LAZY

I’m feeling lazy this week, so I’ll spare y’all a rant. Got some great stuff to read though! Archives here.

NEWS

In other news, Sepp Blatter: “Never mind.”,  a major European government falls because people heard what they actually talk about, a ho-ed bro disparages his ho-less associate, country singer Randy Howard wishes he were alive to write a song about his ridiculous death, stopped clocks are indeed right twice a day, this lady pretended to be black and ran the NAACP chapter in Spokane and taught African studies WHAT YOU GUYS??? I love this story, and hey, who’s ready to re-invade Iraq? Can we do Vietnam next?

INTERESTING STUFF

  1. Alex Perry and Connie Agius, “Mastermind: The evil genius behind the migrant crisis” for Newsweek.

Newsweek coming from behind! A really interesting dive into the criminal organizations running the migrant flow into Europe. Smugglers handle the transport, but the Mafia gets a cut.

  1. Walter Chaw, “Jurassic World” on Film Freak Central.

Movie review. You gotta love Walter Chaw. Jurassic World as Dada-ist abstraction and/or porn. There’s a lot of weirdness about Jurassic World. Personally, I enjoyed it. I thought it was similar to the Avengers; it was the archetypal blockbuster, the opposite of outsider art, plot algorithms regurgitating the minimum required dramatic tension before the next CGI explosion/dino attack, the appealing Alpha Male Lead (literally in JW, I guess another example of what Chaw calls a conflation of animal and human) standing tall, the lovely Female Lead gradually losing clothing (yet still running around in heels…). I’m thinking about this too much. It was an entertaining movie. And it made a half-billion dollars. Go see it! Eat the soma!

  1. Stefan Wagstyl, “Germans becoming increasingly resigned to Grexit” in the Financial Times.

Get those flights booked, because the Continent’s gonna get a lot cheaper pretty soon. The Greeks know that if they can’t secure significant debt relief, their only viable option is to withdraw from the Euro. On a side note, is anyone else alarmed by articles beginning, “Germans becoming increasingly resigned to…”?

  1. Bernard Hare, “How my father gave me a terrifying lesson at 10” for BBC Magazine.

West Yorkshire, 1968. Bernard’s father, a coal miner, took him down the Thirty-Nine to teach him a lesson. Lovely story, but as a language nerd I liked it for the thick Broad Yorkshire dialect peppering the text.

  1. Max Fisher, “A surprisingly fascinating theory for why Canada is so boring” for Vox.com.

Lots of good theories once you get past the temptation to snicker, which I actually did not. Apparently boringness is part of their identity?

  1. Akemi Johnson, “Off Base” for Roads and Kingdoms.

Americans, Okinawans, and Japanese interacting, fighting, loving. Tension between the American bases and the locals rising. Good stuff.

Bonus! Heavy flooding has caused a zoo escape in Tbilisi, Georgia, and the pictures are insane.

MUSIC

It’s time for an Austin week.

  1. Christopher Denny plays “If the Roses Don’t Kill Us” at the Riverview Bungalow.
  1. Jubal’s Lawyer plays “Sandra” for BalconyTV.
  1. Lincoln Durham does “Clementine” live at the Guitar Bar in London.
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Tunisia

Oh hello there. Archives here.

NEWS

At 11:30 in the morning on December 17, 2010, a Tunis vegetable seller named Mohamed Bouazizi protested the police confiscation of his pushcart by dousing himself in oil and setting himself on fire. News of his suicide immediately went viral. Within two weeks Tunisia was paralyzed with protests, with thousands of people filling the streets and squares of the country to demand government action against unemployment, poverty, and repression. After the new year the protests intensified, and the middle classes and police began to turn against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s longtime dictator (r. 1987-2011). On January 14 the military stepped in, dissolved the government, and gave Ben Ali a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia (promised land of every crooked Sunni warlord and terrorist with a little money left). So, at that point, we had a typical Arab Spring revolution: longtime (US-backed) strongman removed by a popular revolution, army holding “temporary” power, “for the good of the people”. But unlike the other failed Arab Spring states, Tunisia has succeeded.

