CRF Blog

Why a total solar eclipse is such a big deal

Charlie Rose Interviews Joshua Green

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Joshua Green, author of Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.

Thoughts shouldn’t matter

by Bill Hayes

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Dan McLaughlin argues that In hate-crime prosecutions, thoughts shouldn’t matter.

Hate crimes are damaging because they look like hate crimes — that’s how the crime sends the message of fear. A better-designed law would simply ask the jury to consider the objective facts — such as how the defendant encountered the victim or the use of racial epithets — and determine whether a reasonable observer would consider it a hate crime. If people witnessing an incident wouldn’t recognize it as a hate crime, scouring the defendant’s browsing history adds nothing to public safety.

An objective observer test would also eliminate the need to list particular forbidden motivations, a sticking point in parts of the country …. [more]

Special Report on Asian Geopolitics

by David De La Torre

The Economist’s special report on Asian Geopolitics features the following articles:

Disorder under heaven looks at America and China’s strategic relationship.

An archipelago of empire traces America’s seven-decade history as Asia’s indispensable power.

The travails of a regional hegemon explores China’s battle for influence in its region.

When elephants fight examines how China’s Asian neighbors survive great-power rivalry.

Avoiding the trap looks at what America and China must do to head off a clash.

At RT, News Breaks You

by Bill Hayes

In At RT, News Breaks You, a Bloomberg Businessweek feature story examines the influence of the Russian news agency.

By the time Putin assumed Russia’s presidency in 1999, the country had developed a relatively robust post-Soviet media. Gradually he wrested every major outlet from private control and blanketed the airwaves with Kremlin PR. With the country also enjoying an oil and gas boom, Putin became more popular than ever. Abroad, not so much.

Enter Russia Today, which was developed by former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin as an urbane foreign counterpart to domestic telly. The network would imitate the look of Western cable news while disrupting narratives critical of Russia — or, as Putin later put it, while breaking “the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams.” Kremlin-funded, but in theory editorially independent, Russia Today was staffed by telegenic Brits and perfectly bilingual Muscovites. Its annual budget started at $30 million and increased 10-fold over the next five years. (By comparison, the BBC World Service’s annual budget is about $450 million; the federally funded Voice of America somehow spends $220 million.)

Most cable channels receive fees from broadcasters for the right to air them, but it wasn’t clear that Russia Today would draw enough viewers to make the prospect attractive to the likes of Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable. So the network paid for access to the largest U.S. cable markets — the same strategy Rupert Murdoch followed when Fox News was in its infancy — and an impossible number of random hotels around the country. It soon became clear, though, that nobody outside Russia cared to watch coverage of its domestic affairs. So in 2009, Simonyan, a wunderkind Russian reporter, pivoted to global news. She created Spanish- and Arabic-language bureaus out of Moscow, plus standalone operations in London and Washington, and dropped “Russia” from the channel’s name, rebranding it RT.

The shift created a new problem. During the Soviet era, Radio Moscow had pushed socialist ideology abroad, but none of the hallmarks of Putin’s Russia — he-man nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, cronyism — were so easily exportable. “Russia doesn’t have a coherent ideology to project,” says Alexey Kovalev, a Moscow journalist and media critic who formerly worked for the state news agency, RIA Novosti. “The only thing we can do is bring others on our level, to tell everybody that Western values don’t mean anything.”

In 2009, McCann Erickson created a slogan for the channel: “Question More.” Rather than foster a message of its own, RT would prick holes in everyone else’s. The next year it launched an offshoot, RT America, on the second floor of a building three blocks from the White House. [more]

Grammar’s great divide: The Oxford comma

Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower

by Bill Hayes

In Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell finds striking differences between the two men.

