How The NY Times New Social-Media Policy Overreaches
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Years ago, when I was a young reporter working for a New England newspaper, I was told, more than once, that our city editor had "the personality of a door knob." This was meant as a compliment. Being colorless was a virtue, a sign of trustworthiness. We reporters were supposed to be quiet and relatively affectless. Since we served unadorned facts as dutiful drones, we were supposed to be interchangeable (after you "covered" schools for a year, you might be assigned to sports, or science). So we all dressed in the same tie-askew manner and called each other by our first names (pretending not to see the real power differentials among us). In that place, "writing job," the term for work that was actually well-written, could be a pejorative term: It suggested that you might have a personality of your own, that you might be a disturbing blob of color on the gray edifice.
In the age of Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr etcetera, this newsroom culture probably sounds as remote as the Soviet Union (to which it bears a faint resemblance). But this grinding bureaucratic mindset is not yet resting on the ash-heap of history. In fact, it lives on at The New York Times. And its cold not-dead hand has just risen up to smack around the freelance writer Andrew Goldman.
Goldman writes the Q&A interviews for The New York Times Magazine (for which, full disclosure, I have written now and again over the years). Lately there's been talk that he has a problem with female interview subjects. The other day for instance the novelist Jennifer Weiner tweeted this criticism: "Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout". Unfortunately Goldman apparently went batsh*t, and tweeted back: "Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had opportunity to sleep way to top."
Which was, obviously, just awful—rude, stupid, unprovoked, juvenile and foolish. After getting some angry reply tweets and what seems to have been some strong talking-to's by his editors at the magazine and his wife, Goldman tweeted that he was sorry and Weiner accepted his apology. There, you might think, the matter rested: Man makes ass of himself before universe (and inadvertently lends credibility to claim that he has a problem with women), is brought to senses, apologizes. Case closed, right?
Nope. Enter the Times' new Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan. Her job is to be the "readers' representative," responding to complaints and comments and giving people a chance to interrogate the Times about its lapses. I'd interpret that to mean Goldman's Q&As are in her bailiwick. But she decided that his tweets were too. Moreover, she hinted, with Brezhnevian subtlety, that public-upbraiding-followed-by-apology was not enough. In her first blog post about the incident, she wrote that Goldman would get a chance to do his job better in the future, adding "given his misbehavior on Twitter and his status as a highly replaceable (emphasis added) freelancer, I think his editors are extraordinarily generous to give it to him."
Goldman's editor had loyally defended his writer, writing to Sullivan: "My feeling is that he had an unfortunate outburst, and that he will learn from it." But today comes the news that other Times powers-that-be think more as Sullivan does. In this new post today, Sullivan reports that Goldman has been suspended from writing his column for four weeks. The news comes at the end of a post reporting that the Times has reminded all its writers that anything they do on social media should be considered a reflection on the Times.
I bet that's going to be a problem. After all, it's not just newspapers' business models that have been swept away by the Internets. It's also that old gray culture that extolled doorknob personalities. Much as I'd enjoy seeing Facebook posts cast in Times style ("At My Aunt's Funeral, Tears and Laughter"; "An Outing for the Younger Set Brings A Reporter to the Playground"), I don't think normal 21st-century people—especially freelancers—will stand for it. Most of us, I think, are pretty used to the idea that our Twitter, Facebook, Timblr etc lives are our own. If we tweet rudely or wrongly, we expect to be enlightened or corrected or taken out to the woodshed by the community that reads our words. Not by someone up somebody else's chain of command, waving a handbook.
Sullivan, though, thinks the highly replaceable freelancers will toe the line. That tells me it's still 1979 in her office. In the latest post, she gives herself away with this unintentionally funny line, explaining why she thinks the paper can demand that non-employees think of the Times every time they tweet: "And unstated is the simple truth that The Times has the upper hand here. It decides, often on a case-by-case basis, which freelancers to assign. Assessing their judgment on social media is very likely to be a part of that decision-making."
There they are, all the old newsroom assumptions I recall from decades ago: Freelancers are desperate, freelancers are interchangeable, and freelancers will do anything to bask under the fluorescent lights of our cubicles, even for a moment.
Does she know what the Times actually pays freelancers? If she did, she'd know that writing for the Times is, for most if not all, a loss-leader. You do it in the same spirit that a Romney might donate a horse to charity or a normal person might spend a day working for a soup kitchen. You do it for cachet, attention, prestige, good vibes. As a general rule, it's worth the trouble. I've always found it to be so. But the prospect of being monitored all over the web for Times-appropriateness changes that calculus.
And, sure, if someone refuses to write for the Times because of a policy, then someone else will do it. But in the parts of the building where it isn't 1979, editors will suffer for those refusals. Because writers, unlike replaceable cogs, aren't interchangeable. I think some good ones will decide that their social-media lives are their own.
ADDENDUM: For more proof that Sullivan is a newsroom fossil who doesn't "get" blogs, see this new post on Nate Silver. It has a new subject but sings the same song: The Times ought to be able to ensure obedience to its code of facelessness, from all who write for it—even those whom it does not deign to put on the payroll, and even those whose reputations don't need the Times brand to shine. She can't imagine a world in which the Times needs Silver as much as he needs the Times. But that is the world as it is now. Maybe he should threaten to take his blog elsewhere...
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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