Your Internet Is Watching You

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The house is pitch-black, minus the harsh glare of your computer screen. The windows rattle, the floor creaks, your neck hair bristles. Yes, someone is secretly watching you.

But you don’t have a stalker -– at least not the old-fashioned kind. The spy is your internet.

That’s a 700 percentage increase, up from 10 percent in 1996, according to a study from the University of Washington. For most netizens, the creeping comes as no surprise, with targeted ads on Facebook and Google hitting your hidden fetishes on the nose. But now, you can finally put your sneaking suspicions to rest with cold, hard evidence, says Franziska Roesner, a computer science professor at the University of Washington. “People have an increasing sense that we’re being watched online” — according to the study, the last 20 years have seen a sevenfold increase in third-party tracking on sites like Amazon and CNN, with tracking tools that keep tabs on your every move online and complete dossiers on who you are as a person for advertisers to leverage later on. Rest assured, that “paranoia” is not all in your head, says Roesner.

The internet is definitely watching you, now more than ever. And if the trend continues, no part of your life will be private — unless you’re wealthy — as Christopher Soghoian points out in his TED Talk above. If you assumed the internet was egalitarian, then think again: Encryption is available, but more likely for the affluent than others. As a final knife-twist, encryption is a luxury that not everyone can afford. If you followed the back-door controversy earlier this year, you’ll know that Apple iPhones are resistant to even the government’s cracking attempts, but cheaper phones aren’t as safe. Soghoian dubs this schism “the security digital divide,” with “the rich who can afford devices that secure their data by default” on the one hand and “the poor whose devices do very little to protect them” on the other.

Even so, the collection of your personal data isn’t inherently evil, and targeted ads aren’t the end of the world. What’s scary is all the unsuspecting ways your most intimate information could be used against you in the future, says Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. Think identity theft, hacking or even blackmail: “You can certainly see the specter of the data being used in discriminatory ways or to embarrass us,” Polonetsky says.

Sadly, there’s little you can do but keep your guard up. “There’s no perfect solution to make you entirely invisible, other than not browsing the web,” says Roesner. In other words, if you’re reading this, it might already be too late.

Who Will President Obama Pardon Before Leaving Office?

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Part of a series on President Barack Obama’s last 100 days in the White House — and the legacy he’ll leave behind.

President Obama gets a lot of flack from his political opponents for using executive orders and other means to pursue the unilateral ends of his so-called “Imperial Presidency.” But when it comes to one of the most absolute powers available to a president, Obama has been remarkably restrained in exercising his constitutional prerogative to “grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States.” Thus far, he has been the least generous two-term president in terms of granting pardons since George Washington, but he has promised to pick up the pace. How many last-minute pardons might a lame-duck Obama issue in his final days, and what are the chances he lets a big fish like Edward Snowden off the hook?

Presidential clemency generally comes in two forms: commutation, the shortening of prison sentences without overturning a conviction, and the pardon, which is full legal forgiveness for an offense. For a long time, says Jeffrey Crouch, an American University professor and author of The Presidential Pardon Power, “President Obama’s clemency record wasn’t much different from George W. Bush’s — some pardons for older, nonviolent offenses, along with a handful of sentence commutations.”

But Obama has picked up the pace on commutations, which make up the overwhelming majority of his clemency grants, commuting the sentences of more than 210 drug offenders earlier this year (his current tally is over 600). But his 70 pardons still remain well behind other recent two-term presidents like Ronald Reagan (393), Bill Clinton (396) and George W. Bush (189). The administration has been tight-lipped about planned pardons, but Obama admitted in an August press conference that he has focused more on commutations than pardons and promised that “by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done.”

If it seems as though Obama has been stingy, it could be because clemency can be “politically risky,” as the president himself has noted. Not only is there a risk that a pardoned felon will commit another crime, but the fallout from such a high-profile move, like Clinton’s pardon of political donor and financier Marc Rich, convicted of tax evasion, can be messy. There are also some bureaucratic and financial constraints — the Justice Department has been flooded by clemency petitions since it announced its Clemency Initiative for nonviolent offenders in 2014.

One way that Obama could make up for his shortfall, not to mention patch up his legacy, according to many advocates, is by pardoning some well-known whistle-blowers like Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have asked Obama to pardon Snowden for exposing the U.S. government’s own spying programs, arguing that history will look favorably on Snowden’s deeds and that a pardon would also send a powerful message to future whistle-blowers. The same goes for Manning, who received a 35-year prison sentence for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.

Obama has also faced pressure from advocacy groups to pardon other high-profile inmates. The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King, among others, have pushed for the release of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist convicted of killing two FBI agents on a reservation in 1975 in what Amnesty International has called an unfair trial. The scholar and activist Angela Davis is among those pushing for the pardon of Assata Shakur, a female former Black Panther who fled to Cuba after being convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973 in another problematic trial. 

