The Democratic Murder Board

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When preparing for a tough debate or interview, political operatives use what’s called a murder board. It’s the analysis of people who are meant to ask the toughest questions and expose weaknesses. Campaigns keep it private. No recordings, no documentation — it’s that revealing of a candidate’s mind-set. 

In Tuesday night’s debate, we saw the Democratic candidates let the murder board loose for the entire nation to see. Watch Tim Ryan go after Bernie Sanders for his Medicare-for-All plan, only for the Democratic socialist to fire back defiantly, “I wrote the damn bill.” Or Elizabeth Warren, who, surrounded by moderates, struck back, “We are the Democrats, and we should stop using Republican talking points!” 

As a Republican, I can appreciate the counterpoints from Rep. Ryan and Gov. Steve Bullock, who noted that decriminalizing border crossings and offering free health care and college to people who are in the country illegally would almost assuredly lead to President Trump being reelected. Democratic primary voters were the big winners because they got to see the full range of very progressive to moderate candidates highlight their policy differences, temperament and leadership.

Tuesday night we saw the moderates try to distinguish themselves from the progressive front-runners. Wednesday night will be the opposite.

Some came out swinging, as did former congressman John Delaney criticizing “wish-list economics.” Others were determined that the Democratic candidates must be united to take on Donald Trump, as Sen. Warren did in her opening statement.

However, it was the stark policy difference that took center stage between the progressive front-runners, Sanders and Warren, and the moderates. The divide in the Democratic party couldn’t be more on display — and former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris should be writing thank-you notes to all 10 participants for the preview.

The big question is not who the voters agree with more, though. It’s who will be the best person to take on Trump next November. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, people were asked what was more important: for Democrats to nominate someone who can defeat Trump or someone who would fundamentally change the way the economy works. A full 56 percent of respondents said it was most important to beat Trump — just 41 percent chose the economic revolution.

 

To beat Trump, Democrats must win independents and suburban women. That shouldn’t be such a challenge: Trump is hemorrhaging those voters, especially after his racist remarks against several congressional members of color. Even a majority of Republican women — 52 percent, according to a Fox News poll in July — thought Trump went too far.

Warren, Sanders, Ryan and Bullock showed they had the necessary thoughtfulness, policy chops and leadership skills tonight, and they will benefit from their debate performance. Like everyone else, I was looking to see what Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former congressman Beto O’Rourke were going to do to reignite their campaigns. Color me unimpressed, but they have the money and poll numbers to last another round. 

Maybe Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joins us in October too. But for Gov. John Hickenlooper, author Marianne Williamson and former congressman Delaney? It’s time to exit with grace, and with dignity. 

Tuesday night we saw the moderates try to distinguish themselves from the progressive front-runners. Wednesday night will be the opposite, a battle between moderate front-runners like Biden and their progressive critics. Who will be left standing?

That’s not quite the right question. Because here’s the rub: No matter who wins these debates, the attention on them will likely disappear in the blink of an eye — or rather, with Trump’s arrival in Ohio for his own rebuttal rally on Thursday night. No one will be off-limits, and you can expect more than a few new nicknames, if the past is any indication. And while the Democrats square off now, they would do well to remember that, come next November, the only person who truly matters on their murder boards will be the president who has mastered, above all else, the strategy of hate and divide. 

Assad Turns Screws on Key Allies: Syria’s Business Elite

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Tarek’s bustling factory had escaped the worst ravages of Syria’s eight-year civil war. He was hiring workers again, hoping the company would secure decent contracts as the country’s reconstruction got underway. But soon his manufacturing business found itself facing a new opponent — Syria’s finance ministry.

“They descended on our offices, maybe 20 people, searching every document for something they could fine us for,” says Tarek, who claims that the government’s accountants also overestimated the company’s profitability to increase his tax bill. “They’re not professional. It’s like a mafia.”

President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime is seeking to replenish its depleted coffers, having recaptured the parts of Syria that were held by opposition forces, thanks in part to Russian and Iranian help. But Syrian industrialists say they have now become the prey for predatory state bodies seeking funds.

[Assad] still needs the support of the Sunnis and the elite, and I’m not seeing them getting the incentive.

Sami Nader, Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs

Analysts warn that the grab for money is impeding economic recovery, deterring investment needed for reconstruction and could ultimately undermine business support for the regime itself. “Yes, this will block the reconstruction, but I think it will [also] put the regime in jeopardy,” says Sami Nader, research director at the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

The Assads have traditionally drawn support from the minority Alawite sect to which they belong. But when Assad followed his father into power in 2000, he increased his appeal among predominantly Sunni industrialists — members of Syria’s majority sect — by promising to open Syria’s economy to outside investment. Loss of their support, whether tacit or vocal, would further erode Assad’s power base. “[Assad] still needs the support of the Sunnis and the elite, and I’m not seeing them getting the incentive,” says Nader.

The civil strife, which has seen an estimated half a million people killed, has devastated Syria’s infrastructure. While the regime has encouraged investment in reconstruction by its military allies Russia and Iran, and welcomed business delegations from its political ally China, there has been scant sign of foreign investment, and it is unclear how reconstruction will be funded on any grand scale.

 

The regime is also under huge financial pressure. Renewed American sanctions on Iran have intensified pressure on the regime’s finances by disrupting Assad’s credit line and oil supplies from Tehran. The loans had allowed Syria to purchase $5 billion worth of fuel and other goods from Iran since 2013, Syrian officials say. British marines this month impounded an Iranian supertanker the U.K. said was headed to Syria; Iran retaliated by seizing a U.K.-flagged tanker.

