June 9, 2018 in 5,117 words

What Happens When a Bad-Tempered, Distractible Doofus Runs an Empire?

During Kaiser Wilhelm II’s reign, the upper echelons of the German government began to unravel into a free-for-all, with officials wrangling against one another

One of the few things that Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, had a talent for was causing outrage. A particular specialty was insulting other monarchs. He called the diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy “the dwarf” in front of the king’s own entourage. He called Prince (later Tsar) Ferdinand, of Bulgaria, “Fernando naso,” on account of his beaky nose, and spread rumors that he was a hermaphrodite. Since Wilhelm was notably indiscreet, people always knew what he was saying behind their backs. Ferdinand had his revenge. After a visit to Germany, in 1909, during which the Kaiser slapped him on the bottom in public and then refused to apologize, Ferdinand awarded a valuable arms contract that had been promised to the Germans to a French company instead.

Not that this deterred the Kaiser. One of the many things that Wilhelm was convinced he was brilliant at, despite all evidence to the contrary, was “personal diplomacy,” fixing foreign policy through one-on-one meetings with other European monarchs and statesmen. In fact, Wilhelm could do neither the personal nor the diplomacy, and these meetings rarely went well. The Kaiser viewed other people in instrumental terms, was a compulsive liar, and seemed to have a limited understanding of cause and effect. In 1890, he let lapse a long-standing defensive agreement with Russia—the German Empire’s vast and sometimes threatening eastern neighbor. He judged, wrongly, that Russia was so desperate for German good will that he could keep it dangling. Instead, Russia immediately made an alliance with Germany’s western neighbor and enemy, France. Wilhelm decided he would charm and manipulate Tsar Nicholas II (a “ninny” and a “whimperer,” according to Wilhelm, fit only “to grow turnips”) into abandoning the alliance. In 1897, Nicholas told Wilhelm to get lost; the German-Russian alliance withered.

About a decade ago, I published “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I,” a book that was, in part, about Kaiser Wilhelm, who is probably best known for being Queen Victoria’s first grandchild and for leading Germany into the First World War. Ever since Donald Trump started campaigning for President, the Kaiser has once again been on my mind—his personal failings, and the global fallout they led to.

Trump’s tweets were what first reminded me of the Kaiser. Wilhelm was a compulsive speechmaker who constantly strayed off script. Even his staff couldn’t stop him, though it tried, distributing copies of speeches to the German press before he’d actually given them. Unfortunately, the Austrian press printed the speeches as they were delivered, and the gaffes and insults soon circulated around Europe. “There is only one person who is master in this empire and I am not going to tolerate any other,” Wilhelm liked to say, even though Germany had a democratic assembly and political parties. (“I’m the only one that matters,” Trump has said.) The Kaiser reserved particular abuse for political parties that voted against his policies. “I regard every Social Democrat as an enemy of the Fatherland,” he said, and he denounced the German Socialist party as a “gang of traitors.” August Bebel, the Socialist party leader, said that every time the Kaiser opened his mouth, the party gained another hundred thousand votes.

The Enlightenment’s Dark Side

How the Enlightenment created modern race thinking, and why we should confront it.

John Locke, and a wood graving of white trader inspecting an African slave during a sale circa 1850.

The Enlightenment is having a renaissance, of sorts. A handful of centrist and conservative writers have reclaimed the 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement as a response to nationalism and ethnic prejudice on the right and relativism and “identity politics” on the left. Among them are Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who sees himself as a bulwark against the forces of “chaos” and “postmodernism”; Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive psychologist who argues, in Enlightenment Now, for optimism and human progress against those “who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress”; and conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, who, in Suicide of the West, argues in defense of capitalism and Enlightenment liberalism, twin forces he calls “the Miracle” for creating Western prosperity.

In their telling, the Enlightenment is a straightforward story of progress, with major currents like race and colonialism cast aside, if they are acknowledged at all. Divorced from its cultural and historical context, this “Enlightenment” acts as an ideological talisman, less to do with contesting ideas or understanding history, and more to do with identity. It’s a standard, meant to distinguish its holders for their commitment to “rationalism” and “classical liberalism.”

But even as they venerate the Enlightenment, these writers actually underestimate its influence on the modern world. At its heart, the movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that held other human beings in bondage and were then in the process of exterminating native populations. Colonial domination and expropriation marched hand in hand with the spread of “liberty,” and liberalism arose alongside our modern notions of race and racism.

These weren’t incidental developments or the mere remnants of earlier prejudice. Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery. Those who claim the Enlightenment’s mantle now should grapple with that legacy and what it means for our understanding of the modern world.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: It took the scientific thought of the Enlightenment to create an enduring racial taxonomy and the “color-coded, white-over-black” ideology with which we are familiar.

