Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – The Uses of Bureaucracy
Why Tech’s Latest Fashion Accessory Is a Face Mask | Fast Forward | OZY
Silicon Valley’s Fashion Week isn’t your typical gaga-for-Gucci spectacle. Instead of haute couture, futuristic LEDs light up the venue. Prêt-à-porter designerwear yields to 3-D-printed armor; drones, not razor-thin models with sky-high hair, zip down the runway. Here, the latest style-setting gadget isn’t some hyperarticulated bot or another impossibly tiny iPhone — it’s a “photobomber” hoodie (go figure) that magically makes you disappear in photos.
These days, being online can feel like living in a glass house. According to a 2016 report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, about half of all U.S. adults can be found in one of the many facial recognition databases maintained by law enforcement. But never fear — there are ways to game the system. In an age when privacy often feels more like a luxury than a civil right, a creative cadre of artists, designers and makers are fashioning a new kind of camouflage for today’s intrusive digital era.
The privacy strategy of the photobomber, which retails for $288, revolves around glass nanospheres embedded in the fabric that reflect light in every direction, leaving your face eerily backlit and indiscernible, says Chris Holmes, a DJ who designed the cowled garb back in 2015. In London, designer Saif Siddiqui sews crystal spheres into an anti-paparazzi scarf ($362) that, like the hoodie, reflects camera flashes to obscure the wearer’s face. Austrian Wolf Prix brought Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak to life as the Jammer Coat; it incorporates metallic fabrics that can block radio waves, cellphone signals and tracking devices, providing off-the-grid anonymity even while the wearer is strolling busy city streets.
You also can up the ante by taking Miami artist Jillian Mayer’s YouTube makeup tutorial, which teaches you how to place strategic slabs of black and white paint on your face to hide from peeping cameras. Amsterdam artist Simone Niquille’s bizarre-looking Realface Glamoflage T-shirts are emblazoned with the faces of celebrity look-alikes, which tricks facial recognition algorithms. Others are thwarting surveillance tech with infrared LED visors and lightweight metallic fabrics that absorb body heat to mask your thermal signature from drones. “Fashion is becoming more functional,” as the artistic industry focuses its creative energy on getting your privacy back, says Siddiqui, whose scarves have been worn by the likes of Cameron Diaz, Paris Hilton, the Jonas Brothers and other celebs.
Nowadays, going off the grid can seem nearly impossible, given that the intimate details of your life and heaps of your financial information are spewed across the internet. A 2012 study from the market research firm International Data Corp. estimates that by 2020, each person on Earth will have some 5,200 gigabytes of data on his or her cyber paper trail. Powerful algorithms at Facebook and Apple are rapidly getting smarter at picking your face out of a crowd with technology that detects the tiniest details of your irises and wrinkles. In 2011, Google acquired facial recognition software company PittPatt, which researchers have deployed to connect your dating profiles with your identity on other social media sites.
Experts like Alex Kilpatrick have a more dystopian view of these developments: “Unless you plan to wear a full burqa all the time, you’re never free from surveillance.” According to Kilpatrick, a facial recognition researcher at Austin-based Tactical Information Systems, facial recognition could be the death knell of privacy — and the end is coming fast. “The sad truth is we’re going to have no privacy when we leave the house,” Kilpatrick says. “The civility of going anonymous will disappear.”
But that’s where the world of art and fashion can step up to the plate, says Mayer, the viral makeup tutorial maven. “We have a lot of products that track, archive and record our lives,” Mayer notes. “I was feeling a bit overexposed.… How do you exist in contemporary times without the burden of existence?” Of course, the idea here is wildly counterintuitive. After all, attention-grabbing accessories, bold prints and provocative pieces of art are designed to make an impression, not get you ignored. But if you’re a celebrity, fugitive or, um, just a perfectly normal individual who likes keeping their privacy intact, people are starting to see the value in using clothes and makeup to help them disappear.
Unfortunately, there are many ways to circumvent these privacy strategies, Kilpatrick notes. For the hoodie, you can simply turn the camera’s flash off. As for the others, you can’t expect to go unnoticed when slathered with face paint or wearing a metallic trenchcoat that’s as bright as a light bulb. “If you’re trying to fly under the radar, all of that stuff is just broadcasting what you’re doing,” says Kilpatrick. Plus, tech moves fast: Biometric researchers constantly look for ways to improve their systems. By contrast, fashion is relatively slow, still stuck in last season. The simplest way to thwart current facial recognition systems is to look at your feet and tilt your head forward, making sure that cameras can’t get a clear look at your face. Or you can wear those “large, silly fashion sunglasses that hide your eyes and mess with the ability of the system to find the face,” Kilpatrick adds.
Even artist Niquille admits face-filled T-shirts may not be the perfect solution; as with all art, the greater purpose is to spark a discussion, and in this case, to take matters into your own hands. Even if you’re not sure how to hack Facebook’s fancy algorithm or tinker with a stealth proxy network, now you can champion your personal privacy with a new accessory or a light-reflective garment. But fashion is fickle by definition — there’s no telling if anything will stick.
What Really Made Primate Brains So Big? | Science | Smithsonian
The benefits of a big brain may seem obvious to us. But many creatures besides humans have thrived without them and continue to do just fine, thank you very much. After all, as Alex DeCasien, a graduate student in anthropology at New York University, “the brain is super expensive to grow and maintain.” For anthropologists, this poses an evolutionary mystery: What would drive a creature to invest so much energy into an organ that doesn’t provide any immediate hunting, mating or defense benefits?
More than two decades ago, anthropologists began embracing the “social brain theory” as a possible answer. This idea states that it was the challenges of managing increasingly complex social relationships and interactions that mainly drove the development of larger brains, as opposed to the challenge of finding food. After all, being a social creature is a lot of work. But a new study by DeCasien takes aim at this dominant theory by suggesting a different catalyst for brain development: fruit.
In her research, DeCasien mainly focuses on differences between the sexes in primates. A few years ago, she was rifling through studies on brain size differences between the primate sexes, and ran into what she calls a “huge contradiction.” She found different recent studies suggesting that either polygynandrous primates (those that mate with multiple partners) or monogamous primates (those that maintain long-term mating relationships with one partner) had larger brains than the other. Strangely, “they both claimed the support of the social brain hypothesis,” DeCasien says.
Some of these scientists argued that managing multiple partners would tax the mind more and encourage the development of bigger brains, while others suggested that forging a lasting mating bond with one partner would require more mental capacity. “When reevaluating this obvious contradiction, I wanted to take into account those older ideas,” DeCasien says. Using modern techniques and expanded data, DeCasien and her team did just ina study published this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Her conclusion: Those older ideas were correct—mostly.
Older studies on primate brain development drew on up to 43 primate species, DeCasien says. Modern datasets allowed her team to draw on brain size data from more than 140 species. They compared these brain sizes to the species’ diets and factors based related to social development, such as group size and mating system. They were able to crunch those numbers with advanced statistical analysis techniques developed or refined in the last decade.
“We employed all the newest methods that are available,” DeCasien says. (This is the reason “we have a ridiculous number of supplementary tables” in the study, she adds.)
After running those analyses, DeCasien’s team concluded that diet, not social complexity, appeared to be most correlated with larger brain sizes among primates. Specifically, primates that fed mostly on fruits—such as chimpanzees or spider monkeys—appeared to have the largest brain sizes. (Notably, humans were excluded from the data because “we are an outlier with regard to brain size,” according to the study, a common practice in comparative brain size research.)
That makes sense, because fruit is much more nutrient-dense source of food than foliage, says Katherine Milton, a physical anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley who researches primate dietary ecology, and was not involved in this study. “Because highly folivorous [leaf-eating] primates are generally taking in less ready energy per unit time than highly frugivorous [fruit-eating] primates, one would think their brain size would correlate with this dietary difference,” Milton said via email.
However, simply having access to those nutrients doesn’t alone explain why primates feeding on fruit would evolve larger brains, DeCasien says. “Increasing your diet quality … allows you the possibility of increasing your brain size, but it still doesn’t explain why it would be advantageous,” DeCasien says—let alone advantageous enough to justify spending more resources on your brain than other parts of your body.
