Stop Talking About ISIS

Aleppo, Syria - Rebel checks his weapon, in Aleppo, Syria

Have you thought about ISIS this week? Unless you live in a cave, the answer is probably yes — even if you didn’t want to. The TV at the gym, the radio, the web. ISIS is part of our daily lives now.

The problem is, that’s exactly what ISIS wants. Every newscast, video and article about them — including this one — enhances our sense of threat and their feeling of power. They murder innocents in utterly gruesome ways to get our attention. Why should we give it to them? Perhaps, instead, the media should treat them like parents treat children who are acting out. Ignore them. Refuse even to acknowledge them. 

Granted, giving ISIS the silent treatment sounds counterintuitive. It smacks of censorship, which is more aligned with extremist values than democratic ones. Besides, we need to know what they are doing if we want to stop them, right?  

Not necessarily. In fact, the way Western media disseminates ISIS’ discourse — inadvertently, of course — might give more force to the movement. The members of the would-be caliphate are “experts in viral advertising,” says Amanda Rogers, a University of Wisconsin post-doc who studies “the semiotics of rebellion.” And the Western media, she says, “is playing right into their hands by spreading their materials.” 

Consider: ISIS produces its films like low-budget horror movies. The backdrops, high-res images and meticulous editing are calibrated to produce shock. The media’s resulting obsession with these videos could entice would-be jihadis. “The more we make them into the ‘public enemy No. 1,’ the more potential recruits feel like what ISIS is trying to do is actually possible,” says Clark R. McCauley, a social psychologist at Bryn Mawr College and author of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us.

But what about media’s duty to inform, and a free press? Trickier, to be sure, but media in the most democratic societies don’t apply those values uniformly or absolutely. Out of respect, most Western outlets refused to air images of Westerners’ executions, though they have shown lurid images of Syrians and Iraqis slain by ISIS. Tsunamis of coverage follow a Westerner’s murder by ISIS, but daily killings of Syrians or Iraqis are systematically underreported. The Western media’s biases, though probably inevitable, have become more ammunition for ISIS to accuse the West of Islamophobia — and have alienated many Muslims.

Pedestrians walk past a large screen in Tokyo on January 28, 2015 showing television news reports about Japanese hostage Kenji Goto who has been kidnapped by the Islamic State group.

Pedestrians walk past a large screen in Tokyo.

Of course, convincing every single media outlet in the world to stop talking about ISIS would be impossible. Withholding such eye-grabbing information goes against journalists’ most fundamental instincts and the industry’s most commercial aspects. “You can’t put the cat back in the bag now,” says Rogers, the semiotics expert. She believes that instead of a full blackout, mass media should provide better context, add more analysis and jettison sensationalism.

Well, that’s likely. (Not.) At this point, it might be more realistic to expect the media to simply shut up about it. It wouldn’t have to be forever. Maybe one week of silence on the issue could be enough to learn some valuable lessons and temporarily short-circuit ISIS’ sophisticated PR machine. Because, as a general rule of thumb, if what you are doing is making mass murderers happy, you should stop. After you’ve left a comment below, that is.

The Mechanic’s Son Who Became a Football Legend

Quarterback Daryle Lamonica #3 of the Oakland Raiders talks with head coach John Madden on the sidelines during an NFL football game circa 1970 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. Lamonica played for the Raiders from 1967-74.

For a time, it was hard to imagine a Super Bowl without John Madden. The 78-year-old retired NFL legend may not be calling Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, but between winning one as a coach and working 11 Super Bowl broadcasts, including one for all four major television networks, few individuals have played a larger role in pro football’s crowning glory — or in the sport itself.

But before his colorful commentary, 16 Sports Emmy awards, seven division titles and eponymous video game brand, the NFL Hall of Famer was a zealous student of the game. More than anything else, it was Madden’s insatiable drive to learn football inside and out that launched the lumbering icon from a part-time assistant at a junior college to the youngest head coach in the NFL and beyond.

The son of an auto mechanic, John Earl Madden grew up in Daly City, California. In Madden: A Biography, the late sportswriter Bryan Burwell describes how the young Madden and his friend John Robinson — later an NFL head coach himself — would jump on moving freight trains to watch Stanford, Cal or the San Francisco 49ers play football. 

The 6-foot-4-inch, 200-plus-pound Madden was a star lineman in high school with one dream: playing professional football. But the barrel-chested tackle, who arrived at the University of Oregon with two bags of belongings, struggled to fit in with his wealthier peers and the pre-law program he’d chosen. He eventually ended up back in his home state, playing for California Polytechnic State University before getting drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958. The dream had come true for the red-haired rookie, but it ended abruptly when he suffered a severe knee injury.

