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‘Reversing Gears’: China Increasingly Rejects English, and the World

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As a student at Peking University law school in 1978, Li Keqiang kept both pockets of his jacket stuffed with handwritten paper slips. An English word was written on one side, a former classmate recalled, and the matching Chinese version was written on the other.

Mr. Li, now China’s premier, was part of China’s English-learning craze. A magazine called Learning English sold half a million subscriptions that year. In 1982, about 10 million Chinese households — almost equivalent to Chinese TV ownership at the time — watched “Follow Me,” a BBC English-learning program with lines like: “What’s your name?” “My name is Jane.”

It’s hard to exaggerate the role English has played in changing China’s social, cultural, economic and political landscape. English is almost synonymous with China’s reform and opening-up policies, which transformed an impoverished and hermetic nation into the world’s second-biggest economy.

That’s why it came as a shock to many when the education authorities in Shanghai, the most cosmopolitan city in the country, last month forbade local elementary schools to hold final exams on the English language.

Broadly, the Chinese authorities are easing the workloads of schoolchildren, amid an effort to ease the burdens on families and parents. Still, many Chinese people with an interest in English can’t help but see Shanghai’s decision as pushback against the language and against Western influence in general — and another step away from openness to the world.

Many call the phenomenon “reversing gears,” or China’s Great Leap Backward, an allusion to the disastrous industrialization campaign of the late 1950s, which resulted in the worst man-made famine in human history.

Last year, China’s education authority barred primary and junior high schools from using overseas textbooks. A government adviser recommended this year that the country’s annual college entrance examination stop testing English. New restrictions this summer on for-profit, after-school tutoring chains affected companies that have taught English for years.

Original English and translated books are discouraged at universities, too, especially in the more sensitive subjects, such as journalism and constitutional studies, according to professors who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Three of them complained that the quality of some government-authorized textbooks suffered because some authors were chosen for their seniority and party loyalty instead of their academic qualifications.

The president of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing came under fire this summer after sending each new student a Chinese-language copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” He wrote in a letter that he wanted the students to learn courage and perseverance. Some social media users questioned why he would choose the work of an American author or why he didn’t encourage the students to study for China’s rise.

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In some cases, Communist Party orthodoxy is replacing foreign texts. Elementary schools in Shanghai may not be conducting English tests, but a new textbook on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” will be required reading in the city’s elementary, middle and high schools starting this month. Each student is required to take a weekly class for a semester.

The Communist Party is intensifying ideological control and nationalistic propaganda, an effort that could turn the clock back to the 1950s and 1960s, when the country was closed off to much of the world and political campaigns overrode economic growth. A nationalistic essay widely spread last week by Chinese official media cited “the barbaric and ferocious attacks that the U.S. has started to launch against China.”

Even just a few years ago, the Chinese government still emphasized learning a foreign language. “China’s foreign language education can’t be weakened. Instead, it should be strengthened,” wrote the Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, in 2019. The article said nearly 200 million Chinese students took foreign-language classes in 2018, from elementary schools all the way to universities. The vast majority of them were learning English.

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For a long time, the ability to read and speak English was considered a key to well-paying jobs, study-abroad opportunities and better access to information.

When Mr. Li studied law in Beijing in the late 1970s, the country had just emerged from the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. He and his classmates wanted to learn Western laws, but most of the books were in English, said Tao Jingzhou, Mr. Li’s college classmate and a lawyer in Beijing now. Their professors encouraged them to learn English and translate some original works into Chinese.

Mr. Li became part of a group that translated the book “The Due Process of Law,” by Lord Denning, the British jurist.

In 1980s and 1990s, young Chinese in many cities congregated at “English corners” to speak a foreign tongue to one another. Some brave ones, including the future Alibaba founder Jack Ma, struck up conversations with the few English-speaking foreign visitors to improve their conversational skills.

As the internet developed, a generation of Chinese learned English from TV series like “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

Some businesspeople struck gold by teaching English or offering instruction on how to take tests in the language. New Oriental Education and Technology, a company based in Beijing, became such a cultural phenomenon that it inspired a blockbuster film, “American Dreams in China.” The hero taught English the way many in China learned it, such as memorizing the word “ambulance” as the Chinese for “I can’t die.” (“An bu neng si.”)

