“The status quo is not an option. It’s not should we change, it’s how do we change.” —A. G. SULZBERGER, Deputy Publisher, The New York Times
78 Scene Stealers
Inside the deeply nerdy, insanely expensive world of Hollywood prop collecting. BY RENE CHUN
The News in Crisis The Tech That Could Save The New York Times BY GABRIEL SNYDER
Welcome to Macedonia, Fake News Factory to the World BY SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN
+ Black News Matters B Y C A R L B R O O KS J R.
+ Robots Wrote This Story BY JOE KEOHANE
+ How Edward Snowden Is Protecting Reporters BY ANDY GREENBERG
The Curse of the Bahia Emerald The strange tale of a huge and (maybe) priceless gemâ€”and the conniving dreamers who are captive to its allure. BY ELIZABETH WEIL
This handheld Starfleet communicator from Star Trek: The Original Series is just one of the many relics available to prop collectors.
10 Release Notes
The people behind the issue
12 This Issue From the editor’s desk
16 Comments Reader rants and raves
Pass the (Legal) Dutchie A road map to regulated recreational weed
The Flow Table Lamp marries maximum light with minimum desk hogging
34 Gearhead: Car Commute Chevy’s all-electric Bolt, a hi-def dashcam, a heads-up display, and an insulated coffee porter
36 Head-to-Head: iPad Pro Keyboards Razer Mechanical Keyboard Case vs. Logitech Create
Mr. Know-It-All On parents and their predilection for leaving embarrassing Facebook comments
Q&A: Yuval Harari How Big Data will fuel a new religion
BY JON MOOALLEM
BY OLIVIA SOLON
28 WIRED Book Club 20 Now (Re)Playing
Choose your own sci-ﬁ adventure
The March movie calendar is a deluge of déjà vu
30 Designing Science
Eleanor Lutz makes sublime visual mashups
The hugely ambitious plan to take down potentially dangerous drones. BY DOUGLAS STARR
ASK A FLOWCHART 96 Is This a Fake News Story? BY ROBERT CAPPS
What’s Inside Tiger Balm Ultra pain balm
22 Strong to the Hoop Hack your March Madness bracket
Paid to Play Videogames are the grim future of work BY CLIVE THOMPSON
ON THE COVER Photographed for W IRE D by James Day. Grooming by Brynn Doering.
Until the inhabitants of Veles warmed up to him, Martin simply wandered the streets. “I made a portrait of the town,” he says.
MADE IN MACEDONIA
THE EVE OF A SNOWSTORM was the perfect moment for photographer Guy Martin to capture the bleak mood in Veles, Macedonia, a city where the loss of industrial jobs has pushed idle teens into the fake-news business (page 68). As locals headed indoors to escape subzero temperatures, Martin set out on foot to photograph the frozen streets. “Everything had just gone from the place,” he says. The Istanbul-based shooter is no stranger to exploring what he calls “the gray areas in the world,” having covered Arab Spring protests, civil war in Libya, and the Syrian refugee crisis for the likes of Time and National Geographic. In Veles, Martin found warmth one night in a garden shed with a group of local men, drinking homemade brandy and singing old Balkan tunes. As the liquor ﬂowed, so did the Google ad dollars—turns out half the revelers were operating fake-news sites.
Gabriel Snyder has been a staff writer for The New York Observer, Variety, and W; a top editor for Newsweek and The Atlantic; and editor in chief of Gawker and, most recently, the New Republic. But despite all those years in the business, GUY MARTIN
That image of a pot plant on page 24 isn’t stock photography: It was shot at WIRED’s San Francisco HQ (Dear corporate overlords: Marijuana is legal in California now!) and belongs to a staffer we’ll call Mary Jane. The chocolate hashberry clone, a sativa strain, was purchased from a local dispensary and currently enjoys 14 hours of artiﬁcial light a day so it can grow big and produce plenty of buds. It was in the office for purely photographic purposes, we swear. Yo, can you, uh, pass the Cheetos? MAR 2017
PANOS PICTURES (MACEDONIA); GETTY IMAGES (SMOKE)
When writer Elizabeth Weil heard about the case of a giant emerald and the odd cast of characters contesting its ownership, she knew she had a gem of a story. “The idea that such a huge thing could exist and it would be unclear who it belonged to was mind-blowing,” says Weil, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and author of No Cheating, No Dying. Trouble was, nobody would talk to her. “I had all the facts, but I needed a character,” she says. A year into the project, Weil was ready to bail when she got the call: It was one of the alleged owners, and he was ready to talk. Read her incredible tale on page 84.
he was still surprised, while reporting on the future of The New York Times (page 50), to learn how the industry contributed to the history of innovation. In the 1930s, Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger hired Austin G. Cooley, an inventor who was working on sending photos via normal phone lines. “In other words, he was developing the fax machine,” Snyder says. The Times tested the device during an airship disaster on the West Coast. “It was the ﬁrst paper in New York to print photos of the survivors, stunning the engineers at AT&T, who had long said it would be impossible.”
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Even on a small screen, the images and interview with Edward Snowden were striking.
THE HANDOFF Our oral history of three days of violence brought together multiple media strands. MY FIRST COLUMN as editor in chief of wired ran in issue 21.03, exactly four years ago. I didn’t train as a writer, but I’ve found real creative pleasure in these issue notes—though the actual words never come as easily as I (or my editor) wish they might. This is the hardest one yet, because it’s my last. ¶ wired is a place designed to ﬁnd the future, and my ﬁnal issue is all about the future of what we do here every day: the news. We set out, as always, to avoid navel-gazing clichés and instead to understand what’s actually going to change in light of 2017’s new challenges and dangers. You’re going to read important thinking—Gabriel Snyder on the technology that drives The New York Times, Samanth Subramanian on the Macedonian trolls who propagate fake news, and Andy Greenberg on protecting journalists and sources. The world continues to change, and wired continues to cover that change even as it plays a part in it. ¶ I have never not marveled at the sheer journalistic talent and raw human genius assembled at this place, which, 25 years after its founding, is a Silicon Valley institution—older than most of the companies and many of the people we cover. I started at wired as creative director in 2006, left to run digital strategy for our parent company, Condé Nast, in 2010, and came back 24 months later as editor in chief. But
President Obama showed us the frontiers that inspired him.
the truth is, I fell in love with wired early on, from afar. When you’re a sci-ﬁ nerd with design and engineering aspirations, it’s hard not to be swept up in talk of planetary-scale computing and autonomous ﬂying robots. For me, this job has been the all-consuming, always-on, little-sleep kind, and I’ve loved it. When we were at our best—interviewing a fugitive Edward Snowden in a Moscow hotel room, attempting to make sense of three days of violence captured on social media last summer, or passing the wired mic to a president of the United States—we looked around corners and saw futures that were amazing and optimistic. That’s why this farewell isn’t really a goodbye. Sure, I’m changing my address, moving a few blocks down the road here in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. I’m partnering with my friend Patrick Godfrey to join the ranks of the startups wired has so thoughtfully covered these past two and a half decades. My new ﬁrm will be dedicated to helping leaders and companies use strategy, exceptional design, and captivating stories to thrive in a world of constant transformation—a wired world. I always hoped to leave wired better and stronger than it was when I arrived. I think I have, even though the subjects we cover, and journalism itself, are experiencing radical economic and philosophical trauma. wired will continue to fulﬁll its mission, and I hope you’ll make the new editor, Nicholas Thompson, as welcome as you’ve made me as he continues this critical work. Nick’s lucky—he’s joining a team of the smartest editors, writers, designers, creatives, and thinkers on the planet. They made my years here the most professionally and personally rewarding of my life. I will miss it dearly. It may indeed be true that the future is already here, but even if it’s unevenly distributed, there’s a disproportionate amount of the stuff in the wired office. I’m taking a little of it with me; the rest stays with you.