Obama could also focus his clemency fire on certain groups of people. One in particular that presents a strong case includes those individuals sentenced under the old crack laws that have led to major racial disparities in sentencing, says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at New York University. For thousands, “clemency is their only hope of justice,” she adds. And of the more interesting pardon cases, one is being made for George W. Bush. A preemptive presidential pardon for him and others officials in his administration implicated in American torture could, as ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has argued in The New York Times, “make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals.”  

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Obama would attempt such an act on his predecessor, whom First Lady Michelle Obama hugged so affectionately recently, but could the president make some other big-name pardons? “I’d be stunned if President Obama pardoned Edward Snowden or any other high-profile figure,” says Crouch. “He’s consistently resisted media and activist pressure to offer clemency to famous offenders, including Snowden and Peltier, among others.”

In the end, Crouch says that Obama will likely continue to prioritize nonviolent drug offenders for clemency and both he and Barkow expect many more such commutations before his presidency winds down. Given such commutations, “he’s clearly not afraid to use his clemency power,” says Crouch. It’s just that the pardon-denying Obama “simply has a different view on who should receive presidential mercy.”

There’s a Term for Thinking of a Comeback Too Late

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Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English. Read parts one, two and three.

You’re at a perfectly nice coworker’s party. Glass in hand, cheese in mouth, your strange conversation partner nails a racist remark. Or perhaps tries to hit on you. You’re a little baffled and a lot speechless.

So you leave — no snappy retort. You’re too busy beating an appalled path away from the social train wreck. At the door, though, the perfect reply finally blinks in. A little lightbulb of “Ah, that’s what I should have said.” But you’ve got one toe in the Uber; the moment for witty smackdown has passed. 

Little did you know there’s a term for this exact, awkward, awful realization. Many have shared the pain of this experience: 

L’esprit de l’escalier: the witty retort you should have made — but you didn’t come up with until it was too late.

Because who would climb back up those stairs to say a comeback? (Unless they’re wearing a Fitbit.) Literally, the phrase’s words mean “the wit of the staircase” or “the spirit of the staircase.”

French isn’t the only language with such a phrase. Props are deserved for the Yiddish word trepverter, which means “words that arrived too late.” Perhaps that explains why the phrase seems so positively Woody Allen–esque.

The French phrase finds its origins in a passage of a Denis Diderot book, according to professor of French studies Sean Hand. Diderot was an 18th-century philosopher — and though he didn’t use the exact phrase, he wrote of the phenomenon and someone unnamed wrote the catchier, snappier formulation. Someone berated him at a party and it wasn’t until he was leaving and making his way to the ground floor that he had his wits about him again with a reply. “It’s a very French sentiment,” Hand says. “An awful lot of French society was based on being clever, having an elegant rejoinder. There’s a lot of verbal jousting.”

Of course, the phrase might need a bit of retuning after a few hundred years. Because French apartments in the 18th century were often on a high floor, with a long staircase to get out, the visual was more accurate than in today’s world of private homes and elevators, according to professor of French Barbara Klaw. Now a more apt phrase might be “the spirit of the Uber” — l’esprit d’uber.

Luckily, technology helps. There’s always text and email and messenger to get that final word in right away.

Share your favorite untranslatable words in the comments. (Hey, we said untranslatable, not unrepeatable!)

The War on Drugs Gets Deadlier — And Takes a Cue From Duterte

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“The human-rights people will commit suicide if I finish these all,” President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly said on Thursday, waving a fat dossier filled with names of alleged drug criminals and “narco-politicians” in the Philippines. The next day, a small-town mayor who’d earlier been named as a drug suspect was shot dead by police.

Farewell, due process — and say hello to Duterte’s little friend. The new president of the Philippines has appalled many in the West with his brutal and often extrajudicial war on alleged drug dealers. But in much of Asia and the Middle East, the get-tough posture of “The Punisher” is rather more familiar. In September, Indonesia’s antidrug chief called drug dealers’ lives “meaningless” and pledged all-out war on narcotics. In October, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen vowed a crackdown on his country’s “booming” drug trade after a chat with Duterte. When Duterte visited Beijing in October, China praised his drug policies.

I want more intensive, braver, crazier and more comprehensive integrated efforts to eradicate drugs.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo

While nearby leaders distance themselves from some of Duterte’s more grisly tactics, they are taking note of his aggression in tackling a problem they find on their own shores — and of Duterte’s popularity at home. The closed-door talk at a recent regional leaders’ summit in Laos was hardly the kind of condemnation Duterte gets from the West, according to Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay. “They were praising his toughness,” Yasay said in a September television interview. “This is how they felt the war against drugs will be won.”