China’s top leaders used to pride themselves on their English. Former President Jiang Zemin recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in his 2000 interview with “60 Minutes” and told aggressive Hong Kong journalists that their questions were “too simple, sometimes naïve.” As recently as 2013, Premier Li delivered a speech partly in English in Hong Kong.

English lost some of its sheen after the 2008 financial crisis. Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, doesn’t appear to speak it.

Now, English has become one of the signs of suspicious foreign influence, a fear nurtured by nationalist propaganda that has only worsened in tone since the outbreak of the coronavirus. As a result, China’s links to the outside world are being severed one by one.

China’s border control authority said in August that, as part of pandemic control procedures, it would suspend issuing and renewing passports except for urgent and necessary occasions. Middle-class Chinese citizens with expired passports wonder whether they will be able to travel abroad even after the pandemic.

Some residents in the eastern city of Hangzhou who received phone calls from abroad immediately got calls from the local police, who asked whether the calls were scams. Scholars and journalists who participated in an exchange program sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Ministry were called traitors and urged to apologize in early summer.

For Chinese people trying to keep their connections abroad, it may feel like the end of an era. Share prices of New Oriental, the education giant, tanked in July after the Beijing government announced crackdowns on after-school tutoring services. The Shanghai government’s announcement drew praise online from some nationalistic quarters.

But as long as China doesn’t shut its door to the outside world, English will still be viewed by many as crucial toward unlocking success. After the Shanghai announcement, an online survey with about 40,000 responses found that about 85 percent of respondents agreed that students should continue to learn English no matter what.

Covid-19 and tensions between the two countries have hurt the flow of Chinese students into American universities. Still, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said it had issued 85,000 student visas since May.

A lawyer in Shanghai with a nationalistic bent wrote on his verified Weibo account that he would like his daughter to learn English well because English would be helpful for China’s economic growth.

“When could Chinese stop learning English?” he asked, then answered his own question: When China becomes a leader in the most advanced technologies and the world needs to follow it.

“Then,” he wrote, foreigners “can come to learn Chinese.”

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This map shows where the mayoral candidates got their support - The Boston Globe

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City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George have emerged as the two candidates who will vie in a Nov. 2 final election to make history in two ways, becoming the first woman and, at the same time, the first person of color to occupy the Boston’ mayor’s office.

Where did they get their support in Tuesday’s preliminary? And where did the three other major candidates who fell short - Acting Mayor Kim Janey, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, and former city economic development chief John Barros - get their votes?

The dot density map below shows votes garnered by each of the five major candidates down to the precinct level. Voting data released by the city doesn’t include specific addresses so dots are placed randomly in the precinct in which the votes were cast.

Zoom in to get a closer look. You can also filter by candidate or by neighborhood.

John Hancock can be reached at john.hancock@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Hancock_JohnD. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.

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Putin Is Quarantining. What Would Happen If He Died? - The Bulwark

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly self-quarantining after several members of his inner circle were diagnosed with COVID. But don’t rejoice yet: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reports that the 68-year-old autocrat is “absolutely healthy.”

Putin is also vaccinated against the coronavirus, allegedly with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, although that was only announced months after he received two doses out of the public eye. It wouldn’t be surprising if he had opted for the more reliable Western shots. Assuming it’s true that he was vaccinated, he’s likely to be fine even if he experiences a breakthrough infection.

But his health scare does raise the question: What would happen if Putin died?

Russia has a constitution, and that constitution provides that if the president of Russia resigns, becomes incapacitated, or dies, the prime minister becomes acting president. This is, formally at least, how Putin became president the first time, upon the resignation of Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, before winning election in his own right in 2000. But as with almost all politics in Russia, the formalities matter less than the informalities.

