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Canned cranberry sauce, explained
The ridges add flavor. | Getty Images Let us give thanks for a controversial American tradition. This is jellied cranberry sauce. It is an American tradition. Like so many American traditions, including Thanksgiving itself, its existence is controversial. It is a feat of engineering. It is a culinary wonder. It is an abomination, some say, slandering the cranberry’s good name. Thanksgiving will look different this year, as we observe it from the relative safety of our separate pods. But jellied cranberry sauce will look exactly the same. It always does. It may wobble, in these tumultuous times, but it will never break. And yet jellied cranberry sauce is a substance that defies easy categorization. What is jellied cranberry sauce, and is it sauce? No. Also yes. By any standard definition of the category, jellied cranberry sauce would not qualify as “sauce.” A sauce, according to What’s Cooking America, the nation’s “most trusted culinary resource since 1997” (according to itself), is a “liquid or semi-liquid [food] devised to make other foods look, smell, and taste better, and hence be more easily digested and more beneficial.” Wikipedia, my personal most trusted culinary resource, agrees that “sauces are not normally consumed by themselves,” and that a liquid component is essential. Jellied cranberry sauce — that majestic, jiggling store-bought log — does not meet these criteria: Clearly, it is a solid. In fact, one of its primary features is that it does not bleed, unwanted, into other elements of a meal. This is because it is a solid, which, by crowdsourced definition, disqualifies it from true sauce-hood, while also differentiating it from its purer sibling: whole cranberry sauce. Whole cranberry sauce is what you’d most likely make, were you to follow the recipe on the back of a bag of whole cranberries, though it can also be purchased in a can. Unlike the jiggling cranberry towers, the whole-berry version can be spooned out, sauce-like, over other elements of the meal. It is the whole-berry version that is “cranberry sauce.” The jellied cylinder qualifies as sauce only by relation, like a legacy applicant at Yale. Yet it is beloved — not as a sauce, exactly, but as a food group of its own. Indeed, it is so different from the whole-berry version that many Thanksgiving hosts serve both, in two separate dishes, side by side. And deep down, they are not so different after all: Whole cranberry sauce indeed involves whole berries. Jellied cranberry sauce goes through much the same process, but it is heavily strained, removing elements of nature — skin, seeds — that would impede its perfect silken texture. Where did it come from? The history of cranberry sauce — in general, not jellied — goes back to indigenous people, who gathered the wild berries, using them for all sorts of things: textile dyes, medicines, cooking. According to the Washington Post, a report from the colonies, circa 1672, reported that “Indians and English use it much, boyling them with Sugar for a Sauce to eat with their Meat,” though it did not come into fashion as a turkey-specific accompaniment until more than 100 years later. In Amelia Simmons’s 1796 tome, American Cookery, she suggests serving roast turkey with “boiled onions and cranberry sauce.” (As an alternative, the Post notes, she proposed pickled mangoes.) But it did not become a requirement of Thanksgiving dinners until General Ulysses S. Grant served it, alongside designated Thanksgiving turkey, to Union soldiers during the siege of Petersburg in 1864. “That sort of solidifies its place as part of Thanksgiving nationally,” Kellyanne Dignan, director of global affairs for Ocean Spray, tells me. Cranberries themselves, she points out, only grow in five states, even now: Wisconsin grows the most, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington state. (Also, British Columbia and Quebec.) All of that is only context for what happened less than 50 years later: the introduction of canned jellied cranberry sauce, a testament to the possibilities of American ingenuity. Cranberries are delicate fruits. They are “picky when it comes to growing conditions,” explains K. Annabelle Smith at Smithsonian.com. “Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the US as an option for cranberry farming.” This reality put a cap on possibilities of the cranberry market: There are only so many cold-weather bogs to go around. Then in the very early 1910s, Marcus Urann, a lawyer who abandoned his first career to buy a cranberry bog — and would go on to become one of the founders of what would become Ocean Spray — began canning the stuff as a way to sell the seasonal berry year-round. The cranberry harvest lasts six weeks, Robert Cox, a co-author of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table, told Smithsonian. “Before canning technology, the product had to be consumed immediately and the rest of the year there was almost no market.” Then suddenly, there was. The jellied log became available nationwide in 1941. Thanksgiving history was forever changed. Ocean Spray, currently the world’s largest grower of cranberries, sells roughly 80 percent of its jellied sauce for the year Thanksgiving week. (There are also miniature peaks around Christmas, Easter, and the Super Bowl, thanks to a cult recipe for “Ultimate Party Meatballs.”) Americans love buying jellied cranberry sauce Ocean Spray makes 70 million cans of jellied cranberry sauce, which Dignan observes amounts to one for every American family. It is wildly more popular than canned whole-berry sauce; three cans of jellied are sold for every one can of whole-berry. Every jellied can requires 220 cranberries. “What’s interesting about cranberry sauce is that three-quarters of Americans use store-bought sauce for their Thanksgiving,” Dignan muses. “It really is the only thing on the table that the majority of people don’t just buy but want to buy.” Making your own cranberry sauce is much easier than roasting your own turkey, or making your own stuffing, or baking your own pie. It is arguably even easier than throwing together your own salad, which is apparently how people celebrate, healthfully, on the West Coast. It takes 15 minutes, some sugar, and a saucepan. Yet it is our favorite thing to buy. Here is Chris Cillizza of CNN, weighing in with passion: But seriously: The cranberry sauce in the can is the best. https://t.co/73a5G4i61n— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) November 20, 2018 Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post agrees, as does, apparently, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Cillizza is 100 percent right here -- if the cranberry sauce doesn't have can lines I'm not eating it https://t.co/rJscVFf8YN— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) November 20, 2018 See, this is what I mean. You think you know somebody & then they come at you with crazy talk. Canned cranberry blob is a @SenSherrodBrown thing, too, and he should have told me that way before we said, “I do.” Some things a woman needs to know early. https://t.co/BIsgK1ckTX— Connie Schultz (@ConnieSchultz) November 20, 2018 Nowhere is this is truer than in the southeastern United States, where they grow no cranberries at all. The biggest state for canned cranberry sauce consumption is Georgia, and while she cannot exactly explain this, it has, Dignan says, always been true. In an age where processed food is in decline, one might imagine that canned cranberry sauce would be struggling. But according to Dignan, it is not. Seventy-six percent of people buy the stuff. “I wouldn’t say cranberry sauce is something that’s expanding in terms of our portfolio — we’re not seeing tons of year over year growth,” she says, but sales are “amazingly steady.” “I think there’s a nostalgia to it,” she suggests. “There’s something about taking it out of the can and sort of that noise it makes and slicing it and it’s very uniquely American.” They don’t even sell canned cranberry sauce overseas, she says; they package it like a spread, in glass jars. The appeal is in its timelessness. “There’s something about the fact that it hasn’t changed much. Even if someone doesn’t eat anything out of a can the whole rest of the year, I think, for some reason, cranberry sauce really speaks to them,” she says. She is not alone in her assessment of the non-sauce sauce’s appeal. “How can you beat the tangy, sweet flavor of store-bought cranberry sauce,” said one taste tester at Bon Appétit. At Fortune, Clifton Leaf vigorously defended the “jiggly, wiggly mold of tartness.” The jellied slices, he wrote, go “down easy, like a slippery jam, potent with berry flavor and a whiff of history.” Are there dissenters? Of course. As there should be. This is America. “The wobbly crimson substance added nothing to my Thanksgiving enjoyment, unlike my mother’s lemon-zested, multi-spiced version,” lamented Gwen Ihnat at the Takeout. “Once you take the time to make a fresh cranberry or lingonberry jam in its place, you’ll never go back,” Jim Stein, executive chef at McCrady’s, told Food & Wine, proposing instead a version with “fresh lingonberries cooked down in a little bit of sugar, cinnamon, star anise, and orange juice/zest.” (Dissenters love to zest.) The exquisite beauty of the great jellied cranberry debate is that unlike many divisions — between families, between nations — it does not matter. Celebrate your freedom. Dance like no one’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt; eat your cranberries in the gelatinous form of your choice.
vox.com
What happens to Black Friday crowds in a pandemic?