There is bountiful evidence to the contrary. In Mexico, President Felipe Calderón took office a decade ago and sent the military into the streets to battle drug cartels. The homicide rate spiked, and still the drugs continue to flow. In Thailand, cited as a Duterte model, a 2003 crackdown on the methamphetamine trade included hundreds of apparent extrajudicial killings, according to Human Rights Watch. The nation’s prisons remain severely overcrowded, and drug use is rampant. Both Mexico and Thailand now are discussing scaling back punitive drug laws.

Indeed, a divide in regional approaches to drugs is widening. At an April U.N. summit, for instance, the global community seemed to be inching toward de-escalation, with Western nations decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana while emphasizing treatment over punishment for addicts of harder stuff. But amid the diplomatese, a schism was apparent. “When you looked at the debates, you could see a growing division between countries in the world around what kind of approach should be taken to drugs — and perhaps most divisive was on the death penalty,” says Gloria Lai, senior policy officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium. “Europe and Latin America called for the death penalty to be abolished for drugs. Then a small group from Asia and the Middle East made a stand and said they had a right. It was because of the principles of sovereignty. It was for state governments themselves to decide.”

Indonesia, for one, is following the Philippines’ lead. Mild-mannered President Joko Widodo shocked many last year when he brought back executions for drug offenders. He claims 40 to 50 young Indonesians die each day from drugs, a figure called into doubt by academics. Early this year — before Duterte was elected — Widodo declared: “I want more intensive, braver, crazier and more comprehensive integrated efforts to eradicate drugs.” Widodo and Duterte are on good terms, and when they met, Duterte said he would not interfere in Indonesia’s planned execution of a Filipino drug dealer. Widodo’s drug czar, Budi Waseso, lauds Duterteism and says he would appreciate a shoot-to-kill policy himself. (Waseso also has proposed a crocodile-filled moat to surround prisons, because crocs can’t be bribed like human guards.) While extrajudicial killings are not proliferating in Indonesia, the international bromance is “disturbing,” says Ricky Gunawan, an Indonesia-based human-rights lawyer, “because it only strengthens the false positive sense that punitive approaches to drugs will solve drug problems.”

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President Joko Widodo of Indonesia arrives at the G20 Summit in September. 

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But crackdowns often are good politics. A recent poll showed 76 percent of the Philippines satisfied with Duterte, with 11 percent dissatisfied. Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, says public approval comes from desperation. The Philippines’ slow-moving and corrupt justice system fosters acceptance of extrajudicial killing “among Filipinos who sense that government and the judicial system [are] part of the problem, not the solution,” he says.

Elsewhere, the killings mostly occur within the system. Amnesty International recorded more executions in 2015 than in any year since 1989, many for drug-related offenses, and the figures do not include what is assumed to be thousands more in secretive China. Many of the strictest societies are in the Middle East, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, where nearly half of all recent executions were for drug crimes. Nevertheless, the region does not embrace Duterte’s brand of authority. James Dorsey, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, notes there are no rampant extrajudicial killings in the Middle East, and the leader known as Duterte Harry stands out because he targets users as well as dealers. “You can question how much due process and rule of law there is in Middle Eastern countries,” Dorsey says, “but there’s certainly more than there is in the Philippines.”

In Prison, Every Day Is Halloween

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Seth Ferranti is a writer, comic book creator and filmmaker.

For Halloween, people dress up as prison inmates, mobsters or ax murderers, but in prison, these aren’t characters — they’re your neighbors. And while Halloween comes once a year in the real world, in prison it’s every day. Because drugs, gangs and violence rule the day, and if you let your guard down or show weakness, it can result in your demise.

When I entered prison as a 22-year-old kid facing a 25-year sentence for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, I put on a mask. It wasn’t Batman or Chewbacca — my mask had dark brown curly hair, blue eyes, fair skin and a slightly crooked nose. It was a mask that made me look just like me — only tougher. And I made sure to put it on every day for survival.

Prison felt like Halloween, only a Halloween where you hope you don’t get any treats. Because treats are tricks, and they could both be detrimental to your health. If someone leaves a Snickers bar on your bed, it means they want to make you their “punk” — a man who becomes another man’s woman. And usually it’s not consensual.

I definitely didn’t want any treats and I was always on the lookout for tricks, which inevitably led to violence. Like the time one of my homeboys hid another prisoner’s radio. He thought it was funny, but in the pen, that’s a big no-no. When the dude couldn’t find his radio, he thought someone stole it, and when he found out my homeboy had picked it up, he smashed him with a “lock in a sock,” busting open my homeboy’s head right to the skull. That was a scary Halloween.

I wore the mask for so long, it grew difficult to differentiate between the image I projected to everyone inside the belly of the beast and the person I really was.

