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I’ve passed the house of Mrs. RevereOften enough when her windows were openTo know she’d rather listen to SchubertMost evenings than watch whatever the networksAre beaming into her neighbors’ homes.Now that she’s lived, as I have, far longerThan twice Schubert’s 31 years,I wonder if she’d be willing, as I tell myselfI would be, to subtract some of the time still left herIf it could be carried back to his eraAnd added to his scant sum. My guessIs she’d gladly donate a year, without any prodding,While a month might be my best effort.Not a grand gesture, but still not nothing:To fall asleep at the end of a balmy JuneAnd wake next morning on the first of August,Allowing Schubert to develop some themesHe barely had time to sketch. And I hope I’d promiseTo give Mrs. Revere a week now and thenTo help her recruit more donors to our project.We’d belong to a band whose membersWould be entitled to see themselves as patronsAs well as clients, benefactors as wellAs recipients, joined in a secret fellowshipWe’d acknowledge by signs when we passed on the street.And whenever I wished that Schubert might guessThe role we played in lengthening his careerAnd dedicate one of his extra pieces to us,She’d say the last thing she wanted was musicThat sounded in any way beholden.And I might reply by asking why deny himThe pleasure of knowing how much he matteredTo people he’d never meet. A smile from him,And then he’d turn back to making something timelessFrom something destined to pass away.
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South Africa’s Great White Sharks Were Chased Away. That’s Great News.
This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.To see a great white shark breach the waves, its powerful jaws clasping a shock-struck seal, is to see the very pinnacle of predatory prowess. Or so we thought. Several years ago, in South Africa, the world was reminded that even great white sharks have something to fear: killer whales.Long before they started chomping on yachts, killer whales were making headlines for a rash of attacks on South African great white sharks. The killings were as gruesome as they were impressive. The killer whales were showing a deliberate sense of culinary preference, consuming the sharks’ oily, nutrient-rich livers but leaving the rest of the shark to sink or wash up on a nearby beach.After the initial news of the attacks, the situation only got weirder. Great white sharks started disappearing from some of their best-known habitats around South Africa’s False Bay and Gansbaai regions, in the country’s southwest.[Read: Killer whales are not our friends]“The decline of white sharks was so dramatic, so fast, so unheard-of that lots of theories began to circulate,” says Michelle Jewell, an ecologist at the Michigan State University Museum. In the absence of explanation, pet theories abounded. Some proposed that overfishing of the sharks’ prey to feed Australia’s fish-and-chips market led to the sharks’ decline, although some scientists were critical of that idea. Others thought the disappearance was directly caused by the killer whales. Perhaps they were killing all of the sharks?“Any time you see large population declines in local areas, it’s cause for conservation concern,” says Heather Bowlby, a shark expert with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “In a place where animals used to be seen very regularly, and suddenly they’re not there anymore, some were concerned that they all died.”Now, though, scientists know a bit more about what happened. In a recent paper, Bowlby and her colleagues argue that the sharks’ disappearance was caused by the killer whales. But the sharks aren’t dead. They just moved. Across South Africa, the scientists found, the white-shark population has undergone a pronounced eastward shift.To Jewell, who wasn’t involved in the research, this makes sense. “We know that predators have a huge influence on the movement and habitat use of their prey, so this isn’t really surprising,” she says. “The issue is that lots of people weren’t used to thinking of great white sharks as prey.”[Read: Why so many sharks have bird feathers in their bellies]Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South African National Parks and a co-author of the study, says researchers cracked the mystery after reports of white-shark sightings started flowing in from sites farther east y. “As False Bay and Gansbaai had major declines, other places reported huge increases in white-shark populations,” she says. “Too rapid to be related to reproduction, since they don’t reproduce that fast.”“It had to be redistribution,” she says, adding: “The white sharks moved east.” Places like Algoa Bay had seen great white sharks before, but not anywhere near this many.In the white sharks’ absence, South Africa’s west coast is changing. New species like bronze whalers and seven-gill sharks have moved into False Bay. For the tour operators who ran shark dives in the area, however, the shift has been difficult. Some have survived by switching to offering kelp-forest dives—driven in part by the popularity of the documentary My Octopus Teacher. Many, though, have gone under.But what of the great white sharks’ new home farther east? No one quite knows how these regions are adapting to a sudden influx of apex predators, but scientists expect some significant ecological changes. They’re also warning of the potential for more shark bites, because people living in the white sharks’ new homes are not as used to shark-human interactions.We may never know exactly how many white sharks died in killer-whale attacks. The prized and presumably tasty livers targeted by the killer whales help white sharks float, which means many dead white sharks may have sunk uncounted. Overall, though, Kock is glad to see the mystery solved.“This has been very worrying for me, and it was good to see evidence that they hadn’t all died,” she says. “But it’s still unbelievable to me that I can go to [False Bay’s] Seal Island and not see any white sharks. It’s something I never expected, and I miss them a lot.”
