Thursday, July 19, 2018

Henk Hilterman, Children eating in Saigon market, 1966

Better Living Through Technology

Human beings are innovators. You can hardly create a product before somebody’s come up with a use for it you never considered. (Even Viagra was originally developed as a pill to lower blood pressure — erections were merely a side effect.)

So I don’t think we can be too surprised that people are using fitness trackers to monitor their vitals while taking recreational drugs. As CNBC first reported, some drug users find wearable devices like the Apple Watch and the Fitbit helpful in managing their intake of stimulants, which tend to get your heart rate up. They reason that by keeping their heart below a certain threshold of beats per minute (bpm) while high, they can lessen the always-present risk of an acute cardiac event. And so, ever since the consumer technology to keep tabs on your pulse 24/7 first became available, they’ve been sharing health data from their binges in online drug forums like the r/cocaine subreddit, for example:

Clearly, you can see one of coke’s (multifarious) effects on your body in real time with these gadgets strapped to your wrist. But what is the practical value of that information, if any?

I got in touch with “X,” a 19-year-old male redditor who frequents r/cocaine and tracks his bpm while indulging in his favorite intoxicants, which include alcohol and the anti-anxiety tranquilizer Xanax, as well as coke. He says that while his Apple Watch is mostly “shitty,” its heart rate monitoring feature is “the best and most useful thing about it.” His interest in the data depends on what he’s taking, of course: “For Xanax I make sure [my heart rate] doesn’t fall under a certain number,” he explains, while with coke he wants to avoid “going over a certain number.”

And the numbers are certain. “My resting heart rate is usually 80. If I’m on Xanax I usually don’t want it dropping under 50,” X says. “And on coke, anything above 140 is when I stop. If it’s falling too low while on Xanax, then it’s okay, because I can just go take a nap and stop drinking if I was. On coke, if it starts getting too high, I’ll take a Xanax to calm my heart rate down.”

I ask X if this method of dosing feels more reliable than what most everyone else has had to do throughout the history of inebriation — go with their gut instinct. “Yes, it is,” he says, though he’ll rely on his own best judgment as well, particularly in a party setting. Speaking of which: The fitness tracker binge, like cocaine itself, is a rather social phenomenon. “The first time I did it,” X explains, was “with people who have done it for a long time, so then after I just learned from them.” Later, he got his friends with wearables to monitor their heart rates as well, and they share their bpm often, whether hanging out together or not. “Some of us have higher tolerances, so we use it to keep [tabs on] each other,” he says.

Sounds pretty responsible, doesn’t it? Dr. Robert A. Kloner, the Chief Science Officer and Director of Cardiovascular Research at Huntington Medical Research Institutes, disagrees completely. “Not a good idea,” he writes in an email when I ask him about the trend. “It will lead people to have a false sense of security.”

Not only is Kloner an expert on the heart and blood vessels, he also co-authored work on the cardiovascular effects of cocaine, which can be extreme. There’s more to worry about than how fast your heart is beating, he points out: “Cocaine can cause coronary artery vasospasm; increase the oxygen need of the heart by increasing contractility; it can cause the blood pressure to go up; it can cause arrhythmias; it can cause heart muscle cells to go into contracture; it has been associated with ruptured aneurysm, seizures, strokes and heart attacks,” he explains, adding that the drug can also “increase the aggregation of platelets.”

Unfortunately, your Apple Watch isn’t going to be much help in predicting any of those dire outcomes. “Using heart rate monitoring devices only gives one physiologic parameter for a drug that has complicated effects on the cardiovascular system,” Kloner tells me, concluding that “the best way to avoid cocaine cardiotoxicity is to avoid cocaine to begin with.”


But it seems that X has figured out a system he likes, and he knows what to look for — at least as far as a decent high is concerned. If the coke is of a better quality, “rocky and scaley,” then he’ll notice a jump in bpm “almost instantly” after taking some, with a pulse fall-off 45 to 60 minutes later. “If it’s stepped on,” he says — which is to say cut with other ingredients — he gets the same instant bump, but a much quicker fall-off in heart rate, somewhere in the 10 to 15 minute range. And while he never wants to soar above 140 bpm, “around 120 is perfect for me,” he says. Apart from this niche functionality, he only uses the heart rate monitor “occasionally” while sleeping.

X isn’t too bothered about Apple having this data, either. “Well, yeah, sometimes it does feel weird,” he admits. “But at the same time, I do work out, so my heart rate is constantly at that point.” Besides, as the excitement of this year’s World Cup and other intense situations have proved, the causes of bpm surges during physical “inactivity” are varied and strange.

Even as drug users like X seek the equilibrium to their inebriation with the aid of heart rate monitoring, others are taking cues from the tech to pop their legally prescribed drugs.

by Miles Klee, MEL |  Read more:
Images: uncredited

The Radical Notion of a Smartphone-Free Campus

There’s a scene in Don DeLillo’s story “Midnight in Dostoevsky” that reflects on the current omnipresence of digital media and the relative oasis that the college classroom can be. Here we are in a laughably self-serious logic seminar, where the wizardly professor, Ilgauskas, utters one-line axioms before the small group of anxious, if intrigued, students:
“The atomic fact,” he said. 
Then he elaborated for ten minutes while we listened, glanced, made notes, riffled the textbook to find refuge in print, some semblance of meaning that might be roughly equivalent to what he was saying. There were no laptops or handheld devices in class. Ilgauskas didn’t exclude them; we did, sort of, unspokenly. Some of us could barely complete a thought without touch pads or scroll buttons, but we understood that high-speed data systems did not belong here. They were an assault on the environment, which was defined by length, width, and depth, with time drawn out, computed in heartbeats. We sat and listened or sat and waited. We wrote with pens or pencils. Our notebooks had pages made of flexible sheets of paper.
I don’t want to wax nostalgic for an earlier era when college students dutifully shunned digital technology or didn’t have it to begin with. I do want, as my university often encourages me, to meet my students “where they are.” But sometimes the imperative to digital mediation overwhelms me and makes me wonder about the threshold of these different ways of being: analog and digital. But of course, it’s never that simple, never a clear-cut binary.

Here’s a story that may sound apocryphal, but this really happened: One spring day on my campus, I saw a student who was staring into his smartphone walk straight into a light pole. He crashed into it, stumbled backward, and looked around to see who had seen him. (I was some distance away; he didn’t notice me.) Then he adjusted his course and went back to whatever he had been doing on his phone, unfazed. This is one of the often ignored, occasionally painful, and sometimes embarrassing consequences of what Ian Bogost discusses in an article for The Atlantic called “Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User.” Hyperemployment is the endless work we do for unseen agencies, owners, and conglomerations while seemingly merely tapping away at our phones, communicating or otherwise being entertained.

Around that time, I had been tuning into how hyperemployed people are on my campus. Just a few days before the student and the light pole, I had dropped my iPhone, and the screen shattered. The phone still worked, more or less, but after the fall, it lived on my desk in a Ziploc freezer bag, glass splinters crumbling away and accumulating gradually into tiny glinting dunes in the corners of the bag. So I had been reexperiencing my life without smartphone and especially reconsidering how these things permeated my workplace, the university.

After a few weeks of being smartphone free, from this altered vantage point I noticed just how busy everyone seemed to be, all the time. Whether in class, in meetings, or in the hallways—everyone was on their phones. And I don’t say this from an easy standpoint of judgment, for I had grown so accustomed to being on my phone, justifying my near constant attachment to it by the fact that it was allowing me flexibility and freedom. I would draft essays and outline book chapters on my phone’s notepad in the middle of the night. I emailed frantic students at all hours, reassuring them about assignments, missed classes, or exams. I carried on committee work long after meetings had let out, hashing out the fine points of strategic planning and SWOT analyses. I networked with remote colleagues on Twitter and set energizing collaborations into motion. This all seemed worthwhile and productive—and I suppose it was, for the most part.