That advantage comes in the difficulty required to find good fruit, DeCasien says. As Milton wrote in a 1981 study that compared frugivorous spider monkeys to folivorous howler monkeys, “fruit is a more patchily distributed food resource in tropical forests than leaves […] Thus spider monkeys are faced with a far more complex problem than howlers with respect to locating their food sources since, in effect, they are dealing with a supplying area over 25 times as large.” The study noted that spider monkeys have a brain size over double that of howler monkeys on average, and speculated that the difficulties of learning to find and remember where fruits are located could have driven that growth.
“The cognitive complexity that is required to become more efficient at foraging for those things would also provide the selective pressure to increase brain size,” DeCasien says.
Yet Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University who developed the social brain hypothesis, says that DeCasien’s study has a “serious flaw in [its] whole structure.” Dunbar says that diet is a constraint on brain size, while sociality serves as a cause for brain development. Comparing these to each other as if they are equivalent is incorrect, Dunbar says; in his opinion, they are complementary, not alternative explanations.
“What they essentially claim is that improvements in diet drove the evolution of large brains so as to allow improvements in diet,” Dunbar says. He adds that the researchers were incorrect in looking at total brain size when they should have focused on the size of the neocortex—the part of the brain involved in cognition, spatial reasoning and language—which Dunbar analyzed in his 1992 paper proposing the social brain hypothesis.
Dunbar also takes issue with the data used by DeCasien and her team showing fruit-eaters having larger brains than leaf-eaters, saying that they ignored research since 1992 disproving this claim.
Other researchers who study primate evolution were less critical. “The authors’ results are very convincing,” says Michael Schillaci, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Toronto and was not involved in the study. DeCasien’s work “provides very strong support for an ecological explanation for the evolution of brain size in primates, which is a hallmark of our order,” he says. Still, he says he is unsure whether fruit-eating specifically helped drive brain size evolution in humans, the descendants of primates, as well.
Durham University evolutionary anthropologist Robert Barton agrees with some of DeCasien’s findings, specifically that the social brain hypothesis is likely not the main driver of brain development. However, Barton, who was not involved in this study and is currently working on a larger study of the same topic, says he would hesitate to pinpoint any specific type of food as driving brain development.
“Where we agree is that there is little or no evidence of a ‘social brain’ effect in these large data sets, and that there are more robust correlations with ecological variables,” Barton said via email.
For her part, DeCasien cautions that fruit and diet are not the sole drivers of brain size evolution among primates, just the dominant one from their analysis. Increasingly complex social demands certainly still played a major role in encouraging brain size growth, she says. “It’s not that it’s one and not the other,” she says. “We definitely think that these things are all kind of coevolving together.”
The Guillotine’s Namesake Was Against Capital Punishment | Smart News | Smithsonian
By the time Joseph Guillotin died, aged 75, the invention which now bears his last name had become synonymous with the terror and mass executions of the French Revolution.
His funeral occurred on this day in 1814. At the same time, writes Richard Cavendish for History Today, his family was lobbying the French government to change the guillotine’s name so that their family name would no longer be synonymous with a period known as the “Terror.” “The government refused, so they changed their family name instead,” he writes.
Ironically, Guillotin’s motives were good: he wanted to make execution—gruesome even now, but particularly brutal in pre-revolutionary France—more humane. Realizing that he was unlikely to stop executions entirely, his intention was to make capital punishment more humane and more equal across social classes, writes Naomi Russo for The Atlantic. And as a doctor and politician, he had the social standing to make his voice heard, she says.
Execution was a regular punishment for things like killing another person but also things like theft and assault. Depending on rank, people were killed in increasingly gruesome ways, writes historian Pieter Spierenburg. Aristocrats automatically got the relatively humane beheading, while punishments for people of lesser social standing could be subject to punishments as horrifying as the wheel (although some were beheaded, as judges saw this as a lighter punishment.)
It was in this climate, writes Russo, that Guillotin advocated for the machine that would make his name infamous.With the decapitating machine he popularized, everyone would be executed in the same way, by a sharp blade that had no chance of missing.
Guillotin did not in fact invent the machine his name is associated with—that was Dr. Antoine Louis, writes History.com. In fact, the machine was first nicknamed the “Louison” or “Louisette.” But Guillotin did popularize it, using the arguments about equality and humanity that also shaped the ideals of the Revolution.
His first big opportunity to talk about the guillotine came when he appeared before the National Assembly in December 1789, in the first year of the Revolution, “arguing for the guillotine to become the standard manner of carrying out the death penalty,” Russo writes.
“In a moment of enthusiasm, he told his audience, ‘Now with my machine I take off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.’”
This ideal of execution accomplished with a purpose-built, swift machine was a far cry from something as brutal as hanging or the other regularly practiced punishments. In fact, when Guillotin’s mother watched a man executed on the wheel—tied in a starfish to a large wooden wheel and then beaten to death, bones breaking in the process—the sight supposedly caused her to go into premature labor.
A day after Guillotin’s Assembly appearance, writes Russo, his name was forever linked in the popular imagination with his “machine.” Then on June 3, 1791, she writes, “the Assembly decreed that the decapitating machine was to be the sole means of legal criminal execution.”
In the years that followed, more than ten thousand people died by beheading with the guillotine. Executions done this way “may have been less torturous,” writes Cavendish, “but they could now be carried out with the efficiency of a slaughterhouse assembly line.” It looked scientific, but it was brutal.
A persistent myth about Guillotin is that he was killed by his own invention. This is not true: he lived to see its unintended consequences.
Why Russia gave up Alaska, America’s gateway to the Arctic
One hundred and fifty years ago, on March 30, 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward and Russian envoy Baron Edouard de Stoeckl signed the Treaty of Cession. With a stroke of a pen, Tsar Alexander II had ceded Alaska, his country’s last remaining foothold in North America, to the United States for US$7.2 million.
That sum, amounting to just $113 million in today’s dollars, brought to an end Russia’s 125-year odyssey in Alaska and its expansion across the treacherous Bering Sea, which at one point extended the Russian Empire as far south as Fort Ross, California, 90 miles from San Francisco Bay.
Today Alaska is one of the richest U.S. states thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as petroleum, gold and fish, as well as its vast expanse of pristine wilderness and strategic location as a window on Russia and gateway to the Arctic.
So what prompted Russia to withdraw from its American beachhead? And how did it come to possess it in the first place?
As a descendant of Inupiaq Eskimos, I have been living and studying this history all my life. In a way, there are two histories of how Alaska came to be American – and two perspectives. One concerns how the Russians took “possession” of Alaska and eventually ceded it to the U.S. The other is from the perspective of my people, who have lived in Alaska for thousands of years, and for whom the anniversary of the cession brings mixed emotions, including immense loss but also optimism.
Russia looks east
The lust for new lands that brought Russia to Alaska and eventually California began in the 16th century, when the country was a fraction of its current size.
That began to change in 1581, when Russia overran a Siberian territory known as the Khanate of Sibir, which was controlled by a grandson of Genghis Khan. This key victory opened up Siberia, and within 60 years the Russians were at the Pacific.
The Russian advance across Siberia was fueled in part by the lucrative fur trade, a desire to expand the Russian Orthodox Christian faith to the “heathen” populations in the east and the addition of new taxpayers and resources to the empire.
In the early 18th century, Peter the Great – who created Russia’s first Navy – wanted to know how far the Asian landmass extended to the east. The Siberian city of Okhotsk became the staging point for two explorations he ordered. And in 1741, Vitus Bering successfully crossed the strait that bears his name and sighted Mt. Saint Elias, near what is now the village of Yakutat, Alaska.
Although Bering’s second Kamchatka Expedition brought disaster for him personally when adverse weather on the return journey led to a shipwreck on one of the westernmost Aleutian Islands and his eventual death from scurvy in December 1741, it was an incredible success for Russia. The surviving crew fixed the ship, stocked it full of hundreds of the sea otters, foxes and fur seals that were abundant there and returned to Siberia, impressing Russian fur hunters with their valuable cargo. This prompted something akin to the Klondike gold rush 150 years later.
