How a jog around the National Mall inspired thoughts of national and personal pride
It's become a thing with me to get in at least one run when I'm out of town. I find this habit rather bewildering. In my head, I'm still living in some basement apartment in Brooklyn, cradling a one-year old, wondering at my fatherly qualifications, and scarfing ridiculous amounts of sugar -- in all forms -- like so many Scoobie Snacks. My 20s could be aptly labeled, with two major exceptions, a bad time for the empire. That being the first decade of adulthood, I just assumed that I was being offered a preview of my life. Perhaps I was.
It is a treasured corollary of the American Dream that most people who are successful in midlife were losers in high school. As you enter adult life, values change and the deck is reshuffled. You get another chance, and maybe, if you're lucky, the last laugh. But it isn't the last laugh. The deck is shuffled again as you enter the last chapter. How long you live, how fast you age, whether you win or lose the cancer sweepstakes or the Parkinson's bingo--all these have little to do with the factors that determined your success or failure in the previous round.
And there is justice in that.
...and stand humbled.
Whatever goodness has found me in my 30s -- and I have had a share -- is no more predictive than the evil of my younger years. Disease happens. Addiction tracks you down. Nothing is promised; death is the only contract that binds. Still, there are times when I know, at least for this moment, something has changed and the chaos has briefly broken my way.
Those moments mostly find me in bright shorts, a white shirt, and New Balance, waddling through some strange city -- down Austin's Colorado River, up San Francisco's killer hills, across the pebble path of the Capitol Mall. I am, in no sense of the word, "fast." My technique is to sleep in my gear, rise as early as can be deemed respectable, lumber along for some number of miles, and then return overly pleased in the fact that, at least on that day, I have done something.
This is how I found myself, at the end of last week, breaking through the dark, Union Station in the background, making my way past the Capitol, back (I think) around the Supreme Court, down to the Washington Monument, and then turning to complete an impromptu circuit. For me the benefits of running have always been more mental, than physical. It is the time alone, and the quasi-meditative state, I reach after about 20 minutes. Things that I can't process sitting at a desk assume a sort of clarity in the miles, and questions I had not thought to ask about, everything from the personal to the professional, come into focus.
My cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.
Out there, on the Mall, among the monuments, in this state, it all came at me -- the recent readings of American history, my own movements through life -- and it congealed into the oddest thing: an intense pride in country.
I spend much of this blog discussing race and teasing at the problems of American history. I think that it would be easy to see in that a scornful, pessimistic and cynical view of the country. On the contrary, I was much more scornful and pessimistic in my nationalist days. It's easier to attack the alleged fallacies of American democracy in the abstract. I've found it increasingly harder to do when measuring the country against the breadth of human history. My roots are radical and nationalist. I regularly depend on the skepticism gifted to me by the radical/nationalist tradition. Still, my cynicism has been dulled by my excursions into history.
I don't know if "American Exceptionalism" means much in this age, but it did, once. In The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell notes that in 1850, America was the last standing democracy in the Atlantic world. That claim must be qualified by the broad swath of Americans -- blacks, immigrants, women -- who were disenfranchised. At the end of the 19th century, Stansell notes that Utah and Colorado were two of the only places in the entire world where women could vote. The hackneyed notion that "America is a beacon for democracy" is usually deployed in arrogance. But in the time of Abraham Lincoln, it was a demonstrable fact.
I think of my parents born into a socially engineered poverty, and I think of their children enjoying the fruits (social mobility) garnered by the nonviolent, democratic assault on that social engineering. And then I consider that for centuries, over the entire world, if your parents were peasants, you were a peasant, as were your children.
I think it is proper to be proud of that change. I would not argue for a pride that insists America has worked out all of its problems, and evidences that work by exporting its institutions via tank and bomber. I would argue for a studied pride, a gratitude, that understands all that was sacrificed, that we could have easily tilted the other way, that the experiment is still, even now, fragile, and remains in constant need of the lost 19th century concept of improvement.
I didn't make it to the Lincoln Memorial, which is sad because I think Lincoln, more than any other president, was forced to grapple with the fragility of democracy. But here is what I did see at the end of my circuit--the oft-overlooked memorial to Ulysses Grant.
The sun was coming up. The city had just begun to shine. I took this awful picture. Then I kept running.
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
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle and the forthcoming Between the World and Me.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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.
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.”