Madden implemented three simple rules: “Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to.”

Madden spent most of his first and only year as an NFL player in the Eagles’ training room, loitering in the room where star quarterback Norm Van Brocklin watched game film. “Hey, Red,” Van Brocklin beckoned one day. “Come up here and watch it with me.” The rookie soaked up the veteran’s vast knowledge, learning each player’s responsibilities on the field, how to recognize opposing defenses and coverages — and how to pick them apart.

Realizing his playing days were over, the 24-year-old Madden left the Eagles’ training room and returned to the field as an assistant coach at Allan Hancock College. Within two years, he was head coach, and then defensive coordinator at San Diego State. There the intense but disheveled young coach would learn from future NFL coach and offensive genius Don Coryell, and attract the attention of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who hired him as his linebackers coach in 1967 for a team that would go 13-1 and make the Super Bowl. Just two years later, Madden, 32, was handed the head coaching reins and put in charge of a talented but rambunctious squad.

Up through the late 1960s, the NFL was mostly “Old Testament football,” as Burwell calls it, under authoritarian coaches like Green Bay’s legendary Vince Lombardi. Madden knew a strict approach would never work with his band of renegade Raiders, so he dispensed with dress codes and implemented three simple rules: “Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to.” Coach Madden, as John Maxymuk, author of NFL Head Coaches, tells OZY, “was a master psychologist able to get the best out of his free-spirited players while keeping everything simple.”

AFC Championship, Oakland Raiders QB Ken Stabler (12) with coach John Madden during game vs Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland, CA

Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler with coach John Madden during the AFC Championship in 1976.

Madden’s “badass” Raiders teams of the 1970s — including such flamboyant characters as Ted Hendricks, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff and quarterback Kenny Stabler (who tacked underwear to his wall to mark his many sexual conquests) — not only had a swagger that pissed off opponents and entranced television audiences, they also did whatever necessary to gain an advantage on the field and live up to Davis’ motto: “Just win, baby!” And win they did: In Madden’s 10 years at the helm, the Raiders won one Super Bowl and made the postseason eight of 10 years, racking up a regular season record of 103-32-7 and handing their coach one of the highest winning percentages in history.

But Madden’s intense pursuit of the game took a physical and personal toll on him, and at the age of 42 he resigned, citing family, stress and a stomach ulcer. “I’m not terribly proud of this,” Madden later admitted, “but shit, I didn’t even know how old my kids were.” It was also likely, says Burwell, that Madden’s acute fear of flying played a part, and when he next rose to prominence as an announcer, Madden would criss-cross the nation in a “tricked-out” Greyhound bus called the Madden Cruiser, which he still uses to attend Raiders games and serve on the NFL’s Player Safety Advisory Panel.

It may take a whole lot longer to travel by bus, but Madden has never been afraid to put in the hours when it comes to football. And in the public imagination, he will always remain, as Sean Mitchell wrote in Los Angeles Times Magazine, “the big-footed American hero of the interstate, the blue-collar pope of professional football.”

Ferguson’s Drain on Justice Reform

Pastor Charles Burton has his body outlined with chalk to replicate a crime scene.

If you asked which jurisdiction was leading the way in criminal justice reform, the answer might surprise you: Texas. Yes, in the state better known for its execution rate, a motley band of reformers — libertarians against the war on drugs, conservatives sick of government spending and bleeding-heart liberals — all teamed up to reduce incarceration rates and sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes. The results were paying off, to the tune of billions of dollars, and its successes had inspired reformers across the country.

But today, a campaign for federal justice reform — a uniquely bipartisan issue that had quietly been gaining supporters — has hit a roadblock. And ironically enough, it’s because everyone’s paying attention.

Blame the limelight, observers say. The killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, and then the assassination of two NYPD officers, have thrust justice reform onto the streets — and under a national microscope. The protests have turned off conservatives, who are now wary of looking untough on crime. Liberals, for their part, are bargaining more aggressively than before. When a negotiating table widens, it’s harder to meet in the middle. “My read at the moment is the Ferguson and Staten Island cases actually make it harder to get something done,” says an official who has pushed for federal justice reform for years.

The upshot: The most we can reasonably expect in the short term is some tweaking of prison and justice policies. The sea change many had hoped for? Back-burnered. 

Over the past few years, a union of unlikely bedfellows took up the cause of judicial reform.