In an important sense, Putin has and can have no successor. Like almost every Russian leader before him dating back to the Bolshevik Revolution, he has redefined the job of Russian leader according to his own personality, preferences, and situation. Lenin’s leadership of the revolutionary party was markedly different from Stalin’s totalitarian nightmare (though it did establish the precedents for it). Khrushchev’s reformist revisionism and anti-Stalinism represented yet another change. Brezhnev presided for nearly two decades over a system of collective, consensus-driven decision-making at the top of the state-party system, to the point that in his senility, senior party leaders disguised his hospital room so the people of the Soviet Union wouldn’t know he was sick. Gorbachev attempted to return to the pre-Brezhnev system of supreme control when instituting glasnost and perestroika, only to wind up with a schism in the party, an attempted military coup, and his country dissolving underneath him. Yeltsin largely defined the concept of the “president of Russia,” having been the first to hold the post under both the Soviet system and the new Russian constitution. Part of his definition included election campaigns driven by oligarchs and shelling the legislature.

Putin redefined the job yet again. Under his leadership, the president is the maker and breaker of oligarchs, the master of information and repression in Russia, the capo di tutti capi of the massive system of corruption that bleeds the Russian economy dry, and as he would have it, the embodiment of the Russian people and worldwide leader of anti-liberalism.

Putin is the one man in Russia capable of balancing the security agencies, the oligarchs, the technocrats, and the regional power brokers against each other (and he has helped ensure considerable overlap among these groups as part of the balancing act). Like the keystone of an arch, if he were to disappear, the entire system would collapse. There are benefits to such a system—it’s kept him in absolute power for more than two decades, even during his stint as prime minister from 2008-2012, a brief pseudo-interregnum when he felt he had to at least make a show of caring about constitutional niceties—but it comes at a cost, as well. Retirement isn’t an option.

Whoever Putin’s successor winds up being, he won’t be able to do the exact same job because, like Putin’s expensive suits, the job description of “president of Russia” is tailored precisely to the former KGB colonel, regardless of what the constitution says. The next man to hold the office will have to reinvent the job yet again for a new era.

When Putin goes—be it tomorrow or in 25 years—the world’s largest nuclear power will have to reinvent most of its political system. And that process is likely to be messy, contentious, and dangerous for both Russia and the world.

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Mapping the Past and Future of Urban Highways

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Highways like Rondo’s were part of a nationwide effort to build the interstate highway system, sometimes in concert with federal urban renewal programs that sought to demolish neighborhoods considered “blighted” in the name of revitalizing cities. These demographic maps of seven U.S. cities in the 1950s show examples of how highways devastated established Black communities and hubs across the U.S.

As many of these highways near the end of their lifespans, a national reckoning with structural racism has put them in the spotlight, and has elevated plans, dreams and fights to reconnect what was divided.

Addressing those racial injustices is one small part of the Biden administration’s proposed sweeping infrastructure plan, with a recommendation to allocate $1 billion (cut down from $20 billion) to “reconnect communities cut off by historic disinvestment.”

Ideas for how to do that range from tearing down viaducts and replacing them with boulevards, to burying highways beneath a new tract of affordable housing, or elevating freeways to build public space beneath them.

But in no city will any single construction project bring back the bustling corridors that were lost. Residents who remember well the recent history of highways fear further infrastructure changes could bring further displacement. Meanwhile, some communities are simply fighting to keep more highways from being built.

Reclaiming Land Above the Highway

In Rondo, Minnesota transportation officials are considering ideas for upgrades to the aging highway, including a plan to bury it underneath a 22-acre land bridge topped with new development designed for community members.

ReConnect Rondo hopes to restore land that was taken away, and in doing so provide commercial, residential and open space for the benefit of the community. Most of the organization’s board members are descendants of, or current, Rondo residents. “The community owning land is a motivating factor here. We need to create and generate wealth within Rondo,” says Marvin Anderson, co-founder and board chair of ReConnect Rondo. Rondo has changed over the half-century since I-94 cut through the neighborhood, with many residents forced to move, he said. “We want an opportunity to build a community that reflects what Rondo lost,” says Anderson.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation acknowledges that the construction of I-94 by the former Highway Department disconnected neighborhoods. According to a spokesperson for MnDOT, while the department hasn’t applied for additional funding for the Rondo land bridge, it has supported the project in various ways—including partnering on a feasibility study that estimated a $460 million cost for the plan.