In “The Leaky Leviathan,” a study published three years ago in the Harvard Law Review, David Pozen attempts to understand a puzzle. Strict laws prohibit government officials from disclosing secrets, yet leaking has been a constant feature of American political life. Since the passage of the Espionage Act, in 1917, the federal government has prosecuted only about a dozen cases concerning media leaks of state secrets. That’s an astonishingly small number. Pozen, a Columbia law professor, cites one estimate that, between 1949 and 1969, 2.3 per cent of the front-page stories in the Times and the Washington Post were based on government leaks. Another study looked at just the first six months of 1986 and found that a hundred and forty-seven stories in the country’s eight major newspapers were based on leaks. The entire career of Bob Woodward, perhaps the best-selling political writer of his generation, is based on leaks. And yet, with a few symbolic exceptions, nothing is done.

“For a crime that Presidents describe as a major threat to national security and good government, the degree of ‘underenforcement’ is stunning,” Pozen writes. “Even if we were to limit the denominator to classified information leaks that the Intelligence Community (IC) is known to have otherwise documented publicly — which may be a small fraction of the universe of potentially prosecutable offenses — the historic indictment rate for leak-law violators would be below 0.3%. The actual rate is probably far closer to zero.” Even the recent uptick in leak prosecutions during the Obama Administration, Pozen argues, does not alter the fundamental pattern. In Washington, giving away secrets to the press is a crime largely without consequences.

Pozen easily dispenses with the idea that Administrations don’t prosecute leakers because they can’t find them. They can: information — particularly sensitive information — has a pedigree. When I worked on the science desk at the Washington Post, my colleagues and I would read a front-page story by our counterparts at the Times and invariably know where the leak on which the story was based came from. The first order of business was typically to call the leaker and complain that he or she was playing favorites.

Pozen argues that governments look the other way when it comes to leaks because it is in their interest to do so. He cites a story that ran in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post in 2012 about how the C.I.A., with the coöperation of Yemeni authorities, was using drone strikes against Yemen-based Al Qaeda militants. The drone program was classified: that story didn’t come from a press conference. Pozen says the story was clearly a “plant” — that is, a leak made with the full authorization of the White House. Letting the facts slip out served a purpose for the Obama Administration. A plant like that, Pozen writes, “keeps the American people minimally informed of its pursuits, characterizes them in a manner designed to build support, and signals its respect for international law.”

But if you want to reserve your right to plant an authorized leak, Pozen argues, you have to allow unauthorized leaks as well: “For a strategy of planting to work, it is critical that relevant audiences not immediately assume that every unattributed disclosure they encounter reflects a concerted White House effort to manipulate the information environment. The practice of planting requires some amount of constructive ambiguity as to its prevalence and operation.” [more]

For a related classroom lesson on Edward Snowden, see “Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Mass Surveillance. It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

The Controversial Afterlife of King Tut

by Bill Hayes

In The Controversial Afterlife of King Tut, Smithsonian magazine looks at the opposing theories about the Egyptian pharaoh.

Since Howard Carter discovered the tomb now known as KV62, in 1922, no pharaoh has inspired more “educated guesses” than Tut. He probably came of age during the reign of Akhenaten, a ruler who famously broke from centuries of polytheistic tradition and encouraged the worship of a single deity: Aten, the sun. Born “Tutankhaten” — literally, “the living image of Aten” — Tut is thought to have become king at age 9, and ruled (likely with the help of advisers) until his death at 19 or 20.

Compared with the long reigns of powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, Tut’s rule can seem insignificant. “Considering how much attention we pay to Tut,” said Chuck Van Siclen, an Egyptologist at the American Research Center in Egypt, “it’s as if you wrote a history of the presidents of the United States and devoted three long chapters to William Henry Harrison.”

Even so, it doesn’t take a Jungian analyst to understand why Tut has captured the world’s attention for so long. Egyptologists had long been forced to make do largely with scraps and fragments, but Tutankhamun’s tomb was found nearly intact and piled high with fantastical treasures. There was the absurdly beautiful burial mask, with its jutting false beard and coiled serpent, poised to strike. There were the rumors of the “curse” that had supposedly claimed the life of Carter’s deep-pocketed backer, Lord Carnarvon. And above all, there was the mystery of Tut’s death — he perished suddenly, it seems, and was placed in a tomb constructed for another king.

