In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argues that the Biden campaign’s apparent decision to try to out-hawk Trump on China suffers from three shortcomings: “First, it promotes bad foreign policy. Second, it could stoke anti-Chinese racism. Third, it doesn’t even make long-term sense politically.” But aside from that…
The Verge reports that Spot, the doglike robot made by Boston Dynamics, is being used in hospitals to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus between patients and staff. Ars Technica, in a piece called “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robotic future,” notes that wheeled sidewalk delivery robots are also in demand.
In Foreign Affairs, political scientist Barry Posen argues that, though the pandemic has in some ways heightened international tensions, “the odds of a war between major powers will go down, not up.”
In a University of Chicago working paper, four academics present evidence that cable news viewing habits have influenced patterns of Covid-19 infection. During February, when Tucker Carlson was warning about the Covid threat and Sean Hannity was dismissing it, the more a county’s Fox News viewers watched Hannity, and the less they watched Carlson, the more the county was afflicted by the epidemic. This pattern abated after late February, when Hannity started taking the virus more seriously.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall assesses the political logic behind Trump’s attempt to play both sides of the lockdown debate—supporting people in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia who rebel against restrictions that are remarkably like the restrictions he professes to support.
In Vox, Roge Karma interviews Yale historian Frank Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, about why the modern world is so vulnerable to pandemics and how the current pandemic will affect the perennial struggle between xenophobia and tribalism on the one hand and cosmopolitanism and cooperation on the other.
In the Guardian, Julian Borger does a play-by-play recounting of the World Health Organization’s response to the coronavirus contagion (and in the process rebuts widespread reports that Taiwan offered early evidence of human-to-human transmission that was ignored by WHO).
In the New York Times, Taylor Lorenz looks at Josh Zimmerman, who is a “life coach for influencers.” Weeks into the pandemic, a client who has big followings on YouTube and Instagram asked him for guidance and “within 24 hours… she had a plan for a timely series about grief, gratitude and self-reflection called ‘14 Days of Mindfulness.’ ” Lorenz opines that “Mr. Zimmerman’s role feels especially vital now, in the midst of a health crisis that has sent half the world home for an indefinite period and glued many of them to their phones.”
The Guardian reports that books by Marcus Aurelius and other Stoic writers are selling well amid the pandemic. Marcus, who lived through a plague, advised that, rather than mourn your bad luck amid misfortune, “you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’ ” I’ve always assumed it would be easier to adopt that attitude if I were emperor of the Roman Empire, but maybe I’m underestimating the demands of Marcus’s job.
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Apple and Google announced that they’re jointly developing smartphone software that will facilitate “contact tracing”—finding and notifying people who have been near someone who tests positive for Covid-19. Blogger Nicky Case offers a cartoon explanation of how smartphone contact tracing can work without sacrificing privacy—which is the way Google and Apple say their system will work. Russell Brandom of The Verge answers “the 12 biggest questions” about the approach Apple and Google are taking. Efficient contact tracing is considered critical if the US is to emerge from economic lockdown without rapid recurrence of contagion.
The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner reports that, in New York City, the five ZIP codes with the highest rates of positive Covid tests have per capita income of $27,000, while the five zip codes with the lowest rates have per capita income of $118,000. The New York Times displays data from many cities, gathered by tracking the smartphones of high-income and low-income people, to support the thesis that “staying home during coronavirus is a luxury.” In the Washington Post, Eugene Scott explains “four reasons the coronavirus is hitting black communities so hard.”
The good news from Yemen: Saudi Arabia, which in 2015 led a military intervention that has greatly worsened the conflict there, declared a coronavirus ceasefire. The bad news: the next day Yemen, a country whose health care infrastructure has been devastated by the war, reported its first coronavirus case.
Google used (anonymized) location data from smartphones to see how much activity of various kinds—going to parks, shopping at grocery and drug stores, etc.—has changed during the Covid-19 epidemic. Its Community Mobility Reports website offers downloadable summaries of the activity for lots of nations, as well as individual American states and counties in those states. In my county—and I suspect in many others—the only category in which activity has grown is “residential.”