There are also still pieces of the puzzle to put together for ReConnect Rondo and St. Paul. At a virtual community feedback meeting in early July, some attendees expressed concern that because residents of color and Rondo descendants are spread across St. Paul now, they will not directly benefit from the land bridge. Others worried about rising property values and costs, how commercial and residential space on the land bridge will be distributed and that the community wasn’t fully involved in the ReConnect Rondo planning process. But Anderson says the initiative came out of community meetings going back to 2009. And the process isn’t over yet.

On July 1, the Minnesota state budget was passed, approving around $6 million in funding for the Rondo land bridge which will be used for pre-planning, community input and creating a master plan for the project. “All eyes are on Minnesota, on how you do this with genuine return to the community. It can’t happen if you don’t have Rondo descendants at the table, those who are current youthful voices, as well as those who have experienced the loss themselves,” said Keith Baker, executive director of Reconnect Rondo.

Turning the Highway Back Into a Boulevard

In New Orleans, I-10 follows the route of Claiborne Avenue, the once-leafy corridor through the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Completed in the late 1960s, the elevated highway displaced hundreds of homes, as well as businesses and oak trees that lined the boulevard.

I-10 construction near St. Bernard Circle & Claiborne Avenue, May 1967
Louisiana Undertaking Co. on Claiborne Avenue, May 1967
Historic photos show the construction of I-10 above Claiborne Avenue in 1967.

I-10 construction near St. Bernard Circle & Claiborne Avenue, May 1967

Historic photos show the construction of I-10 above Claiborne Avenue in 1967.

Louisiana Undertaking Co. on Claiborne Avenue, May 1967

Photographer: William Russell. Tulane University Special Collections, Hogan Jazz Archive, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.

Conversations about revitalizing the thoroughfare beneath the Claiborne Expressway began almost as soon as the highway went up. A study on how to improve the corridor that concluded in 2013 examined the idea of demolishing the highway but produced little community consensus. Now, Amy Stelly, a local urban designer and co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, is holding outreach events to drum up support for tearing down the “bridge” and returning Claiborne to a street-level boulevard. “One of the biggest monuments to racism in America is the urban highway system,” she said.

The destruction created by the Claiborne Expressway garnered a mention in President Biden’s original infrastructure plan. But Stelly’s vision for dismantling has struggled to gain local traction. The viaduct has become part of community life: Covered in murals of jazz greats and civil rights legends, its underbelly shades vendors and second line parades that congregate on weekends. A plan devised in 2017 to install food stalls and cultural event space under the viaduct has seen slow progress, while the city has said that surface street repairs and water system improvements are higher priorities than a disruptive highway removal project. Some neighbors are skeptical of who would benefit from erasing the eyesore in a neighborhood already heavy with gentrification pressures.

“If anything, I would think the construction would accelerate the uprooting of existing businesses that are there,” said Jarrett Cohen, a local resident and investment manager. “The folks who are investing in the corridor right now are not Black people.”

But Stelly says that something needs to be done about the half-century-old structure’s aging parts and flooding issues, as well as decades of neighborhood disinvestment in which she believes the highway played a prominent role. According to Shawn Wilson, secretary ​​of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Claiborne Expressway is safe for travel, though it will eventually need major improvements or reconstruction—but perhaps not a teardown. “In spite of the ill-informed decision to build it, the corridor has become a vital transportation link for tourism, downtown workers, business travel and multimodal commerce,” he said via email. “Removing this highway link in its entirety will have serious consequences for the economy of the city of New Orleans and the entire metropolitan area.” Said Stelly in response: “I dare him to come live next door.”

Elevating the Highway and Building Public Space Beneath It

In Overtown, the historic center of Black life in Miami, the construction of I-95 and I-395 destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and nearly wiped out the neighborhood. Like Rondo, Black Bottom and other neighborhoods, Overtown was a self-sufficient place for Black Miamians to live, work, shop and dine. It even became known as the “Harlem of the South” for its lively cultural and intellectual scene where renowned personalities such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday spent time. In the 1960s, around 20 square blocks in the heart of the neighborhood were transformed into the highway interchange, and around 10,000 people were relocated and displaced in the process.

