Vanillin can be found naturally—in nature, it’s 10 times more expensive,” Sansone said. “Sometimes people have this fear factor of things being produced with chemicals. But the chemical makeup is the same, it’s less expensive, and it’s more efficient in a laboratory.” Flavor and Fragrance would love to figure out a cheaper recipe, but that's difficult given consumers' expectations of flavor and scent.
It turns out American consumers' expectations aren't aligned with those from other parts of the world. “We were doing research into Starbucks going into other countries and people who travel a lot,” Fitzgerald said, noting that Canadians aren't nearly as interested in pumpkins, despite their proximity to the U.S. “American customers expect to see pumpkin spice in other countries when they go abroad, but it all goes back to Thanksgiving. [Other countries] don’t have Thanksgiving, but we do.” From a marketing perspective, the American conception of autumn gets lost in translation.
Staying ahead of pumpkin-spice trends requires quite a bit of planning, and is a year-round endeavor. Developing the right packaging, coloring, and flavor can take six to eight months. It may not seem like consumers have an appetite for any more pumpkin-spice products, but Flavor and Fragrance still gets requests from companies eager to capitalize on the trend. "I think there's still growth," Fitzgerald said.
Whether there is room for growth or not, it's certainly the case that there's demand for pumpkin-spice products is really high. A black market for pumpkin-spice syrup has formed on eBay, where devotees sell jugs of the viscous flavoring for as much as $100. Hugh Merwin, an editor at New York Magazine's Grub Street blog, recently chronicled his adventures acquiring the highly prized syrup and then dousing all of his food in it for two days.
“Around March or April," Merwin told me, "I noticed there was a subculture of people who will alert people with Starbucks locations that still have pumpkin-spice lattes." When he began studying the subculture dedicated to the pumpkin-spice latte, he noticed listings for the flavored syrup on Craigslist and eBay.
Not long after August's unveiling of pumpkin-spice products, Merwin told me, jugs were popping up online—smugglers weren't waiting until the off-season to sell. The containers appeared authentic, and weren't limited to the Starbucks variety. Dunkin' Donuts is fast becoming a competitor in the quasi-illegal online pumpkin-spice space—its jugs tend to sell for only a smidgen less than Starbucks'.
The provenance of the goods sold on eBay, though, is unclear. One of Merwin's inquiries—sent to an eBay seller that went by "californiasuns"—was met with a rambling, whimsical response. "The game of acquisition & liquidation is strung together with many parts and avenues," the user wrote, before going on to say, "We are law abiding, and as such we do not partake in unlawful acts."
Once Merwin secured a container of Starbucks' syrup, he compared the ingredients to the ones in the Fontana product sold, legitimately, online. The biggest difference he found is that Fontana's product contains corn syrup and potassium sorbate (a preservative), both of which are absent in Starbucks' in-store product. Otherwise, the two syrups looked similar.
“I don’t know if it’s the only difference,” Merwin said, noting that both products also have the vague terms of “natural and artificial flavorings,” which could encompass a variety of ingredients. “I haven’t tasted the two side by side.” (Online, verdicts vary on whether the taste is the same or not.)
One reason pumpkin-spice products sell so well is that people respond frenetically to anything that's labelled "limited time." Gingerbread-flavored drinks, Peeps, and McDonald's Shamrock Shakes all owe some of their success to this pattern. Despite this, the people behind the pumpkin-spice latte supply want to make it little less time-limited: “We’re pushing the season forward—this year, we started on August 20,” Fitzgerald noted. “But I don’t think we’ll go into July. That’s summer.”
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/the-company-that-tested-out-pumpkin-spice-foie-gras-mashed-potatoes/381192/
In December 2012, an Icelandic woman named Thorlaug Agustsdottir discovered a Facebook group called “Men are better than women.” One image she found there, Thorlaug wrote to us this summer in an email, “was of a young woman naked chained to pipes or an oven in what looked like a concrete basement, all bruised and bloody. She looked with a horrible broken look at whoever was taking the pic of her curled up naked.” Thorlaug wrote an outraged post about it on her own Facebook page.
Before long, a user at “Men are better than women” posted an image of Thorlaug’s face, altered to appear bloody and bruised. Under the image, someone commented, “Women are like grass, they need to be beaten/cut regularly.” Another wrote: “You just need to be raped.” Thorlaug reported the image and comments to Facebook and requested that the site remove them.
“We reviewed the photo you reported,” came Facebook’s auto reply, “but found it does not violate Facebook’s Community Standards on hate speech, which includes posts or photos that attack a person based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or medical condition.”
Instead, the Facebook screeners labeled the content “Controversial Humor.” Thorlaug saw nothing funny about it. She worried the threats were real.
Some 50 other users sent their own requests on her behalf. All received the same reply. Eventually, on New Year’s Eve, Thorlaug called the local press, and the story spread from there. Only then was the image removed.
In January 2013, Wired published a critical account of Facebook’s response to these complaints. A company spokesman contacted the publication immediately to explain that Facebook screeners had mishandled the case, conceding that Thorlaug’s photo “should have been taken down when it was reported to us.” According to the spokesman, the company tries to address complaints about images on a case-by-case basis within 72 hours, but with millions of reports to review every day, “it’s not easy to keep up with requests.” The spokesman, anonymous to Wired readers, added, “We apologize for the mistake.”
* * *
If, as the communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said, television brought the brutality of war into people’s living rooms, the Internet today is bringing violence against women out of it. Once largely hidden from view, this brutality is now being exposed in unprecedented ways. In the words of Anne Collier, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and co-chair of the Obama administration’s Online Safety and Technology Working Group, “We are in the middle of a global free speech experiment.” On the one hand, these online images and words are bringing awareness to a longstanding problem. On the other hand, the amplification of these ideas over social media networks is validating and spreading pathology.
We, the authors, have experienced both sides of the experiment firsthand. In 2012, Soraya, who had been reporting on gender and women’s rights, noticed that more and more of her readers were contacting her to ask for media attention and help with online threats. Many sent graphic images, and some included detailed police reports that had gone nowhere. A few sent videos of rapes in progress. When Soraya wrote about these topics, she received threats online. Catherine, meanwhile, received warnings to back up while reporting on the cover-up of a sexual assault.
All of this raised a series of troubling questions: Who’s proliferating this violent content? Who’s controlling its dissemination? Should someone be? In theory, social media companies are neutral platforms where users generate content and report content as equals. But, as in the physical world, some users are more equal than others. In other words, social media is more symptom than disease: A 2013 report from the World Health Organization called violence against women “a global health problem of epidemic proportion,” from domestic abuse, stalking, and street harassment to sex trafficking, rape, and murder. This epidemic is thriving in the petri dish of social media.
While some of the aggression against women online occurs between people who know one another, and is unquestionably illegal, most of it happens between strangers. Earlier this year, Pacific Standard published a long story by Amanda Hess about an online stalker who set up a Twitter account specifically to send her death threats.
Across websites and social media platforms, everyday sexist comments exist along a spectrum that also includes illicit sexual surveillance, “creepshots,” extortion, doxxing, stalking, malicious impersonation, threats, and rape videos and photographs. The explosive use of the Internet to conduct human trafficking also has a place on this spectrum, given that three-quarters of trafficked people are girls and women.
A report, “Misogyny on Twitter,” released by the research and policy organization Demos this June, found more than 6 million instances of the word “slut” or “whore” used in English on Twitter between December 26, 2013, and February 9, 2014. (The words “bitch” and “cunt” were not measured.) An estimated 20 percent of the misogyny study Tweets appeared, to researchers, to be threatening. An example: "@XXX @XXX You stupid ugly fucking slut I’ll go to your flat and cut your fucking head off you inbred whore."
A second Demos study showed that while male celebrities, female journalists, and male politicians face the highest likelihood of online hostility, women are significantly more likely to be targeted specifically because of their gender, and men are overwhelmingly those doing the harassing. For women of color, or members of the LGBT community, the harassment is amplified. “In my five years on Twitter, I’ve been called ‘nigger’ so many times that it barely registers as an insult anymore,” explains attorney and legal analyst Imani Gandy. “Let’s just say that my ‘nigger cunt’ cup runneth over.”
