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If you’ve not strolled around the streets of San Francisco, or any city really, with a man in fully historically accurate SS officer gear, then you might have missed the fact that this is beyond loaded, beyond trigger warnings, beyond, well, beyond. Which is why, I imagine, at the start of the walk, the SS officer I am walking with, Heinrich von Arent, hisses at me.
“Are you ready for this?” His accent is lilting and Arnold-esque. “I just want to make sure that you don’t run off. Like a small child. These are strange times.” As he toys with his eye patch, I finally get what he’s driving at, and it’s this: There’s a strong possibility we’ll be assaulted. You see, in these fraught times, Nazis are not a punchline that gets delivered without being punched, and so it goes that immersive comedian Heinrich von Arent, real name Damien Noorbakhsh, is either very committed or very stupid or, a third possibility, a total genius.
So while cars slow as we perambulate through San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a neighborhood with dwarf hookers, drug dealers and a naked jogger (whom we watched cops decline to arrest since, in all likelihood, he had no ID), Heinrich and I don’t as much stand out as stand in. “Ze subhumans have tried to assault me before,” Heinrich says, waving to the now-beeping cars. “But zey haf failed.”
Droll in a very disturbing way — less Hogan’s Heroes and much more Stalag 17 — Heinrich’s adventures have been pitched to heavy hitters like Dave Chappelle (unsuccessfully) and to any number of camera people who quit when they realized that they were dead center in a comedy minefield from which very possibly NO career would emerge intact.
“Enter the Fourth Reich, mein Freund,” he says. And for the next bit of time, that’s exactly what we did.
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It might be the most important determinant of whether you have a good day or not. Sleep affects your mood, your productivity, your decision-making … and yet we still know very little about it. With this series, OZY reporters go backward, forward and sideways on unexplored aspects of sleep, from weird technological innovations of the past to the future of making yourself go to sleep when your brain just will not be quiet.
The name of this obscure sleep condition is a doozy: Exploding head syndrome. But it might not be obscure for long: Research has found it affects a lot more people than previously thought. Those who have the condition say they abruptly wake up to a loud bang or a flash of light, symptoms that are both totally harmless but in the moment, totally terrifying. Now researchers are theorizing about what part of the brain controls this, and what could possibly cause it.
Dive into the eerie world of the Psycho-Phone, a device patented in the 1930s that promised to play self-improving messages to users while they slept. The gadget’s inventor promised that by embedding positive thoughts during the night, people could change their personalities and become better people … not unlike the promises many self-improvement apps make today.
If you’re coupled up, it’s expected that you sleep in the same bed. But what if you get better sleep alone? In the U.S., 46 percent of people in one survey said they’d rather sleep apart from their partner at least some of the time. And they could be on to something. Research suggests we get better sleep when we’re solo because there are fewer disturbances. Will sleeping in twin beds, 1950s sitcom style, be the future of sleep?
What do you do when you can’t sleep? Read for a while? Take a warm bath? Many of us inevitably resort to the pharmacy. Sleep-aids have become increasingly popular since they first hit the market in the 1960s. But these drugs can have some serious side effects – that’s why a growing number of companies want to solve the problem of insomnia, once and for all, with high-tech devices like electromagnetic pulses. They say it could change the way we sleep … but some say it’s pseudoscience.
Waking up grumpy because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep is beyond frustrating. There are plenty of reasons why sleep gets interrupted, but unfortunately for many, a loudly snoring partner is a major culprit. Ear plugs, noise machines and rolling him or her over just don’t do the job. But these new devices somehow magically do the trick. They’re designed not to disturb the user and subsequently, the user’s partner is undisturbed as well. Here’s to better sleep and more productive days!
Whenever Varvara Melnikova travels around Russia, she tends to run into her father — or reminders of him, anyway. The jet-setting construction engineer helped build bridges for decades throughout his career, including, she says, the structure in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk that’s currently featured on the 5,000-ruble note. Even while abroad, such as in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, Melnikova has found herself walking on pavement stones laid by her dad.
TOP: The front of the banknote depicts the monument to N.N.Muravjov-Amursky and the embankment in Khabarovsk. BOTTOM: On the back of the banknote there is the bridge over the Amur River in Khabarovsk.