In Miami, change is not a theoretical conversation. The city has already begun construction on a multi-year, $800 million-plus project to update the 60-year-old I-95, I-395 and State Route 836. The project will expand the highway to make more room for cars, but it will also elevate highway bridges that currently cover much of Overtown, and use the space under the highway to create a park and trail that connect Overtown to Biscayne Bay. The space, dubbed the “underdeck,” has been presented by the Florida Department of Transportation and Connecting Miami project as a way to reconnect Overtown to other parts of Miami and right some of the wrongs of the original highway construction.

In Overtown, the scope of the displacement and subsequent neighborhood change means the community isn’t the same one that existed before the highway. “Now you find ten-story, twenty-story [buildings]. The physicality of the place is different,” says Jean Cidelca, a local architect and guide for Tap Tap Tours’ Historic Overtown Walking Tour.

Still, proponents of the plan say they relish the opportunity to preserve and commemorate Overtown’s history — and to benefit the community that’s left.

“Yesterday is gone forever, which is why it is extremely important that whatever we do in this common space preserves, memorializes and codifies the rich history,” said Dr. Nelson Adams III, chairman emeritus of the St. John Community Development Corporation, an Overtown nonprofit.

Adams, whose grandparents’ home in Overtown was razed to build the highway, is now part of an effort to get feedback on the project from community stakeholders. He is optimistic about the prospect of building a well-lit and well-resourced community space under the highway. But with little clarity about what exactly that space will look like or what investments will be made in the neighborhood, he says the devil will remain in the details. If there are going to be business opportunities or positions to serve on a board, for example, community members want to be part of those opportunities for investment.

“Aspirationally, this is going to make some folks feel good that we’ve sort of attempted at least to right a wrong, to reconnect,” he said. “But what does that really mean in a tangible way?” Like many Black communities in America, Overtown has suffered many broken promises. “Folks who understand that history are looking at all of this with a jaundiced eye.”

The City of Miami is partnering with the Florida Department of Transportation to finalize the underdeck plans, says Oscar Gonzalez III, Senior Community Outreach Specialist for the project. Renderings of the project show a park space and greenery under the highway from the bay to I-95, but the details of the plan are still in flux as the planners receive additional community feedback.

Stopping New Highway Expansions That Repeat Past Mistakes

Even as communities grapple with how to reverse the injustices created by highways, others are fighting plans to expand and build new ones that activists say will impose many of the same harms. A $7 billion plan in Houston would add 24 miles of freeway along I-45 as well as I-10 and I-610, and displace more than 1,300 homes, businesses, schools and places of worship. But grassroots and civic organizations have opposed the state project for years, and the city has offered an alternative plan to repair the highway without expanding it, while investing in transit and pedestrian connections instead. Recently, federal officials intervened, in an early sign of how the Biden administration might handle highway projects poised to repeat mistakes of the past.

Despite opposition, and claims that expanding the highway would only increase traffic, the Texas transportation department has said that its proposal would meet the region’s needs, “including updating the highways to current design and safety standards, relieving traffic congestion, improving storm water drainage, and improving the evacuation routes,” according to a February press release marking its decision to advance the project.

In March, the Federal Highway Administration asked Texas to “pause” the expansion while it reviewed civil rights complaints; shortly thereafter, Harris County sued the state alleging inadequate public outreach or environmental reviews. Now TxDOT is inviting the public to comment on whether it should move ahead with the expansion as planned, or eliminate funding for it. That doesn’t please critics, either.

“It’s crappy - there’s no third option to say, ‘work with localities and find an option that everyone supports,’” said Molly Cook of Stop TxDOT I-45, an opposition group that calls for transit and pedestrian infrastructure in place of highways. “No matter which way you look at it, this project won’t relieve congestion, it will cost a fortune, it will destroy the city, and it will deepen the grooves of hate and racism that already harmed so many and left a lasting impact on their communities.”

Veronica Beyer, media relations director for TxDOT, said that the outcome of the new public comment period would neither prohibit nor guarantee a fresh look at alternative options.

“Should this funding be removed from this project, the Texas Transportation Commission would decide what to do with the funding,” she said. She added that the agency has suspended work on the project and is cooperating as federal officials conduct their investigation.