SCOT T DADICH Editor in Chief @ S DAD ICH
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YOU CAN’T BUILD THE BUSINESS OF TOMORROW ON THE NETWORK OF YESTERDAY. It’s no secret: business has changed—in every way, for every business. Modern technologies have brought new opportunities and new challenges, like BYOD and a mobile workforce, that old networks just weren’t built for. While demand on these networks has increased exponentially, networking costs have skyrocketed and IT budgets haven’t kept pace.
Comcast Business Enterprise Solutions is a new kind of network, built for a new kind of business. With $4.5 billion invested in our national IP backbone and a suite of managed solutions, Comcast Business is committed to designing, building, implementing and managing a communications network customized to the needs of today’s large, widely distributed enterprise.
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Re: “Subtext®: It Knows What You’re Thinking Stop Thinking It Knows,” by Charles Yu “I saw myself in this story. Geez.” Raul MacMos on WIRED.com
BRAVE NEW WORLDS After predicting the future for the past 25 years, we were ready to spend some time there. The result is our ﬁrst-ever sci-ﬁ issue, which features, to our great delight, many off our favorite authors: Hugo Award winner N. K. Jemisin, Westworld d writer Charles Yu, and James S. A. Corey, off the Expanse novels, to name a few. Some of their visions of tomorrow—mind-reading devices, solicitous aliens, clones, and perpetual war—are bound to come true. Let’s just hope it’s the less-apocalyptic ones.
Re: “Life on Garbage Island: There’s a New Frontier in Paradise,” by Ben Lasman “This story is so good. My kind of writing. Comedic, dystopian, and on the nose about where our society’s economy and technology are probably headed.” freshloot on WIRED.com
Jeremy Grant via email
Re: The Sci-Fi Issue “I’d like to thank all the authors and W I R E D staff for a truly delightful issue. As a sci-ﬁ fan, I loved it. And it’s good to remember how many of our real-life tech designs are tied to the inspirational science ﬁction that preceded them. Who knows, maybe some not-too-distant technology will be inspired by this issue.” Andrew Davis via email
“I tried to get into the ﬁction stories, but it just wasn’t my thing—maybe a bit too ‘out there’ for me. Still, I applaud the daring of doing something completely different with this issue. It’s the fresh approach I’ve come to expect from W IRE D, and I look forward to what next month will bring.” Eric Luedtke via email
Re: “First: A Martian Goes Hunting for the Red Planet’s Past— and His Own,” by John Rogers “Can’t explain why, but I just got emotional in the airport reading John Rogers in W IRE D’s sci-ﬁ issue.” Noah Jodice (@noahjodice) on Twitter Re: “The Evaluators: To Trade With Aliens, You Must Adapt. They Certainly Will.” by N. K. Jemisin “Love this. Suspenseful, interesting, and creepy. Classic sci-ﬁ.” Sander Philipse (@sanderphilipse) on Twitter
Re: The Sci-Fi Issue
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Re: “Know Your Enemy: Celebrating 50 Years of the Forever War,” by Matt Gallagher “Shall I use the last 5 percent of my phone battery reading Matt Gallagher’s hilarious ﬁction in W IRE D? Aw hell yeah!” Teresa Fazio (@DoctorFaz) on Twitter
Re: The Sci-Fi Issue “I have been a subscriber to W IRE D since the ﬁrst year of the publication. During those many years there have been issues that had more or less merit than others, but I have kept my opinions to myself. However, the January issue is such a thing of beauty that I cannot let the opportunity pass to offer the
highest praise. The concept, layout, and illustrations complement the excellent stories. I read it cover to cover with joy—a ﬁrst for me with your magazine. I consider it one of the best Christmas presents that I received. Please do it again soon or— even better—spin off the format to a new publication.” Paul Hulker via email MAR 2017
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THE GOD COMPLEX HOW BIG DATA WILL FUEL A NEW RELIGION
BY OLIVIA SOLON
HUMANITY HAS HAD astonishing success alleviating famine, disease,
and war. (It might not always seem that way, but it’s true.) Now, Homo sapiens is on the brink of an upgrade—sort of. As we become increasingly skilled at deploying artiﬁcial intelligence, big data, and algorithms to do everything from easing traffic to diagnosing cancer, we’ll transform into a new breed of superhuman, says historian and best-selling author Yuval Harari in his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Which is great, except that we might also become so dependent on these tools that our species will become irrelevant—our value determined only by the data we generate. wired spoke to Harari about this coming life in the matrix just before he left for his annual 45-day tech-free meditation retreat. MAR 2017
Olivia Solon (@oliviasolon) is a freelance technology journalist based in San Francisco.
WIRED: In your book you predict the emergence of two completely new religions. What are they? HARARI: Techno-humanism aims to amplify the power of humans, creating cyborgs and connecting humans to computers, but it still sees human interests and desires as the highest authority in the universe. Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant. How so? Take Google Maps or Waze. On the one hand they amplify human ability—you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to ﬁnd your own way. What does this mean for Homo sapiens? We become less important, perhaps irrelevant. In the humanist age the value of an experience came from within yourself. In a Dataist age, meaning is generated by the external data processing system. You go to a Japanese restaurant and have a wonderful dish, and the thing to do is take a picture with your phone, put it on Facebook, and see how many likes you get. If you don’t share your experiences, they don’t become part of the
Eventually, author Yuval Harari says, we may be unable to disconnect from the internet.