Assad has funded his war effort in part by tapping rich loyalists for cash, including metals magnates and businesspeople facilitating oil and gas trade with Syria. But many of them have now been hit by U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions for bolstering the regime.

The government’s annual budget has been halved since war broke out, dropping from $18 billion in 2011 to $9 billion in 2018. Actual expenditure is probably lower — experts estimate only half of budget requirements have been met. Rampant corruption among government employees seeking to boost meager salaries is widely reported. As the squeezed government puts pressure on local businesses, heavy industry and wholesalers are in its sights.

“It’s a methodical system; the government is chasing back every penny,” says another Syrian business owner, who reports one friend received demands to settle a fine incurred by his dead father’s company more than 15 years ago. Against this backdrop, as well as continuing instability, lack of capital and international sanctions, “it’s unlikely that anyone of any serious weight would consider investing in Syria,” he adds.

“The state is trying to raise money for itself,” says a Syrian businessman. “The customs patrols are shaking us down all the time.”

Abdulnasser Sheikh al Fotouh, chair of Homs’ chamber of commerce, says businesses are slowly recovering thanks to improving security in many places, but calls on the government to do more. “We need a package of brave laws that attract investments and help businesses grow rapidly.”

Hopes that the reopening of a key border crossing between Syria and Jordan in late 2018 would boost trade and customs revenues have been dashed. One Syrian importer says fees levied on trucks entering Syria through Nassib had rocketed from $100 to $800.

Careful not to criticize the regime, Fotouh says business leaders recently met with the prime minister’s office to demand new laws regulating investment. He argues that business groups need a bigger say in how the economy is managed and help in shouldering the cost of loans taken out before the war. “Those who never left the country deserve to be prioritized,” he says. “After all, Syria can only be rebuilt by Syrians.”

To Reduce Migration, Trump Might Be Right About Cutting Foreign Aid

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In March, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would stop all foreign aid — including hundreds of millions of dollars already promised — to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala until those countries reduced the numbers of migrants fleeing to the United States. He faced flak over the decision: Lawmakers warned that he was just encouraging more migration by making the situation for people in those countries even more desperate.

Trump’s action went against conventional wisdom that foreign aid helps stop migration from poorer countries to richer ones. In June 2015, then U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon explained that the U.K. needed to spend more money on foreign aid “to discourage mass migration so we don’t have to fish people out of the Mediterranean later on.”

But studies of migration have failed to back up this assertion. In fact, a systemic analysis of existing work on the subject last year found that … 

There is no clear evidence that foreign aid deters migration.

The paper, published last year by the Center for Global Development, found that while it’s difficult to compare the various existing studies as they examine different countries and correct for different variables, some found that foreign aid actually raises emigration. And the reason isn’t that people in those countries don’t need help. It’s that below a certain gross domestic product per capita threshold, people simply don’t have the resources to migrate. According to a recent study by Germany’s Berlin Institute for Population and Development, migration numbers to Europe are lowest in countries where the GDP per capita is below $2,000. The highest levels of migration to Europe are seen from countries with a GDP of $8,000 to $13,000, such as Tunisia and Jordan.

“Starting with GDP per capita around $2,000 or $3,000, migration rates increase at a high speed,” says Adrián Carrasco Heiermann, a researcher at the Berlin Institute who was closely involved with the study. Some of the factors shaping migration potential are economic, political — like oppression or conflict in the home country — or environmental, like climate change. 

 

Foreign aid is on the decline around the world, with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reporting that donations from its 30 member countries fell by 2.7 percent year on year in 2018. That could help wealthy countries control migration, though it could also worsen the situation in the world’s poorest countries, many of which are expecting population booms in the next 30 years. United Nations population forecasts indicate that Burundi (with a GDP per capita of $275) will see 120 percent population growth by 2050, while the Central African Republic (GDP per capita of $510) will grow another 77 percent in that time. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 15 percent of the world’s population — about 750 million people — would like to migrate. But only about 3.3 percent of the world’s population actually does, according to the latest U.N. International Migration Report.

Foreign aid for development is not huge,” explains Francesco Castelli, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Brescia. “OECD countries have pledged to invest 0.7 percent of their GDP for development activities, but most of them are far from reaching this level of aid.” Even what is given is often made less effective by corruption, poor management and following the priorities of the donors rather than the people in the affected countries. “Pumping money in a given country is not at all the best way to prevent migration,” he says. “Development needs decades to happen, not yearly projects.” 

While migration is used as a scare tactic on all sides of the political spectrum, with pundits and politicians warning about influxes of migration if laws are not tightened or aid dollars not spent, it may be the countries that fear migration who are shooting themselves in the foot. Some European Union member states, Carrasco Heiermann says, are already dependent on immigration. Last year, the EU’s “old-age dependency ratio” — the number of people over 65 compared to the number of people in the working-age population — hit record highs, with only three working-age people for every elderly person. In order to maintain their economies and support systems, the EU may have to rely on outside migration. Perhaps they should get cracking on increasing foreign aid.

Can This Young Justice Minister Uproot South Africa’s Corruption Problem?

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When, in 2013, Ronald Ozzy Lamola was dismissed by President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress as acting president of its Youth League, he had two choices. One was to go home to rural Mpumalanga­, one of South Africa’s most impoverished provinces. The other was to continue his legal studies and his internal fight against the corruption and intolerance of the Zuma administration. 

