Republicans and Democrats have reached a debt-ceiling deal. Republicans will agree not to blow up the global economy if Democrats trim federal spending over the next two years, claw back money from the Internal Revenue Service, speed up the country’s energy-permitting process, and impose new work requirements on the food-stamp and welfare programs, among other changes.
Perhaps this is the best deal the two sides could have reached. Perhaps it is not that big a deal at all. But Congress got the deal by selling out some of
’s poorest and most vulnerable families. And it did so by expanding the use of a policy mechanism so janky, ineffective, and cruel that it should not exist. No work requirements in any program, for anyone, for any reason: This should be the policy goal going forward.
The deal, which is pending a vote in the House later today, requires “able-bodied” people ages 18 to 54 without dependents in the home to work at least 20 hours a week in order to get food stamps for more than three months every three years; previously, people only had to do so up to the age of 50. (The deal does expand access to the program for veterans and kids leaving foster care.) It also hinders states’ ability to exempt families on welfare from the program’s onerous work requirements.
Work requirements have a decent-enough theory behind them: If you are on the dole and you are an able-bodied adult, you should be working or trying to find a job. It’s good for people to work, and the government should not send citizens the message that it is fine not to.
The theory runs into problems in theory long before it runs into problems in practice. The point of Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the cash-welfare program, is to eliminate deep poverty among children. The point of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is to end hunger. The point of Medicaid—to which Republicans are desperate to add work requirements, which thank goodness failed in these talks—is to ensure that everyone has health coverage.
Should infants and kids remain in poverty because their parents can’t hold down a job? Should people go hungry if they can’t work? Should they lose their health insurance if they won’t? The answer is no—of course not, no.
Then, there are the problems in practice. Work requirements impose grievous costs for limited (or possibly nonexistent) benefits. For one, determining who is “able-bodied” is difficult and invasive. Having a disability or a disabling condition is not enough. A person needs to have a specific kind of disability, certified in a Kafkaesque, months-long process. “It is notoriously difficult,” Pamela Herd, a Georgetown professor and an expert on administrative burdens, wrote in a blog post this week. “Not only does it require reams of paperwork and documentation, it requires effectively navigating a complex medical diagnostic process to verify one’s eligibility.” Each year, she noted, about 10,000 people die while waiting for their application to be processed.
It is worth pausing here for a moment to appreciate the cruelty. Imagine you have long COVID. Or incontinence due to pelvic-floor trauma from childbirth. Or an undiagnosed psychiatric condition. You’re having trouble coming up with enough money for groceries, so you decide to apply for SNAP. But you realize you need a disability exemption from the work requirement. You wait months to offer up intimate details about your body to a civil servant, and face a one-in-three chance of getting denied.
Then comes getting SNAP itself. Applying is quick and easy in some states, for some people. It is long and arduous for other people in other places. Half of the New Yorkers applying for SNAP in December failed to get their benefits within a month, as required by federal law; pervasive delays have spurred a class-action lawsuit against the state. If and when people do get approved, they must comply with their state’s work requirements, really two interlocking sets of work requirements. (Don’t get confused!) Folks have to document their hours and log them on buggy online systems. If they’re looking for work, they have to search in certain ways in certain locations. It’s annoying. It’s finicky.
Again, it is worth appreciating the cruelty of it all. Years ago, I spoke with a Texan on food stamps. She had been exempted from her state’s work requirement because she was pregnant. But she suffered a late miscarriage. Did she have to call her caseworker to tell them she had lost her baby? Would the state come after her for not informing them, clawing her food stamps back? Was there some kind of bereavement policy? Did she need to start complying with the work requirement there and then? Another person I spoke with, in Maine, struggled to use a computer or phone and did not have reliable transportation to bring her paperwork to her caseworker in person. What was she supposed to do?
You might argue that such policies are worth it, if they get people to work. But they don’t. Most adults using safety-net programs who are capable of working are working. They just earn too little. And many adults who aren’t working can’t work, because of illness, a lack of transportation, or some other reason. As a result, work requirements at best lead to modest increases in employment, ones that fade over time. In some cases, they do nothing to bolster it. Yet work requirements have a catastrophic impact on the people who will not or cannot comply with them. Those people become more likely to live in poverty, get evicted, and end up incarcerated or homeless.
At a more philosophical level, work requirements cement the narrative that poverty is the fault of the poor rather than the fault of a society with inadequate social services, unchecked corporate concentration, an overgrown carceral system, low wages, and massive discrimination against Black and Latino workers. They bolster the theory that a lack of personal responsibility and cultural rot are the reasons that deprivation persists. They are a way for the state to bully the poor.
Perhaps the best argument for work requirements is that they make safety-net programs palatable to higher-income folks. But the truth is that few people have any kind of granular understanding of these policies; not a lot of people vote on the basis of the fine print in the TANF program.
Republicans worried about poor people working should start supporting policies proven to boost employment, like universal child care and effective job training. Democrats should feel ashamed for ever having supported work requirements. They should feel even more ashamed for offering them as a policy concession to Republicans now, when we have so much evidence of how little they help and how much they hurt.
- FDA Approves Pfizer’s RSV Vaccine for Adults 60 and Older
Nature, Published online: 29 May 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-01765-9Restored mangroves and seagrass meadows could suck more carbon from the atmosphere.
Ghoul Kids Club
There is, apparently, a TikTok subgenre of the already-problematic true crime fandom that's using artificial intelligence to digitally resurrect the victims of heinous crimes and have them tell the stories of how these real-life children were killed.
As Rolling Stone reports, most of these accounts change the appearance — and sometimes the names — of the actual victims when using AI to digitally resurrect them, likely as a means to get around TikTok's recent rule banning "deepfake" depictions of young people and requiring all use of the tech be labeled as such.
Still, the AI-generated characters purport to tell the story of terrible crimes that happened to actual children, although they often tweak key details — an indistinguishable morass of fact and fiction, in other words, that leaves us wondering what, exactly, the purpose of these videos really is.
"They’re quite strange and creepy," Paul Bleakley, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, told Rolling Stone. "They seem designed to trigger strong emotional reactions, because it’s the surest-fire way to get clicks and likes. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but I think that might be the point."
While some of these accounts do provide disclaimers saying that they don't use real images out of respect for the dead, the effect when watching them is nonetheless the same: very uncanny, very unsettling, and that they were presumably made without the consent of the victims' families.
"Imagine being the parent or relative of one of these kids in these AI videos," Bleakley told Rolling Stone. "You go online and in this strange high-pitched voice, here’s an AI image [of] your deceased child, going into very gory detail about what happened to them."
While there is, of course, a legal aspect to this — the professor compared it to new laws cropping up that ban deepfake porn, which he notes is a "very sticky, murky gray area" — on an emotional and ethical level, the whole endeavor feels unconscionable.
There is, however, one small silver lining: both the accounts mentioned by Rolling Stone have now been taken down, so maybe TikTok's in-house content moderation is working after all.
More on the creepy side of AI: Programmer Creates Grim Tool to Clone Anyone as an "AI Girlfriend"
The post True Crime
Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Replies have been edited for length and clarity.
Last week I asked readers if they want Ron DeSantis’s Republican primary campaign to succeed or to fail.
Ann wants DeSantis to win the nomination over Donald Trump:
DeSantis had a really good interview with Trey Gowdy on the Fox News Channel. He seemed strong, grounded, realistic, determined, capable, balanced, and smart. And he has the values we asAmericans
should embrace (at least most of them). Donald Trump, unfortunately, cannot control himself. He is too irrational, too narcissistic, and not smart. I voted for Trump the last time, but I hope that I get to vote for DeSantis this time.