“WE’RE SHIFTING AUTHORITY TO ALGORITHMS—AND LOSING THE ABILITY TO FIND OUR OWN WAY.”
data processing system, and they have no meaning. Does the shift toward Dataism matter for politics? In the 20th century, politics was a battleground between grand visions about the future of humankind. The visions were grounded in the Industrial Revolution and the big question was what to do with new technologies like electricity, trains, and radio. Whatever you say about figures like Lenin or Hitler, you cannot accuse them of lacking vision. Today, nobody in politics has any kind of vision; technology is moving too fast, and the political system is unable to make sense of it. Who can make sense of it? The only place you hear broad visions about the future of humankind is in Silicon Valley, from Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. Very few other people have competing visions. The political system is not doing its job. So tech companies become our new rulers, even gods? When you talk about God and religion, in the end it’s all a question of authority. What is the highest source of authority that you turn to when you have a problem in your life? A thousand years ago you’d turn to the church. Today, we expect algorithms to provide
us with the answer—who to date, where to live, how to deal with an economic problem. So more and more authority is shifting to these corporations. Can we opt out? The simplest answer is no. It will become extremely difficult to unplug, and it has to do with health care, which will increasingly rely on internet-connected sensors. People will be willing to give up privacy in exchange for medical services that tell you the first day cancer cells start spreading in your body. So we might reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect. What can we be hopeful about? There’s a lot to be hopeful about. In 20 to 30 years the hundreds of millions of people who have no health care will have access to AI doctors on their mobile phones offering better care than anyone gets now. Driverless cars won’t eliminate accidents, but they will drastically reduce them. Phew ... so we’re not doomed? Humanity has proven its ability to rise to the challenge posed by dangerous new technologies—in the 1950s and ’60s many people expected the Cold War to end in a nuclear holocaust. That didn’t happen. After thousands of years in which war seemed to be an inevitable part of human nature, we changed how international politics functioned. I hope we’ll also be able to rise to the challenge of technologies like AI and genetic engineering, but we don’t have any room for error. �
The 800-ishPound Gorilla In Kong: Skull Island, the ape gets another makeover—he’s four times taller than last time. Tara Stoinski, head of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, weighs in on the liberties auteurs have taken with Kong’s look and behavior over time.
NOW (RE)PLAYING A LONG-AWAITED Trainspotting follow-up; a live-action redo of
Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast; Hugh Jackman’s last (they promise) Wolverine outing. The March movie calendar is a déjà-view jumble of sequels, spinoffs, remakes, reboots, and rehashes—some more welcome than others. —Mark Yarm
A. King Kong (1933), 18 feet tall on Skull Island, 24 in NYC “He walks bipedal— something that gorillas do infrequently.”
Live-Action Adaptations: It’s Hard to Hit the Sweet Spot 1991 ANIMATION
B. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), 148 feet tall “The way he beats his chest is very unrealistic.” C. King Kong Escapes (1967), 66 feet tall “Again with the large forehead, which is not how gorillas look.”
The Wolverine (2013)
45 2017 LIVE ACTION
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
20 Slavish Imitation
Beauty and the Beast The Emma Watson vehicle is a way-too-faithful remake. Once upon a time was enough.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
2017 LIVE ACTION
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
2010 GRAPHIC NOVEL
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
X-Men (2000) MINUTES ONSCREEN
Wolverine’s Final Cut
D. King Kong (1976), 42 feet tall on Skull Island, 55 in NYC “More real in the details, like his black hands.” E. King Kong Lives (1986), 60 feet tall “A step backward. They have him eating a person. Gorillas are vegetarian.” F. King Kong (2005), 25 feet tall “The most realistic one. He’s got hair and scarring, and he walks on all fours.” G. Kong: Skull Island (2017), 100 feet tall “They’ve gone back to bipedal. In terms of looks and behavior, I’d say 2005 is still the best.”
After this month’s postapocalyptic Wolverine ﬂick, Logan, Hugh Jackman will ﬁnally hang up his adamantium claws. That might be a good thing for paciﬁsts, because what he does best isn’t very nice, bub. Here’s a look at how minutes onscreen translates to body count over Jackman’s 17 years as the muttonchopped mutant.
Wilson Woody Harrelson manages to make Daniel Clowes’ middleaged misanthrope kinda … likable?
2017 LIVE ACTION
How To Tell Power Rangers From T2 Trainspotting
Twenty years after the last movie, our 1. _________ are back. Based, of course, on the fantastically popular 2. _________, the 3. _________ follows a handful of 4. _________ who transform when they draw power from 5. _________—but when faced with the specter of cruel 6. _________, they must band together to overcome. As the would-be audience, we can’t help but wonder one thing: 7. _________? However, that’s almost immaterial, because as soon as we hear the familiar call— “It’s 8. _________ time!”—we’ll transform, this time into our 1990s selves, hopped up on Crystal Pepsi and 9. _________. POWER RANGERS / T2 TRAINSPOTTING
Ghost in the Shell We love Ghost in the Shell. We love ScarJo kicking ass. But the whitewashing? Not so much.
1. colorfully suited heroes / heroin-addicted fuckups 2. live-action TV show / Irvine Welsh novel Porno 3. reboot / sequel 4. multiethnic American teens / pasty middle-aged Scotsmen 5. glowing rock things / lager and designer drugs 6. alien Rita Repulsa / Mistress Time 7. Will this be a total piece of crap / Can they outdo the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene 8. morphin / morphine 9. Fun Dip / cheap whisky
ILLUSTRATIONS: PETER GAMLEN; PHOTOGRAPHS: WALT DISNEY COMPANY/ALAMY (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 1991); LAURIE SPARHAM/DISNEY (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017); DRAWN & QUARTERLY/DANIEL CLOWES (WILSON, GRAPHIC NOVEL); FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (WILSON, 2017); MARY EVANS/BANDAI VISUAL COMPANY/KODANSHA/MANGA VIDEO/RONALD GRANT/EVERETT COLLECTION ( GHOST IN THE SHELL, 1995); PARAMOUNT PICTURES (GHOST IN THE SHELL, 2017); TIM PALEN/LIONSGATE (POWER RANGERS); SONY PICTURES (TRAINSPOTTING)
One of the muscle balm’s two active ingredients (meaning the FDA recognizes its medicinal properties), camphor reduces pain through distraction by activating your skin’s temperature sensors and tricking you into feeling cold. There’s only so much input the nervous system can handle in one location, so forcing the body to focus on the chills has the effect of masking the underlying pain.
Menthol The other active player, menthol, is an alcohol extracted from mint oil. Like camphor, it triggers your cold receptors, which might be why it reduces blood ﬂow and swelling—just like an ice pack. Because it also seems to interact with opioid receptors, menthol may have painkilling effects beyond its powers of distraction and inﬂammation reduction.
Dementholized Mint Oil Though it’s the byproduct of the menthol extraction process, this stuff still contains menthol— but it’s cheaper in this form. Plus, it’s 26 percent menthone (menthol with two fewer hydrogen atoms), which may help the other ingredients penetrate the skin.
Cajuput, Cassia, and Clove Oils More neurological tricksters. These oils are believed to be counterirritants like menthol and camphor, except they can simulate heat as well as cold. The FDA isn’t convinced they can relieve pain, but clove oil is widely used as a natural analgesic.
Paraffin Petrolatum The carrier for all the other ingredients, this is a mixture of a hard wax (paraffin) and a soft petroleum jelly, a k a Vaseline. Both are crude oil derivatives made up of chains of carbon and hydrogen. But the chains in parafﬁn tend to be slightly longer, and the degree of attraction between these molecules is proportional to the surface area. So the paraffin molecules stick together and stay harder at room temperature, while the petrolatum spreads more easily. Together they make a semisolid that softens at just around body temperature— the purrrfect vehicle for delivering brightly burning tiger tingles. —M A L LO RY P I C K E T T
CHARTGEIST BY JON J. EILENBERG
STRONG TO THE HOOP HACK YOUR BRACKET
AI Assistants Aristotle (like Alexa— but for kids!)