Though justice reform didn’t attract many headlines until Ferguson went up in flames last August, much was happening far from the media glare. Over the last decade, states have been rethinking policies that have swelled their prisons (from 200,000 people in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009), swept up a disproportionate number of racial minority members in the war-on-drugs dragnet and cost a lot of money. The Pew Charitable Trust found that 30 states reduced their prison rates between 2008 and 2013, resulting in a 6 percent drop in the state prison population. “To be honest, it tended to be ideologically noncontroversial, so long as all the stakeholders … realized they all share common ground,” says Derek Cohen, an analyst at the right-of-center Texas Public Policy Foundation. In Texas, he says, the reforms saved the state more than $2 billion.

Demonstrators confront police during a protest outside the Ferguson Police Station on Friday, October 10, 2014.

Demonstrators confront police during a protest outside the Ferguson police station on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.

Source Samuel Corum/Getty

State efforts trickled up, and over the past few years, a similar union of unlikely bedfellows took up the cause of judicial reform at the national level, too. One Senate odd couple: Kentucky libertarian Rand Paul and New Jersey liberal Cory Booker. Another is veteran Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois and tea party fiscal conservative Mike Lee of Utah.

Still, bipartisanship couldn’t move legislation through a Democratic Senate last year. And while Republicans like Lee and Paul plan another push in 2015, insiders say prospects are even more doubtful in the new Congress. There are two main reasons. One is new Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, an old-school Republican who staunchly opposes major changes in sentencing law. The second is Ferguson. 

Even longtime justice advocates worry the new surge of activism will result in “knee-jerk reactions,” as Lauren-Brooke Eisen, counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, puts it. Conservatives, meanwhile, do not want to be seen as siding with Ferguson protesters. “We have been reluctant to use that as a news hook,” Sen. Lee’s communications director, Brian Phillips, says of the push for reforms after Ferguson. Lee’s argument to fellow Republicans instead highlights the ways long prison sentences harm families. That will be a hard sell, though we may see smaller-scale reforms focused on shortening sentences for offenders already in jail. 

The Obama administration has the power to move on justice reform on its own, as it’s done on policing standards. Obama even highlighted justice reform during his State of the Union address this month. But here, too, major action is unlikely. Officials have already pushed the envelope. In April 2014, the Justice Department expanded clemency for nonviolent prisoners, and the United States Sentencing Commission, a judicial agency, moved to reduce sentences for drug traffickers. Against that backdrop, it’s hard to see Obama taking provocative new steps on justice, particularly given his cautiousness on the Ferguson protests. The new attorney general nominee, Loretta Lynch, isn’t likely to jump feetfirst into such fraught political waters, either. 

None of this is to say criminal justice reform is a lost cause. The bipartisan coalitions that cropped up first at the state and then the national level over the years suggest it’s an issue with wide appeal across a kaleidoscope of groups. And as Eisen points out, big new pots of money promised by conservative sugar daddy Charles Koch and his liberal counterpart George Soros in recent months mean the movement will have the financial wherewithal to play the long game. That’s to its benefit, because the landscape after the 2016 elections could look very different than it does now, with a more sympathetic Rand Paul or Jeb Bush presidency, or a Democratic resurgence in Congress and the White House. In the meantime, activists shouldn’t hold their breath.

Kay Tye: Getting Cravings Out of Your Head

a plate of brain and lettuce

Kay Tye is Skyping from a hotel in Turks and Caicos, a sultry escape from her hometown of frigid Cambridge, Massachusetts. She speaks with a breathless, wide-eyed giddiness, and with her sunburned face and ponytail, she looks the part of stoked college student. You might see Tye with her 18-month-old daughter and think new mom, or maybe yoga teacher, and you’d be right on both counts.

We’ll forgive you for not guessing she’s an award-winning breakdancer — as well as a groundbreaking neuroscientist whose work could have major implications for human health.

For most of us, losing weight means ditching the doughnuts or hitting the treadmill. Tye thinks we’ve got it all wrong, that instead of focusing on what we put into our mouths, we should be looking at what happens in the brain. And if the 33-year-old assistant professor of neuroscience at MIT is right, weight loss could be the tip of an iceberg. Her community certainly seems confident. Named one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 last year, Tye is “really a rising star in this field,” says Ming-Hu Han, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

I have this subjective experience, and I feel that it’s real, and how is it being represented in my brain biologically?

— Kay Tye

It all comes down to a concept called optogenetics. First described in 2005 by MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden and Stanford University bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, who mentored Tye when she did a postdoc in his lab, optogenetics is a technique in which scientists use light to switch neurons on and off. Since then, researchers around the world have used it to trigger and suppress seizures and depression-anxiety- and PTSD-like symptoms.