Whether or not that expansion breaks ground, there is plenty of momentum in other parts of the country to build more urban highways. Billions of dollars in widening and extension plans are underway in Austin, San Antonio, Shreveport, Tampa, Portland, Cincinnati, Madison, Denver and beyond as roads reach obsolescence and populations increase. The scale and volume of these new projects underscore the challenge for voices calling for a different kind of urban future in St. Paul, New Orleans, Miami and Houston. They are a reminder of why some neighbors are unconvinced by, and even suspicious that “reconnection projects” would benefit them, when the original projects did not.

“In most cases, it is going to be the same agency undertaking a removal as the ones who built the highway in the first place,” said Ben Crowther, who researches urban highways at the Congress for New Urbanism, a think tank.

Those doubts will take more than eye-catching architectural renderings to quell, just as no tear-down alone can bring a neighborhood back. That is why many groups are calling for policies such as land trusts, affordable housing funds, or programs to support Black-owned businesses in conjunction with highway revision plans. In most places, it is not only the physical infrastructure that needs repair, but also the social and economic fabric. “This is a conversation that doesn’t have easy answers,” Crowther said. “We’re still very much in the early stages.”

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What local news outlets can do to overcome suspicion on the right

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Photo (cc) 2008 by TimothyJ

Previously published at GBH News.

Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?

Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.

Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.

And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.

Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)

The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:

  • “Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
  • “Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
  • “Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”

The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?

“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.

I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”

To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.

Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.

One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.

“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”

Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.

A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.

“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”

If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.

I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.



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Bitcoin Uses More Electricity Than Many Countries. How Is That Possible?

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In 2009, you could mine one Bitcoin using a setup like this in your living room.

Amount of household electricity required to mine one coin: a few seconds’ worth. Bitcoin’s value: basically nothing.

Today, you’d need a room full of specialized machines, each costing thousands of dollars.

Amount of household electricity required: 9 years’ worth. (Put in terms of a typical home electricity bill: about $12,500.) Value of one Bitcoin today: about $50,000.

By Jon Huang, Claire O’Neill and Hiroko Tabuchi

Illustrations by Eliana Rodgers

Cryptocurrencies have emerged as one of the most captivating, yet head-scratching, investments in the world. They soar in value. They crash. They’ll change the world, their fans claim, by displacing traditional currencies like the dollar, rupee or ruble. They’re named after dog memes.

And in the process of simply existing, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, one of the most popular, use astonishing amounts of electricity.

We’ll explain how that works in a minute. But first, consider this: The process of creating Bitcoin to spend or trade consumes around 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, more than is used by Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million.

Bitcoin’s electricity usage compared with countries

Estimated electricity consumption (terawatt-hours, annualized). Shaded region represents the range of possible values.

That usage, which is close to half-a-percent of all the electricity consumed in the world, has increased about tenfold in just the past five years.

The Bitcoin network uses about the same amount of electricity as Washington State does yearly …

more than a third of what residential cooling in the United States uses up …

and more than seven times as much electricity as all of Google’s global operations.

So why is it so energy intensive?

For a long time, money has been thought of as something you can hold in your hand — say, a dollar bill.

Currencies like these seem like such a simple, brilliant idea. A government prints some paper and guarantees its value. Then we swap it amongst ourselves for cars, candy bars and tube socks. We can give it to whomever we want, or even destroy it.

On the internet, things can get more complicated.

Traditional kinds of money, such as those created by the United States or other governments, aren’t entirely free to be used any way you wish. Banks, credit-card networks and other middlemen can exercise control over who can use their financial networks and what they can be used for — often for good reason, to prevent money laundering and other nefarious activities. But that could also mean that if you transfer a big amount of money to someone, your bank will report it to the government even if the transfer is completely on the up-and-up.

So a group of free thinkers — or anarchists, depending on whom you ask — started to wonder: What if there was a way to remove controls like these?

In 2008, an unknown person or persons using the name Satoshi Nakamoto published a proposal to create a cash-like electronic payment system that would do exactly that: Cut out the middlemen. That’s the origin of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin users wouldn’t have to trust a third party — a bank, a government or whatever — Nakamoto said, because transactions would be managed by a decentralized network of Bitcoin users. In other words, no single person or entity could control it. All Bitcoin transactions would be openly accounted for in a public ledger that anyone could examine, and new Bitcoins would be created as a reward to participants for helping to manage this vast, sprawling, computerized ledger. But the ultimate supply of Bitcoins would be limited. The idea was that growing demand over time would give Bitcoins their value.