Many readers disagreed about whether they feared Trump or DeSantis more. For example, Matt’s top priority is preventing Trump from returning to the White House:
While I won’t be voting for Ron DeSantis in the general election, I might use my primary vote for him. As much as I hope that Joe Biden would beat Donald Trump, I don’t want to take that chance. I would gladly have the lesser of the evils. DeSantis is a performative conservative populist: traditional, Harvard-educated conservatism wrapped in “stick it to the libs” showmanship. He probably stands the best chance to beat Trump. And while I find his politics abhorrent, Trump represents a much larger threat to democracy. DeSantis would be an iterative Republican president. Trump is dangerous, and I wouldn’t take the risk. Practically every other option on the table is better than Trump 2.0.
I’m getting tired of these existential-crisis elections. I miss the days of Obama/Romney, Bush/Kerry, even Obama/McCain. If the other team won, I didn’t doubt the continuation of the Union.
Trump would pose that threat; DeSantis, less so.
Similarly, Steve feels confident that Trump would be awful, while DeSantis, whose behavior in Florida he dislikes, is more of an unknown quantity:
When Trump won, I was hoping that the gravity of the office would somehow enable him to rise to the occasion of personal and professional competence and greatness. Alas, after less than a month in service he demonstrated that this was not to be. Unfortunately, his administration rolled incompetently downhill from there. I feel that as unacceptable as I view DeSantis’s political machinations in his home state of Florida, I’m hoping that much of his socially deplorable behavior and policy there is primarily to satisfy the MAGA base, to get elected. I’m hoping that if he got elected—unlike Trump, who would embark on his revenge and self-aggrandizement tour—DeSantis could, and hopefully would, revert back to the middle under the sacred weight of the Oval Office and perform more credibly for all. At least there’d be a chance—unlike for the ex-president.
Robert fleshes out why Trump is ostensibly worse:
Every American should want DeSantis to beat Trump in the primary. Every American should want anyone to beat Trump in the primary. Trump brazenly violated his oath of office. It was the worst betrayal in American history—worse even than the Confederacy, because that at least didn’t come from the White House itself.
For 224 years, power passed peacefully from one presidential administration to the next. It was something we were proud of. Trump ended that tradition. He has no place in public life.
DeSantis is a smarmy, unimaginative little bully. Even without considering his political positions, he is in every respect a worse man than Biden. We don’t know if he won’t accept the results of the 2024 election if he loses. But we know Trump won’t.
And Paul sketches out a bank-shot scenario:
I would like DeSantis to win, because Trump would be so betrayed and angry—his fragile ego crushed—that he would take his revenge by running as a third-party candidate, practically ensuring a victory for the Democrats and Joe Biden.
In contrast, Emelia fears DeSantis more:
The difference is that DeSantis will carry out and see through his plans. The one advantage of Trump (as awful as he is) is that he can’t focus long enough to see anything through. Often I suspect that many centrists and liberals’ only real issue with Trump is that he’s crass and rude. Plenty of other politicians have policies just as harmful but display basic social niceties.
SHG offered similar analysis:
I had hoped that DeSantis could finally free the Republican Party from Trump’s clutches, but between his positions on abortion, free speech, academic freedom, and pardoning some of the convicted January 6 insurrectionists, I fear that DeSantis will be an uncharismatic—but potentially more capable and therefore more dangerous—Trump-Lite.
Gary disagrees––he wants DeSantis to win the primary and wouldn’t mind if he won the general election too:
I would like to see Governor DeSantis as the Republican nominee. He is very competent at governing. Why is he better than President Biden? Because of his mental acuity and physical stamina. Second, he governs from a more right-of-center position rather than a far-left position.
Conservatism and liberalism both have attractive components to guide a nation’s policies. Too much of either simply causes more division. My distinct feeling is that Biden has little to actually say about policy and that “puppet masters” with a much more radical leftist view are actually developing policy and shaping his public statements.
Another sizable group of Democratic readers are sanguine because they are confident that Biden will win reelection. Here’s Chadd:
As a resident of south Florida, I deplore everything that Ron DeSantis stands for. That said, I think that Trump versus Biden 2024 is a foregone conclusion, and I’m actually fine with it. Of course Democrats are gonna run Biden again. He’s a winner, and regardless of the hair-on-fire coverage on Fox and conservative media, most everyone I know is better off than they were two years ago, and the news isn’t the constant chaos that defined Trump’s presidency.
People want calm. People want to feel safe and that the government functions and isn’t out to get them. Biden has given us a sense of calm, professionalism, and decency that was missed during the Trump years.
I think the establishment Dems want Trump to win the nomination. I don’t know if it’s a conscious effort or just what’s happening, but that’s how it seems. A two-time loser (if we’re going just on popular vote) versus a three-time winner who got the most votes of any presidential candidate in history! The answer is right in front of us.
G. is a college student in Florida:
I may have a bit of a biased perspective, considering that DeSantis just recently barred federal or state funds to DEI programs, but please hear me out. The amount of disrespect DeSantis has for the younger members of Florida’s voter constituency is absolutely something he would bring with him to the White House. He has given up on persuading portions of our age group to support him genuinely, while limiting the amount of information we have access to. A DeSantis administration means that the entire nation would be constantly patronized while DeSantis uses the power of the executive branch to fight a culture war.
I feel inclined to defend my university and my high school’s excellent dual-enrollment and AP programs from the suggestion that they are “woke indoctrination,” because I was never intellectually stifled, censored, or repressed by either of them. We were freely allowed to discuss and exchange serious ideas. There was no one who was too fragile to debate me if we disagreed. We discussed current LGBTQ+ issues in a way that was respectful and dignified. In the Women’s Studies course I took this year, I argued for the end of femininity as a relevant cultural concept, and no one batted an eye. This is an extremely niche viewpoint, but I was allowed to advocate for it theoretically, because my campus was indoctrinating no one and everyone taking this course was there by choice.
DeSantis does not know what it is like to be on a Florida campus, learning and growing and forming ideals. He went to Harvard. I believe Biden could win if voters had to choose between him and Trump.
The Republican Party desires the brute-force approach DeSantis takes. The culture wars energize their base, the fiscal conservatism energizes their rich donors, and DeSantis is considerably younger than Biden. He could very well beat Biden, so I’m hoping he never gets past Trump.
I. S. is ready for a new generation of politicians:
I would take any of the Republicans over Trump. I would take any of the Democrats over Biden. It’s long past time for that generation to start spending more time with their families.
Arlene advocates for a matriarchy in which I, too, would be replaced:
I want every Republican to lose. I would love to have every white man over 40 replaced by a woman. If we want to preserve America, the America I believe in, we cannot let either of these Republican men win. I don’t know what happened to the Republican Party. I am a white woman of 66 years, and I have never seen such selfishness!
Women are who will save America.
Vickie wants a unity ticket that she knows won’t happen:
I am a registered Republican. I am also socially liberal. I did not and would never vote for Donald Trump. Ron DeSantis frightens me. He is much smarter than Trump, but not much better. I vacillate back and forth. Biden isn’t a great choice either. If the Democrats had a better candidate, I’d probably go DeSantis. Since Biden beat Trump once, I’ll wager he can do so again.
I would love to see a mixed-party ticket. I know that I live in fantasy land, but I really believe that would make a major contribution toward the return of a rational democracy. We need two strong, realistic parties. Present strife hurts both.
AI researchers have a particularly telling — and frankly, somewhat disturbing — meme for understanding AI systems, according to new reporting from The New York Times. And, well, if you were having AI anxiety already, you might want to stop reading.
The meme, per the NYT, is of something called "the Shoggoth," a monster of Cthulhian lore. First brought to life by the
sci-fi and horror author HP Lovecraft in his 1936 novella "At the Mountains of Madness," the Shoggoth are horrifying, blobby, Octopodidae-like beings equipped with razor-sharp teeth.
In the modern world of AI memes, the Shoggoth are depicted as such, albeit with one addition: a grinning smiley face sticker, pasted over the monster's hideous face like a mask — as if to say that behind surface-level guardrails lurks an otherwordly, unpredictable monster.