The International Crisis Group looks at ways the pandemic could “give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones” (especially in areas featuring conflict, simmering tensions, or weak governance). One problem is a possible lack of global leadership; the US, which led the international response to the 2014 Ebola contagion, has “simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to Covid-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment.”
The New York Times takes a look at how Americans are spending their money amid the shutdown. TLDR: Charitable giving down, alcohol consumption up, and boom times for home improvement.
New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose sees upside in the physical isolation the coronavirus has imposed on us. The virus “is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used—to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.”
Pollution dropped markedly in China and Italy as a result of coronavirus-induced social distancing. On the environmental blog G-Feed, Marshall Burke calculates that the lives saved in China via reduced pollution exceeded the lives lost to the virus. Whether or not that’s true, the satellite images accompanying the blog post are testament to how much the air seems to have cleared up in China. Satellite shots of northern Italy before and during its lockdown paint the same picture. Of course, these reductions in pollution were part of an economic slowdown that you wouldn’t want to sustain forever. Still, the pandemic will no doubt heighten our appreciation of how many things we can do remotely, via information technology, without generating as many pollutants as we’re accustomed to generating. These things include not just telecommuting but, for example:
Quartz reports that the pandemic has brought a boom in telehealth, as doctors—in part to shield themselves from infection—become more amenable to virtual office visits.
In the New York Times, John Schwartz assesses the extent to which some of the tools of social distancing—telecommuting, virtual conferences, and the like—could slow the rate of climate change. The question is more complicated than you might guess. If, for example, working remotely means spending the day in a house that would otherwise be uninhabited, the fuel consumed to heat or cool the house has to be weighed against the fuel saved by not commuting (which itself varies greatly depending on whether you drive to work or take public transportation).
In the New York Times, Peter S. Goodman writes that the coronavirus has “accelerated and intensified the pushback to global connection,” heightening fears about immigration and exposing the vulnerability of global supply chains. And the pushback may be just beginning. As Jeet Heer notes on Twitter, Trump’s initial, optimistic messaging strategy—Don’t worry, we’re on top of this—may soon give way to xenophobic, anti-globalization fear mongering. Secretary of State Pompeo has already started calling the virus the “Wuhan virus.”
Elizabeth Preston reports in Quanta that the aquatic salamander known as the axolotl—which looks even weirder than its name suggests—has now had its genome fully sequenced. The resulting knowledge could someday give humans a quintessentially axolotlic skill: the ability to regenerate lost body parts.
In Fast Company, tech writer Harry McCracken takes a look at the presidential campaign of 1996, “the first to be fought on the web.” It wasn’t a momentous battle; most voters weren’t on the web, and “nobody in politics was an expert on leveraging its power.” McCracken says the candidates’ websites were “eyesores…even by 1996 standards”—and a perusal of them provides some supporting evidence. But I was most struck by the air of innocence and earnestness. The home page of Phil Gramm’s site declares, “We have established this presence on the internet in the interest of providing a wide range of news and information that will interest those who are already involved in our campaign and those who want to learn more about our efforts.” That it took only 20 years to get from there to 2016—when the web was a battleground of bot-abetted, microtargeted deception—is sobering.
The Trump administration’s support of the bloodless coup that deposed Bolivian President Evo Morales hasn’t wavered amid the repression unleashed by his military-installed successor, to judge by a piece in the Washington Post. And, to judge by another Post piece, the justification for that coup is looking even shakier than before. A statistical analysis by two MIT scholars casts doubt on the claim that there were “voting irregularities” suggestive of foul play by Morales.
I’ve never been good at lovingkindness (“metta”) meditation. (People who know me aren’t mystified by this.) In Tricycle, Thai forest monk Ajahn Brahm suggests that metta-challenged meditators like me start the practice by imagining a kitten. No way, dude. But I’m willing to try a dog. Anyway, this short article is linked to Tricycle’s annual Meditation Month—a challenge to commit to 31 days of (not-necessarily-metta) meditation, along with a package of materials that help.
In the New York Times, Alex Stone looks at a demographic of growing interest to scholars of marketing: people who are consistently drawn to new products that will wind up bombing in the marketplace. These “harbingers of failure” may someday be used by companies to abort the launch of doomed products (whose past examples include Crystal Pepsi, Watermelon Oreos, and Cheetos Lip Balm.) Apparently there are whole zip codes whose residents seem to have this sixth sense.