At this summer’s VidCon, an annual nationwide convention held in Southern California, women vloggers shared an astonishing number of examples. The violent threats posted beneath YouTube videos, they observed, are pushing women off of this and other platforms in disproportionate numbers. When Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter to help fund a feminist video series called Tropes vs. Women, she became the focus of a massive and violently misogynistic cybermob. Among the many forms of harassment she endured was a game where thousands of players “won” by virtually bludgeoning her face. In late August, she contacted the police and had to leave her home after she received a series of serious violent online threats.
Danielle Keats Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the recently released book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, explained, “Time and time again, these women have no idea often who it is attacking them. A cybermob jumps on board, and one can imagine that the only thing the attackers know about the victim is that she’s female.” Looking at 1,606 cases of “revenge porn,” where explicit photographs are distributed without consent, Citron found that 90 percent of targets were women. Another study she cited found that 70 percent of female gamers chose to play as male characters rather than contend with sexual harassment.
This type of harassment also fills the comment sections of popular websites. In August, employees of the largely female-staffed website Jezebel published an open letter to the site’s parent company, Gawker, detailing the professional, physical, and emotional costs of having to look at the pornographic GIFs maliciously populating the site’s comments sections everyday. “It’s like playing whack-a-mole with a sociopathic Hydra,” they wrote, insisting that Gawker develop tools for blocking and tracking IP addresses. They added, “It’s impacting our ability to do our jobs.”
For some, the costs are higher. In 2010, 12-year-old Amanda Todd bared her chest while chatting online with a person who’d assured her that he was a boy, but was in fact a grown man with a history of pedophilia. For the next two years, Amanda and her mother, Carol Todd, were unable to stop anonymous users from posting that image on sexually explicit pages. A Facebook page, labeled “Controversial Humor,” used Amanda’s name and image—and the names and images of other girls—without consent. In October 2012, Amanda committed suicide, posting a YouTube video that explained her harassment and her decision. In April 2014, Dutch officials announced that they had arrested a 35-year-old man suspected to have used the Internet to extort dozens of girls, including Amanda, in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The suspect now faces charges of child pornography, extortion, criminal harassment, and Internet luring.
Almost immediately after Amanda shared her original image, altered versions appeared on pages, and videos proliferated. One of the pages was filled with pictures of naked pre-pubescent girls, encouraging them to drink bleach and die. While she appreciates the many online tributes honoring her daughter, Carol Todd is haunted by “suicide humor” and pornographic content now forever linked to her daughter’s image. There are web pages dedicated to what is now called “Todding.” One of them features a photograph of a young woman hanging.
Meanwhile, extortion of other victims continues. In an increasing number of countries, rapists are now filming their rapes on cell phones so they can blackmail victims out of reporting the crimes. In August, after a 16-year-old Indian girl was gang-raped, she explained, “I was afraid. While I was being raped, another man pointed a gun and recorded me with his cellphone camera. He said he will upload the film on the Net if I tell my family or the police.”
In Pakistan, the group Bytes for All—an organization that previously sued the government for censoring YouTube videos—released a study showing that social media and mobile tech are causing real harm to women in the country. Gul Bukhari, the report’s author, told Reuters, “These technologies are helping to increase violence against women, not just mirroring it.”
In June 2014, a 16-year-old girl named Jada was drugged and raped at a party in Texas. Partygoers posted a photo of her lying unconscious, one leg bent back. Soon, other Internet users had turned it into a meme, mocking her pose and using the hashtag #jadapose. Kasari Govender, executive director of the Vancouver-based West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), calls this kind of behavior “cybermisogyny.” “Cyberbullying,” she says, “has become this term that’s often thrown around with little understanding. We think it’s important to name the forces that are motivating this in order to figure out how to address it.”
In an unusually bold act, Jada responded by speaking publicly about her rape and the online abuse that followed. Supporters soon took to the Internet in her defense. “There’s no point in hiding,” she told a television reporter. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am. I’m just angry.”
* * *
After Facebook removed Thorlaug’s altered image and the rape threats, she felt relieved, but she was angry too. “These errors are going to manifest again,” she told Wired, “if there isn’t clear enough policy.”
Yet, at the time of Thorlaug’s report, Facebook did have a clear policy. Its detailed Community Standards for speech, often considered the industry’s gold standard, were bolstered by reporting tools that allowed users to report offensive content, and Thorlaug had used these tools as instructed. But serious errors were still manifesting regularly.
Not long after Thorlaug’s struggle to remove her image, a Facebook user posted a video documenting the gang rape of a woman by the side of a road in Malaysia. The six minutes of graphic footage were live for more than three weeks, during which Facebook moderators declined repeated requests for removal. It had been viewed hundreds of times before a reader of Soraya’s forwarded the video to her with a request for help. We notified a contact on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board, and only then was the video taken offline.
Around the same time, another Icelandic woman, Hildur Lilliendahl Viggósdóttir, decided to draw attention to similar problems by creating a page called “Men who hate women,” where she reposted examples of misogyny she found elsewhere on Facebook. Her page was suspended four times—not because of its offensive content, but because she was reposting images without written permission. Meanwhile, the original postings—graphically depicting rape and glorifying the physical abuse of women—remained on Facebook. As activists had been noting for years, pages like these were allowed by Facebook to remain under the category of “humor.” Other humorous pages live at the time had names like “I kill bitches like you,” “Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice,” “I Love the Rape Van,” and “Raping Babies Because You’re Fucking Fearless.”
* * *
Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is one of many civil libertarians who believe Facebook and other social media platforms should not screen this, or any, content at all. “It of course must be noted that the company—like any company—is well within its rights to regulate speech as it sees fit,” she wrote in a May 2013 piece in Slate in response to growing activism. “The question is not can Facebook censor speech, but rather, should it?” She argues that censoring any content “sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.”
When the problem involves half the world’s population, it’s difficult to classify it as a “pet issue.” What’s more, there are free speech issues on both sides of the regulated content equation. “We have the expressive interests of the harassers to threaten, to post photos, to spread defamation, rape threats, lies on the one hand,” explains Citron. “And on the other hand you have the free speech interests, among others, of the victims, who are silenced and are driven offline.”
These loss-of-speech issues tend to draw less attention and sympathy than free speech rights. However, as Citron points out, sexual hostility has already been identified as a source of real harm: Title VII demands that employers regulate such hostility in the workplace. These policies exist, Citron says, because sexual hostility “is understood as conduct interfering with life opportunities.”
For online harassers, this is often an overt goal: to silence female community members, whether through sexual slurs or outright threats. It’s little surprise that the Internet has become a powerful tool in intimate partner violence: A 2012 survey conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) found that 89 percent of local domestic violence programs reported victims who were experiencing technology-enabled abuse, often across multiple platforms.
For their part, social media companies often express commitment to user safety, but downplay their influence on the broader culture. Administrators repeatedly explain that their companies, while very concerned with protecting users, are not in the business of policing free speech. As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone phrased it in a post titled “Tweets Must Flow,” “We strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content.” The company’s guidelines encourage readers to unfollow the offensive party and “express your feelings [to a trusted friend] so you can move on.”
None of this was of much help to Caroline Criado-Perez, a British journalist and feminist who helped get a picture of Jane Austen on the £10 banknote. The day Bank of England made the announcement, Criado-Perez began receiving more than 50 violent threats per hour on Twitter. “The immediate impact was that I couldn’t eat or sleep,” she told The Guardian in 2013. She asked Twitter to find some way to stop the threats, but at the time the company offered no mechanism for reporting abuse. Since then, the company has released a reporting button, but its usefulness is extremely limited: It requires that every tweet be reported separately, a cumbersome process that gives the user no way of explaining that she is a target of ongoing harassment. (The system currently provides no field for comments.)