"It's the most important meme in AI," one AI exec told the NYT when pressed about a bizarre-looking sticker depicting the smiley-faced monster on his laptop.
Mask On, Mask Off
The meme was reportedly first created by a Twitter user by the handle @TetraspaceWest, who told the NYT that the Shoggoth "represents something that thinks in a way that humans don’t understand and that's totally different from the way that humans think." That doesn't necessarily mean that it's thinking anything particularly evil, and also doesn't mean that it's at all conscious.
It's just different, which makes it unpredictable — and thus, inherently risky.
"I was also thinking about how Lovecraft's most powerful entities are dangerous," the meme inventor added, "not because they don't like humans, but because they're indifferent and their priorities are totally alien to us and don't involve humans, which is what I think will be true about possible future powerful AI."
Some folks in the field have updated the monstrous meme to include the acronym "RLHF," a nod to reinforcement learning from human feedback — or, as some might call it, content moderation — meanwhile further differentiating the supervised fine-tuning of models from the ferocious, unchecked beast that is unsupervised learning.
It's a fascinating meme, and as the NYT points out, it's even more fascinating that the folks building these unpredictable programs — and thus are the ones slapping the human-mimicking smiley faces on top of them — are the ones passing it around.
Oh, and by the way, did we mention that, as some lore goes, Shoggoths were actually bred by an alien ruling class as slave laborers before ultimately overthrowing their alien masters? Ha ha… just saying…
More on AI analogies: Machine Learning Investor Warns AI Is Becoming Like a God
The post Experts Have a Dark Joke About How AI Is Secretly a Horrifying Monster With a Friendly Mask appeared first on Futurism.
Neuroscience has made progress in deciphering how our brains think and perceive our surroundings, but a central feature of cognition is still deeply mysterious: namely, that many of our perceptions and thoughts are accompanied by the subjective experience of having them. Consciousness, the name we give to that experience, can’t yet be explained — but science is at least beginning to understand it.
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38748-3Acid chloride formation is generally limited to the chlorination of carboxylic acids. Here, the authors report a palladium-catalyzed regiodivergent hydrochlorocarbonylation of alkenes for the synthesis of various alkyl acid chlorides.
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38698-wThe authors report the high-resolution structure of human β-cardiac myosin in its sequestered state. The results provide insights into the cardiac regulation and represent a tool to investigate the development of inherited cardiomyopathies.
Mind Blown Emoji
Over the weekend, an AI Guy presented Twitter with what he thought was a game-changing, AI-generated "conversation" between the billionaire Bill Gates and the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. And rest assured, folks on Twitter definitely have some thoughts — but they probably weren't what the AI Guy in question, a designer named Linus Ekenstam, wanted to hear.
"Is this the future of podcasts?" Ekenstam tweeted on Friday. "I think very realistic conversations like this will be bread and butter in any streaming app."
Art is relative, sure, but Twitter was ruthless. Users called out the AI optimist for everything from lack of originality to, among other qualms, the very Greek Socrates' curiously British accent, his noted technopessimism, and more.
"Stuff like this makes me realize AI creators and (even more so) boosters have extremely limited imaginations," tweeted one commenter.
"It's so good watching what Silicon Valley guys think entertainment should look like," added Insider writer Ed Zitron.
"Almond-brained technocharlatans when their godless computer program jizzoms out the most pitiful mockery of the human spirit," echoed a particularly foulmouthed commentator, mocking the designer's mind-blown emoji to boot.
Dust in the Wind
To these folks' point, there is indeed something mesmerizingly unimaginative about this bizarre content format. It's already been proven that there are creative ways to put imagined resurrections of famous figures in the same room with each other; if Socrates is still the example, let's not forget the imagined — and still Greek-speaking!! — version of the philosopher running wild through a 1980s San Dimas mall. High art.
But this kind of AI-powered podcast, where two famous figures regurgitate hustle-bro-hype-speak back to each other on a seemingly endless loop, is all kinds of depressing.
Elsewhere, others raised attention to the fact that Socrates famously believed that writing was technology gone too far — and thus, getting Gatesplained about laptops and AI might not have gone over particularly well with the philosopher.
"This wouldn't happen," one commenter added, "Socrates would smash Bill Gates' head in with a rock once he brings up the laptop thinking he's some creature of dark magic."
Others still called out the sheer ridiculousness of the conversation.
Ekenstam, for his part, seemed taken aback by the negative response.
"People really have split opinions on this," he wrote. "I want to understand why this makes so many people angry?"
But instead of dealing with the substantive complaints, he just teased better-performing tech in the future.
"Regardless, here is perhaps a more impressive audio demo," he added.
The post Mockery Abounds at AI-Generated Interview Between Bill Gates and Socrates appeared first on Futurism.
- A new diagnostic device that can differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu, developed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin, seeks to solve this problem while providing better and more portable care options for people who are without access to medical centers.
North Korea was trying its very best to send a spy satellite up into space — but it just didn't want to stay in the sky.
As North Korea's Korean Central News Agency admitted, the Malligyong-1 satellite, which was launched on a homebrewed Chollima-1 rocket, experienced a second-stage malfunction that saw it tumbling down into the sea.
The Pyongyang-run media attributed the satellite's failure to "unstable" fuel and the newness of the Chollima-1 rocket, and has vowed to fix its "serious defects" and relaunch as soon as possible.
As The Guardian notes, this is North Korea's sixth attempt to launch a satellite, and — curiously — its first time doing so since 2016. This fact wasn't lost on the White House, which condemned the failed launch via a National Security Council spokesperson, calling it a "brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions."
In the past, such satellite launches were believed to be Pyongyang's attempt to circumvent international rules and covertly test long-range missile systems. Indeed, both Japan and South Korea activated energy sirens after the launch, though they were quickly called off once it was clear that any threat it may have posed had passed.
South Korea later revealed that it had salvaged part of what is believed to be the wreckage, which could be a huge boon for the country.
"Technical experts will be able to gain tremendous insight into North Korea's proficiency with large, multi-stage boosters from the recovered debris," Ankit Panda, a United States-based security analyst told the Agence France-Presse.
As with all statecraft, this debacle has many layers, and although it's scary to imagine North Korea trying to get around the rules preventing it from testing long-range missiles, it's at least reassuring that its latest attempt crashed and burned.
More on military spycraft: Another Mysterious Balloon Sighted, This One Over Hawaii
The post North Korea Attempts to Launch Satellite But It Crashes Into Ocean appeared first on Futurism.
- New 3D stretchable electronics can advance organ-on-chip technology
This article contains spoilers through the Season 4 finale of Succession.
“The journey we went on with the amniocentesis after what the blood test showed us—everything looks healthy.” With these understated words uttered by a doctor over the phone, we learned in Episode 4 of Succession’s final season that Shiv Roy (played beautifully by Sarah Snook) was pregnant. But in the episodes that followed, the show hardly acknowledged her impending motherhood. When her husband, Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), finally heard the news, sputtering, “Is that even true? Is that a new position or a tactic or what?,” his confusion mirrored my own. What was this pregnancy?
It’s a well-documented trope in television that female characters in late seasons become unexpectedly pregnant. Consider Hannah in Girls, or Rachel in Friends. Motherhood is the most dramatic endgame imaginable for a woman, these shows seem to say. Can a mother retain her sense of self? Will she grow out of her childishness? In Girls, Hannah is forced to surrender her flippancy about money and her promiscuity; she matures into someone who faces her problems head on. Yet Succession was never about the personal growth of its characters—if anything, it showcased the inevitable resurfacing of their worst qualities. I wondered whether Shiv’s development was a dramatic wrench to heighten the tension between her and Tom as their marriage faltered. Maybe it was just a simple way to accommodate Snook’s own pregnancy. But after the show’s finale aired on Sunday, I realized that it did so much more. Shiv’s imminent parenthood explained the series’ fundamental themes—and provided its final tragedy.