I’m fully conscious of my own cyborg existence, and I have always been a lenient professor when it comes to students and their technologies. I generally don’t police their use in the classroom and have called students out only a handful of times when their texting got too conspicuous or a facial expression suggested that they had become totally distracted by something on their phone. For the most part, I accept that these things have interpenetrated our lives so thoroughly that it is impractical and unrealistic to try to sanction their use in the classroom. Rather, figuring out the etiquette and subtleties of smartphone use in everyday life is one of the innumerable soft skills that should be learned over the course of college.

But that was before my smartphone hiatus. During those weeks, I found myself walking to work, feeling great. Why? Because I was not thumbing madly and squinting into my hand as I stumbled along, neck craned, tripping over the curb. I was swinging my arms and looking around. Between meetings on campus, I was processing things people said as I strolled back to my office, rather than going immediately to my email inbox, replying to messages as I marched upstairs. I wasn’t leaving my classes and getting directly on Slack to catch up with my collaborators; I was decompressing and thinking about what my students brought up in our discussions. I thought my smartphone was granting me freedom, but it was more like the opposite.

I began to see these things everywhere on campus, and they were increasingly disgusting to me. This has been a difficult piece to write because I am aware of how my criticism verges on hypocrisy, or almost depends on it: I appreciate what smartphones can do—are doing—on a daily basis. But seeing these things from a slight remove, they became revolting to me. I saw my students and colleagues tethered to their smartphones, and I wondered how these things were meshing with—or not—our ostensibly collective purpose of higher education: working together to make the world better, at least our human part in it. I realized how entangled with my smartphone I had become and how different—how refreshing—it felt to be without it. I started reading (books!) for uninterrupted minutes in ways I hadn’t been able to for years because I always felt the need to live tweet or cross-reference whatever I was reading.

I talked to my students about this at one point during this time, extrapolating that they, too, probably didn’t realize how supplementary they had become to their phones—to which they looked at me wide-eyed as if to say, Oh, yes, we well realize this. The look they gave me was tragic, their faces creased in quiet despair. I told my students I was writing a piece on my experience of being without my iPhone, and they viewed me with sardonic skepticism. Good luck with that, they seemed to be thinking.

One student later emailed me a timely New Yorker piece called “The Useless Agony of Going Offline,” in which Matthew J. X. Malady describes the pointlessness of going off his handheld devices cold turkey. He tries it for seventy-two hours and concludes: “I would like to say that I reached some time-maximization epiphany … but I’m not sure that I used my time any ‘better’ than I normally would have during that span. I just used it differently, and found myself frequently bored as a result.” Malady complains that he was basically less informed when off his handheld devices, and the piece ends with a sort of discursive shrug, as if to suggest that it is futile to resist the hegemony burning away in our hands, pockets, and brains. It is a persuasive and shrewd article, and my student seemed to be daring me to prove Malady wrong. But I’m not trying to make a wholesale pronouncement against these things. My relationship with my phone persisted during that time the screen was shattered—it’s just that I didn’t see the thing for hours at a time, particularly when I was on campus.

I told my colleague Tim Welsh about the shattering of my iPhone, and he quickly dialed up dozens of bizarre, hilarious YouTube videos testing various fall heights and reporting the damage incurred by different devices put under various forms of duress. Take after slow-motion take of smartphones crashing into the pavement, being dipped in miscellaneous liquids, and being run over by SUVs. But these were tutorials ultimately geared toward protecting one’s phone or purchasing the most durable model out there. I was watching these videos from the other side, my phone having already been smashed. And perhaps the videos served as yet one more layer of entertainment and seamless commerce, no matter why they were dialed up in the first place.

The weird thing is that I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own; I don’t have the self-discipline to simply use the phone less (some people do, I understand). It took an accidental fall. And then, not wanting to spend a few hundred dollars to replace it, or suffer through the ordeal of an average AT&T or Apple customer-service experience, I just let the phone lie there in its bag, mostly inert, for several weeks. It was functional but changed, limited in a new way. As I was checking my phone one day, sheathed in its plastic envelope, my partner Lara remarked how having it in a gallon-size Ziploc freezer bag made the ridiculousness of these things wickedly obvious: we’re all hanging around gripping and staring into these awkward containers full of junk.

by Christopher Schaberg, Paris Review | Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, whatever. The Internet is the fundamental distractive device.]

The Problem with Patriotism

Leave America, and you begin to see it as the rest of the world sees it: as an unpredictable, potentially hostile force dedicated exclusively to protecting its own interests; as a gargantuan military power with an aggressive presence on the world stage and a dangerously undereducated populace. We’ve toppled governments, covertly assassinated democratically elected leaders, waged illegal wars that have poisoned and destabilized entire regions around the globe. The enormous postwar bonus we’ve enjoyed—our status as the world’s darlings—has been eroding steadily away, yet incredibly, we still imagine that everyone loves us. Peering wide-eyed from our self-absorbed bubble, we issue Facebook “apologies” to the rest of the world for our mortifying president and his absurd coterie, not quite realizing that the world, at this point, is less interested in how Americans feel than in foreseeing, assessing, and coping with the damage the United States is likely to wreak on world peace, stability, economic justice, and the environment.

James Baldwin, after having spent more than a decade in France, observed that “Europeans refer to Americans as children in the same way that American Negroes refer to them as children, and for the same reason: they mean that Americans…have no key to the experience of others. Our current relations with the world forcibly suggest that there is more than a little truth to this.” Although Baldwin was conflicted by the feeling that he’d shirked his responsibility by moving abroad, and he returned many times throughout the civil rights era, he also understood that a great deal of his artistic and intellectual maturity had grown out of the distance he’d put between himself and his native country.

A special type of perception arises when we see something we already know fairly well but after a protracted absence: when it’s stripped of its familiarity and all of a sudden becomes a strange new thing—but only for a little while. Habit quickly settles back in and the specialness of this particular type of perception fades. For the first few moments, though, you get a sense that what you’re seeing is essentially reality, divested of its numbing effect. It’s kind of like the mildly hallucinatory state one experiences on psilocybin, and I get an initial jolt of this kind every time I come back to the U.S. It starts in the airport: For a minute or two, the entire scene, including myself standing in a line of passengers waiting to proceed through passport control, feels like an insane asylum in which utter nonsense issues forth from TV screens everywhere while people barely take notice or, worse, watch with interest and don’t find it shocking at all. The fake jokiness of the news, the non-news content of it, the stupefaction, the graphics. The entire appalling reality of what the country has become and the memory that it used to be very different.

When a German friend of mine visited me one year in Brooklyn, she remarked that she felt confused: Everything looked and sounded just as it did in the movies and on TV—the cops-and-robbers-blare of the police sirens, the steam rising in thick clouds from the manhole covers—it was all too familiar; she’d seen it all hundreds of times, and therefore nothing seemed real. While I found myself struggling to articulate this indescribable thing—the surreal whatness of things, the sense that everything had fallen under some kind of evil spell—to her, American identity, or Americanness, felt like a simulation of itself. This narrative insistence, narrative hegemony even, this adamant and endless proclamation of ourselves, is virtually unique to the United States in its power and its exclusion of the rest of the world. It not only permeates every facet of life in the U.S. but also implicitly questions the validity of other cultural identities it has not, in some way, already absorbed. Indeed, other narratives are virtually untranslatable unless they conform to the American script and contain the requisite ingredients. You need a good guy and a bad guy; you need a dream and something standing in the way of that dream. You need inauspicious circumstances that threaten to defeat the hero so that he can take heart, rise to the challenge, and win.

