Haven’t you heard? Amazon is debuting its very own delivery-by-drone. So Jeff Bezos revealed to Charlie Rose in last night’s
Cyber Monday infomercial ”60 Minutes” report. In the ensuing commentary on Twitter, though, McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed noted that
Lots of these Amazon drone tweets remind me of this 1995 Newsweek essay on how the whole internet thing is hype: http://t.co/IpelTyr2r8
— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) December 2, 2013
Clifford Stoll’s 1995 essay quickly circulated as the epitome of myopic grouching, with Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute musing
Seriously, this ’95 Newsweek column on internet-boosting hucksters may be least prescient thing ever written http://t.co/QJw94jIgau
— Scott Winship (@swinshi) December 2, 2013
Yet not all of Stoll’s criticisms are wholly wrongheaded, and pulling apart what he got (very) wrong from what still stands can teach us about technology’s ability to live up to the hype. Back in February 1995, Michael Jordan was a baseball player, the Dow Jones was hitting 4,000 for the very first time, and Pamela Anderson was joined in holy matrimony with Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. Stoll looked around himself, and wrote that
Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.
The funny thing is, that’s exactly what many futurists of today are still heralding, nearly 20 years later. Given the pace of digital advancements and the rapid development of internet technology, you would hope they’d have a new future to sell us on, once the old one was thoroughly obtained. Then Stoll got himself in his first sticky situation, saying “The truth in [sic] no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.” As Jeff Bezos himself can attest, the daily newspaper is not faring well compared to its online competition. Yet Stoll’s second two points are sound. For all the MOOC hype, teaching really is a fundamentally human activity, born of interaction and guidance, response and customization. Information may be able to be transmitted and tested online, but an education will only be obtained from a teacher. And as much as the digital age has changed parts of our politics, the tasks of governance and compromise have remained stubbornly resistant to solution by algorithm. If anything, the internet has given the government new things to fail at.
Nearly every day, an article pops up on Twitter stating, “We need more women to become [fill in the blank].” From engineers to CEOs, writers to philosophers, women are told there is such-and-such a position they must fill in order to bring balance to the galaxy. To further this goal, Germany has created a new plan:
According to a new agreement between the parties negotiating to form Germany’s next governing coalition, supervisory boards for companies registered on the German stock exchange will need to be at least 30 percent female starting in 2016 … From the U.S., where women held only 16.1 percent of board seats by last count, it’s an intriguing experiment to watch for several reasons. Government-directed quotas are potentially unconstitutional, and even private companies seeking to set quotas have been told affirmative action plans need to meet pretty strict requirements to survive an equal protection or Civil Rights Act-based challenge. But many of the folks following women’s lack of progress on Wall Street would like to see the U.S. be, well, a little more Teutonic.
It’s an interesting proposition, and seems to promote a sort of necessary balance. But there are some problems with this idea of “egalitarianism” that Micah Mattix identified well in a Tuesday TAC post:
On the one hand, it is asserted that there are no differences between men and women; therefore, every vocation, every position type, should reflect the country’s gender ratio. If the ratio is not reflected, it is the result of some injustice, again because there is no reason other than discrimination for fewer women in this or that vocation. On the other hand, is asserted that having more women in a certain profession or vocation would make it better because it would add something that was missing. But if there is no difference between men and women, what could possibly be missing?
To put it simply: these articles argue that there are no differences between men and women as such. They believe men and women only differentiate on an individual basis. But if this is true, one shouldn’t need gender quotas to help promote a “missing” element.
Now, if women are truly being discriminated against, then this is a problem. If women were failing the bar exam because of a discriminatory system, or if a company refused to hire women CEO’s simply because of their gender, it would be a serious problem. But this seems better remedied on a case-by-case basis than through a statewide quota.
Germany is a democratic country. If women aren’t vying for certain company positions, might it be because some don’t actually want those positions? According to Katrin Bennhold, that’s the problem: in a 2011 New York Times story, she said gender stereotypes (specifically, “the mother myth”) perpetuated throughout Germany’s history have deceived the female populace. She quotes Angelika Dammann, the “first and only female board member at software giant SAP”: “We are still very far from a situation where it’s as normal for women as for men to want both a career and family—even among young women. When you have children, you’re expected to stay home for a significant period; otherwise you are considered a bad mother.”
Perhaps this is a backward question; but must all women want both a career and family? If women deserve the right to pursue whatever vocation they want, then shouldn’t they be allowed to choose family over career? Should the girl who dreams of becoming a “homemaker” be forced onto the supervisory board of a company simply to fulfill some gender quota? No one seems to suggest such a thing. Yet the mothers who choose family over career are treated with a sort of disdain, as if they’ve been brainwashed by an ancient “mother myth.”