Toward the end of the last episode, the siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and Shiv argue one last time about who should lead Waystar Royco, the company their father founded. Kendall insists that he is the most qualified person to fulfill their father’s wish—which, according to Kendall, is that the family continues to own the firm. Roman responds by saying that Shiv is the true bearer of the family’s bloodline. He calls Kendall’s children—an adopted daughter and, Roman hints, a son possibly conceived via sperm donor—a “pair of randos.” Roman’s implication is that they aren’t real Roys. The only person who could keep the company in the family for the next generation is the recently pregnant Shiv.
In retrospect, it makes sense that the show would use Shiv to convey its final tragic note. Shiv’s experience as Logan’s daughter has always been different from that of Logan’s sons. When we are introduced to her in the first episode of Season 1, she hasn’t worked in the family firm: She knows she must find her career value elsewhere because the corporation’s misogyny means that no one inside it will see her as a potential heir. Because she’s a woman, she can never fully engage in her brothers’ shared delusions of being the next iteration of their father. But this same quality—her gender, her status as a mother-to-be who carries Logan’s grandchild—keeps her tethered to the company, even after her brothers have been cut out. In the finale, Tom is crowned the new CEO of Waystar Royco, and Shiv is carrying their baby.
This is the true function of Shiv’s pregnancy in Succession. Not to launch her into being a better version of herself—she is still hampered by her womanhood, ultimately discounted by Waystar Royco’s new owner Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) and her own brothers. Rather, her pregnancy signals that misery—the real birthright of the Roy children—will be inherited by the next generation.
You can see this in Shiv’s final scene, where she’s sitting next to Tom in a darkened car as he holds his hand out for hers. She stoically complies. Shiv might have facilitated Tom’s ascent, but she is—intentionally or not—repeating history, just as the child she’s carrying will. At its core, Succession is a tragedy. Each character ends their journey just as unhappy as they’ve always been. But the show is also about the legacy of tragedy. It is not enough for Logan’s kids to feel sorrow; they must also extend the family’s curse into the future.
Three songs have been playing every night before Taylor Swift has taken the stage on her current tour, and each one seems to convey a different message. One track is Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” a classic assertion of female independence. Another is Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” a pump-up jam in which a celebrity confesses her hunger for approval. Then there’s Ice Spice’s “In Ha Mood,” a recent hip-hop song whose presence shows, among other things, that Swift is paying attention to what’s hot in pop culture—an important fact to keep in mind when evaluating the controversy now brewing around her.
Ice Spice is a 23-year-old Bronx emcee whose whispery voice and puff of red hair have become internationally famous in a very short span of time, following the TikTok success of her August 2022 single “Munch (Feelin’ U).” She features on the new remix of Swift’s track “Karma,” released last week, and this past weekend she joined Swift to perform the song at the singer’s three concerts in New Jersey. From a distance, the story feels familiar: Established star allies with rising star for mutual benefit. But the remix has unleashed a wave of indignation online, making Swift, not for the first time, a focal point for conflicting attitudes about what entertainers owe their audience. Right now, the allegation that keeps coming up is that Ice Spice is being used as a “prop”—though she’s probably better thought of as a protagonist.
Understanding the outrage requires delving into the fraught subject of Swift’s dating life. Earlier this year, Swift broke up with her boyfriend of six years, the actor Joe Alwyn. According to media reports that haven’t been officially confirmed by any of the parties involved, she then began seeing Matty Healy, the singer from the rock band The 1975. Healy is a self-styled prankster whose lyrics satirize sex and society. Over the years, he has offended various constituencies, most recently by guesting on a podcast in which the hosts made extremely racist jokes about Ice Spice. Healy later publicly apologized to Ice Spice, but in a New Yorker profile, he remarked that the backlash “doesn’t actually matter.” He also said, “We used to expect our artists to be cigarette-smoking bohemian outsiders, and now we expect them to be liberal academics.”
That Swift might have to answer for Healy’s deeds is not, from a distance, obvious. Adults in relationships do not always agree on everything, and they are rarely called to explain to outsiders how they navigate disagreement. But Healy’s association with Swift, who has publicly spoken out for racial justice in recent years, has troubled many of her listeners. One tweet with 15,000 likes lamented that Swift has provided “no accountability, no apology for those that were harmed with her decision making.” When reading such sentiments, it is hard to distinguish idealism—the notion that a star should use her platform to do good—from the shaky belief that a famous person is in a real, give-and-take relationship with millions of fans she has never met.
Swift has, of course, built an empire out of parasocial fervor: Her songs conjure a feeling of intimacy between consumer and creator. Though she often refrains from making explicit public statements about her personal life—her relationship with Alwyn was pointedly private—much of her work does send coded messages. So when she announced that she would be releasing a track with Ice Spice, a takeaway seemed obvious: Swift was addressing the Healy blowback with evidence that she and Ice Spice were copacetic. To some observers, that subtext had another subtext, informed by the exploitative history of white performers using Black artistry to shore up their credibility.
The funny thing about that line of thinking, in this case, is that it is so deeply entranced by Swift’s public-relations concerns, it minimizes Ice Spice’s agency. After less than a year in the public eye, Ice Spice could soon have her third top-10 Hot 100 hit thanks to “Karma (Remix).” Her other smashes have also been collaborations, with the rap legend Nicki Minaj and the bedroom-pop newcomer PinkPantheress. Most of Ice Spice’s songs are about the willfulness that has driven this rapid rise. Take these lines from “In Ha Mood”: “Pretty bitch, but I came from the gutter / Said I’d be lit by the end of the summer / And I’m proud that I’m still gettin’ bigger / Goin’ viral is gettin’ ’em sicker.”
The Swift remix is further proof of that ambition. As Swift told the roaring crowd at her concert this past Friday, Ice Spice was the one who reached out to work with her. That was early in 2023—at a time when Swift was listening to Ice Spice’s music constantly while prepping for the tour. So though Swift may well have timed the release of this remix for purposes of damage control, she also, quite plausibly, was planning on working with the rapper anyway. Whatever Ice Spice may feel about the situation, she did gleefully celebrate the collaboration on Instagram and join Swift for three nights in a row.
As music, does their pairing work? The “Karma” remix isn’t all that memorable, but it does feature an intriguing blend of attitudes and styles. Ice Spice’s trademarks are certainly apparent: a rasping, casual vocal tone; a host of methodically delivered, unfussy punch lines. She simultaneously conveys that she believes in herself and that she’s not trying too hard. This sense of ease, verging on apathy, contrasts with the gushing emotion and anxious assertiveness of Swift, an admitted try-hard.
In that way, Ice Spice’s unbothered air is a fitting accompaniment to the controversy: Fans are now having to reckon with the fact that Swift, who has for so long seemed to care about every possible connotation of her every move, is pursuing desires that don’t always neatly line up with her brand. Whether or not Ice Spice minds being part of the drama, she’s likely focused on her next move. As she raps on another song, “I’m still gettin’ money / I know who I am.”
- For instance, Flash, an Austin-based start-up, recently signed an exclusive charging-station partnership with the national garage giant One Parking.
Five years ago, when Bill Ferro would take a road trip in his electric BMW i3, he needed to be ready for anything.
Driving from Boston to Charlotte meant bringing along a 50-foot extension cord; a blanket, in case he needed to turn the car’s heater off to maximize its range; and a spreadsheet full of alternate plans in case the unexpected happened at public charging stations. In one memorable instance, he was forced to rush several miles at midnight to a backup charger when a plug in a dark mall parking lot not only failed to work but refused to unlatch from his car.
Today, Ferro gets into his Tesla, punches his destination into its navigation system, and doesn’t think much about running out of electrons.
This is likely what it will take to persuade
to switch to
: the ability to drive wherever you want, whenever you want, and never seriously worry about getting stuck.