In person, Tye is a bundle of energy who talks so fast it’s hard to keep up. Unlike most scientists, she steers mostly clear of jargon, chatting as breezily about optogenetics as she does about her days competing in Bay Area breakdance battles. But the ascent to science-world fame was more gradual than skyrocket. Growing up among the trees and waterfalls of Ithaca, New York, known for vegetarian food and gorges as much as for Cornell, fostered in Tye a wonder for biology. Her parents, both scientists at Cornell University who first met on a U.S.-bound boat from Hong Kong, encouraged her, and when it came time for college, she majored in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “I just find the brain very, very interesting,” Tye gushes. “I have this subjective experience, and I feel that it’s real, and how is it being represented in my brain biologically?”

But school burned her out and left her with a nagging worry. Was science her true calling, or had she been passively stumbling along, following the most obvious and (for Tye, if not for the rest of us) easiest path? After graduation, the young woman set off on a quest: backpacking in Australia to get clear on her goals and desires. For that year, she lived on a remote cattle farm, taught yoga and even began penning a novel, a longtime dream. But writing left her lonely; she missed the sense of community in science and how the field built on itself.

A large woman sits at a lunch counter,

According to the CDC, more than 78.6 million American adults are obese.

So she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, which is when she published her thesis in Nature, describing stronger neuron firing in a brain region called the lateral amygdala in rats learning to link a cue with a reward. Tye was eager to venture beyond correlating neurons to behaviors and actually control them. She did a postdoc in Deisseroth’s lab to master optogenetics techniques, and two years later, she returned to MIT as a faculty member.

Tye’s lab has already plunged into untangling the neural circuits involved in social behavior, like reward-processing. Tye used optogenetics to control a circuit that had been linked to reward-processing and observed how mice behaved with sugar as a reward. When she switched the circuit on, they still sought sugar, even when full and even if it meant suffering a mild electric shock, like how compulsive overeaters stuff themselves despite knowing about heart disease and other risks. Switching the circuit off stopped only compulsive eating. Hungry mice still looked for food, suggesting that a therapy that tweaks this circuit wouldn’t affect normal eating behaviors important for survival. Of course, sugar addiction isn’t the only cause of obesity, but it’s a major factor, Tye says.

Tye’s group has also identified a circuit that controls anxiety-related behaviors. Turning it on made mice hesitant to explore their surroundings and wary of unfamiliar mice; turning it off emboldened them. Tye wants to continue working to understand the circuits underlying fundamental social behaviors, relevant to multiple psychiatric disorders. Rather than using traditional diagnoses like anxiety and depression, she envisions clinicians searching for disturbances in these circuits. This could all result in treatments that target specific individuals and specific problems, versus prescribing a drug that may or may not succeed — a drug that almost always has side effects.

To be sure, the full potential of Tye’s work is far from fruition. “I think optogenetics has huge potential in helping to understand mental health and give us new avenues to treating mental health,” says Sheena Josselyn, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, “but do I think we should take someone who has schizophrenia and put an implant in their brain right now? No.” Josselyn doesn’t see “a clear translation” to human studies. Tye herself notes that optogenetics probably won’t appear in the clinic for several years. Plus, she’s identified only a handful of neural circuits underlying reward-seeking and other social behaviors. Many more may underlie the same behaviors; an effective therapy might mean manipulating multiple circuits. 

A vast network of circuits spans our most complex organ. Tye has just begun the unraveling. But her boundless curiosity and exuberance might be just what allows her to push forward. “It’s just fun,” she says, flashing a dimpled grin. “Really fun.”

Photography by Dana Smith.

Being Male Is Bad for You

A man with a very bruised face.

For the first six to eight decades of life, being a man is probably the better deal. Blame the patriarchy. But then you get to old age, and being a man suddenly starts to suck. In nearly every country on earth women outlive men. In India women get 2 more years, in the U.S. they get 5 and in Japan it’s 7. And the patriarchy is, in part, to blame.

If you ask about these disparities, researchers will tell you men die younger because they choose to live riskier lives. Men tend to drink and smoke more than women, use more drugs and are, on balance, more overweight. The stereotypical man spends his free time riding a motorcycle, grilling massive pieces of meat and playing violent sports. Plus, men are less likely to seek out medical care, and when they do, their maladies have progressed further (and are therefore harder to treat).

Patriarchy has conditioned men to resist this moment entirely, while also conditioning us to live risky, dangerous lives.

How could so many men all decide to behave in the same dangerous and unhealthy ways? Again, blame the patriarchy. Machismo, or “traditional” male behavior, is highly correlated with poor health, research has found. For example, a study in the U.K. linked “traditional masculine behavior” like normalizing symptoms or reticence to discuss health issues with delays in seeking health care. Another found that mass media reinforces these disparities by pressuring men to avoid dieting, telling them the practice is “feminine.” When you add it all up, traditional masculine beliefs — like an inflated sense of well-being or embarrassment and shame about health problems amongst men — are the single most powerful predictor of risky behavior. 