So you might say helping shape cities runs in the family. As CEO of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, a pioneering urban studies think tank, the 38-year-old has overseen a concerted effort to promote the discipline in Russia while also attempting to fashion Moscow into a global destination for city planning. So far it’s working: The institute has sparked a newfound appreciation among Russians for urban studies — “We’ve made urbanism cool in this country,” Melnikova says — and attracts foreign students and researchers who come to Strelka to trade ideas and boost their knowledge.
Her firm has attracted widespread acclaim for its role in giving Moscow’s streets and squares a fresh, European-style face-lift.
Depending on how you look at it, Russia is either the best or the worst place to study urban issues. These days, three-quarters of the country’s population lives in cities — around half of which went up under the Soviet Union to power the planned economy, meaning many population centers were built around single factories, enterprises or industries. Dubbed “monotowns,” they collectively drove the communist superstate but were later plunged into socioeconomic despair after it collapsed. Even in major cities like Moscow, where massive Stalinist structures anchor broad boulevards, the socialist architectural legacy makes one thing abundantly clear: A strong state came first, and people’s interests a distant second.
A monument to Joseph Stalin in front of the mechanization pavilion of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibit in Moscow, 1941.
Then the 1990s arrived. Reactionary capitalism after decades of communist control left its own mark on cities by producing a maelstrom of kiosks, billboards and other gaudy structures with little regard for surroundings. Architectural writer Owen Hatherley describes a “very, very weird tension” between these two lines of development, marked by “a hugely controlled history and then the completely anarchic present.”
Yet as capitalism continued taking root, it also produced something of a middle class aspiring to Western-style living. Besides decent food and designer goods, that’s also meant livable cities. It’s in this context that Melnikova helped launch Strelka in 2009. The goal was to rope Russia into the budding global conversation about urbanism — in large part by getting Russians to think critically about how they could make their own cities better — as well as center that conversation on Moscow.
She teamed up with world-famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed a five-month educational program aimed at training new cadres of both Russian and international urbanists in the field’s latest theories. Since then, Strelka has added a joint master’s program in advanced urban design with Moscow’s prestigious National Research University Higher School of Economics. To date, nearly 400 students have passed through the institute’s various programs. Strelka’s publishing house, meanwhile, puts out digital-first products from international authors on architecture, design and theory. “The scale of their operation is impressive,” says Michal Murawski, an architectural anthropologist at the University College of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, “and the sophistication of their operation is mind-boggling.”
Beyond its conventional educational programs, the institute also offers public lectures aimed at makinghighly conceptual or narrow topics more accessible to the ordinary urbanite. Take the unexciting topics of waste or water management, for instance. “But if you bring it down to a more human level and speak about it in terms of its effects on the health of people and their kids,” says Melnikova, a mother of two who studied visionary architecture in university, “then, of course, the topic attracts an entirely different interest and relevance.” So enmeshed is the institute in Moscow’s cultural fabric that its bar and café also serves as a staple hangout for intellectuals and revelers alike.
But its consulting work has perhaps best translated Strelka’s forward-thinking ethos into real results. Its first major project was the 2011 renovation of Moscow’s Gorky Park, which was flipped from a drug-ridden urban wasteland into a picturesque, family-friendly hangout that’s become a key symbol of the city’s transformation. Then came the establishment in 2012 of KB Strelka, a leading design bureau that serves as the institute’s strategic consulting arm, which is headed by one of its earliest graduates (Melnikova is a co-founder, but it’s effectively autonomous.) KB Strelka has helped renovate scores of public spaces in dozens of Russian cities, having attracted especially widespread acclaim for its role in giving Moscow’s streets and squares a fresh, European-style face-lift.
Ultimately, though, Melnikova’s specialty is communicating the critical role public spaces and infrastructure play in shaping a city’s future. It’s why she’s spent so much energy on turning Strelka into a “very powerful, very concentrated intellectual space” focused on creatively troubleshooting real-life urban challenges.
Gorky Park in 2008 (left) and in 2018.
According to Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design at the University of California, San Diego, Strelka under Melnikova’s direction has become “one of the most innovative and important urban design platforms in the world.” On paper, he adds, the institute’s multifaceted approach — combining formal education, public lectures and consulting in a single network — probably shouldn’t work. “But it definitely does, and Varvara is the primary reason why,” says Bratton, who also heads Strelka’s New Normal postgraduate program.