AFP via Getty Images Retailers like Macy’s, Home Depot, and Walmart are trying to keep stores safe — and you shopping sales. Even before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything about, well, everything, Black Friday was already on its last legs. The post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday kept creeping up earlier and earlier. Retailers started opening their stores before dawn on Friday, then at midnight, encouraging shoppers to wait in line for doorbusters before they had even finished digesting their turkey and mashed potatoes. Eventually they threw caution to the wind and started opening on Thursday afternoons, well before most people had gotten a chance to eat dinner at all. This year, thanks to the seemingly endless pandemic, Black Friday has become even more nebulous, with major retailers emphasizing online shopping and offering month-long sales to keep crowds at bay. And with good reason: a Deloitte survey found that more than half of shoppers polled are anxious about shopping in stores during the holiday season, not just on Black Friday but in the time leading up to the winter holidays as well. Another survey, by Accenture, found that 61 percent of respondents plan on limiting their in-store shopping time, not only to keep themselves safe but to keep essential workers safe as well. More than half of shoppers polled are anxious about shopping in stores during the holiday season. Nothing says “super spreader event” quite like a crowd of hundreds of people — many of whom just finished having a lengthy indoor meal with friends or relatives who may or may not have traveled across the country — gathered outside a store. A traditional Black Friday wouldn’t just be dangerous for shoppers; it’d also be dangerous for store employees, who already have to work long hours on the holiday. In order to avoid that worst-case scenario, many big retailers are changing the structure of their Black Friday sales, extending them for weeks and encouragingonline shopping. Walmart, for example, is stretching its sales across three weeks. The retailer had a November 4 online sale followed by a November 7 in-person sale, a November 11 online sale followed by an in-person sale three days later, and is having a final online sale on November 25, with its last in-person sale happening on Black Friday proper. Spreading the sales across three weeks “will be safer and more manageable for both our customers and our associates,” Scott McCall, Walmart’s executive Vice President and chief merchandising officer, said in a press release. For each of the three in-person sales, customers are being asked to wait in a single-file line outside the store. Employees — including a designated “health ambassador” — will greet customers, ask them to put on masks, and let them into the store in batches. Stores will be kept at 20 percent capacity to facilitate physical distancing, according to the Associated Press. Customers will be given sanitized shopping carts. Target, arguably Walmart’s biggest competitor, is taking a similar approach. The retailer is having several week-long sales over the course of November. Like Walmart, Target will limit the number of customers who can be present in any given store at a time, though it’s unclear what those limits will be. When asked whether stores would be operating at limited capacity, a spokesperson told The Goods that stores’ “capacities account for six feet social distancing guidance throughout our stores and key areas like our check lanes. We also continue to follow local government mandates.” Target is encouraging customers to reserve spots in line ahead of time, and said it’ll let customers check online to see if there’s a line at their local store before heading over. Rather than waiting in a physical line, customers will get a text telling them when it’s their turn to enter the store, presumably to allow people to wait in their cars or homes rather than in clusters outside the store. Several retailers are also expanding curbside pickup to include sale items, another tactic to encourage customers to shop online instead of in-store. Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and Macy’s are all expanding curbside pickup for this reason. Both Macy’s and Best Buy will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, harkening back to a time when Black Friday was a single-day event rather than a weekend-long one. That said, both retailers have extended their sales throughout the month. While they may be closed on Thanksgiving, both Best Buy and Macy’s had sales throughout November. JCPenney, another major Black Friday retailer, is having an eight-day sale. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Walmart (@walmart) While traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are trying to encourage customers to shop online, Amazon is playing up its in-person offerings. It may seem counterintuitive, given Amazon’s delivery-focused business model, but according to RetailDive, the digital retailer is also focusing on alternatives to home delivery. Getting packages delivered may be safer, but given the uptick in online shopping, it could also lead to orders being delayed or even lost. For that reason, Amazon is emphasizing its “alternative delivery locations” for customers “in more than 900 cities and towns across the U.S.” Though Amazon is a primarily online retailer, it does have Amazon 4-star stores, Amazon Bookstores, and delivery hubs inside some Whole Foods locations. Retailers are largely framing their pandemic-era Black Friday plans as a way of protecting customers and encouraging them to feel safe, but there’s also the matter of worker safety as well. Unlike shoppers, who have the option of picking up their items at the door or getting a text when it’s their turn to shop, retail workers will still be expected to do what they’ve been doing throughout the pandemic: greet customers, help them find what they’re looking for, ring them up, and hope that they don’t get exposed to the virus. During the spring coronavirus surge, many retailers offered hazard pay to their workers. As the New York Times recently reported, most major retailers have since stopped. Walmart, for example, offered workers cash bonuses but never raised their wages. A few companies are still offering extra pay, however: a JCPenney spokesperson told The Goods that the brand still offers hazard pay to its workers. Nearly every major retailer has said they’ll require all customers and employees to wear masks while in stores, a precaution that is particularly important during crowded sales. However, mask enforcement will be left to hourly employees or managers, who may have little recourse when dealing with hostile customers. In October, the Times reported that the National Retail Federation had a new partnership with the Crisis Prevention Institute to teach workers how to prevent and deescalate disputes with shoppers who refuse to wear masks or follow other safety precautions. “This is one additional opportunity for our retailers to say: ‘Our staff members are trained. If there is an incident, they will handle it and you will be safe shopping,’” Bill Thorne, the executive director of the National Retail Federation, told the Times. But earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned stores against doing that very thing. In August, the health agency told retailers that their employees should refrain from arguing with anti-maskers, because they could become violent. It’s essentially a choice between asking employees to be potentially exposed to coronavirus and asking them to be potentially exposed to coronavirus and a violent attack. Ultimately, this year’s Black Friday is a balancing act between keeping customers safe, keeping workers safe, and perhaps most importantly for retailers, dealing with the ongoing logistical and financial side effects of a pandemic that seems to have no end in sight.