He chose the latter, putting him on track to one day perhaps contend for the presidency himself.

Lamola, 35, the newly appointed minister of justice under President Cyril Ramaphosa, is youthful, tall and athletic, with a Nelson Mandela-like charm. On a tour of the Brandvlei maximum-security prison, he is prepared to engage with everybody, and he is always keen for a joke and a cheerful laugh. But, as public policy expert and professor Mzukisi Qobo says, underneath the public playfulness “is a man who takes his work very seriously.”  

I want to see consequences where there is wrongdoing.

Ronald Lamola

The son of farm laborers, Lamola was motivated during his studies by his sister, who put almost her entire salary into his education. He cut a lone figure during Zuma’s reign as president. Although not the most high-profile of Zuma’s eventual critics in the ANC, he was certainly one of the first. He was famously photographed in 2016 outside an ANC National Executive Committee meeting holding a placard that read “Save the Soul of the ANC” and calling for Zuma’s removal.

That was at a period when few within the ANC dared to express Lamola’s kind of open dissent. Lamola says “the ANC at the time failed to manage that” dissent. But, he qualifies, “I think lessons have been learned.”

 

According to political commentator Stephen Grootes, “there is a hunger in South Africa for a young person like Lamola, who is studious, learned and also represents the rural people of the country.” Grootes adds, “It is really too early to say, but there are few people better suited and better qualified” to be a future president. Qobo agrees, saying that Lamola “has the capacity to succeed.”

But Lamola’s posting was still “slightly strange,” in Qobo’s words, given his inexperience: Lamola is at least 15 years younger than any previous minister of justice. His appointment came as part of the wave of anti-corruption sentiment that swept Ramaphosa into power, given the media revelations around the Zuma administration’s corruption — known as “state capture” — that is estimated to have cost South Africa more than $700 billion. Zuma has denied any wrongdoing and, bizarrely, declared that the ongoing inquiry into state capture is part of a convoluted plot to assassinate him that was initiated in the early 1990s by the apartheid government.

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Ronald Lamola is the youngest ever justice minister.

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On the tour of the prison, designed to spotlight both the declining state of prison infrastructure and the new justice minister, Lamola engages easily with inmates, guards and the media. He takes time to talk to the guards about their jobs, shoot pool with the juvenile detainees and play soccer with the 20-year-olds — making the only assist of the first half. In the prison’s bakery, he laughs with and encourages the older convicts.

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Lamola’s promise is to “rebuild” South Africa’s institutions, to turn around a country that saw a crippling decline in its economy and infrastructure under Zuma. This is not going to be easy. For one thing, we tour the prison facility with Zuma’s head of state security, Arthur Fraser, who is the commissioner, or bureaucratic head, under Lamola in the Correctional Services Department. 

When asked how he can operate this portfolio with one of the ex-president’s allies, Lamola replies, “I am guided by the law. He is the legal commissioner of the department, and I have to work with him.” The courts, the National Prosecuting Authority and the president, he goes on to say, must “deal with this issue. … But I want to see consequences where there is wrongdoing.”

This kind of talk fits with Ramaphosa’s institutionalist approach to politics and corruption. It is a game in which faith and growing support have been placed in South Africa’s legal institutions and its, to date, fiercely independent judiciary. Arrests will begin only once the NPA has rebuilt itself from the Zuma years. And it is Lamola who must rebuild the NPA.

Lamola spent five years in South Africa’s political wilderness after 2012, when he publicly endorsed the corruption-free Kgalema Motlanthe — Zuma’s presidential rival at the ANC’s December 2012 elective conference. Lamola was shortly thereafter forced to leave the ANC’s political structures and start his own legal practice.

His initial entry into national politics came in the ANC Youth League with Julius Malema, a well-known populist firebrand. But unlike Malema, who was expelled from the ANC and went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters, Lamola, although suspended and dismissed, held onto his party membership. This led to Malema labeling Lamola a “sellout” and claiming that Lamola made an unspecified “deal” with Zuma. But recently Malema, who has never held back either in the press or in Parliament, has shown a distinct reluctance to take on Lamola publicly.

In contrast to Malema’s unpredictable populism, Lamola speaks the language of what people call “the ANC’s soul.” These traditions, made famous by Mandela, promote economic equality, racial harmony and social transformation under the guidance of South Africa’s celebrated constitution — ideas that took some blows during the Zuma years.

The reconstruction starts in many ways with the NPA, which is funded by Lamola’s department and has yet to prosecute anyone from the previous government for corruption. Lamola admits the NPA “has enormous challenges” and says that his role is to make sure it is well-funded, functions properly and acts “without fear or favor.”

If Lamola “wants to uphold the rule of law in South Africa, he would do well not to meddle in the internal workings of the NPA,” Qobo says. Political interference in the NPA has, after all, been at the root of South Africa’s current problems.

And if he can restore credibility to the legal system, then what? When asked about being a future president, Lamola smiles and says, somewhat reluctantly, “time will tell.”

Sega Was Game Streaming Way Before It Was Cool

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Imagine, if you can, a world where the latest video games are nearly instantaneously available at the press of a spring-loaded button without waiting for a download. All you would have to do was set yourself up with a six-pack of Surge soda and a plate of microwaved Pizza Bagels and settle in for a night, afternoon or sick day home from school with a catalog of games far greater than what could probably fit on the wobbly plastic game storage shelf in the living room. 