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A Dark and Paranoid American Fable
This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.Welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained. Today’s special guest is our staff writer Ross Andersen. Ross has written about a prospective woolly-mammoth reserve in Siberia, a grisly slaughter at the National Zoo, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s ambition to build a superintelligence. He is working on a book about the quest to find intelligent life beyond Earth.Ross is dreaming big dreams for the Lakers this season, obsessing over Don DeLillo, and taking loved ones to an immersive museum exhibition that leaves them feeling wobbly but grateful.First, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic: Cover story: The patriot The 22 most exciting films to watch this season Millennials have lost their grip on fashion. The Culture Survey: Ross AndersenThe upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: The NBA season is starting, and for the first time in years, my Lakers have an intelligently constructed roster. (Rob Pelinka, all is forgiven.) In the spirit of preseason expansiveness, I will note that this year, the Lakers could possibly—an elastic word!—notch their 18th NBA championship, passing the Celtics, who also have 17. There is even some chance they could do it by beating the Celtics themselves in the finals. As the winter wears on, timelines will branch, and many hoped-for futures will fall away. But so long as that one is alive, I’ll be locked in. [Related: It had to be the Lakers (From 2020)]Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I’ve been on a Don DeLillo kick, primarily for the line-to-line style. I tore through The Names and am now reading Underworld, but between them I read Libra, my favorite book of his so far. It’s a fictionalization of the Kennedy assassination. DeLillo’s novel alleges a conspiracy, but does so largely within the established facts of the Warren Commission’s report. The result is a dark, paranoid American fable that reads so real, I’m making it my nonfiction pick, too. [Related: Don DeLillo on the anniversary of Apollo and Earthrise]A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: Quiet: Air’s “Alone in Kyoto,” especially on a train. Loud: Rihanna’s sludgy, wall-of-sound cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” The original was already great, but I haven’t returned to it since hearing her version.A cultural product I loved as a teenager and still love, and something I loved but now dislike: I fell hard for R&B during its ’90s golden age. At one point, the intro to my voicemail was D’Angelo’s “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.” No regrets. Almost all of it still bangs, but some of the genre’s more saccharine songs are getting a skip from me now. Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” is safe. Most Boyz II Men songs aren’t, except for the one with Mariah.An author I will read anything by: Lauren Groff. As a result of some bad decisions, I once had to spend nine hours at the Denver airport. I coped by bingeing Fates and Furies, Groff’s much-copied dueling-perspective take on marriage. I liked that book a lot, but it was her fourth novel, Matrix, that really set the hook. It takes place in a 12th-century convent in England that she reimagines in great sensory detail—to have read this book is to remember the chill of the convent’s stone walls. Groff always has at least one eye on the natural world, and I love that she’s unafraid to write in a spiritual key. It puts her books into larger, more ancient conversations than your average work of Brooklyn autofiction. [Related: The writer who saw all of this coming]The last debate I had about culture: I’ve been making a regular, if somewhat half-hearted, case that Lewis Strauss, Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Oppenheimer, is misunderstood. [Related: Oppenheimer’s cry of despair in The Atlantic]Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: My son and I just saw a rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Alamo Drafthouse. It was nominally for research; I’m writing a nonfiction book about a team of scientists who are trying to make first contact. But he and I also have history with this movie. A few years ago, we saw a 70-mm print on the IMAX screen at the Smithsonian. The late Douglas Trumbull, who did many of the special effects, gave introductory remarks. This viewing couldn’t match that, but the images still cast a spell. There was a small collective gasp among the audience when the screen filled up with the famous tracking shot of Dave, the red-suited astronaut, walking through a shimmering octagonal corridor toward the pod-bay doors and the deeper human future.A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: Rilke: “Spring has come again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”A painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art that I cherish: As part of a recent career retrospective, the artist Laurie Anderson painted an entire room at the Hirshhorn Museum, here in Washington, D.C., with a base layer of slick black. She then used chalky white paint to cover its floor and walls with illustrations and quotes, many of them existential in one way or another. When it first opened, I went with my daughter, and we were both taken aback by its forcefulness. No matter where you looked, you couldn’t escape Anderson’s thoughts. A lot of what gets marketed as immersive art these days is a warm bath—a swirly Van Gogh light show set to tinkly music. Anderson’s room is confronting. I’ve taken several people to it since, and they’ve all come out wobbly, but grateful.A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: Our October cover story, “Jenisha From Kentucky.” Among its other virtues, it’s a brilliant detective tale. The writer, Jenisha Watts, conducts a thorough and painful excavation of her childhood. She uncovers family secrets and holds them up to the light. She reimagines her past, present, and future selves. The language is beautiful and direct. It’s perfect for a Sunday morning. [Related: What it’s like to tell the world your deepest secrets]The Week Ahead Land of Milk and Honey, a novel by C. Pam Zhang about a chef who escapes a dystopian smog by taking a mysterious job on a mountaintop in Italy (on sale Tuesday) The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved tale, directed by Wes Anderson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (streaming on Netflix this Wednesday) Season 4 of Lego Masters, where enthusiasts compete in various building challenges, (premieres Thursday on Fox) Essay Richard Kalvar / Magnum Dogs Need Understanding, Not DominanceBy Kelly Conaboy In 2022, the researchers Lauren Brubaker and Monique Udell recruited 48 parents and their children for a study on the behavioral effects of different parenting styles. The adult subjects were given a survey about their expectations for their children, and how they typically respond to their needs; the children were tested to determine their attachment style, sociability, and problem-solving skills. I should probably mention that the children involved were dogs. The dogs who were cared for by owners with an “authoritative” style, meaning one where high expectations matched a high responsiveness toward their dog’s needs, were secure, highly social, and more successful at problem-solving … The language might sound familiar to those acquainted with the concept of “gentle parenting,” a philosophy that’s become popular in recent years. Tenets of gentle parenting, including a focus on empathy in parent-child interactions, and avoiding punishment in favor of helping the child understand the reasons behind their actions and emotions, have been linked to positive outcomes for kids. And although children are obviously very different from dogs, a parallel shift in approach has been happening in humans’ relationships with their canine kids. Read the full article.More in Culture Russell Brand wasn’t an anomaly. Tolstoy was wrong about happy families. Nixon between the lines What Emily Dickinson left behind The overlooked danger that’s massacring wildlife ​​The undoing of a great American band Some good news about your malaise Parent diplomacy is overwhelming teachers. A high-water mark in American mass culture Viewfinder: Confronting the unbelievable Poem: “Distressed Haiku” Poem: “All Our Pretty Sons” Catch Up on The Atlantic Anne Applebaum: The American face of authoritarian propaganda Airlines are just banks now. The tragedy of Google Search Photo Album French tightrope walker Nathan Paulin walks on a wire during a performance of "Les Traceurs Theatre de Chaillot au Musee d'Orsay" by Rachid Ouramdane, as part of the European Heritage Days and the Cultural Olympiad in Paris, on September 16, 2023. (Julien De Rosa / AFP / Getty) A reenactment of a 17th-century civil war in England, a cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, and more in our editor’s selection of the week’s best photos.Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.Explore all of our newsletters.