And yet companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube do moderate content and make quasi-governmental decisions regarding speech. Some content moderation is related to legal obligations, as in the case of child pornography, but a great deal more is a matter of cultural interpretation. Companies have disclosed that governments rely on them to implement censorship requests—earlier this year, for example, Twitter blocked tweets and accounts deemed “blasphemous” by the Pakistani government. (In response to these government incursions, a coalition of academics, legal scholars, corporations, non-profit organizations, and schools came together in 2008 to form the Global Network Initiative, a non-governmental organization dedicated to privacy and free expression.)
When it comes to copyright and intellectual property interests, companies are highly responsive, as Hildur’s “Men who hate women” experience highlighted. But, says Jan Moolman, who coordinates the Association of Progressive Communications’s women’s rights division, “‘garden variety’ violence against women—clearly human rights violations—frequently get a lukewarm response until it becomes an issue of bad press.”
For that reasons, when social media companies fail to respond to complaints and requests, victims of online harassment frequently turn to individuals who can publicize their cases. Trista Hendren, an Oregon-based blogger, became an advocate for other women after readers from Iceland, Egypt, Australia, India, Lebanon, and the UK began asking her to write about their experiences. “I was overwhelmed,” she told us. In December 2012, Hendren and several collaborators created a Facebook page called RapeBook where users could flag and report offensive content that the company had refused to take down.
By April 2013, people were using RapeBook to post pictures of women and pre-pubescent girls being raped or beaten. Some days, Hendren received more than 500 anonymous, explicitly violent comments—“I will skull-fuck your children,” for instance. Facebook users tracked down and posted her address, her children’s names, and her phone number and started to call her.
By that time, Hendren had abandoned any hope that using Facebook’s reporting mechanisms could help her. She was able, however, to work directly with a Facebook moderator to address the threats and criminal content. She found that the company sincerely wanted to help. Their representatives discussed the posts with her on a case-by-case basis, but more violent and threatening posts kept coming, and much of the content she considered graphic and abusive was allowed to remain.
Eventually, Hendren told us, she and Facebook became locked in disagreement over what constituted “safety” and “hate” on the site. Facebook’s people, she said, told her they didn’t consider the threats to her and her family credible or legitimate. Hendren, however, was concerned enough to contact the police and the FBI. The FBI started an investigation; meanwhile Hendren, physically and emotionally spent, suspended her Facebook account. “I was the sickest I have ever been,” she said. “It was really disgusting work. We just began to think, ‘Why are we devoting all our efforts on a volunteer basis to do work that Facebook—with billions of dollars—should be taking care of?’”
Hendren contacted Soraya, who continued to press Facebook directly. At the same time, Soraya and Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, also began comparing notes on what readers were sending them. Bates was struck by surprising ad placements. At the time, a photo captioned “The bitch didn’t know when to shut up” appeared alongside ads for Dove and iTunes. “Domestic Violence: Don’t Make Me Tell You Twice”—a page filled with photos of women beaten, bruised, and bleeding—was populated by ads for Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
In early May, Bates decided to tweet at one of these companies. “Hi @Finnair here’s your ad on another domestic violence page—will you stop advertising with Facebook?” FinnAir responded immediately: “It is totally against our values and policies. Thanks @r2ph! @everydaysexism Could you send us the URL please so that we can take action?”
Soraya, Bates, and Jaclyn Friedman, the executive director of Women, Action, and Media, a media justice advocacy group, joined forces and launched a social media campaign designed to attract advertisers’ attention. The ultimate goal was to press Facebook to recognize explicit violence against women as a violation of its own prohibitions against hate speech, graphic violence, and harassment. Within a day of beginning the campaign, 160 organizations and corporations had co-signed a public letter, and in less than a week, more than 60,000 tweets were shared using the campaign’s #FBrape hashtag. Nissan was the first company to pull its advertising dollars from Facebook altogether. More than 15 others soon followed. The letter emphasized that Facebook’s refusal to take down content that glorified and trivialized graphic rape and domestic violence was actually hampering free expression—it was “marginaliz[ing] girls and women, sidelin[ing] our experiences and concerns, and contribut[ing] to violence against us.”
On May 28, Facebook issued a public response:
In recent days, it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like ... We have been working over the past several months to improve our systems to respond to reports of violations, but the guidelines used by these systems have failed to capture all the content that violates our standards. We need to do better—and we will.
* * *
For all its shortcomings, Facebook is doing more than most companies to address online aggression against women. Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has served on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board since 2010. “[My organization] gets calls from Google, Twitter, Microsoft—but Facebook and Airbnb are the only ones who’ve put us on an advisory board,” she told us.
This is huge progress, she says. By inviting experts who understand the roots of violence against women and children and are familiar with emerging strategies to prevent it, tech is more likely to innovate improvements. The once profusely applied “Controversial Humor” label in Facebook is no longer in use. The company now officially recognizes gender-based hate as a legitimate concern, and its representatives continue to work closely with advocates like Southworth and the coalition that formed during the #FBRape campaign. There are ongoing efforts to improve user safety and identify content that is threatening, harassing, hateful, or discriminatory.
Southworth calls the company’s representatives “thoughtful, passionate, concerned, and straddling the line between free speech and safety.” But, sometimes, progress feels slow. “The teams who handle these cases are just swamped,” she explained.
When Emily Bazelon, author of a book and a March 2013 Atlantic story about Internet bullies, visited Facebook’s headquarters, the young men she saw working as moderators were spending roughly 30 seconds assessing each reported post, millions of reports a week. Outsourced speech moderation has become a booming industry. Like Facebook’s own moderation process, the operations of these companies are opaque by design.
TaskUs, with bases in Santa Monica, California, and several locations in the Philippines, provides moderation for iPhone and Android apps such as Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak. The company advertises “a bulletproof system to ensure that no one—not a single person—is hurt physically or mentally by the actions of another user in an anonymous app community.” Yet TaskUs doesn’t disclose its standards of speech, its hiring practices, its training process, or working conditions. “Unfortunately,” we were told when we inquired, “we’re bound by confidentiality from discussing details of process including hiring and training. We can speak generally about how we handle the moderation process but our clients are not comfortable with us exposing anything proprietary (and they consider the moderation and training processes proprietary).”
While private companies protect their practices, nonprofits like The Internet Watch Foundation don’t. IWF, based in Cambridge, England, screens images of child sexual abuse for Facebook, Google, and Virgin Media, among others. IWF staff watch, analyze, categorize, and report abusive images—70 percent of them involve children under 10. Data collected by police across England and Wales in 2012 suggest that 150 million child pornography images were in distribution in the UK alone that year. By comparison, in 1995, when the reach of the Internet was far narrower, only about 7,000 child pornography images were in online circulation.
IWF’s analysts see everything, said Heidi Kempster, IWF’s director of business affairs, during a conversation this summer. Kempster was candid about IWF’s business practices: The group screens rigorously during its hiring processes, conducting psychological interviews that establish everything from family history and relationship-building skills to views on pornography. The company also requires monthly individual counseling and quarterly group counseling, as well as expert consultation—with police, attorneys, or judges— and breaks as needed. IWF analysts, said Kempster, “look at shocking and violent images all day every day. There are days that are tough. They have to take time out.”
Over the past two years, Facebook has taken steps to improve its reporting system and address those gray areas. Matt Steinfeld, a spokesperson for Facebook, spoke to us about Facebook’s Compassion Research, a bullying prevention project developed in conjunction with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence. The tools developed through this program have more than tripled the rate at which users send a message directly to the person who posted the offensive material, asking for the removal of photos or comments. Now, in 85 percent of those requests, the person who posted the photo takes the photo down or sends a reply.
Still, the company hasn’t yet come up with a reliable approach for dealing with the other 15 percent of cases. “We’ve always recognized that there is going to be content that won’t be moderated through compassion tools,” said Steinfeld. “We’re not going to tell the people who is right and who is wrong.”