It’s a popular claim by acolytes of the house the blue hedgehog built that Sega was the most innovative and forward-thinking of game hardware companies during their all-too-brief reign. Their answer to the monochromatic Game Boy, the Game Gear hand-held, featured a full-color screen with a built-in light for gaming after bedtime a full eight years before the Game Boy Color did the same thing. Sega beat Nintendo to the punch again with motion controllers for the Dreamcast almost a decade before the Wii brought families together to flail their arms around in the living room. Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast was also the first system to have a built-in modem for online play. 

Arguably, though, Sega’s greatest act of prescience was a bulky black add-on for the Genesis (known as Mega-Drive to those outside North America) system that not only predicted the next big step for video gaming but also helped shape the internet as we know it today.  

The Sega Channel was the coolest thing in the world to most kids, and some adults, when it was released in North America during the holidays in 1994. To modern eyes, it’s just a bulky Genesis cartridge with a coaxial cable port. That port connected it to a system of satellites and servers — long before broadband internet — and allowed lucky nerds to stream games to their home systems rather than venture to the local Kmart or Blockbuster to buy or rent a physical block of plastic and silicon. This doesn’t seem special now, but Sega’s innovation not only predated the current game-streaming frenzy. It predated YouTube by 11 years. 

For $13 per month — about what most folks pay for Netflix — Sega fans in America would have access to a revolving catalog of up to 50 games, some of which cost up to $60 individually for physical copies. Still, even during peak popularity, the channel had only 250,000 U.S. subscribers. Sega rolled out its streaming service across the globe, reaching Mega-Drive owners in Canada, the U.K., Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The service featured some of the biggest gaming icons of the era, such as Sonic, Earthworm Jim and the cast of Mortal Kombat. Sega Channel also allowed subscribers test-drives for upcoming games, including an early demo for the bestial beat-’em-up and Mortal Kombat competitor Primal Rage and exclusives that were never released physically in the U.S., like Mega Man: The Wily Wars. The menu featured psychedelic visuals and funky music courtesy of John Baker, who also contributed to the cult-classic game about alien rappers Toejam & Earl.

 

How was this possible at a time when the internet still made that horrible screeching noise through phone lines? Sega’s innovation required a system of revolving streams from cable companies. They broadcast the menu screens 24/7, and when a user selected a game, it normally took no more than 30 seconds to download that game’s digital information to the cartridge’s local RAM. Essentially, the channel would download the few megabytes of game code through the same signal you used to watch regular television but would delete everything when the system was shut off or reset. 

But the cutting-edge nature of the channel meant it could be a bit finicky. Any kind of interference in the cable line would abruptly stop the game, suddenly replacing Sonic’s Mach 2 blue blur with the Sega Channel logo.

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Then-Sega Channel president Stan Thomas, in 1994, with some of the company’s most popular games.

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“Utilizing the cable network was either a stroke of genius or purely a chance of circumstances since it was the most accessible network in American homes at the time,” says Brendan Meharry, who runs the popular Retro Game on YouTube. He featured the Sega Channel in his “Wonders of the Retro Gaming World” series. Meharry and others in the gaming history sphere say the channel forced cable companies in America to clean up their cable signal networks, which may have paved the way for the high-speed broadband we all use to binge-watch Netflix and play Fortnite today. Streaming is also poised to be the next great step in modern gaming. Sony offers a limited streaming service for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Now. Rumors of a cheap “streaming only” Xbox One have been circulating online as Microsoft has been demoing their xCloud tech. Google entered the fray in June with a demo featuring the latest Assassin’s Creed running in a Chrome tab and announcing their streaming-only Stadia console.

Despite its futuristic promises, the Sega Channel was ultimately doomed by the decisions of higher-ups at the Sega home office in Japan. And it wasn’t the only casualty: After its evenly matched console war with the Super Nintendo, Sega management’s infamous bungling of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast forced the company to close down its hardware division and make games for their competitors Sony and Microsoft and even their archrival, Nintendo. Nowadays, Sega only makes games for other companies’ systems … so the closest they’ll come to taking a place in the current game-streaming craze is having their titles streamed through Microsoft or Sony’s services. 

Despite being labeled as one of 1994’s innovative products by Popular Science magazine and surveys showing that many kids would rather have a channel subscription than new systems like the Sega Saturn or Sony PlayStation, the service was shut down in June 1998. Soon after, the Galaxy 7 satellite, which relayed the service’s signals to cable companies across the country, spun out of orbit and is now drifting through space, broadcasting Sonic the Hedgehog to a cold, uninterested solar system.

This Sexy, Sarcastic Show on Danish Schooling Is Your Next Binge-Watch

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A middle-aged woman clad in tight jeans, checked shirt and black leather jacket, lounges on the toilet in a graffitied cubicle. After glancing at a few saccharine (CHARLOTTE AND MIKKEL 4-EVER) and offensive (CHARLOTTE IS A WHORE WITH A SLUDGY PUSSY) messages, she takes out a whiteboard marker to correct the spelling error in RITA IS FUCKING THE PRENCIPAL. The next scene she’s bumping uglies in the principal’s office, his tailored shorts around his ankles.

All this happens in the first two minutes of the first episode of Rita, a Danish comedy-drama that tracks the many ups and downs of a teacher who’s inspired in the classroom, but far more hit-and-miss out of it. At its core, Rita is a subtitled “love letter to the Danish public-school system,” where the poorest and the richest go to the same school, says producer Jesper Morthorst. Good thing, then, that the show is also hilarious, abrasive, thought-provoking and voyeuristic. 