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Hail, Caesar!—And Farewell
Caesars are back, big caesars and little caesars, in big countries and little countries, in advanced nations and developing nations. The world seems to be full of self-proclaimed strongmen strutting their stuff, or waiting in the wings and plotting a comeback after a humiliating fall. And we thought it couldn’t happen here. How can these uncouth figures with their funny hair, their rude manners, and their bad jokes take such a hold on the popular imagination? How can anyone bear to listen to their endless resentful rants? Surely, they can’t get away with this? People will see through them before it’s too late.But no. Here they are again, and in numbers. Look who’s leading in Argentina’s presidential race: Javier Milei, a former tantric-sex coach with a wild mop of dark hair and Elvis-impersonator sideburns, known as El Peluca (“The Wig”), who stumps the stage to the backing of a hard-rock group. El Peluca promotes monetarism, free love, and the sale of human organs; claims that climate change is a hoax; and wants to burn down the central bank and close the ministry of education—in short, a ragbag of eye-catchers, because eye-catching is what the would-be caesar is all about.The little caesars of today seem to get along quite nicely without any systematic ideology worth the name. For what consistent line have Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and even Britain’s Boris Johnson been operating on, beyond a shouty sort of nationalism and a carefully advertised hostility to immigrants—a mixture familiar from ancient times? The great Pericles himself instituted a law barring anyone not of Athenian parentage from claiming citizenship (his own, foreign-born mistress fell foul of the law).[From the September 2016 issue: Why are some conservative thinkers falling for Trump?]Yet why should this surprise us? Dictators of one sort or another have been an ever-lurking threat throughout history. They interrupted and betrayed the constitutional traditions of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic: Peisistratos, Critias, and the Thirty Tyrants in Athens; Sulla, Marius, and Julius Caesar in Rome. As early as the time of Thucydides and Plato, the word tyrannos had mutated from a neutral term for “king” into our modern pejorative sense of “tyrant.” Absolutist rulers broke up the city-states of medieval Germany and Italy.Nice-minded people may shy away from lumping together the excesses of a petty charlatan with the horrific deeds of a mass murderer. How can there be any comparison between a Johnson and a Putin? But only a dullard could fail to notice the painful similarities in their methods: the unabashed mendacity; the contempt for law, parliaments, and due process; and, above all, the relentless propaganda, inflaming old resentments and provoking new ones. “Propaganda, propaganda, now it all depends on propaganda,” Adolf Hitler declared at a tense moment during the Beer Hall Putsch. The putsch failed. But the lesson was learned, and not just by Hitler.Big caesars may come to power by outright lawless violence or by more or less legitimate means, as Louis-Napoléon, Benito Mussolini, and even Hitler did, and then consolidate their dictatorship in a so-called self-coup or autogolpe. Little caesars go only as far as they need to within a reassuring constitutional framework, which of course they cynically abuse by fixing elections, neutering parliament, and manipulating the courts. “Tinpot dictators” says it nicely. Yes, caesars occupy a broad spectrum, but the caesarist style is always much the same.It is an uncomfortable thought that caesars may pop up in any country and under all sorts of economic and political conditions. Which is why so many of us prefer not to think it. We would rather look back on any such experience as an unlucky blip that left scarcely a scratch on the body politic, mere “kerfuffle,” as Boris Johnson notoriously brushed aside Trump’s impeachment and acquittal on charges of inciting insurrection against his own government.But the damage is real enough. In Britain, the tendency on the political right is to concede, at most, that Johnson was too chaotic to be prime minister, too much of a joker to get anything much done. But it was largely Johnson’s personal achievement to smash the U.K.’s legal and political ties with Europe and cripple its continental trade. Less noticed are Johnson’s Five Acts, which came into force last year: restricting the right to judicial review; dissuading the poor from voting by requiring ID at polling stations (which even Johnson’s ally Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg described as a form of “gerrymandering”); bringing the Electoral Commission under the direct control of the government; granting the prime minister the unrestricted right to dissolve Parliament; giving the police the right to ban “noisy” protests; and, of course, stringent (but so far wholly ineffective) immigration controls. These measures bear a strong family resemblance to the repressive Six Acts of Lord Liverpool’s government in 1819, and are likely to be remembered with equal loathing.[Read: Ancient Rome’s collapse is written into Arctic ice]Those who continue to indulge the memory of Johnson as an overpromoted but endearing clown who kept us amused for a while should also recall his power-grabbing and obnoxious style of government. He purged the party of 21 senior members of Parliament, including two ex-chancellors of the exchequer. He sacked some half a dozen top civil servants in defiance of constitutional tradition. He expanded the Downing Street apparat from a few dozen to more than 100 functionaries. He diluted the ministerial code, so that offenders might escape with a reprimand instead of automatic dismissal, and then proceeded to let off or ignore a string of gropers and chiselers. And he repeatedly lied to Parliament about Partygate, which forced him to slink out of office in a humiliating exit never before experienced by a British prime minister.Last year in the U.K., the Year of the Three Prime Ministers, may not have been as bloody as A.D. 69 in ancient Rome, the Year of the Four Emperors (two of them were murdered and a third topped himself). But