The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban looked tenuous this week as Taliban attacks on Afghan government targets brought American counterattack. John Glaser of the Cato Institute argues that the deal will remain fragile so long as the US continues to make compliance with it conditional on constructive engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, rather than acknowledge the limits of American leverage.
On the Wright Show, I interviewed alleged Bernie Bro David Klion, author of a tweet so notorious that Mike Bloomberg featured it in an ad implicitly aimed at Bernie Bros. I thought I had convinced Klion that it would be a good idea to tone down his more hyperbolic, tribalistic tweets, but a few days later he tweeted this. Sigh.
In Tricycle, Karen Jensen critically assesses Breathe with Me Barbie, the new doll from Mattel that can assume the lotus position and give meditation guidance to kids, saying things like “Imagine your feelings are fluffy clouds.” Jensen isn’t too impressed but ends on a hopeful note: “How do we know that she isn’t capable of awakening?”
In Politico, David Siders explores Michael Bloomberg’s plan to emerge from an initially deadlocked Democratic convention with the nomination.
Seventy five years after the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, Jules Evans, a scholar who as a teenager virtually deified Huxley, looks back on the book. Huxley said, as had “Perennialists” before him, that the world’s great spiritual traditions have a common core. For example: “Huxley suggests that the peak experience is the same in all traditions: a wordless, imageless encounter with the Pure Light of the divine.” I didn’t know, before reading this piece, that Huxley’s book was partly a response to World War II. “The reign of violence will never come to an end,” Huxley wrote, until more people recognize “the highest factor common to all the world religions.”
In an Atlantic piece on “authoritarian blindness,” Zeynep Tufekci argues that, however ironically, the Chinese government’s surveillance apparatus has impeded its view of the Coronavirus epidemic.
If you’ve been wondering what it would be like to be a left-leaning woman at a mostly male, very right-wing gathering that, over a three-day weekend, prepares people for the impending collapse of civilization—well, your ship has come in. Lauren Groff, in a long Harpers essay, observes the denizens of “Prepper Camp” in North Carolina with the air of detached irony you’d expect. I spent much of the piece wishing she’d interact more earnestly with them, and get some insight into their motivation; and near the end of the piece she does summon some cognitive empathy, and some self-critical reflection.
In the Nation, David Klion profiles Sasha Baker, head of Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy team.
The US hasn’t properly accounted for $714 million worth of weapons and equipment it sent to Syrian proxy forces, according to a Defense Department inspector general report that is the subject of an article in the Military Times. These particular weapons were directed toward proxies fighting ISIS, and aren’t to be confused with the weapons sent to Syria as part of the secret $1 billion-plus CIA program to arm rebels in furtherance of Obama’s regime-change initiative. Some weapons from both programs wound up in the hands of ISIS and affiliates of al Qaeda.
A day before The Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials believe Russia aims to boost Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, Ben Judah and David Adler argued in the Guardian that a President Sanders would be no friend of Vladimir Putin’s.
A judge has ruled that Happy the elephant, who lives alone on a one-acre plot at the Bronx Zoo, has not had her "personhood" violated, Sophia Chang reports in Gothamist. The ruling was a defeat for The Nonhuman Rights Project, which had sued the zoo in hopes of liberating Happy. The judge agreed that “Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property” and “should be treated with respect and dignity” and “may be entitled to liberty.” But, “we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned."
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi compares the Democratic presidential race to the 2016 Republican race and argues that the same dynamics that favored Trump make Bernie Sanders the likely nominee.
Remember when the Trump administration said it killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani because he posed an “imminent threat” to the US—you know, the claim that might have rendered the assassination compatible with international law, the claim that the administration seemed puzzlingly unable to support with actual evidence? Well cancel that claim. As the New York Times notes, the administration’s report to Congress defending the Suleimani killing makes no mention of an imminent threat.
In the Guardian, Benjamin Moffit asks why populist movements, such as Trumpism, are so durable, notwithstanding the efforts of “anti-populists” to eliminate them—or, at least, civilize them. He offers various answers, including this one: There are parts of populism that make a lot of sense! For example: “the elite often deserve their unpopularity and disdain.”
