Advising a president who is impervious to advice

Patrick Radden Keefe writes:

When Donald Trump had a phone conversation with Vladimir Putin on the morning of March 20th, the two were at an excruciatingly delicate juncture. American intelligence officials had concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential election, with the goal of helping Trump win, and Trump had become the subject of an investigation, by the special counsel Robert Mueller, into allegations of collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. On March 4th, a former Russian spy and his daughter had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, announced that the Russian state appeared to be responsible and expelled twenty-three Russian diplomats from the U.K.

Before a phone call to a foreign leader, American Presidents are normally supplied with talking points prepared by staffers at the National Security Council, which is housed in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Because conversations between heads of state can range widely, such materials are usually very detailed. But Trump, as a senior Administration official recently put it, is “not a voracious reader.”

The National Security Council has a comparatively lean budget—approximately twelve million dollars—and so its staff consists largely of career professionals on loan from the State Department, the Pentagon, and other agencies. When Trump assumed office, N.S.C. staffers initially generated memos for him that resembled those produced for his predecessors: multi-page explications of policy and strategy. But “an edict came down,” a former staffer told me: “ ‘Thin it out.’ ” The staff dutifully trimmed the memos to a single page. “But then word comes back: ‘This is still too much.’ ” A senior Trump aide explained to the staffers that the President is “a visual person,” and asked them to express points “pictorially.”

“By the time I left, we had these cards,” the former staffer said. They are long and narrow, made of heavy stock, and emblazoned with the words “THE WHITE HOUSE” at the top. Trump receives a thick briefing book every night, but nobody harbors the illusion that he reads it. Current and former officials told me that filling out a card is the best way to raise an issue with him in writing. Everything that needs to be conveyed to the President must be boiled down, the former staffer said, to “two or three points, with the syntactical complexity of ‘See Jane run.’ ” [Continue reading…]

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How dying offers us a chance to live the fullest life

Rowan Williams writes:

People still sometimes discuss the question of how you could tell that you were talking to some form of artificial intelligence rather than an actual human being. One of the more persuasive suggested answers is: “Ask them how they feel about dying.” Acknowledging that our lifespan is limited and coming to terms with this are near the heart of anything we could recognise as what it means to be human.

Once we discovered that Neanderthals buried their dead with some ritual formality, we began to rethink our traditional species snobbery about them and to wonder whether the self-evident superiority of homo sapiens was as self-evident as all that. Thinking about dying, imagining dying and reimagining living in the light of it, this is – just as much as thinking about eating, sex or parenting – inseparable from thinking about our material nature – that to have a point of view at all we have to have a physical point of view, formed by physical history. Even religious systems for which there is a transition after death to another kind of life will take for granted that whatever lies ahead is in some way conditioned by this particular lifespan.

Conversely, what the great psychoanalytic thinker Ernest Becker called “the denial of death” is near the heart of both individual and collective disorders: the fantasy that we can as individuals halt the passage of time and change, and the illusions we cherish that the human race can somehow behave as though it were not in fact embedded in the material world and could secure a place beyond its constraints. Personal neurosis and collective ecological disaster are the manifest effects of this sort of denial. And the more sophisticated we become in handling our environment and creating virtual worlds to inhabit and control, the looser our grip becomes on the inexorable continuity between our own organic existence and the rest of the world we live in. [Continue reading…]

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A solitary journey across Antarctica

David Grann writes:

The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground.

The man, whose name was Henry Worsley, consulted a G.P.S. device to determine precisely where he was. According to his coördinates, he was on the Titan Dome, an ice formation near the South Pole that rises more than ten thousand feet above sea level. Sixty-two days earlier, on November 13, 2015, he’d set out from the coast of Antarctica, hoping to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had failed to do a century earlier: to trek on foot from one side of the continent to the other. The journey, which would pass through the South Pole, was more than a thousand miles, and would traverse what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world. And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before. [Continue reading…]

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Nabokov’s experiments with time

Michael Wood writes:

Language has many forms of quiet kindness, refusals of stark alternatives. “Never” can mean “not always,” and “impossible” may mean “not now.” Insomnia may mean a shortage of sleep rather than its entire absence, and when Gennady Barabtarlo writes that “Nabokov typically remembered having his dreams at dawn, right before awakening after a sleepless night,” or indeed calls his own book Insomniac Dreams, we are looking not so much at a paradox as a touch of logical leeway. There is no need to go “beyond logic,” as Nabokov says one of the characters does in his story “The Vane Sisters,” but we do often need to bend it a little, ask it to relax.