it was a uniquely excruciating moment in our modern political history, when chaos collapsed into farce, and at ruinous expense to the nation, while the world looked on in amazement and contempt.And how has America fared? There was nothing original about Trump’s agenda. Protectionism, hostility to foreign entanglements, persecution of immigrants (the title of Most Hated Immigrants passing over the years from the Italians to the Irish to the Jews, to the Chinese, to the Japanese, to the Mexicans)—all of this has been the staple fare of the American right since the 19th century. What is original about Trump, as is true of all caesars and would-be caesars, is the technique: the tweets, the rallies, the bullying, the nicknames, the floodlights, the slogans. A caesar creates his own visual culture and basks in it. Emperor Augustus had the text of his boastful brief autobiography, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, cast in bronze or carved in stone and then erected in public spaces all across the empire; today you can still see surviving fragments of this huge exercise in global PR. Ever since, the caesar has been a pioneer in the use of new media, including the inventions of printing and photography, the development of advertising, later cinema, radio, and television, and finally—perhaps most potent of all—social media, which gives him unrivaled direct access to every voter. Trump said quite frankly, “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.”[Helen Lewis: Here lies Boris Johnson]The caesar’s delight in the visual image is no accident. He thrives in the moment; he is the enemy of long-winded statutes and codes of law and practice, and is the king of the photo opportunity. He is an endless source of stunts, gestures, masquerades: He may appear in the guise of a Greek god or a Roman emperor, or a construction worker or a fighter pilot, never resting in his efforts to convince the public that life is simply more vibrant, more fun when he is around. His verbal messages are deliberately simple, aimed at the lowest common denominator in his audience (a method extolled ad nauseam by the author of Mein Kampf). These communications also necessarily involve a good deal of distortion of the truth. Caesars are shameless liars. After two millennia, scholars have cottoned on to the fact that Julius Caesar embellished or invented large parts of his history of the Gallic Wars. Napoleon’s communiqués were so overblown that “to lie like a bulletin” became a catchphrase.Caesars know how to intimidate as well as charm, to frighten and shock, often by the use of foul language. Remember how Johnson scuppered Theresa May’s deal with the European Union by repeatedly denouncing it as “polishing a turd.” When, in the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell was attacked by judges for his lawless actions, he reportedly vilified them for invoking “Magna Farta,” and called the Petition of Right “the Petition of Shite.”Only a caesar can get things moving by making the circumstances abnormal. Otherwise, the new “national conservatism”—or the less pleasant inflections that its name brings to mind—is likely to remain the niche pursuit of a disgruntled minority. Yet the one thing that the movement’s Statement of Principles does not mention is leadership, because its promoters know that this is an indecent subject. The yearning for a strongman cannot be openly admitted. But they can’t do without him.[Rory Stewart: What to do when your political party loses its mind]Only a caesar has the chutzpah to break the rules, and to break open the treasury, as Julius Caesar did to grab the gold and silver needed to prosecute his war against Pompey, and Trump did under his emergency decree 9844 to grab the billions of dollars to build his Mexican wall, which Congress had denied him. By contrast, the idea that there is some hidden continuity between the conservatism of, say, Margaret Thatcher and today’s new right is fantasy. Thatcher was bossy and overbearing, and she made quite a few bad mistakes (her attempt to impose a poll tax, for one), but she was a stickler for the rules—as well as being a qualified lawyer, not a profession followed by most caesars—and she was deeply distressed when she was thought to have broken the code, as, for example, over the Westland Affair.Political analysts are rather reluctant to consider the phenomenon of caesarism. They prefer to think up new abstractions, or revive old ones, to describe the political tendencies of our day: authoritarian populism, white nationalism, illiberal democracy, neofascism. These terms may convey the broad outline of what we see around us, but not the motive force: We get a good idea of what the cart looks like, but where’s the bloody horse? Without the spark of a caesar, the rumbling discontents are unlikely to catch fire. Caesarism isn’t just a cute trope; it’s an ever-recurring danger. The crucial thing is to spot the incoming caesar before he crosses the Rubicon—and above all, to stop him from doing the comeback-kid act. Nobody said it was easy.But it can be done. This is an age of caesar-toppling, too. In the past three years, a U.S. president has been impeached twice, before and after being thrown out by the voters, and a British prime minister has been forced to resign by mass defections among his own ministers and then forced to leave the House of Commons by the Privileges Committee. The constitutional checks and balances worked. Accountability kicked in. We must never fall into the complacency of assuming that we have reached some liberal-democratic nirvana. History goes on, and it is still ours to make and remake. If applied with a little persistence, the rules can always break the rule-breakers in the end.
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Putin Signals That Anti-Semitism Is Fair Game
His recent rhetoric targeting Jews suggests that his grip on power may be loosening.
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Inside the Fight to Save the Federal Government
Trump and his allies have promised a war on the civil service. A coalition of former bureaucrats is gearing up.
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I Was Wrong About the Death of the Book
And Umberto Eco was right.
