When Survivor first aired, I watched the initial episode with the naive idea that it was actually a show about survival. As in, dump a group of people on an island, and the one or ones who is the best at building shelter, figuring out sources of food, and keeping their innovative and rational wits about them, win. With rescue teams to keep the others from actually dying. Imagine my disappointment to discover that it was, instead, a show offering a re-run of junior high cliques and pout-fests. "Oh, dear god," I thought. "Junior high was bad enough the first time. Spare me the torture of watching it all over again." But I reassured myself with the thought that surely, this kind of show wouldn't last.
Last, of course, doesn't begin to describe what's happened in the reality TV world. Rabbits should reproduce and spread so prolifically. And even a number of my very intelligent friends have become avid fans of one show or another.
My own view, however, has remained unchanged. If a sinister power wanted to get state secrets out of my hands, a few days of non-stop reality TV show watching would do the trick. Enough back-to-back Bridezillas, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, and Bachelor-babe catfights, with no hope of turning the channel, and I'd be pleading for mercy. But I'd also assume that I was the only torture victim in that equation.
Drawing on interviews with reality TV show contestants whose non-disclosure contracts have now expired, the article, headlined "Tired, Tipsy, and Pushed to the Brink," details a broad range of techniques routinely used on contestants, including sleep deprivation, isolation, taunting, food deprivation, and pushing of alcohol consumption. Take out the alcohol, and the list reads like a page straight out of a manual for enhanced interrogation techniques. Which both explains a lot, in terms of the bad behavior on those shows, and also provides a vivid illustration of why those techniques don't always get reliable intelligence from suspects.
Granted, reality show contestants have the option of leaving at any time--a significant difference. And one could argue that if contestants are stupid enough to sign on for the 15 minutes of humiliation fame reality shows offer, they deserve what they get. But even if contestants have visions of easy money or fame, I'm not sure they really know what they're getting into. Many may assume they can beat the system, knowing that they don't normally behave like the people they see on the shows. But even the stalwart feminist warrior Germaine Greer, who signed on to Britain's "Celebrity Big Brother" show in 2005 in the hopes of raising money for her rainforest charities, was overwhelmed by the abuse and dysfunction and quit after only four days. (Her account of her brief stay makes for interesting reading.)
There are undoubtedly any number of individual vulnerabilities and character flaws that plays into the equation, as well. But isolation, group pressure and sleep deprivation are powerful behavior-altering techniques, regardless of who's involved. That's why interrogators use them. When I was 16, I spent a week at a "Girl's State" convention that was ostensibly aimed at teaching us how to be better citizens. By the standards of reality TV, the experience was mild. But we were kept up late, roused early, and subjected to non-stop mandatory lectures each day. Group pressure to approve and conform was great. And within only a few days, almost all individual thought had evaporated. Each speaker got a standing ovation. Any differing opinion was booed, and the questioner ostracized. It was a frightening glimpse into how easy brain-washing and behavior modification are to accomplish--especially in a group.
Add alcohol, taunting, and the other tactics that seem commonplace in reality TV show environments, and you have a disturbing cross between George Orwell's 1984 and a modern-day Roman Coliseum. And yet, like the Romans of old, we cheer. We laugh. We watch. Seemingly without any twinge of conscience. And the puzzling question is ... why?
Is the entertainment quality of the shows that much better than the scripted programs we used to watch? I can't imagine I'd find many who'd say that. Are we so twisted that we love seeing other humans suffer? Or does watching the immature manipulative behavior, suffering and humiliation of seemingly-willing participants on those shows make us feel better about our own lives, no matter what we're going through?
Perhaps, like the contestants themselves, we don't realize what we're endorsing when we watch the shows, or buy the products they advertise. But that's beginning to change. As more information about the treatment of contestants comes out, will we continue to watch? Even knowing that that the last thing the behavior on reality TV shows represents is reality .... unless it's the reality of what vulnerable people will do under harsh and artificially-induced conditions?