The national narrative is a narrative of infantilization, a fairy tale written for children in which love, sex, family, in fact all human endeavor, is sentimentalized, stripped of nuance and ambiguity and all of life’s inherent contradictions. We need everything spelled out; we are a culture with childish notions, even of childhood. It’s as though the American mind were calibrated to a single overriding narrative: It can be found not only in our movies but in our politics, our journalism, our school curricula; it’s on our baseball fields, in our TED talks, award ceremonies, and courts of law, among our NGOs and in our cartoons and the way we speak about disease and death—virtually anywhere we enact the stories we’ve created about our history; our collective aspirations; our idea of who we are and what we’d like to become. But to disagree with this narrative, to call its major premises into question, is to betray the tribe.

Identity is a construct that forms in response to a psychic need: for protection, for validation, for a sense of belonging in a bewildering world. It’s a narrative; it tells itself stories about itself. But identity is also a reflex, a tribal chant performed collectively to ward off danger, the Other, and even the inevitable. Its rules are simple: They demand allegiance; they require belief in one’s own basic goodness and rightness. It’s a construct based not in fact but on belief, and as such it has far more in common with religion than with reason. I try for the life of me to understand what it is and how the fiction of what this country has become has turned into such a mind-altering force that one can only speak of mass hypnosis or a form of collective psychosis in which the USA still, bafflingly, sees itself as the “greatest nation on Earth,” in which anything that calls what makes America American into question is met not with impartial analysis or self-scrutiny but indignant and often hostile repudiation. We have, as Baldwin observed in his Collected Essays, “a very curious sense of reality—or, rather…a striking addiction to irreality.” Are we really as brave as we think we are; are we as honest, as enterprising, as free as we think we are? We’re not the envy of the world and haven’t been for a long time, and while this might not match the image we have of ourselves, it’s time to address the cognitive dissonance and look within. (...)

There’s the old story of the frog sitting in a pot of water on the stove: As the temperature rises, the change is too gradual for the frog to detect the danger and escape to safety. National culture exerts a similar spellbinding effect, in which all forces serve to craft and reinforce a narrative that passes for objective reality. One of nationalism’s most deleterious illusions is that “evil” is something that comes from without—and not something lurking inside each of us, waiting to be activated, waiting to be unleashed. In the words of Baldwin, writing about Shakespeare, “all artists know that evil comes into the world by means of some vast, inexplicable and probably ineradicable human fault.” Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, Einstein claimed in Ideas and Opinions, “in two weeks the sheeplike masses of any country can be worked up by the newspapers into such a state of excited fury that men are prepared to put on uniforms and kill and be killed, for the sake of the sordid ends of a few interested parties.” We are, in other words—despite our prodigious brains—still very much animals, subject to a herd mentality. But there is also a subtler form of spellbinding, one that lies in acquiescence. Americans know they’re in crisis, understand that their democracy is at risk, yet what I see—with very few exceptions beyond the occasional comparisons to the Weimar era that directly preceded the advent of fascism in Germany—are not efforts to transcend national identity in order to understand the dangerous ways in which the human mind is vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation, but a clambering to recover American “values” and cherished attributes and to reaffirm them.

One of the arenas in which these efforts are enacted is language itself. Yet while Orwell foresaw the rewriting of the historical past and the falsification of existing documents, including newspaper archives, books, films, photographs, etc., to bring them into line with party doctrine and prove its infallibility—while he predicted the reduction of language as a powerful tool to curtail the radius of human thought for political ends and postulated a semantic system in which words are used to denote their opposite and are thus rendered meaningless—even the broadest political, historical, and psychological analysis of how propaganda has been used throughout the ages to whip up popular support and manipulate the mass mind pales when applied to the phenomenon of fake news, which takes “Newspeak” and multiplies it to kaleidoscopic dimensions.

All the U.S. needs is one good international crisis for the patriotism reflex to kick in: It’s an immediate emotional response, yet what is needed most in times of shock is a suspension of emotion, distance to the forces that would manipulate us. What happens is this: Something shakes us to the marrow, we rally around what makes us feel safe—and it’s the bulwark of national identity we cling to, even if this identity is precisely what clouds our cognitive faculties most. But when someone steps forward and offers a truly critical perspective—Susan Sontag in the days immediately following 9/11 comes to mind here—this is the moment she is held in the greatest suspicion, because critical distance means that she is not part of the emotional bond a reaction to a state of shock brings about, that the observations she makes or the conclusions she draws might find fault not with some evildoing Other but with us, with our own. Better to brand the critic an alien with alien allegiances—in other words, something dangerous: a tainting, a contamination, a contagion.

It’s through narrative that reality acquires meaning and becomes intelligible, that it conceives itself, enacts itself. Yet the national narrative has made it virtually impossible for Americans to perceive themselves and the world around them in any accurate or objective way. Words have morphed to the point where they no longer signify anything but rather act as invisible triggers, actively shut thought down and preclude the possibility of communication. Everywhere we look, we see what we want to believe about ourselves. We are, after all, the birthplace of Hollywood: It should come as no surprise, then, that we prefer fairy tales to the laws of nature and the tedious facts of reality; that the boundaries between fact and fiction have not only blurred but have become, to us, undetectable. “We are often condemned as materialists,” Baldwin wrote. “In fact, we are much closer to being metaphysical because nobody has ever expected from things the miracles that we expect.” We’re in the business of inventing superheroes with fabulous, gravity-defying superpowers and have been daydreaming about them for such a long time that it’s entered our collective subconscious, become a part of our DNA. And so we imagine that Robert Mueller and his investigation will save us, or Stormy Daniels and her titillating revelations, or our very own Jeanne d’Arc, Emma Gonzalez, with the incorruptibility of youth and a God-given ability to speak truth to power.

As written in the German paper Die Zeit, the “ostentatious vulgarity” of the present American administration “shouldn’t distract us from the fact that…something is happening that goes beyond mere audacity, that cannot really be described, even with the word ‘propaganda,’ a term that today has become inflated and imprecise.…It’s more about doing away with the principle of truth altogether, the categorical differentiation between true and false.” As the author of the article mentions, the philosopher Hannah Arendt analyzed precisely this in an interview with Roger Errerain 1974: “If people are constantly lied to, the result isn’t that they believe the lies, but rather that no one believes anything at all anymore.…And a people that can no longer believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

by Andrea Scrima, The Millions |  Read more:

Bold Plan to Fight Opioid Overdoses Could Save Lives

[ed. But will never happen in the U.S.]

With Ohio beset by a massive public health around opioid use and overdoses—more than 4,000 Ohioans died of opioid overdoses in 2016—the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent travel editor Susan Glaser to Amsterdam in search of innovative approaches to the problem. While there, she rediscovered Holland's long-standing, radical, and highly effective response to heroin addiction and properly asked whether it might be applied to good effect here.

The difference in drug-related death rates between the two countries is staggering. In the U.S., the drug overdose death rate is 245 per million, nearly twice the rate of its nearest competitor, Sweden, which came in second with 124 per million. But in Holland, the number is a vanishingly small 11 per million. In other words, Americans are more than 20 times more likely to die of drug overdoses than the Dutch.

For Plain Dealer readers, the figures that really hit home are the number of state overdose deaths compared to Holland. Ohio, with just under 12 million people, saw 4,050 drug overdose deaths in 2016; the Netherlands, with 17 million people, saw only 235.