The opacity maintained around moderation means sites are not obligated to honor the reports they receive and any decision to remove content can be legitimized, as Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research and MIT, and Tarleton Gillespie at Cornell University, observed in an August study on social media reporting tools. In other words, “given that flags remain open to interpretation and can be gamed, they can also be explained away when the site prefers to ignore them.”
In conversations this summer, Matt Steinfeld, a spokesperson for Facebook, maintained that his own company’s standards are clearly defined. “There’s this misconception that there’s an algorithm,” he said during one conversation in July, “but there’s a human who’s given objective standards” for responding to individual complaints.
When we spoke with Microsoft’s Crawford about her research, she described the limitations of these seemingly objective standards. “The flag is being asked to do too much,” she said. “It’s a fundamentally narrow mechanism: the technical version of ‘I object.’ And while some platforms claim that flags are ‘objective’ data about which content to remove, they are part of a profoundly human decision-making process about what constitutes appropriate speech in the public domain.”
Researchers and industry experts are beginning to consider the effects of that context. Ninety percent of tech employees are men. At the most senior levels, that number goes up to 96 percent. Eight-nine percent of startup leadership teams are all male. Google recently announced that it is implementing programs to, in the words of a New York Times report, “fight deep-set cultural biases and an insidious frat-house attitude that pervades the tech business.” A computer simulation used by the company illustrated how an industry-wide 1-percent bias against women in performance evaluations might have led to the significant absence of women in senior positions.
Many Silicon Valley leaders—such as Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who recently acknowledged a “leadership crisis” among women in tech—have been investing in programs they hope will encourage girls to enter, and remain, in STEM fields. However, the fact that companies better understand the need to encourage girls and women doesn’t necessarily mean they’re welcomed. Despite the presence of visible, active and prominent women in the industry, according to one recent study, 56 percent of the women who do enter tech leave the industry, frequently stating that they were pushed out by sexism. This attrition rate is twice that of their male peers. As Vivek Wadha, author Innovating Women, recently pointed out, only 2.7 percent of 6,517 companies that received venture funding from 2011 to 2013 had female chief executives.
It’s not hard to imagine how unconscious biases might affect systems architecture, including the ways companies handle moderation requests. It is notable that Ello, a new ad-free social network, launched without private profiles, a block button, or a reporting mechanism. (After much criticism, those features were added.) Its designers appear to be seven young white men whose features, appearing on the beta website, are obscured by smiley faces. The Ello site reads, “We reserve the right to enforce or not to enforce these rules in whatever way we see fit, at our sole discretion. According to our lawyer, we should also tell you that Ello’s rules and policies do not create a duty or contractual obligation for us to act in any particular manner. And we reserve the right to change these rules at any time. So please play nice, be respectful, and have fun.”
* * *
Sandy Garossino, a former British Columbia prosecutor who has worked on dozens of cases of cyber extortion and online child pornography, is concerned about the implications of today’s industry practices and policies, not only for children but for adults. “Right now, the slightest calibrations are going to have a profound effect on the future,” she told us.
In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear the case of Anthony Elonis, a man with five charges of sexual harassment, who was imprisoned after threatening to kill his wife on Facebook. Elonis insists that his Facebook posts were not real threats but protected speech. Tara Elonis, his estranged wife—possibly aware that most female murder victims are killed by intimate partners—said that there was nothing unthreatening about her husband’s Facebook posts and that they forced her to take necessary, costly precautions. “If I only knew then what I know now,” read one, “I would have smothered your ass with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek, and made it look like a rape and murder."
“Although threats are traditional categories of excluded speech,” explains First Amendment legal scholar Susan Williams, “there is very little take on actually defining what a true threat is in constitutional terms.” This lack of definition is what plagues social media companies seeking scalable solutions for moderating content and keeping users safe. Following legal precedent they, too, avoid defining what makes a comment a threat and instead home in on whether or not there’s one specific target. However, as Williams explains, “threats can be one of those environmental factors that reduce the autonomy of whole classes of persons.”
In a recent high-profile case, intimate photographs of 100 celebrities—all of whom were women—were stolen and shared without consent. Google is now facing the possibility of a $100 million lawsuit, brought by over a dozen of the women whose privacy was violated, for refusing to remove the stolen photographs. In a letter dated October 1, the women’s attorneys wrote that “Google has exhibited the lowest standards of ethical business conduct, and has acted dishonorably by perpetrating unlawful activity that exemplifies an utter lack of respect for women and privacy. Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is a sham.”
In response, Google removed tens of thousands of the hacked celebrity photographs. Meanwhile, social media companies have been far less responsive to similar demands from ordinary citizens. “Hey @google, what about my photos?” tweeted revenge porn victim Holly Jacobs in the aftermath of the celebrity scandal. It remains to be seen how the courts will rule in the case of Meryam Ali, a Houston woman who filed a $123 million lawsuit against Facebook for failing to remove a false profile that showed her face superimposed on pornographic images. As writer Roxanne Gay poignantly observed in The Guardian, “What these people are doing is reminding women that, no matter who they are, they are still women. They are forever vulnerable.”
In late August, Drew Curtis, founder of the content aggregator FARK, announced that the company had added “misogyny” to its moderation guidelines. FARK no longer allows rape jokes or threats. It also prohibited posts that call groups of women "whores" or "sluts," or suggest that a woman who suffered a crime is somehow asking for it. In a note to readers, Curtis wrote, “This represents enough of a departure from pretty much how every other large Internet community operates that I figure an announcement is necessary.” Responding in Slate, Amanda Hess praised FARK’s new policy but also pointed out its limitations: Just underneath his announcement, users posted dozens of comments about rape, whores, and “boobies.”
Announcements like FARK’s are important, particularly for catalyzing discussion, but policy changes alone can’t solve such a complex problem. Kate Crawford of MIT and Microsoft urges tech innovators to think about solutions “as pluralistically as possible.” She’d like to see more platforms develop systems that leave traces of when and why content has been removed or modified—an approach in play at Wikipedia, for instance.
Other experts agree that companies have a responsibility to provide greater transparency. They also need to dedicate more staff to understanding and performing moderation. They need to attract and retain female engineers, programmers, and managers. They need to invite experts in violence prevention to their tables. Whether online or off, there seems to be an increasing consensus, from the NFL to the White House, that misogyny requires a broad societal response. As President Obama put it in mid-September, “It is on all of us to reject the quiet tolerance of sexual assault and to refuse to accept what’s unacceptable.”
Soon after Hess’s piece appeared on Slate, a reader posted it on a FARK message board and users filled the comment thread mocking the policy and discussing the best way slip a thermometer into Hess. So far, that thread has not been removed. As Hess herself put it, “Policing misogyny is fabulous in theory. In practice, it’s a bitch.”
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/the-unsafety-net-how-social-media-turned-against-women/381261/
When interesting people hang out, interesting things tend to happen. So when we found out that Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From and The Ghost Map was going to sit down and talk to Bill Gates, whom you’ve probably heard of, we thought we’d like to eavesdrop. So we did.
Gates and his eponymous foundation are launching the 10th year of their Grand Challenges initiative—a program that provides grants to projects looking to solve problems like malaria and malnutrition. Johnson’s most recent book, How We Got to Now, tackles the history and future of innovation, and is the basis of a six-part PBS series that launches on the 15th of this month. Over the course of their conversation, Johnson and Gates touched on everything from capitalism to ice. Here’s what they said.
Steven Johnson: I’m Steven Johnson, and I’m here at the Gates Foundation in Seattle with Bill Gates himself. And we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Grand Challenges. And we’re here to have a conversation about the Grand Challenges, and innovation more generally. Thank you for inviting me here.
I wanted to start by asking you about—kind of from a macro level—your career has been at the center of innovation, you know, from the very beginning. How would you characterize the difference between the kind of tech sector innovation that you were involved with and continue to be involved with at Microsoft, and what you see now and what you’re trying to do with the Foundation?
Bill Gates: Well they’re very similar in the sense that you pick scientists who have an idea about understanding something or inventing something, and you assemble that team and back them. As they move forward, you get feedback about things that are working and not working. You know, I think I enjoy working with engineers and scientists; I’ve enjoyed both roles.
