May 29, 2018 in 3,655 words

Can’t we all just get along?

A road trip with my Trump-loving cousin


Somewhere around Fort Worth, we have our first argument in the car. Frances says something crude about immigrants, which I let pass, then she brings up Franklin Roosevelt. This is a game we play. I tell her my favorite president was FDR, then she says something like, “he was OK, except for all the handouts he gave.”

Which is when I remind her of 1936. After her father died and her mother disappeared, FDR’s relief checks kept her and her siblings alive.

“Yeah,” she says, “but we were just kids.”

“And welfare still helps kids today, along with single women like your mother.”

“But it’s different now,” she says. “People just don’t wanna work.”

And when I remind her again that a majority of welfare recipients are employed, she waves me off.

“My favorite president was Ike,” she says, which I know. Frances is quick to praise men she sees as having backbone – her father, Ike, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – and deplores whiners and eggheads. That morning, she couldn’t find Fox News in her hotel room and had to settle for “some puny guy” on another network. I’m shocked when she tells me Barack Obama was “cute”.

“Hated him as president, but I could watch him run up and down those stairs all day long,” she says. “But Lincoln – boy, I really hate him.”

I’d never heard this before. I nearly swerve out of my lane. “Lincoln? Who hates Abraham Lincoln?”


The problem with the narrative about 1,500 children “lost” by US immigration authorities

NO KIDDING


Demanding a crackdown on kids released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement could endanger them.

It certainly sounds bad. The US government has lost track of 1,475 undocumented immigrant children; an official admitted as much during a Senate committee hearing last month. Fairly, that admission has spurred widespread demand for more agency accountability.

The problem, as the Washington Post notes (paywall), is that many of those missing kids may well be with their parents or families, and they may have gone off the grid deliberately to avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities. Tracking them down could end up endangering more children and families.

The “1,500 children” figure, now in wide circulation, comes from an official with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), who testified last month about children who had arrived at the Mexico-US border without parents and were transferred into ORR custody. In a survey of 7,635 children ORR had placed with adult sponsors, contacted by the agency between October and December of last year, 6,075 were still living with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been deported, and 52 were living with someone else. The rest—1,475—were missing.

There are four levels of sponsors, according to ORR policy, beginning with parents, then siblings and close relatives, then distant relatives or unrelated adults, and finally willing strangers or agencies. Potential sponsors, once identified, must apply for unification with the child and provide evidence of a relationship. If the applicant is approved, the child is released. The ORR tries not to hold kids extensively, and data from 2015 show that children spent an average of 34 days in custody before joining a sponsor.


As an Oxycontin ‘junkie’ at Yale, I saw how my addiction helped fund the university

Through attending an Ivy League university as an addict, I learned that while I might be considered ‘deplorable’, elites are not much better.


Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven

I’m a junkie – recovered now for 14 years, but a junkie just the same. A high-school dropout and chronic runaway, I spent my later teenage years shooting black tar heroin and smuggling drugs across the Mexican border – mostly ketamine and OxyContin, the latter of which I also shot. Back then I was a loser, a washout, a petty narcotrafficker, a statistical blip in the opioid epidemic.

But today I’m also a doctor (of the illegitimate variety, mind you). Clean at 19, I spent my later twenties at Yale University earning a PhD, which I completed last spring. There I was a scholar, a student, a teacher,a valued member of an exclusive intellectual community.

Being a junkie in the Ivy League doesn’t guarantee success, but it does guarantee perspective. I learned a lot about America’s upper crust, and I saw much that my colleagues never could. But only last week, during a visit to my alma mater, did I begin to understand the role that Yale played in my own addiction.

Spring having arrived, I visited Yale, which wears the season well. I wandered the campus before entering Dwight Chapel, which stands in the heart of Old Campus and hosts a small morning AA meeting. I used to attend that meeting quite regularly, although I remember our fellowship being mostly indigents from the nearby New Haven Green and kids from local rehabs. I remember two things: we were opioid addicts, and we were invisible to the Yale community – ignored, really, like unwelcome pests.