Still, there’s something incongruent about developing an urban design hub in the capital of a country still struggling with another crippling part of the Soviet legacy: bureaucracy.It’s a problem that’s faced Russia for centuries, to say nothing of the corruption that places it 135th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.
But Melnikova — expressive and intelligent, dropping references to other global cities like Los Angeles and Berlin with ease — takes an optimistic approach. As a World Economic Forum participant, she’s learned from her equally worldly peers that few countries have it easy when it comes to changing institutions. The main challenge, she says, is to seek out folks just as hungry for change. “If a person wants to do something, regardless of whether he’s a builder, manager, engineer or a minister, they’ll work together with you to find a possibility to do that.”
In Moscow, anyway, there’s plenty of enthusiasm to go around, she says. Just stroll through its sleek new public spaces — leafy, open and inspiring — and see for yourself.
The first time it happened, Kaitlin Ugolik — then a stressed-out 20-something — was terrified. As she drifted off to sleep, the sound of a gunshot rang out and jolted her awake. She scanned her surroundings; nothing seemed awry.
As it continued happening, several times a month, Ugolik’s fear transformed into curiosity. Sometimes the sound would resemble a cascading wave, other times crashing cymbals. What’s more, she says, it wasn’t just a sound. It was almost a feeling,“like something was happening inside my head,” says the journalist, now 30 years old.
Perhaps that’s why science gave this condition the most terrifying name ever: exploding head syndrome (EHS). While the condition is mostly harmless, researchers are realizing it’s more common than they first thought:
Nearly 30 percent of respondents in a recent study say they’ve experienced the condition at some point in their lives.
In a paper published in December, a group of sleep experts found that 30 percent of their international sample of 1,683 respondents between the age of 18 and 82 reported a lifetime prevalence of the condition. But there’s a catch, says co-author Dan Denis: The researchers recruited many respondents from a web forum of folks interested in lucid dreaming. “So they’re probably a group of people that already have quite a range of unusual sleep experiences,” he says, adding that the true figure is likely lower. By contrast, the National Sleep Foundation reported that only about 1 in 10 adults suffer from restless legs syndrome, characterized by the urge to move one’s legs.
Ask leading EHS expert Brian Sharpless, who has researched the disorder’s prevalence among college-age students, and he’d place the statistic closer to 13.5 percent. But that’s still pretty surprising: “I was shocked that it was that high,” says Sharpless, an associate professor at the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University, Northern Virginia.
The good news is that EHS is relatively harmless — not, as Ugolik first suspected, a sign of deeper physical or neurological dangers. Less encouraging, though, is that experts still don’t know exactly what triggers the condition, although the most popular theory points to the brain stem’s failure to inhibit motor, visual and auditory neurons in preparation for sleep. That this particular academic field is relatively underfunded, and that only around 11 percent of people are believed to report the condition, doesn’t help the effort to dig deeper into it. That may be why the more conspiracy-minded often grasp for implausible explanations, Sharpless says, such as government agents “using directed energy weapons at them while they sleep to drive them nuts.”
Meanwhile, Denis and his colleagues are interested in further examining the condition by pursuing a longitudinal study, in which they’d track participants over a broad period of time. That way, they’d be able to investigate links between EHS and, for instance, poor sleep quality.
As for Ugolik, she says learning to better manage stress helped reduce the episodes to around twice a year. Her advice to others facing the condition: Address the core issues that typically mess with sleep, such as caffeine intake, physical activity or work-related stress. “Anything that might interfere with sleep seems like it might lead to this,” she says.
As is the case with many duels, the fight was over a woman. But unlike your classic literary duel, where two gentlemen battle over the honor of a shrinking violet at dawn, the participants here were two gang leaders and a prostitute — and rather than 10 paces at dawn, this “duel” was a deadly brawl.
It was 1902, the height of the Parisian Belle Epoque, a time when the French capital was still the cultural center of the world, and the bourgeoisie were back in full swing 108 years after the Reign of Terror. While newspapers mostly ignored the goings-on of the lower classes, this proletariat love triangle caught their attention because it involved the Apaches, the most fashionable gang of the early 20th century. Amélie Élie, better known as “Casque D’Or” (Golden Helmet) for her golden red hair, had expertly been pulling at the heartstrings of Manda and Leca, the leaders of the Orteaux and Popincourt factions of the Apaches. The spurned Manda amassed his gang on the streets of Belleville, ready to confront Leca and his men. What ensued was nothing short of all-out war, with a barrage of shots fired and several vicious stabbings.