That’s why I wore my mask every day. I wanted other prisoners to think I was willing to “take it to the wall” ready to ratchet up the violence in a nanosecond. At 6′1″ and 180 pounds, I had some size, but size doesn’t matter when someone’s trying to stick a handmade metal shank they fashioned out of a screwdriver into your gut.

Every morning when I woke to the sound of doors cracking open in my cell, I put on my mask. And every evening when I went to sleep, I took it off. I wore the mask for so long, it grew difficult to differentiate between the image I projected to everyone inside the belly of the beast and the person I really was. There were times I thought I was losing myself behind my mask — losing the person I was before I got locked up. Wearing a mask every day for 21 years, and getting sucked into the degradations of prison, will change a man.

And then I came home. It’s been a slow process of peeling off the mask that became a part of my face. I find that sometimes I react to situations as I did in prison, with an all-out brutal urgency that doesn’t vibe with the real world. If I feel threatened or uncomfortable, my hackles rise and I put on my convict mask. Scowling and letting people know I am not to be fucked with by any means. It was a hard adjustment period, but I knew I eventually had to let it go.

I told myself to let go of the mask, take a breath and be myself again. It was liberating. I threw off my disguise and was just Seth again. Not a hardened prisoner who would shank you at the slightest provocation, but a regular person who could embrace his humanity and enjoy life instead of doing life.

Last October 31 was my first Halloween as a free man, my first real Halloween since I was a kid. And I put on a mask. This time, though, it wasn’t my tough-guy mask — or what I referred to as “the thousand-yard stare.” Instead, I put on a mask for pure fun. I could be whoever, whatever I wanted to be.

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Seth Ferranti

Source Courtesy of Seth Ferranti

I live in Saint Louis now, and my wife and I went downtown to the Johnny Brock Dungeon Halloween Party at the Ball Park Village. She was Little Red Riding Hood. I dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Decked out in all white with black combat boots, a bowler hat, black gloves, white suspenders, a cane that doubled as a weapon and a sinister Pinocchio nose, I looked truly terrifying.

Only people weren’t scared. “Great costume!” they yelled. We danced, we took photos, we marveled at the other great costumes — Gene Simmons, Waldo, Frankenstein. In prison, I had to keep up the facade of being an inmate who would take your head off the same as look at you. But as I walked around the Ball Park Village in my mask, I enjoyed being an anonymous person out celebrating Halloween, like everyone else.

In this mask, I could have fun. And even in my mask, I was still myself. I could take it off anytime I wanted and wouldn’t have to put it on again in the morning. Halloween’s coming up, and I’m already contemplating what I’ll dress up as this year.

Young, Gifted and Blacula

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Hollywood learns lessons and then unlearns them just as fast sometimes.

Case in point: making movies that look like the world that you expect to pay to see the movies.

Coming out of the 1960s, this seemed like a lesson studios were just about to learn, beginning with Shaft in 1971. That marked a discovery that African-American audiences hungered for something at the crest of civil rights and Black nationalism, and it noted that their concerns were worthy somehow of filmic consideration. What else did we promptly see? Oodles and oodles of quickly and poorly made formulaic films that folks started calling Black exploitation, or blaxploitation, flicks.

Which absolutely mattered not at all if you were 10 years old in 1972 and had cobbled together the less than $5 needed to see a movie whose appeal was as immediate and unquestionable as the name was genius: Blacula.

He promptly falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like his wife, and you have your classic vampire potboiler.

The plot involves African Prince Mamuwalde appealing to Count Dracula in 1780 for his help in stopping the slave trade. Dracula does what he does and turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, while also killing Mamuwalde’s wife. Then we find Prince Mamuwalde reconstituted in 1972, where he promptly falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like his wife. Mix all that together and you have your classic vampire potboiler. But what distinguished Blacula and extended it well beyond just “average,” even in light of its sometimes slack filmmaking, was the strength of Blacula himself.

Played by William Marshall, a super-well-poised 6′5″ actor and opera singer with the presence, gravitas and bona fides (trained at the Actors Studio and then later at the great Neighborhood Playhouse) to match, Prince Mamuwalde was even more than believable — he was downright terrifying. The remainder of the movie played out with standard blaxploitation tropes that included cops killing Prince Mamuwalde’s reincarnated wife. The film mined the perfect mix of social awareness and commentary and rode it all the way to being one of the biggest box-office draws of 1972, making over $1,000,000. All on a budget of about half that.

Those were respectable numbers in 1972. Respectable enough to spawn a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, and dozens more Black-themed flicks of lesser quality until people did what they do when stuff doesn’t pass the smell test: People stopped coming. 

But for the briefest moment in time, nothing stood as tall as Blacula.

“For my money, it’s the best quasi-nonironic take on the genre,” says Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor. “I mean the best of really maximizing something good into something great. Not a great film but a great piece of art, and there is a difference.”

Damn straight.