What's the difference? The Dutch government provides free heroin to several score hardcore heroin addicts and has been doing so for the past 20 years. Public health experts there say that in addition to lowering crime rates and improving the quality of life for users, the program is one reason overdose death rates there are so low. And the model could be applied here, said Amsterdam heroin clinic operator Ellen van den Hoogen.

"It's been an enormous success. I think it would work elsewhere," she told Glaser.

It already has. The Dutch program was modeled on a similar effort in Switzerland, which has also proven successful. Germany and Britain have also adopted similar programs.

The Dutch approach is an example of the country's policy of gedogen (pragmatic tolerance), the same principle that led the Dutch to pioneer legal access to marijuana in the 1980s. It is also rooted in the notion that, for some, drug addiction is a chronic disorder, not a condition to be "cured," and one that can be treated with supervised drug use under clinical supervision. And the complete cessation of drug use need not be the ultimate goal; rather, the Dutch look for reductions in criminal activity and increases in the health and well-being of the drug users.

"It's not a program that is meant to help you stop," acknowledged van den Hoogen. "It keeps you addicted."

That's not a sentiment sits well with American moralizers, such as George W. Bush's drug czar, John Walters, whom Glaser consulted for the story. He suggested that providing addicts with drugs was immoral and not "real treatment," but he also resorted to lies about what the Dutch are doing.

He claimed the Dutch are "keeping people addicted for the purpose of controlling them" and that the Dutch have created "a colony of state-supported, locked-up addicts."

Actually, the Dutch are dealing with older, hard-core addicts who have repeatedly failed to quit after repeated stints in treatment, including methadone maintenance therapy, and they are neither "controlling them" or locking them up. Instead, the people in the program show up at the clinic twice a day, get their fix, then go about their business. This heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) allows those hardcore users to live less chaotic and more productive lives.

And heroin-assisted treatment is "real treatment," said Peter Blanken, a senior researcher with the Parnassia Addiction Research Centre in Rotterdam. He pointed out that one-quarter of program participants make a "complete recovery," including better health and quitting illegal drugs and excessive drinking. Many others continue to use heroin, but do so with better outcomes, he said.

There is also a real safety benefit to using state-supplied pharmaceutical heroin. It's potent, but it's a known quantity. Users face no risk of adulteration with more dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl, which is deeply implicated in the current U.S. overdose crisis.

by Phillip Smith, Alternet | Read more:
Image: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Robin Williams on Golf

[ed. British Open Week.]

Chiefs Quarterback Len Dawson enjoying a cigarette and a beer during halftime at Super Bowl I (1967)
[ed. Looks like a Fresca to me, but it was a different time for sure.]

The Tech Backlash We Really Need

The tech backlash can be framed, in part, as a reaction to the technological accident. “When you invent the ship,” the French tech theorist Paul Virilio wrote, “you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you invent the plane crash.... Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.” This negativity, the ever-looming accident, is the potential for harm that every new technology inevitably brings into existence.

Along these lines, one type of critique of the Cambridge Analytica scandal described it as the event that should awaken the field of computer science to the ethical ramifications of its work, in the same way that other disciplines have had their own moral wake-up calls, some of them deliberate outcomes and others accidents. For chemistry, perhaps it was the invention of dynamite and later poison gas, for physics the atomic bomb, for civil engineering bridge and dam failures, for biology eugenics, and for medicine the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Now computer science has had its own moment of reckoning, should it choose to perceive it as such, one that should spur the development of a professional code of ethics and institutional safeguards against unethical design practices.

The tech backlash can also be understood as a backlash against corporations and bad actors rather than technology per se. The problem, on this view, does not lie with the nature of digital technology’s progress, but rather with the corporations that have designed, developed, and deployed digital tech for the sake of their bottom line, or else with malevolent users who have used it to unethical ends. In their own often specious defense, companies or bad actors may then talk about “accidents” and “unintended consequences” in order to deflect and diffuse responsibility for their actions.

These interlocking framings of the tech backlash are not altogether wrong, but they are incomplete and sometimes misleading. Focusing on the technological accident or intentionally malicious use can obscure what matters most: how a technology, used well and as intended, ultimately settles into the taken-for-granted material infrastructure of our daily lives.

How the Tech Backlash Fails

Social media platforms are the most prominent focal point of the tech backlash. Critics have understandably centered their attention on the related issues of data collection, privacy, and the political weaponization of targeted ads. But if we were to imagine a world in which each of these issues were resolved justly and equitably to the satisfaction of most critics, further questions would still remain about the moral and political consequences of social media. For example: If social media platforms become our default public square, what sort of discourse do they encourage or discourage? What kind of political subjectivity emerges from the habitual use of social media? What understanding of community and political action do they foster? These questions and many others — and the understanding they might yield — have not been a meaningful part of the conversation about the tech backlash.

We fail to ask, on a more fundamental level, if there are limits appropriate to the human condition, a scale conducive to our flourishing as the sorts of creatures we are. Modern technology tends to encourage users to assume that such limits do not exist; indeed, it is often marketed as a means to transcend such limits. We find it hard to accept limits to what can or ought to be known, to the scale of the communities that will sustain abiding and satisfying relationships, or to the power that we can harness and wield over nature. We rely upon ever more complex networks that, in their totality, elude our understanding, and that increasingly require either human conformity or the elimination of certain human elements altogether. But we have convinced ourselves that prosperity and happiness lie in the direction of limitlessness. “On the contrary,” wrote Wendell Berry in a 2008 Harper’s article, “our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.”

We also often fail to question our commitment to the power of tools and technique. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revolved around the unethical manner in which data was collected from unsuspecting Facebook users by exploiting Facebook’s terms of service as well as around Facebook’s complicity and failure to acknowledge responsibility for its role in the affair. When Zuckerberg appeared before Congress, the few pointed questions he was asked also centered on Facebook’s responsibility to protect user data. While privacy is clearly important, the questions offered little concern about the legitimacy or advisability of data-driven politics — about the acquisition and exploitation of voter data and the manipulation of increasingly sophisticated means of precision advertising. No one seemed to worry that the political process is being reduced to this type of data sophistry. While Congress rightly condemned a particularly nefarious method of data acquisition, the capture of political life by technique remained unchallenged.

This line of questioning opens up a broader set of concerns about the project to manage human life through the combined power of big data and artificial intelligence. In an earlier age, people turned to their machines to outsource physical labor. In the digital age, we can also outsource our cognitive, emotional, and ethical labor to our devices and apps. Our digital tools promise to monitor and manage, among other things, our relationships, our health, our moods, and our finances. When we allow their monitoring and submit to their management, we outsource our volition and our judgment. We seem incapable, however, of raising any deeper concerns than whether the terms of service are intelligible and our data secure.

The tech backlash, in other words, leaves untouched the consequences of technologies that are successfully integrated into our social milieu. From this perspective, the tech backlash is not so much a rejection of the machine, to borrow an older, more foreboding formulation, but, at best, a desire to see the machine more humanely calibrated. It reveals, in fact, how deeply committed we are to our technologies. It reveals as well how thoroughly our thinking and our public debates unfold within parameters determined by a logic that may justly be called technological.

by L. M. Sacasas, New Atlantis | Read more:
Image:Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
[ed. See also: Collective Awareness (Edge)]

"Sorry to Bother You" and the Rationality of Evil

Boots Riley’s new film Sorry to Bother You is, as critics have pointed out, bizarre and brilliant, and every freedom-loving human being owes it to themselves to see it. It teaches you more about the importance of labor unions and class solidarity (and the nature of racial hierarchy) than you could learn from years of watching the news. (Which is sad, really.) But in addition to everything important it has to say about race and workplace politics, the film illustrates a useful point about economics, rationality, and monstrous evil. [Warning: A big bad batch of spoilers immediately follows. Do not read on if you have not seen Sorry to Bother You, because you will ruin the experience of watching Sorry to Bother You.]