Tunisia is unusual among its peer nations in the Middle East. First off, it’s got no oil. That might seem like a negative, and to some degree it has been: Tunisia’s government and ruling class isn’t fantastically wealthy, and the country hasn’t seen the kind of ridiculous infrastructure booms that have defied gravity and common sense in, say, Saudi Arabia. However, without the ability to print petrobucks, Tunisia has had to focus on creating a real economy by developing its human capital. The first of the country’s two dictators, Habib Bourguiba (r. 1957-1987), saw universal education and women’s rights as the two pillars of post-colonial economic success, and made both a reality. As a result of his policies (continued by Ben Ali) Tunisia has one of the best-educated populations in Africa and the Middle East. The government spends an astounding 6.2% of GDP on education, more than Germany, Canada, and Australia. With free quality college educations given to students who pass government exams, almost sixty percent of young Tunisians have a bachelor’s degree. (This has translated into decent economic growth for a country with such limited resources. Tunisia grew above 4% per year for most of the 2000s.)

So Tunisia’s population is young, well-educated, and relatively liberal. This meant that international observers (i.e. the West) had high hopes for the country after Ben Ali was kicked out. And things have overall gone well. The army handed over power to a government which has held free and fair elections. Now, unlike fellow Arab Spring countries Libya, Syria, and Egypt, Tunisia is governed by a secular, democratically-elected administration. Its new constitution, adopted last January, is perhaps the most liberal in the Middle East (although still controversial as a result of compromise with Islamist party Ennahda), protecting freedom of worship, forgoing references to Islamic law, and declaring the equality of men and women, even mandating female representation in Parliament. To underscore that liberal victory, last fall Tunisians gave new secular party Nidaa Tounes (Tunisia’s Call) a 38% plurality in parliament and elected president the party leader, French-educated lawyer Béji Caïd Essebsi.

This is all very exciting. If Tunisia can prove that an Arab state can succeed as a liberal democracy, it will stand as a direct challenge to jihadist groups across the Middle East. Its very existence is a threat to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra who argue that democracy is a Western imposition, that Islam is naturally illiberal, that Arabs will not support a democratic regime. And those groups understand that. In March, ISIS posted a video in which a masked Tunisian jihadist vowed: “We are coming to conquer back Tunisia… I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometres from you just across the border.” Suicide bombings, once unknown in the country, are starting to pop up. There is an armed Islamist rebellion in the western mountains. Most visibly to Westerners, in March the world-famous Bardo Museum in Tunis was stormed by terrorists who murdered twenty-two foreign tourists.

And as high-profile as the violence has been, Tunisia faces an even bigger threat: the economy is in the tank. They’re expecting to eke out three percent growth this year, but job growth has lagged significantly. That highly-educated young populace has an unemployment rate of 34%, and you can only hang out in dusty cafes so long before jihad starts to seem like a reasonable option: Tunisia is the single biggest source of fighters for the Islamic State, and most of those are unemployed middle-class kids. Protests and strikes are becoming more common. If the economy does not improve soon, we may see another revolution. This time it’ll be less liberal.

Obama, to his credit, has done well by Tunisia. He’s offered military support, sending over supplies, vehicles, and designating the country a major non-NATO ally. There has been economic support, too, including more than a half-billion dollars in aid since the revolution. But the U.S. and its European allies must do more to support the regime. Tunisia is a test case in the Muslim world. Its success would be the West’s greatest weapon against Islamic terrorism.

In other news, Jerry Seinfeld attempts to make the Internet explode, Obama’s drinking in the morning again, even the racism is bigger in Texas, that horrifying Burger King mascot has only just begun, high-profile asshole Recep Erdoganloses big in Turkey, and for Caitlyn Jenner, the real battle still lies ahead.