The following day, Arthur Dupin, a journalist at The Journal, wrote of the incident: “These are the customs of the Apaches, of the Far West, unworthy of our civilization.” The name, which tied into French ideas of the time about Native Americans and the Wild West, was already in use: It had stuck after a police inspector speaking to a journalist in 1900 compared the savagery of gang crime to stories about the U.S. tribe.
After the story of this gang duel hit the press, the Apaches became a Parisian sensation. Unlike the factory workers, street vendors, laundresses and street sweepers who composed the respectable working class of northeastern Paris, the Apaches preferred a particular brand of thievery, known for head-butting, sucker punching and garotting victims with scarves — as well as a unique pistol, the Apache revolver, whose handle was made of brass knuckles and whose end was decorated with a switchblade. But while thieves had always been one of the dangers of Paris, this group of young men and women, mostly aged 15–21, also stood out for their unique dandy style and bizarre slang, known as la langue verte.
Apaches did not let their poverty impede upon their sense of fashion, something they took very seriously. They wore a distinctive flat cap called a “deffe” atop heavily pomaded slicked-back hair and piled layers of waistcoats and vests over intentionally wrinkled sailor shirts. A single blue dot could be found tattooed under nearly every member’s left eye. Their slacks were tight around the knees and flared at the bottom. Apaches were also very particular about their footwear, which they kept constantly shined and in impeccable condition. Should the beloved shoes get scratched, they were automatically thrown away. Female Apaches, by contrast, went hatless and wore black ribbons around their throats.
The Apaches, a term that covered a number of gangs all across Paris, were a cultural sensation. Soon, members of the upper echelons of society started copying their manner of dress, even going as far as to take classes in their slang terms. There was even an Apache dance, popular well into the 1920s, in which a male and female dancer enacted a fight between an Apache pimp and a prostitute. The routine could get so violent that dancers reportedly got injured while performing it.
The Apache dance artistically demonstrates their essence — romanticized for their flair while simultaneously representing a very real threat. The Apaches were known to kill police officers, and there were reports of foreign visitors afraid to visit Paris, believing it was overrun by gang members. Others reportedly were so fascinated by the gangs that they were taken in by fake Apache tours, where guides on the make showed curious tourists “dens” inhabited by actors dressed as gang members. But some scholars believe that the fear of the Apaches was a case of mass hysteria. “There was in Paris a real ‘apache moment’ that lasted from 1900 to 1914,” says Dominique Kalifa, Apache historian and author of the upcoming book Crime, Vice and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld. “We speak only of apaches,” wrote a reporter in 1907, which was right. But today it is very difficult to know if Apaches aroused real fears or if it was only a hysterical craze during which Parisians amused themselves through fear,” Kalifa adds. In that same year, Parisian police estimated there were 70,000 gang members in the city.
By the end of World War I, however, the threat of the Apaches had all but disappeared. But their cultural legacy lived on for decades through books, plays, songs and even a film named after the famous prostitute Casque D’Or, which hit theaters in 1952. Feared in the past, romanticized now, the Apaches are a historical enigma existing in a liminal zone between fact and fiction.
I wake up at 6 am, jump on an electric scooter and head into the winter cold. Soon, the wind is whipping a grin out of my suddenly wide-awake face. It may be early, I may be tired. But there is an unfiltered joy that comes from riding through the hushed streets, quiet before the early traffic rush. Even better: I’m getting paid for my refreshing head start to the day.
This is life as a scooter charger, a side hustle that pays $6 per scooter or, if you grab four in a night, as much as $24. That might not seem like a hefty payday at first glance. But consider that, with the right location and system, you can easily charge two scooters overnight in less than half an hour of actual work. And you can make more, in less time, if you have a vehicle. Charge two to four every weekday and you’re talking about an extra $250 to $500 in your bank account each month. That’s your monthly beer fund or grocery bill, retirement savings or rent payment in lower-cost cities — just for picking up a scooter on what might already be your afternoon commute and dropping it off the next day. “It can help people to supplement other incomes,” says Paris Marx, author of Freedom From Jobs: How Automation Will Revolutionize the Future of Work.