But maintaining these settlements wasn’t easy. Russians in Alaska – who numbered no more than 800 at their peak – faced the reality of being half a globe away from St. Petersburg, then the capital of the empire, making communications a key problem.
Also, Alaska was too far north to allow for significant agriculture and therefore unfavorable as a place to send large numbers of settlers. So they began exploring lands farther south, at first looking only for people to trade with so they could import the foods that wouldn’t grow in Alaska’s harsh climate. They sent ships to what is now California, established trade relations with the Spaniards there and eventually set up their own settlement at Fort Ross in 1812.
Thirty years later, however, the entity set up to handle Russia’s American explorations failed and sold what remained. Not long after, the Russians began to seriously question whether they could continue their Alaskan colony as well.
For starters, the colony was no longer profitable after the sea otter population was decimated. Then there was the fact that Alaska was difficult to defend and Russia was short on cash due to the costs of the war in Crimea.
Americans eager for a deal
So clearly the Russians were ready to sell, but what motivated the Americans to want to buy?
In the 1840s, the United States had expanded its interests to Oregon, annexed Texas, fought a war with Mexico and acquired California. Afterward, Secretary of State Seward wrote in March 1848:
“Our population is destined to roll resistless waves to the ice barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific.”
Almost 20 years after expressing his thoughts about expansion into the Arctic, Seward accomplished his goal.
In Alaska, the Americans foresaw a potential for gold, fur and fisheries, as well as more trade with China and Japan. The Americans worried that England might try to establish a presence in the territory, and the acquisition of Alaska – it was believed – would help the U.S. become a Pacific power. And overall the government was in an expansionist mode backed by the then-popular idea of “manifest destiny.”
So a deal with incalculable geopolitical consequences was struck, and the Americans seemed to get quite a bargain for their $7.2 million.
Just in terms of wealth, the U.S. gained about 370 million acres of mostly pristine wilderness – almost a third the size of the European Union – including 220 million acres of what are now federal parks and wildlife refuges. Hundreds of billions of dollars in whale oil, fur, copper, gold, timber, fish, platinum, zinc, lead and petroleum have been produced in Alaska over the years – allowing the state to do without a sales or income tax and give every resident an annual stipend. Alaska still likely has billions of barrels of oil reserves.
The state is also a key part of the United States defense system, with military bases located in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and it is the country’s only connection to the Arctic, which ensures it has a seat at the table as melting glaciers allow the exploration of the region’s significant resources.
Impact on Alaska Natives
But there’s an alternate version of this history.
When Bering finally located Alaska in 1741, Alaska was home to about 100,000 people, including Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan and Tlingit. There were 17,000 alone on the Aleutian Islands.
Despite the relatively small number of Russians who at any one time lived at one of their settlements – mostly on the Aleutians Islands, Kodiak, Kenai Peninsula and Sitka – they ruled over the native populations in their areas with an iron hand, taking children of the leaders as hostages, destroying kayaks and other hunting equipment to control the men and showing extreme force when necessary.
The Russians brought with them weaponry such as firearms, swords, cannons and gunpowder, which helped them secure a foothold in Alaska along the southern coast. They used firepower, spies and secured forts to maintain security, and selected Christianized local leaders to carry out their wishes. However, they also met resistance, such as from the Tlingits, who were capable warriors, ensuring their hold on territory was tenuous.
By the time of the cession, only 50,000 indigenous people were estimated to be left, as well as 483 Russians and 1,421 Creoles (descendants of Russian men and indigenous women).
On the Aleutian Islands alone, the Russians enslaved or killed thousands of Aleuts. Their population plummeted to 1,500 in the first 50 years of Russian occupation due to a combination of warfare, disease and enslavement.
When the Americans took over, the United States was still engaged in its Indian Wars, so they looked at Alaska and its indigenous inhabitants as potential adversaries. Alaska was made a military district by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with Gen. Jefferson C. Davis selected as the new commander.
For their part, Alaska Natives claimed that they still had title to the territory as its original inhabitants and having not lost the land in war or ceded it to any country – including the U.S., which technically didn’t buy it from the Russians but bought the right to negotiate with the indigenous populations. Still, Natives were denied U.S. citizenship until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act was passed.
During that time, Alaska Natives had no rights as citizens and could not vote, own property or file for mining claims. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in conjunction with missionary societies, in the 1860s began a campaign to eradicate indigenous languages, religion, art, music, dance, ceremonies and lifestyles.
It was only in 1936 that the Indian Reorganization Act authorized tribal governments to form, and only nine years later overt discrimination was outlawed by Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945. The law banned signs such as “No Natives Need Apply” and “No Dogs or Natives Allowed,” which were common at the time.
Statehood and a disclaimer
Eventually, however, the situation improved markedly for Natives.
Alaska finally became a state in 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act, allotting it 104 million acres of the territory. And in an unprecedented nod to the rights of Alaska’s indigenous populations, the act contained a clause emphasizing that citizens of the new state were declining any right to land subject to Native title – which by itself was a very thorny topic because they claimed the entire territory.
A result of this clause was that in 1971 President Richard Nixon ceded 44 million acres of federal land, along with $1 billion, to Alaska’s native populations, which numbered around 75,000 at the time. That came after a Land Claims Task Force that I chaired gave the state ideas about how to resolve the issue.
Today Alaska has a population of 740,000, of which 120,000 are Natives.
As the United States celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Cession, we all – Alaskans, Natives and Americans of the lower 48 – should salute Secretary of State William H. Seward, the man who eventually brought democracy and the rule of law to Alaska.
How the NYPD Secures Times Square on New Year’s Eve
The tongues of native New Yorkers land heavy on consonants, and on vowels, too. On words and sentences. On poetry and prose, on dese, dem, and dose. For all the worry that television has homogenized all the fun accents out of existence, the sons of certain neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn—they still speak the hell out of all the words. Make a real meal out of them. No posh Manhattan private school diction for these guys, not on your life. And these guys here—these guys are cops, and when they’re on the job, people aren’t people, they are the more formal in-duh-vi-jew-wuhls, and by the time this man here, Jim Waters, chief of counterterrorism, New York Police Department, gets up the slopes and down the valleys of that word, it’s picked up another syllable or two. For reference, Waters sounds a little like the old actor Broderick Crawford, who played a lot of cops. And Waters may be chief of counterterrorism now, but he started out life walking a beat in the 110 Precinct, Elmhurst, Queens, which isn’t as quaint as it sounds.
It’s just after 2:00 in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, cold dappled sunlight splashes up and down Seventh Avenue, the universe’s own spotlight giving God a better look at what in hell is happening down in New York. Everybody, it seems, is curious about this particular spot on the dirty globe today. Chief Waters is standing right in the middle of the street, facing north toward Central Park, keeping a close eye out as the hearties and the crazies and the curious stream from Forty-Sixth Street, take a left toward Times Square, and enter into the “chute” for screening by cops under his command. They’re all here for The Show—Midnight in Times Square, baby! hollers a young Asian woman who doesn’t look dressed warmly enough at all, as she dances past to join her friends. Chief Waters smiles and nods. His aide-de-camp, Captain Danny Magee, shakes his head, a bemused expression on his face. Magee’s always looking to bust somebody’s balls.
“Some of ’em mighta already had a few,” he says. “Once they’re screened and in the pens, it’s hard to leave and there’s nowhere to pee.” He pauses, thinks about two million people—that’s how many guests they’re expecting tonight—with no place to pee. “They’re gonna need a jar!” he says, his face erupting in a crinkly smile. If Waters is Broderick Crawford, Magee is more Jimmy Cagney. Very Brooklyn, total wiseass. Mother, wonderful woman, still lives in the house he grew up in. “Maybe a friend can hold up a sheet, so they can take turns using the jar! ‘Cause they’re gonna need a jar.” You cannot spell jar the way Magee says jar. His voice is snappy and he is shouting a little because this intersection—Forty-Sixth and Seventh—is madness, the center of an enormous mobilization of a security apparatus that has no peer anywhere in the world in terms of civil police departments. In the name of fun and freedom of assembly, seven thousand cops are at this moment being deployed to harden a grid in the center of Manhattan between Thirty-Eighth Street and Central Park, and between Eighth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. As mass gatherings of the public go, this is the big enchilada, the Super Bowl. A couple years ago, incidentally, the city hosted an actual Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium across the way in Jersey—Chief Waters threw that party, too. “That’s all we are—party planners,” says Magee. “Party planners with big guns and a bomb squad.” Waters smirks. “That’s why we keep Danny around,” he says. “For his sense of yuma.”