Here’s the plot in a sentence: Cassius “Cash” Green takes a job as a telemarketer at a dubious and exploitative company, steadily moves up the corporate ranks after discovering how to use his “white voice,” betrays his radical activist girlfriend by joining the corporate class, finds out that the company’s actual purpose is to sell slave labor, experiences moral conflict, then finds out that the company is experimenting turning people into horses in order to maximize their physical productivity, then breaks free and participates in an uprising. I am leaving a lot out.

I want to focus here on the film’s central villain, the WorryFree company and its CEO, Steve Lift. WorryFree’s business model is as follows: It offers people “free” housing, food, and healthcare, in exchange for their signing a lifetime indentured labor contract. It promotes its “service” this way: Sign up for WorryFree and you’ll never need to think about money again. You’ll be fed, clothed, housed, and taken care of. All you need to do is agree to work. And you would have had to work anyway. WorryFree will give you guaranteed employment, comfort, and leisure time, for the rest of your life. You’ll never have another financial worry as long as you live.

If we just describe WorryFree as “indentured servitude,” it sounds implausible. Why on earth would anybody sign up for that? Riley’s dystopia seems ridiculous. But Riley’s film takes place in economically desperate times. Inequality has worsened, and many people are struggling with debt. If WorryFree promised to wipe people’s debt away, to make sure they would never again lack the necessities, its offer would sound tempting to people whose lives are defined by financial hardship. What if the company promised an 8-hour workday and a 40-hour week? What if its living standards were higher than than those you had now, or ever thought you could hope to have? The vast majority of people might still decline the offer. But the company only needs a small percentage of people to say yes. (In the film, Cash’s uncle considers signing up when he realizes he is about to lose his house to the bank.)

I actually think a weakness of Sorry to Bother You is that it portrays WorryFree as obviously horrible. In television commercials for the company, the workers feign happiness, but the conditions are clearly grim: They all wear uniforms, they sleep in bunk beds, they eat slop. If this kind of company did exist, it would be far cleverer in its lies: It would make WorryFree look like a true paradise, a “gated community” rather than a concentration camp. You would look at the commercials and think “Gee, that actually doesn’t seem so bad.” Riley is probably trying to show us the way that clearly horrific things can be treated as perfectly normal. But I think it’s also valuable to show that clearly horrific things can easily be made to seem reasonable, even by our current standards.

Slavery and indentured servitude have existed throughout human history, and still occur around the world today. Consider this report from 2013 on the conditions of migrant workers in Dubai:

Workers are hired from local recruitment agencies in their home countries working on behalf of UAE based businesses. Generally, workers are charged a fee by their prospective employer (normally over $1000 U.S.) to procure their visa and plane ticket to the UAE… When workers arrive in Dubai, they are systematically subjected to exploitation by their employers. Upon arrival passports are confiscated in an attempt to prevent employees from leaving. The workers cannot leave the country without a passport, and thus are barred from returning home… Additionally, migrant workers are denied their wages for at least the first few months, in an attempt by the employer to prevent their employees from leaving. Large amounts of employers do not pay their workers on a regular basis, creating a huge backlog of debt for the migrant workers… Laborers are forced to work long hours in the dangerous desert heat on construction projects, and are not given sufficient breaks as required by law… Workers describe the large number of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide… Workers live in company-run shanty towns and face a life of squalor…For the vast majority of migrants these slums are their only option for housing, and neither the 14-hour workdays nor the miserable quarters they return to offer any reprieve. Workers have very few options to leave these situations.

Not only, then, is the WorryFree business model not a fantasy, but it’s actually not nearly as bad as things that actually literally exist in the world today. The only reason WorryFree looks “dystopian” is that it’s Americans signing up to live in company towns and be permanently ruled over by employers, rather than poor migrant laborers from Bangladesh and Indonesia.

I suspect that the aspect of WorryFree that seems most implausible is the “lifetime” part of the agreement. Sure, we may concede, there is nothing in a free-market, freedom-of-contract society that prohibits people from signing up to work on a corporate campus where everything is ruled by the company and labor is exchanged for room and board rather than money. And with Facebook planning to build a private city ruled over by Mark Zuckerberg, it’s not crazy to think such a thing might actually happen. If Facebook told people they could live in a cushy Facebook apartment for free, and eat in any of Zucktown’s high-quality bistros for free, in exchange for spending 8 hours a day moderating comment sections (and, of course, surrendering all of one’s ordinary rights and being ruled over by an undemocratic private government that has no obligation to respect one’s free speech or personal privacy), would people not take the offer? It’s startling to realize just how easy it is, in a time of concentrated economic power, to get people to turn over their rights in exchange for comfort and security.

But even having conceded that cities run as corporate dictatorships are perfectly possible and legal, would “lifetime” labor happen? After all, if people didn’t like the bargain, they could just leave. We can imagine Facebook and Amazon’s spokespeople defending their company towns exactly like this: Sure, we may prohibit our residents from expressing political opinions, and sure they may not be allowed to vote on town policies (which are entirely set by the CEO), and sure we surveil them and kick them out of their housing if they criticize our company, and sure we pay them “in kind” rather than with money, BUT they could leave anytime they liked. Nobody has to live here, everyone is doing so by their own free will.

Now, I want to point out that nobody should accept justifications like this. People shouldn’t have to sacrifice their rights in exchange for material security, rights should be inalienable. “Would you prefer destitution and liberty or prosperity and dictatorship?” is a false choice, and we must demand both. Companies should be democratically-run, and it can be just as objectionable when corporations stifle their employees’ basic free speech rights as it is when governments do it.

But also: The idea of forced labor that you can’t walk away from isn’t as far-fetched as you think. First, technically we do still have it in this country, since involuntary servitude can still be imposed as a penalty for a crime, and here in Louisiana people routinely get put to work as part of their sentence. Considering how easy it is to make something into a crime, and the fact that states can farm out inmate labor to private corporations, it’s not impossible to produce involuntary corporate servitude even under our present legal regime. However, it would be quite simple to go full “WorryFree.” You just need to be committed enough to “freedom of contract.” Already, courts have a pretty expansive view of what you can “contract away”: You can sign away your right to take your employer to court if they wrong you, and your right to leave and work for a competitor. A truly committed advocate of free contracts can argue that indenture contracts should be no different: If you sign the contract, it’s a contract, period. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to create voluntary agreements with employers signing their freedom away, considering that they can sign away everything else? Why should the state interfere with that right? One of the things I find so frightening about free-market absolutists is that because they do seem to believe that contracts are “sacred,” there’s almost no limit to what can be squeezed out of people if you get them to sign on the dotted line. You might say “Well, a person should never be able to agree that the company can keep them locked inside.” But one could insist that you are simply imposing your own values on people’s freely-made choices. A person can agree to engage in BDSM activities in which they are kept bound and chained, why should employment be different? Unless you are leftist who understands how economic forces are coercive, it’s easy to see how a judge could decide that these situations aren’t different. (One libertarian answer to this is that indenture contracts are impermissible because you can’t “alienate your will” and a contract can always be broken. But even if some pathetic outer limit is placed on the range of possible contractual agreements, it’s possible to construct a contract in which the penalties for breaching the contract are so harsh that leaving isn’t realistic. Suppose the Dubai workers were told that if they left, they would have to pay their own transport back home, and would have to reimburse the company for the transport there.)