Five myths about the refugee crisis

The cameras have gone – but the suffering endures. Daniel Trilling deconstructs the beliefs that still shape policy and public opinion.

Myth 1: The crisis is over

The refugee crisis that dominated the news in 2015 and 2016 consisted primarily of a sharp rise in the number of people coming to Europe to claim asylum. Arrivals have now dropped, and governments have cracked down on the movement of undocumented migrants within the EU; many thousands are stuck in reception centres or camps in southern Europe, while others try to make new lives in the places they have settled.

But to see the crisis as an event that began in 2015 and ended the following year is a mistake, because it obscures the fact that the underlying causes have not changed. To see it in those terms only gives the impression of a hitherto unsullied Europe, visited by hordes of foreigners it has little to do with. This is misleading. The disaster of recent years has as much to do with immigration policies drawn up in European capitals as it does with events outside the continent, and the crisis also consists of overreaction and panic, fuelled by a series of misconceptions about who the migrants are, why they come, and what it means for Europe.

The European Union has perhaps the world’s most complex system to deter unwanted migrants. Since the 1990s, as borders have come down within Europe, giving most EU citizens free movement and passport-free travel, its external frontier has become increasingly militarised. Amnesty International estimates that, between 2007-2013, before the crisis, the EU spent almost €2bn on fences, surveillance systems and patrols on land or at sea.

In theory, refugees – who have the right to cross borders in search of asylum under international law – should be exempt from these controls. But in reality, the EU has tried to prevent asylum seekers from reaching its territory wherever possible: by closing down legal routes, such as the ability to claim asylum at overseas embassies; by introducing penalties for transport companies that allow people to travel into the EU without the correct documents; and by signing treaties with its neighbours so they control migration on the EU’s behalf. And within the EU, an agreement called the Dublin regulation forces asylum seekers to apply in whatever country they reach first.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while; it’s The Long Read.

The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair

Forget trains. It’s time for something radically different.

Commuters ride an L train in New York City

The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future.

Right now, fully autonomous cars are rolling around Pittsburgh, the San Francisco Bay area, and parts of Michigan, shuttling people from here to there with minimal manual intervention. Instead of fixing the old trains, let’s rip out the tracks and fill the tunnels with fleets of autonomous vehicles running on pavement. The result would be radical improvements in throughput while saving money and increasing the ability of the system to survive a fire, flood, or terrorist attack.

These subterranean highways would be dramatically simpler than public roadways for an autonomous artificially intelligent system because the tunnels could be limited to authorized vehicles only. No jaywalkers on cellphones. No babies in runaway carriages. Just a collection of competing fleets, centrally orchestrated and offering different levels of service to different groups at different prices.

Savings in time and energy would come from replacing extremely heavy trains that stop at every station with lightweight vehicles that depart immediately and go directly from A to B, stopping only at one’s destination. No more waiting or stopping every few blocks.

Our plastic pollution crisis is too big for recycling to fix

Recycling alone will never stem the flow of plastics into our ocean. We must address the problem at the source.

‘The truth is that we cannot recycle our way out of this mess.’

Every minute, every single day, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters our oceans. In the name of profit and convenience, corporations are literally choking our planet with a substance that does not just “go away” when we toss it into a bin. Since the 1950s, some 8.3bn tons of plastic have been produced worldwide, and to date, only 9% of that has been recycled. Our oceans bear the brunt of our plastics epidemic – up to 12.7m tons of plastic end up in them every year.

Just over a decade ago, I launched the Story of Stuff to help shine a light on the ways we produce, use and dispose of the stuff in our lives. The Story of Stuff is inextricably linked to the story of plastics – the packaging that goes along with those endless purchases. We buy a soda, sip it for a few minutes, and toss its permanent packaging “away”. We eat potato chips, finish them, then throw their permanent packaging “away”. We buy produce, take it out of the unnecessary plastic wrap, then throw its permanent packaging “away”.

The cycle is endless, and it happens countless times every single day. But here’s the catch – there is no “away”. As far as we try to toss a piece of plastic – whether it’s into a recycling bin or not – it does not disappear. Chances are, it ends up polluting our communities, oceans or waterways in some form.

For years, we’ve been conned into thinking the problem of plastic packaging can be solved through better individual action. We’re told that if we simply recycle we’re doing our part. We’re told that if we bring reusable bags to the grocery store, we’re saving the world. We think that if we drink from a reusable bottle, we’re making enough of a difference. But the truth is that we cannot recycle our way out of this mess.