Johnson: Yeah. There’s—some of the language—you’ve talked about kind of open innovation and open source innovation in the Grand Challenges and the Foundation. Tell me a little bit about that philosophy: What does that mean in practice?
Gates: Most innovation is capitalistic innovation. Where products and goods are created because somebody wants to be able to send their kid to school, wants to be able to eat that type of thing. Unfortunately when it comes to helping the poorest in the world, there is no market.
So a malaria vaccine would never be created without government or philanthropic things. Fortunately those things that are missed are not… Most diseases exist globally, and so even if things are initially invented for the rich world, they’re available and benefit everyone, like a measles vaccine. We get a lot of things—like the way toilets work—that get stuck, that is it’s so expensive and it never comes down in cost and can never be used in the poor world. Or you get a disease like malaria, that only philanthropy can go provide the literally billions that we will have spent by the time that gets solved.
Johnson: And sometimes it’s a question, right, of working outside the private sector to kind of begin to create some new platform that eventually becomes commercially viable?
Gates: Yeah, that’s a known—there’s two known market failures. One is that research is under-funded. Because particularly early stage research, the person taking the risk—the returns they can get are either nil or much smaller than the potential benefit. And then there’s working for the poor. So if you’re talking about innovation for the poorest, it’s the most under-funded thing. You won’t get there. And so the U.S. government is a great example of funding basic medical research. But then leaving it for rich world diseases, to the private sector companies that have all sorts of unique skills to go out and build the products. So we as a foundation end up partnering with biotech companies, pharma companies because a lot of the skill sets of making sure a medicine is safe, how you manufacture in a very low-cost way. Those only exist in the private sector.
Johnson: Right. One of the things I love about the Grand Challenges in particular is that they—this is kind of, I think, deliberate—echo of the things like the RSA premiums, the kind of challenges from the age in the Enlightenment, where a huge amount of new ideas that then ultimately became commercially viable ideas, industrial ideas, began with this organization that was just kind of offering these challenges to the wider public and saying, “Hey, we need to solve this problem. We need a red dye that is more stable that we can grow commercially here. We’re gonna give a prize,” like the longitude prize, is another example. That’s a really old tradition; I don’t think we—as a society, I don’t think we realize the importance of that as much? Is that your experience?
Gates: Well, I don’t know how much prizes—the longitude prize is I think fairly unusual. Most innovation—you think about clothing, food, transport—most was done on a purely commercial basis.
Trains, cars, steam engines. A lot of those things. Now you have tinkers who often lay the foundation for the understanding, and that—you know, it used to be harder to tell who was the product person and who was the basic research person. And as medicine’s gotten more complicated, there is a whole field of endeavor that really is pretty basic stuff. And then the stuff in between we talk about as translational.
Johnson: Right. I mean, it was—one of the things I notice is just the diversity of the kinds of fields that the Challenges have funded. I mean, you have everything from astrophysicists to car mechanics who are in there. So that tinker tradition is still part of that goal, right?
Gates: Yeah, if you give people only a hundred thousand, which is that Grand Challenge exploration grant, but that’s actually numerically the one we give the most. They really have to be moonlighting to do that. They have to be using a lab that’s founded by some, something else. You know, trying it out at night. Now if they can show result, then they’ll be funded for their day job, at a 2 million to 5 million-dollar level.
But yes, they have to have almost a personal passion for their idea, to want to prove it out, in that first phase. We’re drawing in IQ from so many different fields, once we frame that problem really well. Because some of these problems—like delivering a baby or keeping a vaccine cold—they’re not really biological problems. And so the normal people who think about development may not understand in the refrigeration case that there’s been an invention of materials that prevent or reduce heat leak so dramatically that an approach of keeping them cold without any new energy inputted. A thermos-type approach could actually work.
Johnson: I saw some of that today, and it was so amazing because one of the stories that I was just writing about and that we have on this new TV show is about the early days of the ice trade in the United States. This guy Frederick Tudor, who came up with the idea, a very commercial idea—although an insane idea as well—that you could take blocks of frozen lake water and ship them all the way to India or to Rio. And, you know, take cold and bring it to the hot climates of the world. And he ultimately made a fortune in the middle of the 19th Century doing that. And what I saw today was this device that enables you to keep vaccines cold for up to five or six weeks, right?
Johnson: Just basically with ice; I mean you’ve got the insulation to keep the ice from melting. So, there was this beautiful kind of symmetry; in fact, Tudor would have loved it. That that technology is still around, based around ice, is pretty amazing.
Gates: Yeah, ice—it takes a lot of energy to melt ice, and so if you keep the heat leak very low, then you get that very long lifetime. And in these developing countries, the idea of going out and getting propane, or getting electricity: That’s proven to be so unreliable and so expensive that we often lose vaccines.
Johnson: And one of the things that, you know, you see again and again through the history of innovation is: Someone solves a particular problem, but it ends up triggering a set of unanticipated consequences. Sometimes opening up new doors, sometimes creating new kind of secondary problems. Do you think about that on a foundation level? I mean, you’re so beautifully focused on solving these clear problems that are urgent problems around the world. How much of those secondary effects are in your kind field of vision?
Gates: Well, a lot of the grants we give that don’t end up creating a breakthrough product, we are building capacity in the field. We’re understanding how to do these trials. We’re funding people in the developing countries themselves. There are some mysteries that are very important to us, like how do we make sure that a child’s brain develops properly? That their body develops properly? We’re making a lot of progress cutting the deaths down. A lot to be done, but you know, just since we’ve been in existence, we’ve gone from 10 million a year to 6 million a year.
There’s—and we can see a path to get that down even as low as 2 million. On what they call “morbidity,” where you survive but you’re damaged because of the ill health and nutrition—that we don’t understand nearly as well. And it’s an awful thing, it’s really a key element of the poverty trap, that a country without help just doesn’t have the skills, even if you try and invest in education, to get itself up to self-sufficiency. So you’ve gotta help reduce disease, burden, get the diets to be better. And then, you know, great things happen like we’ve seen in so many countries.
Johnson: And that’s related to the—there are three new challenges that are being announced basically today. You wanna talk about those?
Gates: Yeah, so the first is the continued interventions for health. Which is a lot like the original ones. You know, we still have a number of infectious diseases: We need better vaccines, cheaper vaccines. So we’re continuing that.
Then we added two that have a slightly different flavor. One focused on women and girls and how we can reach them, communicate with them. And then one on these childhood issues, particularly the first 30 days, where there’s been less progress on the deaths that take place there. They’re in some ways less identifiable than malaria or pneumonia or diarrhea, which are the big killers once you get in that 30-day to five-year period. So we’re, you know, opening up some new frontiers. Slightly more complicated, but—you know, very timely.
Johnson: Yeah. And exciting. And how do you decide—with the big kind of questions—like well these are the three new areas we’re gonna open up? What’s the decision-making process for that?
Gates: Well, the basic goal is to say that because we think all lives have equal value, a child born in a poor country at age 5 should be alive like they are in countries that are better off. And they should have a chance to achieve their potential—that is their brain, their body should be fully developed. And so anything that—set of partnerships, set of challenges that can help us reduce that unbelievable gap. You know, in the case of death, you know, Nigeria, 15 percent of the kids die before the age of 5. There’s a few places left that are 20 percent. In richer countries it’s well under 1 percent of the kids. And so, you know, that’s gotta change. It’s just very inequitable that the work hasn’t been done. And it’s mostly infectious disease.
For the things where you’re alive but not as capable, understanding how much of that is diet versus sickness, and how do we in a cost-effective way intervene in that. There’s still a lot of missing understanding there, but we wanna gain that understanding and go out and completely solve that.
Johnson: And is there a specific project that you’re particularly excited about? An innovation you think is really promising, or…?
Gates: You know, we work in so many different disease areas—the idea of taking malaria and country by country doing local eradications: We’re very enthused about that because we have new tools and new models, new understanding. We wanna finish the polio eradication, which we’re fairly close on.