It’s not just Magee. Everybody’s in pretty good humor today. The pizza guy on the block is sending a platoon into the jovial crowd with fresh hot pies. “Thirty bucks!—that’s a helluva markup,” says Magee. “He’s making his nut for the year today.” But he sure is keeping them fed in the pens. Waters says there are forty-eight of the block-long enclosures, from here all the way up toward the park. They were erected by hundreds of cops using thousands of metal barriers starting at midnight last night. Any brave souls who want to watch the ball drop are entering the grid from the east and west, and at entry points on either Sixth or Eighth avenues, they subject themselves to a handheld magnetometer that detects any ferrous metals, and maybe a pat down, a radiological detection test, random explosive-trace detection in which something that looks like litmus paper is wiped on their hand or run down the length of the zipper on their jacket, and everybody gets sniffed by a dog. They then will walk toward Seventh Avenue or Broadway, past at least one twenty-ton sand truck, two on the wider streets—each topped off with another fifteen tons of sand—blocking the street, past the row of six-foot-long, two-ton concrete blocks blocking the sidewalk. Counterterrorism cops have to pay attention and learn from what’s in vogue among people who want to kill as many people as possible, and this year’s innovation in mayhem has without doubt been driving a big truck into as big a crowd as possible. So today, Waters is hardening the perimeter of the grid with trucks so heavy that “ain’t nothing gonna move ’em,” but that have the added convenience of being portable, so at the end of the night you just drive them away. Down the block the once-screened stream of humanity goes toward the pens. They walk, silly hats on and bottled water in hand, and when they reach Seventh Avenue, they run into Chief Waters and his boys and are screened all over again. Two million people, screened twice. Magnetometer, radiological, dog. All the while, “red cell” teams of cops in plainclothes are dispersed among the crowd, trying to breach the system, probing its vulnerabilities, and “that bag can’t come in here, ma’am. Ma’am, no bag,” Magee says. “What’s that? You can either walk out the way you just came in, or you can donate it to our growing bag collection here.” Magee pulls back a tarp to reveal bins and bins of bags of all shapes and sizes and degrees of fanciness that have already been surrendered. A young woman, thinking better of the whole idea, is clawing deep into the bin to retrieve a bright-green leather bag to be on her way.
Captain is an old-man rank, a retirement rank, and Magee isn’t yet forty. Probably ought to pay attention to that name, he’s going to be somebody. Waters is on the verge of fifty-seven, and with compulsory retirement coming when he hits sixty-three, he is both state-of-the-art in counterterrorism and nearing the end of his career in counterterrorism. He’s been pulling New Year’s Eve duty since infancy—
“I remember, I was a young sergeant, ’86 I think it was. Forty-Seventh and Seventh, and they told us to bring our hats and bats—riot helmets and nightsticks. That was about the height of technology at the time. I had ten cops and by 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., the crowd was already somewhat, uh, intoxicated . . .” Not to mention completely unregulated, and somewhat aggressive. Bottles were flying, and so Waters told his men to put their chin straps on. One of his cops wouldn’t do it, and a couple minutes later, he took a bottle to the head, knocking his helmet sideways. “I said, Are you gonna put your chin strap on now?” The threats were different then—FALN (militant Puerto Rican nationalists) and the like—but nobody really knew yet what counterterrorism was, or why it might be necessary.
A black Lab at the end of a cop’s leash brushes your leg as he methodically pushes his way through the crowd, padding spryly back and forth across the avenue. That’s Kevin, one of the department’s vapor-wake dogs. German shepherds are very good at sniffing a bomb in a backpack stuffed under a mailbox, but these Labs, specially trained at Auburn University, are expert at moving targets. As each of us moves through the world, we constantly displace air, disturbing a universe of molecules, and it is the plume of air left in the wake as each reveler cuts through the space in front of him that Kevin is sniffing, in patient search for precursor bomb material or radiological matter of any kind. We give off molecules, and so do bombs. Once, during a half-marathon in the park, one of the Labs alerted on a runner wearing only shorts and a tank top, and was insistent that there was something suspicious on the man. “Excuse me, sir, are you undergoing radiation treatment of some kind?” The dogs sometimes alert on cancer patients. The man dug into the pocket of his shorts, and brought out a tiny pill. Nitroglycerin. Somebody had told him that taking one halfway through the race turbocharges you for the second half. The vapor-wake dog had discovered his secret.
To secure the grid for tonight, forty of the NYPD’s dogs are on the job, including eight of the vapor-wake Labs. Magee says that the department favors the Labs, both for their extraordinary skills but also because people sometimes have negative associations with shepherds. Labs aren’t as intimidating. Regardless of breed, all the counterterrorism dogs are named after a fallen cop. Kevin is named after Kevin Gillespie, a street-crimes cop who was killed on the job in 1996. And here comes Vin, named after Vinnie Danz, an emergency-services cop killed on 9/11.
Waters plans to spend all afternoon in constant communication with his officers deployed around and throughout the grid, making certain that this massive undertaking that has been in planning for the past 364 days is proceeding smoothly. He’ll be traveling back and forth to the Joint Operations Center at 1 Police Plaza downtown, the nerve center of all police operations but especially, today, counterterrorism and intelligence, which will be collecting information from NYPD assets stationed in thirteen foreign countries, including most of the current hot spots. He will be looking at those thirteen countries as they go to midnight, like dominoes heading to New York. If midnight passes without incident in London, Tel Aviv, and Istanbul, Waters will breathe a little easier. He knows and has staked out every parking garage in the grid, to make sure no bad guys go in to plant something, or out, unscreened, to do harm. Two days ago, he had every manhole cover in the vast swath of midtown Manhattan marked, a job so big that it alone would strain the ability of most other cities to do it. The checklist of all that Waters and the seven thousand cops deployed here today have to do reels in his head. You can see it. He is buttoned-up but cordial, talking easily one second and lost behind his eyes the next. But look around today and you are likely to find Chief Waters, given a spare moment, down on the ground—or in this case, kneeling on the street—playing with a large variety of dogs, all of whom are official New York City police officers, wearing shields and signs that read “Do not pet.”
Just then, an interloper with brown hair and glasses—with a look of determined nonchalance—gets through these layered and concentric circles of security wearing a backpack, walks right on through, and after screening his share of approximately five hundred thousand people so far today with nothing so much as a false positive on a bologna sandwich, Vin goes nuts. He strains at his leash so hard he almost pulls his partner off his feet. Vin points at the object of his concern with his snout, almost touching the backpack on the man’s back, and then he sits on his haunches, supremely alert. The man is now frozen in his tracks. “You know it’s a definite hit when the dog sits down,” Vin’s partner says. “These dogs do not make mistakes.” Vin has alerted on a decoy, a test of the system. The guy with glasses was let through on purpose, and in his backpack he carried a half-pound of smokeless powder that Vin could smell from here to tomorrow.
Magee taps his watch, and now Waters is up again and moving, heading to Forty-Second Street, past pen after pen, full of the most joyful revelers with the greatest bladder control you ever saw. Everywhere he walks, officers stop and salute. They’re not used to seeing a three-star on the job on a day like this—maybe for the ball drop, but not working. He is congenitally modest and is always trying to deflect attention from himself to “more deserving people, the men and women of the NYPD.” He has eyes that droop slightly, hair high and tight, and lumbers along like a workingman. As he passes a young woman up against a barrier with some friends, she sees him and says, a little sleepily, “Thanks for protecting us . . .” she slowly leans forward to read the name on his jacket . . . ”Waters.” Her arms are crossed tight and she has the sleeves of her sweater pulled down to cover her hands. She looks up at him and smiles a rheumy smile.
“You look cold,” Waters says.
“Oh, I am not cold, believe you me,” she says right back.
“Well, have a great time tonight,” he says, and he’s off.