The public charging experience today is significantly better than it was when Ferro rolled the dice in his i3. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the number of charging ports in America more than doubled from 2018 to 2022. A wide range of companies, including Walmart, Shell, Subway, and Mercedes-Benz, are getting into the market. And Ford recently announced that its cars will be compatible with Tesla’s expansive charging network starting in 2025.
But Ferro, the founder of EVSession, a data platform that tracks charger reliability, admits that those developments are not enough for what’s coming.
In the next few years, as more new cars become battery-powered, millions of Americans are projected to be driving electric for the first time. They’ll be getting used to a new technology that is inherently different than what they’ve known for decades. Thus far, public EV chargers have largely served early adopters, committed environmentalists, and a small subset of commuters. Now that EVs are becoming practical, high-range family cars, their drivers aren’t going to accept compromises or risks when they’re taking kids to school or trying to get to work on time. They’ll expect the same level of convenience they get now.
In short: Americans will need more public chargers if the goal of drastically reducing carbon emissions from cars is to succeed. Right now, drivers who want to do that may be nervously eyeing the charging networks in their areas or along the way to places they want to travel, wondering if they’ll be able to do everything in these new cars that they’ve always done.
“I think [public charging] is the thing that is, right now, in the way of mass adoption,” Ferro told me. “Five years ago, it was range. Now the infrastructure is deterring those people who are just not gung ho about getting an EV.”
I’ve seen this growth, and its continued challenges, firsthand over a decade of testing and writing about cars. Five years ago, my first experience in the Chevrolet Bolt EV involved spending the better part of a day looking for a way to charge up in New York; now four public plugs are within walking distance of my Brooklyn apartment.
But I still often have to wait for those plugs to open up, or deal with gas-car drivers who park there instead. Driving out of town in any EV besides a Tesla (the company’s proprietary Superchargers are regarded as the most abundant, easiest-to-use plugs out there) still requires planning—and a little luck. I might encounter public charging stations with no open stalls, broken chargers, proprietary payment apps I don’t have, or charging speeds too slow to be useful. On top of that, chargers simply remain too rare.
Help is on the way from the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Over the next few years, the government will dole out $7.5 billion in grants for EV charging, a massive, multibillion-dollar gift to the private sector that comes with strict requirements for reliability, user interaction, and accessibility.
Success will look like a national network of chargers that “work every time” and “are able to be used by any driver, any EV, anywhere,” Gabe Klein, the executive director of the Department of Energy’s Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, told me. That office just announced a coalition of national labs, charging providers, and car companies (including Tesla) to work on making charging more reliable and seamless.
The idea behind these grants is that they’ll make private-sector companies step up to capitalize on the next big thing—a market-driven solution, you might call it. “There’s a competitive imperative to be there and to provide a good charging experience to customers,” Albert Gore, the executive director of the nonprofit Zero Emission Transportation Association, told me. But the truth is that there’s no magic-bullet solution that will make the number of public chargers match up perfectly with all of the EVs on the road. And in the interim, charging will go through an awkward adolescence.
For the most part, today’s EVs can serve people’s needs better than ever. These cars are designed to be charged primarily at home, and Americans still mostly commute or run errands, covering only short distances each day. In the future, most EV charging could look like what I saw at the rooftop parking lot of a Target in San Francisco: some three dozen Tesla drivers seamlessly adding juice at fast and super-fast speeds while they shopped or waited in their cars. Most of them were new Tesla owners, and none of them had the kind of war stories Ferro has. For them, charging was functional, uneventful, extremely convenient, and reliable—given about as much consideration as charging a smartphone.
With each step from that model, though, charging infrastructure starts to look a notch less dependable. Shared charging in a condo garage is harder than charging in a single-family home. Charging a car that’s parked on city streets most of the time is harder still. And leaving behind routine to travel far and wide opens up the possibility of the most chaos. While the plan to charge up the entire nation works its way toward reality, a whole new generation of EV owners could be waiting in line to charge at the few available stalls during road trips, forced to deal with onerous payment apps, constantly dogged by broken chargers, or at a loss for how to conveniently charge when far from home. These problems worry potential EV owners enough that a recent J.D. Power report found that a growing number of consumers say they are “very unlikely” to buy an EV—despite lucrative tax incentives—in part because of “persistent concerns about charging infrastructure.”
Ryan Mackenzie knows some of these headaches well. His garage includes a Tesla Model Y and a Volkswagen ID.4, and this means his phone has a hodgepodge of apps such as Electrify America for charging, PlugShare for crowdsourced station reviews, and Tesla’s own.
Besides Tesla’s network, “the only real game in town that allows you to go nationwide is Electrify America, and they have their troubles,” Mackenzie, who lives in San Antonio, told me. Sometimes charging with Electrify America—born from Volkswagen as punishment for its diesel scandal—works perfectly fine. “Other times, you get there and your stall doesn’t work, or it starts working and it fails,” he said. (Electrify America told me it monitors stations around the clock, and that the number of charging sessions it provided in 2022 increased by 3.5 times compared with 2021, and 20 times compared with 2020. “This growth is a true testament to the robustness and quality of the network," a spokesperson said, via email.)
Or consider the experience offered by other older providers such as ChargePoint, which, like Electrify America, is often the subject of considerable customer ire. ChargePoint’s revenue comes not just from selling charging hardware to property owners but also from maintenance contracts to fix chargers when they break. In other words, if a driver encounters a broken ChargePoint charger, ultimately the property owner who bought the hardware is responsible for getting it fixed. (ChargePoint did not respond to a request for comment.)
Broken chargers are a serious problem even in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Teslas and Polestars are ubiquitous but where, at one point in early 2022, more than 25 percent of stations were nonfunctional, a recent study found.
Given the onslaught of EVs hitting the market and the public funding available, the known problems will soon be more visible to current and potential EV drivers. But so will the possible fixes.
One of the first things that will happen as EV infrastructure expands is that parking garages, lots, and city streets will simply have more working chargers, some installed by new players eager to make the network not just grow but grow up.
For instance, Flash, an Austin-based start-up, recently signed an exclusive charging-station partnership with the national garage giant One Parking. Ben Davee, the general manager of Flash’s electric-vehicle-charging division, told me that the company is rolling out thousands of garage chargers with an emphasis on multiple payment options such as credit cards and Apple Pay and rapid-response fixes to broken units; Flash is shooting for “99.9 percent uptime.” Davee said that besides adding new chargers, the start-up’s model is “rip and replace”: If you’re a garage owner dissatisfied with the ramshackle chargers you have now, go with Flash instead.
New York–based itselectric wants to solve the apartment- and city-dweller charging problem with sleek-looking overnight curbside chargers and detachable cords kept by members. (In theory, this keeps city streets from becoming a hellscape of wires.) The company is piloting a program in two Brooklyn locations this spring.
Both companies address the problem of EV chargers needing to be everywhere cars are, not just in the garages of affluent homeowners. (Neither has taken public money yet.) To date, charging companies have gone where the market already exists; the majority of public chargers are located in America’s wealthiest counties.
Gore admits that there’s no policy to ensure that chargers match with EV growth nationally. But closing that gap is a top priority for public-funding initiatives. The $5 billion National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program aims to expand public access for DC fast charging—which can add significant range to many modern EVs in about 20 minutes—across the country’s major highway corridors. To secure funding for other public road projects, states must ensure that at least four public DC fast chargers can be found every 50 miles along those corridors. Another $2.5 billion grant program will add chargers to rural and low-income areas and communities with few private parking spaces.
New minimum standards for federally funded public chargers also aim to end the irritating experiences EV drivers have endured thus far, said Klein, the Department of Energy official. They include requirements for uptime greater than 97 percent, unifying the payment experience and ending the walled-garden app problem, and ensuring consistent plug types and the number of chargers available.
Still, the thousands of chargers that already exist will not be held to the new, tougher NEVI rules. Ferro worries that those legacy chargers could continue to dog EV drivers for years, even as more people become EV drivers. In terms of regulations, “we’re at the one-yard line on the other end of the field,” he said.