This concept took a while to catch on.

But today, a single Bitcoin is worth about $50,000, though that could vary wildly by the time you read this, and no one can stop you from sending it to whomever you like. (Of course, if someone is caught buying illegal drugs or orchestrating ransomware attacks, two of the many unsavory uses for which cryptocurrency has proved attractive, they’d still be subject to the law of the land.)

However, as it happens, managing a digital currency of that value with no central authority takes a whole lot of computing power.

1.

It starts with a transaction

Let’s say you want to buy something and pay with Bitcoin. The first part is quick and easy: You’d open an account with a Bitcoin exchange like Coinbase, which lets you purchase Bitcoin with dollars.

You now have a “digital wallet” with some Bitcoin in it. To spend it, you simply send Bitcoin into the digital wallet of the person you’re buying something from. Easy as that.

But that transaction, or really any exchange of Bitcoin, must first be validated by the Bitcoin network. In the simplest terms, this is the process by which the seller can be assured that the Bitcoins he or she is receiving are real.

This gets to the very heart of the whole Bitcoin bookkeeping system: the maintenance of the vast Bitcoin public ledger. And this is where much of the electrical energy gets consumed.

2.

A global guessing game begins

All around the world, companies and individuals known as Bitcoin miners are competing to be the ones to validate transactions and enter them into the public ledger of all Bitcoin transactions. They basically play a guessing game, using powerful, and power-hungry, computers to try to beat out others. Because if they are successful, they’re rewarded with newly created Bitcoin, which of course is worth a lot of money.

This competition for newly created Bitcoin is called “mining.”

You can think of it like a lottery, or a game of dice. This article provides a good analogy: Imagine you’re at a casino and everyone playing has a die with 500 sides. (More accurately, it would have billions of billions of sides, but that’s hard to draw.) The winner is the first person to roll a number under 10.

The more computer power you have, the more guesses you can make quickly. So, unlike at the casino, where you have just one die to roll at human speed, you can have many computers making many, many guesses every second.

The Bitcoin network is designed to make the guessing game more and more difficult as more miners participate, further putting a premium on speedy, power-hungry computers. Specifically, it’s designed so that it always takes an average of 10 minutes for someone to win a round. In the dice game analogy, if more people join the game and start winning faster, the game is recalibrated to make it harder. For example: You now have to roll a number under 4, or you have to roll exactly a 1.

That’s why Bitcoin miners now have warehouses packed with powerful computers, racing at top speed to guess big numbers and using tremendous quantities of energy in the process.

3.

The winner reaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in new Bitcoin.

The winner of the guessing game validates a standard “block” of Bitcoin transactions, and is rewarded for doing so with 6.25 newly minted Bitcoins, each worth about $50,000. So you can see why people might flock into mining.

Why such a complicated and expensive guessing game? That’s because simply recording the transactions in the ledger would be trivially easy. So the challenge is to ensure that only “trustworthy” computers do so.

A bad actor could wreak havoc on the system, stopping legitimate transfers or scamming people with fake Bitcoin transactions. But the way Bitcoin is designed means that a bad actor would need to win the majority of the guessing games to have majority power over the network, which would require a lot of money and a lot of electricity.

In Nakamoto’s system, it would make more economic sense for a hacker to spend the resources on mining Bitcoin and collecting the rewards, rather than on attacking the system itself.

This is how Bitcoin mining turns electricity into security. It’s also why the system wastes energy by design.

Bitcoin’s growing energy appetite

In the early days of Bitcoin, when it was less popular and worth little, anyone with a computer could easily mine at home. Not so much anymore.

Here’s a timeline showing how things have changed. You can see how much electricity would have been used to mine one Bitcoin at home (in terms of the average home electricity bill), assuming the most energy-efficient devices available were used.

Average years of household-equivalent electricity to mine one Bitcoin

Using the most efficient hardware available at the time

A desktop computer could mine with little electricity.

Enthusiasts build custom miners with video gaming hardware.

The only practical way of mining is now with specialized hardware (called ASICs).