Alright, but what about the horse-people? WorryFree CEO Steve Lift, a prototypical Silicon Valley tech bro, is secretly trying to turn workers into horse-human hybrids (“equestri-sapiens”) so that they will increase their productivity. Even “freedom of contract” types might recoil at this plan, though I might ask: If the workers agreed that part of joining WorryFree meant being subjected to human experiments, and signed a waiver saying they consented to whatever the company decided to do to them, I can already picture Justice Kavanaugh’s 5-4 opinion explaining that the risk of being transformed into a horse-person was implicitly assumed by the worker who signed the contract.

But I want to dwell here on Steve Lift himself. When Cash meets Lift, and uncovers the horse-person scheme, he goes apoplectic. He realizes Lift is a maniac. (In addition to being a massive racist.) But Lift’s response is interesting: “I’m not evil,” he says. “I don’t want you to think I’m irrational. I’m helping the economy.” (I am paraphrasing.) Lift says he is increasing worker productivity. He’s innovating new technology, and using it to increase output. Everybody is benefiting from the economic growth he brings. (And sure enough, when Cash exposes the scheme, the news media hails Lift as a brilliant entrepreneur.) The worst aspect of this is: Lift isn’t wrong, and this should show us why “economic rationality” is a terrible substitute for moral judgment.

by Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs |  Read more:
Image: WorryFree CEO Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Harry Nilsson

[ed. With the St. Paul's Cathedral Boys Choir]

Lake Clark Adventure

An Alaska National Park as Big as Connecticut. Annual Visitors? 23,000. (NY Times)

[ed. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is special. In the 35 years that I lived, worked, and traveled throughout Alaska it's one of the most impressively wild and beautiful places that I've ever visited.

Here's a story. Over the course of my career and out recreating in Alaska, I've nearly died so many times that I mentally segregate close calls into four categories: Aviation. Animals. Nature. Miscellaneous. This is an Aviation story:

After I first moved to Alaska my folks were visting and my in-laws thought it would be fun to fly out to Lake Clark Preserve - Twin Lakes specifically - for a weekend of camping and lake trout fishing. My father in law at the time, Bill, had a PA-14 (basically a four-seater Super Cub) and the plan was to ferry two groups separately, with him flying back and forth most of the day and refueling in Nondalton. I was in the first group with my father and sister in law and most of the gear.

We had some problems from the get-go. The floatplane was so loaded with people, fuel and gear we couldn't get up on step at Lake Hood in Anchorage. Instead of a direct shot out, we had to circle the lake several times, building up enough speed so that we could finally inch our way up into the air (of course, once you're flying and burning fuel that's ceases to be a problem). Anyway, after several attempts, we finally did get airborne and had a beautiful trip over, and a couple hours later were gliding into a deserted beach on the crystal turquoise waters of Lower Twin Lake (so crystal in fact that Bill had to drop a couple stones he kept in a bag in the plane just to create ripples on the water to judge where the surface of the lake was).

We beached the plane and began unloading. Unfortunately, while stowing our gear and surveilling the surrounding area for bears, a stiff breeze came up and our floatplane began drifting away. By the time we realized what had happened it was nearly 50 yards offshore. Bill, cussing, took off all his clothes, jumped in the bone chilling water, and started swimming as the plane continued drifting further and further away. The water couldn't have been much above freezing but he finally made it and was able to clamber up on one of the floats, get the plane started and motor it back to shore. An ominous sign.

Shortly after that, once we'd started a fire and he'd warmed up a bit, he took off again to get the rest of the party, leaving me, my dad and my sister in law on the deserted lake. For the next few hours we had a great time, catching lake trout one after the other and hiking and exploring around in the woods. After a while though, we began to wonder where his plane was as the sky started darkening. We had a lot of camping gear but little food (that was in the next shuttle). No shotgun or any other type of bear protection. We caught a couple trout, put them on sticks and roasted them over the fire, picking off what we could eat with our fingers.

Then the rain started. A cold and steady drizzle. By that time (a couple hours past Bill's projected return time) we started getting worried. Another hour went by, and with hypothermia slowly settling in we finally heard his plane's buzz. He came gliding in through low dark squalls and when he finally beached the plane told us we had to load everything up and get out as soon as possible. The weather was getting worse. In fact, that's why he'd taken so long. After repeated attempts to get back to Anchorage he'd finally turned around and decided the trip was a no-go. Even worse, he'd been unable to refuel in Nondalton because that was socked in too. So we'd have to head for Kenai across Cook Inlet, instead.

We quickly broke camp, loaded up our gear and took off. The only way out was through Lake Clark Pass, a famously narrow and convoluted route back to the other side of the mountains. The ceiling kept dropping as we headed into the pass, following the rugged Chilikodrotna River drainage where numerous plane wreckages can still be seen littered along its steep, incised slopes.

Then, the engine died.

If you've flown in a small plane much you know how the steady drone of its engine can almost lull you into sleep (another Aviation story), and suddenly there was complete silence. I thought we'd drop like a rock, but we were gliding, floating through a river canyon with no where to land in the rocky river below. Bill immediately switched tanks, hit the ignition and the engine coughed back to life. Whew! Unfortunately, because he'd been flying all day and hadn't been able to refuel, the plane was already running on its alternate tank (the one that had run dry) and he was now trying to coax whatever was left in the main tank (that he'd run down before switching to the alternate) to carry us through the pass and out to the inlet.

We flew on a bit longer... were nearly out of the pass, and could even see Cook Inlet ahead of us when the engine died again. This time, Bill banked the plane one way then the other before trying the ignition switch again. I thought he was looking for a place to land but there weren't any. What I didn't know at the time was, the fuel tanks in a PA-14 (and most other small aircraft) are located in the wings, and what he was actually trying to do was get whatever drops were left near the tips to run back down into the engine. He turned the radio to an emergency frequency, hit the ignition switch again and miraculously the plane coughed back to life, one more time.

We were out of the pass and approaching Cook Inlet (with its murderous rip currents), but didn't have enough gas to make it to Kenai. Ahead was Kalgin Island. A small island, with a small lake at its south end that we could possibly land on if we could make it. We were all completely silent. Then the engine died one final time. My father in law didn't even try to restart it, he just turned the plane toward Kalgin and we glided in, hoping we'd make it, or at least go down close enough to swim. Lower and lower we went, until at the last moment we just cleared the trees and gently set down on Kalgin Island lake. Bill didn't say a word, and the rest of us were just stunned. He opened the door, climbed out on one of the floats, dislodged a paddle and started paddling toward shore. When the plane finally came to rest in the weeds he jumped off, still never having said a word, and stomped off into the woods. We (my father and sister in law) just looked at each other, like... what's he doing? Is he totally pissed or something? About 15 minutes later we heard him coming back and he emerged from the trees carrying two 5 gallon cans of aviation gas. Apparently he'd cached them years before for just such an emergency.

So. We filled the tanks again and took off. By now it was nearly nine o'clock at night but still early evening in Alaska. The bad weather had cleared by then and we were able to make it all the way back to Anchorage (with gas to spare), where we landed on Lake Hood roughly 12 hours after our adventure began.

Sadly, Bill, my sister in law, Mary Lynn, and my dad are all gone now, so I'm the only one left to tell this story. It's one of the first close calls I put in my Aviation category, but by no means the worst or last. Just one of the more interesting ones.

I did enjoy being in Lake Clark Preserve that day though, it was truly beautiful.]

Youth Soccer Participation Has Fallen Significantly in America

With its gables, turrets and iron railing, U.S. Soccer House — as the mansion housing the U.S. Soccer Federation is known — looks more like a fortress than the headquarters of a major sports organization. It is fitting: The federation is on the defensive.

It is bad enough that the men’s national team failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup, a fact the federation was reminded of daily as the tournament in Russia dazzled global audiences on its way to crowning a new champion Sunday.