In Vice, Shayla Love explores the implications of a strange fact: though people who lose their sight are more prone to schizophrenia than the general population, no one who was born blind is known to have developed schizophrenia.
In Vox, four staffers—Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Laura McGann, Dylan Matthews—each take a frontrunning Democratic presidential candidate and make the case for them. Bernie Sanders “can unite Democrats and beat Trump,” Mayor Pete is “more progressive than you think,” Elizabeth Warren “has the best shot at a transformative presidency,” and Joe Biden “is the only candidate with a real shot at getting things done.” And the case for Michael Bloomberg is “coming soon.”
In The Dispatch, a new magazine founded by National Review and Weekly Standard alumni, legal scholar and former justice department official Jack Goldsmith weighs in on the crisis of legitimacy in the Justice Department—the crisis triggered when prosecutors resigned from the Roger Stone case after Attorney General William Barr revised their sentencing recommendations in the wake of Trump’s tweeted gripes about the recommendations. Goldsmith (who was writing before Barr publicly complained about Trump’s tweeting) is hard on both Barr and Trump, though he notes that Obama, too, once violated the norm against presidential comment on justice department matters.
Bernadette Sheridan has synesthesia—more specifically, she has grapheme-color synesthesia; she sees numbers and letters in color. In a piece in Elemental she explains what it’s like to have synesthesia, and on this site she lets you type in your name and see what it would look like to her.
This week on Bloggingheads.tv (and The Wright Show podcast) I interviewed Andrew Bacevich, the historian and former Army colonel who is now president of the anti-militarism and anti-Blob Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. We talked about his new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, which advances a grand unified theory that explains both America’s disastrous recent foreign policy and the ascendancy of Donald Trump as flowing from a kind of ideological and moral hubris on the part of America’s ruling elites.
In a Vox interview, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political guru, launches an entertaining broadside against the Democratic Party, the not-so-obscure subtext of which is that Bernie Sanders would be a disastrous nominee. Also in Vox, Matt Yglesias argues that Bernie’s performance in Friday’s New Hampshire debate shows him to be a more skillful tactician, and better at appealing to moderates, than is appreciated by some people who think he’d be a disastrous nominee. At Informed Comment, Juan Cole weighs in on Bernie’s political viability.
Turns out Michael Bloomberg is paying Instagram influencers to say nice things about him. So far as Daily Beast reporter Scott Bixby can tell, this is a first in American presidential campaigns.
In Aeon, scholars Alberto Acerbi and Charlotte Brand report that over the past half century “English-language popular songs have become more negative.” Positive-emotion words have dropped in frequency, negative-emotion words have risen. The good news: the word “love” has grown in frequency over the past 15 years. More bad news: so has the word “hate.”
In the Atlantic, McKay Coppins takes a very deep dive into “the billion dollar disinformation campaign to reelect the president.”
The New York Times performs a public service by asking all Democratic presidential candidates the same set of foreign policy questions and then arranging the answers so you can peruse them either by candidate or by topic. The candidate who declined to answer the most questions: Pete Buttigieg (19 out of 35!). The only candidate who called for US compliance with international law: Elizabeth Warren.
In Tricycle, Matthew Gindin explores the intertwined roots of Buddhism and Hatha yoga.
In Arc Digital, Alex Muresianu makes the case for a return to “smoke filled rooms.” This argument is a hardy perennial; every four years someone waxes nostalgic about the days, before the ascendancy of presidential primaries, when party elites chose presidential candidates. But coming now—four years after Republican elites were unable to keep Trump from winning the nomination, and as the Democratic race features no leading candidates who look like what you’d order up from central casting to beat Trump—the argument will presumably be getting more traction than usual. (Though four years ago a Democratic candidate who was favored by party elites did get the nomination and lost to a Republican candidate who wasn’t.)
In the Washington Examiner, Damir Marusic reviews historian John Connelly’s book From Peoples Into Nations, about the emergence of nationalism in the nineteenth century and its earlier roots. The book argues, among other things, that nationalist movements have tended to grow out of “a perceived threat to a group’s existence.”
If you want to know just how deeply anti-Palestinian Jared Kushner’s Israel-Palestine “peace plan” is, I recommend this American Prospect piece by Israeli Daniel Levy, who played a role in past Israel-Palestine negotiations.