You know, it’s tough ‘cause the last few countries are gonna be the most difficult countries. And it’s Nigeria and Pakistan are the two where we’ve never gotten zero cases.
But particularly in Nigeria, we think we’re getting very, very close to that. So ideally we’d get polio done. Then have—
Johnson: Check that box.
Johnson: Check the polio box.
Gates: Then have new tools, and then really start down the path of taking that malaria map and slowly but surely shrinking it to eventually getting that down to zero.
Johnson: One last question: You and I are both very optimistic about the long view of progress. Why do you think most people aren’t? Right, why do you think there is this kind of general feeling? You see it in so many different things where people are just like, “Well, things were better 50 years ago, back in the day.” I mean, where does that lack of faith in progress come from?
Gates: Well, in a sense we’re attuned to think about problems, you know, what might go wrong, what is the problem. And the things like, "Oh, I’ve got a toilet.” You know, should I celebrate? I’ve got nutrition; should I celebrate?
I’ve got nice clothes. I learned to read. I get to watch more shows. You know, just take access to music, now versus in the past. Or even social issues, where society—including gender inequality—we’ve really made progress. We say, “Of course!” You know, we take that for granted. You know, the Pinker book, Better Angels of Our Nature, talks about how the only thing that improves faster than violence reduction is our distaste for violence. So that we’re constantly saying, "Hey, we think this is the most violent time ever," because our willingness to put up with it is so low. And so I think the idea that people are worried about problems, like climate change or terrorism or these challenges of the future, that’s okay. But boy, they really lose perspective of what’s happened over the last few hundred years. And how science and innovation have been a central factor of that.
And I think that’s too bad, because people are lucky to live now. And they should see that that progress is actually taking place faster during their lives than at any time in history.
Johnson: And celebrating that kind of innovation, and telling those stories, and then supporting new stories as they’re getting developed: That’s a great goal, and a great foundation to do it. So thank you for everything you’re doing. And congratulations.
Gates: Thank you.
Johnson: Thanks, Bill.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/how-bill-gates-thinks/381287/
When you think about Spain, the first thing that pops into mind is undoubtedly one word: elevators.
No? Well, maybe it should be.
At face value, there’s a pretty simple reason why. Spaniards are some of the world’s pre-eminent apartment-dwellers. In 2012, roughly 65 percent of the population lived in apartment buildings, much higher than the euro-area average of 46 percent. (The only other European countries that compare to Spain in terms of apartment-living are Latvia and Estonia, which are both also around 65 percent.)
Share of Populace Living in Apartments
That seems straightforward enough, except when you consider the fact that unlike many of the other big apartment-dwelling nations, the Spanish don’t rent. They own. In fact, only Ireland has as high a rate of homeownership, and yet only 5 percent of the Irish live in flats.
Homeownership Rates in Select European Countries
Spain hasn’t always been such a hotbed of homeownership. In fact, well into the 1950s, less than half the population owned their homes. That jumped to more than 80 percent over the next half century.
Before the hostilities began, Spain had had an influx of rural migrants into the cities. That resumed after the war, exacerbating a shortage of housing.
Meanwhile, in an effort to short up popular support, the Franco regime instituted heavy-handed regulations on the rental sector, starting with the Urban Tenancy Law of 1946. As a Spanish central-bank economist, Juan Mora-Sanguinetti, wrote in 2011:
The interventions were severe. The tenant’s protection against eviction was unlimited. Even close relatives of the tenant were able to succeed him as tenants in the same dwelling and benefiting from the same conditions. With respect to rents, the Law established fixed one-time increments in the rent paid for apartments leased before 1939 and freezed [sic] the rents in respect of all new contracts.
Overly restrictive regulation made it difficult for landlords to earn profits on their properties, discouraged maintenance, and deterred additional building. Housing quality deteriorated sharply and the supply of housing continued to run short.
By the 1950s, the government recognized it needed to shift its stance. “We want a country of proprietors, not proletarians,” Franco’s housing minister famously said in 1957.
Private Homeownership Rates, Spain and England
Under the new policy, the government incentivized landlords to begin selling their properties to their tenants at very low prices. Sales took off, and new legislation followed codifying propriedad horizontal, or joint ownership—what in America would be called a condominium. Economists Anna Cabré and Juan Antonio Módenes wrote in 2004:
“The law created a legal basis for massive investment in new buildings that would be sold by individual flats and apartments. Movement to the cities, high employment, the virtual absence of urban land use regulations and norms, and skyrocketing inflation did the rest. Rural migrants brought their savings and invested them in stone (or should we say concrete?). Young couples bought cheap and comparatively small apartments in new areas of the expanding cities. Middle-aged families left the historical centers and improved their standard of living by acquiring new and better-quality flats. And steady employment at inflated wages helped all of them pay their mortgage. In a matter of years, homeownership had become the goal of most Spaniards.”
It’s worth noting that the UK undertook a similar program of turning over decrepit, government-owned “council housing” and transforming its tenants into owners during the Thatcher years. But that—see the second chart above again—didn’t turn Brits into a nation of flat-dwellers.
In part because of that, city growth period was hemmed in by planners in order to help preserve nearby agricultural land. “In Spain compact, dense urbanization has been favored,” wrote Módenes, a lecturer in human geography at the autonomous University of Barcelona, in an email to Quartz.
“The dominant form of this housing was estates (apartment complexes) with over 1,000 dwellings,” wrote then Harvard academic Eric Belsky and colleague Nicolas Retsinas, in a paper on the Spanish housing market back in 2004. “These estates replaced many of the shantytowns that developed near cities like Barcelona and Madrid in the late 1940s and early 1950s.”
Thus was the modern Spanish city born.
So, given its autocratic origins, it’s hard to argue that Spaniards chose apartment living. But it now seems to suit them fairly well. Spaniards spend no more than the average on shelter—roughly 20 percent of their disposable income—yet 94 percent of them say they’re satisfied with their current housing situation, one of the highest satisfaction ratings in the OECD and well above the 87 percent average.
In fact, some argue that the Spanish might, if anything, be too comfortable staying in their current homes. The flip side of Spain’s sky-high homeownership rate tends to be a relatively low rate of labor mobility, since it makes matching would-be workers to open positions more difficult. And that make it all that much tougher for the country’s battered economy to recover.
This article was originally published at http://qz.com/273214/how-spains-bloody-history-gave-it-the-worlds-highest-concentration-of-elevators/
For years the biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus had been searching for a project that might establish his greatness, only to watch ideas come and go like love affairs, beginning with promise and ending in hurt feelings.
His whole career had been a recovery process, one attempt after another to start over. He’d been unceremoniously dumped by Harvard and forced to start his own laboratory in a converted garage. When Pincus met the feminist crusader Margaret Sanger in 1950 and she implored him to go to work on the development of a birth-control pill, he knew the project carried enormous risk. Such a pill would never work, other scientists had told Sanger. And even if it did work, how would one test such a thing? Who would dare manufacture it? Who would prescribe it? Thirty states and the federal government still had anti-birth control laws on the books.
Yet in many ways, the pill project was perfect for Pincus. It concerned the area of science he knew best: mammalian reproduction. And it required not only scientific knowledge but also an entrepreneurial spirit. But the best reason the project suited Pincus was that he had nothing to lose. As one of his colleagues put it: “He wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb because he didn’t have any limb.”
Years of disappointment had taught Pincus that it wasn’t always the science that determined an experiment’s success; it was often the forces surrounding the science, including public sentiment. Now that Pincus had settled roughly on the hormone progesterone as the key to his pill, he needed to build the team to do the scientific work, forge alliances with manufacturers, conduct his trials, and, if all went well, spread the news of the coming invention so that it might have a chance at acceptance.