How Radioactive Poison Became the Assassin’s Weapon of Choice

The mysterious life and brutal death of a Russian dissident.

TUCKED INTO THE Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats, and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.

The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. True, two of them were smoking cigars and drinking gin. But the other, a fair-haired man whose slightly angelic face and wide eyes gave him a look of worried alertness, was dressed inelegantly in a khaki t-shirt, jeans, and a denim jacket. He sipped green tea as the smokers, complaining about the small British measures, ordered several rounds of drinks at once. Andrade placed their orders on a tray, but when he reached their table, one of the men obstructed him. The moment had an unforgettably hostile edge to it. He struggled to put the drinks down, finally managing to sit them next to the tea pot.

The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive.

Litvinenko lived in north London’s desirable Muswell Hill; he left the Pine Bar and arrived back home around seven. He changed his clothes, sat down to a chicken dinner prepared by his wife, Marina, and spent the evening watching Russian news online. Four hours later, he went to bed.

Before long, however, he was up again — vomiting with such violence that Marina began to panic. She brought him wet towels, dosed him with magnesium tablets. Nothing seemed to work. During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: “It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.

5 Movie Villains You Never Realized Were Really Incompetent

Pretty much any big organization in a movie is somehow all-powerful while also secretly being run worse than your local Chipotle. Despite access to incredible resources and manpower, most big movie organizations approach every problem in the least efficient way possible. Need to kill a guy? Send a drunk teenager armed with a slowly asphyxiating shark. Need to quietly infiltrate the government? Send a peg-legged woman with a Rage Against the Machine face tattoo. For example …

5. Stop Flying So Close To Giant Monsters

If there’s one thing we know about King Kong, it’s that he hates aircraft. Virtually every movie depiction of Mr. Kong includes a scene wherein he smacks a flying machine right out of the sky. His most recent adventure, Kong: Skull Island, found all sorts of ways for the super-sized simian to battle helicopters, despite being set about a thousand miles from the nearest airport.

Kong wrecks helicopters so thoroughly that Samuel L. Jackson’s character is inspired to go on the warpath for twisted vengeance. But wouldn’t it have been easier to pull back on those joysticks a bit? Kong is huge, but the damn monkey can’t actually fly. Yet for some ridiculous reason, these battle-tested veterans decide to maneuver their helicopters like X-Wings flying through the Death Star trench. They fly so close to Kong that they could chuck rocks if they run out of ammo.

Seriously, what is their strategy, beyond creating cool visuals? Are they worried they won’t be able to line up a shot? Because Kong is 104 feet tall and their guns have an effective firing range of up to 1,200 yards when trying to hit a human. They don’t have to get within swatting distance to do some damage. Any King Kong movie should realistically end with Kong dying in a hail of gunfire from offscreen vehicles. And it’s even worse in movies with modern technology. In Pacific Rim and Cloverfield, the Air Force attacks land-bound aliens with modern fighter jets by flying between the monsters’ goddamn legs.

How to Kill a Fish

Most of the fish we eat die by asphyxiation. But there’s a better way, both for the fish and those who eat them.

How did the last fish you ate die? If you don’t already know, then I’ve got some bad news: the most likely answer is that it asphyxiated. Slowly.

While a few species of fish are sometimes killed in kinder ways, the vast majority of those that end up on American plates are pulled from the water and thrown either on ice or left to gasp in air. This is a long and brutal process. Sea bass put in an ice slurry take five minutes to lose consciousness; carp keep breathing for almost an hour in an ice slurry and five hours if out of the water entirely.

If the harvesters go another route, it’s generally either live gutting or slow poisoning in water saturated with carbon dioxide. Whether you want to semantically differentiate a fish’s physical suffering from mammalian “pain” (an argument that biologists, by and large, have agreed to drop), violent escape attempts and biological markers like cortisol and lactic acid leave no doubt that these are terrible ways to die.

Andrew Tsui is intent on making me feel the full moral weight of that suffering. A government health-care lawyer with a lifetime passion for sportfishing, he’s on a journey to change the way Americans—the grass-fed-beef types, anyway—kill and enjoy our aquatic meat.

“I want you to kill one,” he tells me. “Let’s do it the old-fashioned way.”

FCC shrugs at fake cell towers around the White House

It’s open season for cell tower spoofing in Washington.

Turns out, Ajit Pai was serious last year when he told lawmakers that the FCC didn’t want anything to do with cybersecurity.

This past April the Associated Press reported “For the first time, the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged the existence in Washington of what appear to be rogue devices that foreign spies and criminals could be using to track individual cellphones and intercept calls and messages.”

