>In February 2008, a pair of suicide bombers struck the Israeli town of Dimona. One of the attackers detonated his explosive vest, killing an Israeli, and injuring nine others. The accomplice was shot before he could trigger his device. A bomb disposal robot then defused the bomb, and ran over the terrorist's body to make sure he wasn't carrying any more explosives.
The encounter symbolized the emergence of two opponents: robots and suicide terrorists. States and non-state actors have moved in opposite directions in the delivery of firepower. Advanced countries like the United States and Israel have developed unmanned weapons. By contrast, terrorist adversaries have adopted the ultimate manned weapon. On one side, you have a robot operated by a technician thousands of miles away. On the other side, you have an individual who is physically present when the weapon explodes. War is a contest between the impersonal and the personal.
Photo: Haim Horenstein/Getty
In the opening act of the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. pilots flew F-117A Nighthawks into Baghdad, hitting targets with laser-guided bombs. Today, two decades later, unmanned drone aircraft lead the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Directed by joystick-wielding pilots sitting in trailers in the United States, the Predator and the Reaper drone are able to stay in the air for at least 14 hours, watching and killing. The supposedly dovish President Obama has massively stepped up the drone war in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As Peter Singer wrote in his fascinating book Wired for War we are in the midst of a new chapter in warfare, with robots moving to center stage. The Predator and Reaper now have a brother on the ground. The SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, is a robot chassis that can mount an M-16 rifle or a grenade launcher.
But just when national militaries have evolved from manned to unmanned operations, non-state adversaries have gone the opposite route, with humans delivering the payload. In 1993, Ramzi Yousef followed the traditional terrorist playbook: planting a bomb inside the World Trade Center in New York City, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Eight years later, Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, masterminded a different strategy, with terrorists personally guiding aircraft into the Twin Towers.
To be sure, suicide bombings are only a small fraction of overall terrorist attacks. But they are on the rise. The current era of suicide terrorism began in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and quickly spread to civil wars in Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Chechnya. After 9/11, there was a dramatic uptick in suicide bombings in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Britain, and especially Iraq--where there were at least 783 attacks from May 2003 to July 2010. In the early years of the Afghan War, there were only a handful of suicide bombings, but in 2009 there were over 180 incidents.
The United States hopes to thrive in this brave new world of robots and suicide terrorists. Americans have long used machines to save soldiers' lives. And robots relish jobs that are dull or dangerous. Drones can patrol the battlefield around the clock. The SWORDS robot can hit its target with incredible accuracy. One day, a swarm of miniature insect robots armed with cameras may buzz around cityscapes, removing the fog of war from urban fighting.
But robots can lack a human's capacity to adapt to sudden changes on the battlefield. This, of course, is the suicide terrorist's ace card. He can switch target at the last second to maximize destruction, or fine-tune the kill. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka used suicide bombers to get close to, and assassinate, political officials, including former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
For optimists, the era of robots and suicide terrorists could allow the United States to land a one-two psychological punch. American automata send a powerful message: step on me and face a relentless wave of robot warriors. Shocked and awestruck, enemies will be left feeling helpless. Meanwhile, the brutality of suicide bombings marginalizes Al Qaeda's cause and helps us win the battle for hearts and minds. Our iron fist combined with the enemy's fanaticism leave only one winner.
Pessimists worry, however, about how the optics will look. The reliance on robots can make the United States appear both overbearing and vulnerable--just the combination to inspire resistance. Goliath bullies David with advanced technology. But Goliath's strength belies a fatal weakness--his craven fear of death.
Rami Khouri, a scholar and editor based in Beirut, described how the Lebanese viewed the Israeli drones in the 2006 war in Lebanon: "the enemy is using machines to fight from afar. Your defiance in the face of it shows your heroism, your humanity...The average person sees it as just another sign of coldhearted, cruel Israelis and Americans, who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us." America's population is as frightened as the lion from the Wizard of Oz. And its robots are as heartless as the tin man. Americans will not face death, whereas its enemies embrace it. In anti-American circles, the suicide terrorist may look like a brave rebel resisting the evil Galactic Empire.
The rise of robots and suicide terrorists could also make wars more likely. Suicide attacks such as 9/11 are so horrific they provide a powerful casus belli, rallying Americans to fight. And if presidents can respond by unleashing robots rather than citizens, with less fear of flag-laden coffins coming back, they may be even more tempted to grasp the SWORDS.
Donald Trump’s campaign manager wants to destroy the left. And the GOP nominee is just the most recent vessel of convenience in his consequences-be-damned crusade.
Stephen Bannon, who recently took over as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, once gave an interview, while promoting his 2010 film, “Fire From the Heartland: the Awakening of the Conservative Woman,” where he argued that Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Ann Coulter pose an existential threat to the left.
“These women cut to the heart of the progressive narrative,” he explained. “That's one of the unintended consequences of the women's liberation movement––that, in fact, the women that would lead this country would be feminine, they would be pro-family, they would have husbands, they would love their children. They wouldn't be a bunch of dykes that came from the 7 Sisters schools."
The quote captures a key attribute of the former U.S. Navy officer, whose stints at Georgetown University, Harvard Business School, and Goldman Sachs afforded a foothold at the core of America’s elite, enabling him to launch a film career that began with a Sean Penn collaboration before segueing into polemic right-wing documentaries.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The health benefits are clear. The political benefits are newly relevant.