It seems only fair that women should be able to choose any vocation, whether engineering or motherhood—not in order to fulfill some gender quota or to appease the feminists of their age, but purely out of love for the vocation they pursue.
Driving from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta this Thanksgiving weekend, I had the opportunity to read Burkhard Bilger’s great New Yorker article on the development of self-driving cars. It’s a long, involved story melding technical accomplishments with personal storytelling, and throws in a healthy dash of historical context. I was able to take the time to work through the full thing because I was in the back seat, freed from driving responsibilities by my absence from the rental car agreement my parents had signed up in York, PA. From time to time I booted up my laptop, and started surfing the web using a Verizon wireless hotspot, at full 4G LTE speeds. My sister used this same arrangement to watch movies streaming from Netflix, one more way to pass the tedium. We are just old enough (mid-twenties) to still be able to occasionally gasp at the seeming absurdity of streaming high quality video and maintaining instantaneous communication with the wider world while hurtling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. The road trip entertainment of our childhood was strictly restricted to the print and personal variety.
We now have ever more activities to occupy our time, and a worldwide connection that can follow us nearly anywhere we go. We don’t need to lose connection when we take off or land in a plane. Why shouldn’t the driver be able to get in on the fun?
From the consumer’s point of view, this is the great appeal of self-driving vehicles: liberation from the monotony of hurtling down empty expanses of highway, or inching along in the gridlock of the commute. Bilger cites an earlier advertisement for the long prophesied self-driving cars as depicting a family turned toward the each other, playing checkers as they move. But as Bilger describes Google’s motivations in pouring its resources into developing this technology, the men of Mountain View have more on their mind than consumer convenience. Relief from tedium through automation was the promise of the last century, the pitch that sold a thousand washing machines.
Instead, Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, wants nothing more than to (wait for it) “fundamentally change the world with this.” He looks out on the expanse of America’s urban landscape and sees wide swaths of wasted land as cars are used for a couple hours a day at most, then occupy prime real estate unproductively the rest of the day. His self-driving cars can become a fleet, providing personal car service to commuters at a far higher efficiency than today’s taxies, yet more flexible than metro, bus, or light-rail systems. As Brin said, “We’re not trying to fit into an existing business model … We are just on such a different planet.” At least so far, though, that different planet doesn’t let free the driver from his responsibility behind the wheel. Attentive human beings are required to be at the ready in case the car needs to hand off responsibility, having become confused. Even assuming as we surely should that Google makes enormous strides in ironing out what few errors remain, it already takes measurable seconds for a human in the driver’s seat to reorient to the situation after being distracted. Imagine if that person first had to be spun around from their checkers match with the kids. Read More…
When, after the massacres at Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard, Republicans refused to outlaw the AR-15 rifle or require background checks for gun purchasers, we were told the party had committed suicide by defying 90 percent of the nation.
When Republicans rejected amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, we were told the GOP had just forfeited its future.
When House Republicans refused to fund Obamacare, the government was shut down and the Tea Party was blamed, word went forth: The GOP has destroyed its brand. Republicans face a wipeout in 2014. It will take a generation to remove this mark of Cain.
Eight weeks later, Obama’s approval is below 40 percent. Most Americans find him untrustworthy. And the GOP is favored to hold the seats it has in the House while making gains in the Senate.
For this reversal of fortunes, Republicans can thank the rollout of Obamacare—the website that does not work, the revelation that, contrary to Obama’s promise, millions are losing health care plans that they liked, and the reports of soaring premiums and sinking benefits.
Democrats, however, might take comfort in the old maxim: If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a while.
For, egged on by Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli Lobby AIPAC, the neocons are anticipating the return of Congress to start work on new sanctions on Iran. Should they succeed, they just might abort the Geneva talks or even torpedo the six-month deal with Iran.
While shaking a fist in the face of the Ayatollah will rally the Republican base, it does not appear to be a formula for winning the nation. Read More…
Where I grew up, autumn is a season of first fruits. Work-hardened hands are connected to soft, generous hearts. Heritage is plowed into your heart-soil, tradition resonates in everyday rhythms, and praise is the crop that bursts forth from rich hard earth.