 

Take, for example, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He is a loner, he’s aggressive, he engages in risky behavior (sword fighting?), he normalizes and diminishes his health problems and there’s a moment there where he probably should have visited a doctor. While the scene is satire, it showcases many of the behaviors that are killing men in the real world. Also, had the Black Knight survived his meeting with King Arthur, his solitude would have caught up to him eventually; research has shown that leading a solitary life is one of the better predictors of poor health among men.

Asking for help when sick or injured requires making yourself vulnerable — something many men have never quite figured out how to do. So the patriarchy has conditioned men to resist this moment entirely, while also conditioning us to live risky, dangerous lives, which doesn’t leave us many options when trying to extend our lifespans. One of the highest compliments you can pay a workingman: that he has never taken a sick day. Break an arm? Walk it off. Cancer? Rub some dirt on it. Depressed? Stop being a sissy.

Doctors in the room will tell you that there are biological reasons, too — but much of the research explaining that men and women are set for different health outcomes is inconclusive. Yes, low levels of testosterone can predict more cardiovascular disease for men, but normal or high levels can lead to more risky behavior. At the end of the day, men aren’t screwed by birth — but we may be choosing to place ourselves on worse footing because of our own insistence on being, well, manly.

Ways to fix it? You could try one of those handy feminist T-shirts (or better yet, attend an event). Or, you could follow the advice of some researchers in Scotland who figured out that getting together for a beer with your buddies makes you less lonely and less caricaturishly over-masculine. Try it. It could save your life.

The People on the Bus Go Flush, Flush, Flush

A public toilet

With life-size images of people on potties wrapped around its green and blue frame, the Bio-Bus takes passengers on a ride fueled by human “poo,” as the press release by sewage treatment company GENeco, which fuels the buses, delicately puts it. The U.K.’s first such transit runs on an exquisite mix of human waste supplemented by rotten food waste. It may not be the most pleasant idea, but its environmental credentials are tough to beat.

The Bath Bus Company, operators of the Bio-Bus, is touting low carbon emissions from an endlessly renewable source. And the makers of the fuel say its potential is far-reaching. “The annual waste from one busload of passengers would produce enough power to travel from Lands End to John O’Groats and back,” says Lauren East of GENeco, a division of Wessex Water, referring to the furthest extremities of the U.K. In practice, though, the bus travels only 20 miles — the distance between the tourist city of Bath and Bristol Airport — before turning back.

GENeco built a state-of-the-art plant to treat human sewage and process biomethane: their product fuels 8,000 homes via the national grid in addition to the pilot bus service. They partnered with Bristol Airport and the owners of the Bath Bus Company, which had both expressed interest in upping their green credentials. And with the odorless fuel at half the price of diesel, there’s profit to be had.

We realized passengers might not like looking as though they were sitting on the toilet.

Vikki Annett, Bath Bus Company

Fears of nasty smells have proven unfounded, and rider uptake has been healthy, with nearly 1,000 passengers riding the bus in its first three weeks of operation at £14 (about $21) for a one-way ticket. It could have been thousands, were it not for the fact that the 40-seater is currently limited to only two round-trips per day because of fueling logistics. Vikki Annett, marketing manager of the Bath Bus Company, explains that while diesel buses can be tanked up on site, the Bio-Bus has to travel 19 miles farther to refuel, somewhat diminishing its overall energy savings.

There have also been customer objections to the way the bus has been wrapped with blatant graphics to tell its story. “We originally planned to leave windows clear but realized passengers might not like looking as though they were sitting on the toilet,” says Annett, explaining that the alternative was to black out the windows so passers-by could not see in — which in turn has made it hard for passengers to see out.

The Worldwatch Institute has slammed methane as a major source of global warming that traps 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, but Friends of the Earth (FoE) points out that as long as humans live, biofuel from their waste is an endlessly renewable resource. Says FoE biofuel campaigner Kenneth Richter, “We can’t prevent production of this methane, so we might as well collect and use it.”

The Currency of Egyptian Democracy

egyptian sphinx

The best time to raise the price of bread is when the population is fasting. And that’s just what Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi did: During Ramadan, he slashed bread and fuel subsidies — popular but economically ruinous — and became the only Egyptian leader in decades to attempt the reform.

“For Sisi, it was easy to do things because the opposition is in prison,” says Dalibor Rohac, an analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. Since taking office in June, the president has enacted a draconian law against protests, cleared the Egyptian revolution’s No. 1 most wanted, former president Hosni Mubarak, of murder charges and quashed much of the democratic hope unleashed in Tahrir Square and beyond. All of which leaves experts and ordinary Egyptians with a conundrum: The economy is showing signs of a recovery, but whatever happened to the Arab Spring?