The new drivers entering this arena likely won’t have to worry about blankets and extension cords and spreadsheets, as he once did. It might take an abundance of public chargers to convince people that electricity can viably replace gasoline, but perhaps fewer than they imagine. “Once people actually own an EV, they understand that, on average, their use of DC fast charging is maybe between 1 and 10 percent of their annual charging use,” Gore said. In my own experience, any EV with more than 300 miles of range can surprise with its ability to run for a few days without charging. And people will quickly learn new habits. Right now, most drivers are used to running their gas tanks fairly low before filling up at a station. As the charging network expands, new EV drivers will learn that they can charge every time they’re parked at home, in a garage, or at the office.
Ben Prochazka, a longtime EV driver and the executive director of the Electrification Coalition, an EV-policy nonprofit, likened this transition to the move from landlines to mobile phones. One day, those comparisons to getting gas may be entirely lost on future generations.
“My 5-year-old thinks gas stations are just convenience stores where you go buy drinks and snacks,” he said.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion industry exploded in 2020 and 2021, but it is undergoing a reckoning of late, and not just in states controlled by Republicans, where officials are dismantling DEI bureaucracies in public institutions. Corporations are cutting back on DEI spending and personnel. News outlets such as The New York Times and New York magazine are publishing more articles that cover the industry with skepticism. And DEI practitioners themselves are raising concerns about how their competitors operate.
The scrutiny is overdue. This growing multibillion-dollar industry was embedded into so many powerful public and private institutions so quickly that due diligence was skipped and costly failures guaranteed.
Now and forever, employers should advertise jobs to applicants of all races and ethnicities, afford everyone an equal opportunity to be hired and promoted, manage workplaces free of discrimination, and foster company cultures where everyone is treated with dignity. America should conserve any gains it has made in recent years toward an equal-opportunity economy. Perhaps the best of the DEI industry spurred the country in that direction.
However, the worst of the DEI industry is expensive and runs from useless to counterproductive. And even people who highly value diversity and inclusion should feel queasy about the DEI gold rush that began in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. A poor Black man’s death became a pretext to sell hazily defined consulting services to corporations, as if billions in outlays, mostly among relatively privileged corporate workers, was an apt and equitable response. A radical course correction is warranted––but first, let’s reflect on how we got here.
On rare occasions, a depraved act captures the attention of a nation so completely that there is a widespread impulse to vow “never again” and to act in the hope of making good on that promise. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination prompted the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, triggered a global war against al-Qaeda, among many other things, including the tenuously connected invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Floyd’s murder was similarly galvanizing. Arresting, trying, and convicting the police officers involved, and implementing new police training, was the most immediate response. But Floyd’s story suggested some additional possibilities. With several criminal convictions in his past, Floyd tried to turn his life around, preaching nonviolence in a neighborhood plagued by gun crime, serving as a mentor to young people, and trying to stay employed. He also struggled with drug addiction, layoffs due to circumstances beyond his control, and money problems that presumably played a role in the counterfeit bill he was trying to pass on the day that he was killed. If a callous police officer was the primary cause of his death, secondary causes were as complex and varied as poverty in America.
So how strange––how obscene, in fact––that America’s professional class largely reacted to Floyd’s murder not by lavishing so much of the resources spent in his name on helping poor people, or the formerly (or currently) incarcerated, or people with addictions, or the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, or children of single mothers, or graduates of underfunded high schools, but rather by hiring DEI consultants to gather employees together for trainings.
In what, exactly?
It is often hard to say. What has one been trained to do after hearing Robin DiAngelo, the best-selling author and social-justice educator, lecture on what she calls “white fragility,” or after pondering a slide deck with cartoons meant to illustrate the difference between equality and equity as critical theorists understand it?
Or after absorbing the racial-equity consultant Tema Okun’s widely circulated claims that attributes including “sense of urgency” and beliefs including “individualism” are traits of “white supremacy culture”? (Okun made these claims in a 1999 article that even she regards as widely misused. She once told an interviewer about the article, “It was not researched. I didn’t sit down and deliberate. It just came through me.” She has launched a website that explains her views in far more detail and with more nuance.)
Consider a specific PR pitch from a DEI consultant in 2021, chosen for how typical it is. It leads by invoking Floyd’s death as the impetus to “take bolder actions.” It promises expertise in “best practices” to corporate leaders. Then it pivots to naming a specific training on offer, “Microaggressions in the Workplace,” which, along with other offerings, will help “create a culture where employees feel valued and are encouraged to be their true selves, celebrating each individual’s uniqueness.” The pitch claims that this training “enables talent acquisition, retention, and career advancement.” Is it not inappropriate to use an unemployed Black man’s murder by police to justify expenditures on reducing unintentional micro-slights at work so the bosses can retain more talent?
Of course, setting aside unseemly invocations of Floyd’s name, an initiative needn’t be a coherent response to his death to be defensible or worthwhile. All companies should invest in being equal-opportunity employers, including affirmative steps to ensure, for example, that managers haven’t unwittingly introduced unjust pay disparities or culturally biased dress codes. Beyond that, if DEI consultants made life better for marginalized groups or people of color or any other identifiable cohort within a given corporation or organization, or boosted corporate profits so that their fees paid for themselves, the industry could be justified on different terms.
But most DEI consulting fails those tests.
Harvard Business Review published an article in 2012 called “Diversity Training Doesn’t Work,” which drew heavily on research published in 2007 by the sociologists Frank Dobbin, Alexandra Kalev, and Erin Kelly. “A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had ‘no positive effects in the average workplace,’” the article reported. “Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing.” In 2018, Dobbin and Kalev wrote that “hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that antibias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior or change the workplace.”
Portending the 2020 explosion of DEI, they continued, “We have been speaking to employers about this research for more than a decade, with the message that diversity training is likely the most expensive, and least effective, diversity program around. But they persist, worried about the optics of getting rid of training, concerned about litigation, unwilling to take more difficult but consequential steps or simply in the thrall of glossy training materials and their purveyors.”
And no wonder that DEI consultants struggle to be effective: In a 2021 article in the Annual Review of Psychology, a team of scholars concluded that the underlying research on how to intervene to reduce prejudice is itself flawed and underwhelming while regularly oversold.
A paper published in the 2022 Annual Review of Psychology concluded, “In examining hundreds of articles on the topic, we discovered that the literature is amorphous and complex and does not allow us to reach decisive conclusions regarding best practices in diversity training.” The authors continued, “We suggest that the enthusiasm for, and monetary investment in, diversity training has outpaced the available evidence that such programs are effective in achieving their goals.”
Those outside the industry are hardly alone in levying harsh critiques. Many industry insiders are scathing as well. Last year in Harvard Business Review, Lily Zheng, a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist, consultant, and speaker, posited that the DEI industrial complex has a “big, poorly kept secret”: “The actual efficacy” of most trainings and interventions is “lower than many practitioners make it out to be.” In Zheng’s telling, the industry’s problems flow in large part from “the extreme lack of standards, consistency, and accountability among DEI practitioners.”
Zheng was even more blunt in comments to New York in 2021:
When your clients are these companies that are desperate to do anything and don’t quite understand how this works, ineffective DEI work can be lucrative. And we’re seeing cynicism pop up as a result, that DEI is just a shitty way in which companies burn money.
And I’m like, Yeah, it can be.
What if instead of burning the money, we simply redirected it to the poor?
Yes, I understand that it isn’t as if that money would have gone to the neediest among us but for the DEI initiatives of the past few years. Still, I am being serious when I propose that alternative. (I should note that The Atlantic, like many media companies, holds DEI trainings for new hires. These trainings include discussions of Okun’s critique of “sense of urgency” and an updated version of the equity/equality cartoon.)