My farmer great-grandpa (we called him “Grandpa Dad”) would hold me on his knee, calloused hands cradling my four-year-old frame, and tell me stories. He painted pictures with soft, deep words: of silent movies and driving a four-horse team at age eight. Of his father, who traveled west in a covered wagon and homesteaded in wild, bare Idaho land. I can still see his handsome, wrinkled face; still feel him pull me into his strong, cologne-spiced hug; still hear the rich velvety tones of his voice—a voice that would always melt into chuckles of peace and praise.
Every fall, we sat around the rough wooden picnic table, shucking golden sweet corn: Grandpa Dad, Grandpa Wally, Daddy, my brothers. Grandpa Wally was a pepper-haired man with an infectious belly laugh, who waltzed with me as a baby and always told me, “Grace, you should go to a school out east. You should see the world.” He put on his overalls and work boots, and worked while the sun slumbers. To bed at 8 p.m., awake at 4 a.m. His sweet corn, fresh beef, and brown-speckled eggs filled our stomachs year round. Face brown and wrinkled from the sun, teeth glinting with gold eyes glinting with humor, his bass voice made the floor tremble. He raised five children to the gospel truth, to hard work, to the golden laughter of peace and praise.
Our Thanksgiving table was always heavy-laden with turkey, potatoes, stuffing, biscuits, all the food our stomachs could hold (and more). We weren’t all farmers, but we shared our labors, prepared with soft and calloused hands alike. We found rest for our souls at that table, though sometimes that meant words were left unspoken—stuffed under the rug or left outside the door in chilly November air.
I never appreciated that time when living it. There was a casual, steady reliability in it. There was no reason to expect anything else. Grandma’s candles and china, her careful place settings—they never changed. Neither, I thought, would we. But people change and move with the seasons. When I look out on sunsets and leaves painted cinnamon, I think of home. When I see a field of tall, golden-crowned corn, counting their glorious rows, I remember the harvest—always given to family.
I remember the warmth of Grandpa Dad’s red flannel shirt, his straw hat perched on snowy white hair, and his straight white teeth smiling joyously back at me. Though he passed on to glory at 96, I still see him in the harvest. His life trained ours—to work for God and for family, to give back the first fruits with praise.
I remember my Grandpa Wally’s words when I was about eleven years old: “Grace, when you grow up, you should write a story about me.” It was said jokingly. But the tan farmer with a twinkle in his eye, who waltzed and laughed and cried with me, taught me something invaluable about life: if you don’t share it with your family, there is no joy. He gave, and gave. He and his father put their shoulders to the plow, bore the fruit, and poured it forth with thanksgiving. Then they started over.
This age of impatience chokes the remembrance out of thanksgiving. And without remembrance, we grow ungrateful. We no longer have the strength, patience, or time to dig the hard furrows or sow the slowly-growing fruit. We demand, and forget to serve. Thanksgiving becomes a time of “dealing with” relatives, a time of bearing the silent torment of kinship. Family alienation threads its way through the holidays, bearing thorns instead of fruit. How do we redeem the crop?
Sometimes it starts with one seed, or two. Sometimes it starts with one farmer, willing to fight the horrors of Depression and drought to bring forth a harvest. I peel back the memories like a cornhusk, and stare at the golden treasure beneath. Memories of the flat farmland, the vibrant saffron sunsets, making applesauce with my sister, mother, and grandmother: they draw tears and smiles of peace and praise.
This will be my first Thanksgiving away from home. But the thanksgiving will not change. Family, wherever it lies, brims over with offering, tears, and laughter. The praise comes as we give our first fruits, wherever we might be.
Philip Weiss calls out WNYC host Brian Lehrer and others for emphasizing the non-Israeli opposition to the interim Geneva Iran deal:
One of the irritations of coverage of the Iranian deal is the extent to which the American media say reflexively that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States along with Israel oppose the deal. Yesterday on WNYC, for instance, Brian Lehrer urged listeners “not to pigeonhole Israel as the only major opponent of this. It’s also Saudi Arabia, it’s also Turkey… the other Gulf states like Qatar… don’t want Iran strengthened as they see it or even legitimized.”
This is important, because it’s becoming a standard argument against negotiating with Iran, echoed by the neoconservatives and hawks in Congress. We are, so the claim goes, ignoring or “abandoning” our “traditional” allies. The thing is, it’s simply not true. Saudi Arabia has already voiced support for the deal. I’m sure they don’t much like it, and the Sunni-Shia intra-Islamic rivalry weighs heavily on them. But they simply aren’t going for Netanyahu-style petulance. And not just Saudi Arabia. Juan Cole here outlines the extent of the Middle Eastern support of the p5+1 Iran negotiation, recording positive or favorable reactions from the governments or Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria. Of course Oman hosted secret talks between American diplomats and Tehran’s.