Next time you enter an elevator, walk in and keep facing the back wall. If you stay that way, in my experience, people will laugh or ask if you’re okay. (That’s an opportunity, if you want, to say you would love for someone to define “okay.”)
Standing this way breaks unstated rules of how we’re supposed to behave in elevators. Detaching from expectations gives people an excuse to talk, to acknowledge one another’s humanity. Absent a break in the order, the expectation is silence.
(Of course, you can make a quick joke—my favorite is, if the elevator is stopping frequently, “What is this, the local train?”—and expect a modicum of laughter. But even if the joke goes over well, the rule seems to be that you can’t say it more than once in the same ride.)
The candidate’s campaign bought $55,000 worth of his newest book, Crippled America. But did they follow the law?
Sales of Donald Trump’s latest book, Crippled America, were decent, if not great—they easily beat out every other Republican candidate except for Ben Carson, according to Nielsen. But the Trump campaign found one way to boost sales: buying the books themselves.
The Daily Beast spotted in FEC filings that Team Trump purchased more than $55,000 worth of the book. (It’s been re-released in paperback with the sunnier title, Great Again.) Now, candidates buying up their own books is nothing new, but there’s a legal issue here. Campaigns can buy books in bulk assuming they don’t pay royalties, because if they do, then the campaign has effectively paid the candidate—which is against the law.
“It’s fine for a candidate’s book to be purchased by his committee, but it’s impermissible to receive royalties from the publisher,” legal expert Paul S. Ryan told the Beast. “That amounts to an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use. There’s a well established precedent from the FEC that funds from the campaign account can’t end up in your own pocket.”
City dwellers spend nearly every moment of every day awash in Wi-Fi signals. Homes, streets, businesses, and office buildings are constantly blasting wireless signals every which way for the benefit of nearby phones, tablets, laptops, wearables, and other connected paraphernalia.
When those devices connect to a router, they send requests for information—a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, a news article—and, in turn, receive that data, all over the air. As it communicates with the devices, the router is also gathering information about how its signals are traveling through the air, and whether they’re being disrupted by obstacles or interference. With that data, the router can make small adjustments to communicate more reliably with the devices it’s connected to.
Bruce Springsteen’s breakout album embodied the lost ‘70s—the tense, political, working-class rejection of an increasingly unequal society.
Forty years ago, on the eve of its official release, “Born to Run”—the song that propelled Bruce Springsteen into the rock-and-roll stratosphere—had already attracted a small cult following in the American rust belt.
At the time, Springsteen desperately needed a break. Despite vigorous promotion by Columbia Records, his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, had been commercial flops. Though his band spent virtually every waking hour either in the recording studio or on tour, their road earnings were barely enough to live on.
Sensing the need for a smash, in late 1974 Mike Appel, Bruce’s manager, distributed a rough cut of “Born to Run” to select disc jockeys. Within weeks, it became an underground hit. Young people flooded record stores seeking copies of the new single, which didn’t yet exist, and radio stations that hadn’t been on Appel’s small distribution list bombarded him with requests for the new album, which also didn’t exist. In Philadelphia, demand for the title track was so strong that WFIL, the city’s top-40 AM station, aired it multiple times each day. In working-class Cleveland, the DJ Kid Leo played the song religiously at 5:55 p.m. each Friday afternoon on WMMS, to “officially launch the weekend.” Set against the E Street Band’s energetic blend of horns, keyboards, guitars, and percussion, “Born to Run” was a rollicking ballad of escape, packed full of cultural references that working-class listeners recognized immediately.
The global education pioneer eases students into the classroom.
Heading into my first year of teaching in Helsinki I felt pretty nervous. One of my graduate-school professors—a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year—had warned me that Finnish students were academically advanced, especially in math. Indeed, Finland’s students had excelled on international standardized tests like the PISA for more than a decade. But it wasn’t just those high-performing Finnish students that intimidated me. Their teachers did, too.
If I had chosen to pursue master’s-level training as an elementary-school teacher in Finland (instead of the United States), I would have applied to the small handful of teacher-training universities, where annual acceptance rates hover around 10 percent. These programs are so selective, claimed The Atlantic journalist Amanda Ripley in her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, they’re “on the order of MIT.” Furthermore, Finland’s classroom teacher-training programs require five years of coursework, practicum, and thesis writing. The Finnish version made my two-year master’s degree in elementary education, through a non-selective college in the Boston area, look quite humble.
As more women become heads of state, will the world actually change?
Margot Wallström took office as Sweden’s foreign minister in 2014, declaring she would pursue a “feminist foreign policy.” She’s now held the post for two years, and it’s still not entirely clear what she meant. While it’s true that an entire school of feminist international-relations theory has developed since the 1980s, the field remains contested, and largely untested in the realm of policy. You could surmise from Wallström’s term, as she herself stated, that a “feminist foreign policy” would promote women’s rights around the world, but what would it say, for example, about the logic of preventive war? Would it prioritize free trade and open borders, or emphasize protecting workers from competition? Would it generate a new way of dealing with unsecured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union?
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.