A few steps away, his smile gone, he’s all business. “I am not worried about a nuclear device going off here tonight,” he says. “We know well the capabilities out there, and I’m confident that’s out of the question. What I am worried about is the lone wolf that we don’t know, that we can’t know. The ISIL model now is to say, Act where you are, with what you have. That’s where the Nice and Berlin Christmas market truck attacks came from. So I’m worried about that guy.” He walks on, picking up his pace toward Forty-Second Street. “But we don’t worry. We act. That’s what everything you see here today is all about.”
Waters has been chief of counterterrorism since 2008, running a select division of one thousand cops. Before that, he was head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force for five and a half years. It’s been all terrorism all the time since shortly after September 11, 2001. Before 9/11, there was no counterterrorism at the NYPD. So it’s kind of his baby. That’s the kind of duty that is impossible to leave at the office. And so he’s got a hyper-vigilance that just won’t quit, he doesn’t sleep much, and when he does sleep he is frequently awakened in the middle of the night with news of the world that ripples all the way to New York, all the way to his bed on Long Island. And then he’s up for good. “Chief hasn’t had a decent vacation in like, ever,” Magee says, laughing. “His poor wife, you know?”
“Oooh, my wonderful wife,” Waters says. “Sometimes we just can’t catch a break.”
One Saturday night last September, Waters had driven into the city to pick up a couple of suits that he’d had tailored, and “I said to Joanne, C’mon, we’ll go to dinner. There was a place in Brooklyn that she liked.” No sooner had they gotten on the Williamsburg Bridge than a job came over the radio. Didn’t sound like much at first, but Waters knew he had to listen to it. Traffic was light going to Brooklyn but terrible coming back to Manhattan, and by the time Waters and his wife got to the other side of the bridge, “Uh, ya know, the first units were on the scene, and they were calling for ambulances.” A bomb had gone off on a random block in Chelsea. The United Nations General Assembly was in town, 120 heads of state, and they picked Twenty-Third Street instead.
Waters made a U-turn, told Joanne, “Hold on. If you have to close your eyes, close your eyes,” and he floored it, weaving in traffic back across the bridge, lights flashing. He was on the scene in ten minutes, pulling up just behind the bomb squad. He parked his truck, and walked up, trying to absorb the extent of the damage, trying to get an assessment of the number of injured, looking for secondary devices, which was at the top of his checklist that evening as he approached. “Seeing a first sergeant, I said, ‘What are we doing?’ I wanted to see what he says. ‘We’re doing a search for secondary devices.’ That was music to my ears.”
That’s the constant drilling to these guys: Second devices target first responders. Assume there’s a second device, and find it.
And then of course there’s the technology. The NYPD has three thousand cameras of its own all over the city, and access to seven thousand more through partnerships with private businesses. From a command center downtown, they can even activate and turn the cameras to the desired view, or consult footage from thirty minutes or three hours or three days ago to get a clear picture of the who and the what. Because of a program called the Domain Awareness System, and software developed between the NYPD and Microsoft, all of these video resources, as well as data on all ongoing and active calls and a database of what is known about previous police interactions with any given address in the city, are instantly available to all thirty-six thousand NYPD cops—on every desktop and on thirty-six thousand department-issue Nokia Windows devices that each cop carries in his pocket. DAS has revolutionized policing. Now, when there is a domestic violence call, no cop has to go blind into the situation—he or she knows instantly of previous calls at that apartment, whether there are outstanding warrants, whether there might be weapons present, or whether there is no history at all. That technology can save lives on both sides of the door.
And then, hallelujah, within two hours of the first call, cops found that second device on Twenty-Seventh Street. The news reports had gone out about the explosion on Twenty-Third Street, and Waters cautioned the investigators to make sure it wasn’t some kind of copycat device. “We play everything for real, and as soon as I got there, the fellas said, ‘No, it’s real.’ I can’t say enough about the courage and focus of the bomb squad guys.”
It was a pressure-cooker bomb, in the mold of the Tsarnaev brothers’ work in Boston. It was carefully removed to the outdoor range, at Rodman’s Neck, in the Bronx, to be taken apart and rendered safe. They pulled up the Total Containment Vessel, which is a vehicle that is so armored that if you sealed the device inside and it detonated, you wouldn’t hear it. But the trick, of course, is getting the device inside the vehicle. At the scene, the bomb squad removed the phone—which was designed to be used as either timer or detonator—from the pressure cooker. Then with a robot, cops remotely brought it to the TCV. There’s a basket inside, which hangs on a couple of sturdy straps, and a cop with a joystick placed the device into the basket so that it was suspended and would be able to move with the motion of the vehicle without bouncing around too much. And here’s the tricky part, because once it’s in the basket, then a bomb-squad technician has to put the suit on and go close that door. So for that thirty seconds, he’s in very close proximity to that device. Call it a bomb. And one of these has already exploded, injuring dozens of people. He locks the door. Good. Now if it explodes, it explodes, there’ll be no danger to anyone. Drive it up to the Bronx, and go through all those steps in reverse. Then take the device to the pit area, which is surrounded by three walls of blast-proof concrete block that go up about fifteen feet and is open on the fourth side. Hard ground, steel workbench, industrial vise on the end. Here, they practice with an identical pressure cooker. How are we gonna do this? Dry run after dry run after dry run, to get comfortable. Time for the real pressure cooker. They first try to open the lid, which doesn’t work, so, using “a couple of bomb-squad techniques,” they pop the lid off. Now what? It could explode, which wouldn’t be good for the preservation of evidence and the invaluable forensic analysis. But because of the care the professionals took, it didn’t explode, and the FBI evidence collection guys had, ya know, a perfect crime scene, if you will. They had the pot, they had the lid, they had all its contents, perfectly preserved. All of the evidence they could want. Not only for the trial, but to study, learn from, and defend against the next attack.
It’s a pretty elaborate deal, a messy, sprawling civil society of eight million of the loudest, most opinionated people, all with freedom to move and assemble and protest and express themselves and push and test the limits of what is acceptable as their birthright, because “that’s what makes ’em Americans and that’s what makes ’em New Yorkers,” the chief says. And it’s his job to let ’em express and assemble and scream to their heart’s content, and be safe doing it. And now there’s a president of the United States who has a building or two in his town, and a lot of the guy’s neighbors seem to want to regularly demonstrate their appreciation by showing up at his door by the hundreds of thousands and giving him the old Bronx cheer. Why, the United States has suddenly entered into a new era of such mass gatherings, both planned and spontaneous, often both at the same time. Like when you’re expecting sixty thousand for the Women’s March up Fifth Avenue and four hundred thousand show up. “Ha!” the chief says. “It never does get boring!”
Now Waters is standing at ground zero for tonight—Forty-Second and Seventh—and the light is changing as the afternoon accelerates and the checklist is scrolling behind his eyes. Two days ago, in the police commissioner’s executive command center, Commissioner James O’Neill’s executive staff had run through the plan for New Year’s Eve. The command center is a conference room that looks just the way it would look in the movies—all blacks and grays, leather and marble, the walls covered with screens and data and images from all over town and all over the world. Whaddya got? Commissioner O’Neill said, taking a seat at the head of the table. And one by one, the executives ran through a list of plans and assets and allocations that would compare decently to the landing at Normandy:
Five Joint Terrorism Task Force response teams; the bomb squad is broken down to four response teams within Times Square alone, with additional response teams to cover the rest of the city should something happen; somebody remember to thank the sanitation commissioner for the sand trucks; gotta seal the manholes, check and double-check that, yes you; five ballistic vehicles spaced out strategically; large tactical harbor unit for interdicting and boarding a boat or boats, accompanied by SWAT team, prepositioned and ready to go; ten prepositioned light trucks in case there is a blackout—enough to illuminate all of midtown Manhattan so people can see to move around safely, no panic; ten observation teams positioned on high ground—made up of two cops, one to observe, one to communicate, with a “sniper component,” with corresponding response teams on the ground; armored vehicles on Forty-Sixth and Forty-Second, with tactical-weapons component, to neutralize anything serious at Times Square; “Archangel” team, a.k.a. “the Holy Shit” Package (this consists of an REP—emergency services truck, WMD team, canine team, light truck, Total Containment Vessel, a BearCat armored truck in case you have to roll into a raging gun battle to rescue people, that’s the thing you’re gonna use, WMD response trucks, two vapor-wake dogs, seven EDCs [explosive detection canines] and six patrol dogs); air-sea rescue at HUSH [Harbor Unit Station House] on the Brooklyn side, with helicopter and divers standing by, because if the assault starts with them shooting at one of those party boats in the harbor, that’s not the time to think about how are we gonna get resources out to them; a Hazmat/chem/bio team stage on the East Side with quick access into and out of Forty-Second Street; gotta implement flight restrictions below 110th Street, nothing under four thousand feet; seven harbor launches in harbor ready to respond, and four harbor launches doing Staten Island ferry escorts; Hostile Surveillance Teams [plainclothes cops at eight critical subway stations in midtown, wearing the funny hats but looking for hostile surveillance]; new emergency-vehicle routes designed; new radio frequencies for everything . . .