In October 1964, Nabokov began the experiment that Barabtarlo expertly unfolds for us:

Every morning, immediately upon awakening, he would write down what he could rescue of his dreams. During the following day or two he was on the lookout for anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream.

He continued the record, written in English on index cards now kept in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, until the beginning of January 1965. He and his wife, Véra, were living at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. Lolita and his teaching career at Wellesley and Cornell lay in the past. He had published Pale Fire in 1962 and completed his translation of and commentary on Eugene Onegin, which appeared in June 1964. The English version of his early novel The Defense came out in September of that year, and he was working on the Russian translation of Lolita. The novels still to come were Ada, or Ardor (1969), Transparent Things (1972), Look at the Harlequins (1974), and the fragmentary, posthumous The Original of Laura (2009).

The “experiments with time” of Barabtarlo’s subtitle have several points of reference. There is the book An Experiment with Time, by J.W. Dunne, first published in 1927, with several later editions, which prompted Nabokov’s attempt at a dream record. A card dated October 14, 1964, is headed “An Experiment” and the words “Re Dunne” are written in a corner. “The following checking of dream events,” Nabokov writes,

was undertaken to illustrate the principle of “reverse memory.” The waking event resembling or coinciding with the dream event does so not because the latter is a prophecy but because this would be the kind of dream that one might expect to have after the event.

“Not because the latter is a prophecy” is the voice of Nabokov’s caution, and pretty much contradicts Dunne’s claim. His idea is that we routinely dream of the future but deny our experience because we think this can’t happen. Precognitive dreams are as normal as memory or anxiety dreams. [Continue reading…]

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How merchants use Facebook to flood Amazon with fake reviews

The Washington Post reports:

On Amazon, customer comments can help a product surge in popularity. The online retail giant says that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate because they are written by real shoppers who aren’t paid for them.

But a Washington Post examination found that for some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in.

Many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation. The practice artificially inflates the ranking of thousands of products, experts say, misleading consumers.

Amazon.com banned paying for reviews a year and a half ago because of research it conducted showing that consumers distrust paid reviews. Every once in a while, including this month, Amazon purges shoppers from its site whom it accuses of breaking its policies.

But the ban, sellers and experts say, merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into dispersed and harder-to-track online communities. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Mithoon & Maati Baani — ‘Naina Bawre’

 

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How the science of persuasion could change the politics of climate change

MIT Technology Review reports:

Jerry Taylor believes he can change the minds of conservative climate skeptics. After all, he helped plant the doubts for many in the first place.

Taylor spent years as a professional climate denier at the Cato Institute, arguing against climate science, regulations, and treaties in op-eds, speeches, and media appearances. But his perspective slowly began to change around the turn of the century, driven by the arguments of several economists and legal scholars laying out the long-tail risks of global warming.

Now he’s president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian-leaning Washington, DC, think tank he founded in 2014. He and his colleagues there are trying to build support for the passage of an aggressive federal carbon tax, through discussions with Washington insiders, with a particular focus on Republican legislators and their staff.

A small but growing contingent of fiscal conservatives and corporate interests are arguing for similar policies in the United States. They include party elders like former secretary of state George Shultz, energy giants like Exxon Mobil, and nearly two dozen college Republican groups. Taylor and others believe it’s conversations like these—with political elites, and focused on policies they can justify in conservative terms—that could eventually lead to real action on climate change.

While much of the research and debate today focuses on figuring out the right mix of clean energy sources, or on developing better and cheaper technologies, the real breakthrough that’s required might lie in the science of persuasion. We’ll never generate enough clean energy to dramatically cut emissions in the next few decades—while abandoning fossil-fuel plants that still work perfectly well—as long as so many political leaders adamantly deny even the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

As it happens, the academic literature offers insights on what drives such shifts in political sentiment, and it very much conforms with the approach that the Niskanen Center and other groups are taking. [Continue reading…]

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She tried to report on climate change but Sinclair told her to be more ‘balanced’

BuzzFeed reports:

Sinclair Broadcast Group executives reprimanded and ultimately ousted a local news reporter who refused to seed doubt about man-made climate change and “balance” her stories in a more conservative direction.

Her account, detailed in company documents she provided to BuzzFeed News, offers a glimpse at the inner workings of a media giant that has sought to both ingratiate itself to President Donald Trump and cast itself as an apolitical local news provider — a position the documents undermine.

