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The Atlantic
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The Atlantic
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Saturday Night Live’s Confusing Celebration of Jeff Bezos
Satire is difficult in the Trump era. The president himself can be a tough target to exaggerate, given his outsized personality and the total media obsession with all of his mannerisms, which is why it’s unsurprising that Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump has barely appeared on Saturday Night Live this season. In his absence (which might also be due to Baldwin’s current trouble with the law), the show has cast around for other topical targets, some more obvious than others. Last night’s episode led with SNL’s most frequent villain of late: Fox News. But a slightly more dispiriting follow-up identified a curious hero for the show’s anti-Trump bent: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.The Fox News sketch was a repeat of a favorite from two weeks prior, a parody of The Ingraham Angle with Kate McKinnon as Laura Ingraham and Cecily Strong as Jeanine Pirro, the sonorous host of Justice With Judge Jeanine. The pair ran through some of the week’s news—hysteria about midterm election voter fraud, the California wildfires, and an interview with Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (Leslie Jones) about her potential challenge to Nancy Pelosi.“Our heroic president is under constant attack from rain,” Ingraham deadpanned, defending Trump’s no-show appearances at various public events in the last week, before digging into a list what she called Feel Facts, “which aren’t technically facts but just feel true.” Among the offerings there: “Blackface is a compliment,” or, “Doesn’t it feel more true that all Hispanics voted twice?” “Pulitzer Prize–eligible” commentator Pirro then arrived to contribute panic about overvoting in Georgia.SNL’s pointed portrayal of Fox News’s slavish devotion to the Trump White House has been its most forceful political humor of late, a consistently funny new angle on a presidency that can be hard to parody. Otherwise, its takes on the news have been fairly toothless. Outside of the Fox News jokes, the “political cold opens” that lead off the show have been painfully ordinary, relying on special guests like Matt Damon to gin up some attention. The show’s non-topical sketch writing has been solid, however, and a real testament to the strengths of its newer cast’s skill with character work.But last night’s host Steve Carell, a skilled comedian in his own right who did exceptional work for years on The Daily Show before becoming a movie star, was largely wasted. He played a collection of dumb dads and dinner party guests, and suffered through a monologue in which various former co-stars from The Office (Jenna Fischer, Ellie Kemper) begged him to revive the show and grab some network reboot money. (SNL’s least appealing move is the celebrity drop-in; unless it’s someone truly unusual, it’s just a way to make the audience applaud a two-minute on-camera appearance.)Perhaps the most baffling entry of the night, though, was a fake commercial in which Carell (wearing a bald cap) played Bezos, celebrating his company’s recent decision to open new headquarters in New York City and Northern Virginia. Rather than poke fun at the immediate community blowback that has faced the decision, or complaints from losing cities that Amazon chose two affluent, coastal areas after a long selection process, the sketch emphasized Bezos’s fractured relationship with Donald Trump.Yes, Trump has targeted Bezos in tweets in the past, but that’s not a particularly fresh news story, nor has Bezos been anything but diplomatic when asked about it. But Carell played Bezos as a swaggering Lex Luthor type, hinting that he only chose New York and the DC area for his headquarters because those are the two locations Trump lives in, all the better to troll him, super-villain style. He threw in various references to recent Trump bugbears, including a picture of the Super Mario World character Toad and a re-branding of Amazon’s delivery service as “Amazon Caravan.” It’s topical humor at its worst, where a joke lives and dies merely as a reference to something else in the news, despite the lack of an obvious connection. There’s plenty for SNL to make fun of in the Amazon fracas, but head writer and Weekend Update co-host Colin Jost seemed uninterested in the story, saying in his monologue, “New York basically won the lottery and we’re like, ‘Eh, but the subways might be slightly more crowded.’”To SNL, clearly, Bezos is the hero of the week, because he’s a rich guy who can stand up to Trump. The show has no qualms about mocking tech CEOs: In the Fox News sketch, Ingraham interviewed a nervous Mark Zuckerberg (played by Alex Moffat) about Facebook’s recent crises, and Moffat played him as a sort of malfunctioning robot, vainly pretending to be a regular guy. But in an effort to further mock Trump, the show made a baffling decision to present Bezos as the suave antithesis of the president. It’s a perfect example of how tough it can be to thread political humor properly these days. Not everything has to be about the president, and not everyone Trump criticizes has to be a hero.