Bitcoin’s price skyrockets. It now takes years of household electricity to mine one coin despite better hardware.

Mining difficulty peaks in May 2021. At least 13 years of typical household electricity is consumed per mined coin.

EIA.gov, <a href="http://blockchain.com" rel="nofollow">blockchain.com</a>·Actual electricity use would have been higher because of less efficient machines and the need for cooling systems. Electrical usage is compared to the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer in 2019 of 10,649 kilowatt-hours.

Today you need highly specialized machines, a lot of money, a big space and enough cooling power to keep the constantly running hardware from overheating. That’s why mining now happens in giant data centers owned by companies or groups of people.

In fact, operations have consolidated so much that now, only seven mining groups own nearly 80 percent of all computing power on the network. (The aim behind “pooling” computing power like this is to distribute income more evenly so participants get $10 per day rather than $50,000 every 10 years, for example.)

Mining happens all over the world, often wherever there’s an abundance of cheap energy. For years, much of the Bitcoin mining has been in China, although recently, the country has started cracking down. Researchers at the University of Cambridge who have been tracking Bitcoin mining said recently that China’s share of global Bitcoin mining had fallen to 46 percent in April from 75 percent in late 2019. Meanwhile, the United States’ share of mining grew to 16 percent from 4 percent during the same period.

Bitcoin mining means more than just emissions. Hardware piles up, too. Everyone wants the newest, fastest machinery, which causes high turnover and a new e-waste problem. Alex de Vries, a Paris-based economist, estimates that every year and a half or so, the computational power of mining hardware doubles, making older machines obsolete. According to his calculations, at the start of 2021, Bitcoin alone was generating more e-waste than many midsize countries.

“Bitcoin miners are completely ignoring this issue, because they don’t have a solution,” said Mr. de Vries, who runs Digiconomist, a site that tracks the sustainability of cryptocurrencies. “These machines are just dumped.”

What if Bitcoin could be mined using more sources of renewable energy, like wind, solar or hydropower?

It’s tricky to figure out exactly how much of Bitcoin mining is powered by renewables because of the very nature of Bitcoin: a decentralized currency whose miners are largely anonymous.

Globally, estimates of Bitcoin’s use of renewables range from about 40 percent to almost 75 percent. But in general, experts say, using renewable energy to power Bitcoin mining means it won’t be available to power a home, a factory or an electric car.

A handful of miners are starting to experiment with harnessing excess natural gas from oil and gas drilling sites, but examples like that are still sparse and difficult to quantify. Plus, that practice could eventually spur more drilling. Miners have also claimed to tap the surplus hydropower generated during the rainy season in places like southwest China. But if those miners operate through the dry season, they would primarily be drawing on fossil fuels.

“As far as we can tell, it’s mostly baseload fossil fuels that are still being used, but that varies seasonally, as well as country to country,” said Benjamin A. Jones, an assistant professor in economics at the University of New Mexico, whose research involves the environmental impact of cryptomining. “That’s why you get these wildly different estimates,” he said.

Could the way Bitcoin works be rewritten to use less energy? Some other minor cryptocurrencies have promoted an alternate bookkeeping system, where processing transactions is won not through computational labor but by proving ownership of enough coins. This would be more efficient. But it hasn’t been proven at scale, and isn’t likely to take hold with Bitcoin because, among other reasons, Bitcoin stakeholders have a powerful financial incentive not to change, since they’ve already invested so much in mining.

Some governments are as wary of Bitcoin as environmentalists are. If they were to limit mining, that could theoretically reduce the energy strain. But remember, this is a network designed to exist without middlemen. Places like China are already creating restrictions around mining, but miners are reportedly moving to coal-rich Kazakhstan and the cheap-but-troubled Texas electric grid.

For the foreseeable future, Bitcoin’s energy consumption is likely to remain volatile for as long as its price does.

Though Bitcoin mining might not involve pickaxes and hard hats, it’s not a purely digital abstraction, either: It is connected to the physical world of fossil fuels, power grids and emissions, and to the climate crisis we’re in today. What was imagined as a forward-thinking digital currency has already had real-world ramifications, and those continue to mount.

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chrisamico
14 days ago
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Boston, MA
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