The Reigning Blond Comedian of YouTube

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Her overt blondness grabs your attention. Then her big blue eyes start looking around, as if she is actively searching for a profound thought. When she catches one, she looks into her phone camera, eyes wide, and in a slow, measured Southern drawl, cranks up the crazy choo choo and explains that thought as if it’s the most amazin’ friggin’ thing you’ve ever heard.

Her name is MollyAnn Wymer and her goal is to “keep it really real, like really, really real.”

And she just exudes realness, in a very blond kind of way. She is so blond, her blondness almost seems a given, like, of course, sure, she is blond, duh. She often seems a tad confused, like when she discovered cookies-and-cream-flavored Oreos. “Oreos are cookies and cream,” she says into the camera, imploringly. “Why do they have to make it more complicated?”

Perhaps it’s not shocking to learn MollyAnn is an internet sensation. She boasts about 250,000 Facebook followers and something like 2 million YouTube views — a loyal following eager for updates on MollyAnn’s trials and tribulations.

In one post, she describes going to an Amway meeting and getting inspired by the group’s fervor against poverty. Sign me up, she says earnestly. “I’m tired of zoning out and walking around Walmart like Walmartians,” she says. “I want to buy expensive groceries. I want to go to Whole Foods and get some organic pizza rolls for my children.” She embraced the “poor cleansing” cream. “I bought 23 bottles of this,” she explains. “I want to be set free from the spirit of poor.”

Trying to explain MollyAnn’s appeal can be tough. Maybe it’s because we all know a MollyAnn. They are in our yoga classes. We date them.

MollyAnn Wymer is the creation of Molly Wymer, who added the “Ann” for her online persona, because, hey, it just seemed right. Wymer, 39, is a single mother of five kids in Greensboro, North Carolina, who calls herself “an accidental comedian.” “All of a sudden I was funny, and I never knew that,” she says.

On the phone, she sounds, well, normal. But moving into MollyAnn is not hard. “It’s like there is a switch in my brain,” she says. “If I let her talk, she just does.”

Her first video, which she made for her friends two years ago, is a long, thoughtful explanation of her discovery of Dramamine, which she decided was a pill to control her drama. “I feel my drama coming on, and I take this little pill and my drama is contained,” she says. “It’s all mine.”

MollyAnn is walking in the shaky high heels of a long line of ditzy blonds, from Marilyn Monroe to Anna Faris. Like her predecessors, MollyAnn is sincere, relentlessly sincere, and unafraid to confront the world.

In one video she talks about going to a gun store and asking the clerk for a “protection gun,” not a “murder gun.” “He looked at me like I’d been hit with the stupid stick too many times,” she explained, shocked. That prompted this headline from a gun site: “Hot blond trolls pro-gunners.”

MollyAnn’s primary income these days is selling health and wellness products. She is also booking gigs as a motivational speaker, helping people find their voice and pull through difficult times. A few weeks ago, she did stand-up for the first time in a 300-seat theater, opening for Jon Reep in High Point, North Carolina.

It went “surprisingly well,” she says.

Trying to explain MollyAnn’s appeal can be tough. Maybe it’s because we all know a MollyAnn, or somebody vaguely close to MollyAnn. They are our baristas. They are in our yoga classes. We date them. Or maybe you are thinking of writing a New Yorker essay explaining the media victimization of the classic blond in the modern media age. Who cares?

She pops up, you click. You can’t help it. Those eyes get going and three minutes of your life are gone. No regrets. And maybe you learn a little something about life in MollyAnn’s world.

A Syrian Medical Student on Learning to Heal Amid War

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Years of fighting have undermined much of Syria’s infrastructure, and many parts, especially the Damascus suburb of Daraya, have been reduced to rubble. Syrian health care’s been caught in the crossfire, with dozens of hospitals across the 17-million-strong nation damaged and thousands of doctors fleeing the violence. 

A health-care system once dubbed “the envy of the Middle East” and touting an average life expectancy of 75 is now at risk, not to mention Syria’s once-thriving pharmaceutical industry. Yet universities and other educational institutions are still operating in parts of Syria under the regime’s control. Secondary education is free and provided for by the state through university, with some private alternatives available. Damascus University is the largest and operates eight hospitals across the capital. Many Syrians still study here, including roughly 6,000 in the field of medicine, and the medical school continues to churn out new graduate doctors each year. These brave young physicians are crucial to the survival of Syrian health care, and their training must be met with optimism. But living in a war zone, studying and planning for the future are far from easy.

I was walking from the university hospital to the medical school when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the college.

Mahmoud Alkhatib

We talked to Mahmoud Alkhatib, a senior medical student at Damascus University, about the dangers he and his classmates face in completing their studies. The Damascus native is focused on neuroscience and has been ranked among the top 10 students at the university over the past five years.

What daily hardships do you face? Is the university still fully functioning?