vox.com
A delicious feast of food movies
The feast that heals, from Babette’s Feast. | Nordisk Film Comedies, dramas, documentaries, and more to stream after you’ve had a good meal. In the US, it’s the week of Thanksgiving, and a very unusual one. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic hampering travel and families rethinking their celebrations in pursuit of safety, the holiday defined by a feast looks different for a lot of people. But it’s still a feast, even if it’s on Zoom. And after any feast, the best thing to do is curl up on the couch with a slice of pumpkin pie, a cup of something warm, and a delicious, joyful food movie. Cinema has set feasts on screen for a long, long time, using food to evoke desire, love, loneliness, bounty, happiness, and a lot more. And there are many to take in, whether you’re craving a little cinematic confectionery or a grand banquet. Here are 10 great films you can stream about feasts, food, family, and what cooking and eating teach us about being human. For a tale of feasts overcoming ascetic grimness ... Try Babette’s Feast (1987) Based on a story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast is about a sect of austere, severe religious people living on a remote Denmark coast in the 19th century. They are led by the elderly daughters of the sect’s founder, they view pleasures as a distraction from God, and they eat only bland food. But their lives are upended when Babette (Stéphane Audran) shows up at the women’s home, seeking refuge from violence in her native Paris. They’re suspicious of her. But she offers to work for free, and stays with them for 14 years, gaining their trust. One day, she wins the lottery, and instead of using the money to finally go back home, she uses it to prepare a lavish feast in honor of the sect’s founder. And that feast — both in the story and as an on-screen repast — becomes legendary. How to watch it: Babette’s Feast is streaming for subscribers on HBO Max. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. If you want a comedy with heart and a pitch-perfect ending ... Watch Big Night (1996) Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub (need I say more?) play brothers, Italian immigrants to the US, who open a restaurant that is suffering for business because their customers’ tastes lean more toward Italian-American food. Vexed and facing a shutdown, they reach out to a friend who arranges for a famous jazz singer to attend a fancy dinner at the restaurant and thereby drum up business. They prepare a sumptuous meal and invite their friends but, of course, nothing goes as planned. Tucci co-wrote and co-directed Big Night with Campbell Scott, and it’s wonderful: A bittersweet movie about a feast that is, itself, a feast. How to watch it: Big Night is available to stream for Amazon Prime subscribers and for free (with ads) on Pluto. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play. For a satisfying portrait of one of the greatest food critics of all time ... See City of Gold (2016) City of Gold, about the late and beloved Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, is among the best food documentaries ever made, largely because it isn’t just about food; it’s about loving a place through being a critic. Directed by Laura Gabbert (who also directed Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles), the film follows Gold as he drives his green pickup truck through LA, eating at a handful of hole-in-the-wall strip mall restaurants that most people just blithely sail past, talking about his career and his approach to his work. It’s an illuminating portrait not just of a writer but of a city, and it’s a kind of master class in how good critics think, work, and live. How to watch it: City of Gold is available to stream on Amazon Prime for subscribers with the IFC add-on subscription. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase from iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. For an experimental doc-fiction hybrid with a philosophical edge ... Watch Feast of the Epiphany (2018) Feast of the Epiphany is the most experimental and daring of the films on this list, and one that will haunt you after it’s over. The first half is a scripted, fictional drama set in a New York apartment at an Epiphany dinner (celebrated by some Christians on January 6, traditionally the day the Magi arrived at the stable where the infant Jesus lay in a manger). The second half is a documentary centering on Roxbury Farms in upstate New York, where a team of farmers raise food and live off the land. Directed by Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman, it’s a diptych in which the two halves echo and mirror one another implicitly, and make us think about the role that food plays in our lives — both as social beings and creatures of the earth. How to watch it: Feast of the Epiphany is available to digitally rent on Vimeo through November 29. For a modest drama about capitalism, male friendship, and baking ...Watch First Cow (2020) Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is set in a 19th-century frontier settlement somewhere in Oregon, near the Columbia River, populated by people who are living in tiny houses and trying to scratch out a living in the New World, as well as the First Nations people who’ve been there for generations. Into that settlement, a cow arrives, setting off a chain of events that are both momentous and small. But the film is about much more than just that. First Cow is also a gentle (and gently devastating) tale about male friendship, about finding someone to share your aspirations and dreams with, and, most deliciously, about cooking. (Don’t be surprised if you have a craving for blueberry clafoutis when it’s done.) And it’s also about the kinds of constructed hierarchies — based on factors like race, class, money, and firepower — that seem to be imposed on the world wherever new civilizations pop up. How to watch it: First Cow is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, or Google Play. With a Showtime add-on, it’s available to stream on Hulu. For a side of family drama along with a portrait of an artist whose medium is raw fish ...Watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) An entire documentary about sushi? Well, not exactly. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (made by the same team behind Netflix’s Chef’s Table series) is a gentle, meditative, and entrancing portrait of Jiro Ono, considered possibly the greatest sushi chef in the world. He’s been making sushi for a long time in his small, exquisite restaurant, which is inside a subway station in Tokyo. It’s a story of true dedication to art, as well as the pressure his sons feel to follow in their father’s footsteps. Order some tuna rolls beforehand and make an evening of it. How to watch it: Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. A time-spanning tale of learning to cook and trying to love ...Try Julie & Julia (2009) Meryl Streep as Julia Child may go down as one of the best casting choices of the century, but the entirety of Julie & Julia — written and directed by Nora Ephron — is just as delightful. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell (on whose memoir the movie is based), who in 2002 has a stressful job answering phone calls about plans to rebuild the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terror attacks. She begins cooking (and blogging) through Julia Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, much to the amusement of her supportive husband (Chris Messina). The film cuts between 2002 and the 1950s, when Child and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) are in France, and Child is just learning to cook. The result is a movie about marriage, love, and the healing power of food, and its feeling runs deeper than its chipper exterior initially suggests. How to watch it: Julie & Julia is streaming for free (with ads) on Amazon and for subscribers on Hulu with the Showtime add-on subscription. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. If you’re looking for an unpretentious, outside-the-box romance, try ... The Lunchbox (2013) The Lunchbox is a gentle romance between two people who communicate through food. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to rekindle her husband’s love for her by sending him sumptuous lunches at work. When the courier screws up, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) becomes the accidental recipient of one of these meals and starts to wonder about the cook behind it. When they both realize the mistake, they start sending small notes to one another, and a friendship that fills both their lonely hearts begins to blossom. Not only is The Lunchbox a sweet film, but it’s a delicious one; be sure to have your favorite biryani or saag paneer on hand, or your stomach will be growling. How to watch it: The Lunchbox is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. For a kinky, brilliant reminder of food’s place in our domestic lives ... Watch Phantom Thread (2017) Phantom Thread masquerades as a film about fashion, but everybody who’s seen it knows it’s really about food. That’s clear from the start: The central romance’s meet-cute occurs in a hotel restaurant, in which Daniel Day-Lewis (playing finicky couture designer Reynolds Woodcock) orders a legendary meal of “Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” And once you’ve seen the movie, you’ll never look at a mushroom omelet the same way again. How to watch it: Phantom Thread is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. For a family-friendly reminder that cooking is an art ... Watch Ratatouille (2007) Ratatouille is the tale of Remy the Rat, who wants to be a chef but is, well, a rat. Yet through a series of unlikely events, he becomes a chef in the kitchen of an upscale Paris restaurant. As much a reminder of the power of criticism as the power of art, Ratatouille boasts some memorable meals, and an indelible scene in which Remy — trying to coax his fellow rats into actually tasting their food — experiences a true fantasia of flavor, rendered in visual form. It’s a delight to return to again and again. How to watch it: Ratatouille is available for subscribers to stream on Disney+. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. 5 more movies to please your palate and whet your appetite ... Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. Read Roger Ebert’s review. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, or Vudu. Listen to the episode of the Blank Check podcast on the movie. Goodfellas (1990), available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. Here’s how to cook the pasta sauce from the movie. Tampopo (1987), available for subscribers to stream on HBO Max, or to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. Read why it’s one writer’s favorite film. The Trip series — including The Trip (2010), The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020) — are streaming for subscribers on Hulu. They’re also available to digitally rent or purchase on various platforms; The Trip, for instance, is on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play. Here’s an introduction to the series following the final installment’s release.
