The German chancellor, who has also been Greece's most important champion, is facing a domestic political challenge.
It happened. Standard & Poor's downgraded Greece's long-term rating Monday to "Selective Default." And, well, the markets seem to be fine. Greece seems to be fine. The one who's really in trouble, though, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The German leader has had one heck of a bad week-and-a-half, and the hits keep coming. The Greek bailout vote and the S&P downgrade are part of it. But the rotten political run began last Sunday with a confrontation that, on the surface, had absolutely nothing to do with Greece. Instead, it had to do with appointing a new German president.
The president of Germany is, in theory, elected: the members of the German parliament--the Bundestag--together with various delegates from the German states form the Federal Convention, who choose the president by secret ballot. But such is the power of coalition politics that the president, in practice, is more or less appointed, following a flurry of activity behind the scenes among whichever parties jointly hold a majority.
The old president of Germany, Christian Wulff, resigned February 17 over corruption allegations involving a loan, after having said for months that no resignation would be necessary. Merkel's reigning coalition, made up of her own Christian Democratic Union, its sister the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democratic Party, then had to come up with a successor.
It turns out, though, that FDP chairman and German vice chancellor Philipp Rösler came to his 5pm Sunday meeting with Merkel looking for a fight. Anonymous sources told Der Spiegel that Rösler came to the meeting having already gotten a unanimous vote from FDP leadership for Joachim Gauck as a candidate--the very Joachim Gauck whom Merkel had rejected for the presidency in 2010 and whom both she and her party were against this time around as well. Though Merkel and the FDP have tussled quite a bit in the past few months--Der Spiegel's team phrases it as "Merkel has humiliated the FDP repeatedly," while "the FDP has done nothing to defend itself"--the opposition took Merkel by surprise. Rösler apparently left the chancellor no choice: if the CDU/CSU voted for their candidate, Christian Töpfer, the FDP would vote with the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, effectively ending the coalition through which Merkel has governed.
So that was Sunday, February 12. The following Tuesday, European leaders finally settled the terms of a second bailout for Greece. It was greeted in Germany, as I explained last week, with very little enthusiasm. That is to say: half a dozen op-eds suggested it's a losing battle, a few wanted to drop the project entirely, and another half dozen pleaded for patience while Greece gets its stuff together. Given that European solidarity is Merkel's signature issue, the waning public enthusiasm wasn't a good sign.
A poll quantified that waning enthusiasm: Sunday, February 26 weekly newspaper edition Bild am Sonntag reported an Emnid Institute poll showing 62 percent of Germans opposed the bailout--up from 53 percent in September.
But that wasn't the only blow Merkel was to receive over the weekend. Evidently unknown to her, her interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, had also given an interview to Der Spiegel in which he came out in favor of Greece exiting the euro. When the interview was published on Monday, Merkel was then had to rebuke her own minister by announcing that she "[didn't] share this view," while Friedrich, presumably after some awkward behind-scenes shuffling, tried in Der Spiegel's words "to distance himself from his own statements." Happy Monday.
Then came vote time: the Bundestag had to approve the bailout package. Though the package passed, it did so without an absolute majority, and with 17 of Merkel's own coalition members defecting. That was enough for opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of Merkel's previous coalition with his SPD party, to declare Tuesday that "the collapse of the [current] coalition is in full swing." In remarks made to Der Tagesspiegel, he announced: "this is the twilight of the chancellor."
And now S&P has downgraded the Greek debt, not just despite the bailout package, but because of it. Greek default may always have been on the horizon, but the immediate "Selective Default" rating on the long-term debt seems unlikely to play well in public opinion.
Let's not be too hasty to accept the words of a man who is, for now at least, Merkel's adversary. Merkel has proved a canny operator on more than one occasion, and Steinmeier has every incentive to declare her coalition done-for as soon as possible. That said, this is not looking good. Athens and the markets may be weathering the downgrade all right for now, but their champion is taking some hits. And Merkel is the Greek champion right now, much though rioting Athenians despise her for the austerity measures they've been forced to accept: for over a year now Merkel's been the keystone in the European effort to break Greece's staggering financial fall.
So take the markets' nonchalance about S&P's downgrade with a grain of salt. Greece was probably always headed towards default, and it may even already be set to leave the euro. But how hard the country hits the ground makes a big difference, and Merkel is a big factor in how hard Greece hits the ground. Right now, she's looking a little shaky.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cuts-only plan President Trump is expected to unveil Wednesday follows a pattern: The risk associated with higher deficits takes a back seat when it comes with political pain.
“I am the king of debt,” Donald Trump famously boasted during last year’s campaign. On Wednesday, the president is going to set about proving it—but perhaps not in the way he originallymeant.
All indications are that the tax plan the White House is slated to unveil will include what Trump has described as a “massive” cut in the rate that corporations and many small businesses pay to the government. But it will omit the more politically painful choices that Republicans would need to make to offset the correspondingloss of revenue, such as HouseSpeaker Paul Ryan’s proposed tax on imports or the elimination of popular deductions for charitable giving and homeowners. The result is a tax plan that, like the ones Trump offered as a candidate, could add trillions of dollars to the national debt. You can call them tax cuts, but they aren’t tax reform.
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.
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.)
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.