Captain Magee interrupts the reverie. “We have to get downtown,” he says. “To the JOC.” That’s the Joint Operations Center at 1 Police Plaza, the war room of coordinated interagency activity on any night, but especially tonight. “Yeah, yeah,” Waters says. “I’ll be right there.”
There is a profound tension to this work, and a sobering recognition that in an open society you can only ever be so secure. A police state might be perfectly secure, but no one with will or imagination would want to live there. The roiling civic conversation of our time has been about the opposing demands of security and freedom. And that is the seam that Chief Waters works, very sensitively. All of this—the vast array of police assets deployed to both project power to the bad guys watching—they’re always watching—but also as lightly as possible so as not to unduly burden the people they are serving—is being done with the ultimate goal of . . . absolutely nothing happening. A good party, and that’s it. So that at twenty seconds to midnight, as the countdown proceeds and the crowd noise suddenly doubles, a guy says, “Go confetti,” and on that word, 120 people high on top of seven buildings encircling Times Square will begin to drop three thousand pounds of two-inch-by-two-inch pieces of colored tissue paper, one handful at a time, and the paper will float up on the frigid air of the vortex of the high-rises, swirl around in thick clouds before snowing back down to earth, landing on the shoulders of the tactical units with their long guns, and landing on the head of a little girl, who will squeal, “I can’t see, it’s so much!” and landing silently on the ground of the grid, the only unscreened and unscrutinized objects allowed anywhere near here all day.
And Mayor Bill de Blasio and his beaming wife will make a beeline for Waters and bend down slightly to shout, “You did it! Great job!” and clap him on the back, and the secretary general of the U.N. will nod and smile, and the governor, and the secretary of Homeland Security, and various celebrities. All deeply appreciative for all that goes into having absolutely nothing happen. Grateful for the herculean task that goes into making a quiet night.
Waters heads to his car. There’s a ton to be done before then.
Seven hours to midnight.
find typically that the more money I make, the smaller my office is.”
That’s John Miller talking. He is the deputy commissioner of the NYPD for Intelligence & Counterterrorism and former broadcast journalist who could well be the only cop in the world whose ride-along partner was once Barbara Walters. “In TV, my office was usually just a glorified cubicle.” He has a pretty big office right down the hall from Waters’s, in the unbeautiful suite of offices that make up the eleventh floor of 1 Police Plaza, the city-state that houses the administration of the largest municipal police force in the world. “My own army,” former mayor Michael Bloomberg once called it.
Miller is also probably the only cop who has a picture on his office wall of himself with Osama bin Laden—from 1998, at bin Laden’s hideaway in Afghanistan, the last time an American journalist interviewed the terrorist. In 2011, after an American SEAL team killed bin Laden, Miller was in the top-secret CIA briefing with Director Leon Panetta, and at the end of the briefing Panetta said, any questions? “I’m like, uh, did he say anything? Like when they confronted him on the stairs, was there any dialogue? And he laughed and said, There wasn’t a lot of conversation. I thought, Excellent, so I actually still do have the last interview with Osama bin Laden.” There are many other pictures in the office—Miller with the pope, with President Obama. He keeps his Emmys elsewhere. All of which testifies to the utter bizarreness of Miller’s career—which spans from calling in news reports to local New York TV stations from his bike in the early seventies, to being the authority on John Gotti and the mob in the eighties, to a first foray in law enforcement in the mid-nineties, to hopscotching back and forth ever since—from NBC and ABC, cohost of 20/20, to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, to 9/11, when he sat by Peter Jennings’s side for sixteen hours calmly explaining global jihad to a stricken country, to going to work for the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to now overseeing the strategy and mobilization of police resources to protect any self-respecting terrorist’s bucket-list target city—you can get whiplash just reading Miller’s résumé.
When Popular Mechanics contacted the NYPD to ask about how police design security for mass gatherings in the age of terrorism, it was Miller who said, “Talk to Chief Waters.” But the same skills that made Miller a good reporter—taking in information, synthesizing it, telling you what it means—have made him sort of a philosopher king on the subject, too.
“You’ve got New Year’s Eve, where you have concentric circles of security,” he says, “on the idea that you can’t let a million people in and have total security. So you’ve got to have a graded system. You’re gonna catch most things at the first ring, and if not there you’ll catch it at the second ring, or a dog may catch it at the third ring. Before you go into those pens, there is a pretty good chance that going through all those baffles and filters, somewhere along the line, if there’s something that needs to be caught, it’ll get caught. But that’s about the event. When you design a mobilization for New Year’s Eve, with extraordinary assets pointed at a single spot, you also can’t take your eye off the rest of the vast metropolis outside of your grid. You can’t have all your assets tied up in one place. There’s the whole rest of the city out there.”
What police learn from so many of the recent events around the world is that the attacks come where the security isn’t. “Take Orlando,” says Miller. “Where is the counterterrorism package in Orlando? It’s focused on Disney. That’s where the concentric circles of security are. But the single largest loss of life in a terrorist incident on American soil since 9/11 occurred in Orlando, but not at Disney. It was miles away, at two o’clock in the morning, in a nightclub, on Latin night. So you can do all the targeting and analysis about where you should put your resources, but there is a randomness to these things, and we have to prepare for randomness, too.”
So if you apply that thinking and these “security overlays” to New Year’s Eve and Times Square, what does randomness look like? In the great feedback loop of the universe, as the clock ticks down to midnight, and the pens fill up and the air gets colder and millions of people mill about in the charged atmosphere, NYPD executives, with their checklists being checked and rechecked, get their answer.
Five thousand miles away, at 1:14 a.m. local time, at a nightclub in Istanbul called the Reina, randomness happens. A gunman opens fire with a Kalashnikov at people dancing, drinking, and laughing in the new year, slaughtering thirty-nine of them before disappearing into the night. Within minutes, as help is still on its way, the mobile device on Jim Waters’s belt starts pinging.
He was about to get a bite to eat, for chrissakes, but no time for that now. In a situation such as this, a man in Waters’s position has to grab the analyst in his office and find out as much good information about the circumstances and target in Istanbul as he can, quickly, and then consider soft targets in his own city that might be similarly vulnerable, all while hosting a party for two million guests. Tonight is busier than last year, could be a record. By 8:00 p.m., the pens are filled all the way up to Fifty-Fifth Street, thirteen blocks north of Times Square. “You can’t even see the ball drop from Fifty-Fifth!” says Captain Magee. “But you can hear the roar of the crowd I guess, feel the vibrations, say you were there.”
With the news from Istanbul, the executives at NYPD in charge of counterterrorism can feel another, unwelcome vibration. There are nightclubs too many to count all over New York City, in all five boroughs. But if there is a disaffected guy out there, Chief Waters’s lone wolf, who has been thinking about making his mark but maybe has doubted his abilities or has hesitated for some reason, and he sees the news from Turkey and finds in it his inspiration to impulsively act, where would he go? When would he go there? How would he maximize the statement he’s trying to make?