vox.com
Why streaming devices and streaming networks are fighting over your eyeballs 
TV shoppers at a Best Buy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018. | Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images Streaming TV should be easy, but fights among Roku, Amazon, HBO, and NBC are making it hard. When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in theaters on Christmas Day, most HBO Max subscribers will be able to watch the movie at home. Emphasis on most: Right now, that group of HBO Max subscribers does not include those who use a Roku device to watch streaming TV. This is because Roku, which dominates the US market for streaming devices, and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, which owns HBO Max, don’t have a deal to put the new service on Roku’s streaming boxes, sticks, and TVs. If the two companies don’t get a deal done soon, it’s unlikely they’ll have anything in place for the holiday season, according to people who work at both companies. Call it the collateral damage of the streaming wars, which bring you an enormous amount of choice about what you can watch and where you can watch it — but also require you to make sure the device and streaming service you want to use are playing together nicely. So on the one hand, you can now pick and choose between streaming TV packages that have just about everything or “skinny bundles” that leave out things like sports; you can also sign up for services like Disney+ because you want to see The Mandalorian and then easily unsubscribe when you’re done. On the other hand, you can’t watch Peacock, Comcast’s new streaming service, on Amazon’s Fire TV, or Apple TV+ on Google devices — at least without doing some work beyond pointing and clicking. It’s not like the old days of cable TV when programmers and distributors also fought periodically but they never asked you to figure out whether your TV set worked with their cable box. Instead, both sides are looking at it as a way to set new terms: Who controls the way streaming video gets to you? How does the money you spend on that video get split up? What about the money advertisers spend trying to reach you? Because all of this is new — and because everyone thinks it’s going to change a lot in the coming years — you’re probably going to see these kinds of scrimmages happening periodically. Even if Roku and HBO Max come to terms in the near future, that deal likely won’t be a long-term one, which means they could end up in a fight again in a year or two. There are a lot of people caught in the middle of these skirmishes, too. HBO Max, for instance, has around 9 million users; Roku has 46 million users, giving it an estimated 30 percent of the streaming device market. If it’s any consolation for frustrated HBO Max subscribers, they’re not alone. As of right now, anyone who wants to watch Peacock can’t watch it on Amazon devices. That’s a big group of people: Peacock has at least 15 million subscribers, and Amazon’s Fire ecosystem is the second-most-popular streaming tech in the US. Peacock is trying to work out a deal with Amazon, and maybe that will happen before the holidays, too. These things are moving targets: Peacock, which launched last spring, didn’t get a deal to land on Roku devices until September. HBO Max, which launched in May, didn’t get an Amazon deal until mid-November. Even if your streaming plans aren’t going to be interrupted by these two fights, it’s worth understanding the backstory to them. They’re fundamentally about money, of course. But the variations in them shine some light on the way the companies plan to make money from you, the viewer. In the case of Comcast’s Peacock and Amazon, the main sticking point seems to be over who will have direct contact with the viewer, as well as access to their viewing habits and other valuable data. (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.) In the past, Amazon has been able to sell access to HBO and other streaming services via its “channels” offering in its Prime Video hub — which meant Amazon controlled billing and every other point of contact with the programmers’ customers. But increasingly, programmers want to wrest that control back. They want to distribute their own apps on Amazon’s Fire TV app store. They’re also okay with giving Amazon a cut of the revenue they make from subscriptions, but they want a direct line to their viewer. You can see how this played out with the new deal that WarnerMedia and Amazon struck to get HBO Max onto Amazon devices. While neither company is commenting publicly about the terms, people familiar with the negotiations say the deal essentially unwinds a previous agreement that had allowed Amazon to sell HBO subscriptions itself. Instead, WarnerMedia will use its own HBO Max app, which is available on the Amazon Fire TV app store. The distinction shouldn’t matter much to you, the person who wants to stream the new season of Succession. It mattered enough to Amazon and WarnerMedia to fight about it for months. When it comes to HBO Max and Roku, it’s a little harder to parse the dispute. People I’ve talked to on both sides seem frustrated. But the main negotiating points that Roku has with partners are well-known: Roku wants a slice of every subscription dollar consumers spend on its platform; it wants the ability to sell advertising on ad-supported services on its platform, and in some cases, it wants shows or movies from programmers that it can stream on its own Roku-branded service. (As part of its new deal with Comcast, for instance, Roku gets to run the media company’s NBC News Now show live on its free Roku channel.) Industry officials say that Roku, which has seen a steady rise in users over the past few years, has been increasingly aggressive about the terms it asks for. Scott Rosenberg, a senior vice president who handles programming deals for Roku, says that’s not the case. He says that companies that work with Roku benefit because Roku benefits when they do well. “Partners who have a growth mindset, who embrace the opportunity, see enormous growth,” Rosenberg told me. The old cable TV distributors, he says, “were toll-takers” who made the same amount of money regardless of what you watched. “They weren’t particularly incented to drive [a programmer’s] success.” Roku and Amazon dominate streaming TV, but they’re not the only ones that end up in disputes. You can get to Netflix on Apple’s Apple TV box, for instance, but not on Apple’s Apple TV app because Netflix doesn’t want Apple to have access to its data or its customers. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it in 2019: “Apple’s a great company. We want to have people watch our shows on our services.” Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t have its Apple TV app available on most devices running Google’s Android software. There’s a flip side of all of this: You can argue, with a straight face, that TV is better than it’s ever been. In the old days, you were unlikely to lose the channels you loved to a dispute between programmers and distributors — but you didn’t have any choice about the channels you paid for. Now you do, and that’s great. And just because a programmer and a TV distributor are at odds doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck. It just means you need to investigate workarounds, which can range from watching on your laptop to streaming a show on your phone and casting it to your TV to buying an extra gadget that is compatible with the programmer you want and plugging that into your TV. Which is what I do, with an older Apple TV box, so we can watch HBO Max on our Roku TV. It’s not ideal. But it will let us watch Wonder Woman.
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The Supreme Court fight over Trump’s last-ditch effort to rig the census, explained
Attorney General Bill Barr and President Donald Trump depart after delivering remarks on citizenship and the census at the White House on Thursday, July 11, 2019. | Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images The Court must decide whether to follow the Constitution’s clear text — or to rubber-stamp an illegal effort by Trump. Donald Trump will no longer be president in two months. But an unconstitutional memorandum he handed down last July could potentially shape both US policy and American elections for the next decade, if the Supreme Court, scheduled to hear the case on November 30, allows that memo to take effect. The Constitution provides that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.” Nevertheless, Trump’s memo claims that “aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status” should not be counted when seats in the House of Representatives are allocated following the 2020 census. The memo, in other words, violates the unambiguous text of the Constitution, as well as federal laws governing who should be included in census counts. An estimated 10.6 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, and nearly 20 percent live in California. So the nation’s largest blue state could lose as many as three House seats if Trump succeeds in his plans to cut these immigrants out of the apportionment count. (It is likely that the red state of Texas would also be hit hard — but Texas’s Republican legislature is likely to draw gerrymandered maps that would impose the cost of any lost House seats on Democrats. California uses a bipartisan redistricting commission to draw legislative lines.) The courts have thus far approached Trump’s memo with considerable skepticism. Four different three-judge panels have all unanimously concluded that Trump may not exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count. That means that a dozen judges, some appointed by Democrats and some by Republicans, all agree that Trump’s memo is unconstitutional. The legal questions in these cases, in the words of one lower court that rejected Trump’s arguments, are “not particularly close or complicated.” Nevertheless, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Trump v. New York, one of the four cases challenging Trump’s unconstitutional memo. The mere fact that the Court will hear this case does not necessarily mean that a majority of the justices are inclined to side with the lame-duck president. The justices normally get to pick and choose which cases they want to hear — ordinarily, four justices must agree to hear a case before it can be argued in the Supreme