He knew that his progestins (synthetic forms of progesterone) stopped ovulation in rabbits and rats. The next step was to test them on women. And to do that, he would have to add a player to his team—a doctor who could reassure patients they were safe and would convey to the drug companies supplying the drugs that no one would be harmed. There had never been a medicine made for healthy people before—and certainly not one that would be taken every day. The risks were enormous. Pincus settled on a physician named John Rock, a gynecologist respected by his peers and adored by his patients. Rock looked like a family physician from central casting in Hollywood: tall, slender, and silver-haired, with a gentle smile and a calm, deliberate manner. Even his name connoted strength, solidity, and reliability.
Rock had one more thing going for him: He was Catholic.
There is no mention of contraception in the Bible, Old Testament or New, nor did the term enter the vocabulary of Catholic moral theology until the second half of the twentieth century. Before then, the most relevant term used by theologians was onanisma, from the biblical story of Onan (Genesis 38:4–10), which was described as masturbation or sexual intercourse performed without the intention of reproduction. Sex was only for procreation, the Christian church declared, which made onanisma a sin.
The human reproductive system was poorly understood even in the early years of the twentieth century. Many people thought women were merely the vessels, and that the man’s seed sprung on its own into a baby. That’s why spilling seed, or losing semen, whether in sex or masturbation, was labeled a sin.
Still, the Catholic Church had no official position on birth control until 1930, when Pope Pius XI issued a papal encyclical called “Casti Connubii” (Latin for “Of Chaste Wedlock”). The pope acknowledged that birth control was widely used “even amongst the faithful,” although he wasn’t happy about it, and called this trend “a new and utterly perverse morality.” He added that it amounted to a “shameful and intrinsically vicious” attempt to get around the natural “power and purpose” of the conjugal act. The pope did, however, offer the faithful an important loophole: A married couple would not be sinning, he said, if the husband and wife knew that natural reasons prevented them from having children.
For decades doctors had been instructing women who did not wish to become pregnant to have sex only during their “safe periods.” Unfortunately for many women, until the 1930s most doctors believed the safe period came in the middle of the menstrual cycle; in fact, that’s the time when women are most likely to conceive. After scientists finally got it right, a Chicago family doctor named Leo J. Latz, a devout Roman Catholic, figured out how this information, combined with the pope’s recent declaration, offered men and women a shot at having guilt-free and baby-free sex at certain times of the month. Latz wrote an instruction manual that sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
There was more than pleasure on the line. Women all over the world were desperate to control family size or better time the arrival of children—for the sake of their health and the welfare of their other children.
In the 1930s, birth rates for all American families fell to a low of 2.1 children per mother, in large part because of the Great Depression and in part because women—including Catholic women—became increasingly comfortable with the rhythm method and other forms of birth control. Priests, alarmed by the trend, took to their pulpits to attack birth control, but their sermons did little good. For the first time, many Catholics began compartmentalizing their beliefs. Sex became something private and apart from religion. It was the rumbling before a seismic shift.
John Rock had already gained a small measure of fame as the Catholic doctor who dared defy his church: He wanted young couples to talk about sex and babies before they married. He wanted them to understand that sex was neither shameful nor obscene. He wanted society to provide safe and effective means of birth control, and he wanted married couples to have the right to use them.
For all of this, Monsignor Francis W. Carney of Cleveland called the doctor a “moral rapist.” But Rock would not budge. It was no wonder Pincus liked him.
When Rock treated women for infertility, he would begin by taking a medical history and providing a complete physical exam. If the woman wasn’t menstruating, or if she wasn’t menstruating regularly, Rock might order an endometrial biopsy. Rock was unusual among fertility specialists at the time because he also asked husbands to have their semen tested. He was also unusual—if not unique—in that he operated a rhythm clinic down the hall from his infertility clinic to teach women how to better time their sexual activity to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
Between the women seeking birth control and those patients who were trying to overcome infertility, Rock came to understand not only human reproduction but also a good deal about human relations. In the same day, he would see some women who were straining to raise more children than they could handle and others deeply wounded by their inability to get pregnant. Among the women with children, many came asking for the only thing they’d ever heard of that would guarantee an end to their baby-making days: a hysterectomy, or the removal of the uterus.
One such patient, known as Mrs. L. A., was 32 years old. She had married when she was 18, borne 11 children, and had one miscarriage. Her last five deliveries had been by Cesarean section, and her very last had been twins. She told Rock she and her husband had sex twice a month and never used birth control. The twins were only six months old when Mrs. L. A. visited Rock. She reported that her husband was trying to be “careful,” meaning that he was withdrawing before he ejaculated, to avoid getting her pregnant again. She told the doctor she was exhausted, in pain, and suffering occasional blackouts. Her periods were unusually profuse and painful. Rock suggested an immediate hysterectomy.
Meeting these women emboldened Rock. In the 1950s, every young adult woman seemed to be having children, or wanting to. Raising big families was an act of patriotism in postwar America. Men and women who couldn’t reproduce were pitied. Year after year in the 1950s, the nation became more fertile. By 1957, the average American woman would have 3.7 children in her lifetime.
Demand for fertility treatments exploded in the 1950s, but doctors offered little meaningful help. Beginning around 1950, Rock conducted a series of experiments on women struggling with what he called “unexplained infertility.” He suspected that some of the women were not conceiving because their reproductive systems were not fully developed. When a woman with such a condition did somehow become pregnant, the ensuing pregnancy helped her reproductive system mature. To test his theory, he recruited 80 “frustrated, but valiantly adventuresome” women for an experiment in which he would use hormones—progesterone and estrogen, the same hormones Pincus had been studying—to create “pseudo pregnancies.” He confessed to the women that he had no idea if it would work, but the women trusted him and went along.
He started the women on 50 milligrams of progesterone and five milligrams of estrogen and escalated gradually to 300 milligrams of progesterone and 30milligrams of estrogen. When the first round of treatments ended, no one was dead and no one had become seriously ill. That was good news. Within months, the news got better. Thirteen of the 80 women in Rock’s care became pregnant when they’d stopped taking the hormones. Rock told colleagues that the hormone-induced pseudo pregnancies seemed to have given their bodies a lift and helped them become fertile. Soon, his fellow gynecologists were calling it “The Rock Rebound.”
Only one serious problem had developed: The women taking the hormones were often convinced that they were pregnant because the hormones produced many of the same symptoms as pregnancy: the women became nauseated; their breasts grew larger and more tender; and they stopped menstruating. The women were heartbroken when Rock told them, no, they weren’t pregnant; the hormones were merely tricking their bodies and mimicking pregnancy.
When Pincus learned of Rock’s work, he was pleased but not surprised that the progesterone and estrogen were having a contraceptive effect. The important thing to Pincus was the plain fact that Rock’s patients were not dying. Here was proof that it was safe to give large doses of progestins to women.
Still, Rock told Pincus that his infertile patients were crushed to learn that their symptoms of pregnancy were mere mirages. Pincus offered an elegant solution—and one that would have enormous consequences for his own work and for the future of women around the world. He told Rock to have his patients stop taking the pills for five days each month. Their hormone levels would return to normal, their symptoms would ease, and they would have their periods.
Rock liked the idea. It would make the pill seem more natural, like a scientific version of the rhythm method.
Once that was settled, Pincus presented Rock with a proposal: Would Rock permit some of his patients to be the first human recipients of an oral birth-control pill? The women would take Pincus’s form of the pill, not Rock’s, and they would be studied carefully to make absolutely certain they were not ovulating during their pseudo pregnancies. If they still benefitted from Rock’s rebound, great. But that wasn’t the point. The point was proving Pincus’s pill would work as an effective contraceptive.
Rock agreed. Together, the men would go on to conduct tests in insane asylums and in the slums of Puerto Rico and Haiti. They would even try giving the pill to men. They knew the Catholic Church would object to their work, and they had no idea if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would approve an oral contraceptive, or if a manufacturer would agree to sell one.
But those were problems for another day.
