Listen to Culture Gabfest No. 248 with Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and June Thomas with the audio player below.
It’s easy to think of words such as California or Texas or New York as just the places on the map, but those words actually meant something, once, and those meanings offer a little glimpse into history. The above map, designed by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, labels states, cities, and landmarks with the literal meanings of their official names.
You can also listen to William Saletan read this piece.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States suffered through a skyjacking epidemic that has now been largely forgotten. In his new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan I. Koerner tells the story of the chaotic age when jets were routinely commandeered by the desperate and disillusioned. In the run-up to his book’s publication on June 18, Koerner has been writing a daily series of skyjacker profiles. Slate is running the final dozen of these “Skyjacker of the Day” entries.
For a few moments, on a few nights each year, a fact that often seems fuzzy becomes absolutely clear: Watching sports is totally, unquestionably worth our time. Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals was tense, baffling, infuriating, and cathartic. The Heat eventually beat the Spurs in overtime, 103-100, ensuring there will be a winner-take-all Game 7. But no matter what happens next, I’ll think back to the end of regulation on Tuesday night, and the seven seconds that revealed why we watch all these games and what we gain by watching.
On a Sunday evening in early June, thousands of Hasidic men in long coats and black hats braved the heat to attend two outdoor anti-Internet asifas (or gatherings in Yiddish) organized by leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. Women were forbidden, but the real temptation for the men was already in their laps, where they covertly thumbed their smartphones.
This essay originally appeared in I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse, a collection edited by Lee Gutkind, out now from In Fact Books.
It’s the day of the vote for one of the biggest bills of his career, and Arizona Rep. Trent Franks has been sidelined. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (no easy acronym), which had been a pipe dream in the last Congress, was coming to the floor and expected to pass. The trial of Philadelphia’s illegal-late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and the attendant gross-out media attention, powered the bill out of committee. So, typically, the bill’s author would lead the debate on his product.
Barack Obama's poll numbers are sliding. Around Christmastime, his average approval rating, according to RealClearPolitics, was nearly 54 percent, 12 points higher than his average disapproval rating of 42 percent. Now his numbers have flipped. His average approval rating at 46.6 percent is roughly 2 points lower than his disapproval rating at 48.3 percent. If these numbers hold, President Obama is never going to get re-elected.
Boston tough guy John Martorano gets back on the stand this morning. I think all 20 of Martorano’s confessed murders have been covered in detail by the end of direct questioning. It’s possible we glossed over a few. The prosecution wraps up by asking him, “Do you regret your life of crime?”
Investors will be sitting on the edge of their seats Wednesday at 2 p.m. to hear the latest pronouncement from the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee. FOMC releases are always highly anticipated, but this one more than most. And the word on everyone’s lips on Wall Street all morning will be “taper”—which has become Fed-speak for reducing the FOMC’s current pace of $85 billion worth of bond purchases per month. The question is: Will the tapering begin this month, or will it be delayed? And if it is delayed, what kind of hint will the FOMC give as to when the tapering will begin?
Where is your Kanye limit, the temperature level at which fascination boils over into exasperation? That’s an issue with any Kanye West album, but perhaps especially with the new Yeezus, which was officially released Tuesday but leaked on Friday, flooding the Internet with comments from all sides. For people who can’t stand his public image (and, of course, for Taylor Swift fans), the limit is zero. Others stop with the singles—hooky, less ranty, they yield the most pleasure with the least strain on patience. But that safe option mutes the very Kanyeness of Kanye; for the whole light show, you have to brave the albums.
You may not be interested in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), but TTIP is interested in you. And you may not recall the moment in Barack Obama’s State of the Union address when he called for a free trade pact with the European Union, but policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have continued to grind forward with the process. Last Friday, the European Union’s trade ministers delivered an official mandate to the European Commission to begin negotiating an agreement.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden and the systematic elimination of numerous senior al-Qaida operatives during the past 12 years have undoubtedly reduced the risk of terrorism. But the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April reminds us that there are so-called “lone wolf” threats out there that are extremely difficult to track, even within U.S. borders.
Public health officials worldwide are warning young people off the new trend of “smoking alcohol.” The user either pours hard liquor over dry ice or heats it, then inhales the vaporized alcohol. Some believe the process affords the inhaler a high without the calories of alcohol, but experts say there are still calories involved. Can you really inhale calories?
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is frequently accused of being a partisan hack, a conservative lackey serving only the interests of the Republican Party. His votes are often portrayed as products of political ideology rather than constitutional philosophy, a practice he only encourages with his forays into political commentary. But as his recent opinions in Alleyne v. United States and the Myriad gene-patenting case illustrate, Thomas is much more than a Tea Party mouthpiece. That his views skew conservative is a product not of partisanship but rather of his deep, occasionally confounding dedication to originalist theory. And sometimes that dedication leads this already idiosyncratic justice to cast votes that would please Earl Warren.
Being buried alive is usually near the top of any worst-ways-to-die list. But how about being buried alive 100 feet below the ocean surface in a tiny pocket of air? For Harrison Okene, a 29-year-old Nigerian boat cook, this nightmare scenario became a reality for nearly three grueling days.