World Edition - The Atlantic
A Deadly Tsunami of Fire
Seventy-six people are dead. At least 1,276 are missing. And more than 7 million have been confined to their homes, as a cloud of toxic, corrosive ash darkens their windows and creeps under their doors.The Camp Fire—which is still burning across some 232 square miles of Northern California—now ranks among the worst natural disasters to hit the United States this century. Only a handful of hurricanes and a “super outbreak” of tornadoes in 2011 have killed more Americans. This fire has robbed more Californians of their lives than has any earthquake since 1933.It came like an ocean of flame. At 6:33 a.m. on Thursday, November 8, someone called 911 about a fire in the woods on Camp Creek Road. (The road would lend the fire its bitterly ironic name.) When firefighters arrive 10 minutes later, they noted the parched conditions and the harsh, hot wind. “This has got the potential for a major incident,” one says over the radio.For the next 24 hours, the Camp Fire devoured roughly a football field of forest every second. By 11 a.m., it grew to 1,000 acres. By noon, its ash cloud blocked out the sun. By 1 p.m., that plume was visible from space, a gray blot smearing across the green of California. That morning, the 26,000 residents of Paradise began to evacuate. But the fire moved too fast. It consumed homes before their occupants could flee and devoured cars while they sat on the road out of town. Later, authorities revealed that in the pandemonium, bulldozers cleared torched cars off the highway so that the cars behind them could escape.Within hours, Paradise was gone. When Californians woke up on Friday, November 9th, they learned that the Camp Fire had devoured 70,000 acres of land. Now, nine days later, it flickers across some 149,000 acres, and it is only 55 percent contained.There is no disaster like a wildfire. Earthquakes can strike at any time, but they only last for a few moments. Hurricanes might rage for days, but they can be forecast ahead of time. Fire might most closely resemble a tsunami—it arrives like an ocean you can’t outrun—except that fires also choke every city downwind with poisonous billows of ash. Earlier this week, Park Williams, a professor at Columbia, recalled the first time he saw the 100-foot wall of flame that serves as a wildfire’s herald. “It looked like a skyline of buildings,” he told me. “The fire, to me—it’s like an ocean. It’s so strong that we don’t really stand a chance of doing much to it.”It has come to resemble an ocean in its scale, too. The Camp Fire’s smoky air now envelops millions of people, from the state’s desert-like south to its evergreen-crowned north. The ash fills the state’s Central Valley like water in a bathtub—with the Golden Gate as the main plug where it can all rush out.And perhaps the worst aspect here is: This will all happen again. The science on climate change and wildfires is clear—much, much clearer than on many other topics, including hurricanes. Scientists know that scorching-hot summers dry out the needles and twigs on the forest floor, turning them into a tinderbox. They know that climate change has doubled the area that forest fires have burned since 1984. They know that a century of putting out fires—in forests that are evolved to burn regularly—has crammed the timberlands full of burnable fuel.And finally, scientists know that California’s tendency to lurch from a big dry year to a big wet year is intensifying, its “feast and famine” cycle getting more pronounced. They know this will make fires worse, Williams told me: It will allow more plant matter to grow during the wet years; which, during the dry years, will dry out and die and become fire fuel.Seventy-six people, trapped in their homes, fleeing in their cars, now lost forever. And the science is clear: Far more than on hurricanes, far more than on droughts, humanity played a role in this. Through the negligence of spewing carbon into the air, and through the hubris of trying to suppress fires. We have toyed with fire, thinking it in our tool. But the Camp Fire should remind us that we are its plaything.