But when lawmakers formally asked Ajit Pai and the FCC to investigate the DHS confirmation of unauthorized cell towers in use, Pai gave them the brush off — leading to a big WTF on the Energy & Commerce Democrats’ official Twitter account.

When reached for comment, Brian Hart Director, Office of Media Relations Federal Communications Commission, disputed the tweet’s choice of language and added a twist: That the FCC won’t talk about this in public.

GitHub Is Microsoft’s $7.5 Billion Undo Button

Steve Ballmer spent years hating on open source software. Satya Nadella recognized that the service has become indispensable to programmers.

Oh, GitHub, we knew ye … pretty well, actually, over the past decade. At least programmers did. To us you’ve been comically unavoidable, from your “Octocat” mascot to the fake, fully furnished Oval Office at your San Francisco headquarters, complete with a special Octocat-emblazoned rug that proclaimed “United Meritocracy of GitHub.” Of course, that rug came up a lot when people debated the concept of meritocracy. And part of the reason they were debating it was the internal investigation into “sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation” that led one of your co-founders to resign (your investigation found “no evidence to support the claims” but did uncover “mistakes and errors of judgment”). The company seemed to normalize after that, though we also knew you’d been looking for a new boss for a while. Congrats on your $7.5 billion purchase by Microsoft Corp!

To civilians, it can be baffling what in God’s name GitHub Inc. does or why it’s worth so much. The key thing to understand is that git is free software and GitHub makes it easier to use that software. Git keeps track of changes in sets of files. The first version, written by Linux creator Linus Torvalds, was released in 2005.

Git isn’t for beginners. You typically use it from a command line, as opposed to with a mouse. Want to start tracking changes? Go into any directory and type “git init,” and you’re off to the races. From there, git lets you get Borgesian about your files. Everyone can make his own “branch” (copy) off the master tree of code and change whatever the hell he wants without breaking anything—git keeps track of it all. This means everyone can have a copy of every change, and you can make tons of mistakes while coding and always have a giant infinite Undo button if you need it.

It’s great, but again, not for beginners. Enter GitHub in 2008. GitHub makes it easier for large, loosely coordinated groups of programmers—in corporations, for instance—to use git. It has a well-designed web interface. If you don’t think that’s worth $7.5 billion, you’ve never read the git manual.

Quitting Instagram taught me how to truly experience and document my life again


Sometimes social media can feel like a trap for young people who want to document their lives.

I was born in 1996, making me one of the older members of GenZ, or “iGen”—a generation defined by (and often critiqued for) its dependency on smartphones and the internet. I joined Facebook and Instagram in high school, and the platforms have had a huge influence on my life’s social dynamics since then—so much so, that quitting one of them forced me to relearn how to authentically experience my life offline.

Initially, social media tapped into my ongoing interest in documenting my life. The night before my 12th birthday, I went into every room in my house, willing myself to remember what inhabiting those spaces felt like as an 11 year old. Creating an Instagram account at 16 stemmed from the same impulse: to record and commemorate what life looked like as I grew and stretched in different directions.

But social media has changed a lot since I first downloaded Instagram onto my iPod Touch in the summer of 2012. Some of my older relatives have accounts now, as do most celebrities, politicians, and businesses. The once-ad-free feeds are now clogged with sponsored content urging me to buy dietary supplements and workout clothes. Platforms are being accused of abusing users data and trust. My friends are still posting, almost as much as they had in high school, but the content feels different, almost knowingly catering to larger audiences.

Until recently, I used Instagram in the same way I always had: to commemorate the end of a school year, an anniversary, hanging out with friends. Though documenting those experiences remained important to me, posting them on Instagram began making me feel anxious and insecure about the public scrutiny I was inviting.

‘I don’t look like most people’s idea of a Gypsy’

Damian Le Bas takes to the road to reconnect with his Traveller roots.

It is Friday night. I’m 30 years old, alone on a fake-fur blanket in the back of a cold Transit van. Most of my generation are out there in pubs, or indoors by the telly, canoodling, arguing or cooking, or going across to the thermostat to turn the heating up. I’m parked on a Cornish industrial estate with no warmth except the tiny, wavering plume of heat that rises out of my lantern. This place is so lonesome that even the doggers, boy-racers and stoners have spurned it. I curse myself silently. You’re not a Traveller, my mate, you’re a div. What sort of Traveller would come and sleep here on their own? I have covered thousands of miles in my van in a bid to uncover the history of Gypsy Britain. But the road is proving tough.