The first time you turn on your phone after installing iOS 7, you’ll feel like Charlie Bucket landing in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Those colors! Those icons! So much neon! You’ve fallen into a world of pure imagination, a place where everything familiar and solid has been flattened, slimmed down, spray painted, and made translucent—but now you’re feeling some regret. Was that golden ticket worth it after all?
When old things are made new, it’s natural to feel both lost and nostalgic, and it’s usually wise to push through your immediate sense of disorientation. Give iOS 7 a few days. Become comfortable with its technicolor aesthetic, lighter type, and spare graphics. Do this and you’ll notice, around Day 3 or 4, that your initial shock has given way to a new emotion: familiarity. Soon that feeling becomes so powerful that you may have trouble remembering what the old iOS looked like.
And then, surprisingly, a new question pops into your head: Wait, is that all there is?
That’s where I am now. It’s been almost a week since I installed Apple’s new mobile operating system on my iPhone 5. (You can get iOS 7 if you’re an iOS developer, or if a kind developer registers your iPhone with Apple. Beware: The OS is still in beta phase, so it’s annoyingly buggy.) Because the software is clearly a work in progress, I’ve tried to give it every benefit of the doubt, and I expect that a lot of it will be improved by the time it’s launched publicly in the fall. At this point, though, I’m puzzled by iOS 7.
For a redesign that’s so immediately jarring and radical, it comes to feel strangely superficial over time. As I used iOS 7, I kept thinking of something Steve Jobs once said: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” he told the New York Times Magazine in 2003. “People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Yet once I got used to the new icons and typography in iOS 7, there was no next step—no clear payoff for braving the dislocation the new design had caused. What’s this design in service of? How does it improve your phone? Does it make it faster, easier to use, more enjoyable, less annoying? In other words, does iOS 7 change how your device works, rather than just how it looks?
Most of the time, not really. While iOS 7 does introduce several new and useful features—like an immersive new app switcher, a handy finger-swipe gesture to go back to a previous screen, a superfast camera app, and a universal search and address bar in Safari—few of these feel like organic outgrowths of the new aesthetic. The app switcher, back swipe, and faster camera would have been possible and just as useful in the old iOS.
Yes, there are places where the new design does pay off—in the Calendar and Photos app, the lighter type and buttons allow you to see more of your appointments and pictures. Thanks to new transition animations, switching in and out of apps from the home screen feels faster and more fluid. But these improvements are offset by other areas where the lighter design leaves too little of the interface exposed. In a few places, the new touch targets are too small to hit accurately. And while I welcomed the removal of some of the “skeuomorphic” real-world textures that gummed up the old iOS—like green felt and stitched leather—the one-dimensional, line-drawn icons in iOS 7 are sometimes too inscrutable to give you an intuitive sense of what’s going on.
A lot of the redesign feels like aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake—the reflection of design chief Jony Ive’s personal taste for minimalism rather than an effort to improve how the software works. Or, as Jobs might say, it’s just veneer.
Take one of the biggest design innovations in iOS 7, the use of translucent interface “layers” that pile on top of one another. When you look at the home screen, you’ll see two different planes—a layer of app icons on top, and beneath that a layer of wallpaper. You don’t know they’re two layers until you angle your phone; when you do, you’ll notice the top layer of icons shift against the bottom layer of wallpaper, creating the effect of parallax. Then swipe down from the top of the screen to bring down iOS’s Notification Center. In old iOS, this pane was opaque, carrying the texture of faux linen; all such textures have been removed in iOS 7. Now the Notification Center is another translucent plane—just behind it, you can see your app icons, like you’ve brought down a piece of frosted glass over your home screen.
OK, so? How do these planes improve how your phone works? They don’t. The parallax effect is an innovation Ron Popeil of Ronco might prize—it will look great in ads, but on your own phone, having your icon shift position as you move your screen feels gimmicky, purposeless, and mildly irritating. It smacks of unnecessary ornamentation, calling into question Apple’s iOS 7’s marketing copy: “We don’t add features simply because we can, because it’s technologically possible.”
Meanwhile, having the Notification Center sit on glass rather than linen isn’t an obvious improvement, especially because the design changes make Notification Center less informative than the one in iOS 6. iOS 7’s version shows you far less data about your day at a glance, and it makes some bizarre and even unfriendly aesthetic choices. For example, rather than icons depicting the weather—say, an instantly recognizable sun-and-clouds picture—it gives you a written weather report. Three full sentences, in small type, that a radio weatherman might read in a newsbreak: “Partly cloudy conditions with 20 mph winds out of the northwest. …” That’s nuts.
Altogether, the changes make for a design that’s neither an obvious improvement nor a downgrade. Instead, iOS 7 is a step sideways. It’s a bold new look, and depending on your aesthetic sensibility, you’ll either love it or hate it. But that’s as deep as it goes. It doesn’t add many new features to your phone. It doesn’t improve the iPhone’s usability to any great degree (and for smartphone novices, it might well be more difficult to learn than iOS 6). It won’t fix Apple’s problems with data-driven cloud software. Perhaps, over time, iOS 7’s purpose will become apparent; it’s possible that the new design is a foundation for the future of Apple’s mobile software, one whose ultimate utility will be proven over the next few years. That’s the best-case scenario. The more likely outcome is a collective meh.