Court. But federal law sometimes requires the Court to decide cases that involve time-sensitive, election-related issues, such as how many seats each state will have in the next House of Representatives. New York is one of these rare cases that arise under the Court’s mandatory jurisdiction. The justices cannot simply ignore this case even if they agree with the lower courts that ruled against Trump. So it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the Supreme Court will agree with the unanimous consensus of the lower court judges who’ve considered Trump’s memo and rejected it. Nevertheless, with six conservatives on the Court — including three Trump appointees — there is no guarantee that Trump will lose. Trump claims he gets to decide who counts for purposes of apportionment Trump’s memo claims that the Constitution’s provisions, governing who should be counted for purposes of apportionment, should not be read literally. “Although the Constitution requires the ‘persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed,’ to be enumerated in the census,” Trump says in his memo, “that requirement has never been understood to include in the apportionment base every individual physically present within a State’s boundaries at the time of the census.” He’s not wrong that some foreign nationals, who may be physically present in the United States during a census, are not counted. Tourists, foreign diplomats, international businesspeople, and other non-citizens who temporarily visit the United States typically are not included in the census. “The term ‘persons in each State,’” Trump’s memo fairly reasonably notes, “has been interpreted to mean that only the ‘inhabitants’ of each State should be included.” This general premise — that only “inhabitants” of a state, and not temporarily foreign visitors, should be counted by the census — is fairly uncontroversial. But Trump then claims the power to decide who counts as an “inhabitant” for census purposes. “Determining which persons should be considered ‘inhabitants’ for the purpose of apportionment requires the exercise of judgment,” his memo argues. And Trump, according to his lawyers, “validly exercised that judgment in deciding to exclude illegal aliens ‘to the maximum extent feasible and consistent with the discretion delegated to the executive branch.’” But Trump’s lawyers do not cite an actual statute giving Trump the power to determine who counts as an “inhabitant” of a state, and the federal laws governing the census suggest that Trump does not have this power. Those laws provide that the secretary of commerce shall report the “total population by States” to the president once the census is done counting individuals, and they require the president to “transmit to the Congress a statement showing the whole number of persons in each State” once he is done reviewing the census. These references to the “total population” and the “whole number of persons” suggest that the president may not pick and choose who is counted. Moreover, as the lower court that ruled against Trump in New York held, “it does not follow that illegal aliens — a category defined by legal status, not residence — can be excluded” from the census by claiming that they are not “inhabitants” of a state. “To the contrary,” the court explained, while quoting from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “the ordinary definition of the term ‘inhabitant’ is ‘one that occupies a particular place regularly, routinely, or for a period of time.’” Many undocumented immigrants reside in a state for “many years or even decades,” the court continued. These immigrants are as much “inhabitants” of those states as any other resident. Two of the judges who joined this opinion, it is worth noting, were appointed by Republican President George W. Bush. Unable to cite any legal authority giving Trump the power to decide who is an “inhabitant” of a state, Trump’s brief points to a handful of other sources — some legal, some otherwise — which are at least somewhat consistent with the outgoing president’s understanding of who counts as an “inhabitant.” Trump’s brief, for example, quotes a line from a 1992 Supreme Court decision, which says that the determination of whether a particular individual should be counted by the census may “include some element of allegiance or enduring tie to a place” — though it’s unclear what quoting this line adds to Trump’s argument because an undocumented immigrant who has long resided in the same state has an “enduring tie” to the place. Similarly, Trump’s brief points to The Law of Nations, a 1758 treatise by the Swiss lawyer Emmerich de Vattel, which defined the term “inhabitant” to include “strangers, who are permitted to settle and stay in the country.” American courts do not typically rely on 262-year-old books by European authors to override the unambiguous text of the Constitution. And there’s also a glaring problem with relying on Vattel to determine who should be counted by the census. As one of the plaintiffs’ briefs in the New York case explains, “Vattel defined ‘inhabitants’ as ‘distinguished from citizens’ — i.e., in his lexicon, only noncitizens were classified as ‘inhabitants.’” Thus, if the Supreme Court were to rely on Vattel’s definition of an “inhabitant” to determine who should be counted by the census, it would exclude US citizens from the count. House apportionment would be determined solely based on how many non-citizens were lawfully residing in each state. New York is an early test of the new Supreme Court majority’s commitment to the rule of law The Supreme Court hears a lot of difficult cases, but Trump v. New York is not one of them. Trump’s memo is at odds with clear constitutional text. Trump’s brief offers little support for his arguments. Every judge to consider Trump’s memo has ruled against it. And it’s not even clear that the justices would have agreed to hear this case in the first place if it didn’t fall within the Court’s mandatory jurisdiction. But the case is also being heard by a deeply conservative Court that appears emboldened by the confirmation of new Justice Amy Coney Barrett to move the law dramatically to the right — especially in cases impacting elections. New York, in other words, will be an early test of just how emboldened the Court’s new majority has become. If the justices back Trump in New York, despite clear constitutional text to the contrary, then that’s a worrisome sign about the future of the rule of law in the United States. In any event, the Court is likely to decide this case very quickly. By law, Trump must inform Congress of how House seats will be apportioned among the states by January 10, 2021.
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Dark matter, humility, and coming to grips with the unknown
Amanda Northrop/Vox Why science needs to celebrate hard questions over easy answers. If you go outside on a dark night, in the darkest places on Earth, you can see as many as 9,000 stars. They appear as tiny points of light, but they are massive infernos. And while these stars seem astonishingly numerous to our eyes, they represent just the tiniest fraction of all the stars in our galaxy, let alone the universe. The beautiful challenge of stargazing is keeping this all in mind: Every small thing we see in the night sky is immense, but what’s even more immense is the unseen, the unknown. I’ve been thinking about this feeling — the awesome, terrifying feeling of smallness, of the extreme contrast of the big and small — while reporting on one of the greatest mysteries in science for Unexplainable, a new Vox podcast pilot you can listen to below. It turns out all the stars in all the galaxies, in all the universe, barely even begin to account for all the stuff of the universe. Most of the matter in the universe is actually unseeable, untouchable, and, to this day, undiscovered. Scientists call this unexplained stuff “dark matter,” and they believe there’s five times more of it in the universe than normal matter — the stuff that makes up you and me, stars, planets, black holes, and everything we can see in the night sky or touch here on Earth. It’s strange even calling all that “normal” matter, because in the grand scheme of the cosmos, normal matter is the rare stuff. But to this day, no one knows what dark matter actually is. “I think it gives you intellectual and kind of epistemic humility — that we are simultaneously, super insignificant, a tiny, tiny speck of the universe,” Priya Natarajan, a Yale physicist and dark matter expert, said on a recent phone call. “But on the other hand, we have brains in our skulls that are like these tiny, gelatinous cantaloupes, and we have figured all of this out.” The story of dark matter is a reminder that whatever we know, whatever truth about the universe we have acquired as individuals or as society, is insignificant compared to what we have not yet explained. It’s also a reminder that, often, in order to discover something true, the first thing we need to do is account for what we don’t know. This accounting of the unknown is not often a thing that’s celebrated in science. It doesn’t win Nobel prizes. But, at least, we can know the size of our ignorance. And that’s a start. But how does it end? Though physicists have been trying to figure out what dark matter is for decades, the detectors they built to find it have gone silent year after year. It makes some wonder: Have they been chasing a ghost? Dark matter might not be real. Instead, there could be something more deeply flawed in physicists’ understanding of gravity that would explain it away. Still, the search, fueled by faith in scientific observations, continues, despite the possibility that dark matter may never be found. To learn about dark matter is to grapple with, and embrace, the unknown. The woman who told us how much we don’t know Scientists are, to this day, searching for dark matter, because they believe it is there to find. And they believe so largely because of Vera Rubin, an astronomer who died in 2016 at age 88. Growing up in Washington, DC, in the 1930s, like so many young people getting started in science, Rubin fell in love with the night sky. Rubin shared a bedroom and bed with her sister Ruth. Ruth was older and got to pick her favorite side of the bed, the one that faced the bedroom windows and the night sky. “But the windows captivated Vera’s attention,” Ashley Yeager, a journalist