WITH 147 QUINTILLION possible outcomes, picking the winners of all 67 games
in the annual NCAA basketball tournament is nearly impossible. But Microsoft is attempting to model an infallible bracket, feeding 15 seasons of statistics into its Bing Predicts engine and constantly iterating to optimize your chances. We asked Walter Sun, an architect of the Predicts algorithms, for mathematically proven tips to help you score office-pool glory. —joseph bien-kahn
“I’m sorry, Timmy, I’m afraid you can’t do that.”
Trainspotting Sequel A movie called T2
“Dammit, I paid for killer robots from the future!”
Defense wins championships THE RULE Defensive efficiency is key. Bing tracks the number of points that are scored against a defense per 100 possessions—the lower, the better. Game pace slows in the tournament, which beneﬁts D-minded squads. THE PROOF Hawaii and Stephen F. Austin, two teams with strong defense, were ranked low but pulled off ﬁrst-round upsets last year.
Small-conference excellence beats major mediocrity
Coaching carries the day
Miles traveled matter more than you think
THE RULE THE RULE
Strength of schedule weighs heavily in the NCAA’s ranking tool, so teams that ruled smaller conferences are likely to be underrated. THE PROOF A surprise 2014 win by Stephen F. Austin was actually predicted by Sun’s model— they’d gone 32–3 in a comparatively smaller conference and hadn’t lost since Thanksgiving.
You can base a model entirely on coach rankings—veterans Roy Williams and John Calipari have each led multiple teams to deep tournament runs. If it’s a toss-up, go with the established leader. THE PROOF Louisville’s Rick Pitino is 11–1 in the Sweet 16, and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is 21–4 in the second game when playing twice in a weekend.
Tournament games may be played on neutral courts, but proximity to home still makes a difference. When in doubt, bet against the team that has journeyed the farthest and across the most time zones. THE PROOF In the past two tournaments, teams playing in their home states were 13–2.
Snap Camera glasses
Big eyes/puking rainbow lens
The fundamental elements of any promising tech IPO
Use your downtime wisely.
“ You look
le picture .”
Swipe through—and share—a nearly limitless supply of New Yorker cartoons. The New Yorker Today app features a selection of our award-winning writing on politics and international affairs, culture and entertainment, business and technology. Plus those cartoons! newyorker.com/go/today
Available on iPad and iPhone
MY DAD LEAVES INCREDIBLY EMBARRASSING COMMENTS UNDER EVERY PHOTO I POST TO FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM. WHAT SHOULD I DO? by jon mooallem
Let’s face it: Dads are embarrassing. I remember, a couple of years ago, reading a newspaper story about a boy named Brooklyn who was so distressed by the prospect of his friends catching sight of his dweeby father that he insisted his dad drop him off around the corner from school and stay out of view. Why was this a newspaper story, you ask? Don’t millions of mortified children do this every day? Yes, and that’s my point. In this case, however, the dad in question was David Beckham. ¶ See, dad-barrassment is universal—a condition of existence, like the weather. What matters is how well we endure it: whether we slough it off or allow it to seep inside us. ¶ Consider another famous dad: Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, that guy—America’s first presidential man’s man. This is a guy who hunted bears and lions, who got into bar fights with cowboys, who resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy to actually fight a war rather than just plan one. Teddy Roosevelt loved war. War was his jam. As the historian Alexis Coe told me recently, “He treated everything like a battlefield.” In October 1912, Roosevelt was about to give a campaign speech in Milwaukee when a would-be assassin shot him in the chest. The bullet ripped through the copy of his speech in his pocket. There was a big bloody wound. Still, Roosevelt spoke for more than an hour, like a wounded infantryman still bayoneting people on the battlefield.
I’d called Coe after listening to the podcast Presidents Are People Too!, which she cohosts with former Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan. Their Roosevelt episode suggested that Teddy’s warmongering machismo was bound up in his dad. During the Civil War, Roosevelt had watched his father, Theodore senior, pay for a surrogate to fight in his place. For Teddy, Coe says, “this was always a great source of shame. His celebration of masculinity and war, his romanticization of war as an experience to all men, is a reaction to his dad.” And if, to overcompensate for this excruciating embarrassment, Roosevelt felt compelled to speechify for over an hour while his torso hemorrhaged, then that’s his decision. But it also affected his own parenting. Roosevelt had four sons, and he wanted his boys to be the valorous warriors his own father hadn’t been. When World War I broke out, the youngest, Quentin, memorized an eye chart to ensure he’d pass his exam and be able to serve. He was, in short order, shot down and killed by the Germans. Roosevelt was crestfallen. “To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father,” he wrote. He died himself six months later. But the misery he wrought continued. One son, Archibald, had his knee ripped apart by a grenade. Another, Ted Jr., was wounded in France, then died of a heart attack while serving in World War II. Kermit, Roosevelt’s second son, served in both wars, then ultimately shot himself in the head on a base in Alaska. You wrote because you didn’t like some comments on Instagram and Facebook. I’m talking about shame and war and death. It’s hardly fair, you’ll say, and you’re right. But this story shows, I think, that dad-barrassment is a powerful and unpredictable force; it warps the imagination, it pollutes the soul. The perpetrators are, inevitably, also victims. By all means, ask your father—gently—if he wouldn’t mind toning down the comments. Tell him to text you privately instead, if you’d prefer. But ultimately the onus is not on your father to stop embarrassing you, but on you to reconcile the embarrassment you feel. I worry you’ve started seeing your father primarily as an engine of embarrassment, not as a complex human being entitled to express his wit, his playfulness, his love. So, stomach it. Take the bullet, carry on. �
CHOOSE YOUR OWN SCI-FI ADVENTURE
SOME SCIENCE FICTION skews local and hopeful. Other times it’s doomy and far-out. Two modern masters—Kim Stanley Robinson and John Scalzi— have books coming out this month, and they fall on each end of that spectrum. Which one’s for you? We read them both to help you decide. —K. M. McFarland
New York 2140
The Collapsing Empire BY JOHN SCALZI
BY KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
New York during the 2142 congressional election
Sea levels rise; supersize hurricanes strike
Space pirates rebel; scurvy outbreak looms (see below)
Kiva Lagos, daughter of the family controlling the at-risk intergalactic citrus trade
Vlade, apartment building super and former scuba diver—convenient! The Cloister Cluster, prime real estate on the waterfront 3 (pack extra oxygen and warm clothes) 1 (hedge funders targeting financial analysts)
End, the Wild West of the cosmos, constantly on the verge of coup
1 (bring disguises) 2 (both on the emperox of the Interdependency)
“The sea always won in the end.”
WHOLE BOOK IN ONE LINE
Waterproof diamond sheeting; multilevel boat garages
INVENTIONS WE LOVE
Waterworld survivalists battle Wall Street bogeymen
Circa AD 3500 (the Gregorian calendar is passé by then)
“There is no faster-than-light travel. But there is the Flow.”