INTERESTING STUFF

  1. Graeme Wood, “The Lost Man”for California Sunday.

Graeme Wood is killing it this year. The weird, twisting story of Australia’s most famous unsolved murder. On December 1, 1948, a mysterious body is found on an Adelaide beach…

  1. Matt Taibbi, “Why Baltimore Blew Up”in Rolling Stone.

I know I’ve been sending out a lot of Baltimore stuff recently, but this is an important piece that talks about the broad failures of Broken Windows policing and the scars it leaves in urban communities.

  1. Maciej Cegłowski, “Ta’izz”for Idle Words.

I’ve been following this guy for a while. Travel writing at its best. This latest dispatch is from Ta’izz, Yemen, and it is just fantastic.

  1. Andrew Roberts, “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon Never Lost at Waterloo”for SmithsonianMagazine.

Self-explanatory. We’re almost at the bicentennial of one of the biggest battles in world history, and this is a fun look at Napoleon the ruler, and what could have been. I love me some counterfactuals.

  1. David Tong, “Einstein and relativity: Part I”in Plus Magazine.

Ever wonder what exactly Einstein was doing? I did until I read this. The story of the theory of relativity.
MUSIC

  1. The Pixies play “Greens and Blues”at Boston Calling the other weekend.

…and I was there! What a f-ing show.

  1. Black Star lays waste to “Fix Up”live on Colbert.

Kudos to Mr. Mike Mitchell for reminding me of this. Maybe my favorite hip-hop performance ever.

  1. Lord Huron does “Meet Me in the Woods Tonight”for Electric Lady Studios.

I haven’t really liked these guys much, but this song is killer.

GMOs

Urban lefty-minded people (myself included) agree that it’s entertaining to make fun of conservatives who deny global warming and evolution. After all, they’re ignoring basic science! Or just making up their own nonsense! Well, unfortunately, the left wing has its own science-deniers, and they’re anti-GMO activists.

In April, Chipotle declared it would stop using genetically-modified ingredients in its food (creating some excitingly ironic parallels between, say, Fox News’ valiant 1,000 wingnut climate scientists and Chipotle’s valiant 300 wingnut biotech scientists). The rationale posted on its website recycles some standard anti-GMO arguments, framing the company’s decision as part of the larger trend in the past few years to ban and/or label GM crops (a trend led by dangerous people like Vandana Shiva and driven by broad European skepticism of mostly-American biotech grains). Given the backlash Chipotle is facing I sincerely hope this represents the anti-GMO Waterloo, because the trend is, for lack of a better word, stupid.

Let’s start out with health. Chipotle and lots of uninformed people claim that GMOs may be harmful to human health, and that there has not been enough research done. What does the science say? Over the past twenty-five years, every major scientific and governmental advisory body in the world has examined the impact of these plants on health. They say they’re fineNo different from standard crops.

Fine, you might say. Health. But what kinds of M’s are they making to the O’s? Are they weird? Biotech scientists insert genes into plants to make them more resistant to drought, wind, and harsh weather, to repel crop-destroying insectswithout using pesticides, to fight off blights and diseases, and to improve soil health to prevent erosion. The goal of all this is to increase yields, improve access to food, and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. Which is good. But it’s also necessary.

By the end of this century, there are likely to be eleven billion people on Earth. With a decrease in arable land due to global warming, there is no way we will be able to feed that many people without the increased crop yields provided by GMOs.

But it’s unnatural! you cry, you silly straw man. I don’t really know what that means. Have you seen pictures of what corn looked like before the Mayans started cross-breeding it? It looked like a skeleton thumb. Humans have been genetically modifying crops since the dawn of time. Now we just do it in labs. Not to mention that, as Steven Novella writes, nature does it all on its own:

The notion that GMOs are “unnatural” is simply meaningless. It is also often based on a false premise – that there is no way for genes from a bacteria, for example, to get into a vegetable in nature. While irrelevant, it is also not true. Scientists, for example, recently found genes from soil bacteria in 291 sweet potato varieties, a natural gene insertion that occurred about 8,000 years ago.