Remember the killing of an American contractor in Iraq that triggered a spiral of escalation that led to America’s assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani? Alissa Rubin of The New York Times reports that US intelligence may well have been wrong to attribute the contractor’s death to an Iranian-backed militia. In fact, Sunni jihadists who are enemies of Iran may have done the killing. So, as for those several dozen Iranians and Iraqis we killed during the spiral of escalation: never mind.
Since the previous issue of NZN came out, I’ve posted an episode of The Wright Show featuring Daniel McCarthy, a Trump supporter who, as the former editor of the American Conservative, can claim to have been ahead of the curve on the whole Trump thing. I learned some new things from my conversation with Daniel, such as: there’s a real fear among some Trumpists, apparently, that if America is swamped by immigrants who weren’t brought up to revere the Bill of Rights, various liberties—notably the Second Amendment right to bear arms—could be imperiled.
The humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria, is concisely assessed by the International Crisis Group, which is a reliably acute analyst of conflicts and crises around the world.
A survey by the American Enterprise Institute explores the connection between politics and dating on an issue-by-issue basis. For example: having different views on abortion is a dealbraker for more people than is disagreeing over immigration.
In Quanta, Jordana Cepelewicz explores the ethical issues raised by “cerebral organoids”—brainlike structures, complete with active neurons, that are grown from human stem cells and used in research. The consensus within the field is that these blobs aren’t conscious, though I don’t understand how you can rule out some degree of sentience. In any event, their “developmental age” is likened to that of a second-trimester fetus, and as researchers build more and more complex versions of them, that age will rise.
In a New York Times excerpt from Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized, Klein looks at the asymmetrical nature of America’s political polarization, exploring the implications of the fact that over the past 50 years the Democratic Party has gotten more diverse while the Republican Party has gotten more homogeneous.
The latest issue of California Sunday magazine devotes multiple articles to facial recognition technology: how it works, how it’s been used in the past, how police are using it now, how Hong Kong protestors circumvent it, and more...
In Lion’s Roar, Mirabai Bush recalls visits with her friend Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher and author of the classic Be Here Now, who died in December. This excerpt from her 2018 book Walking Each Other Home focuses on their discussions about how to handle fear, including fear of death.
In The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn explains how neoconservatives, discredited after the disastrous Iraq War, have regained influence in Washington notwithstanding President Trump’s professed aversion to military intervention. The recent assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani “revealed that the neocon military-intellectual complex is very much still intact, with the ability to spring back to life from a state of suspended animation in an instant.”
In the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Taylor Plimpton notes the vibrance of political activism about immigration, gun control, and climate change and asks, “Why, when it comes to war, are we so strangely silent?” The answers he comes up with make sense, but I’d add another one: There’s a failure to fully appreciate how much our current state of endless war impedes solutions to other problems we care about, especially global problems such as climate change.
In the Baffler, George Scialabba writes about Wendell Berry, the ecologically minded writer and, in some sense, spiritual leader. Scialabba compares Berry to other “anti-modernists” and winds up appreciative of Berry’s work but in some ways skeptical. Berry is a Christian, whereas Scialabba believes that “our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren.” Scialabba grants that anyone who “shares Berry’s Christian beliefs” should naturally “adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient—if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply—then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.”
In the New York Times, Kashmir Hill writes about a “groundbreaking facial recognition app” that could “end your ability to walk down the street anonymously.” The flip side: It could also mean that you could walk down the street wearing augmented reality glasses that would show you the name of everyone you saw.
In trying to figure out why the death of Roger Scruton, a philosopher I’d barely heard of, occasioned so many online laments from conservatives (especially those with Burkean and nationalist leanings), I was led to an interview of him published last year in the New Statesman. As the New York Times obituary explains, the interview was originally published in condensed form and got Scruton into a lot of trouble after a New Statesman editor said on social media that it contained “outrageous remarks” about things such as Islamophobia and George Soros. You can judge Scruton for yourself by reading the full, unedited version of the interview that the New Statesman later published.
In the Nation, climate-change activist Bill McKibben uses the epidemic of wildfires that has afflicted Australia as a teaching moment.
