As a last entry in this space before turning things over to the guest team, and while the Hu-Obama State Dinner has not entirely faded from the news cycle, here is an atmospheric note, which I haven't seen much about elsewhere. It involves this scene:
One of the implied background themes of this state visit, from the U.S. side, was calmly reasserting that the U.S. has not, in fact, fallen completely apart or gone away. A year ago, during President Obama's visit to China, there was much hyperbolic moaning about America's desperate position as supplicant to its new Chinese paymasters. Since then, in various ways I won't belabor now, the U.S. has asserted some of its ability to recover (except of course in job-creation), its long-term commitment to Asia and the Pacific, and its diplomatic and institutional resilience. In this same year, the Chinese leadership has in many ways overstepped in military, economic, and diplomatic terms. Indications are that the Chinese leadership recognizes that it has overstepped, and realizes that these moves have made nearly all its neighbors warier of it, and closer to the US, then they have been in years. This doesn't mean the U.S. should launch some new bragging contest or doesn't have some serious problems. Rather it helps restore a situation better for all sides: a recognition that these are two powerful countries that will have ups and downs but will both be around for the long haul.
The other, complementary message - which ran through every statement by the President and his officials (and was even part of Henry Kissinger's essay just before the meeting) -- is that the United States is not trying to bottle up, contain, or thwart China. As Obama said again and again, China's getting richer doesn't make us poorer -- or shouldn't. It should make everyone better off. Because of sheer triteness, I don't like the term "win-win," but in whatever wording that was the message coming from every U.S. official. The logic here is that China will be the best version of itself if it doesn't feel hamstrung, constrained, disrespected, or resented, and recognizes that America's disagreements on human rights, or trade policies, are not attempts to block China's progress.
Now, suppose you thought those were two big US themes -- and then you considered the musical entertainment after the dinner. Here is what you might have noticed:
The program was nearly all jazz, by American performers of the first rank doing classic American numbers. To me the showstopper was the phenomenal singer Dianne Reeves --long famous in the jazz world and known more generally from her role as the 1950s singer in Good Night and Good Luck -- performing with pianist Peter Martin. And of course Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater and Chris Botti and more. It was very good, very up-paced, very loud, and very lively jazz, performed with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation ten feet away in the front row. Obviously music does not prove national economic vitality. (Cf Buena Vista Social Club.) But if you wanted, well, theme music for an America that still had some zip, this would be an artful choice.
And for the "win-win" concept? There was this improbable bit of showmanship: Herbie Hancock and the young Chinese-born, US-trained pianist-phenom Lang Lang, doing a four-hands rendition of a piece by Ravel with a Chinoiserie theme. They enjoyed each other, and embraced when it was done. Again, it doesn't prove anything, but it was a good choice. Lang Lang on his own then played a Chinese song.
My wife and I were seated two rows behind Bill Clinton during the music, and -- what a surprise! -- you could see him moving, bopping, smiling the whole time. When the event was all over, at the moment pictured above, Obama made the normal statesmanlike remarks -- and then had a nice ad libbed comment, that he thought he had detected Hu Jintao tapping his foot during some of the numbers. If you have seen the normal immobile public mien of Chinese leaders you get the joke. Hu gave the standard "heartfelt greetings!" response, but I mainly thought: it's a performance that made you proud and happy to be an American and had to have had some infectious effect. (Like the great Chinese-folk-blues performance I described here.)
The photo: OK, it's blurry, but it was with a camera phone in the dark at short notice. If you click, it's bigger but still blurry. Facing the camera, from left to right, you can more or less make out: Lang Lang, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, trumpeter Randy Brecker (standing back by the portrait), Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, DeeDee Bridgewater, bassist James Genus, Chris Botti holding trumpet, and Michelle Obama. That's the white-maned back of Bill Clinton's head you see in the front row on the right, and the back of Robert Gates's head in the very corner. While I'm at it, that's the back of John Kerry's head at the lower left -- and the baldish head in the center belongs to former SecState George Shultz. If you could see right through his head, you would detect Jimmy Carter, whose wife Rosalynn's head is visible immediately to Shultz's right. Joe and Jill Biden are standing directly in front of Obama. While I'm also at it, how incredibly small-minded was it of Harry Reid and John Boehner to decline invitations to this event?
Now you know, and I'll see you in a while.
UPDATE: Thanks to reader JE, I see that Lang Lang has posted the video of his duet with Herbie Hancock here:
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
Those who speak Toki Pona say linguistic simplicity can enable a more profound form of communication.
In Chinese, the word computer translates directly as electric brain.
In Icelandic, a compassis a direction-shower, and a microscope a small-watcher.
In Lakota, horse is literally dog of wonder.
These neologisms demonstrate the cumulative quality of language, in which we use the known to describe the unknown.
“It is by metaphor that language grows,” writes the psychologist Julian Jaynes. “The common reply to the question ‘What is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience unique, ‘Well, it is like —.’”
That metaphorical process is at the heart ofToki Pona, the world’s smallest language. While the Oxford English Dictionary contains a quarter of a million entries, and even Koko the gorilla communicates with over 1,000 gestures in American Sign Language, the total vocabulary of Toki Pona is a mere 123 words. Yet, as the creator Sonja Lang and many other Toki Pona speakers insist, it is enough to express almost any idea. This economy of form is accomplished by reducing symbolic thought to its most basic elements, merging related concepts, and having single words perform multiple functions of speech.
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
From Anaïs to Zizek, a brief list of "shibboleth names"
In October 1937, the president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, devised a simple way to identify the Haitian immigrants living along the border of his country. Dominican soldiers would hold up a sprig of parsley—perejil in Spanish—and ask people to identify it. Those who spoke Spanish would pronounce the word's central "r" with that language's characteristic trill; the Haitians, on the other hand, would bury the "r" sound in the throaty way of the French. To be on the receiving end of the parsley test would be to seal, either way, one's fate: The Spanish-speaking Dominicans were left to live, and the Haitians were slaughtered. It was a state-sponsored genocide that would be remembered, in one of history's greatest understatements, as the Parsley Massacre.