The real threat, however, to its mission to make soccer one of America’s pre-eminent sports is here at home, where youth players are abandoning the game in alarming numbers.

Over the past three years, the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which has analyzed youth athletic trends for 40 years. The number of children who touched a soccer ball even once during the year, in organized play or otherwise, also has fallen significantly.

In general, participation in youth sports nationwide has declined in the past decade, as children gravitate to electronic diversions and other distractions.

Yet in recent years, while soccer continued declining, baseball and basketball experienced upticks, buoyed by developmental programs begun by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

“It’s lost more child participants than any other sport — about 600,000 of them,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. As he pointed out, that’s enough to fill every stadium on any given match day during the 2026 World Cup, which the United States will host with Mexico and Canada.

The decline has been felt everywhere: recreational leagues in longtime soccer hotbeds here; high-profile traveling teams from Maryland to California; programs targeted at Latino and immigrant populations in South Texas. High burnout rates from pushing children into travel soccer too young as well as the high costs of programs have also contributed to the lower numbers. (...)

The exodus of players in youth leagues has drawn recriminations over clubs and leagues that have pushed and profited from a “pay-for-play” model that has turned off parents and kept out talent from poorer, underserved communities.

“My family would not have been able to afford to put me in soccer if I was a young kid today,” Hope Solo, the former goalkeeper of the 2015 Women’s World Cup championship team, said at a conference in New York last month. “That obviously alienates so many communities, including Hispanic communities, the black communities, the rural communities and underrepresented communities. Soccer, right now, has become a rich, white-kid sport.” (...)

This year, Carlos Cordeiro was elected president of the federation to succeed Sunil Gulati, who declined to run for a fourth term after the men’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Mr. Cordeiro has promised to increase the numbers in youth soccer by making it more affordable and more inclusive. Currently, American households with more than $100,000 in annual income provide 35 percent of soccer players, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, compared with 11 percent from households earning $25,000 or less.

by Joe Drape, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Ed Garza

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Making of Caddyshack

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Historic Win and the Future of the Democratic Party

This is the summer in which the Presidency of Donald Trump has begun to cohere. Disdain for voting rights, for women’s rights, for the protection of the environment, and for our alliances abroad is becoming American policy. There is nothing Trump will not do or say to flaunt his primacy. Not long ago, at a tense G-7 gathering in Quebec, he reportedly tossed a couple of Starburst candies at the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, and told her, “Don’t say I never give you anything.” By then, Merkel and the other Western allies had grown accustomed to the President’s contempt and his preference for autocrats, and so the moment passed as unremarkable, another paragraph in the story of the Trump era.

There are many ways to wallow in the everyday devolution. Prolonged viewing of MSNBC is a highly rated option. There are even various means of escape to recommend. The Yankees are awfully exciting this year, and Season 2 of “Glow” is strong. In the meantime, where can the outraged and the dispirited turn for a glimmer of hope?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is twenty-eight. She was born in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx and lives there now, in a modest one-bedroom apartment. Parkchester was originally a planned community conceived by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and was for decades segregated, predominantly Irish and Italian. Today, it’s largely African-American, Hispanic, and South Asian. Ocasio-Cortez comes from a Puerto Rican family in which the parents’ self-sacrifice has been rewarded by their daughter’s earnest striving, and, now, a historic achievement. Come November, Ocasio-Cortez is almost certain to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. As recently as ten months ago, she was waiting tables at a taco place near Union Square called Flats Fix. On June 26th, she pulled off a political upset in the Democratic primary for the Fourteenth Congressional District, soundly defeating the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, the most powerful politician in Queens County and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.

In the general election this fall, Ocasio-Cortez will face Anthony Pappas, a professor at the Peter J. Tobin College of Business. Pappas’s platform appears to center on tax cuts and an obsession with the legal ramifications of his unpleasant divorce, many years ago. It is unlikely that those concerns will be widely shared by voters of the Fourteenth District, which takes in parts of the eastern Bronx and northwest Queens and votes almost uniformly Democratic. (In an oddity of New York election laws, Crowley, who was also the Working Families Party candidate, will remain on that party’s line in November, but his spokesperson said that “this is a total non-thing,” emphasizing that Crowley is a Democrat, endorses Ocasio-Cortez, and “is totally supporting her. She is going to be a member of Congress.”) Ocasio-Cortez has natural presence. She is also well mannered, disciplined, shrewd, and self-possessed. When I asked her if Pappas has a chance, she smiled but would not bite.
Ocasio-Cortez lives around the corner from her favorite restaurant, Taqueria Tlaxcalli, on Starling Avenue. We met there for dinner on a steambath Sunday night just after her victory. The surrounding commercial area is among the most eclectic in the borough: it includes a sari emporium, the Al-Aqsa Restaurant, Bangla Bazaar, the Chang Li Supermarket, halal grocery stores, Iglesia Bautista Fundamental del Bronx, Crown Fried Chicken, the Asian Driving School, and Jerry’s Pizzeria.

When Ocasio-Cortez arrived, the owner greeted her as a local celebrity. In an instant, people crowded around. She is quick to shake hands, hug, hold a constituent’s shoulder. When kids come near, she kneels and talks on their level. Everyone wanted to tell her their reaction to her win, their shock and delight. “Thank you so much!” she told one after the other. These kinds of encounters were happening to her everywhere she went. At a pizza parlor in Grand Central, her waiter nearly swooned. Since the primary, she’s been fielding calls of congratulation “from everyone you can name,” including her ideological lodestar, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, who, she said, “seemed to come from a mentoring place.”

We sat down at a table near the window. She allowed that she was getting worn down. “You’re speaking to me when I am still emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and logistically processing all of this,” she said. “The whole thing’s got me knocked a little flat.”

With good reason. Not long ago, Ocasio-Cortez was mixing margaritas. Today, she is the embodiment of anti-corporate politics and a surge of female candidates in the midterm elections. “It’s a lot to carry,” she said. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she was on the receiving end of Murdoch-media hysteria. The Post greeted her win with the headline “red alert.” Sean Hannity pronounced her “downright scary.” And Ben Shapiro called her a member of the “howling at the moon” segment of the Democratic Party. On the anti-Trump right, Bret Stephens wrote in the Times that “Hugo Ch├ívez was also a democratic socialist,” and warned that, in a national election, the likes of Ocasio-Cortez will be “political hemlock for the Democratic Party.” None of it seemed exactly real. When I asked her where she was going to live in D.C., her eyes widened in surprise, as if it had not occurred to her that she would no longer be spending most of her time in the Bronx. “Not a clue,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez was born in the neighborhood, but, as she puts it, she “grew up between two worlds.” Before she started school, her father, an architect who was born poor in the South Bronx, and her mother, who was born poor in Puerto Rico, decided that the public education around Parkchester wasn’t good enough. They wanted Alexandria to get a leg up, and so, with help from relatives, they scraped together enough money for a down payment on a small two-bedroom house in Yorktown Heights, a prosperous suburb in Westchester County. By the time she entered Yorktown High School, Alexandria had become a driven student. She was aware of being an anomaly—the Puerto Rican kid from a hard-up family in a nearly all-white school—but, she says now, “I don’t think I had that class consciousness as a child.” She was intent on becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Not all of Ocasio-Cortez’s teachers at Yorktown High were encouraging. One told her that the Times was too hard for her to absorb; another said that the Intel science fair was beyond her grasp. In fact, she read the Times daily and won second prize at the Intel fair, with a project on the anti-aging effect of antioxidants in roundworms. Back in the Bronx, some in her family struggled, particularly her cousins. “Their stories are not really mine to tell,” she said, “but growing up they were wearing T-shirts with pictures of their friends who had died—and that’s just scraping the surface.” The extended family in New York ranges across the experience of city life: some are police officers, “and the other half have gotten stopped and frisked.”