For now, it’s unclear. Legislative elections, scheduled for March, may give an indication, but for now economists and other experts agree that the fiscal progress has come at the price of democracy. To be sure, the reforms were a brave and difficult move: Those energy subsidies have long drained Egypt’s coffers, costing the government around $15 billion a year, a fifth of the state budget; it spends about $3 billion a year to subsidize bread. The bread subsidies, in particular, have been the third rail of Egyptian politics. Anwar Sadat, the third president of Egypt, backtracked almost immediately when he tried to nix them in the ’70s; Mubarak was too afraid of public backlash to even try. 

Attempting to register 80 million Egyptians for subsidy cards in a country infamous for red tape might give Sisyphus a laugh.

No doubt, Sisi’s reforms have been bolstered by luck. A dramatic drop in oil prices should improve Egypt’s finances by almost 1 percent of GDP, says the International Monetary Fund. And Arab Gulf states have poured $10.6 billion into Egypt’s leaden economy in the past fiscal year alone. But what looks good on paper may not be not paying off for the millions of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day. “It is expensive for us,” says Tamer Sweidan, who runs a car service with his father, and says the cost of filling the tank has risen from $10 or $11 pre-increase, to between $17 and $21. 

Painful as Egypt’s economic progress is for some, it remains fragile. Petroleum prices are still well below international levels (when’s the last time you filled up your SUV for $20?), and the jobless rate remains high at 13.1 percent. Last year, a nationwide smart card system for subsidized bread debuted, with the goal of streamlining the mammoth wheat-purchasing program. But attempting to register 80 million Egyptians for the cards in a country infamous for red tape might give Sisyphus a laugh. The country can barely enforce basic traffic laws. When the ministry of the interior recently announced that drivers who drift out of their lane or ignore traffic signals would suffer heavy fines, Egyptian readers scoffed on social media: The law would be more effective, one person commented on Facebook, if Cairo had working signals — or lanes.

Then there’s the issue of security; terrorism frightens investors, too. Last week, at least 17 people were killed in the country’s bloodiest protests since Sisi was elected president. Security forces fired at protesters who were marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. And more than 30 soldiers were killed in Sinai in October when a suicide bomber drove his truck into a remote checkpoint, the deadliest attack in almost four years. Though the president has responded aggressively, “imagining that the security situation will magically resolve itself overnight is naïve,” says Hisham El-Khazindar, co-founder and managing director of Qalaa Holdings, an Egyptian investment company. Yet El-Khazindar says he’s hopeful despite the potential for “random terrorist attacks and bombs now and then.” He expects his business to return to profitability by the end of this year, after several months of losses, and Egypt’s deficit, which stood at 12 percent in the 2013-14 fiscal year, to drop to the single digits by 2016-17.  

It’s trickle-down economics with no trickle-down.

— Emad Mostaque

Other investors seem eager, too. Take Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and his company, Orascom Construction Industries. OCI plans to boost investment in Egypt by partnering with an Abu Dhabi energy firm to build a coal-fired power plant on the Red Sea. For Sawiris, things are looking up after years of being “targeted” by the ex-Muslim Brotherhood government, whose investigation of OCI for alleged tax evasion could have cost the company millions of dollars. The reforms are “transformational for Egypt,” he says. 

Emad Mostaque, a strategist at Ecstrat, an independent research consultancy in London, agrees that the economy “will do relatively well.” But not because of clever government economists. Rather, with the army essentially in power, the possibility of national disruption via protest is almost nil. “Even if you have democratic reform in Egypt, you know who is going to win,” says Mostaque. “It’s trickle-down economics with no trickle-down.”

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 18, 2014.

Bubblegum Princess

Annette Funicello

Disney’s decades of success in both films and theme parks hinges, in large part, on how they use music. From the revolutionary synchronized sound of Steamboat Willie to the ear worms of Frozen, music has always provided a backbone to Disney projects, setting a mood and giving the audience something to take away. And long before Elsa sang her first high note, there was one prolific songwriting team at the core of Disney’s musical workshop: the Sherman Brothers.

Richard and Robert Sherman are responsible for the most memorable songs from Disney’s most creative period. They won two Oscars for their score and the original song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins and scored The Jungle Book. They wrote the tunes for classic theme park attractions such as It’s a Small World and the Enchanted Tiki Room (talk about ear worms). Their music is all over the studio’s animated and live-action films and television shows throughout the 1960s. Yet none of it would have happened if it wasn’t for a certain Mouseketeer.