In one 2015 instance, the former news director of WSET-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia, Len Stevens, criticized reporter Suri Crowe because she “clearly laid out the argument that human activities cause global warming, but had nothing from the side that questions the science behind such claims and points to more natural causes for such warming.”

In recent months, Sinclair has garnered intense national attention for forcing stations across the country to carry pro-Trump “must run” segments and instructing anchors to read statements touting conservative talking points. Sinclair, which owns local TV stations “affiliated” with name-brand networks like Fox or ABC, has defended the segments and noted they are a small part of its stations’ overall coverage — but Crowe’s experience as a general assignment reporter demonstrates how the parent company’s ideology can permeate throughout local news reporting. [Continue reading…]

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How do you celebrate Earth Day when Scott Pruitt is still at the EPA?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Today is Earth Day, and, to mark the occasion, thousands of Americans will flock to parks, beaches, and hiking trails. Others will stay home, monitoring their Twitter feeds for the latest Scott Pruitt scandal.

Like clockwork, the most recent one broke on the eve of the celebrations. The Hill reported on Friday that the lobbyist whose wife had rented a room to Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, at a very favorable rate, had tried to set up a meeting earlier this year with the E.P.A. on behalf of the philanthropic arm of one of his clients, despite having insisted he had had no business before the agency in two years. The firm, Williams & Jensen, had not, it appears, filed the needed disclosure forms for such contact, although a spokesman for Williams & Jensen told The Hill that it was in the process of correcting this mistake. (The firm, the spokesman said in an e-mail, “is filing/has filed the requisite disclosure forms required by law accordingly.”)

As of last week, at least ten investigations into Pruitt’s lordly spending habits and droit-de-seigneur ethical standards were under way. (More may have been initiated since then; it’s hard to keep track.) As many commentators have noted, in an Administration founded on the motto “You’re fired,” it’s remarkable that Pruitt has lasted as long as he has. And it’s unclear whether he can tough it out much longer; on Wednesday, the White House budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told lawmakers that he was looking into Pruitt’s widely lampooned “privacy booth.”

“I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Mulvaney assured members of the House Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, referring to the unauthorized expenditure of forty-three thousand dollars on the phone booth.

In the upbeat spirit of Earth Day, it’s worth hoping that Pruitt will soon be gone. But in the planetary-crisis spirit of the event, it’s worth pointing out that, if he is in fact booted, it will probably be for the wrong reasons. Pruitt’s lavish spending—on an oversized security detail, on weapons and bulletproof vests for said detail, on trips to Morocco and Italy that included his security detail, on trips to his home state of Oklahoma, on art for his office, on the Maxwell Smart phone booth—represents a variation on a familiar theme. Government officials who have pledged to serve the electorate instead use their offices to benefit themselves or their friends, or to indulge their taste for first-class travel or fancy furniture. But in Washington, as the saying goes, it’s not what’s illegal that’s the scandal, it’s what’s legal. Pruitt’s gravest wrongs involve not tens of thousands of dollars but, potentially, tens of millions of lives. [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ‘concessions’ were a show of strength by North Korea

Ankit Panda writes:

With less than a week to go before he sits down with his South Korean counterpart, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an impressive set of declarations. Following a meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee this week, Kim declared, among other things, that North Korea would shut down its nuclear testing site—known as Punggye-ri—and stop testing its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

If there’s one thing the North Koreans are good at, it’s messaging and propaganda. Kim’s announcement was published in the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state-run news media. Importantly, KCNA is intended for consumption by the world outside of North Korea’s borders.

With momentum in full-swing toward the summit with Moon Jae-in next week and an eventual, still unscheduled, historic summit planned with American President Donald Trump—the first-ever sit-down between two sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States—Kim has all the incentives in the world to make sure that these meetings come together as planned.

If the odds of a Trump-Kim summit stood at 50-50 before Friday’s announcement, they’ve now increased considerably. In fact, Kim has increased the costs considerably for Trump of backing out of a summit.

Without equivocating, it’s fair to say that both the declarations on nuclear testing and on halting the tests of ICBMs are significant concessions. Specifically, Kim announced that North Korea will “discontinue nuclear testing” and that the Punggye-ri site will be “dismantled to transparently guarantee the discontinuance of the nuclear test [sic].” On ICBMs, Kim simply said that no “inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire” would take place after April 21, 2018.

While significant, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that these concessions are being made out of a position of weakness or as a necessary show of bona fide goodwill to South Korea and the United States before the upcoming summits. Kim’s rationale for doing away with the nuclear test site was to underline that North Korea had already successfully come up with the nuclear weapons designs it needed. [Continue reading…]

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