Alkhatib: It is now harder for us to travel and do extracurricular activities in neighboring countries, like clinical rotations at the American University of Beirut. Financial matters have also become a great concern because the mean income for the vast majority of Syrian citizens is between $50 to $150 U.S. a month. And for a medical student who is planning to take international exams to be able to continue his studies abroad, he will need more than $3,000, about 30 times the mean [monthly] income. Due to the economic sanctions … we are having a lot of difficulty affording study expenses like books, examining tools or international-examinations costs. Even transportation costs are way more expensive than before. 

Also, even though Damascus is safer than some other cities in Syria, we still feel unsafe when we travel to school due to possible, unpredictable terrorist bombings or shelling. The university does still function, and many of its hospitals are being used to treat casualties from the war. 

Can the health-care system be restored to its former glory?

Alkhatib: I think that the health-care system in Syria will keep standing tall in the storm, despite all the hardships and obstacles. We as Syrian students are responsible for rebuilding the future, and we will. New hospitals can be built without too much difficulty, and I think it’s important that new doctors are still being trained, so they can run the hospitals. This destructive war won’t stop us from continuing our studies and training so that we can have a hand in shaping our new future.  

Have any of your family members been killed or injured in the conflict?

Alkhatib: Thank God, no one in my family has been affected like that by the war. But I had some relatives who left the country because of how hard life has become here — namely, the poor living conditions and constant risk of death.

Has the conflict ever put you directly at risk?

Alkhatib: I remember something that happened and was extremely scary. I was walking from the university hospital to the medical school when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the college. There were two of them, but the other one was discovered and killed before he could detonate himself. This happened around December 2015, quite close to the medical school, and there’s also been shelling near our university a few times.

Have you considered quitting your medical studies because of the dangers?

Alkhatib: That attack — let’s say the whole situation — has made me think of traveling and continuing my studies abroad, or maybe not continuing in medicine at all. But every time I thought like that, I also thought that I could and must stay put, and succeed. I have always had a passion for medicine, and at some point I realized that nothing will ever stop me. Besides, these circumstances are motivating us to finish what we started and to help rebuild our homeland. 

Election Jiu Jitsu: When a Political Fight Comes to the Gym

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At 6:30 a.m. at least three days out of every week in 2016, a similar scene unfolds at the Serao Jiu Jitsu Academy.

“You’re crazy.”

I’m crazy? You are crazy.”

The speakers? Navy vet and hard science guy at a big tech firm in Silicon Valley Martin Galinski and OZY’s editor-at-large Eugene S. Robinson. The occasion would be 2016’s hothouse election season. Galinski, an out and open Trump supporter, laid it down early and often: “I resent being told I’m an idiot for wanting to vote for Trump.” With real passion and a probing intellect, he’ll detail the whys and wherefores of his unbroken support for the Donald.

Like every day.

And now, for maybe one of the few final times, here at OZY.

How does the character issue not bother you more? 

The allegations have definitely been troubling. Who wants to hear that about a guy you’re supporting? But most people who are against him are going to believe the charges, and those that support him are going to write them off. I try to be objective and not inject what I want to be true vs. what the evidence says. Unfortunately, in this case, I don’t know if these charges are true. They seem to be one-on-one instances where there weren’t any witnesses, so it ends up being hearsay. I think it’s possible that they are true and it’s possible they are campaign tricks to discredit him and turn away those who are undecided. But I’m voting for Trump not because he’s the Dalai Lama. I’m voting because I believe his policies are what’s best for America.

Should I vote against the best interests of my fellow citizens because Trump may have sexually harassed a few women over 10 years ago? Probably not, nor would I expect those on the other side of the aisle who feel Hillary’s policies are what is best to do any different.

Will how he treats women influence his approach to policy that affects women, though? And what about the trickle-down effect of people who think grabbing vaginas without being invited to grab said vaginas is just how things are done?

I’m actually laughing out loud at your questions. Are they joke questions? Look, there’s a lot of “When did you stop beating your wife?” here, and it’ll be hard to hit them all. But most political talk about women’s issues is about equal pay and abortion rights. Other than that, I think the women’s issues are also men’s issues, and moreover, American citizen issues. Currently abortion is legal, and the issue of equal pay is quite complex. I’m not sure, though, if the government needs to do anything, much less issue unilateral presidential executive decrees, so this question is irrelevant. Also, when you say “how he treats women,” I believe there are many more women who say good things about him than those that have accused him of harassment. I guess it’s about who you want to believe, but I believe extrapolating how he treats women based only on these controversial and possibly false accusations may be inaccurate. To answer the “trickle-down” effect … no. There are men who are willing to harass women, and there are men who won’t. That will be the case whoever is the president.