You have to live in one of the dozens of U.S. cities where an electric-scooter startup, such as Bird, Lime, Skip or Spin, has set up shop. If you do, you already know, because you’ve likely seen them whiz by you, everywhere from Mobile, Alabama to Boise, Idaho (scooters are also making their way around the world). Next, download the company’s app on a smartphone, and go through their sign-up process, which typically requires a background check, driver’s license and a direct deposit bank account. Assuming you’re approved, the company will send a set of chargers in the mail … and then it’s off to the races!
Time it well, and you might even get a free commute, with no gas or metro costs.
Each company has a different process. In essence, though, they all involve picking up the scooters at night — your smartphone “unlocks” them typically after 9 pm — and returning them to a hub anytime before 7 am with at least a 95 percent charge. Drop them off too late, or under-charged, and you risk getting paid less (or not at all). Where you live is essential: Ideally, you can pick them up after work, during happy hour or between Netflix episodes, and then drop them off before work. Time it well, and you might even get a free commute, with no gas or metro costs.
Like most new technologies, upcoming regulations could make scooter charging less lucrative or enjoyable. “Generally the model is that when these companies start out, they tend to offer more money to get people onto the platform and participating,” Marx says. But he worries that those relying on gig economy jobs are exposed, without typical labor protections: Scooter chargers are designated as independent contractors, not employees.
There are personal costs too. Practically, you can expect a small uptick to your electric bill, roughly about 10 cents per charged scooter. Make sure the effort is worth your time (I don’t charge on nights where I can’t make at least $12 per hour). For some people, the lifestyle change is the hardest part: Waking up that early isn’t easy, and walking or jogging back from dropping off the scooters is a morning exercise some might want to skip.
Then again, that morning ritual might be one of the most surprising benefits. Having cash on the line might be the motivation you need to fulfill any dreams of being an early riser. For me, waking up with the rush of a morning ride has let me begin writing with the sunrise, coffee in hand. While I started charging scooters for extra cash, I instead got a lifestyle that’s made me not just more productive, but also healthier and happier. It sure as hell beats the Dave Ramsey method of delivering pizzas to make pocket change.
I was the Cleveland-based contributor to a hot national public radio show, writing hot shit for a Black website (before it got all groupthink-y and obvious). She was the public radio producer newly appointed to the hot radio show and the most objective critic of my work. I mean, heat knows hotness, right? I called for weeks to get a phoner before she finally called me back. How am I doing? I asked.
“Well, I don’t know, because I don’t know what you’re doing, and you don’t either.”
There were a few beats, and then:
“Um … this is Jimi. Jimi Izrael. That dude.”
“Yeah, I know who you are. But can you find me someone who can tell me what you’re talking about?”
“Um. Hmm.” OK, so she wasn’t a fan. But she brought me along. I got good.
You know how nothing else tastes like chocolate? Imagine you wake up and can’t taste chocolate anymore, ever again.
A year later, I went to D.C. for an industry function and met her for the first time. At the function, I beelined across the room, kissed her on the hand and asked her to dinner. She declined at first but then relented, only to chat about her family, her fiancé — and maybe she could fix me up with her best friend? Wounded, I picked up the check, brushed my shoulders off and told her I was not taking applications. She looked me over and smiled.
“Well, if you were taking them, and I was filling them out, I would send you mine. FedEx. Overnight express.”
In front of my hotel, I leaned in to kiss her on the cheek — not even a hint of tongue because, well, she was a boss. An hour and 38 minutes earlier, our eyes had locked across the room, but here, my lips to her cheek, fingers to her chin, there was just the heat of our contempt and this tension, this moment in space, in which our love was born. If you hate me now, I thought, wait until you get to know me.
This would be her first marriage and my third — “Why does a boss marry the help?” her friends whispered. Her parents were also confused. Like many Black women, she had been raised to earn, send money back home and only marry for money — how could she fall in love with a writer? And what could she possibly need a man for anyway? Still, my future father-in-law would find something to like about me.
He liked the idea of my newly published book and the media attention it got — I think he saw dollar signs. He gave copies as random gifts until, while I was in Chicago for a family party, a niece showed him that one passage about how much I like to eff girls in the A. Across the bowling alley, I could not know of this revelation when I watched his face contort into an ebony mask of WTF as I gave him the thumbs-up with one hand while gripping his daughter’s ass firmly with the other: I was proud of that book and Dat Ass. He must have wondered what had happened to his little girl.