And it was then, sitting alone in that musty chapel, when it hit me: to my left stood the Skull and Bones crypt , the secret windowless clubhouse for the country’s most exclusive private society, whose founder’s extended family had become the largest American merchants in the Indo-Chinese opium trade. And beyond the crypt stood Yale’s medical campus, which has received major gifts from the Sackler family, whose wealth comes largely from owning Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin. Purdue Pharma criminally misbranded that drug to make it appear harmless. The company pleaded guilty in 2007 and agreed to pay around $600m in fines.


Catholic School Rejected Its Gay Valedictorian’s Speech. So He Gave It With a Bullhorn.


Christian Bales, the valedictorian at Holy Cross High School in Covington, Ky., using a bullhorn to deliver his graduation speech on Friday.

This wasn’t the way Christian Bales planned to leave high school.

Mr. Bales, an 18-year-old with a passion for conservation science, worked hard at Holy Cross, a Catholic school in Covington, Ky., earning the honor of valedictorian. He looked forward to delivering a commencement speech at the graduation on Friday.

Then something happened that left him “kind of shocked,” he said.

The principal and other officials told him on Friday that the Diocese of Covington had deemed his speech too angry and confrontational, Mr. Bales said.

“I did not think the speech was polarizing at all,” he said. He was told it was political and personal and that there was no time to revise it.

Mr. Bales is gay and describes himself as gender nonconforming. His speech, which can be read in full here, makes no mention of either.

He said he wore high heels and a floral jumpsuit to prom and the school did not protest.

But last Monday, according to Mr. Bales’s mother, Gillian Marksberry, the principal asked for her help in making sure her son arrived at the graduation ceremony “in appropriate male dress,” including dress pants and no makeup or hair accessories.


A new study makes the case for being a sore loser

AGREE TO DISAGREE


You don’t make it to the Supreme Court by taking the short view.

If you’re going to disagree with people, you might as well make a stink. Anything less, and you’re destined to be forgettable.

That’s one lesson from a recent study entitled “How to lose cases and influence people,” published in the journal Statistics, Politics, and Policy, which examines the effectiveness of dissenting opinions in the US Supreme Court. It concludes that legal losers can be influential—especially sore losers.

Political scientists Rachael K Hinkle of the State University of New York, Buffalo and Michael Nelson of Pennsylvania State University set out to understand why justices bother to disagree with their colleagues by writing minority opinions, despite the effort involved and the social cost of openly sparring with their coworkers. In analyzing the language of dissenting opinions, they found that emotional and vivid losing arguments get cited in later cases, while polite, mild disagreements don’t.

Dissenting opinions don’t set legal precedents. But memorable dissents can change minds and pave the way for a shift in perspective, so that a minority view gains acceptance over time and even prevail. Or, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, “I like to think most of my dissents will be the law someday.”

That said, very few dissents are remembered, according to the study. An algorithmic analysis of citations over time revealed that minority opinions are rarely discussed in later cases. Only 17% of the dissents written between 1937 and 2014 have ever been cited by a subsequent majority opinion.


5 Dumb Typos That Resulted In Total Anarchy

Whether you’re calling someone sweat, want to wank them for helping you out, or telling misogynists “Times up,” typos can create very awkward situations. But while the damage typically contains itself to you having a very one-sided breakup with autocorrect, the most innocent of spelling mistakes can create such calamities that people wind up risking their jobs, their lives, or worst of all, being made fun of on the internet.

(Note: Any and all spelling errors in this article are to be regarded as intentional humor, even if they clearly aren’t.)

5. A Dairy Had To Pay $5 Million In Overtime Because Of A Missing Comma


They say the devil is in the details. That’s because there’s a special of hell for pedants where they’re forced to read letters written by people who don’t know the difference between you’re and your. It’s only fair, seeing as how in this mortal realm, those very same grammar Nazis will flay the skin off your back for the slightest ambiguity in your wording. And if you think we’re being too dramatic, ask the Oregonian dairy that had to shell out millions because it didn’t believe in the Oxford comma.

In 2014, angered by their dairy’s shitty overtime policy, a group of drivers discovered a way to make their bosses pay. Scouring over their contracts, they noticed a tiny but exploitable loophole. In the section regarding overtime, it clearly stated that no overtime would be granted for “marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” — clearly a bad deal for people whose whole job revolves around driving shit around. However, because there was no Oxford comma present in that statement, the drivers figured that “packing for shipment or distribution” could be interpreted as receiving no overtime for packing for shipment or packing for distribution, neither of which was in their job description. They sued the dairy, figuring that from a legal standpoint, they didn’t have a comma to stand on.