The New Musk Biography Is a Distraction
This past December, Elon Musk’s extended family gathered for Christmas. As was their tradition, they pondered a question of the year, which seemed strategically designed for Elon to answer: “What regrets do you have?”By that point in 2022, Musk had personally intervened in Russia’s war by controlling Ukraine’s internet access; had failed to tell his on-and-off girlfriend and co-parent Grimes that he had also fathered twins with one of his employees, and had been forced by a judge to follow through on a $44 billion purchase of Twitter; then fired most of its staff and alienated most of its advertisers. His main regret, he told his family, according to an account in Walter Isaacson’s new biography, Elon Musk, “is how often I stab myself in the thigh with a fork, how often I shoot my own feet and stab myself in the eye.”In Isaacson’s study of the world’s richest man, the reader is consistently reminded that Musk is powerless over his own impulses. Musk cannot control his desperate need to stir up drama and urgency when things are going well, Isaacson explains. He fails to show any kind of remorse for the multiple instances of brutally insulting his subordinates or lovers. He gets stuck in what Grimes has dubbed “demon mode”—an anger-induced unleashing of insults and demands, during which he resembles his father Errol, whom Isaacson describes as emotionally abusive.To report the book, Isaacson shadowed Musk for two years, answering his late-night text messages, accompanying him to Twitter’s office post-acquisition, attending his meetings and intimate family moments, watching him berate people. Reading the book is like hearing what Musk’s many accomplishments and scandals would sound like from the perspective of his therapist, if he ever sought one out (rather than do that, he prefers to “take the pain,” he says—though he has diagnosed himself at various moments as having Asperger’s syndrome or bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder).Choosing to use this access mostly for pop psychology may appeal to an American audience that loves a good antihero, but it’s a missed opportunity. Unlike the subjects of most of Isaacson’s other big biographies, including Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, Musk is still alive, his influence still growing. We don’t need to understand how he thinks and feels as much as we need to understand how he managed to amass so much power, and the broad societal impact of his choices—in short, how thoroughly this mercurial leader of six companies has become an architect of our future.What does it mean that Musk can adjust a country’s internet access during a war? (The book only concludes that it makes him uncomfortable.) How should we feel about the fact that the man putting self-driving cars on our roads tells staff that most safety and legal requirements are “wrong and dumb”? How will Musk’s many business interests eventually, inevitably conflict? (At one point, Musk—a self-described champion of free speech—concedes that Twitter will have to be careful about how it moderates China-related content, because pissing off the government could threaten Tesla’s sales there. Isaacson doesn’t press further.)The cover of Elon Musk shows Musk’s face in high contrast staring straight, with hands folded as if in prayer, evoking a Great Man of History and a visual echo of the Jobs volume. Isaacson’s central question seems to be whether Musk could have achieved such greatness if he were less cruel and more humane. But this is no time for a retrospective.[Read: Demon mode activated ]As readers of the book are asked to reflect on the drama of Musk’s past romantic dalliances, he is meeting with heads of state and negotiating behind closed doors. Last Monday, Musk convened with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; on Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister publicly called him the “unofficial president” of the United States. Also, Neuralink, Musk’s brain-implant start-up—mostly discussed in the book as the employer of one of the mothers of Musk's 11 known children—was given approval from an independent review board to begin recruiting participants for human trials. The book does have a few admiring pages on Neuralink’s technology, but doesn’t address a 2022 Reuters report that the company had killed an estimated 1,500 experimented-on animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs, and monkeys, since 2018. (Musk has said that the monkeys chosen for the experiments were already close to death; a gruesome Wired story published Wednesday reported otherwise.)Isaacson seems to expect major further innovation from Musk—who is already sending civilians into space, running an influential social network, shaping the future of artificial-intelligence development, and reviving the electric-car market. How these developments might come about and what they will mean for humanity seems far more important to probe than Isaacson’s preferred focus on explaining Musk’s abusive, erratic, impetuous behavior.In 2018, Musk called the man who rescued children in Thailand’s caves a “pedo guy,” which led to a defamation suit—a well-known story. A few weeks later, he claimed that he had “funding secured” to take Tesla private at $420 a share, attracting the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Isaacson covers these events by diagnosing Musk as unstable during that period and, according to his brother, still getting over his tumultuous breakup with the actor Amber Heard. (Ah, the toxic-woman excuse.) He was also, according to his lawyer Alex Spiro, “an impulsive kid with a terrible Twitter habit.” Isaacson calls that assessment “true”—one of the many times he compares Musk, now 52, to a child in the book.The people whose perspectives Isaacson seems to draw on most in the book are those whom Musk arranged for him to talk with. So the book’s biggest reveal may be the extent to which his loved ones and confidants distrust his ability to be calm and rational, and feel the need to work around him. A close friend, Antonio Gracias, once locked Musk’s phone in a hotel safe to keep him from tweeting; in the middle of the night, Musk got hotel security to open it.All of this seems reminiscent of the ways Donald Trump’s inner circle executed his whims, justifying his behavior and managing their relationship with him, lest they be cut out from the action. Every one of Trump’s precedent-defying decisions during his presidency was picked apart by the media: What were his motivations? Is there a strategy here? Is he mentally fit to serve? Does he really mean what he’s tweeting? The simplest answer was often the correct one: The last person he talked to (or saw on Fox News) made him angry.[Read: What Russia got by scaring Elon Musk]Musk is no Trump fan, according to Isaacson. But he’s the media’s new main character, just as capable of getting triggered and sparking shock waves through a tweet. That’s partially why Isaacson’s presentation of the World’s Most Powerful Victim is not all that revelatory for those who are paying attention: Musk exposes what he’s thinking at all hours of the day and night to his 157.6 million followers.In Isaacson’s introduction to Elon Musk, he explains that the man is “not hardwired to have empathy.” Musk’s role as a visionary with a messianic passion seems to excuse this lack. The thinking goes like this: All of his demands for people to come solve a problem right now or you’re fired are bringing us one step closer to Mars travel, or the end of our dependence on oil, or the preservation of human consciousness itself. His comfort with skirting the law and cutting corners in product development also serves a higher purpose: Musk believes, and preaches in a mantra to employees at all of his companies, that “the only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”By presenting Musk’s mindset as fully formed and his behavior as unalterable, Isaacson’s book doesn’t give us many tools for the future—besides, perhaps, being able to rank the next Musk blowup against a now well-documented history of such incidents. Instead of narrowing our critical lens to Musk’s brain, we need to widen it, in order to understand the consequences of his influence. Only then can we challenge him to do right by his power.
The House Chaos Continues
Watch the full episode of Washington Week With The Atlantic, September 22, 2023
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A New Dinosaur Discovery Challenges ‘Everything We Think We Know’
If dinosaurs loved the heat, why are their footprints all over Alaska?