No one can be blamed for hoping that modern science, with its ever-increasing powers to reconstruct the past, would come to the rescue of this tantalizing mystery. The most recent phase of scientific Tut-ology began in 2005, when Zahi Hawass, then the head of the Egyptian antiquities service, used the latest technologies to study Egyptian mummies. He began with CT scans on a few royals at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, in Cairo (a.k.a. the Egyptian Museum), before driving the CT scanner to Luxor, for a test on Tut himself.

He found the mummy in appalling condition. It had been interred in three coffins, which sat in the sarcophagus like Russian nesting dolls. Over time, resins and ointments used in the mummification process had congealed, sealing the two inner coffins together. Carter had employed increasingly violent maneuvers to remove the mummy from the coffins, and to get at the jewelry and amulets. First, the innermost coffin was left out in the sun to roast, in the hope that the heat would melt down the resins. Next, at Carter’s suggestion, an anatomist named Douglas Derry poured hot paraffin onto the mummy’s wrappings. Later, they pried the body out and yanked various limbs apart, and used a knife to slice the burial mask away from Tut’s head. Carter later reassembled the mummy as best he could (minus the mask and jewelry), and placed it in a wooden tray lined with sand, where it would remain.

Hawass was looking at a shriveled, broken thing. “It reminded me of an ancient monument lying in ruins in the sand,” he wrote. Still, he and his scientific co-workers walked the mummy, which reclined on the tray, out to the CT scanner. [more]

Rate of European Drug-Induced Deaths

Infographic: Drug deaths in Europe | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

The Great A.I. Awakening

by Bill Hayes

In The Great A.I. Awakening for New York Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus explains how “Google used artificial intelligence to transform Google Translate, one of its more popular services — and how machine learning is poised to reinvent computing itself.”

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater. [more]

Drones and Everything After

by Bill Hayes

In Drones and Everything After, New York magazine reports what the effects of drones may be.

If you were creating, from scratch, a taxonomy to describe all machines, these drones would not belong to the same species. They would probably not belong to the same phylum. The technology of unmanned flight has diversified so rapidly that there are now 1,500 different kinds of drones being manufactured, and they are participants in nearly every type of human endeavor, composing a whole flying-robot ecology so vast that to call every one by the same name can seem absurd. But drone, an impossible word, is also a perfect one. Each of these machines gives its human operator the same power: It allows us to project our intelligence into the air and to exert our influence over vast expanses of space. Drones have become important to the pursuit of isis, the plans of Amazon and Google, the management of farmland in Asia, the protection of pyramids in the Andes. Just within the past two weeks, Facebook has announced a trial of a drone-based wireless internet, the delivery conglomerate DHL has revealed that it will use the machines to ship packages to isolated German islands in the North Sea, and the U.S. government has decided to allow Hollywood production companies to film from drones, making possible visual angles that have so far existed only in animation.

Drones are a different kind of new technology from what we’re used to. The communications breakthroughs of the past two decades have multiplied the connections within society, but drones offer something else: the conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything. This physical presence can be creepy when seen from the ground, in ways that echo the imaginings of science fiction. “Flying,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, who ran the robotics program at NASA’s Ames facility, “creates this dynamic where people are no longer on top.” And yet to the drone pilot, maneuvering through the air, it is liberating.

It’s an incredible thing, extreme elevation. It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable. Send a drone up, equipped with a camera, the control in your hands and your laptop rigged to see what the camera sees, and what you feel is not displacement but extension. Each of these flying robots, more than anything else, changes your perspective. Now anyone with a drone can watch the Earth from a point of view that once implied great power. This summer, the pastor of a prominent Evangelical megachurch in Texas delivered a series of sermons comparing God to a Predator drone.

Lost in the concern that the drone is an authoritarian instrument is the possibility that it might simultaneously be a democratizing tool, enlarging not just the capacities of the state but also the reach of the individual — the private drone operator, the boy in Cupertino — whose view is profoundly altered and whose abilities are enhanced. “The idea I’m trying to work out to simplify this whole thing — surveillance, drones, robots — has to do with superhero ethics,” says Patrick Lin, a technology ethicist at California Polytechnic State University. “It’s about what humans do when they have superpowers. What happens then?” [more]

Recent Political Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See Cagle’s collection of recent political cartoons.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

Civil Warrior

by Bill Hayes

In Civil Warrior for the New York Times Book Review, Thomas E. Ricks reviews William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough.