writing a forthcoming biography on Rubin, says. “Ruth remembers Vera constantly crawling over her at night, to be able to open the windows and look out at the night sky and start to track the stars.” Ruth just wanted to sleep, and “there Vera was tinkering and trying to take pictures of the stars and trying to track their motions.” Not everyone gets to turn their childlike wonder and captivation of the unknown into a career, but Rubin did. Flash-forward to the late 1960s, and she’s at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, doing exactly what she did in that childhood bedroom: tracking the motion of stars. This time, though, she has a cutting-edge telescope and is looking at stars in motion at the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy. Just 40 years prior, Edwin Hubble had determined, for the first time, that Andromeda was a galaxy outside of our own, and that galaxies outside our own even existed. With one observation, Hubble doubled the size of the known universe. By 1960, scientists were still asking basic questions in the wake of this discovery. Like: How do galaxies move? Rubin and her colleague Kent Ford were at the observatory doing this basic science, charting how stars are moving at the edge of Andromeda. “I guess I wanted to confirm Newton’s laws,” Rubin said in an archival interview with science historian David DeVorkin. Alan Dyer/Universal Images Group via Getty The Andromeda Galaxy. Per Newton’s equations, the stars in the galaxy ought to move like the planets in our solar system do. Mercury, the closest planet to the sun, orbits very quickly, propelled by the sun’s gravity to a speed of around 106,000 mph. Neptune, far from the sun, and less influenced by its gravity, moves much slower, at around 12,000 mph. The same thing ought to happen in galaxies too: Stars near the dense, gravity-rich centers of galaxies ought to move faster than the stars along the edges. But that wasn’t what Rubin and Ford observed. Instead, they saw that the stars along the edge of Andromeda were going the same speed as the stars in the interior. “I think it was kind of like a ‘what the fuck’ moment,” Yeager says. “It was just it was just so different than what everyone had expected.” Ingo Berg/Wikipedia On the left, what Rubin expected to see: stars orbiting the outskirts of a galaxy moving slower than those near the center. On the right, what was observed: the stars on the outside moving at the same speed as the center. The data pointed to an enormous problem: The stars couldn’t just be moving that fast on their own. At those speeds, the galaxy should be ripping itself apart like an accelerating merry-go-round with the brake turned off. To explain why this wasn’t happening, these stars needed some kind of extra gravity out there acting like an engine. There had to be a source of mass for all that extra gravity. (For a refresher: Physicists consider gravity to be a consequence of mass. The more mass in an area, the stronger the gravitational pull.) The data suggested that there was a staggering amount of mass in the galaxy that astronomers simply couldn’t see. “As they’re looking out there, they just can’t seem to find any kind of evidence that it’s some normal type of matter,” Yeager says. It wasn’t black holes; it wasn’t dead stars. It was something else generating the gravity needed to both hold the galaxy together and propel those outer stars to such fast speeds. “I mean, when you first see it, I think you’re afraid of being … you’re afraid of making a dumb mistake, you know, that there’s just some simple explanation,” Rubin later recounted. Other scientists might have immediately announced a dramatic conclusion based on this limited data. But not Rubin. She and her collaborators dug in and decided to do a systematic review of the star speeds in galaxies. Rubin and Ford weren’t the first group to make an observation of stars moving fast at the edge of a galaxy. But what Rubin and her collaborators are famous for is verifying the finding across the universe. “She [studies] 20 galaxies, and then 40 and then 60, and they all show this bizarre behavior of stars out far in the galaxy, moving way, way too fast,” Yeager explains. This is why people say Rubin ought to have won a Nobel Prize (the prizes are only awarded to living recipients, so she will never win one). She didn’t “discover” dark matter. But the data she collected over her career made it so the astronomical community had to reckon with the idea that most of the mass in the universe is unknown. By 1985, Rubin was confident enough in her observations to declare something of an anti-eureka: announcing not a discovery, but a huge absence in our collective knowledge. “Nature has played a trick on astronomers,” she’s paraphrased as saying at an International Astronomical Organization conference in 1985, “who thought we were studying the Universe. We now know that we were studying only a small fraction of it.” To this day, no one has “discovered” dark matter. But Rubin did something incredibly important: She told the scientific world about what they were missing. In the decades since this anti-eureka, other scientists have been trying to fill in the void Rubin pointed to. Their work isn’t complete. But what they’ve been learning about dark matter is that it’s incredibly important to the very structure of our universe, and that it’s deeply, deeply weird. Dark matter isn’t just enormous. It’s also strange. Since Rubin’s WTF moment in the Arizona desert, more and more evidence has accumulated that dark matter is real, and weird, and accounts for most of the mass in the universe. “Even though we can’t see it, we can still infer that dark matter is there,” Kathryn Zurek, a Caltech astrophysicist, explains. “Even if we couldn’t see the moon with our eyes, we would still know that it was there because it pulls the oceans in different directions — and it’s really very similar with dark matter.” Scientists can’t see dark matter directly. But they can see its influence on the space and light around it. The biggest piece of indirect evidence: Dark matter, like all matter that accumulates in large quantities, has the ability to warp the very fabric of space. “You can visualize dark matter as these lumps of matter that create little potholes in space-time,” Natarajan says. “All the matter in the universe is pockmarked with dark matter.” When light falls into one of these potholes, it bends like light does in a lens. In this way, we can’t “see” dark matter, but we can “see” the distortions it produces in astronomers’ views of the cosmos. From this, we know dark matter forms a spherical cocoon around galaxies, lending them more mass, which allows their stars to move faster than what Newton’s laws would otherwise suggest. NASA, ESA, D. Harvey (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland), R. Massey (Durham University, UK), Harald Ebeling (University of Hawaii at Manoa) & Jean-Paul Kneib (LAM) This is a NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745. Shown in blue on the image is a map of the dark matter found within the cluster. These are indirect observations, but they have also given scientists some clues about the intrinsic nature of dark matter. It’s not called dark matter because of its color. It has no color. It’s called “dark” because it neither reflects nor emits light, nor any sort of electromagnetic radiation. So we can’t see it directly even with the most powerful telescopes. Not only can we not see it, we couldn’t touch it if we tried: If some sentient alien tossed a piece of dark matter at you, it would pass right through you. If it were going fast enough, it would pass right through the entire Earth. Dark matter is like a ghost. Here’s one reason physicists are confident in that weird fact. Astronomers have made observations of galaxy clusters that have slammed into one another like a head-on collision between two cars on the highway. Astronomers deduced that in the collision, much of the normal matter in the galaxy clusters slowed down and mixed together (like two cars in a head-on collision would stop one another and crumple together). But the dark matter in the cluster didn’t slow down in the collision. It kept going, as if the collision didn’t even happen. The event is recreated in this animation. The red represents normal matter in the galaxy clusters, and the blue represents dark matter. During the collision, the blue dark matter acts like a ghost, just passing through the normal colliding matter as if it weren’t there. John Wise of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (A note: These two weird aspects of dark matter — its invisibility and its untouchability — are connected: Dark matter simply does not interact with the electromagnetic force of nature. The electromagnetic force lights up our universe with light and radiation, but it also makes the world feel solid.) A final big piece of evidence for dark matter is that it helps physicists make sense of how galaxies formed in the early universe. “We know that dark matter had to be present to be part of that process,” astrophysicist Katie Mack explains. It’s believed dark matter coalesced together in the early universe before normal matter did, creating gravitational wells for normal matter to fall into. Those gravitational wells formed by dark matter became the seeds of galaxies. So dark matter not only holds galaxies together, as Rubin’s work implied — it’s why galaxies are there in the first place. So: What is it? To this day, no one really knows what dark matter is. Scientists’ best guess is that it’s a particle. Particles are the smallest building blocks of reality — they’re so small, they make up atoms. It’s thought that dark matter is just another one of these building blocks, but one we haven’t seen up close for ourselves. (There are a lot of different proposed particles that may be good dark matter candidates. Scientists still aren’t sure exactly which one it will be.) You might be wondering: Why can’t we find the most common source of matter in all the universe? Well, our scientific equipment is made out of normal matter. So if dark matter passes right through normal matter, trying to find dark matter is like trying to catch a ghost baseball with a normal glove. Plus, while dark matter is bountiful in the universe, it’s really diffuse. There are just not massive boulders of it passing nearby Earth. It’s more like we’re swimming in a fine