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When Kitchen Appliances Feel Stuck in Time
A reading list on our relationship with our gadgets
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Burning My Mother
The trains never end. I see them go by from my bedroom window. Freight trains of varying lengths. I hadn’t given enough consideration to the noise when I rented in suburban Chicago a place directly behind the train tracks. On some level, I must have liked the idea of living in a house charged by the feeling that time was slipping away—the hours of my life marked by the passing of each train, gone forever. But of course, the reality is different. The trains are loud; they arrive too often. When I’m sleeping, they aren’t just behind the building; they snap closer and closer, they ride through the walls, they crash into my chest.And inevitably I wake up thinking of my dead mother. I miss her terribly, and slap my childhood awake. I grew up in India, in Khammam, a town full of unhappy memories. We lived in a small apartment four and half hours from all the good hospitals in the state. My mother was often ill, and my parents and I frequently boarded trains to the city seeking treatment. I loved the trains. They allowed me the illusion of speed; I felt like a racehorse—soon, any moment now, our family would break into a gallop, and we’d suddenly find ourselves healthy and debt free.Years later, I sought to make that happen by moving to the United States. I took a high-interest loan and got a master’s degree in computer science so I could get a job. I’d pay our bills, I’d sort out my mother’s health, and then I’d go after things like world hunger and climate change. Like many immigrants, I swapped home for the ability to send money home. I lost what felt like my entire self.[Colin Campbell: What losing my two children taught me about grief]Evenings after work, I’d stand on the banks of Lake Michigan and wish I could drown in those waters. I couldn’t leave America, I had loans to pay, and so I began writing stories—to stave off despair, to keep my country next to me. Often gloomy and homesick, I’d call my mother, and she’d regale me with stories about what I did as a child. Remember the day you fell down from the terrace and broke nothing, not a single scar on your body? Remember the summer you bit into the first mango of the season and let out a delightful squeal? Remember when you got lost in the train station? I’d hang up the phone, restored. It was as if my mother had endless memories of me—but the truth was that I had left home, and all she had were these little flashes of time in which I appeared.One day, a man called me, sobbing. A stranger from a strange number. He didn’t say anything, and his howling moved farther away, until a family friend came onto the line and gave me the news. Only then did I understand that the stranger had been my father, and that my mother was dead.She was only 55. Despite her health issues, I had never believed she was in any immediate danger of dying. She’d called me just the day before, and I hadn’t bothered picking up.A while back, I’d quit my job to get an M.F.A. in creative writing. My parents encouraged me to do so, though it meant I couldn’t send money home anymore. My mother began working as a physician assistant in a local hospital. The job broke her physically: She wasn’t given a chair to sit on, and she had been working 12-hour shifts for almost 30 days without a break when her heart collapsed. When I hung up the phone, I was convinced that I had killed her.I sat in front of my computer and searched for flights. The cheapest one for that night was about $4,000. I refreshed the page, entering different airport codes to see if I could bring the price down. My eyes kept watering. It was as if I was driving through a torrential downpour, holding the wheel firm, trying to see the road. Eventually, my M.F.A. program offered me some money from a fund for student emergencies, and I got the next flight home.Twenty-four hours of looking at the clock. At immigration, a friendly officer suggested that I say hello to my mother on his behalf. I walked past reuniting families, jostling drivers, honking cars, and I had the keen sense that my country was gone too—it had stopped being mine the minute it failed to keep my mother alive. I reached my hometown and found that I had a sudden hatred for its streets.The closer I got to our apartment, the more I began to suspect that my mother’s death was all a misunderstanding, that she wasn’t really dead, that she would wake up when I arrived. I negotiated with God, an entity I’d never bothered with, and offered up parts of my life in exchange for time with my mother: If I gave up writing, would he let her come back for five minutes?Outside the apartment was a crowd. People I hadn’t seen in years, relatives, acquaintances, strangers. I couldn’t bear to talk to anyone. My father sat in a plastic chair, forlorn. Someone pushed me in front of a long rectangular box. Sleeping in the glass ice box, my mother. I touched her cold hand. I whispered hello.Flowers, a motley arrangement of marigolds and gerberas, lay on her chest. The lid of the box had been kept ajar so that people could grasp her hand as they wept, and moisture from the warming glass lined her cheeks. Her lips were slightly parted, and her eyes were half-open, unfocused.She was dead, I could see that. And yet, I had trouble believing it. I gazed at her eyes, waiting for her to respond. She seemed like she’d hang around for a bit, circle the air, and generally be available to me in ways God hadn’t made known to mankind. I was afraid. I knew I’d have to destroy that part of myself, my capacity for alternative reality, before I became the mentally ill person on the street corner talking to himself. Illustration by Tarini Sharma My parents and I were not religious people, but when the crowd decided that I, as my mother’s only child, should be the one to cremate her, I agreed immediately because I’d be responsible for setting fire to her body. By annihilating her, I’d establish the proof that I had murdered her, and also finally believe that she was dead, that she’d never come back. It’d be good for me.I marched to the cemetery in a loincloth, barefoot, carrying a pot of burning embers. At the burial ground, I shooed dogs that came to lick my mother and drenched myself under a tap, as the priest ordered. Thrice, he made me shout amma in my mother’s ears, so that she’d know I was performing her last rites. Each time, I watched her body for a flicker, a movement. Not long after that, I set the fire.Later, I’d collect her ashes in an urn, and take a dip, as the custom demanded, in the local river full of feces and mortal remains, and I’d get severely sick, and all of this was waiting for me, but as I watched the flames going through my mother, bones cracking in the heat, all I could think of was that now she wouldn’t have her body if she tried to come back. I needed to find her a new form.The groundskeeper let the fire die out before my mother had fully turned to ash—maybe because kerosene was expensive, or because it was dengue season and there were other bodies waiting their turn, or because he deemed she’d burned enough. But there were half-burned shin bones, and skin flaps that still looked pink. I tried not to focus on the pink. Cleaning up the site for the next cremation, I drew her remains together with a broom. All that was left, I swept into the grass.