I don’t doubt the diplomacy is making the Saudis uncomfortable, and visitors to the kingdom have long remarked on visceral anti-Iran sentiment there. But they aren’t going to play a spoilers role. One diplomat who knows the country well described the Saudis as “realists” who will “adapt to what happens.” There is widespread Arab suspicion about Iranian intentions in the Gulf, and no desire to fall under Iran’s hegemony. But that’s an American strategic goal too, as can be made clear with words and deeds.
Moreover, for all the Arabs, there is a silver lining in the cloud of possible detente between Iran and the West: the possibility of renewed attention to the other nuclear proliferator in their region, the one which actually has introduced weapons to the region. On Monday, the Saudi Embassy tweeted out
#Saudi welcomes P5+1 nuclear agrmt w/Iran as primary step towards comprehensive solution to Iranian nuclear program & a ME free of all WMD
— Saudi Embassy (@SaudiEmbassyUSA) November 25, 2013
I doubt we can expect Saudi Arabia to take the lead in non-proliferation diplomacy, but I wouldn’t count on them plotting with Israel to carry out anti-Iran military strikes either. The Mideast “free of all WMD” is a rhetorical dagger aimed at Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Bit by bit that critical taboo subject is emerging from the shadows of journalistic neglect.
Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the AP revealed yesterday the existence of a previously unknown secret CIA facility at Guantanamo Bay, tasked with turning captured terrorists into double agents. Set up along with the makeshift prison facility as prisoners flowed into the American base in Cuba, the secret CIA outpost was best known by the Beatles-inspired name “Penny Lane.”
Candidates were ushered from the confines of prison to Penny Lane’s relative hominess, officials said. The cottages had private kitchens, showers and televisions. Each had a small patio.
Some prisoners asked for and received pornography. One official said the biggest luxury in each cottage was the bed, not a military-issued cot but a real bed with a mattress.
The cottages were designed to feel more like hotel rooms than prison cells, and some CIA officials jokingly referred to them collectively as the Marriott.
In contrast with the prison conditions, Penny Lane appears to have been practically a luxury resort. Indeed, cottages in the Caribbean are a hotly sought after commodity. The great, cruel irony of the Penny Lane program’s perks, however, is that they were obviously unavailable to prisoners without any actual terrorist connections. As Goldman and Apuzzo note, Bush administration officials at the time characterized Guantanamo detainees as the “worst of a very bad lot,” in Vice President Cheney’s words, or “among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth,” as Donald Rumsfeld described them.
In reality, many were held on flimsy evidence and were of little use to the CIA.
While the agency looked for viable candidates, those with no terrorism ties sat in limbo. It would take years before the majority of detainees were set free, having never been charged. Of the 779 people who were taken to Guantanamo Bay, more than three-fourths have been released, mostly during the Bush administration.
Those swept up in the heat of battle and spirited across the globe remained in their cells as some of the true terrorists were wined and dined by a CIA seeking their cooperation. The AP notes that “infiltrating al-Qaida has been one of the CIA’s most sought-after but difficult goals, something that other foreign intelligence services have only occasionally accomplished,” increasing their eagerness to set up shop and obtain what sources they could. They did have some successes, as “some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives, current and former U.S. officials said,” though “others stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.”
As the years dragged on, however, and the detainee’s contacts faded in freshness, the program dried up, closing altogether by 2006. So today, the Guantanamo Bay prisons still stand, with what prisoners remain. Five years after Barack Obama took office pledging to close the prison, it stays open. And Penny Lane’s cottages, though empty, still stand.
The Internet has changed the way we communicate. Most commonly, we see its effects permeate our grammatical discourse: the pronouncement of “selfie” as word of the year was perhaps the best indication of this. But our conversations have also changed in a deeper sense. According to some observations by Atlantic contributor Andrew Simmons, it may help some teenagers release emotion:
On Facebook, even popular students post statuses in which they express insecurities. I see a dozen every time I log on. A kid frets that his longtime girlfriend is straying and wishes he hadn’t upset her. Another admits to being lonely (with weepy emoticons added for effect). Another asks friends to pray for his sick little sister. Another worries the girl he gave his number to isn’t interested because she hasn’t called in the 17 minutes that have passed since the fateful transaction. Another disparages his own intellect. “I’m so stupid, dad told me to drop out,” he writes. Another wonders why his parents are always angry, and why their anger is so often directed at him. “Brother coming home today,” another posts. “Gonna see how it goes.”
