Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sunday Reading

Assassination in Moscow — Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic on the murder of a Putin opponent.

Hours after Boris Nemtsov was slain on Friday night near the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin vowed to seek justice: “Everything will be done so that the organizers and perpetrators of a vile and cynical murder get the punishment they deserve,” he said in a condolence message to the 55-year-old Nemtsov’s mother. Whether Putin is being sincere is something only he and his closest advisors know. But Russia’s recent history inspires little confidence that Nemtsov’s killers, whomever they are, will be brought to justice.

Nemtsov was a high-profile politician, having served as a deputy prime minister and, more recently, as a regional legislator. He was such an outspoken critic of Putin in those roles that he openly feared for his life. Along with his colleague Leonid Martynyuk, Nemtsov published a report detailing the immense corruption surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, which were hosted in the Russian resort town of Sochi. Nemtsov also spoke out about Russia’s seizure of Crimea last February and subsequent support for pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Nemtsov is hardly the first critic of Putin to lose his life to premeditated murder. Dozens of journalists have been killed since the Russian president first assumed office in 2000. Few of those responsible have been brought to justice—a point Nemtsov himself was well aware of. “The murderers understand that killing journalists is not a problem,” he told Foreign Policy‘s Christian Caryl in a 2010 interview.

The assassination of a well-known politician, however, is somewhat more unusual. In an attempt to preempt public outrage, the Kremlin has already formed a committee to investigate the causes of Nemtsov’s death. One possibility they cited was that Nemtsov’s commentary about the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, whose offices suffered a murderous assault in January, made him a target of Islamists. The committee also mentioned Nemtsov’s controversial position on Ukraine, and, most spectacularly, suggested that he was killed by fellow opponents of Putin in an attempt to rally opposition to the Russian president.

Putin’s critics have not had it easy in Russia. A major economic slowdown triggered by falling oil prices has not diminished the president’s popularity. The country’s liberal opposition—epitomized by Nemtsov and the jailed politician Alexei Navalny—is weak and marginalized, and their positions on Ukraine, Putin, and the Sochi Olympics are not widely shared among ordinary Russians.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin appears wary of turning Nemtsov into a martyr. On Sunday, he was scheduled to appear at an anti-Putin rally in Moscow. But when the organizers asked to turn the rally into a memorial for Nemtsov, Russian authorities denied the request. Even still, protests have done little to challenge Putin’s grip on power—something that Nemtsov himself acknowledged in a recent interview published in Newsweek‘s Polish edition:

[The liberals’] idea is the one of a democratic and open Russia. A country which is not applying bandit methods to its own citizens and neighbors. But, as I mentioned, Russian fascism is a hybrid. And hybrids are extremely resistant.

As the world mourns his death, Nemtsov’s vision seems very far from being realized.

Early Bird vs. Night Owl — Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker on the morals dictated by our sleep pattern.

The idea of the virtuous early bird goes back at least to Aristotle, who wrote, in his Economics, that “Rising before daylight is … to be commended; it is a healthy habit.” Benjamin Franklin, of course, framed the same sentiment in catchier terms: “Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise.” More recently, there has been a push for ever earlier work starts, conference calls, and breakfast meetings, and a steady stream of advice to leave Twitter and Facebook to the afternoon and spend the morning getting real things done. And there may be some truth to the idea: a 1998 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that we become more passive as the day wears on. You should do the most important thing first, the theory goes, because, well, you won’t be able to do it quite as well later on.

In last January’s issue of Psychological Science, Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac Smith took that theory even further, proposing what they called the morning morality effect, which posits that people behave better earlier in the day. Their research caught the attention of Sunita Sah, a behavioral scientist at Georgetown University and a professed night owl. For the previous five years, Sah had been studying how different situations influence ethical behavior. “You always hear these sweeping statements: morning is saintly, evening is bad; early to bed, early to rise,” she told me recently. A former physician, she found it plausible that something with such profound health consequences as time of day might also have a moral dimension. But she wondered how strong the effect really was. Were people like her—principled late risers—the exception to the rule? To test the limits of Kouchaki and Smith’s findings, Sah and her colleagues began by looking at the underlying biology.

