December 17th, 2017
For your Bits this weekend we get started by taking a look at how Donald Trump has been able to manipulate the political press and neutralize their ability to scrutinize his administration. Trump was the original reality TV star before the genre was invented and has shrewdly turned the the “daily [press] briefing into his very own reality show.” Through his Twitter account and surrogates within his administration, Trump is able to lead the White House Press Corp on a never-ending chase after the juiciest piece of gossip and or inside scoop about the latest scandal; this endless supply of “news” means that journalists are never able to follow-up on yesterday’s big story without missing out on today’s, allowing the Trump administration to avoid accountability for its decisions.
~ 21 Minute Read
“It was the sinister genius of Donald Trump to turn the hallowed ritual of the daily briefing into his very own reality show. The press, he learned during his tabloid years in New York, is essentially a sensationalistic enterprise. On the campaign trail, he took advantage of the industry’s most self-serving impulses to inject himself hourly into the national consciousness; later, as his coverage became more negative, Trump turned the media’s outrage into ammunition for his assault on establishment pieties. His shock election seemed to confirm that the nation’s educated reportorial class, cloistered in New York and Washington, D.C., had missed one of the biggest stories of the century. With the briefing room under his control, Trump and his ill-fated stand-in, Sean Spicer, effectively hijacked the network-news cameras, turning them back on the White House press corps, making the once staid question-and-answer sessions into a daily referendum on media bias.
Many of Trump’s adversaries have made themselves willing foils. It is hardly a secret that Trump, who has done more than any U.S. president in modern times to subvert and discredit the “Failing” New York Times and the “Fake News” Washington Post, has also reinvigorated an industry that was in disrepair. Maggie Haberman has become a household name; MSNBC’s Katy Tur has turned her front-row seat to the Trump campaign into a best-selling book and an anchor seat; Jake Tapper has emerged as CNN’s world-weary conscience; and Brian Williams has re-invented himself as the new final word in prime-time. The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to welcome even more gate-crashers into the fold. Among the outlets now asking questions alongside the Associated Press, Time, and NBC News: a conservative blog called Gateway Pundit, Laura Ingraham’s Web site, LifeZette, and a teenaged “independent journalist” named Kyle Mazza who tucks his tie into the front of his pants. In Trump’s White House, when everyone’s watching, each one of these people has a chance to become a star, to win a book contract or land a CNN contributor deal, as long as they ask the right gotcha question and obtain what might be the biggest prize in White House reporting in 2017: a dopamine-rush of viral fame on Twitter.
Still, no self-respecting reporter in Washington, and few journalists working in the White House press corps, would confuse the limp jousting that happens in the briefing room as a proxy for the whole of American journalism and its simmering existential anxiety. For day-to-day journalists, the briefing is little more than a tired ritual meant to address the “news of the day,” or to supplement the other conversations and reporting happening around town. “That room has never been some kind of hub of truth-telling,” as Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor in chief, put it to me recently. “But part of the job is bearing witness and simply trying to help our audience understand what is going on.”
Even so, there is a feeling hanging over the furious, often empty spectacle of the briefing room, that the action is happening elsewhere, and that the media has become complicit in a highly choreographed distraction. The White House, for all its legislative stumbles and stage-crafted sparring with the media, appears to know this and it has benefitted from it mightily. More alarming, however, is that one could just as soon argue that the White House, no matter how ham-fisted and obfuscatory, has a more tactile understanding of what really matters in this country—and how Americans actually receive information—than those who are tasked with covering it.”
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Our next article takes a look at Ithkuil, the language that John Quijada spent 34 years creating from scratch, and the bizarre Slavic-nationalist group that fell in love with it. Quijada is a lifelong language enthusiast and amateur linguist who was fascinated by the variation between languages and the way this can affect how humans think and communicate. He developed Ithkuil as a way to combine the best parts of all of the world’s languages into a complicated system for expressing any thought with detailed nuance that leaves little room for ambiguity. For most of Quijada’s life, Ithkuil was simply a passion project that he worked on during his free time; however, the psychonetics movement, based in various parts of the former Soviet Union, had discovered Ithkuil and incorporated it into their university’s curriculum as a way to more efficiently and logically think about the world. Quijada was invited to speak at their conferences where he learned more about the people who had adopted his language.
~ 45 Minute Read
“In 2010, Quijada found himself in a position he’d long sought to avoid. In order to get time off to attend the conference in Kalmykia, he was forced to disclose to his boss and co-workers, some of whom had known him for more than two decades, that he had been concealing a hobby that had consumed his nights, weekends, and lunch breaks ever since college.
“People at work now held me in some sort of state of half awe, because this guy obviously has more going on in his head than being a manager at this dopey state agency, and half in contempt, because I’ve now proved myself to be beyond whatever state of geekery they might have previously thought about me,” Quijada said. “ ‘You’re a what? A con man?’ ‘No, boss, a conlanger.’ ” He was being sent halfway around the world on an all-expenses-paid trip, sponsored by a foreign government, to take part in a conference whose docket of speakers included philosophers, sociologists, economists, biologists, a logician, and a Buddhist monk. Not only had Quijada never been to Kalmykia; he’d never heard of it before.