I would have taken her family’s enmity personally, except for the fact that she was coupled with a glitch in the coding: Black people have stopped marrying for love since forever. Her parents had run other suitors off, but I could not be shook. They could not understand love and could not understand us, so they tried to destroy us. Like a contagion, their animosity crept into every part of our lives — her mother even tried to dissuade her from sex doggie-style, because that could not be good for the vital organs — and many of her friends took her parents’ side. Few were happy for us — most were suspicious and said so.
After two years in a storm of this, we got married. Six months of bliss and then: cancer.
Her family took her back with them to Chicago for treatment, where they expected her to pay for her room and many of their bills while she lay in hospice. And she did. I slept in my car because her family would not let me stay with her. She and I rode the treatment roller coaster until there were no more tickets left. On Aug. 16, as her family tried to convince her to divorce me, she died, just hours before I had to do my radio shtick.
My family, disgusted by the way I had been treated, did not attend the funeral. It was me on one side of the church, the in-laws filling the other side. The reverend repeatedly mispronounced my wife’s name in the eulogy and all I could do was laugh at it all. We met, we fell in love and we died so quick that I could not be sure which cancer had killed us. I met my soul mate, and now, the guy who wrote a book about adjusting expectations in the name of love, can’t.
You know how nothing else tastes like chocolate? Imagine you wake up and can’t taste chocolate anymore, ever again.
You are alive and there are other flavors, yes. But nothing is chocolate, and once you’ve known chocolate, life without chocolate is a death of its own.
The most important part of the cave is to not look like you’re caving.
In the Rose Garden on Friday, President Donald Trump announced an agreement to end the 35-day partial government shutdown, which he swiftly signed late Friday. The “deal” was, in effect, acceptance of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s terms: reopen the government, then start negotiations about border security. It’s almost identical to what the Senate passed unanimously in December before the revolt from conservative commentators that caused Trump to reverse course and demand $5.7 billion for a wall at the Mexican border.
A wind gust briefly lifted Trump’s notes off the podium, not that he needed them. The teleprompter read simply “[Talk About Human Trafficking],” according to a pool report, leading to Trump’s unscripted jag about women bound and gagged in cars, “narco-terrorists” crossing the border with ease and human trafficking rising “because of the internet.” The hope, it appeared, was to draw the usual TV outrage coverage and media “fact checks” generating more attention for his tough rhetoric on immigrants. Trump hoped that his base heard his lengthy defense of walls and his insistence that he would shut the government down again or declare a national emergency to build the wall if Congress doesn’t deliver something better by February 15.
It doesn’t appear to have worked.
Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States.
The George H.W. Bush example is unusually apt this week. In a particularly low moment for the media in 1992, Bush was ridiculed for being “amazed” by a supermarket scanner. It turned out that Bush was inspecting new technology that could scan ripped-up bar codes, but a massive media pile-on unfairly twisted the comment into an example of him being out of touch. (Something that surely could never happen today.)
On Thursday, Trump had a legitimately out-of-touch moment, saying “the grocery store” will “work along” with unpaid federal workers it knows will get paid soon, implying they can get free food just like they could delay mortgage payments. Trump offered this It’s a Wonderful Life vision of life for unpaid workers to clean up for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who had said he didn’t understand why Transportation Security Administration workers and others were resorting to food banks since they should be able to simply get loans. There was some truth here: Navy Federal Credit Union was offering 0 percent loans, and Bank of America was waiving cash advance fees on its credit cards for federal workers. But from the mouths of billionaires, the comments were as tone deaf as it gets.
It’s unclear what the final straw was that got Trump to cave — Friday’s arrest of Roger Stone in the Robert Mueller probe or the brief shutdown of LaGuardia AIrport owing to a lack of air traffic controllers? But the Marie Antoinette moments only compounded the political squeeze on Trump and increasingly antsy congressional Republicans.
Throughout this fiasco, Democrats were in the odd position of minimizing the practical effect of a wall, while refusing to spend a relatively small (in federal budget terms) amount on it. The bottom line? They could not afford to allow shutdowns to be weaponized. And, remarkably, Dems held together to enforce it.
