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How to Almost Learn Italian

Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.

From my article in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic

Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.

No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.

For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.

But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive….Read more

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What If Elon Musk Succeeds?

Everyone is fixating on whether Tesla can succeed—and ignoring how that success could drive us closer to a future of jobless automation

From my cover story in the August 17, 2018, issue of Newsweek

NwswkMuskCover180817Elon Musk has been making a habit of shocking. Tuesday afternoon he tweeted that he was ready to take publicly held Tesla private, and trading had to be halted as everyone from investors to the SEC tried to figure out if the Tweet was a weed joke (given the 420 reference), a potentially illegal effort to manipulate stock price, or a genuine financial disclosure of unheard-of magnitude and form.

That was just the latest Musk surprise. During a conference call with Wall Street investment analysts in May he refused to answer basic questions about Tesla’s faltering financial prospects. “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool,” he said. A few months before, he treated his 22 million Twitter followers to harassing rants against reporters who published critical pieces about Tesla.

But if you’re focusing on Musk’s bad manners, you’re missing the point. His plan to transform the car industry is picking up speed. Along the way, it could put tens of millions of people out of work, dismantling what has been a foundation of the nation’s social and economic life for a century. And it’s happening in the service of plying the wealthy with cooler cars. Read more

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Health Care’s ‘Upstream’ Conundrum

When it comes to the long-term health of the country, findings now show the big problem might not be health care at all—it might be everything else. Can researchers get politicians to pay attention?

From my article in January 2018 in Politico

At the heart of America’s vaunted health care system is a frustrating puzzle. The United States pays three times as much per citizen as the average of other wealthy nations—far more than even the second-highest spender, Switzerland, adding up to $3 trillion a year. Yet for all that enormous expenditure, we come in dead last among those nations in lifespan. And as the bills climb, our life expectancy is actually shrinking.

What’s going so wrong? If our national health care were a corporation, that return on investment would get its CEO immediately fired. Plenty of experts are ready to point fingers at various causes: our lack of universal health care, industrialized food system, PoliticoUpstreamsuburban lifestyles, and profit-driven tangle of insurers and drug companies and hospitals. Surely those play a role. And yet other countries face each of these, and other challenges as well, and still manage to spend less and enjoy better health overall.

Looming over the American conversation about public health is a growing suspicion that there’s a bigger reason for our uniquely poor showing, one that has been staring us in the face for years. It’s an explanation rooted in one simple statistic: While we pay more for health care than any other country in the world, when it comes to spending on social services—education, subsidized housing, food assistance and more—we rank in the bottom 10 among developed countries.

It’s easy to think of “health” as just another category of social-service spending. But a great deal of modern research suggests that it might be more accurate to think of it as the payoff of all the other services put together. Elizabeth Bradley, president of Vassar College and a former Yale researcher widely seen as the world’s foremost expert in the relationship between social services and health, has documented how the ratio of a country’s social-service spending to health care spending is highly correlated with health outcomes around the world. “The right question for our political agenda is, ‘What’s going to give us the most bang for the buck in health outcomes?'” says Bradley. “What our work has shown is that the answer is spending on social services.” Read more

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Self-Driving Trucks

Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?

From my article in the March/April 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review

Roman Mugriyev was driving his long-haul 18-wheeler down a two-lane Texas highway when he saw an oncoming car drift into his lane just a few hundred feet ahead. There was a ditch to his right and more oncoming cars to his left, so there was little for him to Truckdo but hit his horn and brake. “I could hear the man who taught me to drive telling me what he always said was rule number one: ‘Don’t hurt anybody,’” Mugriyev recalls.

But it wasn’t going to work out that way. The errant car collided with the front of Mugriyev’s truck. It shattered his front axle, and he struggled to keep his truck and the wrecked car now fused to it from hitting anyone else as it barreled down the road. After Mugriyev finally came to a stop, he learned that the woman driving the car had been killed in the collision.

Could a computer have done better at the wheel? Or would it have done worse?

We will probably find out in the next few years, because multiple companies are now testing self-driving trucks. Although many technical problems are still unresolved, proponents claim that self-driving trucks will be safer and less costly. “This system often drives better than I do,” says Greg Murphy, who’s been a professional truck driver for 40 years. Read more

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The War on Stupid People

American society increasingly mistakes intelligence for human worth

From my article in the July/August 2016 issue of The Atlantic

As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory. IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack forAtlStupid getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores. As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were “based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.”

The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement. Read more

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America Is Burning: The Fight Against Wildfires

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Years of climate change, drought, and reckless development have transformed nearly all of the American West into a giant tinderbox. Is there anything we can do to keep from going up in flames?

From my article in the Aug, 2014, issue of Men’s Journal

Traffic jams are a fact of life in Southern California. But few motorists have seen the likes of the one that stranded thousands of vehicles in May on Interstate 5 near San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego. As vehicles idled, walls of flame arcing as high as 50 feet, and whipped by winds of up to 70 miles per hour, raced along an adjacent hillside, ripping through acres of parched trees and shrubs and blotting out the sky with roiling, glowing, thick smoke. And that wasn’t the only out-of-control blaze raging: At one point, San Diego County firefighters were grappling with nine separate wildfires – and six of those blazes were winning.

….Big, out-of-season fires are starting to look like the new normal. For as long back as there are records, California’s wildfire season hasn’t truly gotten under way until fall. But through most of 2013 and 2014, wildfires have been raging almost constantly, essentially leaving the state with a 12-month wildfire season.

And it’s not just California. In May, Arizona, Oklahoma, and even Alaska all were hit by large wildfires, months ahead of schedule. More blazes are occurring in fall and winter, as well. “In November, a fire in the Colorado Rockies burned across a snow-covered forest while firefighters watched, astounded,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, who studies wildfire. “That may be something no one has ever seen before.” Read more

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How Junk Food Can End Obesity

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Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

From my cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic 

Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.

Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third…read more.

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