ARE WE DOOMED?
Interdimensional space highways; the Memory Room Star Wars politics in the key of Firefly Definitely
JARGON WATCH acoustic prism n. / -'küs-tik 'pri-z m / Much as an optical prism splits light into a rainbow of colors, this low-tech Swiss invention—a metal tube with precisely placed holes—breaks sound into its constituent frequencies, no electronics required. It could be used for cheap, sturdy sonar. PhaaS n. / 'fas / Based on softwareas-a-service (SaaS) business models, PhaaS packages, sold on the dark web, provide everything a newbie cybercriminal needs to run a phishing con, including templates for scams, fake web pages, and access to servers. One even offers tech support and tutorials. cellular PC n. / 'sel-y -l r 'pē-'sē / A mobile device that can run standard desktop software. Microsoft coined the term to tout a cellconnected gadget expected later this year. The endgame may be a smartphone running fullon Office and Photoshop. Pair it with a display and kiss your desktop PC goodbye. manthreading v. / 'man-thred-iŋ / A derogatory term for tweetstorming— you know, expounding ideas (gasp!) on Twitter by stringing together tweets. Some claim it’s a male thing and amounts to digital “manspreading.” —J O N AT H O N K E AT S
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GRAPHIC SCIENCE HOT TRADING CARDS
Cut, Burn, Shoot: How Eleanor Lutz Turns Paper and Fire Into Gorgeous Infographics
ELEANOR LUTZ is a matchmaker, but not for people. Instead she pairs
“The ponderosa pine has a thick, insulating bark that can withstand forest ﬁres. For work like this I always check with researchers—in this case, I asked my dad, an ecology professor. Then I made paper sculptures of the plant. Paper comes from trees, so there’s that association. But I also want to animate these somehow. So I set them on ﬁre.” CLAYTON COTTERELL
“The giant sequoia took 12 hours to cut and glue together. It’s a little sad to torch these, but I made them with that intention. Plus they look beautiful burnt.” 3.
“This isn’t a guide for the science community, so I’m free to use a more artistic style that skips speciﬁc details like exact seed size and leaf length.”
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ELEANOR LUTZ
knotty scientiﬁc topics with sublime visuals and publishes them on her blog, Tabletop Whale. And these aren’t random setups: She once illustrated the topography of Mars as a Victorian-era explorer’s map, connecting two periods of voyaging and discovery. Ikea assembly guides inspired an infographic on embryonic development. Recently she hitched diagrams of viruses to a trading card motif because, like baseball players or Pokémon species, each virus has a unique proﬁle. “There are so many facts and equations and awesome things about science,” says Lutz, a graduate student in insect neuroscience at the University of Washington. “I want those cool ideas to be accessible.” For her latest project, she wanted to create a series of cards showing plants that have evolved to coexist with fire. The natural way to do this? Build paper sculptures, set a match to them, and photograph the scorching result. That’s a hot date. —Margaret Rhodes
companies market their in-game items) discovered that just 0.2 percent of players are responsible for 48 percent of all revenue. In effect, a small population of high-spending players is subsidizing the masses. Castronova predicts that economic trends will force those subsidies to grow. Think about it: Automation will create huge masses of unemployed would-be factory workers. The superrich will number fewer and fewer and get richer and richer. Which means game companies will drift toward a virtual-world New Deal. They’ll have to soak their whales more and more to stay in business, but keeping them happy will require making sure their worlds are vibrant communities. So the game companies need those low-spending, poorer folks to show up. Rich players don’t want to play with bots; they crave the social fellowship of real humans. And they also enjoy the thrill of lording their socioeconomic status over others. (It’s casino psychology again: “The big shots want to walk into a crowded casino and go into the high rollers’ room,” Castronova says, “walking past a guy like me playing craps.”) That means the game companies will have to underwrite poor players. In the next 10 years, they might issue reward cards, spendable in the real world. But eventually, 20 years on, the companies might ﬁnd they need to pay to keep the proles alive and in the game. Let’s be clear. This would not be, as Castronova himself acknowledges, utopia. This would be game design via Marx’s immiseration theory. “It’s not a good life,” Castronova says— not merely because of the likely-skimpy wages, but because of the isolation. Now, low-skill gamers with few other work options might be happy enough at this work; as economist Erik Hurst has found, when today’s non-collegeeducated men drop out of the workforce, they mostly play games anyway. “This feels like something that is going to happen,” says Mike Sellers, a veteran of free-to-play ﬁrms and a professor at Indiana University. And I have a sinking feeling that Castronova is onto something. Political leaders are doing little to prepare the US for automationpropelled job loss. In that absence, the market will chart its own path, and that makes schemes like this all too plausible. When it comes to the game of real-world economics, people have no choice but to play.
PAID TO PLAY VIDEOGAMES ARE THE GRIM FUTURE OF WORK BY CLIVE THOMPSON
LOOK AT ECONOMIC DATA closely and the trends aren’t pretty: People
with elite backgrounds are hoovering up an increasing share of new income and wealth. Automation is obviating more and more jobs. In the years to come, we’ll need new forms of employment. Let’s crystal-ball this: Will there be a new way for the working class of the future to earn a paycheck? Sure. Playing videogames. ¶ That’s the bold prediction of Edward Castronova, an academic at Indiana University who studies the economics of online games. In a white paper released last fall, he argues that within 20 years, “playing games for money will come to be seen as a legitimate occupational choice for those whose skills are not valued by brick-and-mortar labor markets.” ¶ Sounds nuts, right? But Castronova lays out the trend lines. First, consider how online games have evolved. Fifteen years ago you typically paid about $15 a month to play. But in the past decade, game companies have devised the free-to-play model: It costs nothing to join the action, but if you want something cool— specialty armor, a “mount” for traveling faster—you have to buy it. This model has been wildly proﬁtable. A top-rated free-to-play title, like Clash Royale, now brings in about $2.1 million a day from such purchases. ¶ Here’s the thing, though: As with casinos, most of the revenue comes from “whales,” a tiny percentage of players who spend thousands annually. A study last spring by Swrve (a ﬁrm that helps
The New Quarterly Fashion Magazine
ON NEWSSTANDS 02.28.17 SUBSCRIBE @ GQSTYLE.COM
NORMANN COPENHAGEN FLOW TABLE LAMP
FETISH BALANCE BEAM ANY LAMP can shine a light on your marketing plan. But if your desk goals stop at functionality, you’re doing it wrong. The Flow Table Lamp doesn’t just illuminate, it invigorates, with a design that, contrary to its name, doesn’t evoke water so much as a maximally pared bonsai tree. A ﬂat LED chip eliminates the need for bulky bulbs and keeps the profile sleek. Better still? You can adjust the lamp’s positioning like a crane, optimizing for lighting or aesthetics (or both). And while it’s never easy to sacriﬁce desk space, with a base that’s just 7.5 inches across, the Flow leaves plenty of room for laptops and tillandsias. Brilliant! —BRIAN BARRETT
STYLING BY NATASHA FELKER
GEARHEAD JOYRIDE Your new gig’s a mega-commute from chez vous, and self-driving cars are a few years off. Here are some friends to keep you company. —ALEX DAVIES
Waylens Horizon Dashcam
Navdy Head-Up Display
Persol PO8649S Sunglasses
Miir Insulated Pint Cup
Don’t just watch replays of your road adventures, enhance them. The Waylens overlays data like g forces and speed onto 1080p video, so your commute looks more like a day at the track. Hit the big-ass button that mounts on the steering wheel to save 30-second clips; your highlight reel will be ready before you reach your driveway.