mist of it. “If you add up all the dark matter inside humans, all humans on the planet at any given moment, it’s one nanogram,” Natarajan says — teeny-tiny. Dark matter may never be “discovered,” and that’s okay Some physicists favor a different interpretation for what Rubin observed, and for what other scientists have observed since: that it’s not that there’s some invisible mass of dark matter dominating the universe, but that scientists’ fundamental understanding of gravity is flawed and needs to be reworked. While “that’s a definite possibility,” Natarajan says, currently, there’s a lot more evidence on the side of dark matter being real and not just a mirage based on a misunderstanding of gravity. “We would need a new theory [of gravity] that can explain everything that we see already,” she explains. “There is no such theory that is currently available.” NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University) On the left, a Hubble Space Telescope image of a galaxy cluster. On the right, a blue shading has been added to indicate where the dark matter ought to be. It’s not hard to believe in something invisible, Mack says, if all the right evidence is there. We do it all the time. “It’s similar to if you’re walking down the street,” she says. “And as you’re walking, you see that some trees are kind of bending over, and you hear some leaves rustling and maybe you see a plastic bag sort of floating past you and you feel a little cold on one side. You can pretty much figure out there’s wind. Right? And that wind explains all of these different phenomena. ... There are many, many different pieces of evidence for dark matter. And for each of them, you might be able to find some other explanation that works just as well. But when taken together, it’s really good evidence.” Meanwhile, experiments around the world are trying to directly detect dark matter. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are hoping their particle collisions may one day produce some detectable dark matter. Astronomers are looking out in space for more clues, hoping one day dark matter will reveal itself through an explosion of gamma rays. Elsewhere, scientists have burrowed deep underground, shielding labs from noise and radiation, hoping that dark matter will one day pass through a detector they’ve carefully designed and make itself known. But it hasn’t happened yet. It may never happen: Scientists hope that dark matter isn’t a complete ghost to normal matter. They hope that every once in a while, when it collides with normal matter, it does something really, really subtle, like shove one single atom to the side, and set off a delicately constructed alarm. But that day may never come. It could be dark matter just never prods normal matter, that it remains a ghost. “I really did get into this business because I thought I would be detecting this within five years,” Prisca Cushman, a University of Minnesota physicist who works on a dark matter detector, says. She’s been trying to find dark matter for 20 years. She still believes it exists, that it’s out there to find. But maybe it’s just not the particular candidate particle her detector was initially set up to find. That failure isn’t a reason to give up, she says. “By not seeing [dark matter] yet with a particular detector, we’re saying, ‘Oh, so it’s not this particular model that we thought it might be.’ And that is an extremely interesting statement. Because all of a sudden an army of theorists go out and say, ‘Hey, what else could it be?’” But even if the dark matter particle is never found, that won’t discount all science has learned about it. “It’s like you’re on a beach,” Natarajan explains. “You have a lot of sand dunes. And so we are in a situation where we are able to understand how these sand dunes form, but we don’t actually know what a grain of sand is made of.” Embracing the unknown Natarajan and the other physicists I spoke to for this story are comfortable with the unknown nature of dark matter. They’re not satisfied, they want to know more, but they accept it’s real. They accept it because that’s the state of the evidence. And if new evidence comes along to disprove it, they’ll have to accept that too. “Inherent to the nature of science is the fact that whatever we know is provisional,” Natarajan says. “It is apt to change. So I think what motivates people like me to continue doing science is the fact that it keeps opening up more and more questions. Nothing is ultimately resolved.” That’s true when it comes to the biggest questions, like “what is the universe made of?” It’s true in so many other areas of science, too: Despite the endless headlines that proclaim new research findings that get published daily, there are many more unanswered questions than answered. Scientists don’t really understand how bicycles stay upright, or know the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease or how to treat it. Similarly, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we craved answers: Why do some people get much sicker than others, what does immunity to the virus look like? The truth was we couldn’t yet know (and still don’t, for sure). But that didn’t mean the scientific process was broken. The truth is, when it comes to a lot of fields of scientific progress, we’re in the middle of the story, not the end. The lesson is that truth and knowledge are hard-won. In the case of dark matter, it wasn’t that everything we knew about matter was wrong. It was that everything we knew about normal matter was insignificant compared to our ignorance about dark matter. The story of dark matter fits with a narrative of scientific progress that makes us humans seem smaller and smaller at each turn. First, we learned that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Now dark matter teaches us that the very stuff we’re made of — matter — is just a fraction of all reality. If dark matter is one day discovered, it will only open up more questions. Dark matter could be more than one particle, more than one thing. There could be a richness and diversity in dark matter that’s a little like the richness and diversity we see in normal matter. It’s possible, and this is speculation, that there’s a kind of shadow universe that we don’t have access to — scientists label it the “dark sector” — that is made up of different components that exists, as a ghost, enveloping our galaxies. It’s a little scary to learn how little we know, to learn we don’t even know what most of the universe is made out of. But there’s a sense of optimism in a question, right? It makes you feel like we can know the answer to them. There’s so much about our world that’s arrogant: from politicians who only believe in what’s convenient for them to Silicon Valley companies who claim they’re helping the world while fracturing it, and so many more examples. If only everyone could see a bit of what Vera Rubin saw — a fundamental truth not just about the universe, but about humanity. “In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10,” Rubin said in a 2000 interview. “That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance to knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”
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Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision takes shape as he selects his team
President-elect Joe Biden arrives at the Queen Theatre to meet virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors on November 23, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. | Mark Makela/Getty Images Biden’s foreign policy team is predictable. That’s not a bad thing. President-elect Joe Biden has started selecting core members of his foreign policy and national security team, revealing a slate of experienced — if not all that surprising — Cabinet picks with the goal of returning some stability and credibility to America’s relationship with the rest of the world. “It’s a team that will keep our country and our people safe and secure,” Biden said Tuesday, introducing his nominees. “And it’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back.” Several of Biden’s nominees have deep ties to the president-elect, like longtime aide Antony Blinken, whom Biden picked as his first secretary of state. Manybuilt their résumés working in key roles in past administrations, especially the Obama-Biden White House, like Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director who’s been nominated as the first female director of national intelligence; and Jake Sullivan, a former State Department official and Hillary Clinton advisor who also worked for a time as Biden’s national security adviser during his vice presidency. The list also partially reflects Biden’s commitment to fill his Cabinet with personnel that “look[s] like America,” nominating diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as United Nations ambassador, and Alejandro Mayorkas, a former deputy at the Department of Homeland Security under Obama who if confirmed would be the first Latino to serve as secretary of that department. Biden also tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry for a new role of special climate envoy, another signal to the country — and the world — of Biden’s plan to become a “climate administration.” Domestic crises, from the raging pandemic to the struggling economy, are likely to consume Biden’s first months in office, and thepresident-elect’s decision to pick trusted confidants and veteran officials for these top foreign policy roles shows he wants a team he can trust to carry outthe task of rebuilding America’s global alliances and reputation. Sighs of relief have accompanied these picks from within the foreign policy establishment, which largely recoiled at Trump’s “America First” approach.But the praise has not been unanimous. Some progressive critics have raised questions about how some of Biden’s picks made money — and who their clients were — in the years they were out of politics. For their part,Republican leaders have been largely quiet, with just some pushback from a few GOP senators. Biden’s choices are pretty conventional, though what the GOP might do if it controls the Senate is less clear right now. The beginnings of Biden’s foreign policy team, for better or worse, are known quantities, who are likely to be closely aligned with his goals to restore American leadership. Trump trampled on multilateral institutions as he pursued a