Uncle Walt convinced her to work with a studio sound wizard to create the “Annette Sound.”

Everyone had their favorite on the 1950s smash TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, but the most popular of all the Mouseketeers was Annette Funicello. Handpicked by Mr. Disney himself, Funicello received thousands of letters a week and was soon given her own serial, Walt Disney Presents: Annette. When she sang a little ditty during a hayride, every kid in the audience wanted their own copy of “How Will I Know My Love,” released on the newly launched Disneyland Records label. Funicello was skeptical of her singing abilities, but Uncle Walt convinced her to work with studio sound wizard Salvatore “Tutti” Camarata, who went on to create the “Annette Sound” by double tracking her voice, a practice common in music today.

We lost Robert Sherman in 2012, and then Annette Funicello in 2013.

This is right about where the Sherman Brothers come in. Funicello covered their tune “Tall Paul” in 1959, and it became a runaway hit, breaking the Billboard top 10. It caught Walt Disney’s attention, and he soon met with the Shermans and made them staff songwriters at the studio, working directly for him. Their first assignment from their new boss was to deliver a catchy song for The Horsemasters, Funicello’s 1961 made-for-TV movie. They delivered “Strummin’ Song.” Robert Sherman remembered Disney’s reaction in a 1996 interview with Bill DeMain: “He said, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’ Now we didn’t know at that time that that’s the nicest thing that Walt Disney ever said about anything (laughs). That was his way of complimenting you.”

Although the scale of their projects grew exponentially, the Sherman Brothers continued writing dozens of songs for Annette, including “Pineapple Princess,” which was introduced to a new generation of fans in Lilo & Stitch. As she grew up, Funicello drifted from the Disney studio to star in her signature beach movies, but the Sherman Brothers stayed on to build the Disney canon. And through it all, they credited Funicello, calling her “our lucky star.” 

Try to stop singing the trio’s title song for The Monkey’s Uncle (with The Beach Boys on backup!), and then watch Walt Disney introduce Funicello singing the Sherman Brothers song “Dance Annette” live at Disneyland.

Beyond BRICS, and Why Dubai Doesn’t Suck

A photo of a lightbulb shaped like a brain

Parag Khanna, 37, has had a fascinating career — from being Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic sherpa in Iraq and Afghanistan to writing international best-sellers on globalization. A new book is on the way — Mapping the Future — and Khanna, based in Singapore, is currently a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Earlier this year, OZY got on the phone with Khanna to discuss what we’re missing about China, why the term BRICS (the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is so over and why, haters be damned, Dubai is excellent.

OZY: What are the next BRICS? 

Parag Khanna: Ah, my favorite question to hate. BRICS didn’t make much sense to begin with, but at least by now the concept has imploded upon itself, so I no longer need to argue [that] it’s a meaningless concept.

OZY: Why meaningless?

PK: I believe the world is headed toward clusters of economic regions rather than individual nation-states. Think about the Gulf Cooperation Council [composed of six Persian Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia] — in a way, it’s a BRIC unto itself. The other regional cluster I’d add is ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], which is literally now the third-most populous economic zone in the world, behind China and India. We shouldn’t be thinking in terms of BRICS but in regional acronyms.

The World Economic Forum and Davos [the WEF’s annual meeting], which just happened last week, are representative of this shift. The WEF holds a dozen major regional summits a year, sort of like mini-Davoses. And at Davos itself, I’ve seen regional topics become much more prominent over the past decade. 

OZY: Speaking of China, what do mainstream discussions miss about it?

PK: This is an easy one. We think about greenhouse gas emissions from the standpoint of countries rather than industries, but of course a large part of China’s greenhouse gas consumption is from factories that are producing stuff for consumers in … Western countries. Some 25 percent of China’s emissions relate to exports. That means that you, me, all of us are responsible for those emissions. Same with water consumption and agricultural commodities. China is diverting all these rivers, but if you’re saying the Chinese shouldn’t use so much water, then you’re basically saying Africans shouldn’t eat the food.

So we should be thinking about global warming in terms of industries and not countries. If you have a climate summit, and Malawi has signed an agreement to reduce its emissions, well, it doesn’t mean a lot. The way you would do it is by sector, not by countries. Within airlines, for instance, with carbon fiber aircraft that consume less fuel. Or sustainable cement production — just the fuel required to churn cement is one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases in the world. In other words, let’s not solve the climate crisis in parliaments. Let’s solve it through supply chains.

An image of Parag Khanna.

Parag Khanna in Brussels in 2012.

Source David Plas

OZY: What are some of the most interesting opportunities in the global economy? 

