An op-ed piece in TheNew York Times today chastised the NFL medical professionals for acting as if the evidence that concussions and repeated blows to the head can cause long-term brain injury were new. The piece cites research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1928 that came to that very conclusion, from a study of former boxers who had been rendered, as the saying goes, "punch drunk."
How is it, says Deborah Blum, the piece's author, that we are still discussing this problem as new and perhaps unproven, 80 years after the fact?
It's simple. As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
The NFL, and football in general, has not developed its warrior culture of clashing helmets, hand-to-hand combat, and hard-hitting sacks and tackles in a vacuum. Or even against the wishes of not only its coaches and owners, but the people who come to the coliseum to watch the gladiators grapple. As the Super Bowl looms this weekend, the crowds that gather to watch will be hoping more for battle than ballet. Without the bloodshed, of course, and with some really poetic passes and fakes, speed in motion, brilliant strategy, and breathtaking feats of impossibility in the fray. But battle, nonetheless.
There is money and excitement in the combat, so seeing the medical evidence that the action is not entirely without bloodshed or casualties is a really inconvenient truth. But the culture of football is also so closely linked with its fierce contact element that changing its approach to that element is not a simple switch.
Can a sport's culture change? Given that football players already wear far more padding than they used to, the easy answer is "yes." At least to some degree. And sportscasters are now making an effort not to glorify getting "jacked up" or the sounds of clashing helmets. Nobody gets a sense that they like it; it's just that sportscasters and networks recognize the fact that, somehow, a tide has turned.
But the truth remains that changing any culture is a slow and difficult process--especially in sports where participants get a certain amount of pride in the fact that it's not entirely safe.
Take, for example, the sports of flying and SCUBA diving. Both activities started out as necessarily "macho" endeavors, because the technology for each was pretty rudimentary, and the environments in which they operated were naturally hostile. An article in California Medicine in 1970 (23 years after Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented the first regulator and open-circuit breathing system) estimated that SCUBA diving was approximately 96 times more dangerous than driving a car.
I don't have the exact statistics on early flying fatalities, but they were staggeringly high. A fighter pilot's average life expectancy in World War I was something in the order of three weeks. And in Ernest Gann's classic book Fate is the Hunter, he devotes five full pages to a double-column list of early airline pilots who died on the job, just flying the line. And that was after engines and materials had progressed considerably from the days of the barnstormer.
But those early risks meant that those who took on those risks took a lot of pride in survival. The swaggering barnstormers knew they were defying death, as did the diving pioneers of Jacques Cousteau's early era. And so a kind of "macho" culture evolved; one where risk-taking was at least tacitly admired.
Today, the culture associated with SCUBA diving is markedly different. Those who dismiss safety or regulations are not held up as heroes, but as idiots, and there's a much greater focus on safety practices like having a dive buddy, decompression stops, and strict adherence to dive times and depths. Recreational SCUBA diving still has some risk (each year, somewhere around 100 people still die out millions of divers, worldwide), but its safety record, and its culture, have shifted dramatically toward the safety end of the scale.
How did the SCUBA industry improve its safety record so dramatically? Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a greater emphasis on training and technique was certainly was a piece of it. But improved equipment also meant that the sport could start attracting less physically fit and risk-tolerant people into its midst. And the greater number of clients that allowed meant more money for SCUBA industry operators. So there was an incentive to skew toward safety. There may have been other factors at play, as well. But at some point, a critical mass developed to turn the tide, and the sport developed a culture and reputation as something relatively "safe," with safety as a high priority for its promoters and participants.
Aviation, on the other hand, has remained a tougher nut to crack. It still requires a lot of training and investment of money to become a pilot, and airplanes are far more expensive to buy, and far more complex to maintain, than SCUBA equipment. So despite all the manufacturers' efforts to market the idea of "an airplane in every garage," the pilot population, unlike the SCUBA population, has not grown significantly in the past three decades. As a result, the old guard who pride themselves on their bravery remain a larger percentage of the pilot population. And there is less internal pressure for the culture to change.
Given that football is not about to start attracting less physically fit individuals, and that the NFL is not about to become a recreational family sport, what is perhaps surprising is not that it's taken this long for the tide to start turning with regard to the injuries its players sustain, but that it's even beginning to turn now.
What caused the shift? The fact that football, unlike flying or diving, is a spectator sport. So even if we're not playing on the teams, we--the ticket-buying, bet-placing, television-watching public--influence its culture. And over the past year, enough evidence and stories emerged, with enough publicity, in enough places, that even if we wanted to believe otherwise, it became difficult to avoid the truth. Images of former hero athletes no longer able to conduct their daily lives, or even fill out a form without help, began to tweak our collective conscience. It's hard not to have the realization lodge, somewhere inside, that this heartbreaking damage occurred, at least in part, because of our own selfish desire for entertainment.
If we didn't have those twinges of guilt, the impassioned arguments of people like Gay Culverhouse, the former president of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who's become a leading advocate for disabled players, would not have had such an impact. Indeed, the NFL's initial resistance to the growing swell of publicity and medical reports this past fall arguing a link between on-the-job head injuries and neurological problems later in life felt very much like an unfortunate delayed reaction on the part of its managers. The public got over its reluctance to see the evidence before the industry did.
Football is still a contact sport, and its appeal will remain rooted in its conflict. So it's unlikely to become domesticated anytime soon. But quarterbacks now routinely wear rib protection. Helmets are larger. Change has already begun creeping in around the edges, if only to protect each team's assets. And we, the spectators, have adjusted. Just as collegiate ice hockey players today can't imagine a world in which face guards didn't exist, we will soon get used to players going off the field and not coming back in the game--and a culture that doesn't glorify the crash of helmets quite so gleefully.
The old guard might complain that the sport is losing its edge. But what we gain is an ability to enjoy the game with a little less guilt. We may still cringe at some of the more spectacular take-downs on the field. But at least our consciences won't have to cringe, as well.
FEMA Director Craig Fugate on why the Katrina response failed, why it’s important to talk about “survivors” instead of “victims,” and why citizens can’t just wait for the government to save them in a huge disaster
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
Fractured by internal conflict and foreign intervention for centuries, Afghanistan made several tentative steps toward modernization in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s. Keep in mind, when looking at these images, that the average life expectancy for Afghans born in 1960 was 31, so the vast majority of those pictured have likely passed on since.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
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.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
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.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
What do Google's trippy neural network-generated images tell us about the human mind?
When a collection of artificial brains at Google began generating psychedelic images from otherwise ordinary photos, engineers compared what they saw to dreamscapes. They named their image-generation technique Inceptionism and called the code used to power it Deep Dream.
But many of the people who saw the images reacted the same way: These things didn’t come from a dream world. They came from an acid trip.
The computer-made images feature scrolls of color, swirling lines, stretched faces, floating eyeballs, and uneasy waves of shadow and light. The machines seemed to be hallucinating, and in a way that appeared uncannily human.
The idea behind the project was to test the extent to which a neural network had learned to recognize various animals and landscapes by asking the computer to describe what it saw. So, instead of just showing a computer a picture of a tree and saying, "tell me what this is," engineers would show the computer an image and say, "enhance whatever it is you see."
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.