more nationalistic foreign policy, and tensions rose with traditional allies over disagreements on everything from the role of NATO to Iran to trade. The president-elect, of course, will inherit a world that has changed in the four years since he ended his tenure as vice president, in some ways irrevocably. But Biden’s team, at least, may bring back some stability and predictability after four years of Trump. “It certainly seems to be more of an echo of going back to the ‘no-drama Obama’ years,” Garret Martin, a lecturer and co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center at American University, told me. “There wil, of course, be some disputes and disagreements — that’s part of the policy process,” he added. “But the idea is to certainly look less chaotic to the outside world.” Biden’s foreign policy team has experience, and that comes with upsides and downsides Key members of Biden’s foreign policy team rose to high-profile jobs during Obama’s tenure, and worked closely with the then-vice president in the administration. By extension, those officials, like Blinken and Sullivan, all worked closely together. “I think the theme is experience and harmony among the team,” Elizabeth Saunders, a foreign policy expert at Georgetown University, told me. She pointed outthat many members of the team worked in similar positions in the past administration, as deputies or other slightly less senior positions. Now they’re in the top jobs. “These are all people who are able to step into these jobs and hit the ground running. And that, in itself, is a signal.” Biden comes into the presidency with a deep foreign policy résumé, one that is atypical even for most candidates. Biden has relationships with foreign leaders and has throughout his campaign emphasized the need to work with allies, and for democracies, in particular, to work together against growing threats like China. Biden has been an advocate of drawing down the war in Afghanistan and has been more reluctant to use military force, including in places like Libya. Critics, especially progressive ones, say that long résumé has its fair share of missteps, including his initial support for the Iraq War and postwar policies he pursued as vice president. But overall, his approach is centrist, a kind of internationalist approach that seeks to balance US interests with values — and his team largely reflects that worldview. This was on display Tuesday, when Biden formally introduced his nominees to the public. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, said he and the team would “work relentlessly in service of the mission you have given us” and “advance our national interests and defend our values.” And as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador, said Tuesday, “multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.” Of course, too much of a unified perspective can have its downsides, creating blind spots in how these nominees approach US challenges. Critics of the foreign policy establishment often point out that lack of dissent creates inertia in US foreign policy or, in the worst cases, lead to misadventures abroad. That said, there will likely be disagreements among them; for instance,as my colleague Alex Ward has pointed out, Blinken has a much stronger interventionist streak than Biden. Biden’s emphasis on restoration, too, also risks falling into the trap of believing in a return to normalcy — which probably isn’t possible, and may not be so desirable, either. “Is this going to be really a restoration to the Obama years, or is this going to be something new to take into account the fact that the world has really changed?” Martin, of American University, said. “And so that’s where you can understand there’s still reservations as to how this team is going to apprehend a world that’s changed a lot in the last four years.” Trump’s foreign policy was disordered, but that also meant he was willing to break with the accepted foreign policy orthodoxy. He also recognized Americans’ dissatisfaction with the status quo on things like trade and military engagement. Biden can’t simply undo Trump, even as he seeks to make America’s international relations a little more predictable. It seems a pitfall that Biden recognized. Introducing his team Tuesday, he noted that while they have “unmatched experience and accomplishments, they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits.” What that might look in practice, though, is harder to say. Biden’s team still needs to prove itself to progressives Having a long record in Washington means, well, a long record in Washington. And Biden’s picks will have to answer for policies they’ve supported in the past, and for the actions and decisions they’ve taken both in and out of office. Progressives, especially, are cautiously waiting to see how Biden’s foreign policy team continues to shake out — and how much they may, or may not, reflect the “old thinking and unchanged habits.” “I think that ... the people he would naturally turn to lead foreign policy and national security considerations for him are people who are part of a longstanding bipartisan consensus in DC,” David Segal, co-founder and executive director of the progressive grassroots group Demand Progress, told me. “And these are those people,” he added, referring to Biden’s Cabinet. Sullivan, for example, worked for Hillary Clinton, someone who’s generally seen as embracing a more hawkish foreign policy than Biden. Blinken was among those in the Obama administration who argued in favor of the Libyan intervention on humanitarian grounds, the aftermath of which is largely seen as a failure. Haines, at the CIA, had a role in deciding not to punish CIA officials who spied on Senate staffers who were investigating and compiling the torture report. Out of office, Haines also supported the nomination of Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, who had a role in the Bush-era torture program. Progressive foreign policy advocates are broadly supportive of Biden’s emphasis on cooperation and return to multilateral agreements, like the Paris climate accord, though they are wary of those forums becoming a venue for great-power conflict, particularly between the US and China. And they want to see Biden break with his predecessor on issues like ending the war in Yemen — which Biden has said he supports — and stoppingarms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have intervened in Yemen and exacerbated that conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe there. Beyond specific policies, some of Biden’s picks have faced scrutiny another reason: how they spent their time out of government. Many former officials went into consulting, which often has ties defense corporations and hedge funds and, sometimes, unsavory foreign partners. In 2017, Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors with Michèle Flournoy, who’s widely believed to be Biden’s frontrunner pick for secretary of defense. Haines also served as a principal there. As Politico reported, “little is known about WestExec’s client list. Because its staffers aren’t lobbyists, they are not required to disclose who they work for. They also aren’t bound by the Biden transition’s restrictions on hiring people who have lobbied in the past year.” Because of that, some progressive activists told me, questions remain about how those private sector experiences will intersect with the policy choices Biden’s team will have to make in the years to come.(The Biden-Harris transition team did not return a request for comment.) At least one Republican, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) had said he is also concerned about that past work, but given the entanglements of Trump’s own Cabinet picks, the criticism rings a bit hollow. Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive think tank, says he expects Democratic senators to hold Biden’s nominees accountable in the same way they would Trump’s. Trump’s formerPentagon chief Mark Esper, for example, got grilled about his work with the defense contractor Raytheon. “I think it’s very important for them to be transparent and allow the public to have the basic information about who their clients were,” Sperling told me. “That’s important, especially in light of the corruption of the Trump team, for Democrats to be very clear and show a break from the Trump style of doing things.” The missing pieces of Biden’s foreign policy team Biden is still forming his foreign policy team, and as he fills out the ranks in the days and weeks to come, a more detailedpicture of his international and national security agenda will emerge. The people Biden chose for the job largely are those who can begin to execute on his broad vision.There are some top foreign policy positions that Biden has yet to announce, like Pentagon chief (though Flournoy, again, is expected to take that job) and other top intelligence and national security positions, including a possible new CIA director. The role of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in foreign policy also isn’t clear yet; Biden took on a huge role in Obama’s foreign relationships, but Harris, who didn’t have as much experience working on foreign policy as a senator from California, might not replicate that role. Progressives in and out of Congress will matter. So will Republicans, whose approach to Biden’s foreign policy isn’t really clear: Will traditional Republicans welcome the stability, or has Trump’s hard-edged “America First” approach fully stuck? And as experts pointed out, as much as these leaders matter, the people below them do, too: the assistant secretaries and deputies who will be helping to carry out and implement policy. Some of what Biden wants to accomplish on the world stage may be done pretty swiftly — such as reversing Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization. But otherwise, much of Biden’s first term may be doing the quiet and unglamorous work of getting allies to trust and work withthe US again. That also involves rebuilding the State Department and its foreign service, which was decimated under Trump, while also recruiting a more diverse force. It’s the kind of work that tends to disappear into the background and doesn’t often make waves but is vitally important to America’s security. And that, at least, is a dramatic change from a few years of “fire and fury.”
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