>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.
David Bentley Hart’s text recaptures the awkward, multivoiced power of the original.
In the beginning was … well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? In the beginning was the Word, says the Gospel according to John—a lovely statement of the case, as it’s always seemed to me. A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever: God’s power chord, if you like. For David Bentley Hart, however, whose mind-bending translation of the New Testament was published in October, the Word—as a word—does not suffice: He finds it to be “a curiously bland and impenetrable designation” for the heady concept expressed in the original Greek of the Gospels as Logos. The Chinese word Tao might get at it, Hart tells us, but English has nothing with quite the metaphysical flavor of Logos, the particular sense of a formative moral energy diffusing itself, without diminution, through space and time. So he throws up his hands and leaves it where it is: “In the origin there was the Logos …”
Carrie Bradshaw, Hugh Hefner, and Barbie have all helped construct a new generation's ideal woman, who is athletic, alluring, ... and waxed.
Meet Sophia Pinto: the 21st century's standard-issue, all-American perfect 10.
The 5-foot-5 Minnesota native -- a sly, funny, 22-year-old natural blonde who spends every summer bikini-clad on the shores of Lake Minnetonka -- works out five days a week. Her slim waist and megawatt smile hearken back to the polyvinyl glamour of the original Barbie doll.
In fact, if Mattel were to redesign Barbie based on the new millennium's ideal woman, she would likely resemble Pinto. Healthy, athletic, alluring, and smart (Pinto will graduate early this month from Northwestern University), she's both a role model and a sex symbol.
And if you were to undress Pinto, you'd find she embodies yet another trademark characteristic of the plastic glamour girl-turned-careerwoman: Like Barbie, Pinto has no pubic hair.
A conversation about inheritance, philanthropy, and aging with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the law professor Saul Levmore
What is the right way to age? It’s a question that isn’t explored enough in American society, where, seemingly, people are expected to be forever young, until, suddenly, they are not. Reflecting this binary, any writing about a long life’s final decades tends toward extremes. On one hand, there are the accounts of heroic men and women who still put in more than 40 hours a week on the job in their late 60s and early 70s (a genre I like to call “retirement porn”). On the other, there are the articles warning about the dangers of not adapting a home for aging bodies, or the plague of financial scammers targeting lonely or cognitively challenged seniors.
That leaves out a vast middle, the space where many older people actually, you know, live their lives. Luckily, Martha Nussbaum, the renowned philosopher and ethicist at the University of Chicago, and Saul Levmore, the former dean of and a current professor at the university’s law school, decided to explore that middle. The result? The recently published Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret.
Students don't seem to be getting much out of higher education.
I have been in school for more than 40 years. First preschool, kindergarten, elementary school, junior high, and high school. Then a bachelor’s degree at UC Berkeley, followed by a doctoral program at Princeton. The next step was what you could call my first “real” job—as an economics professor at George Mason University.
Thanks to tenure, I have a dream job for life. Personally, I have no reason to lash out at our system of higher education. Yet a lifetime of experience, plus a quarter century of reading and reflection, has convinced me that it is a big waste of time and money. When politicians vow to send more Americans to college, I can’t help gasping, “Why? You want us to waste even more?”
The cryptocurrency is almost certainly due for a major correction. But its long-term value remains a mystery.
To call Bitcoin the biggest and most obvious bubble in modern history may be a disservice to its surreality.
The price of bitcoin has doubled four times this year. In early January, one bitcoin was worth about $1,000. By May, it hit $2,000. In June, it breached $4,000. By Thanksgiving, it was $8,000. Two weeks later, it was $16,000.
This astronomical trajectory might make sense for a new public company with accelerating profits. Bitcoin, however, has no profits. It’s not even a company. It is a digital encrypted currency running on a decentralized network of computers around the world. Ordinary currencies, like the U.S. dollar, don’t double in value by the month, unless there’s a historic deflationary crisis, like the Panic of 1837. Instead, bitcoin’s behavior more resembles that of a collectible frenzy, like Beanie Babies in the late 1990s.
Will the vice president—and the religious right—be rewarded for their embrace of Donald Trump?
No man can serve two masters, the Bible teaches, but Mike Pence is giving it his all. It’s a sweltering September afternoon in Anderson, Indiana, and the vice president has returned to his home state to deliver the Good News of the Republicans’ recently unveiled tax plan. The visit is a big deal for Anderson, a fading manufacturing hub about 20 miles outside Muncie that hasn’t hosted a sitting president or vice president in 65 years—a fact noted by several warm-up speakers. To mark this historic civic occasion, the cavernous factory where the event is being held has been transformed. Idle machinery has been shoved to the perimeter to make room for risers and cameras and a gargantuan American flag, which—along with bleachers full of constituents carefully selected for their ethnic diversity and ability to stay awake during speeches about tax policy—will serve as the TV-ready backdrop for Pence’s remarks.
Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?
The "Weinstein effect" continues to roil the nation’s power centers. But the allegations against the president have largely stayed in the background.
It’s been two months since the reckoning began. In early October, The New York Times and The New Yorker first published the alarming accounts of women who said they’d been assaulted by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Rare is the day since then that women, and some men, haven’t come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct from famous and not-so-famous men alike.
Lurking in the background of the roiling debate about harassment and assault in American society are the allegations made against President Trump by at least 19 women, many of whom came forward after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016. Trump vociferously denies any wrongdoing. “Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?” a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, in late October. “Yeah, we’ve been clear on that from the beginning, and the president’s spoken on it,” Sanders replied.
How filler words and tiny pauses keep conversations from going off the rails
When one person asks another a question, it takes an average of 200 milliseconds for them to respond. This is so fast that we can’t even hear the pause. In fact, it’s faster than our brains actually work. It takes the brain about half a second to retrieve the words to say something, which means that in conversation, one person is gearing up to speak before the other is even finished. By listening to the tone, grammar, and content of another’s speech, we can predict when they’ll be done.
This precise clockwork dance that happens when people speak to each other is what N.J. Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, calls the “conversation machine.” In his book How We Talk, he examines how conversational minutiae—filler words like “um” and “mm-hmm,” and pauses that are longer than 200 milliseconds—grease the wheels of this machine. In fact, he argues, these little “traffic signals” to some degree define human communication. What all human languages have in common, and what sets our communication apart from animals, is our ability to use language to coordinate how we use language.
No one should expect a woman with a newborn to be "on cloud nine."
Early one morning when my daughter Rosie was a few weeks old, I packed her up in a baby carrier and took her to the drugstore, which felt at the time like an ambitious outing. It had been a rough night, and she was now happily sleeping off her bender. I got into line with my stain stick and baby wipes and let my eyes go out of focus.
"Can I see this little one?" said a smiling voice at my shoulder. I turned around so that the older woman behind me could peek at the tiny creature nestled against my poop-stained shirt. She sighed, looked deep into my bloodshot eyes, and asked, "Aren't you just on cloud nine?"
Actually, I was queasy with fatigue. I was sad about the way my husband and I had snapped at each other while Rosie was crying the night before, and fretful about when she would regain her birthweight, and slightly freaked out about how totally my life had been upended and whether it would ever be mine again. And I was more than a little worried about this cloud nine. What was this supposed to feel like?