Our sleep patterns are governed by circadian rhythms, our bodies’ response to changes in light and dark in a typical day. The rhythms are slightly different for every person, which is why our energy levels ebb and flow in ways that are unique to us. This internal clock determines what is called our chronotype—whether we are morning people, night people, or somewhere in between. Chronotypes are relatively stable, though they have been known to shift with age. Children and older adults generally prefer mornings; adolescents and young adults prefer evenings. Figuring out where you fall is simple: spend a few weeks going to bed when you feel tired and waking up without an alarm clock. A quicker alternative is the Horne-Ostberg questionnaire, which presents various scenarios—a difficult exam, twice-weekly exercise with a friend—and determines your chronotype on the basis of what time of day you’d feel most up to confronting them.

Chronotype, of course, doesn’t control wakefulness all on its own. There is also what is known as homeostatic sleep drive. The longer we are awake, irrespective of where we are in our established circadian rhythms, the more fatigue exerts its pressure on us. In morning people, sleep drive and chronotype tend to be aligned. Their internal clocks are pretty well synchronized with their over-all energy levels. For night owls, however, things get complicated. When the sun comes up, the light resets their circadian clocks, telling them to wake up. But, because of their chronotypes, they don’t have much energy and they want to go back to sleep. At night, the reverse happens: one system is telling them to sleep and another is telling them to remain awake. About forty per cent of people fall into this latter category.

The Right to Get Weird — Marin Cogan reports in New York magazine on the sideshows at CPAC.

“It’s hard to punch through here,” Travis Brown, a writer for the anti-tax website How Money Walks, is saying. Standing in front of us, a towering silver robot with glowing red LED lights in his eyes and chest plate takes a clunky step forward. “We need to be creative. There’s so much going on.” The robot takes another step forward. A college-aged girl walks by asking who he is.

“Govtron is a robot built and fueled by government inefficiency,” one of the robot’s handlers says. “So he’s armored with pages of the Obamacare bill, he’s got a red tape cannon, he’s stomping on some Gadsden snakes as we speak, stomping on your freedom. We’re pitting this super villain against the How Money Walks Reformers, which includes Captain America and Iron Man, as well as Iron Patriot.” Behind him, a man in a Captain America costume gives a halfhearted wave. “That is so funny!” the girl says. “And what is his name? Goovtron?”

Govtron is the subject of a short comic book Brown authored specially for CPAC, the annual confab hosted by the American Conservative Union. He’s there to direct attention to their website, and right now even he’s struggling to stand out. A few booths away, a limited government youth group called Turning Point USA is blasting Sia while students mill about, tagging their “Big Government Sucks” signing wall. “We’re working around this theme, big government sucks,” says Marko Sukovic, the group’s Midwest field director. “It’s probably the most relevant phrase any young person can relate to on college campuses.”

Behind the wall, on which someone has scrawled, “I love our freedom and dislike big politics,” a man in a “Muhammad is a homo” T-shirt is giving an interview in front of an audience of empty chairs. Three aisles down, at the end of the Gaylord Hotel’s massive expo center, the American Atheists are posted up at a booth with the banner “Conservative Atheists Matter!”

“There are millions and millions of atheists who would be voting Republican if the Republicans would just let them!” David Silverman, the group’s president, says, eyes as big as saucers. “Just ask for our vote! Tell us that we count! Tell us that we matter, once! It’s never happened. Not in my lifetime.” The fresh-faced youth manning the World Congress of Families booth beside them does not know how to deal with the atheists next door. “It’s urrrgh … ” he mumbles until an adult steps in to cut him off.

In a big ballroom upstairs, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio will practice their nascent stump speeches to adoring crowds, and Jeb Bush and Chris Christie — the more moderate and less favored potential candidates in the CPAC straw poll — will get grilled by conservative luminaries like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. With the exception of some awkward jokes, and Scott Walker’s awkward reply to a question about how he would take on ISIS (“We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” he tells a questioner), most of the conference’s events are too scripted to be memorable.

Doonesbury — Planned disruption.  (You may have to scroll down the page to actually see the comic.)

2 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. In Re Sleep patterns: I know that if I don’t get everything done that has to be done (according to the agenda I worked up in the wee hours) by noon, it probably will be postponed until the morrow. I simply lose the will or interest/energy in the afternoon and fuggettaboutit after 9:00 PM.

  2. Putin will not give up his power. He will do anything at all to remain in charge. No one can ever accuse him of being a nice guy.

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