While I was in Colombia I heard a lot about the evils of Monsanto. Their GMO crops are invading the world, etc. And yeah, Monsanto is at least a little evil. But so are a lot of corporations, and the story is much more complicated than partisans make it out to be. Not to mention that farmers choose to buy Monsanto seed because it’s a good product (if occasionally a mixed blessing). And, let’s be real here. Evil Mega-Corp Monsanto’s revenue was about $14.8 billion last year. Scrappy grassroots do-gooder Whole Foods made $12.9 billion. A big part of this back-and-forth is about market positioning and good press.

I think the evidence is clear that there are real benefits to GMOs, and there are real (and frightening) costs to banning GMOs. Let’s use the famous example, Golden Rice. Your classic white rice is a pretty crappy food source, nutrition-wise. It’s also the staple crop for over half the world’s population, concentrated in Asia. A lot of those people suffer from Vitamin A deficiencies, which cause millions of cases of blindness and kills hundreds of thousands of kids every year. Enter Golden Rice, which is rice plus a gene from carrots that produces Vitamin A. It’s perfectly safe. IRRI, a nonprofit, is willing and able to give free seeds to any country that wants to help its people. The problem is that anti-GMO organization like Greenpeace shut the project down. The result:

[A] study, published in the journal Environment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

So there are consequences. But some more well-informed people than I think the tide is turning. As Jon Entine writes, “We’ve reached an intellectual tipping point on this controversy. Almost every prominent liberal journalism outlet, from the New York Times to Scientific American to The Atlantic, has prominently featured an article contrasting the growing disconnect between scientists who view GMOs as safe and popular fears hyped by some foodie heroes and organic activists.” Let’s start splicing.

In other news, rats have more empathy than most humans, American regime change DOES work, world!, every conspiracy theory ever is true, I wonder why no one trusts Hillary Clinton, and wow, who knew the TSA was completely incompetent?

I know I missed a Memorial Day letter last week, so direct from Ms. Laura Hughes of Madison, Wisconsin, here’s a very nice story from the Big War.

INTERESTING STUFF

  1. Sebastian Junger, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield” in Vanity Fair.

Our finest war reporter on American veterans, PTSD, the modern world, and the human condition. This is a top 5 article in 2015. Please read it.

  1. Jeffrey Goldberg interviewsBarack Obama for the Atlantic.

Iran, ISIS, and Israel. The three I’s. Fascinating. It’s nice when you see journalism actually work sometimes, and a genuine expert gets to ask serious questions and receive serious answers from the President. Barry O knows his stuff.

  1. Matt O’Leary, “I Let IBM’s Robot Chef Tell Me What to Cook for a Week”for Medium.com.

Change of pace from nuclear annihilation. A chef and food writer lets Watson come up with the meals. “They taste like nothing on earth.”

  1. Volodymyr Yermolenko, “Russia, zoopolitics, and information bombs”for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Pages 72-79. I thought this was a really great, concise analysis of what the hell is going on with Russia. Their idea of The Big Alternative to Western civilization, along with a brilliant propaganda campaign to destroy objective truth. That second part matches well with this fun new study.

  1. Peter Kaplan, “That Joke Has Everything”: David Letterman, Before Late Night” for Esquirein Dec. 1981, reprinted for Deadspin.

Letterman’s gone. I didn’t ever watch much of him, but I suppose it’s the end of something in comedy. This is a profile of him from before he got the show. It’s sharp and says interesting things about comedy and the US and, of course, Letterman.

  1. Christopher Solomon, “When Birds Squawk, Other Species Seem to Listen”in the New York Times.

Classic NYT headline. This article kind of blew me away. Apparently, squirrels and what have you pick up on songbird calls and broadcast them through the forest.

And a bonus! This site maps English accents across the world (including audio), although their coverage of the UK is best. I vote Shetland Islanders as hardest to understand.

MUSIC

  1. John McCauley sings Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend”for the Rollo & Grady Sessions
  1. Tyler Childers does “Charleston Girl”with Russell Waddell on banjo for Shaker Steps.
  1. The Shouting Matches live at Coachella 2013. The whole set’s great but you gotta love the “Avery Hill” opener.