World Edition - The Atlantic
Echo
The gold inside this ring was oncethe sap of two colliding stars,a gravitational rippling flower,a thousand times our local sun,that flung its nectar on the darkand silent emptiness, acrossthe curving light-years to becomea cooling planet with this oreinside the veins of rock to bedug out and then refined and formedto wrap around your finger asa sign of bond and permanence,as eons of creationecho in this familiar token.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
The Abrams Machine is Not Done Yet
Stacey Abrams is not conceding.That’s what she said at a press conference in Atlanta on Friday. “This is not a speech of concession,” she told supporters and reporters, “because concession means an action is right, true, or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.”But the former Georgia state representative and Democratic nominee for governor did essentially end her campaign and recognize that her opponent, Brian Kemp, the GOP nominee and former state secretary of state, will officially win the election. “I acknowledge that Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election,” Abrams said. “But to watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”[Read: In the Georgia Governor’s Race, the Game Is Black Votes]In the immediate term, the specifics don’t matter much. This is, for all intents and purposes, legal and otherwise, a concession speech, regardless of Abrams’s statement. Kemp will win. Abrams will lose. But in her speech, Abrams also announced that she will continue her fight against Kemp as a private citizen. And that fight could have significant consequences for Georgia, for Abrams’s career, and for the Democratic Party nationwide.Kemp, who stepped down as Georgia Secretary of State last week—after he administered the most important parts of his own election—cast Abrams’s speech as a full concession, and beseeched her and Georgians to turn the page.“Moments ago, Stacey Abrams conceded the race and officially ended her campaign for governor,” his campaign said in a statement. “I appreciate her passion, hard work, and commitment to public service. The election is over and hardworking Georgians are ready to move forward. We can no longer dwell on the divisive politics of the past but must focus on Georgia’s bright and promising future.”That outcome doesn’t seem likely. In her news conference, Abrams announced that she’d be initiating a “major federal lawsuit” against alleged mismanagement of the election under Kemp under an initiative called “Fair Fight Georgia,” which she said will push for major changes to elections law in the state.[Read: The Democrats’ Deep-South Strategy Was a Winner After All]The existing allegations against Kemp and his old office are manifold. Kemp was the architect of a massive voter-purge campaign and an “exact-match” policy requiring registrations to be identical to personal identifications that moved over 50,000 registrations—90 percent of them belong to minorities—to “pending” status before a federal court enjoined it. There were long lines on Election Day, several precincts that were underprepared or featured near-comic mishaps with voting machines, and huge spikes in the number of provisional ballots some precincts offered to voters, especially students.Abrams also announced she’ll also support Democrat John Barrow in his runoff against Republican state Representative Brad Raffensperger in the election to succeed Kemp as secretary of state.Instead of ending “the divisive politics of the past” as Kemp hopes to do, this all seems to place Abrams and Kemp in similar roles relative to one another as they’ve played in the past few years, but with even higher stakes.While in the state House, Abrams came to national prominence as leader of the New Georgia Project, an unprecedented big-money campaign to register over 100,000 new voters in the state. That initiative, which raised millions of dollars and did add thousands of new mostly black and Hispanic voters to the electorate, was a major in a concerted new strategy to improve Democratic chances in the South by expanding the electorate. For the majority of Abrams’s time leading the project, it was also engaged in a war against Kemp’s office. Kemp launched a voter-fraud investigation against the New Georgia Project in 2014, and the New Georgia Project successfully sued the secretary of state’s office over purges. In turn, Kemp blames the New Georgia Project’s voter-registration drive for the discrepancies leading to the “exact match” fiasco.Now, with national attention turned toward Georgia, and with the state serving as an emblem of the renewed struggle for voting rights in a post-Shelby County v. Holder world, Abrams and Kemp are avatars of the respective sides. For Democrats and voting-rights activists, Kemp’s victory is a stolen one, but also a warning sign of just how powerful voter-suppression can be. And with Kansas’s Kris Kobach losing his gubernatorial bid, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker losing his reelection bid, Kemp will likely be the standard-bearer of state-level Trumpism, with what critics see as its heavy focus on dogwhistles and on chasing the specter of voter fraud.Abrams is now a national standard-bearer of an emerging view within the party that sees voter suppression as a critical threat to democracy, and views aggressive litigation, legislation, and engagement with low-turnout populations as the remedy. Along with efforts like former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s redistricting committee, and alongside other campaigns like Andrew Gillum’s in Florida, and Beto O’Rourke’s in Texas, Abrams’s organizing represents a new path forward for Democrats, one that could provide them new majorities even in bright-red Southern states, and could give them the tools for fighting the GOP’s franchise-shrinking machine, which has seemingly outclassed Democrats at almost every turn for decades.The Georgia governor’s race is a loss for Democrats, and a loss for Stacey Abrams. But in her press conference, she announced that she isn’t done yet in the state, and offered a glimmer of hope for her supporters, even as she voiced anger and frustration. “Eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process in Georgia,” she said at the press conference. But the basic message of all of her campaigns has been that each of those can be beaten.