Luxury cars have displays that project info like speed and turn-by-turn navigation right into your line of sight. Navdy’s dashboard-mounted rig brings that tech to your well-used whip. Sync your phone and make your ’97 Corolla feel like a ’17 S-Class.
You may hit the road before dawn, but once the sun comes up, don’t let it be a pain in the eyes. Enjoy the view in Persol’s latest interpretation of the iconic 649 model. It has an updated bridge to suit your nose and engraved temple tips that feel as smooth as a traffic-free morning. Available with several types of lenses, these sunnies are best paired with polarized glass to cut down on glare.
What good is coffee if it isn’t hot hot hot? Trust Miir’s doublewalled mug to keep your pint of java just the way you need it. The locking lid is transparent, protecting you from burns by showing you when the scorching brew is about to reach your tongue.
You suffer through your commute, but the planet shouldn’t. Chevy’s all-electric Bolt offers an EPArated range of 238 miles per charge. It’s long on comfort too: acres of legroom and headroom, a boss infotainment system, even a spot to plunk your phone that isn’t the cup holder.
CHEVY BOLT BY JOE PUGLIESE FOR WIRED; DISPLAY COURTESY OF NAVDY
IPAD PRO KEYBOARDS
HEAD-TO-HEAD BOLD TYPES Apple’s typing accessory doesn’t cut it. Promote your iPad Pro with a real keyboard. —DAVID PIERCE
Logitech Create BEST FOR:
Entrepreneur in residence at the local Starbucks
Razer Mechanical Keyboard Case BEST FOR:
Nostalgic futurists The six rows of backlit keys in Razer’s luxe black case rest on mechanical switches, making typing on your tablet like using a 21st-century typewriter. Designed for the big 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the case’s keys offer roomy QWERTYing, and a kickstand keeps the screen angled just so. Turn off the backlight and the battery lasts weeks.
With Logitech’s case hosting your iPad Pro, your office is anywhere there’s a ﬂat surface. The Create engages via the tablet’s Smart Connector, so there’s no futzing with Bluetooth or charging the battery. Even on the smaller 9.7-inch model, the backlit keys are spaced well enough for your ﬁngers to ﬂy freely. Doodlers can use the slot inside the hinge to store a Pencil.
$130 ( 9.7-inch ) $150 ( 12.9-inch )
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IDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECTS Over ﬁve months in late 2015 and early 2016, the FAA reported 582 incidents of a drone getting close to an aircraft or posing a risk of collision. The jammed airspace over New York saw the most danger.
Sky Net The hugely ambitious, mostly illegal plan to take down potentially dangerous drones. BY DOUGLAS STARR
As the Black Sage cofounders heard the ominous buzzing overhead and watched the kids pretend to die, they felt a small measure of satisfaction—their drone-tracking system worked.
developing. Almost immediately after the drone lifted off, Lamm and Romero’s radar detected it. Their AI-powered software identiﬁed it as a drone (and not, say, a bird), and their tripodmounted cameras tracked it as it made its way over the crowd. As they heard the ominous buzzing overhead and watched the college kids pretend to die, Romero and Lamm allowed themselves a small measure of satisfaction—Black Sage’s tracking system worked, and in the event of an actual attack it could give authorities a few crucial extra minutes to mobilize. Mostly, though, Romero and Lamm felt alarmed, knowing all they could do was watch. “Holy shit,” Romero remembers thinking. “We can do everything but stop this catastrophic incident from occurring.” Shaken and stirred, they returned to Black Sage’s headquarters in Boise, Idaho, and spent a year enhancing their system so that it can now not only track drones but also bring them safely to the ground using radio-frequency-jamming technology. There is only one small hitch: Like almost every drone-interdiction technology in development, frequency jammers run afoul of several US laws, most of which were passed when people hadn’t dreamed of owning their own unmanned aircraft. Romero and Lamm’s solution to the mock ter-
SOURCES: THE RETENTION PEOPLE, ENDEAVOR PARTNERS
IMAGINE YOU’RE part of a great swelling crowd, one of 60,000 people who ﬁll up the cauldron of noise and chaos that is a sold-out football stadium. For you and everyone around you, the game is an open-air gathering place, a chance to steam and scream and worry about nothing except the other team’s menacing D. To the security officials responsible for your safety, it is a constant source of worst-case-scenario planning. They install metal detectors; they enlist a kennel’s worth of bomb-sniffing dogs; they plant concrete pillars around the perimeter to keep out cars; they train personnel in the dark art of bag searching; they even obtain a temporary ﬂight restriction from the FAA to keep all aircraft above 3,000 feet for a radius of 3 miles. They spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours to keep you safe, yet they know that none of it can stop a 3-pound offthe-shelf drone from ﬂying in and dropping something on the
crowd. Maybe it’s a toxic mist. Maybe it’s a bomb. Whatever it is, you’ll never see it coming, and because there is currently no legal way to bring down a drone with any accuracy or reliability, there’s nothing anyone can do but wait for it. In the summer of 2015, Ross Lamm and Dave Romero watched just such a scenario unfold from within a skybox at a large university stadium. The head of security for the college, fearful of the damage drones could do, had decided to run a simulation of a drone attack inside his 60,000-capacity football stadium. (The university asked that identifying details be withheld so as not to share its playbook with would-be attackers.) Campus officials launched a DJI quadcopter, a midsize, midpriced drone, and steered it toward the bleachers, pretending to spread nerve gas on the hundred students gathered below. As the drone looped lazily over the crowd, some of them pretended to vomit convulsively, some twitched spasmodically, some staggered like zombies and then collapsed. Emergency personnel rushed in, assessing the pretend damage and carrying pretend victims out to vans equipped as medical stations. Up in a skybox, Lamm and Romero, cofounders of Black Sage Technologies, monitored the drone-tracking equipment they’ve spent the past few years
NEW YORK/ NEWARK: 47
PHILADELPHIA: 10 ATLANTA: 9
LOS ANGELES: 24
SAN DIEGO: 16 DALLAS: 12
ror in the stadium—a solution that they have shown can reliably counter the threats drones pose to targets as varied as prisons, airports, and arenas—is illegal here, which leaves the future of Black Sage’s technology, like the future of drones themselves, very much up in the air.