So despite his Friday threats, it’s hard to imagine Trump going through with another shutdown in three weeks and expecting a different result. Perhaps Democrats will offer a fairly robust border security package that Trump could claim amounts to a wall and both sides could declare victory.
More likely? We get a rousing litany of immigrant crime anecdotes at the State of the Union — hallelujah, it’s back on — followed by a negotiation breakdown that leads Trump to declare a national emergency to divert funds to a border barrier, and this all goes to court.
But at least your prison guards, airport bag-scanners and food inspectors will be able to buy groceries.
There is always a fundamental tension at the World Economic Forum in Davos about what business does, and what it says. Nowhere is this tension greater than in the conversation around big tech, and the challenges that “surveillance capitalism” poses to competition, privacy and civil liberty, even as it enriches companies in not just the tech sector, but every industry.
During the first full day of WEF programming this past week, there were plenty of official sessions about how to govern data and run digital economies fairly, though they were marked with a techno-optimism that was decidedly out of touch with the public’s concern about the disruptive effects of the digital economy on their jobs and national politics. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, released on the first day of the conference, for example, 73 percent worry about fake news being used as a weapon.
The tech industry itself was in full public relations mode, trying to combat the growing “techlash.” One of the most popular sessions of the day, Strategic Outlook for the Digital Economy, was moderated by Victoria Espinel, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, a large industry lobbying group.
Those who have lived under dictatorships say, ‘Please don’t give me a ministry of truth.’ But is it acceptable that Mark Zuckerberg is the minister of truth?
Marietje Schaake, European Parliament member
The conversation, like many in Davos, tiptoed around the most pressing issues. Ken Hu, a deputy chairman from Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei, was on the panel, as was Alfred Kelly, CEO of Visa. Yet there was no discussion of the security battles that led to the recent arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, or the fact that the U.S. is seeking her extradition. Nor was there any discussion of China’s battle with Visa or other foreign companies.
But behind the scenes, and amid U.S.-China trade negotiations, many delegates were talking about the growing conflict between Western companies and governments that want to come up with clearer rules for how to ensure the free flow of digital information across borders, and countries such as China where the government has more control. Trade representatives, lawyers and officials from countries including the U.S., Australia, Japan and Singapore will be discussing the topic in Davos this week.
As one U.S. participant in those talks put it: “Four years ago, when it became clear that the Chinese state was going to exert more control over the economy, a lot of people gave them a pass. Now, there is a feeling of, ‘Why should Alipay or China UnionPay get the whole market?’”
Indeed, there was talk that the legitimacy of the World Trade Organization itself will hinge on whether the divisions between the U.S., Europe and China can be hashed out. Meanwhile, companies from all countries and geographies were struggling to balance the need to retain public trust with the desire to tap into the profits of big data.
In a number of private sessions, multinationals in the auto, health, agriculture and financial sectors were talking up their plans to use big data to increase productivity and profit margins in a variety of ways — from sensors that track soil moisture to personalized medical devices that relay health information to doctors in real time.
“In some senses, every company wishes it had Facebook’s problems — not only its outsize margins but also its control over personal data, which after all is the secret of its outsize margins,” says David Kirkpatrick, founder of Techonomy Media and author of The Facebook Effect, who hosted a dinner on fifth generation attended by several tech leaders.
“The effort at every company is to understand whether there might be a way to assemble data without offending the public and violating their privacy. Blockchain is often mentioned in these conversations, of course. But the infrastructures we need are probably still several years away, at least,” Kirkpatrick says.
Seamless standards of global governance around data also seem like a distant dream. While the U.S. conversation is still dominated by business pushing for light-touch regulation, the Chinese are lauding a model of centralized control of big data as the way to move ahead in areas such as artificial intelligence and 5G. Both models worry Europeans, who want to put privacy and citizens, rather than consumers, as first priority.
At a WEF session on governing data, a participant from Turkey asked the panel whether the government could be trusted to set the right standards. Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament, summed up the existential challenge with her response.
“Those who have lived under dictatorships say, ‘Please don’t give me a ministry of truth,’ and I agree with that fully. But is it acceptable that Mark Zuckerberg is the minister of truth? Facebook and private companies determine so much about what is acceptable and not acceptable [regarding what can and is done with citizens’ data].”
She added: “Private norms are becoming more commonplace and aren’t criticized.”