Rita was always intended to be “very local,” explains Morthorst. But the four-season show by award-winning creator Christian Torpe has taken on a life of its own. It’s been available on Netflix from season 1 (they have co-produced since season 3), has received international accolades and is being remade in France. A U.S. version, starring Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), is now also in the works. Why? “Audiences love this not perfect, politically incorrect main character,” says Morthorst. “She says the things we all wish we could say.” 

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Lovable nerd Hjørdis.

Source SF Studios/Rita

Rita’s life’s work is “protect[ing] children from their parents” — like in season 1 (2012) when she feeds a child sugar against his parents’ wishes. “Sugar is poison. Would you poison a child?” asks the dad. “If it was an annoying one,” deadpans Rita. All this from an actor — Mille Dinesen — who used to be known as “the Danish Bridget Jones,” says Morthorst, before clarifying that Dinesen is very different from Rita in real life. “She really cares what people think.”

 

Once the main ground rule — Rita gives zero fucks about what adults think — has been established, viewers are introduced to the core cast. The outspoken protagonist has surprisingly well-adjusted children (dad emigrated long ago), but that’s not the case at work. There are Rita’s colleagues: Hjørdis, the role-playing, ork-loving nerd; Helle, the walking self-help book; and Rasmus, the aforementioned shorts-wearing principal. And when it comes to the students, let’s just say you’re better off being a rebel than a teacher’s pet in Rita’s classroom. 

She loves conflict, she uses men for sex, she doesn’t talk about emotions, she doesn’t care how she’s dressed …

Producer Jesper Morthorst

Season 2 explores Rita’s doomed attempts to settle down in a romantic relationship, while season 3 sees her battling her fear of becoming an authority in a new role at school. Season 4 goes darker, exploring Rita’s traumatic past, and may somewhat explain how she became such a conflicted adult.  

The show is filmed in a real Danish school, and there’s nothing made up about the airy common rooms, the piles of beanbags or the fact that students call teachers by their first names, says Kasper Kilde Rasmussen, who teaches at a real Danish school in the town of Kaas. Yet Kilde Rasmussen admits he’s “never met anyone like Rita” at work and he also says that the show paints a very glamorous picture of his profession. “I work for my salary,” he explains.

To both accusations, Morthorst pleads guilty as charged (“It’s entertainment”) before letting me in on a secret: Rita is based on a man. Think about it, he says, “She loves conflict, she uses men for sex, she doesn’t talk about emotions, she doesn’t care how she’s dressed.” For the show’s creators, this isn’t just a clever trick, it’s also a message of empowerment. “We avoid the trap of saying ‘she just needed to settle with a good man,’” says Morthorst. She “tries that” in season 2 but “isn’t cut out for it.” 

The show also tackles some of the biggest local issues in contemporary Denmark. Some of Rita’s tactics for assimilating special-needs students into the mainstream system are a tad unusual (she does seem to spend a lot of time ringing their doorbells). But the problem has been a daily reality for all teachers since the government shut down scores of special schools a few years ago, says Kilde Rasmussen — himself a designated inclusion teacher. “It is very much up to the schools to find a way to deal with it,” he says. Attitudes toward immigration are also given the treatment when Rita sleeps with the shady elder brother of Hassan, a Middle Eastern student. Such hospitality.

While the official word is that the show has run its course (so soon?!), the final episode of season 4 does culminate with Rita vowing to open her own school. When pressed, Morthorst would not deny that this may be the case.

So you’d best catch up on the first four seasons — you’ll want to be there to see it if she gets her way.  

You can watch Rita on Netflix.

Will Trump’s New ‘Warrior’ Be Up to the Top US Spymaster Job?

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Robert Mueller’s rather underwhelming testimony before the House of Representatives last week about the Russia investigation might not have lived up to its billing, but the televised spectacle marked a successful performance and national debut for at least one of its participants: John Ratcliffe. The three-term Republican congressman from Texas channeled his legal training and political outrage to make the most of his handful of minutes cross-examining the special counsel. 

Perhaps Ratcliffe’s grandest moment came when he (wrongly) informed Mueller — a zealous stickler for the rules who is respected by both parties — that he had not followed the special counsel regulations by noting in his report that the investigation could not exonerate the president. “It clearly says, ‘Write a confidential report about decisions reached,’ ” Ratcliffe pointed out. “Nowhere in here does it say, ‘Write a report about decisions that weren’t reached.’ ”

Ratcliffe has been a vocal critic of Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, but his televised grilling of the special counsel last week appears to have garnered the attention (and appreciation) of at least one television viewer at home — the one who just nominated him to be the new director of national intelligence (DNI): Donald Trump. The president’s choice of Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats does what several previous presidential nominations have now done: catapult a seemingly Trump-friendly face with only a few years of national public service into a critically important role in the government, setting up what will undoubtedly be another ugly partisan confirmation battle.

Ratcliffe’s meteoric political rise is the sort that is becoming increasingly common.

The town of Heath, Texas, has a lot going for it. The Dallas bedroom community of just over 8,000 people has a lake, rolling hills and average home values close to $500,000. It’s one of those places where the local golf and yacht club sponsors the farmer’s market. Heath is not, however, what one might normally think of as a political launching pad. Still, in just seven years, Heath has watched as its former four-term mayor beat a 17-term incumbent congressman for a seat in the House in 2014 and then got nominated to be America’s top spymaster in 2019. Ratcliffe’s meteoric political rise is the sort that is becoming increasingly common in an administration that appears to value outspoken loyalty, including timely televised indignation, over traditional résumé building. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, went from being an oilfield equipment manufacturer to congressman to CIA director in roughly the same amount of time.