[Read: There are no ‘five stages’ of grief]This shitty place, I raged under my breath, has chained me to it forever. I could never escape, because a part of my mother now lay in the earth. I’d always be drawn by the magical thinking that my mother continues to exist there in another life form, waiting for me to find her. A plant with a startling complexion, a bird that lands on my shoulder, a wind that caresses my hair, I’d settle for anything. Horseshit.When my grandfather died a few years later, I relived my mother’s death. The same flight home, the same befuddled arrival, the same burial ground. My eyes kept seeking the grass as though my mother might spring out at any moment. As though she had been gone long enough and it was now time.It has been more than three years since my mother died. More than 1,400 days since I heard her laughter. After the funeral, I took her phone back with me to the States. It was an old iPhone, originally mine, the first phone I had purchased after getting a job, and that I had later passed on to her. My mother had the phone for about two years, and she had figured out how to text. Scrolling through it, I saw that I hadn’t bothered to reply to her sometimes. She’d sent messages such as “I feel like talk to you nana” and “If possible give me ring.” Another note said, “Take care and be happy The things will come Automatically According to you All the best.” On my birthday, I reread the text she had sent me once: “Happy birthday to nana.” The message was accompanied by a cheese emoji, which she must have taken to be cake.When I finished my thesis, six months after she died, I texted her a picture of the first page and felt like a fool. Once, I called myself from her phone and saw the word Mom light up. My jaw shook and shook, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I began to have nightmares about losing the phone. This lasted a while; then I tossed the phone in a drawer.Friends suggest therapy, grief counseling. Buddhist texts talk about impermanence and acceptance, about not being too attached. Family tells me to move on: “That’s what your mother would want.” But who said I was looking for help?Only in dreams do I come close to understanding what it is I want. In the best one, I’m in a Himalayan village that resembles my hometown. The village is pure light and dust, mountains far and near. I’m supposed to catch a bus to the city where I have a job, bills to pay. As I walk, the entire town tells me to hurry. Stop looking at the herd of goats passing by; stop dawdling over the bend in the curve, the voices shout. No time! I’m scanning the surroundings, but there’s nothing—no shops, no signs, no vehicles, only mountains and mountains. But I keep looking, because how can there be nothing? My mom’s here somewhere.My mother was not the type to leave voicemails. Once, not realizing she was being recorded, she said to my father, a note of despair in her voice, “Ayyo, I missed him again.” It’s one of my favorite things in the world. Playing it on loop, I wonder if grief is love that went unseen. Love dwarfed by a different kind of love that existed all along.Before her death, I’d seen myself as a shy, affectionate man. Now I know this to be false. Not affectionate enough, not loving enough.Past midnight, a train arrives with force, and the building quivers. Leaning against the window, I watch it go. I wonder if this is how I will love her now, waving goodbye all my life.
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The Glorious Exuberance of Sha’Carri Richardson’s Hair
Right before Sha’Carri Richardson smoked the field in the 100-meter final at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in July, the 23-year-old star sprinter sent a thrilling message to every Black woman who’s ever been shamed for her hairstyle and never felt fully free to be herself.Richardson pulled off her signature bright-orange wig and threw it to the side, exposing the braids underneath. She then won the U.S. title by posting the fastest time by an American woman since 2011. After the race, Richardson boasted to reporters, “I’m not back. I’m better.”Richardson told no lies. The larger point was that, whether she’s wearing her hair unadorned or in any of a number of exuberant colors, it’s a source of distinction and even power—and a challenge to the criticism that other Black women have faced.Richardson has shown fans many different looks during her career: blue, platinum blond, red, wavy, sleek, curly. Last week, she concluded her spectacular track season with another viral hair moment—when she ran the Diamond League final without a wig or braids. “I had to pull out the natural,” she said afterward. It was appropriate punctuation to a season that also included her running the sixth-fastest time ever in the 100 meters at the Miramar Invitational and besting her elite Jamaican competitors to win the gold medal at the world championships in August.[Read: When “good hair” hurts]Her recent triumphs are quite a departure from how many people viewed Richardson two years ago, when she was disqualified from the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo for a positive marijuana test. She was suspended from competition for a month. Back then, she was a disappointment—someone critics saw as lacking humility, shirking responsibility, and wasting her ample talent. Richardson explained that she had turned to marijuana to cope with her biological mother’s death, which she had the misfortune of learning about from a reporter a few days before competing in the national track-and-field championships. But for some, that did not make her more sympathetic. Richardson tweeted: “I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year.”Richardson’s steady comeback has been one of the most compelling stories in sports—and that story has been intertwined with her insistence on presenting herself however she likes.Beyond simple personal expression, Richardson’s hair is also an engagement with history. Black women’s beauty choices have long been used to justify racism and anti-Black discrimination. An 18th-century Louisiana law required Black women to cover their hair completely in public, lest their braided and intricate hairstyles prove too irresistible to white men. It took a landmark Supreme Court case in 1976 to prohibit employers from discriminating against people who wore Afros. Twenty-four states have now passed legislation, known as the CROWN Act, to address bias against Black hairstyles, but the need for such legal protections speaks to how polarizing the subject remains. One survey earlier this year found that in the workplace, Black women are two and a half times more likely to have their hair perceived as unprofessional than their female co-workers. Black Americans’ bodies have always been policed, right down to the roots of their hair.[Read: Cutting my hair was my first revolutionary act]Richardson is the latest in a long line of prominent Black American women who have fought back against norms established and enforced by people whose natural hair texture doesn’t look like theirs. The political activist Angela Davis’s Afro became the indelible image of Black liberation. The track legend Florence Griffith Joyner’s long, glorious tresses gave the public an enduring image of unabashed freedom. Serena Williams’s and Venus Williams’s beaded braids were a reminder to little Black girls that being themselves was, and always would be, enough.Fortunately, as Richardson worked to reclaim her position as the top female American sprinter, she kept chasing glory on her own terms—which include not only a broad range of hairstyles but also voluminous eyelashes and bright acrylic nails. Her hair has come to symbolize rebirth.“I’m having so much more fun, and I want people to understand it is not just because of winning,” she told reporters recently. “I’m having fun because I’m better within my spirit, within my mind, within my community that I created for myself. That’s the happiness that you guys see. The wins are just the bonus, but it shows when you’re whole within yourself what you will attract.”Richardson’s hair speaks to the complexity of her journey, signaling joy, imagination, defiance, authenticity, and excellence—sometimes all at once.