THE TWO INVENTORS
met in 2013 through a mutual friend in Boise. Romero, 31, grew up on a 2,200-acre cattle ranch 50 miles south of the city, the prototypical boy-tinkerer making miracles out of scrap metal. He built lots of dune buggies, motorcycles, and other contraptions, most of which worked, one of which burst into flames. He taught himself computer programming on his family’s IBM 386. After graduating from college in 2007, he started a software company called Tsuvo that performed regression analysis—taking large data sets from disparate government agencies, some of which involved thousands of statistics, and distilling them into clean, colorcoded graphics that even nonstatisticians could understand. This kind of massive data crunching and predictive analysis, useful to bureaucracies both here and abroad, led him to live for varying amounts of time in Chile, Palau, and finally, Thailand. It also introduced him to the power of machinelearning algorithms, which helped make quick work of even the thorniest data sets.
Douglas Starr (@douglasstarr) is codirector of the graduate program in science and medical journalism at Boston University. MAR 2017
Where Romero is an adrenaline fiend—ask about the mountain bike perched in his office and he’ll show you a photo of himself on the bike, halfway through a backflip—Lamm, 45, likes nothing more than sailing with his two sons on a quiet lake. He is deliberate and thoughtful, choosing his words carefully, not out of caution but from an engineer’s appreciation of what’s precise and what’s not. While earning a PhD concentrated on machine vision in the late ’90s, he developed an algorithm that enabled a tractor-mounted camera to tell the difference between cotton plants and weeds, allowing farmers to spray herbicide more accurately. In the aftermath of al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (an explosive-laden speedboat crashed into the ship, killing 17 sailors), he helped a US Navy and Coast Guard contractor develop a robotic vision system that allowed ships to detect and quickly respond to speedboat attacks. (With your own vessel rocking and an enemy boat closing in fast, it’s surprisingly difficult to track ships on the water.) He also took part in constructing the warning system in Washington, DC, that locks onto commercial airplanes that drift into restricted airspace and beams an unmistakable red-red-green, red-red-green laser signal into the cockpit to alert the plane’s pilots to fly elsewhere. After more than a decade living and working in Napa Valley, California, he relocated to Boise in 2012, in part so his wife could move her winery there. Lamm and Romero f irst crossed paths when their mutual friend asked for their help landing a government contract: The state of Idaho wanted to install a new warning system on a highway to prevent cars from crashing into animals after dark. The existing warning system flashed a light whenever a deer or an elk
crossed the road, but because the signal would also light up whenever the wind sent leaves and branches tumbling across the pavement—which was often—drivers came to ignore the warning lights altogether. The highway developed one of the highest wildlife crash rates
machine learning help solve the highway problem? “After our friend introduced us, he hardly got a word in,” Romero says. “We got into this virtuous cycle of building on each other’s ideas.” The pair got to work. Near the highway, they set up a Doppler radar (to detect moving objects)
in the state, and when Romero was home from Thailand for a month visiting his family for Christmas, the friend invited him and Lamm to a brainstorming session at a coffee shop. Could some combination of Lamm’s expertise in robotic vision and Romero’s experience with
along with an infrared camera (for nighttime viewing) and routed the output to Romero, who had returned to Thailand for a few months to finish some work. To train his machine-learning algorithms to distinguish between animals and clutter, he would spend 45 minutes of
his lunchtime each day (perfect for nocturnal sightings in Idaho) watching the infrared images and signaling yes or no as to whether they were wildlife. The system accumulated thousands of data points on the moving objects that crossed the camera’s ﬁeld of view—speed, acceleration,
ties,” Romero says. Rather than respond to a potential threat like a conventional alarm system—a so-called deterministic response, where almost any stimulus sets off a signal—their system would trigger a probabilistic response. They set the alarm to ﬂash if it determined
Detect, Identify, and Defeat Black Sage’s Doppler radar detects a target and collects data like speed and altitude. The software factors in time to calculate acceleration, velocity, and hundreds of other data points. An algorithm, “trained” to distinguish between drones and birds, runs the data and determines that the target is a drone. A hi-def camera is engaged to track the drone. The frequency jammers blast radio waves at the drone, blocking the control signal and paralyzing the aircraft. The drone returns home, settles to the ground, or drifts in the air.
direction—and once that data was correlated with Romero’s yes/no designations, the algorithm learned to recognize what probably was an animal and what probably wasn’t. “It’s a beautiful algorithm that takes data from radar and enriches it with close probabili-
with a 70 percent probability that the moving object was an elk or a deer as opposed to, say, tumbleweed. False alarms plummeted, drivers began to trust the new system, and in the three months that they ﬁeld-tested it during the winter of 2014, collisions dropped to zero.
Around the time that Romero and Lamm were focusing on preventing accidents on the ground, more and more people started worrying about crashes in the sky. Once the province of military developers, then of rich folks who could afford the technology, drones soared into the mainstream in 2013 when Chinese drone maker DJI introduced the Phantom, the ﬁrst consumerpriced unmanned aircraft system. It jump-started what Marke Gibson, the FAA’s drone expert and a former Air Force general, calls “the most fundamental change in aviation in our lifetime.” With hundreds of thousands of new aircraft navigating increasingly crowded airspace, Lamm and Romero noticed there were alarmingly few ways to keep track of the errant ones. What’s more, the radar tracking systems that did exist could rarely distinguish between large birds and drones, a problem similar to what they had encountered on the highway in Idaho. Seeing an opportunity to cash in on an emerging market, Romero and Lamm founded Black Sage in July of 2014 to adapt their wildlife-detection system to the new and more urgent problems posed by drones. The adaptation wasn’t as simple as taking their existing radar and camera equipment and pointing it skyward, though: Romero and Lamm had to write new software to process the everchanging latitude, longitude, and altitude of an incoming target, all while taking into account the curvature of the Earth. Lamm wrote “slew-to-cue” algorithms so that whenever the radar picked up an incoming object, it would engage the camera, which then would track the object at a nearcontinuous 30 times per second. Later he and Romero added an infrared camera to detect the differential heat patterns between drones and the surrounding air.
Existing radar tracking systems could rarely distinguish between large birds and drones.
They headed to the scrubby hills above Boise to train the software, aiming the camera and radar at drones as well as the birds riding the thermals and the waterfowl in the wetlands below. For the drones and the birds, the system would measure acceleration, speed, heading, crosssection, surface area, whether the object had moving wings or propellers, and hundreds of other factors. “We didn’t have to know what makes these differences” between drones and other ﬂying objects, Romero says. “The AI ﬁgured it out.” By the summer of 2015 they had a system that could reliably detect an incoming drone about half a kilometer away, identify it, and stay locked on it regardless of evasive maneuvers. It was a breakthrough for them and a potential resource for anyone interested in keeping tabs on nearby drones. When the college security official invited Lamm and Romero to demo their system during the simulated nerve gas attack, he saw ﬁrsthand how the Black Sage system could track a drone. He also learned there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it.