 

The 53-year-old Ratcliffe’s résumé is not unimpressive: A Notre Dame grad with a law degree from Southern Methodist, he has served as both an anti-terrorism chief and a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. And, in Congress, he has served on the Intelligence, Homeland Security, Judiciary and Ethics Committees. But previous DNIs like Michael McConnell, a former National Security Agency director, and James Clapper, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, brought much higher intelligence credentials to the job, a Cabinet-level position created after the 9/11 attacks to better coordinate U.S. intelligence branches. “Ratcliffe would be the first incumbent director of national intelligence to not have major military, intelligence or ambassadorial experience,” says John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA and current OZY columnist. Ratcliffe’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the congressman tweeted on Sunday night that he’s “deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to lead our Nation’s intelligence community.”

Still, if there was one thing holding back the clean-cut, dark-haired Ratcliffe’s advance, it was not his work experience. CNN reports that Ratcliffe was previously considered for top jobs in the administration, including attorney general, but many in the West Wing felt the former small-town mayor was “too nice.” That preconception appears to have been dispelled by the congressman’s aggressive stance at the Mueller hearings, one that prompted the president to call him a “warrior” not long before tweeting on Sunday that he was nominating Ratcliffe to replace Coats, who reportedly resigned because he felt the White House was not heeding his warnings about the election threats posed by Russia.

In addition to accusing Mueller of violating “the bedrock principle of our justice” (the presumption of innocence) by leaving it open as to whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice, Ratcliffe has been one of Capitol Hill’s strongest critics of the intelligence community that he could now lead. On Fox News’ Sunday program, Ratcliffe argued that there were “crimes committed” during the Obama administration in connection to events leading up to Mueller’s probe.

Such politically charged appeals have many worried about Ratcliffe’s capacity to serve in such a sensitive position, but ultimately it will be up to the Republican-controlled Senate whether or not to confirm him. A DNI’s most important job is to fairly and objectively represent the collective view of the intelligence community, says McLaughlin, and “a president who doesn’t want that is just asking for trouble.”

This Innovative Skateboarder’s Secret Weapon: Skydiving

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Update: Brusco completed the first 1260 in skateboarding competition history at the X Games on August 3.

It doesn’t matter if he’s dropping in on a 65-foot mega ramp or jumping out of a plane 13,000 feet above the patchwork ground below him — being airborne feels like home for Mitchie Brusco. 

The 22-year-old pro skateboarder has never been satisfied just spinning his wheels. Brusco, who competes in skateboarding’s big air and vert disciplines, has a collection of tricks that, were he content to repeat the same line over and over, could earn him a podium spot every time. At 16, he landed the first 1080 (a spin trick featuring three full 360-degree rotations) in X Games competition. In 2018, the trick was part of the run that won him his first X Games gold medal — and it’s one still missing from most pro skaters’ bags. As Tony Hawk showed the world 20 years ago when he landed the first-ever 900, spins are the foundation of skateboarding innovation. Two decades later, only five skateboarders have thrown down a 900 at the X Games, and only Brusco has done the 1080. This year Brusco wants to push it further and become the first to land a 1260. 

The Kirkland, Washington, native started skating at age 3 1/2 on a Tasmanian Devil skateboard his mom, Jen, bought at Target. He moved to the skateboarding mecca of Southern California at 13 to train with “the people who are killing it.” That includes the Birdman himself, Hawk, and Bob Burnquist, whose ramps attract skaters from around the world looking to hone their skills. Brusco’s home life sounds like something out of the show Jackass: He lives in a house in Encinitas with six other pro skaters. But far from a party pad, the house is actually a haven where they unwind and practice the runs they hope will win them contests around the world. Think foam rollers, not ragers.

There’s no question that skateboarders are a different breed. But even among these extreme athletes, Brusco’s drive stands out. What, exactly, compels someone to jump out of planes and attempt to claim risky new tricks on the ramp? For Brusco, it’s pretty simple: “I’m competitive in my blood.” And don’t think for a second it’s solely about chasing medals. Skating simply to win is “an empty road to go down.” He wants to bring something new each time.

Indeed, Brusco’s star has risen so quickly precisely because his feel for the physics of tricks seems almost preternatural. Other skaters simply can’t wrap their minds around it. 

“That dude has the best aerial awareness of anyone I know,” says skateboarder Clay Kreiner, Brusco’s housemate and friend — and toughest competition, as the runner-up behind Brusco in 2018’s big air contest. “The way he breaks it down just all aligns.”

And not all those skills have been acquired on the ramp. What better place to develop aerial awareness, after all, than in the sky?

There may be a reason three of action sports’ all-time greats seem to exist on a different plane. Sometimes they literally do. 

Brusco didn’t start skydiving specifically to improve his skateboarding. In February 2015, when he turned 18, he did a tandem dive, loved the feeling and decided the air was a “genuinely good place to spend my time.” But there may be a reason three of action sports’ all-time greats — Travis Pastrana (motorsports), Mat Hoffman (BMX) and Burnquist — seem to exist on a different plane. Sometimes they literally do.