To the extent that it’s known at all, Kalmykia is notable for two things: for being the only majority-Buddhist state west of the Ural Mountains, and for having an eccentric former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, an oligarch-turned-politician, spend millions of dollars of his own fortune turning a dusty, forgotten corner of the Russian steppe into the chess capital of the world. Ilyumzhinov claims to have been abducted from his Moscow apartment, in 1997, by extraterrestrials, who gave him a tour of the galaxy and taught him that chess came from outer space.
Upon landing in Elista, Quijada was greeted by an interpreter and whisked off to Chess City, a community of middle-class California-style town houses built on the outskirts of town to host the 1998 World Chess Championships. There he met a student, a young woman, who informed him that a group of students at the University of Effective Development, in Kiev, had been studying Ithkuil intensively for the past two years, and saw it as an integral part of a psychonetics training program that they were developing. Another student told him that he and his friends regarded him as “a legend.” Quijada still had no real idea what psychonetics was, or why the University of Effective Development might be interested in it. He was speechless.
“You tend to think by age fifty-one that you’ve pretty much seen everything life can throw at you,” he wrote later. “But from that moment on, John Q. was through the looking glass.”
Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.
He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”
That evening, following a series of interviews with the Kalmykian press, there was a get-together of conferees in the town house in Chess City where Oleg Bakhtiyarov, the professor responsible for Quijada’s invitation to Kalmykia, was staying. The psychoneticists talked into the night about their experiments in “deconcentration of attention” and other techniques of spiritual self-development. But the more Quijada pressed them for an explanation of their philosophy the more elusive it seemed. Above all, he couldn’t quite figure out why they were so obsessed with his language.
“I never did get a handle on what these techniques really were,” Quijada recalled. He chalked up his misunderstandings to poor translation, and decided that it would be impolite to voice too much skepticism. As the evening unfolded, he found himself perched barefoot and cross-legged on a sofa, with a group of young Russian students gathered on the rug at his feet.
“I was surrounded by all these people hanging on my every word. It was intoxicating—especially for a loner like me,” Quijada said. “For one day, I got to play as an academic. I got to live this fantasy where I took the other path in the garden. I got to see what it would have been like if I had gone to graduate school and become a professional linguist. The fates of the universe tore open a window to show me what my life could have been. That night, I went back to my room, took a shower, and burst into tears.””
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Your last Bit of the weekend explores the most effective obesity fighting tool: weight loss surgeries. While the popular perception is that these surgeries are “dangerous and ineffective,” they have been shown to be the most effective way for people with severe obesity to take off large amounts of weight and keep that weight off long term. Most weight loss surgeries work by reducing the size and shape of the stomach or intestines, essentially limiting the amount of food that a person can consume. One thing that can make this much more effective than diet and exercise (which do not tend to result in dramatic weight loss) is that the surgeries reset the a person’s “set point,” or general weight range that their body fights to maintain. That means that people who have had weight loss surgery tend to have faster metabolisms and feel less hungry making it easier to keep off the excess weight. Despite this evidence, weight loss surgeries are not very popular due to the significant social stigma against them as well as the fact that they can be quite expensive, even for people with health insurance.
~ 19 Minute Read
“There’s a surprisingly big disconnect between how obesity researchers think about the causes of and treatments for obesity and how the American public does.
Researchers think some people have genetic and hormonal traits that make them more susceptible to obesity. They view obesity as a complex, chronic disease, like cancer, with many causes and subtypes. They’re also losing faith in dieting and exercise, neither of which is very helpful for weight loss in the long term.
The public, on the other hand, generally believes obesity is caused by a lack of willpower, and that it can be fixed with gym memberships and trendy diets. In one 2016 survey of more than 1,500 Americans, 60 percent of the participants said dieting and exercise were even more effective than surgery for long-term weight loss.
Here’s the thing, though: Weight loss surgery is far and away medicine’s best treatment for severe obesity.
The medical case for bariatric surgery has grown much stronger in recent years. High-quality studies on the long-term health outcomes of people with obesity who got surgery show, on average, that they’re able to lose dramatic amounts of weight, and even reverse or prevent their obesity-related health conditions, like diabetes and high cholesterol. A new study out in JAMA Surgery demonstrated this once again. That’s why Medicaid now covers the procedure in 46 states, and so do national health systems in countries as diverse as Israel, Brazil, and Canada.
Yet out of the 20 million people who are eligible in the US, fewer than 1 percent get bariatric surgery for weight loss, according to the Obesity Society.
Why? Polling data shows that many Americans still think it’s dangerous and ineffective.
To be clear, not all weight loss surgeries are created equal: The gastric bypass and gastric sleeve operations are considered superior to the lap band, for example. And surgery isn’t for people with a few pounds to lose; it’s reserved for those with severe obesity. Even the best surgeries don’t work in some people, and can cause disturbing side effects in rare cases. But bariatric surgery’s benefits appear to vastly outweigh its harms on average, and it is shaping up to be a genuine help for people struggling through one of the most urgent health crises of our time. It’s time we started paying attention.”
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