“There are neighborhoods that compare to the neighborhood in Istanbul,” Waters says. “Concentrations of nightclubs and restaurants, active street life. The Village all the way up the West Side, Chelsea, the Meatpacking District. We haven’t touched a single asset for New Year’s Eve, haven’t pulled and won’t pull anything out of Times Square. Everything will remain here as it is. But we are directing available tactical units with long guns already on for the 4-to-12 shift to circulate in the area—up to a dozen cars—they’ll leave their guns in the trunk for now, don’t want to alarm people. Just establish contact with proprietors, let them know they’re there. Be seen. Establish deterrence. Put people at ease so they can have a good time. Ten, fifteen minutes at each place—now you see us, now you don’t. Move on to the next one, then come back. Over the course of an hour they’ll be in four or five locations.”
One more tactical ball in the air for Waters and his cops to juggle. One more jolt of adrenaline to propel everybody toward tomorrow. As the crowd and the colors swirl around him, as Mariah Carey struts the stage right over there not singing, the chief of counterterrorism is on the phone constantly with all of his executive staff, getting one-minute briefs from all sectors and levels of responsibility for the grid. He smiles. “The way I work is, I know if they say, ‘Everything’s great, chief, no problem,’ I know I’m not getting the truth. Either they aren’t doing their job, or they’ve already corrected a problem and feel like they don’t want to bother the boss. That’s policing—situational awareness and constant adjustment to conditions on the ground.”
Waters and his coterie are in motion and remain in motion, making their way back and forth through the clotted blocks at the heart of Times Square, checking with lieutenants, detectives, inspectors, there’s Commissioner O’Neill over there talking with the press, and Mariah Carey again—”she walks through like she’s the Dalai Lama or something,” Magee cracks, “eats up resources, but that’s okay, it’s part of why everybody’s here”—and the music is loud and man, Ryan Seacrest wears a lot of makeup, and the empty zone right in front of the ball begins to fill with cops, and three hours collapses in an instant.
Midnight is upon us. Further uptown, near Central Park, the magnetometers and the dogs are still working as the stragglers get screened, and the semi-official position of the New York Police Department might be described as lighthearted vigilance. Jubilant wariness.
Joanne would normally be here for the ball to drop, but she’s running the midnight 5K up in the park tonight. Chief Waters checks on the security for the run, then makes a last call. “How are things in Chelsea? Quiet? Good.” He hangs up, slips his phone into his pocket, and is quiet for the first time in hours, amid the roar at the crossroads of the world.
One minute to go.
In his head, he’s getting to the bottom of that checklist. “Now is when I always call my muthah,” Captain Magee says, turning away to talk on the phone. Waters smiles. “I know his mother,” he says. “Wonderful woman.” He is still smiling when his eyes suddenly get cloudy. “I lost my mother this year . . .” he says quietly. He turns away for just an instant.
He turns back, all business again. Checks his watch. Looks up at the ball. “You know, the most important thing for us to remember,” he says, “is that we are a free society, and we do our job well when people are as free to move and as safe as possible doing it .”
“You can’t protect everything all the time, or you actually protect nothing.”
There is a sign Waters keeps in his office. Reads it coming and going, every day. “Did you do everything today to prevent an attack tomorrow?” it says.
Here we go.
10 . . .
9 . . .
8 . . .
For a controlled event (as opposed to a more spontaneous exercise of free speech) of two million people, screening is essential, as is blocking access to where the largest concentrations of the crowd will be assembled. In addition to the street being blocked by fully loaded sand trucks, the sidewalks are blocked by two-ton concrete blocks.
Back in the old days, New Year’s Eve in Times Square was an unsecured, alcohol-drenched free-for-all, which, in a post 9/11 world, is simply unheard of. Now, following screening, the secured revelers are congregated in “pens,” less free to move, but less likely to get hurt.
The Death of the White Working Class Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
Ever since Hillary Clinton and the Democrats failed to hold the White House last November, some members of the party and friendly elements in the media have suggested that the Dems have to renew their focus on white working-class men if they want to win. In this view, liberals have become distracted by so-called “identity” issues like feminism, Black Lives Matter, transgender bathroom access, and the musical Hamilton, thus alienating the underserved voters Donald Trump was then able to nab. Underlying this argument is a series of reports on the immiseration of the white working class and its members’ increasing tendency to die. But while these papers have garnered a lot of attention, there’s good evidence that their conclusions go too far.
The latest version come from the all-star Princeton University economics couple Anne Case and Angus Deaton, writing under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” might sound like a dull title, but the report has inspired breathless headlines, such as: “Why the White Middle Class Is Dying Faster, Explained in 6 Charts” and “Deaths of Despair: The White American Working Class Is Dying Young.” Brookings got in on the hype game themselves with a blog post titled “Working Class White Americans Are Now Dying in Middle Age at Faster Rates Than Minority Groups.” Those headlines are what “Mortality and Morbidity” was designed to elicit; the paper’s leading graphic has served as the peg for most of these stories. Unfortunately, Case and Deaton’s leading graphic is also one of their most misleading.
Figure 1.1 plots all-cause mortality for Americans age 50–54 by race since 1999; it shows the rates for white and black non-hispanics crossing in 2008, with the former now suffering higher rates by a serious margin. Except it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison: The white group in question only includes those with a high school education or less, while the black group comprises all levels of education — everyone.
Much of the media has been reporting that these findings apply to the “white working class,” but that’s not quite right. Although higher education is associated with class, Case and Deaton chose to use educational attainment instead of income or homeownership, and no one really thinks you cease being a worker when you step on a college campus — that would make most Americans members of the capitalist class, which we are not. To call their subject the “working class” is sloppy labeling, but there is a much bigger problem with the Case and Deaton methodology.
That problem is called “lagged selection bias,” and this is how it works: If you’re measuring long-term phenomena, there’s a risk that the pool of people you’re looking at will change while you’re looking at them, owing to a separate trend. For example, if you were looking at the relation between 12th-grade cigarette smoking and income 10 years later, I’m sure that you’d find a serious drop during the past decade. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean the salaries of former teenage smokers are actually going down. Rather, smoking in the 12th grade has become a much rarer phenomenon — falling from 25 percent in 1997 down to 6 percent today — and it’s negatively associated with socioeconomic status. The 19 percent of high school seniors who would have smoked in the 1990s but wouldn’t think of it in 2017 throws off your analysis. What you’d actually end up detecting is not so much the relationship between teen smoking and future income, but changes in youth smoking behavior over time. The (ex-)smokers’ salaries could be increasing normally and you’d never know it by that method.
It’s easy to see how lagged selection bias could apply to a mortality study that breaks down by educational attainment. In fact, the term was created to address this exact case. In 2012, a paper (usually referred to by its lead author S. Jay Olshansky’s last name) led to similar headlines as the new Case and Deaton one, but a few public-health researchers thought something looked off about the findings, which included rapidly increasing mortality for whites without high school degrees.
In the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers Jennifer B. Dowd and Amar Hamoudi suggested the Olshansky results could reflect increasing high school graduation rates more than increasing mortality. As a greater proportion of Americans finish 12th grade, lagged selection bias (a term that Dowd and Hamoudi coined) means the demographic of non-completers shrinks over time, and the longitudinal comparison gets less valid. “In terms of mortality risk, those excluded from high school in the early part of the 20th century are not comparable with those excluded from high school a generation later,” they write, “because those left behind by the high school expansions in mid-century likely had childhoods that were more disadvantaged along many dimensions, and so were at higher mortality risk all along.”
There are ways to guard against lagged selection bias if you’re conscious about it. A group of researchers based out of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan has been working with some of the same material, and they took up Dowd and Hamoudi’s challenge and the Olshansky data sets. The Michigan group was able to reproduce the Olshansky results, but they then tried to account for the effect of lagged selection bias. They used percentile of educational attainment rather than simple attainment — based on Census data, a white American in the 25th percentile would have a 10th-grade education if they were born in 1935, but a high school diploma if they were born after 1950.
It’s a smart way to account for the expansion of education access, and, when they tried it, they found that the Olshansky findings looked overstated. At the 25th percentile of educational attainment, they saw a 1.2-year decrease in life expectancy for white women between 1990 and 2010 (compared to 3.8 years with the Olshansky “no high school graduation” measure), and a small increase for white men (0.4 years vs. -2.2). The media did not exactly trip over itself delving into the new data.