Sure enough, after a couple of years diving, Brusco noticed a difference in his skating. “My spatial awareness and overall awareness has been challenged so much,” he says. “Getting on a mega ramp or spinning a different way on a vert ramp — those things just started to make sense.” Four years later, Brusco has completed more than 950 jumps — though he’s never taken a skateboard up there — and recently signed with iFLY to compete in bodyflight, a fast-growing sport. When he has a rare free hour, he also streams on Twitch and hopes to soon compete in the EXP Invitational, an esports tournament held at the X Games. 

 

When you spend enough of your time 13,000 feet above sea level, the prospect of hurtling down a 65-foot ramp, over a 65-foot gap and then up a 27-foot quarter-pipe — as skateboarders do in big air — doesn’t seem so daunting. Armed with his exceptional awareness and more than a little courage, Brusco shocked the skateboarding world at X Games Shanghai in June when he attempted a 1260. It was so unexpected that, on the air, play-by-play commentator Brandon Graham didn’t even initially realize the unsuccessful attempt had happened.

“Mitchie is the driver as far as what’s possible off that quarter-pipe,” says Graham, who is confident Brusco could land the groundbreaking trick this weekend in an indoor environment at X Games Minneapolis. “The highest risk in competitive skateboarding is what you can do off that quarter-pipe in big air. I don’t know that anybody is pushing that further than Mitchie Brusco.” 

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Mitchie Brusco competes in the skateboard Big Air elimination at the X Games 18 in 2012.

Source Jeff Gross/Getty

Don’t Brusco’s contemporaries know it. “I don’t even really know how to fathom the adrenaline or whatever he must be feeling prior to trying [a 1260],” says Kreiner. “But he’s super calculated. He trusts himself so much.”

Not that Brusco is the type to call his shot. In fact, a narrative that he’s secretive about his runs has cropped up around him, though he doesn’t agree. He tried the 1260 earlier this year, so the cat is out of the bag on that. But he’s not letting the expectation get to him. “I never keep a run a secret coming from a place of gaining an advantage,” he says. “I just don’t need this black cloud hanging over me on the day and creating this secondary pressure.” What Brusco really cares about? “I always want people to be on the edge of their seats, like, ‘What the fuck is this kid gonna try this time?’”

On Saturday, those seats will hold his mom and dad, as well as Brusco’s four siblings and girlfriend. Brusco is the first to admit that in his chosen profession, peril lurks around every corner. But his parents are rarely rattled. “Over the years I’ve definitely proved there are risks, 100 percent,” Brusco says. To wit: He’s broken each wrist three times. “But they know that I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it’s done properly.”

Outside the scope of skateboarding, Brusco thinks bodyflight has the potential to change the way other action sports athletes train — say, snowboarders who do quadruple corks at the Olympics. “You just get comfortable,” Brusco says. “You don’t touch the ground for five minutes at a time. You live in the air.” 

If he could reside there full-time, Brusco just might.

Read more: The skateboarder hoping meditation can net X Games gold.

Why Asset Managers Are Eyeing Millennial Wallets

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When Jay Jacobs pitched the idea of an exchange-traded fund focused on companies targeting millennials, older colleagues in the room groaned and rolled their eyes.

But Jacobs, the 29-year-old head of research and strategy for Global X, a New York-based ETF specialist with $10.9 billion under management, persisted. He argued that this much-maligned cohort — with their tattoos, cold-brew coffee and avocado toast — represented a compelling investment theme, and, ultimately, he won his Gen X colleagues over.

“People like to laugh about millennials, but the data are irrefutable,” says Jacobs. “The old cliches about living with their parents and not being serious about their careers are wrong.”

As millennials earn more, they are starting to build wealth and are an important client segment to focus on.

Kathryn Koch, co-head of fundamental equity for Goldman Sachs Asset Management

Other fund management groups are catching on, betting that the economic heft of the 2 billion-strong generation that grew up with the internet in the past two decades of the 20th century will come to define the fortunes of industries around the world. Asset managers are now crafting strategies to back companies that can capture millennials’ preferences — at a time of unrelenting pressure on their own top lines.

Investment products that target millennials naturally include technology stocks but also focus on builders that specialize in starter homes and apparel companies. The largest stock holding in a millennial ETF launched three years ago by Principal Global Investors, for example, is Adidas, the German sportswear company that has benefited from a partnership with Yeezy, the clothing and sneaker line from rapper Kanye West.

Such moves by giant companies could be smart. In the U.S., millennials will account for three-quarters of workers by 2030. Higher incomes will push the group’s spending 17 percent higher within five years, while baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) will spend 10 percent less, according to Goldman Sachs.

 

“Demographics matter,” says Paul Kim, head of ETF strategy at PGI in New York. “The buying power of millennials as the largest demographic group in the U.S. means they will have a tremendous impact on … the global economy.”

Chief executives are taking note. Mentions of the term “millennial” on U.S. corporate earnings calls jumped from a dozen in 2008 to 612 last year, according to FactSquared data. Brian Moynihan, Bank of America’s chief executive, claimed last week that the bank’s 16 million millennial customers between the ages of 25 and 41, who represent about $200 billion in deposits and investments, were attracted by the company’s “digital capabilities.”

BlackRock’s chief Larry Fink, meanwhile, noted on his second-quarter earnings call that “millennials are much more adept at using technology, and we need to be at the forefront of helping them.”

The sale of funds with a millennial theme offers a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak outlook for asset managers. Across the developed world, fund management firms are struggling to adjust to a radical shift toward lower-cost, passive investing.