The group of five demanded retroactive compensation for all the grammatically proven overtime they had performed. After much legal eagle nitpicking, the court ruled in their favor, forcing the dairy to pay out a whopping $5 million to their workers in back pay. If that seems a bit excessive, well, the drivers got really lucky with the judge assigned to the case, who was so into the idea that he published a massive 29-page ruling in which he explores the legal uses of the Oxford Comma, a riveting page-turner which is available for reading if you want to spend a night getting so aroused your nipples may explode.

Better lay a towel down, because it goes on like this for 6,700 smoking hot words.

Of course, us blue-collared internet charlatans applaud the truckers for taking action against the anti-labor exploitation of the milkman. We just wish it hadn’t involved giving a legal precedent to those fastidious, fascistic and finicky, acrimonious, antagonistic and antisocial and smug, selfish and self-satisfied Oxford comma users.


Maglev trains: why aren’t we gliding home on hovering carriages?

It is lightning quick, clean, green – and expensive. But shouldn’t we think again about magnetic levitation?


No wheels, no engines, no problem … a Maglev train in Japan, 2004.

Clean, green, quick and quiet; no wheels, no engines to fail; able to stop quickly and safely and glide off noiselessly on a cushion of air.

Magnetic levitation (maglev) was, according to 1980s science shows such as Tomorrow’s World, going to make domestic air travel defunct, humming from city to city at 500mph with negligible effects on the environment (and no need to remove your belt and shoes).

With no wheels and only one track, Maglev trains would pooh-pooh bad weather, the wrong type of leaves on the line, or a points failure at Cricklewood. Because of the way maglev (in various ways) repels the train above its track, derailments are unlikely: the further the vehicle gets from its track, the stronger the magnetic force pushing it back. No signalling or moving parts to go wrong, with all the trains travelling at the same rate. Imagine the effect on and by extension the economy – the Midlands would be half an hour from London.

Amid the traffic jams and pollution, a greener mass transit solution makes sense more than ever.

So why weren’t you able to glide to work at supersonic speeds this morning? The concept has been under development for over a century, with dozens of patents filed since the early 1900s. While there have only been a handful of commercially viable systems built, of which only three – all in Asia – survive today, more are now being tested around the world.


The Invention of the Midlife Crisis

Over the course of a few years in the 20th century, the midlife crisis went from an obscure psychological theory to a ubiquitous phenomenon.

The midlife crisis was invented in London in 1957. That’s when a 40-year-old Canadian named Elliott Jaques stood before a meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society and read aloud from a paper he’d written.

Addressing about a hundred attendees, Jaques claimed that people in their mid-30s typically experience a depressive period lasting several years. Jaques (pronounced “Jacks”)—a physician and psychoanalyst—said he’d identified this phenomenon by studying the lives of great artists, in whom it takes an extreme form. In ordinary people symptoms could include religious awakenings, promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, “hypochondriacal concern over health and appearance,” and “compulsive attempts” to remain young.

This period is sparked by the realization that their lives are halfway over, and that death isn’t just something that happens to someone else: It will happen to them, too.

He described a depressed 36-year-old patient who told his therapist, “Up till now, life has seemed an endless upward slope, with nothing but the distant horizon in view. Now suddenly I seem to have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away, it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”


Are Plants Conscious?

Animal rights activists have done stellar work in foregrounding the question of creature-consciousness: no meat-eater is now ignorant of the fact that their food once lived, breathed, maybe nuzzled its kin in a blood-soaked slaughterhouse. Environmentalists have a harder go of it. Fracking footage will always be less upsetting than your average fast food expose: Plants, after all, can’t wail frantically as they’re mowed down by the millions. But does that mean they’re not conscious? Is it sensible, or desirable, to start anthropomorphizing crabgrass and dandelions, or are plants really as insensitive as we all instinctively assume?