PK: There is this looming sense around the world that people are going to lose their jobs to automation. But the world’s largest employment sectors, the biggest job creators, are construction, hospitality, health care and education. Can you name me a robot that builds buildings, or teaches kids, or makes beds in hotels, or delivers medical care? I can’t. So this whole notion of a global automation crisis is intellectually very disingenuous. Most people don’t need to remotely worry about robots taking over their jobs.

The big opportunity, then, is to invest in these people-centric sectors — like health care and hospitality and construction — because they’re the biggest opportunities for employment growth and nation building.

OZY: What about if you’re a worker — say, if you’re in the lower-middle class: Where in the world do you have the best chance of climbing the economic ladder?

PK: The answer to the question isn’t where in the world, per se. The answer is: Move to the city. The vast improvement of quality of life we’ve seen in China and India has also been driven by rapid urbanization — along with the opening of economies and special economic zones.

OZY: Why is a city or a special economic zone an empowering structure, instead of a vulnerable one?

PK: It’s been mixed, of course, and diversification is critical. But beyond a doubt, your best bet for mobility is to move to a place where you’ll get work in a global supply chain. And that’s usually the city or a special economic zone. If you look at the entire story of Shenzhen’s rise, it’s the story of a special economic zone.

Today, the world’s demographic magnet is Dubai. It’s got the fastest-growing population in the whole world and it’s the most diverse city in the whole world. Less than 10 percent is the indigenous population. So it’s truly the global melting pot. A lot of people hate Dubai for aesthetic reasons, but where else will you find Africans and South Asians and other Arabs — as well as more than half a million Europeans — seeking shelter from the financial crisis?

The last time I was there, the place was flooded with Portuguese and Spanish kids who’d bought one-way tickets on EasyJet, and were competing with Jordanians for jobs as waiters — and if you spend even one moment in Portugal these days, why would that surprise you at all? Dubai is where you go if you can’t stay in your homeland, but it’s a step up for millions of people, including people from the West.

This OZY encore was originally published on Jan. 30, 2015.

 

The Way-Back Photoganza

A series of portraits.

The future is promising and the present is thrilling, but the real mother lode of invention may be the past. So say the boys of Studio Baxton in Brussels, a photo studio and shop where despite all the heat and light bursting from smartphone cameras, they are looking to the extreme past — over 160 years or so ago — for the keys to photographic greatness. Specifically: wet-plate collodion process photography. Words that sound much sexier to studio founders Vincent Bouchendhomme, Nicolas Lambert and Silvano Magnone than they do to you.

“Come on over,” said 34-year-old Magnone, an Italian rounding out a team that includes a Belgian and a Frenchman. “I can show you firsthand how wet plate works.”

Our struggle as photographers is to blast the optic nerve into seeing what we’re seeing …

— Gabriella Marks

It sounds much dirtier than it is. Wet plate technique was used from 1851 until it was replaced by other, less finicky and dangerous techniques in the 1880s. It uses a glass negative, the so-called wet plate, to produce a photo that is wonderfully, eerily detailed, full of all the visual texture our modern eyes are used to seeing on our hand-held devices, but with a depth and personality that leaves the viewer feeling they’re not just seeing something but seeing into something.

It’s a rarer and rarer experience since, as photographer Gabriella Marks says, people tend to develop “visual insensitivity. Our struggle as photographers is to blast the optic nerve into seeing what we’re seeing in a different way.”

Wet plate photographs from Studio Baxton.

Wet-plate photographs from Studio Baxton.

Source Silvano Magnone/Studio Baxton

Nestled on the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés in Brussels, Studio Baxton testifies to its founders’ deep, collective obsession with all things photographic. There are vintage cameras, Polaroid and Lomography cameras, alongside wild films from Foma, Fuji, Ilford, Kodak and more obscure brands and types. The studio offers vintage processes for developing them all. Baxton not only does the processing, but also it teaches others how in regular workshops. It’s all in the service of its guiding vision of image projection as an experimental art. 

However, not everyone sees artistic merit in revived methods. Bay Area photographer Kasia Tanalska dismisses wet-plate collodion techniques as retrograde gimmicks. “Sometimes old is just different and not necessarily better,” she says. Especially when new technology can get similar results.

“In the end,” Magnone says, “every wet-plate shot is an adventure of its own, and we’re exploring different means to get to a desired end: arresting imagery.” When you have to hold perfectly still for five minutes to get a photo, you may not offer much competition in the point-and-shoot category — but Studio Baxton is tough to beat when it comes to capturing an image in a very particular way, reproducing it and preserving it. “For us, it’s all a delight,” says Magnone. “If you can see what I mean.”