For fund managers, millennials are not just the basis of investment ideas, but they’re also a vital clientele who will represent $15 trillion in assets in the U.S. alone within two decades, according to Deloitte data.

“As millennials earn more, they are starting to build wealth and are an important client segment to focus on,” says Kathryn Koch, co-head of fundamental equity for Goldman Sachs Asset Management, which oversees $1.5 trillion in assets. Three years ago Goldman rebranded one of its equity strategies as the Global Millennials Equity Portfolio, a mutual fund that charges a fee of 1.9 percent, dropping to about 1.1 percent for institutional clients. The fund’s assets stand at $101 million.

“This is a demographic we want to cater to over time,” says Koch.

Winning them over may not be easy. Millennials could warm to the environmental, social and governance funds currently in vogue but might bristle at supporting large multinationals such as BlackRock or Goldman that dominate the fund management business. Millennials’ preference for low-cost products could also limit the contribution of themed funds to revenues.

“Millennials will be big buyers of asset management products in the future even though they haven’t been in the past,” says Amanda Walters, a senior manager at Casey Quirk, a division of Deloitte. “Asset managers are looking for any way they can to address this growing pool of capital.”

For now, the sums invested in funds branded with the millennial tag remain modest. Global X has assets of just $66 million in its Millennial ETF, while PGI has $21 million. But the numbers could be set to grow.

“Millennials will represent a large base of wealth — capturing [them] today will be important for the future,” says Walters. “Asset managers want to know how to get millennials in the door and then keep them.”

The Enemy Chairman Mao Could Not Defeat

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In 1958, Mao Tse-tung was one of the most powerful men in the world, founder and leader of the People’s Republic of China, with his eyes fixed on the future of his country. 

Sometimes that meant keeping his eyes fixed both in the air and on the ground. Specifically at animals that flew and crawled: 1958 was the year Mao launched the Four Pests Campaign, one of the earliest salvos in his Great Leap Forward, a push to transform China from a predominantly agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse. The four pests? Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows. The objective was their systematic extermination. 

The mosquitoes, flies and rats were easy to explain — they spread disease. Mao’s beef with sparrows was simple too: They were capitalist animals, stealing the hard-earned grain of China’s peasants and doing nothing to earn it. He called for the wee birds’ elimination from China, for the good of the whole population.

People all over China would bang pots, pans and drums to keep the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

And the people answered. It was a wholesale slaughter of the plump, brown birds. Some people shot them from the air, others found nests, killing the fledglings and destroying the eggs within. Perhaps the most gruesome and creative attack was the noisemaker method, in which people all over China would bang pots, pans and drums to keep the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

According to reports from the time, birds began to take refuge in the gardens of foreign embassies, where they could rest in relative quiet. When the sparrows were discovered at the Polish Embassy, Chinese authorities asked permission to exterminate them — and when the embassy refused, its garden was surrounded by people banging drums, who harassed the sparrows until they died en masse, and the embassy workers had to remove the bird corpses by the shovelful.

 

While there are no solid numbers on how many sparrows were massacred, due to the routine inflation of such targets in China during this time, experts believe the sparrows may have been nearly driven to extinction. And they weren’t the only casualties: There are numerous reports of people falling from roofs they had scaled to destroy sparrow nests, and other birds and animals were shot out of the sky, mistaken for sparrows, or consumed poison that had been left out for the birds. 

“[The campaign’s] negative effects were obvious quickly, as an outbreak of locusts the following season did far more damage to the crops than any sparrows,” says Judith Shapiro, a professor at American University and author of Mao’s War Against Nature. She interviewed people who’d been in China during the campaign, and everyone remembers taking part in it. “Children were praised for bringing the dead sparrows to a central location,” Shapiro says. “People told me that a local delicacy of roast sparrows on a stick was no longer available after the campaign since the birds had basically been wiped out.”

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Chinese refugees lining up for a meal in Hong Kong during the famine.

Source Hong Kong Government / AFP /Getty

But Goliath lost the fight anyway. It turned out that while sparrows eat grain, they also eat insects — and without sparrows to keep the insect population in check, China’s crops were fair game. Locusts, leafhoppers and other insects descended in droves. By 1960, Mao realized his mistake and called a halt to the war on sparrows, but the damage had already been done. Without the birds — or any pesticides, since the store had been mostly used up during the early days of the pest campaign — China found itself powerless against the insects. For example, an estimated 60 percent of Nanjing’s crops in 1960 were damaged by bugs. “Peasants tried to kill the insects at night by setting up huge lamps in the middle of the fields so that the insects would fly around them until they dropped down dead,” writes Jasper Becker in Hungry Ghosts

What followed was the largest famine in history, with estimates of the dead ranging from 35 to 50 million people in the two-year period between 1959 and 1961. The sparrow apocalypse wasn’t the only culprit — Mao had ordered tens of millions of peasants to abandon working in the fields to focus on smelting steel. There was widespread deforestation as trees were cut down to fuel charcoal ovens, and peasants were forced to surrender whatever metal they owned to be smelted, including iron stoves and cookware. Meanwhile, many fields lay fallow and grain harvests plummeted, even as regions inflated their reported grain harvests to stay in the government’s good graces. When shortages were reported though, Mao and other high-level officials allegedly blamed grain hoarding rather than their own policies.

“The sparrow-killing campaign underlines the risks and promises of ‘environmental authoritarianism,’” Shapiro says. “When the dictator is right, there are good results, but when he is wrong, the results are chilling. In this case, Mao was wrong.”