The producers of these shows may be behaving as badly, or worse, than their inebriated, sleep-deprived contestants. But they could rightly argue that just as the slave trade depended on having people willing to buy the slaves, the reality TV shows depend on having audiences willing to watch. We are complicit. And as long as we are willing consumers of the product, the torture will continue--both for viewers who have increasingly fewer options in terms of what to watch, and for those hapless souls who sign up for a dream, and end up in a nightmare.
An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.
Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.
On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.”
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.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
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.
“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.
With Benoît Hamon’s defeat, his Socialist Party may be obsolete.
In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: in 2002, when incumbent President Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.
This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.
The organization has a flair for attracting media attention, but lacks a mass membership or scholarly expertise—and its connection to its famed namesake isn’t what it claims.
Sean Spicer was in trouble. In a press conference addressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people, the White House press secretary had fallen into one of his signature slow-moving train-wrecks of an analogy: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he said, later clarifying that he understood Hitler did use them in “the Holocaust centers” but didn’t use them “on his own people.” The claims were wrong in just about every way: Adolf Hitler used gas chambers to murder millions of Jews in concentration camps across Europe, including German citizens.
“BREAKING NEWS: SEAN SPICER DENIES HITLER GASSED JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST,” the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect wrote in all-caps on Facebook. “MR. PRESIDENT, FIRE SEAN SPICER NOW.” Weeks earlier, the center had slammed Donald Trump for being slow to condemn a recent wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers—“a Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration,” it said—and the White House’s failure to mention Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dozens of news outlets picked up the statements, and the group’s executive director, Steven Goldstein, was all over television. After all, this was the American organization that speaks for Anne Frank, the teenaged author of the world-famous diary about her life in hiding in Amsterdam before she was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.
Plant proteins called lectins are an emerging source of confusion and fear.
Two weeks ago, a publicist sent me an early copy of a book that claimed it would change everything I thought I knew about food.
That happens a lot. This one caught my eye because it warned of the “hidden dangers lurking in my salad bowl,” and I was eating a salad.
The book, The Plant Paradox, has an image of an artfully smashed tomato on the cover, and it tells readers that eating tomatoes is “inciting a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”
Tomatoes and ill-timed references to chemical warfare are, apparently, only a small part of the problem. The Plant Paradox urgently warns against eating wheat, beans, and peanuts, among other plants.
The president has been frustrated on many fronts in his first hundred days, but on his watch, unauthorized border crossings have fallen sharply.
Obamacare remains the law of the land. So does NAFTA. Tax reform exists only as pixels in a tweet. Infrastructure ain’t happening. Five months after the Republicans won united control of Congress and the presidency, it seems uncertain whether one-party Washington can avoid a government shutdown over a budget dispute.
Yet as Day 100 of his presidency nears, President Donald Trump can take credit for one huge accomplishment, an accomplishment more central to his election campaign than any of the unfulfilled pledges above. Illegal immigration into the United States has slowed dramatically. The Department of Homeland Security reports that illegal crossings across the southern border plunged 40 percent in the first month of the Trump presidency, the steepest decline in illegal migration since the recession of 2009. Illegal immigration by family groups with children has dropped by over 90 percent.
Yet it has already been a marked success for Le Pen and her strategy.
PARIS—Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist and ex-banker with a friendly lisp, who has improbably succeeded in casting a program of modest and highly technical economic reforms as a rousing project of French and European renewal, is France's presumptive next president. He will face Marine Le Pen, the 48-year-old leader of the far-right National Front, whose program of nativist populism would see France exit the European Union and all but halt immigration, in the final round of the country's presidential elections two weeks from now. But it is, by near-universal agreement, entirely Macron’s race to lose. The polls, which quite accurately projected his first-round win, have him besting Le Pen in the second round by at least 20 percent, and perhaps much more. The great wave of reactionary anger said to be cresting over Europe seems to have arrived about knee high in France.