Gypsy reality is partly composed of fairgrounds and showgrounds, picturesque lakeside halts, sheltered commons, bright heaths. But it also comprised frozen copses and hilltops. Old maintenance roads with potholes and bad light. Scrapyards. Council waste ground. Lay-bys near the edges of tips. Slag-heaps and drained marshes. Fen ends. Chalk pits, yards and quarries. These are the stopping places, these fringes and in-between places. They are the places that nobody lives except Travellers – or nobody but those who share ancient connections with them: gamekeepers and poachers, scrap-metal men, horsewomen, rangers and shepherds. They are the old nomads’ haunts of the island. Many are smashed and built over; some – magically – are still more or less just as they were in centuries long past. They form the hidden Gypsy and Traveller map of the country we live in: they are the bedrock of our reality and, perhaps, the antidote to the unending cycles of romanticisation and demonisation.

I had conceived a plan to visit these places, to live in them in my own way, and see what I might learn. Perhaps I might even solve the bizarre contradiction of Britain’s love affair with caravanning, camping and glamping, and its hatred of those who were born to this life, and who largely inspired its adoption as a non-Gypsy pastime. As one Scottish Gypsy Traveller put it: “There are 80,000 members of the Caravan Club, but I’m not allowed to travel?”

There is more to this Gypsy geography than a list of physical places. The stopping places themselves are an outgrowth of something non-physical, something that is ancient, unseen yet important, precious and reviled, envied and feared. This thing is the Gypsy belief – the core belief of the culture – that it is possible to live in a different way: in your own way, part of the world, but not imprisoned by the rules. That you can know the ropes and yet not be hemmed in by them. That you can dwell alongside the mainstream, while not being part of it. Otter-like, you can live in the bank of the river and swim and hunt there when you need to, and then climb back out with equal ease and alacrity. Otter-like, you can live in the bank of the river and swim and hunt there when you need to, and then climb back out with equal ease and alacrity. There is no better symbol of this belief than the network of atchin tans (stopping places) laced across Britain; they are historical, topographical proof that the Gypsy philosophy has existed here, that it still does, that it still can. By staying at the traditional stopping places, I hoped to answer the questions that had been following me, on and off, all my life. What is left of these places? What might we learn from them? What redemption might lie there, in a country that still passes new legislation aimed at ending the Traveller way of life? Is it still possible to live on the road? Was the end of the old Gypsy life a tragedy, or was it a case of good riddance to an irredeemably hard and pitiless life on the edge? Above all, I hoped to resolve the biggest question: the question of myself, whether I could make my peace with Gypsy culture. My conflict seemed to echo the wider tension between nomads and settled people that endures in modern Britain.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Prepare to spend a while; it’s The Long Read.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Bill recaps the top stories of the week, including Trump introducing his trademark drama to the G7 Summit.

Bill warns that free speech is under fire from both ends of the political spectrum.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.

American Airlines reduces the size of its already cramped bathrooms.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

Many have dubbed the G7 summit the G6 + 1 summit even since Trump increased tension x 100.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

ねこをくすぐってみる。I tickle Maru&Hana.

CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Amazing scenes we’re witnessing here today at the remote control car championship in Taiwan.

Max wasn’t very happy that the neighbor was watering his lawn and had to give him a lecture. Luckily the neighbor wasn’t able to hear him.




RIP Bourdain.

There’s a quote from the late chef, writer, TV personality, and traveler Anthony Bourdain that I send to friends whenever they ask me for recommendations of what to do in Paris:

Most of us are lucky to see Paris once in a lifetime. Please, make the most of it by doing as little as possible. Walk a little. Get lost a bit. Eat. Catch a breakfast buzz. Have a nap. Try and have sex if you can, just not with a mime. Eat again. Lounge around drinking coffee. Maybe read a book. Drink some wine. Eat. Repeat. See? It’s easy.

In a practical sense, it’s simply great advice. But also, in so few words, it captures everything I love about Paris, travel, and Bourdain himself. Which is to say: It captures everything I love about being alive.

That, of course, is what Bourdain did so well. His travel writing wasn’t just tips on how to scope out good street food or how to seamlessly navigate an airport. It laid out an attitude for living. Whether he was looking chic in Milan or dusty in Mozambique, he possessed a no-bullshit vitality, a humble awareness of his privilege as a white, male American, and an appreciation for the things—cold beer, hot noodles, the fact that seafood always tastes better when you’re barefoot in the sand—that are true no matter where you find yourself on this big, generous earth. He taught us that the best way out of your privileged or narrow-minded comfort zone was to plunge right into the chaos of the unknown—and to consume as many spicy, meaty, and alcoholic things as possible along the way.

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