The surprise now, in 2016, is that this soldier, portrayed to generations of children as the father of the American style of scorched-earth warfare, was actually a politically shrewd general, probably more so than 99 percent of our top officers today. He grew up in a political atmosphere. His foster father and one of his brothers were United States senators from Ohio and also became secretaries of the Treasury. Though Sherman disliked the political world, he understood it well. He knew how Washington worked and how events there were affected by military operations. He understood, for example, that Union soldiers randomly stealing from the farmers of Kentucky would “turn the people against us.” This concerned him especially because he believed that holding Kentucky and Tennessee, and their rivers, was the key to winning the war. Another example: He knew that taking Atlanta at a time when Grant was stalemated in Virginia would help Lincoln win re-election in 1864. [more]

Trying to Remember J.F.K.

by Bill Hayes

In Trying to Remember J.F.K., for the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon reflects on the Kennedy presidency and discusses these projects: The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie; The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography by Michael J. Hogan; Jackie, a film by Pablo Larrain; and the JFK Presidential Library.

Both my grandfathers had died long before I was born, a reason perhaps, those mailed good wishes notwithstanding, for my never feeling anything personal toward Eisenhower. With Kennedy, politics aside, everything was intimate, aspirant, literally seen from below. From the inaugural ceremony (I was home from school for a snow day) to the assassination (I was absent, with a cold, playing chess with my uncle), I experienced most of the thirty-fifth Presidency lying on our braided living-room rug, head tilted upward to the television.

Rhetorically, the Administration was an aural experience, heard through the radio-style mesh of the TV speaker. Some of its less remembered lines fastened themselves to me more lastingly than the ghostwritten flourishes that have entered historical memory. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” On October 22, 1962, the syllogistic nature of this sentence seemed to impress me as much as the possibility it discussed. These were the words I reported to my father when he came through the door, arriving home from work past the middle of the speech.

A year later, when Kennedy made his civil-rights address, it was a rhetorical question, one that followed a list of indignities suffered by American Negroes, that registered with me: “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” This exercise in empathy had guaranteed appeal for an imagination susceptible to the weekly premises of “The Twilight Zone.” I could try to do this in the same way I had tried to see myself as Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character who breaks his glasses just after realizing he has a lifetime of peaceful post-nuclear-apocalypse reading ahead of him.

My paternally inspired devotion to Nixon remained weirdly keen, but Kennedy was now my leader, and I was ready to put my undersized shoulder to the wheel. Project Mercury (an Eisenhower program, I feel conservatively compelled even now to point out) had found in the new President a leader who looked as if he could himself be one of the seven astronauts in whose progress I took an obsessive interest. I was most comfortable surrendering to Kennedy when he was in the company of those pilots, making postflight calls, pinning on medals, or just being at Cape Canaveral with them, wearing his Ray-Bans. The incipient sexual dimension of all this is obvious to me now. Why should I have been less vulnerable than anyone else to the projection of desire onto Jack and Jackie? Even eleven-year-olds may have realized that this President, his hand always furtively in and out of his jacket pocket, had his own barely kept secrets. [more]

Children of jihad

by David De La Torre

In Children of jihad, The Economist reviews these two books: Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy and Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by Fernando Reinares.

Olivier Roy’s new book, “Jihad and Death”, asks why young European Muslims are drawn to Islamic State (IS) and why the West is so terrified of it. Mr Roy, a French authority on Islamism, regards IS as the monstrously inflated product of its own propaganda; it is, he says, first and foremost a death cult. Despite Islam’s injunction against suicide, it persuades Muslims to fight and die under the banner of a chimerical Islamic caliphate. Why, then, should such a nihilistic message be so appealing? Mr Roy’s answer is that IS has successfully marketed itself to the children of modern youth culture. Its recruits know little about Islam; they like alcohol, rap music, martial arts and violent American films. Many have spent time in prison. In their eyes, IS is heroic and glamorous. [more]