For this week’s Giz Asks, we posed those questions to a number of environmental scientists and philosophers—including a professor on the vanguard of something called “plant neurobiology.” Plants may not be able to wistfully reflect on their childhood, or hear/see anything in a conventional sense, but they do, as it turns out, retain information, and make “decisions” based on past experiences. Whether this constitutes “consciousness” depends, as always, on how you define the term.

Michael Marder

Ikerbasque Research Professor, Philosophy, University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz and author of Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, among other works


Plants are definitely conscious, though in a different way than we, humans, are.

To find the resources they need for living and thriving, they need to orient themselves in above- and below-ground environments. And so, plant roots navigate the subterranean labyrinths of soil, rock, water, bacteria and roots of other plants no less proficiently than mice in search of food. They must be aware of dangers—the onset of drought, or invading herbivore insects—in order to carry out the most essential life activities, or to activate their defenses (for instance, by releasing biochemical cues that call upon the predators who will devour the threatening herbivores). They have to make complex decisions on the best time to blossom, juggling up to twenty environmental factors, such as the length of day or the warmth of the air, comparing the evolution of these conditions over a span of at least a month. In other words, plants gather as much information about the world they live in as possible and, attentive to changes in it, act with discernment.


Can machines be spiritual?

SILICON AND SOUL


Why not?

Machines can replicate the communication style of individual humans, make moral decisions, and provide care to the elderly. There are even scientists working to create conscious robots. But could a machine ever achieve spirituality?

That all depends on how you define “machine.”

“There would plenty of people who’d tell you that human beings are machines,” says Robert Geraci, religious studies professor at Manhattan College. “If they’re right, then we know that machines can be spiritual.”

Those who claim that humans are a form of machine have a “materialist” perspective. Materialism is a philosophy that says we are entirely reducible to hard matter: the substances that create our physical bodies and brains also form our more amorphous minds. Daniel Dennett, professor at Tufts University and one of the most pre-eminent philosophers of mind, is one prominent advocate of this theory. In a paper on AI consciousness, Dennett wrote:


The best reason for believing that robots might someday become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves. That is, we are extraordinarily complex self-controlling, self-sustaining physical mechanisms, designed over the eons by natural selection, and operating according to the same well-understood principles that govern all the other physical processes in living things: digestive and metabolic processes, self-repair and reproductive processes, for instance.


Robots can swim, fetch, lift, and dance. But can they assemble an Ikea chair?

ALLEN THE WRENCH


Looks simple, right?

Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.

But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?

A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.

As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.

Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

If you are a black, gay man in America, your risk of contracting HIV is one in two. Leah Green travels to Atlanta, Georgia, which has the largest gay and black community in the country. She finds out how stigma, education and structural racism continue to feed into this startling statistic.

*Contains strong language*


The Federal Reserve just screwed us over… Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, host of The Young Turks, break it down.


After Trump takes credit for reuniting North Korea and South Korea, Jordan explains how the president has mastered the art of insult diplomacy.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper for making this program available on YouTube.


A cawing Crow is determined to disturb Simon’s Cat’s peace and quiet!


Max and his billy club.


FINALLY . . .

Sesame Street is not amused by the ejaculating puppets in “The Happytime Murders”

L IS FOR LAWSUIT


We’re not joking.

It seemed inevitable that someone would sue the creators of The Happytime Murders, a raunchy puppet murder mystery starring Melissa McCarthy. That someone is Sesame Workshop, the educational organization behind Sesame Street.

Set for release in August, The Happytime Murders is the brainchild of Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, now chairman of his father’s eponymous company. As Quartz’s Adam Epstein reported, The Happytime Murders was stuck in development for a decade.

While the puppets in Happytime are not officially Muppets—Disney owns those characters now—the similarity is what makes it disconcerting (and funny) when they do things like offer sex for money. “Hey handsome,” one says to Melissa McCarthy, ostensibly mistaking her for a man. “You lookin’ for some rotten cotton?”

But it isn’t the physical similarity to the dear and wholesome Muppets that got the movie’s creators, STX Entertainment, sued. Nor was it the generous use of a Silly String-like substance in a puppet ejaculation scene—yes, a puppet ejaculation scene. Rather, Sesame Workshop objects to the movie’s tagline: “NO SESAME. ALL STREET.”


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?