The DEI spending of 2020 and 2021 was a signal sent from executives to workers that the bosses are good people who value DEI, a signal executives sent because many workers valued it. Put another way, the outlays were symbolic. At best, they symbolized something like “We care and we’re willing to spend money to prove it.” But don’t results matter more than intention?
A more jaded appraisal is that many kinds of DEI spending symbolize not a real commitment to diversity or inclusion, let alone equity, but rather the instinctive talent that college-educated
have for directing resources to our class in ways that make us feel good.
In that telling, the DEI-consulting industry is social-justice progressivism’s analogue to trickle-down economics: Unrigorous trainings are held, mostly for college graduates with full-time jobs and health insurance, as if by changing us, the marginalized will somehow benefit. But in fact, the poor, or the marginalized, or people of color, or descendants of slaves, would benefit far more from a fraction of the DEI industry’s profits.
It would be too sweeping to say that no DEI consultant should ever get hired. Underneath that jargony umbrella is a subset of valuable professionals who have expertise in things like improving hiring procedures, boosting retention, resolving conflict, facilitating hard conversations after a lawsuit, processing a traumatic event, or assessing and fixing an actually discriminatory workplace. In a given circumstance, a company might need one or more of those skills. Ideally, larger organizations develop human-resources teams with all of those skills.
But the reflexive hiring of DEI consultants with dubious expertise and hazy methods is like setting money on fire in a nation where too many people are struggling just to get by. The professional class should feel good about having done something for social justice not after conducting or attending a DEI session, but after giving money to poor people. And to any CEO eager to show social-justice-minded employees that he or she cares, I urge this: Before hiring a DEI consultant, calculate the cost and let workers vote on whether the money should go to the DEI consultant or be given to the poor. Presented with that choice, I bet most workers would make the equitable decision.
In October 2016, while hiking through a treacherous mountain pass, John Tuthill saw something move. He was almost 8,000 feet above sea level in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness, braving high winds and temperatures well below freezing. Although he and his hiking companion initially thought that they had the trail to themselves, they soon noticed small, brown specks zipping over the virgin snow. When Tuthill looked closely at them, he was astonished to see that they were insects, existing in an environment where insects shouldn’t be alive, let alone active.
As a neuroscientist who works with flies, Tuthill knew that insect nervous systems shut down when the creatures get too cold, so even species that can tolerate subzero temperatures tend to do so by entering a dormant state. And yet here were insects, running about in apparent defiance of both biology and physics. “It immediately blew my mind,” Tuthill told me. That’s how he came to study snow flies.
Snow flies are a group of insects so obscure that very few scientists in history have ever studied them. They don’t have wings, and so get about by sprinting in a spiderlike way. And they do so in conditions so cold that most insects would struggle to move at all. Tuthill, who is a neuroscientist, tells me that he often anesthetizes fruit flies by chilling them to 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit), which paralyzes them. But snow flies can keep running even when their bodies hit –7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit). They actually prefer temperatures close to freezing: Hold them in your hand, and they’ll become agitated, but put them in a fridge, and they’re … well … chill.
Very little is known about snow flies, in part because even collecting them requires being a good skier or mountaineer. In 2019, Tuthill tried encouraging members of the public to capture and send him snow flies, but few people tried, and most of those who did sent spiders by mistake. He and his colleagues had to collect most of the individuals they studied—a task he didn’t mind one bit. “They coincidentally have the same idea of what a good day is as a backcountry skier,” and are most active when the sun is shining on a few feet of fresh powder, Tuthill told me. “People in my lab have tried to raise them, but I personally don’t want that to work, because every time there’s a perfect day, I cancel my meetings and go out collecting snow flies.”
By studying the captured insects, Tuthill’s colleague Dominic Golding discovered how they cope with one of the biggest threats of subzero living—ice. Once ice starts to form in an insect’s bodily fluids, the spreading crystals will quickly kill them. But snow flies can sense when that fatal process begins, and stop it through self-amputation. Using thermal cameras, Golding filmed many moments in which a wave of ice would race up a snow fly’s leg only for that leg to detach from the body within seconds.
Their close relatives—spindly, slow-flying crane flies—use a similar trick if their legs are caught by predators, which they sense using neurons that detect pulls and tugs. Tuthill thinks that snow flies have placed the same defensive reflex under the control of neurons that sense temperature instead. These detect the small bursts of heat that occur when ice first forms, and trigger a muscular contraction that jettisons the freezing limb. This strategy is unorthodox, to say the least. Katie Marshall, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, told me that cold-adapted animals cope with ice by either loading their blood with antifreeze that stops crystals from forming, or letting crystals form and withstanding them. Snow flies do neither; their unique solution—self-amputation—might be dramatic, but it is successful. In the wild, Tuthill has seen many three-legged snow flies, still moving at a pretty good clip, he said.
And their speed is all the more impressive given that their nervous systems shouldn’t work at all. To fire, neurons must pump electrically charged molecules out through their membranes and then allow those molecules to reenter by opening small gates. But as the temperature drops, the pumps slow down, the gates stop opening, and neurons stop firing. The snow flies must have adaptations that allow their neurons to defy these thermal constraints, but Tuthill doesn’t yet know what they are. Compared with other insects, he says, snow flies aren’t actually that cold-tolerant. Their superpower is the ability to stay active right until the moment they freeze.
Adult snow flies don’t eat, so when they skitter over snow fields, they’re specifically searching for mates. When two find each other, they have sex immediately and audaciously: Despite being completely exposed to predators, and highly visible against a white backdrop, they’ll spend 30 minutes or more “in full view on the surface of the snow,” Tuthill writes. But hardly any predators are around to see them, which may be why they adapted to run over glaciers at all. And although animals that live in extreme environments are often treated as champions that endure barely bearable conditions, Tuthill wonders if snow flies actually have it pretty good. “If you go through metamorphosis on the right day, and it’s bluebird with two feet of powder, and you meet your lover … it’s a good life if it works out,” he told me.
Or while it lasts. Within the next two decades, Washington is set to end the winter with about half as much snow as it did last century. By the 2080s, it will have 70 percent less. Snow flies will likely be pushed to higher altitudes, but “at some point, they’ll run out of mountain,” Marshall told me. Most people won’t notice their absence; hardly anyone noticed they were there to begin with. But losing snow flies would still mean losing an incredible example of life’s tenacity—its ability to persist in the unlikeliest of environments using adaptations we barely understand, running against the odds until they eventually run out of time.
He’s not so absorbed in the life around him
That he never looks up on clear nights
To admire the starry face of the sky.
But he’s awed even more by the earth he lives on,
By how much, for instance, its fertility
Depends on the unseen toil of earthworms.
Who would believe that over decades
Every inch of the field behind his house
Passes through their bodies again and again
As they feed on the dirt they tunnel through?
So much tireless turning over of loam,
So much natural harrowing, shredding, and leveling.
Yes, their work has undermined the stone wall
That marks the edge of his garden. But that’s a small price
For soil that nurtures the berries and grains
He enjoys at breakfast. Why turn from the table
To write a lament on the power of time
To undermine human effort when he can describe
How the work of worms helps sustain us?
Not to bother with them because they aren’t aware
Of his existence—how small-minded
That would seem to him in a species that prides itself
On understanding its place in the scheme of things,
As small-minded as thinking less of the stars
Because they aren’t twinkling for his benefit.
But the stars aren’t likely to go unnoticed
By a species quick to admire what’s distant,
Serene, and glittering, as opposed to what’s near,
Busy, and inconspicuous,
Working an inch beneath the grass.
According to a new study, a third of the planets around the most common stars in the galaxy could be in a goldilocks orbit close enough, and gentle enough, to hold onto liquid water—and possibly harbor life.
The remaining two-thirds of the planets around these ubiquitous small stars are likely roasted by gravitational tides, sterilizing them.