When Ocasio-Cortez was seventeen, she put together enough loans and scholarship money to go to Boston University. In the first week of her sophomore year, she got a call from home: her father was dying of lung cancer. His death was “destabilizing in every way,” she said. “My mother was done. My brother was lost. I took it hard, too, but I channelled it into my studies. That’s how I dealt with it. I was home for a week and went right back to school. The last thing my father had told me in the hospital was ‘Make me proud.’ I took it very literally. My G.P.A. skyrocketed.” She changed majors, from biochemistry to economics and international relations, and worked part time in Senator Edward Kennedy’s Boston office, dealing with constituent concerns, including immigrant issues.

What really shaped her politically, though, was coming home: “The crucible was the aftermath—moving back to the Bronx.” With her father gone, her mother had taken jobs cleaning houses and driving a school bus. The family went into debt and the house was on the verge of foreclosure. The experience, she said, was humiliating, paralyzing. Ocasio-Cortez put her career ambitions on hold. Her long days as a waitress and bartender, dealing with sexual harassment (“people touch you, they tell you things”)—the experience was hard, but it was formative. The family eventually sold the house, and Ocasio-Cortez’s mother, in order to save money, moved to Florida, where she now works as a secretary.

Just out of high school, Ocasio-Cortez had done some volunteer work as a phone-bank caller for the Obama campaign in 2008, but she devoted much more time to the Sanders campaign in 2016. She helped find a site for a Bronx campaign headquarters, in an old nail salon, and started knocking on doors. She met activists from all over the city: community organizers, Black Lives Matter leaders, members of various unions, environmentalists, feminists, L.G.B.T.Q. campaigners, democratic socialists. After Sanders failed to overtake Clinton, some of his staff started an organization, called Brand New Congress, with the aim of recruiting candidates in the Bernie mold to run for the House and the Senate. For the B.N.C. activists, Sanders had shown that a non-corporate, “small dollar” campaign based on a left-wing agenda could win, and not only in traditionally left-leaning districts.

At first, B.N.C. wanted to field candidates for every congressional seat. One of the group’s founders, a Harvard graduate and former Silicon Valley techie named Saikat Chakrabarti, went on “The Rachel Maddow Show” to launch the effort. Soon, applications flooded the B.N.C. Web site, eleven thousand in all. One of them came in the fall of 2016 from Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez. He was writing on behalf of his older sister. Alexandria smiled and recalled that her brother had asked her if he could send in the form and, on a lark, she said O.K. “But I was also working in a restaurant!” she said. “I mean, it’s one of these things where it was, like, ‘Eff it. Sure. Whatever.’ ” (...)

Crowley, who had not faced a primary opponent in fourteen years, had grown complacent. He focussed almost solely on what one of his aides told me was “the universe of prime voters,” people who had made a habit of coming to the polls for off-year ballots. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez was reaching new voters, young people and older residents who had generally stayed away. She was, in the parlance of her campaign, “widening the electorate”—if not by tens of thousands then by just enough. And Crowley kept stumbling. At what was meant to be their first debate, Crowley didn’t show; his spokesperson lamely blamed scheduling issues. Ocasio-Cortez debated an empty chair with the incumbent’s name on it. Even a few weeks before the election, however, Crowley was getting polling information that showed him leading by more than thirty points.

The next debate was scheduled for a television studio, at the hyper-local channel NY1. “Early in the day, I was losing my mind, I was so nervous,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled. “By the time I sat down, I thought he could see my heart leaping out of my chest.” At first, Crowley was indulgent toward Ocasio-Cortez, treating her like a daughter who had come back from college with a lot of wacky ideas she’d picked up in Political Theory 201. But, as she pressed him on one issue after another, Crowley assumed a sour expression. Who was this young woman to lecture him on where he lived and raised his kids? Finally, tired of the attack, Crowley said that he was willing to endorse Ocasio-Cortez, if she were to win the primary. Would she do likewise?

“Well, Representative Crowley, I represent not just my campaign but a movement,” she replied. “I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.” This seemed to gall him. He accused her of being weak on gun control. Where did you get that? Ocasio-Cortez asked. From a Reddit forum, he said. One could sense every voter under forty giggling. A Reddit forum.

Eight days before the election, Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez were to have another debate, this time in Parkchester. There were rumors that Crowley might bag it again, but, when Ocasio-Cortez saw that he’d tweeted pictures of himself at a subway platform nearby, she figured that he was coming. He was not. Instead, he sent Annabel Palma, a Latina former city councilwoman. He paid for his absence with a blistering editorial in the Times: “A spokeswoman for Mr. Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leading voters to wonder—what are we, chopped liver?” On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez noted that Crowley had sent as his surrogate “a woman with a slight resemblance to me.” The implication of a racist insult was lost on no one.

by David Remnick, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Mark Peterson

Genetically Modified Tomatoes Give Fish a Futuristic Hue

Imagine a society in which fish are raised in pens and fed food laced with dyes from genetically modified tomatoes in order to trick consumers into thinking that the fish on their plates grew up in the wild, swimming free, hunting, and being hunted. It sounds like something out of dystopian sci-fi, but that future is, potentially, right around the corner.

In the wild, fish such as salmon or trout eat crustaceans or insects with natural pigments that lend their flesh a pink or red tint. Fish raised in ponds or sea pens, however, receive no such natural coloration. Their flesh is often pale pink or even gray—not so appetizing to consumers used to a healthy pink. Fish farmers routinely add dyes derived from petroleum to the fish’s feed to mask this lack of wild coloration. But researchers think they’ve found a better way to procure these colorful edible additives. Rather than making dyes from petrochemicals, they’re growing the colorants in genetically modified tomatoes.

Marilise Nogueira, a graduate student at the Royal Holloway, University of London who led the project, says the goal was to find an alternate way to produce ketocarotenoids, the class of colorful compounds used to dye fish, in a way that doesn’t rely on environmentally harmful petrochemicals.

The enterprise says something about the cultural and scientific moment we’re in—turning to genetic modification to replace a petroleum-based product that is used to compensate for the removal of a natural process.

Humans have been dying foods produced by farmed animals for centuries or longer—often for similarly deceptive reasons. Butter, for instance, was routinely enhanced with annatto, a yellow dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree. While undyed butter fluctuated in color, becoming more or less yellow depending on the time of year and diet of the cow producing it, using annatto extract allowed farmers to establish the color of “good” butter. Color was also added to cheeses and prepared meats such as sausages.

By the 1900s, organic dyes made from edible substances such as annatto, spinach, and saffron were largely superseded by synthetic dyes, which are cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality.

In the past few years, however, society has been shifting back from synthetic dyes to plant-derived ones, says food historian Ai Hisano from Kyoto University in Japan. Hisano sees the tomato-derived fish dye as fitting in with this shift, though in a very modern way.

Whether the genetically modified tomatoes are part of a dystopian vision or just the latest in a long line of agricultural deception, the work required some clever manipulations of the tomatoes’ genes to get the dyes required.

Naturally, tomatoes produce similar dyes called carotenoids, which give them their signature red color. But tomatoes do not make these compounds in high enough concentrations to make them a viable colorant for fish feed.

So, using a variety of tomato called Moneymaker that had been genetically edited to add bacterial DNA associated with producing ketocarotenoids, the researchers engineered a tomato to make those different colorful compounds. But the gene editing by itself wasn’t enough to get the necessary high-yield tomato.

by Kat Eschner , Hakai | Read more:
Image: Olena Danileiko/Alamy