When I tell a joke, I’ll let you know … but filling the Supreme Court with pro-lifers is not irrelevant. And on the grounds of the Billy Bush video alone, I think his attitudes don’t play well in terms of his cabinet or world leaders who aren’t interested in working with someone who holds them in low regard. 

I’m not a fan of legislating pro-life movements, although I can definitely sympathize with what they are trying to do. I think this is an area where personal freedom is more important, and unfortunately, the lives of the unborn babies lay in the hands of their parents. I don’t like the Billy Bush video, and I think that kind of talk is stupid. If there was any real negative for me, it would be this kind of shit. There’s no disputing what he said, and bragging this way isn’t exactly inspiring.

Now “the Mexican” judge Trump said was biased on account of him being Mexican? Paul Ryan’s response was that this was essentially the very definition of racism.

I think Trump was referring to the fact that, based on how he angered a large portion of the Hispanic community with his talk of “the Wall,” he didn’t feel the judge was being impartial and judging the case on its merits. Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not. Only the judge knows for sure. But that’s definitely not the definition of racism. 

Remember when you asked me about Republicans I could stomach and I made semi-positive remarks about Paul Ryan and you said you “hated” him?

I don’t like Paul Ryan because he’s the quintessential career politician who’s only concerned about their positioning within government. It’s very clear based on Wikileaks and Project Veritas how not only is the DNC corruption alive and well, but also how it works. I’m sure there is this kind of bullshit on the Republican side as well … and if there is, it’s perpetrated by career politicians. Trump succeeds because the RNC wasn’t serving its people. Trump has torn up the RNC, and I don’t ever expect it to be the same. I was actually shocked to learn that the DNC needs it more than the Republicans! They need a Bernie Sanders to come in and “drain the swamp.” We may not agree with the best course of action for the country, but the first thing we should be working on is eliminating corruption.

Wait, so the character issues in this election don’t have any bearing on whether or not Trump would be a good president?

Correct. The reality is that even if Hillary didn’t use a private server to house her government emails, which she used to hide information from the FOIA, or didn’t completely blow security at Benghazi and try to cover it up or “sell” positions and access within the government in exchange for Clinton Foundation donations or accepted donations from foreign entities who fund terrorists or intimidated women who accused her husband of rape or promise to house Syrian refugees within the United States at a time when terrorists are looking to infiltrate and kill American citizens — even if she didn’t do these things, I probably still wouldn’t vote for her. The reality for most of us is that we have a fundamental ideology and how we see the world. I may be more motivated or less motivated, but I’m going to vote conservative because I believe in capitalism and freedom over government control. The reality is that even if there was no Billy Bush tape or nine women claiming inappropriate behavior … you’re not going to vote Trump. You’re going to vote for Hillary.

So you don’t think a bad messenger obscures the message? And if corruption is your key issue, you do realize that’s like complaining about finding gambling in a casino, right?

I think a bad messenger can obscure the message, but I also believe there are whole teams of people whose job it is to slander that messenger. I think no matter who you put up there, there will be a huge propaganda machine to turn them into a liar, philanderer, corrupt, racist, out of touch, crazy, stupid or otherwise undesirable. I think the angle will be tailored to the individual, so that it seems as believable as possible. I think Hillary would be a better messenger if she didn’t try to appeal to voters by crafting every stance as all stances. She’s purposefully vague so that she can try to appeal to as many people as possible, and it’s the trademark of a polished politician. Honestly, I do not know for sure what she stands for, do you? Do you honestly know how she plans to create jobs from the presidential office? Do you know what “comprehensive immigration reform” even means? I think a sincere Hillary makes for a better messenger. Although I disagree with some of his politics, Bernie Sanders was sincere.

As far as your casino take, I find this cynical. I think it’s one thing to suspect corruption but have no proof. It’s another to have solid evidence of corruption and to ignore it because you align with the ideology. If you look at every third-world nation, the common thread in why they can’t succeed or pull themselves out of poverty is rampant government corruption. I think apathy about corruption for long enough could get us there. My hope, since we seem to have lost the balance of power, the DOJ is unwilling to uphold the laws and the media has given up objectivity, is that the American people will exercise its power and restore balance again.

And you’re going to trust a casino owner to fight corruption? I think this is where the “fucking moron” part comes in, ha-ha ….

Trust isn’t the correct word. More like a Hail Mary pass. I’ve been burned in the past, so I definitely don’t feel like if Trump wins, it’ll be a sure thing. But being a fucking moron here is always a distinct possibility.

The Next Hot Job in Silicon Valley Is Speechwriting

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To get a coveted job in Silicon Valley, you can soup up your résumé with C++ or Python. Brag about your bootstrapping startup. Or unveil the code for that sick time machine prototype you built. But before you start polishing up your GitHub, you might want to consider taking an entirely different route — ditch the keyboard and harness the power of the pen.