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World Edition - The Atlantic
The Next Data Mine Is Your Bedroom
It’s a familiar feeling: Type something into Google’s search bar, and then start seeing ads for it everywhere. Sometimes, you don’t even need to search—Google’s already triangulated your desires based on your emails, your demographics, your location. Now, that familiarity stands to get a lot more intimate. With a fascinating pair of new patents for smart home technology, Google is hoping users will open their homes to its trademark eavesdropping.In the first patent, Google imagines devices that would scan and analyze the surroundings of your home, then offer you content based on what they detect. According to the patent, the smart cameras in such a device could, for example, recognize Will Smith's face on a T-shirt on the floor of a user's closet. After matching this analysis against your browser history, the device might then say aloud “You seem to like Will Smith. His new movie is playing in a theater near you.”It doesn’t stop at Will Smith movies. The patent imagines smart home devices would make all types of inferences about users, sorting them into categories based on what it sees in their most personal spaces. Using object recognition, it could calculate “fashion taste” by scanning your clothing and even estimate your income based on any “expensive mechanical and/or electronic devices” it detects. Audio signatures, too, could be used to not only identify users, but determine gender and age based on the timbre of their voices. The smart home would recommend what to watch and where to shop, all based on how it sorts users into categories of taste, income, and interest.If this sounds invasive, it’s important to recognize this is already happening, just online. Google and Facebook both record and analyze user behavior, use it to sort people into categories, then target them with ads and other content. Facebook likely knows your race and religion, while Google uses your emails and search history to sort you into ad-ready brackets. Netflix infers all types of data on users based on what they watch, then serves back hyper specific movie and TV categories. This patent simply expands the areas in which your behavior is already mined and recorded from your phone and laptop to your bedroom. And your children’s bedrooms. The second patent proposes a smart home system that would help run the household, using sensors and cameras to restrict kids’ behavior. Parents could program the device to note if it overhears “foul language” from children, scan internet usage for mature or objectionable content, or use “occupancy sensors” to determine if certain areas of the house are accessed while they’re gone— for example, the liquor cabinet. The system could be set to “change a smart lighting system color to red and flash the lights” as a warning to children or even power off lights and devices if they’re grounded.[Read: Alexa, should we trust you?]While people can set goals for their children or themselves, these policies could also be “based upon certain inputs from remote vendors/facilitators/regulators/etc.,” according to the patent. That opens the door for companies to offer rewards for behaviors in the home. A household may set the internal goals of: “spend less time on electronic devices” or “use 5% less energy each month for the next 3 months.” Google devices could then connect to anything “smart” in the home and send you, and potentially a vendor or third party, updates on usage and screen time.Just this month, the insurance company United Healthcare began partnering with employers to offer free Apple Watches to those who hit certain fitness goals. Insurers might also offer benefits to residents whose homes prove their fitness or brand loyalty—and punish those who don’t. Health insurers could use data from the kitchen as a proxy for eating habits, and adjust their rates accordingly. Landlords could use occupancy sensors to see who comes and goes, or watch for photo evidence of pets. Life-insurance companies could penalize smokers caught on camera. Online and in person, consumers are often asked to weigh privacy against convenience and personalization: A kickback on utilities or insurance payments may thumb the scales in Google’s favor.For reward systems created by either users or companies to be possible, the devices would have to know what you’re doing at all times. The language of these patents make it clear that Google is acutely aware of the powers of inference it has already, even without cameras. it can already infer all types of behavior even without cameras, by augmenting speakers to recognize the noises you make as you move around the house. The auditory inferences are startling: Google’s smart home system can infer “if a household member is working“ from “an audio signature of keyboard clicking, a desk chair moving, and/or papers shuffling.” Google can make inferences on your mood based on whether it hears raised voices or crying, when you’re in the kitchen based on the sound of the fridge door opening, your dental hygiene based on “the sounds and/or images of teeth brushing.”Of course, patents aren’t products, but they do represent an important shift. For a long time, the foundational metaphor of surveillance studies has been the panopticon—unending, inescapable, unwanted surveillance. Now, these patents seems to hint that the age of hyper-personalization will make people willing, enthusiastic participants in the panopticon, both as subjects and as architects.
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World Edition - The Atlantic