The hearts and minds of Olympic athletes function differently than most people's. I try to imagine what would have made me willing give up my teenage years, or even my 20s, to put my body through painful workouts six or more hours a day, year after year, just for the chance of winning a single competition. Without even a major sponsor, most likely. I may say, lightly, that I "love" running, hiking, kayaking and scuba diving. But the love of a sport, and the desire to win--and win BIG--burns far brighter and more intensely in Olympic athletes than I can even really imagine.
So part of the fascination of the games is watching these alien creatures perform feats above and beyond what normal people would even attempt, and watching them triumph or fail in glorious or horrific technicolor. They are our avatars, playing out a battle among the gods for the inspiration and entertainment of the mortals watching from the sidelines.
But within that select group, there are those who comprise an even more rarefied and fascinating sub-set: those who take on sports that are dangerous as well as difficult. Nobody worried that Michael Phelps was going to kill himself while swimming the 100 meter freestyle. But no matter what the final ruling is on the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympic games, last Friday's fatal accident there was hardly the first serious or even fatal accident in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics.
Nobody who grew up before the 1980s could forget the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports, with the ski jumper spinning and careening crazily off the side of the jump in the "agony of defeat." More recently, in the 2006 Turino Olympics, there were no fewer than 14 crashes in luge competition, with five significant injuries, including two head injuries that required hospitalization. And that pales next to the number of the top alpine ski racers who have struggled to come back from life-threatening crashes and injuries. Not all have made it.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's serious risk involved in sports that propel unprotected humans down unforgiving slopes and ice tubes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. And the athletes know the risks as well as anyone. It's what they do with that knowledge that makes them different.
Recent research has explored a number of physiological factors that might explain why some people are drawn to sports like BASE jumping, cliff diving ... or luge, ski jumping, or downhill ski racing, while the rest of us are not. Those extreme athletes may have lower levels of something called monoamine oxidase B, meaning that it takes a bigger thrill ride for them to get the same rush most of us get in tamer situations. Or, their brains may release different levels of dopamine, making them more sensitive (in a good way) to thrills. Or they may possess higher levels of neuropeptide Y, which allows them be less afraid in high-risk situations.
But when it comes to Olympic competitors, a significant factor is also the intensity with which they want to win. A goal that, at least on some level, they have to want more than they want to survive. Because in order to win in a risky sport when the difference between victory and defeat can be a few hundredths of a second, athletes have to suppress their natural self-preservation instincts and throw themselves, fearlessly and aggressively, onto a razor-thin and murky edge outside of control, but just this side of disaster.
Being fearless is a lot easier, of course, when you're young or haven't ever discovered where all that fearless aggression can land you. Which is why, despite all the fuss made over American Bode Miller's Bronze Medal and the unlikely Swiss champion, Didier Defago, in yesterday's men's downhill race, the most astounding accomplishment actually may have been the Silver Medal finish by Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal. Because two years ago, Svindal fractured bones in his face and had to undergo abdominal surgery to make sure his internal organs were intact after his ski sliced through his backside in a horrific downhill crash.
Normally, after an outcome like that, the human brain registers a distinctly negative association with the events that caused it to prevent the event from happening again--a reaction we generally recognize as "fear." In most people, that's a good thing. Helps the species survive, and all that. But you can't feel fear and be an Olympic or World Cup Champion. Feel fear, and your muscles tense, your technique tightens, and you can't take the risks necessary for victory. So for athletes who've sustained serious injuries--and there are a quite a few, in the Winter Olympic sports--and still want to win, the battle to overcome that natural survival instinct becomes a lot harder.
Some, like Antoine Deneriaz, who won the Gold Medal in the men's downhill at the 2006 Olympic games in Turino, only to suffer a spectacular crash three weeks later, decide their instincts were right, after all. Deneriaz struggled to come back, but right after the race in which Svindal was so badly injured, Deneriaz announced his retirement. The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I'm no longer able to assemble all the ingredients. Not only am I not going fast, but I'm no longer having fun. The mornings, when I grab my downhill skis, had become days of worry and doubt."
Downhill racer Scott Macartney, who suffered such serious head injuries in a race accident two years ago that he had seizures on the slope before being airlifted to a hospital, struggled to get his old speed and form back, but didn't quite make the Olympic team this year. An article about Macartney in Outside magazine last fall quoted another skier, also struggling to come back from a violent crash and injury, as saying, "you watch the guys on that pitch and you can tell who's been injured. You can see it."
It's understandable. It's reasonable, even. The astounding exception, then, is the athlete who wants to win so badly that even if they have a visceral, hard-wired memory of disaster, they manage to push past it to reclaim their old form and win. Which is what's so remarkable about Svindal's Silver Medal finish. Beating Bode Miller was the easy part. Whatever threat Miller and the others posed, it had to be nothing compared to the challenge of beating back his own fears and heightened, primal instincts for survival in order to go screaming down that mountain at 73 mph--on the ragged edge, and fast enough to win.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.