It seems social media may encourage less benign emotional expressions, as well. Relevant Magazine posted an article last week lamenting the angry discussions that often boil over on Facebook. “You log into Facebook and it has happened once again,” author Brandon W. Peach writes, “Some broad political sentiment sparks a flame-war and everyone seems to want to weigh in with a jab, meme, ad hominem attack or (arguably worst of all) a wall of text that begs for you to ‘see more.’” Sometimes, truly insightful discussions can take place on Facebook. But too often, a posted article or controversial status open up Pandora’s box, unleashing a swath of ridicule, offense, and disdain.
Does all this online emotion carry forward into real-time conversations? Forbes contributor Donna Sapolin doesn’t think so. In a Monday post, she shares a conversation she had with her son after a power blackout. He told her he was happy for the outage, because it led him and his friends to have a deep, meaningful conversation. She ponders:
It seems the younger generations are deeply hungry for meaningful face-to-face interactions but feel they have to devise a new approach in order to get beyond shallow chit-chat. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that the bulk of Gen X and Y communication takes place via texts, social media posts and email, and camaraderie takes the form of things watched or played together on screens. We’ve deemed these generations to be the most connected, but they may, in fact, be the most disconnected.
Facebook friends do not constitute true “community.” They are virtual presences, people we cannot see, hear, or touch. In discussing (or arguing) sensitive and personal topics with other users, it is impossible to know the immediate impact of our words. We cannot see furrowed brows, bit lips, or clenched fists. Thus, online discussions become immensely dramatic, sarcastic, and inflammatory—much more than usual face-to-face conversations.
If Sapolin is right, true face-to-face discourse is becoming more rare, even as our online presences devolve into emotion-spewing excess. How many high school students who pour out their souls online will have meaningful conversations with their grandmothers on Thanksgiving? How many people will Instagram pictures of turkey or post a “Happy Thanksgiving” status on Facebook, but never deeply converse with those they are breaking bread with?
To occupy our present space, with grace and candor, is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of our technological age. Virtual reality’s isolated safety beckons appealingly to us. But if there’s one thing social media is teaching us, it is that there are better forms of communication—deeper, truer, sweeter—than it can offer.
“Iran’s Nuclear Triumph” roared the headline of the Wall Street Journal editorial. William Kristol is again quoting Churchill on Munich.
Since the news broke Saturday night that Iran had agreed to a six-month freeze on its nuclear program, we are back in the Sudetenland again.
Why? For not only was this modest deal agreed to by the United States, but also by our NATO allies Germany, Britain, and France.
Russia and China are fine with it.
Iran’s rivals, Turkey and Egypt, are calling it a good deal. Saudi Arabia says it “could be a first step toward a comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear program.”
Qatar calls it “an important step toward safeguarding peace and stability in the region.” Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have issued similar statements.
Israeli President Shimon Peres calls the deal satisfactory. Former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin has remarked of the hysteria in some Israeli circles, “From the reactions this morning, I might have thought Iran had gotten permission to build a bomb.”
Predictably, “Bibi” Netanyahu is leading the stampede:
Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world.
But this is not transparent nonsense?
In return for a modest lifting of sanctions, Tehran has agreed to halt work on the heavy water reactor it is building at Arak, to halt production of 20-percent uranium, to dilute half of its existing stockpile, and to allow more inspections.
Does this really make the world “a much more dangerous place”?
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague—who was leader of the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001—made a statement in the House of Commons that suggests how realist Republicans in the U.S. might look at the Iran deal. He said in part:
Mr Speaker, reaching this interim agreement was a difficult and painstaking process, and there is a huge amount of work to be done to implement it. Implementation will begin following technical discussions with Iran and the IAEA and EU preparations to suspend the relevant sanctions, which we hope will all be concluded by the end of January. A Joint Commission of the E3+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of these first-step measures, and it will work with the IAEA to resolve outstanding issues.
But the fact that we have achieved for the first time in nearly a decade an agreement that halts and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program, should give us heart that this work can be done and that a comprehensive agreement can be attained.
On an issue of such complexity, and given the fact that to make any diplomatic agreement worthwhile to both sides it has to involve compromises, such an agreement is bound to have its critics and opponents.
But we are right to test to the full Iran’s readiness to act in good faith, to work with the rest of the international community and to enter into international agreements.
If they do not abide by their commitments they will bear a heavy responsibility, but if we did not take the opportunity to attempt such an agreement then we ourselves would be guilty of a grave error. Read More…