In Mother Jones, Tim Murphy writes that, if you want to understand the impeachment of Donald Trump, it helps to understand the many parallels between it and the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson—which, Murphy says, has been greatly misunderstood. If you’re not up for a deep historical dive, you can read Vox’s answers to nine basic questions about the impeachment, starting with a really basic one: “1) What is a Senate impeachment trial?”
An interactive feature in the Washington Post asks you 20 multiple-choice policy questions, then tells you which Democratic presidential candidates you’re most closely aligned with and shows you a handy chart depicting the candidates’ positions on the 20 policies you opined on.
In Aeon, historian Andreas Sommer laments “the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions.” Sommer says that, leaving aside whether “weird experiences” are valid guides to reality, people often benefit from them. One study found that nearly half of widows and widowers reported encounters with their dead spouses, and 69 percent of those found the encounters helpful, whereas only 6 percent found them unsettling.
On bloggingheads.tv (and on The Wright Show podcast), I discussed and debated the assassination of Suleimani and its aftermath with my Iran-hawk friend Eli Lake. I kept my composure most of the time. And speaking of me and Iran: In May I wrote in Wired about Trump’s unprecedented designation of a governmental entity—Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—as a terrorist organization, and how abjectly and expansively Facebook had accommodated this designation. This issue is newly relevant—both because the assassination was justified by some on grounds that Suleimani was a member of a terrorist group, and because post-assassination expressions of support for Suleimani have been censored by Facebook’s Instagram.
American officials belatedly disclosed that Iran’s retaliation for the Suleimani assassination—missile strikes on a base in Iraq—had in fact, contrary to earlier statements, caused American casualties. Some took this to mean that we came within a hair’s breadth of war, since a fatality would likely have brought American retaliation. But there’s reason to think it was more like three or four breadths. All the casualties seem to have consisted of either psychological trauma or “burst concussions,” which could have been suffered some distance from where the missiles hit. So my reading of the Iranian assault remains unchanged: Iran leaked word of the strikes so the troops could take shelter (though the US claims it got advance notice without help from Iran), and then hit its targets precisely. The idea was to avoid casualties, thus stopping the cycle of violence, while demonstrating that Iranian ballistic missiles, unlike the cruder missiles fired by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, have pinpoint accuracy and so could kill large numbers of Americans in the future. In this scenario, Americans may yet be killed to avenge Soleimani’s death, but if so this will be done by proxies, or at least without Iranian fingerprints, so as to reduce the chances of America’s bombing Iran in retaliation.
In 2013, in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins profiled the then-obscure Iranian military commander Qassim Suleimani, who was killed this week by American drone strikes.
In Foreign Affairs, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin assess America’s “40-year obsession with Iran”—and the misconceptions about Iran that sustain it. (There’s a paywall, but you can circumvent it via free registration.)
Apparently distraction was a problem for people even before there were entire Silicon Valley companies devoted to fostering it. Medieval monks complained about distraction (and information overload), according to historian Jamie Kreiner. In Aeon she shares some of their strategies for combatting it. (Warning: One of them is renunciation.)
In a Buzzfeed piece called “Twitter and Facebook’s Race To The Bottom,” Alex Kantrowitz recounts the past decade’s evolution of the two social media platforms—an evolution that, as you may have surmised, he doesn’t wholly approve of. He focuses on how the addition of new features made the two platforms more toxic. I wouldn’t call this a balanced assessment (surely Twitter’s addition of the quote-tweet wasn’t all bad!), but it nicely underscores the recurring problem of innovation’s unanticipated downsides. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Sarah J. Jackson has a few kind words about Twitter, which she says has brought previously unheard voices into influential conversations.
In Vox, Dylan Matthews lists his 12 favorite academic studies of the past decade. Some are encouraging (one finds that increased spending on public schools actually helps), but not all.
In the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof closed out last year by making the case that, “in the long arc of human history, 2019 was the best year ever.” Um, OK.
Reporting from Tokyo, Rosalind Adams of Buzzfeed assesses Aibo, a line of robotic dogs that use facial recognition and AI to “shift their personality over time based on their interactions with people they spend time with. Soon, they become much more than a store-bought toy.”