This article has been excerpted from Jonathan Eig's The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-team-that-invented-the-birth-control-pill/380684/
Defiant, farcical, profane: These are the words that come to mind when attempting to describe the street art that photographer Yoav Litvin has chronicled on the streets of New York for the past few years. Semi-sanctioned, quasi-legal, or downright illegal, the works that draw Litvin’s eye—those created by alternative painters, graffiti artists, collagists and muralists—are compiled in his new book, Outdoor Gallery: New York City (Ginko Press). The resulting collection makes a compelling case that ephemeral street art is a cultural treasure.
Although society tends to look at these outdoor works as vandalism, Litvin takes a longer view. The book profiles 46 artist, mostly pseudonymous personalities—Toofly, Miyok, Icy and Sot, Gaia, Kram and Bunny M being just a few—to prove street art’s current wave impacts contemporary aesthetics just as powerfully as the Salon de Refusés did in the nineteenth century. Much of that has to do with exposure: While posting on private and city-owned surfaces ensures these works won’t be around for long, the street provides enviable visibility while they last. These days the format is distinguished by its rebellious edge, too: As Litvin told me, “I can appreciate the rush and risks artists take when putting up pieces in public. I also really admire their generosity in taking these risks to share their vision.”
Litvin began documenting street art after a battle with illness left him physically incapable of any form of exercise other than walking. As he began walking more and further, he ended up exploring unfamiliar parts of New York, where he “consumed more and more of the graffiti and street art culture [and] fell in love with its beauty, humor, and the way it challenges convention.” His love for the format has a lot to do with its politically defiant messages: “It is an incredible, non-violent way to raise issues in the public sphere and promote positive change. As a political person, I am drawn to the rebellious and confrontational nature of much of it.” By documenting these urban works, he aims to share, celebrate, and contribute to its peaceful protest.
Litvin’s not the first to notice street art’s captivating qualities: Outdoor Gallery is just one installment in a long history of photographers capturing New York’s native works. In the 1970s photographer Henry Chalfant co-authored Subway Art and the sequel Spraycan Art, documenting the wave of graffiti as part of hip-hop culture, the kind that drove city mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani nuts. Their crusade against street art is documented in the 1983 documentary film, Style Wars, a must-see history of New York graffiti tagging that Chalfant also co-produced.
In the ‘80s, however, graffiti edged out the kind of street art deliberately preserved within Outdoor Gallery’s pages–mural paintings and mixed-media postings. While Litvin’s book chronicles both, he makes a point to distinguish between graffiti and street art. Graffiti as we know it today, he says, is an originally American art form that began in the late ‘60s, likely in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood. “It involves writing letters and has developed into a range of styles in many different geographical locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.”
By contrast, street art, in his words, does “not necessarily abide [by] a set of rules or conform to specific styles, but is dependent more on the individual training and influences of the artists.” It can include characters, typography, figures, abstract symbols, three-dimensional installations, and more.
Litvin emphasized, though, that the rise of graffiti led to a greater awareness of street art among the mainstream, as well as the rise of a synthesized art: “Nowadays, many pieces on the street are a mixture of both graffiti and street art.”
Whatever the distinctions, in Outdoor Gallery Litvin highlights artists “producing high-quality work and creating a narrative that spoke to me personally and to some aspect of life in New York City.” The book covers all aspects of method and manner, including traditional graffiti, street art by locally based artists, and work produced by international artists who treat New York as, Litvin says, “the Mecca of graffiti and street art.” Predictably, there are many pieces in the book that have already been removed from the actual streets, which underscores why Litvin believes he needs to document this art: gentrification.
The way Litvin sees it, street art creates a paradoxical phenomenon. Its aesthetic appeal attracts wealthier inhabitants to the areas where it’s posted—and yet their very enthusiasm may ultimately destroy it. “Artists, and specifically those displaying on the street, serve as magnets that attract a younger and ‘cooler’ crowd to an area,” he says. “To the delight of property owners, this crowd of mostly young professionals drives real estate prices up, rendering it too expensive for local communities, as well as for those same artists that served as a force for the change.”
Yet street art has a philanthropic side, too. Litvin points out what he believes to be an art-world trend—non-profit organizations collaborating with local groups to introduce art by way of the streets, with works usually including large-scale, legal murals by world-renowned artists. Characteristically skeptical, Litvin says that the potential downside is that the community outreach goal might dampen street art’s non-curated, rebellious nature. He’s also worried about the intentions of artists who participate in such popular, attention-grabbing endeavors: “Some feel there are artists who use its popularity solely as a springboard into galleries and museums.”
Litvin is not willing to cede the art to self-interested upstarts. He created Outdoor Gallery to keep his ideal of the medium alive: “Street art is rebellious and political in our capitalist society [due to] the mere fact that it is viewed freely and serves as an alternative to the consumerist agenda echoed by the endless array of commercials we’re all exposed to,” he says. Although Litvin accepts it will be extremely hard to predict a future for the street art movement, he harbors some faith that the future will continue to honor its rich, insurrectional past: “I do hope that in its essence it holds true to its progressive, pro-social underlying agenda by continuing to challenge mainstream norms and taboos.”
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/everyday-insurrections-on-the-street/381263/
Here's a pretty dumb idea: Get a bunch of celebrities, put them in a YouTube video, rewrite an overplayed hit song, and drive young people to the polls. Just look at this:
See, they all put "Lil" in front of their names, because ... well, anyway. The video earned snarky reactions like this one:
I wasn't going to vote, but then Lil Jon told me to turn out— JustinGreen∞ (@JGreenDC) October 7, 2014
The critique seems straightforward enough. So many of these youth-voting pushes come off as either hopeless pandering or hopelessly ridiculous—I'm looking at you, "Vote or Die." Pundits have been writing Rock the Vote off as at best harmless and at worst a waste for a decade. (For what it's worth, Rock the Vote spokeswoman Audrey Gelman shakes the haters off: "Mocking sincerity is so 2005.")
But what if ... it actually works?
It's certainly true that youth turnout could use a boost. Looking just at presidential elections, the voting rate from ages 18-24 has crested when, as in 1992 and 2008, there was a young, charismatic, liberal candidate on the ballot. But Obama is old news, and Millennials have soured on him somewhat.
Voter Turnout Rates by Age, 1988-2012
There's not a great deal of research, but what there is suggests this video might not be so crazy—though it might also not be the most effective way for Rock the Vote to drive turnout. Political scientists Donald Green and Lynn Vavreck found that this sort of advertising—nonpartisan (we'll return to that) and specifically targeted at young voters—really does make a difference, or at least it did in 2004 in a contentious presidential election. Green and Vavreck calculated that young voters targeted by Rock the Vote ads had 2.7 percent higher turnout.
This case is different in several respects. First, it's not for a presidential election but for a midterm, and overall and youth turnout both tend to plummet in non-presidential years. Second, the ad is for the web—it's three and a half minutes long—and won't be running on TV. There's not much research on web ads specifically, although there's anecdotal evidence that a viral ad doesn't necessarily turn into an electoral win, as
Senators Christine O'Donnell and Carly Fiorina can tell you. What is clear is that ad effects of all types fall off very quickly, so that while videos like this might generate some enthusiasm, any oomph they might provide now, slightly less than a month before the election, may have fallen away by November.
How about the personalities in the ad? One might guess that an ad featuring—in addition to Mr. Jon, of course—Fred Armisen, Lena Dunham, and Devendra Banhart might be catering more to the white hipster audience, and white voters are usually most likely to vote in midterms. In reality, though it might not be who the celebrities are that matters most. As Sasha Issenberg noted in 2010, strategists have found that an anonymous, friendly volunteer reminding voters to head to the polls is more effective than a big-name personality.
One good way to get young people to vote is peer pressure. In the 2010 election, political scientists found that when Facebook users' friends were shown with an "I Voted" badge, they were more likely to go to the polls.
These are all good reasons to think that this video might not change the course of the election. But it might encourage a few more voters to get to the polls, and that's tough to argue with. Besides, if Lil Jon says you should go to the polls, you probably should—after all, he always tells the truth.
This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/what-if-lil-jons-goofy-rock-the-vote-video-actually-works/381202/