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The Big Three’s Inevitable Collision with the UAW
The United Auto Workers’ strike against the Big Three U.S. carmakers has given rise to a lot of talk about the future of the auto industry, and the fate of autoworkers in a world of electric vehicles. Republican politicians have tried to pin the autoworkers’ grievances on the Biden administration’s proposal for an electric-vehicle mandate (a proposal yet to be adopted). Ford, GM, and Stellantis (which owns Chrysler), meanwhile, have warned that the UAW’s demands could jeopardize their future EV investments.The reality, though, is that this strike is not about the future. In an important sense, it’s a battle over the past. The UAW is looking, in effect, to win back the concessions it made in the late 2000s, which fundamentally transformed work at the Big Three, even as the companies insist that they cannot afford to return to the way things were.The UAW’s first round of concessions came during contract negotiations in 2007, when the Big Three were losing billions of dollars a year, and watching competitors gobble up market share. The union agreed to let the companies establish a two-tier wage system, which meant that starting pay for workers hired after 2007 would be significantly lower than it had been for current employees. New workers would also have less generous health benefits, and would not get defined-benefit pensions or health care as retirees.[Read: The real issue in the UAW strike]Two years later, the financial crisis and recession of 2008–09 nearly put the Big Three out of business altogether (and did force GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy), while high unemployment reduced whatever leverage the union had. So, as part of the government bailout of GM and Chrysler, the UAW agreed to further concessions designed to narrow the labor-cost gap between the Big Three and their international competitors (whose plants in the U.S. are all nonunion). The union also agreed not to strike for the next six years. Older workers were offered buyouts, enabling the companies to bring in younger (and cheaper) workers. And automatic cost-of-living wage increases were suspended.Over the 14 years that followed, the UAW won small wage increases in contract negotiations, and smoothed the path for workers hired after 2007 to reach top-tier status. Even so, the premier wage today—about $32 an hour—is worth considerably less, in real terms, than it was in 2003, while new workers begin at roughly $17 an hour (which is about the starting wage at my local Target). And, largely because older workers make up a declining share of the overall workforce at the Big Three, autoworkers’ average real hourly earnings have fallen almost 20 percent since 2008, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.The UAW wants to change all that. It’s looking for a 40 percent across-the-board pay increase over the next four years, a restoration of cost-of-living increases, and enhanced pensions and retiree health care for all autoworkers. And the union’s not stopping there: It’s also demanding that autoworkers get a 32-hour workweek (while still being paid for 40 hours). The UAW is asking, in other words, for something like a return to the pre-financial-crisis bargain, plus a little more.[Steven Greenhouse: Biden’s labor-climate dilemma]The UAW’s president, Shawn Fain, has acknowledged that these demands are “ambitious.” But tight labor markets have given unions more leverage than in the past—as evidenced by the Teamsters recently winning a 48 percent pay increase over five years for part-time workers at UPS, and the American Airlines pilots’ union gaining a more than 46 percent pay increase over four years for its members. And the UAW’s strategy for the strike—which has so far involved walkouts at only three factories, with the threat of escalating the action to other plants if no deal is reached—has so far minimized the economic costs of the dispute for its members. Still, few observers expect the union to get the automakers to return to anything like the old status quo, particularly when it comes to pensions and retiree benefits. That’s because—despite a recent return to profitability—the past decade has been dismal not only for labor at the Big Three, but also for capital.That may sound improbable. After all, Ford, Chrysler, and GM now have much lower labor costs, thanks to a combination of downsizing, their greater reliance on entry-level workers, and automation. The gap between the Big Three’s hourly-wage costs and those of their nonunion rivals, such as Toyota and Honda, has narrowed dramatically. (Estimates suggest that the discrepancy now stands at about $9 to $12 an hour, largely because of the cost of paying for retirees.) And the automakers have made hefty profits over the past decade: Ford posted a 34 percent increase since the last round of contract talks, in 2019; GM realized a 50 percent jump over the same period (comparable figures for Chrysler are hard to come by, because it’s a single company within the Stellantis conglomerate, which also includes Jeep and Dodge). The Big Three have also spent billions on share buybacks and dividends.Those profits, though, have not translated into any real benefits for shareholders. Even with the buybacks, the annual return on GM’s shares since 2013, including dividends, has been just 1.9 percent, while Ford’s has been just 1.5 percent. (Stellantis stock has done better, though, again, Chrysler’s impact on that is hard to determine.) The S&P 500, by contrast, has risen by an average of more than 10 percent a year over that period, and just buying a 10-year government bond would have given you a better return than investing in Ford or GM stock.[James Surowiecki: A strike scripted by Netflix]Upper management at the Big Three has done very well over this period, as the UAW regularly points out. GM’s CEO got a salary package last year valued at nearly $29 million; Ford’s CEO got one worth almost $21 million. As the UAW’s Fain put it during a Facebook appearance in August, “While Big Three execs have used those extreme profits to pump up their pay, our members have fallen further and further behind.” This seems unlikely to be a convincing argument to shareholders who have seen their investments in GM and Ford go almost nowhere.Stagnant stock prices are not the fault of workers; nor is it the UAW’s job to worry about shareholder interests. So the union is right to be using this moment when it has maximum leverage to try to get all it can. (That’s especially true given that no one knows what the transition to electric vehicles will mean for the UAW, whose master agreement with the Big Three does not cover their battery-cell factories.)Arguably, the union has the easier message to sell to the public, though it will probably need more than that to move the automakers. A good compromise is one that leaves both sides unhappy, runs the maxim, but the trouble here is that both sides are already unhappy. That’s why finding a compromise could take longer, and inflict more economic pain, than anyone wants.
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How Corporate Jargon Can Obscure Reality
Buzzwords are ways to make the banal sound thrilling, but they can also gloss over real issues such as layoffs.
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Autumnal Tints
“A great many, who have spent their lives in cities, and have never chanced to come into the country at this season, have never seen this, the flower, or rather the ripe fruit, of the year.”
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