The next boom in Silicon Valley isn’t for coders with the gift of geek, but for writers with the gift of gab. In the last few years, a convoy of politically trained speechwriters, spokespeople and communication strategists has fled the frosty winters of the East Coast in search of greener pastures — namely, in Silicon Valley. And, as President Obama’s final days in office drop to double digits, young White House alumni increasingly are hitching their wagons to tech totems like Apple and Facebook, helping high-profile titans and startups fine-tune their messages. Now, instead of poetically singing the praises of politicians, these wordsmiths are tasked with delivering messages that are slightly different: articulating the Valley’s wonky mission statements to the layperson, putting out public relations fires when marquee products go haywire (here’s looking at you, Samsung) and, of course, avoiding Melania Trump moments.

Most people don’t use words like ‘disruption’ or ‘synergy’ or all the other ridiculous buzzwords that float around the tech industry.

Jon Favreau, former speechwriter, Obama White House

Speechwriting has long been important in the political world, but as technology companies become more influential and are expected to have a public voice, Silicon Valley has begun to appreciate the need for quality word choice — something many heads-down engineers and coders tend to lack. When twentysomethings get “spit out of the administration after working 23 hours a day and [making] shit money,” they’re “interested in working for people who are looking forward and involved in the future,” says David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association. “They’re not interested in writing speeches at Walmart.” For example, Matt Teper, the silver-tongued speechwriter for Vice President Joe Biden, graduated to writing for former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in Mountain View. Farther north, in San Francisco, Nick Papas, once the White House assistant press secretary, now serves as the chipper spokesperson for Airbnb, while Semonti Stephens, Michelle Obama’s former deputy communications director, currently shapes the voice of mobile-payments giant Square, which pulled in $1.27 billion last year. Likewise, Kyle O’Connor, who penned speeches for Obama as one of history’s youngest presidential speechwriters at 25, recently was hired as Mark Zuckerberg’s speechwriter, presumably for public-facing occasions like Facebook’s developer conferences and all-hands meetings. (Stephens and O’Connor, though word wizards, didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

The perks go beyond Ping-Pong tables and free lunches. While the typical presidential speechwriter earns anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 a year, according to the White House, freelance speechwriters in Silicon Valley get paid more handsomely at $200,000, and in-house speechwriters like O’Conner and Teper can make even higher. By comparison, the average software engineer in the Bay Area rakes in only $110,000, according to Glassdoor. “It would be foolish to compare working for the leader of the free world to working for a tech company,” says Airbnb’s Papas. “Every company needs to be prepared to tell its story. Figuring out how to do that efficiently and as comprehensively as possible” is no walk in the park, he says.

Papas is right, although he may want to turn up the volume on his cliché alert. Though the pay is good, the pace is still brutal in Silicon Valley, says Google’s Teper. Here, handling comms doesn’t just mean pounding away at a laptop for some big-time CEO to deliver a stump speech. It’s also about perfecting PowerPoint presentations for sales meetings, composing clever pitches to investors and placating public backlashes with well-crafted tweets. Just as politicians face an aggrieved public exasperated by wars, a flagging economy and scandals, tech executives have to address the unintended consequences of their products and services — like breaches of user privacy, spontaneously combustible phones, allegations of exploitative labor and the growing economic inequality in San Francisco. Private companies like human-resources startup Zenefits and biotech startup Theranos faced public scorn after major scandals surrounding fudged training records and misleading reports about the effectiveness of blood tests. However, the most pressing challenge for today’s speechwriters is how to communicate in ways that rise above the buzzwords and the bullshit that assail today’s internet generation, says Jon Favreau, the former senior speechwriter behind Obama. “One of the reasons we distrust institutions is because the people who represent them often sound distant and phony, like they’re speaking a dead language the rest of us don’t recognize. Most people don’t use words like disruption or synergy or all the other ridiculous buzzwords that float around the tech industry,” Favreau tells OZY.

Obama’s first campaign may have been built on hope and change — a theme that Favreau helped to craft — but Silicon Valley is deeply rooted in measured madness, a place where insane ideas get venture-funded into reality. To wit: Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, Mark Zuckerberg’s proposal to cure all diseases and Ray Kurzweil’s crusade to evade death. These tech impresarios rely on wordsmiths to craft their radical, futuristic visions — and what better people to express them than the behind-the-scenes scribes who inspired the country via its most powerful political leaders? Silicon Valley is now the “second-most fertile ground for speechwriting,” says Teper. And while Biden’s name may not ring a bell for everyone outside the U.S., with Google, “we’re talking to more or less the whole world.”

Whether delivered by King, Churchill or Lincoln, history’s most profound speeches illuminate ideas and bring them to life. Nowadays tech companies seem to be moving fast and calling the shots, so maybe it’s just a matter of time before a technolaureate delivers the “I have a virtual reality” speech.