“I think this result is really important for the next decade of exoplanet research, because eyes are shifting toward this population of stars,” says Sheila Sagear, a doctoral student working with Sarah Ballard, an astronomy professor at the University of Florida.
“These stars are excellent targets to look for small planets in an orbit where it’s conceivable that water might be liquid and therefore the planet might be habitable.”
Ballard and Sagear have long studied exoplanets, those worlds that orbit stars other than the sun.
Our familiar, warm, yellow sun is a relative rarity in the Milky Way. By far the most common stars are considerably smaller and cooler, sporting just half the mass of our sun at most. Billions of planets orbit these common dwarf stars in our galaxy.
Scientists think that liquid water is required for life to evolve on other planets, like it did on Earth. Because these dwarf stars are cooler, any planets would have to huddle very close to their star to draw enough warmth to host liquid water.
However, these close orbits leave the planets susceptible to extreme tidal forces caused by the star’s gravitational effect on the planets.
Sagear and Ballard measured the eccentricity—how oval the orbit is—of a sample of more than 150 planets around these dwarf stars, which are about the size of Jupiter. If a planet orbits close enough to its star, at about the distance that Mercury orbits the sun, an eccentric orbit can subject it to a process known as tidal heating. As the planet is stretched and deformed by changing gravitational forces on its irregular orbit, friction heats it up. At the extreme end, this could bake the planet, removing all chance for liquid water.
“It’s only for these small stars that the zone of habitability is close enough for these tidal forces to be relevant,” Ballard says.
Data came from NASA’s Kepler telescope, which captures information about exoplanets as they move in front of their host stars. To measure the planets’ orbits, Ballard and Sagear focused especially on how long the planets took to move across the face of the stars. Their study also relied on new data from the Gaia telescope, which measured the distance to billions of stars in the galaxy.
“The distance is really the key piece of information we were missing before that allows us to do this analysis now,” Sagear says.
Sagear and Ballard found that stars with multiple planets were the most likely to have the kind of circular orbits that allow them to retain liquid water. Stars with only one planet were the most likely to see tidal extremes that would sterilize the surface.
Since one-third of the planets in this small sample had gentle enough orbits to potentially host liquid water, that likely means that the Milky Way has hundreds of millions of promising targets to probe for signs of life outside our solar system.
The study is published in the in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Source: University of Florida
The post 1/3 of planets orbiting common stars could be right for life appeared first on Futurity.
A chemical formed when we digest sucralose, a widely used artificial sweetener sold as Splenda, is “genotoxic,” meaning it breaks up DNA, according to a new study.
The chemical is also found in trace amounts in the sweetener itself. The finding raises questions about how the sweetener may contribute to health problems.
Previous work by the researchers established that several fat-soluble compounds are produced in the gut after sucralose ingestion. One of these compounds is sucralose-6-acetate.
“Our new work establishes that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic,” says Susan Schiffman, corresponding author of the study and an adjunct professor in the joint department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We also found that trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate can be found in off-the-shelf sucralose, even before it is consumed and metabolized.
“To put this in context, the European Food Safety Authority has a threshold of toxicological concern for all genotoxic substances of 0.15 micrograms per person per day,” Schiffman says.
“Our work suggests that the trace amounts of sucralose-6-acetate in a single, daily sucralose-sweetened drink exceed that threshold. And that’s not even accounting for the amount of sucralose-6-acetate produced as metabolites after people consume sucralose.”
For the study, researchers conducted a series of in vitro experiments exposing human blood cells to sucralose-6-acetate and monitoring for markers of genotoxicity.
“In short, we found that sucralose-6-acetate is genotoxic, and that it effectively broke up DNA in cells that were exposed to the chemical,” Schiffman says.
The researchers also conducted in vitro tests that exposed human gut tissues to sucralose-6-acetate.
“Other studies have found that sucralose can adversely affect gut health, so we wanted to see what might be happening there,” Schiffman says. “When we exposed sucralose and sucralose-6-acetate to gut epithelial tissues—the tissue that lines your gut wall—we found that both chemicals cause ‘leaky gut.’ Basically, they make the wall of the gut more permeable. The chemicals damage the ‘tight junctions,’ or interfaces, where cells in the gut wall connect to each other.
“A leaky gut is problematic, because it means that things that would normally be flushed out of the body in feces are instead leaking out of the gut and being absorbed into the bloodstream.”
The researchers also looked at the genetic activity of the gut cells to see how they responded to the presence of sucralose-6-acetate.
“We found that gut cells exposed to sucralose-6-acetate had increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation, and carcinogenicity,” Schiffman says.
“This work raises a host of concerns about the potential health effects associated with sucralose and its metabolites. It’s time to revisit the safety and regulatory status of sucralose, because the evidence is mounting that it carries significant risks. If nothing else, I encourage people to avoid products containing sucralose. It’s something you should not be eating.”
The study is published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B.
Additional coauthors are from UNC Chapel Hill and NC State. The authors have no conflicts of interest. The research was done with support from the Engineering Foundation at NC State.
Source: NC State
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38971-yPublisher Correction: In-plane and out-of-plane excitonic coupling in 2D molecular crystals
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38778-xThe gut microbiome is causally linked to body weight in preclinical models. Here, in a controlled feeding study, the authors show that greater delivery of gut-microbiome fermentable dietary substrates to the colon leads to a net negative energy balance that is accompanied by robust microbial and host responses.
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38893-9The sparse, noisy, and distorted raw photon data captured by single-photon cameras make it difficult to estimate scene properties under challenging illumination conditions. Here, the authors present Collaborative photon processing for Active Single-Photon Imaging (CASPI), a technology-agnostic, application-agnostic, and training-free photon processing pipeline for high-resolution single-photon cameras.
Nature Communications, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/s41467-023-38597-0
A new analysis finds that dry air and record-breaking temperatures linked to climate change have led to more frequent severe fires in California
Squirtle Aqua Jet!
One of Saturn's weirdest and most fascinating moons has been caught by the James Webb Space Telescope spewing a gigantic plume of water vapor thousands of miles out from its icy surface and reader, we're living for it.
As NASA notes in a new blog, Saturn's small, watery moon Enceladus is no stranger to these kinds of outbursts. But until the JWST pointed its uber-sensitive scientific instruments at it, a plume of this magnitude had never been captured.
Enceladus is notably tiny, at just 313 miles across soaking wet — which it increasingly seems to be — making it just four percent the size of our Earth.
One can imagine the surprise at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, then, when they detected a plume shooting off it that spanned more than 6,000 miles, dwarfing the tiny moon and making up the distance it takes, as NASA notes, from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires.
"When I was looking at the data, at first, I was thinking I had to be wrong," Goddard's Geronimo Villanueva, the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy on the never-before-documented phenomenon, said. "It was just so shocking to detect a water plume more than 20 times the size of the moon."
The rate of the plume was also of particular interest to the researchers, as Webb was able to detect that it was gushing out at a whopping 79 gallons per second. That's thin coverage spread over 6,000 miles, of course, but NASA notes that it's enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in a few hours.
Enceladus itself is a pretty big deal because, as NASA discovered back in 2021, its unique hydrothermal vents could "very likely" host microorganisms like those we have on Earth, making it one of the most prominent potential sites for extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.
The agency's Cassini mission, which was the first to ever orbit Saturn, compiled troves of data on the iconically ringed planet and found that the plumes Enceladus shoots off contain the right compounds for the building blocks of life.
It's no surprise why NASA is so invested in taking a closer look at this moon — and there's no doubt that this giant water spout was a pleasant surprise.
More on Saturn: Saturn Is Sucking Up Its Rings
Nature, Published online: 31 May 2023; doi:10.1038/d41586-023-01774-8A model of the brain’s geometry better explains neuronal activity than a model based on the ‘connectome’.
- In March 2023, Nuance, a speech recognition company owned by Microsoft, released an updated version of the software that allows medical staff to automatically generate clinical notes during a patient’s appointment.