I called up Arline Geronimus, the coordinator for public-health demography at the Michigan Population Studies Center and a co-author of the study, to ask about the Case and Deaton report. The first thing she wants to make sure I understand is that the paper has not been peer reviewed. “It’s premature to make it so public,” she says; “I don’t think it does anything to advance the field.” Geronimus launched into a laundry list of professional concerns: There’s the lagged selection bias, but also an overemphasis on the ages 45 to 54, no attention to measures of lifespan, a questionable particular interest in white people, a focus on individual behavior that’s uncharacteristic for the discipline, and far too broad a brush in general.
Public-health researchers look at a very detailed level, Geronimus tells me; they examine local micro-discrepancies in populations and environments, down to the city-block and epigenetic levels. She calls their attention to so-called deaths of despair “overblown.” The Case and Deaton paper “just isn’t a well-developed argument,” Geronimus says. “There are many of us who have been working carefully in this field for decades testing theories, not just making them up.”
Dubious methodology aside, there is still some useful information in the Case and Deaton report. America does seem to have a serious problem ensuring longevity for its population as compared to its peer nations. But, though the international perspective is the strongest part in their paper, it’s not what the researchers or the newspapers led with. Why put the statistical alchemy in front? Why is the story more dramatic or attractive when it’s about white people?
Mistakes and missteps also propel social science forward, as the Olshansky paper did. Still, Case and Deaton didn’t publish their findings in a peer-reviewed public-health journal, at least not first. Brookings is a center of political influence in Washington, and I have no doubt that Capitol Hill staffers have already written up their briefs on the report and passed them to their bosses — that is, if they work half as fast as Internet journalists do.
By the time it makes its way to the top of the policymaker food chain, how will this report be understood? I’d wager it’s something like the Brookings blog headline: “Working Class White Americans Are Now Dying in Middle Age at Faster Rates Than Minority Groups.” I asked Geronimus if that was, to her understanding, a true statement: “I think that’s misleading, I really do. Oh boy,” she laughs, “there’s so much wrong with that. That headline makes it sound like problems are worse for white Americans than black Americans.” The narrative is wrong, but it’s not the first time Geronimus has heard it since the election. The Case and Deaton paper, she says, fits conveniently in this story, and it’s one she fears Americans are primed to believe.
To make use of social science research, we have to treat it like social science research. When the media takes validity for granted and writes up studies as though they’re golden press releases, it doesn’t serve anyone, except the think tanks who get to steer the national agenda. Anticipating attention from media and policymakers changes the incentives for researchers. If Brookings had gone with, “What Happened to Mortality Among 45–54-Year-Old White Non-Hispanics? It Declined From 1989 to 1999, Increased From 1999 to 2005, and Held Steady After That” — which is how Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman interpreted the data — the reception would have been very different. If they had gone with, “Longevity Stalls for Poor Americans; U.S. Falls Behind Internationally,” maybe the study still would have gotten some headlines. But in 2017, the narrative that sells involves white workers who are unemployed, suffering, ignored, dying. We’ve seen it with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and in our population studies.
Despite the headlines, when you compare apples to apples, white Americans remain better off on average than black Americans across the board. For example, to fit black and white rates of heart disease mortality on the same graphs, Case and Deaton had to use different scales (see above). Comparing a range of eight deaths per 100,000 in white women to a range of 40 deaths per 100,000 in black women is to pay closer attention to the former. In these graphs, white lives literally count more, and black lives less. But whether in health, income, wealth, or educational attainment, American white privilege is still very much in effect, and no statistical tomfoolery can change that.
From HIV to climate change: how to spot denialists in action | New Scientist
US president Donald Trump has sparked anxiety in the scientific community by denying climate change, casting doubt on the use of vaccines, and generally decrying experts who don’t toe the Trump administration’s line. Virtually everything Trump disagrees with is dismissed as “fake news”.
Denialism is inevitable whenever powerful financial, governmental, cultural or religious interests come into conflict with scientific reality. HIV researcher Glenda Gray saw this first hand at the turn of the millennium, when South African president Thabo Mbeki refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS. This prevented vital research and treatment, leading to the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Today’s professional deniers, with their deep pockets and sophisticated use of media, are better than ever at convincing the general public that black is white and vice versa. So in these challenging times, it pays to remind ourselves of the cunning moves in the denialists’ playbook, with this excerpt from our special report “Living in denial”.
How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says.
- Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
- Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
- Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
- Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
- Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
- Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – Password
Facial recognition database used by FBI is out of control, House committee hears | Technology | The Guardian
Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.
These are just some of the damning facts presented at last week’s House oversight committee hearing, where politicians and privacy campaigners criticized the FBI and called for stricter regulation of facial recognition technology at a time when it is creeping into law enforcement and business.
“Facial recognition technology is a powerful tool law enforcement can use to protect people, their property, our borders, and our nation,” said the committee chair, Jason Chaffetz, adding that in the private sector it can be used to protect financial transactions and prevent fraud or identity theft.
“But it can also be used by bad actors to harass or stalk individuals. It can be used in a way that chills free speech and free association by targeting people attending certain political meetings, protests, churches, or other types of places in the public.”
Furthermore, the rise of real-time face recognition technology that allows surveillance and body cameras to scan the faces of people walking down the street was, according to Chaffetz, “most concerning”.
“For those reasons and others, we must conduct proper oversight of this emerging technology,” he said.
“No federal law controls this technology, no court decision limits it. This technology is not under control,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the center on privacy and technology at Georgetown Law.
The FBI first launched its advanced biometric database, Next Generation Identification, in 2010, augmenting the old fingerprint database with further capabilities including facial recognition. The bureau did not inform the public about its newfound capabilities nor did it publish a privacy impact assessment, required by law, for five years.
Unlike with the collection of fingerprints and DNA, which is done following an arrest, photos of innocent civilians are being collected proactively. The FBI made arrangements with 18 different states to gain access to their databases of driver’s license photos.
“I’m frankly appalled,” said Paul Mitchell, a congressman for Michigan. “I wasn’t informed when my driver’s license was renewed my photograph was going to be in a repository that could be searched by law enforcement across the country.”
Last year, the US government accountability office (GAO) analyzed the FBI’s use of facial recognition technology and found it to be lacking in accountability, accuracy and oversight, and made recommendations of how to address the problem.
A key concern was how the FBI measured the accuracy of its system, particularly the fact that it does not test for false positives nor for racial bias.
“It doesn’t know how often the system incorrectly identifies the wrong subject,” explained the GAO’s Diana Maurer. “Innocent people could bear the burden of being falsely accused, including the implication of having federal investigators turn up at their home or business.”
Inaccurate matching disproportionately affects people of color, according to studies. Not only are algorithms less accurate at identifying black faces, but African Americans are disproportionately subjected to police facial recognition.
“If you are black, you are more likely to be subjected to this technology, and the technology is more likely to be wrong,” said Elijah Cummings, a congressman for Maryland, who called for the FBI to test its technology for racial bias – something the FBI claims is unnecessary because the system is “race-blind”.
“This response is very troubling. Rather than conducting testing that would show whether or not these concerns have merit, the FBI chooses to ignore growing evidence that the technology has a disproportionate impact on African Americans,” Cummings said.
Kimberly Del Greco, the FBI’s deputy assistant director of criminal justice information, said that the FBI’s facial recognition system had “enhanced the ability to solve crime” and emphasized that the system was not used to positively identify suspects, but to generate “investigative leads”.
Even the companies that develop facial recognition technology believe it needs to be more tightly controlled. Brian Brackeen, CEO of Kairos, told the Guardian he was “not comfortable” with the lack of regulation. Kairos helps movie studios and ad agencies study the emotional response to their content and provides facial recognition in theme parks to allow people to find and buy photos of themselves.
Brackeen said that the algorithms used in the commercial space are “five years ahead” of what the FBI is doing, and are much more accurate.
“There has got to be privacy protections for the individual,” he said.
There should be strict rules about how private companies can work with the government, said Brackeen, particularly when companies like Kairos are gathering rich datasets of faces. Kairos refuses to work with the government over concerns about how his technology could be used for biometric surveillance.
“Right now the only thing preventing Kairos from working with the government is me,” he said.