YOU’D THINK SHOOTING
one down would be the easiest way to do it. After all, in 2015 a guy in Kentucky, pissed off that a drone was hovering over his property, grabbed his shotgun and shot the damn thing out
of the sky. Simple enough. But it threw him into a thicket of legal trouble that he couldn’t escape for months. Under FAA rules, drones are considered aircraft: It’s just as illegal to shoot at one as it is to shoot at a Piper Cub, if for no other reason than you can’t control where (or on what or whom) a falling drone will land. The government has taken steps to prevent people from doing dumb things with their drones: Last summer the FAA released licensing and registration rules to compel drone buyers to learn how to ﬂy responsibly. Drone manufacturers have taken actions too, integrating no-fly zones into the aircrafts’ GPS systems. Both measures are easy to get around, though, which explains why the FAA receives more than 100 reports per month of drones ﬂying near aircraft—more than triple the rate it was seeing in 2014. No one knows what would happen if a drone got sucked into a jet engine, although computer simulations at Virginia Tech suggest that it would rip apart the engine’s fan blades in less than 0.005 second. T h e p ro b l e m go e s w e l l beyond aircraft. The Pentagon, spurred by reports that ISIS is using drones for surveillance and bomb delivery, has requested $20 million for antidrone research. Recently the Federal Bureau of Prisons
Every prison, every airport, every stadium: Everybody is now worried about drones. MAR 2017
posted a request for information on how to equip penitentiaries with antidrone systems (the better to stop drones from dropping contraband into prison yards). “Every prison, every airport, every facility with sensitive equipment outdoors, stadiums, amusement parks, racetracks … everybody is now worried about drones,” says James Williams, an aviation specialist at the international law ﬁrm Dentons. In short, what used to be a twodimensional security problem— stopping intruders at ground level—has now become a threedimensional one, as security breaches can come from above. With US sales expected to triple over the next three years, drones are democratizing the air to an unprecedented degree, and Black Sage is only one of a handful of companies trying to solve the problem. One of the more promising, if ﬂawed, systems in the works comes from British company OpenWorks Engineering, which has produced a bazooka-like device called SkyWall 100 that physically captures a drone with a net; the system won a recent competition for drone defense in urban areas, but it’s not effective much beyond 100 meters. In Holland, police have experimented with using eagles to attack drones, but they haven’t ﬁgured out how to protect the birds’ feet from the spinning blades, and the raptors have to be trained for months. In the fall of 2015, in their own first attempt to counter a drone, Lamm and Romero rigged a couple of ultra-highpowered spotlights to one of their tripods. When a drone approached, radar would detect it, cameras would track it, and with the touch of a button, 12 million candlepower of light would blind the drone and disable its video and espionage
capabilities. It worked well at night, but when they demo’d the system for a customer in the Middle East, the desert sun rendered the lights useless against attacking drones. Shortly after the high-wattage experiment, Romero went to an international security conference in Dubai in early 2016, where he met the owner of a company that makes radio jammers to protect armored vehicles in war zones. IEDs are often triggered by radio waves—via
controller, which would cause the drone to return home or settle to the ground. A similar outcome would occur if you jammed the GPS frequency or what’s called the low-frequency L-band. Frequency jamming is an elegant solution that doesn’t involve shotguns or trained animals, but it comes at a cost. Because these are public frequencies, jamming them disables other common electronic devices in the area, such as Wi-Fi, wireless home phones,
NET BAZOOKAS AND ATTACK EAGLES Black Sage is one of a handful of companies trying to ﬁnd solutions to the problem of errant drones. Here are some of the more successful—and problematic—technologies.
Wi-Fi or cell phone—and the company had produced a device that, mounted on a Humvee, broadcasted jamming signals at a broad range of frequencies in all directions. This got Romero and Lamm thinking about how frequency jamming could apply to their own efforts: Consumer drones are controlled through the public part of the radio spectrum (either 2.4 or 5.8 GHz). Blasting radio waves at those speciﬁc frequencies—jamming them—makes a drone deaf to its
SkyTracker CACI, Arlington, Virginia This system creates an electronic boundary around vulnerable areas that can detect a drone’s signal and triangulate it back to the source. A security team can then direct police to the transmitter to shut it down. It doesn’t violate antijamming regulations, but it does run afoul of antiwiretapping and computerhacking laws.
and even garage door openers. Jamming GPS signals is even more dangerous—it can interfere with emergency responders and airplane-guidance systems. That is why jamming radio frequencies and GPS signals is illegal in the US. Still, Romero and Lamm thought that if they could jam only those frequency bands most commonly used in drone communication—and if they could limit their jamming to objects at which they have aimed their system—they
could minimize the disruption to surrounding radio and GPS communications. Since they couldn’t legally experiment near their headquarters in Boise, Romero ﬂew to the Middle East to test out frequency jammers. After two and a half months of trial and error, Romero and Lamm created a new system that could bring down a drone with minimal impact on surrounding radio and GPS operations. Despite knowing that they couldn’t market it in
SkyWall 100 OpenWorks Engineering, Riding Mill, England OpenWorks’ bazooka-like device shoots a 1.7-pound bullet at the drone. The projectile releases a net (with a parachute) that captures the drone and ﬂoats it to the ground. The only hitch is that it’s not effective beyond 100 meters.
Mesmer Department 13, Columbia, Maryland Radio receivers detect a drone’s control signals. The system analyzes their structure, then sends out its own commands to take control of the craft. Like SkyTracker, there aren’t any issues with frequency jamming, but Mesmer can run counter to wiretapping and computerhacking laws.
their home country, Romero and Lamm pressed forward. “I know I’m going to regret saying this, but our thought process was, who cares about the States?” Lamm says. “We’ve got a $100 million customer in a hot, sandy place who doesn’t care about the FCC, and we have a solution they’ll love—so let’s do it.” Lamm and Romero are understandably vague about where they test and sell their equipment overseas. There’s a spyversus-spy element to the
business, and you’re ahead of the game if your adversaries don’t know that you can counter their drone attack. A few times over several months, they called and updated me with their latest test results, and with each new dispatch they described various improvements and setbacks. Last summer I ﬁnally got a chance to see the Black Sage system for myself. On a remote hillside, I sat with Romero and Lamm inside a trailer set up as a command center. The drone-
Guard From Above Holland Since 2015 police in Holland have been training eagles to intercept drones. A squad of 100 Dutch police officers is currently working with the birds, which are expected to go into action this summer.
tracking gear consisted of two tripods: One held a cluster of eight Doppler radars resembling white iPads and, above them, the hi-def and infrared cameras; the other held the jammers—three white cylinders the size of paper towel tubes. An assistant launched the quadcopter and ﬂew it beyond eyesight, maybe a kilometer away. Moments after launch a white dot appeared on the radarconnected monitor. A readout conﬁrmed that the object was
a drone. Instantly the cameras locked onto it; and when Lamm zoomed in with the hi-def camera, we could see the quadcopter’s body and rotors. Lamm and Romero shot commands back and forth like a pilot and copilot. “Buzzer on,” Romero hollered. Lamm ﬂipped a switch. A jammer emitted a storm of radio waves, blocking the control signal and paralyzing the aircraft. “Buzzer off!” Romero commanded, and the drone resumed the attack. “Buzzer on,” and it froze again. This time they kept the jammer engaged, and the drone settled to the ground. Since then Lamm and Romero have updated their system yet again. A recent version, tested for an Asian counterterrorism unit last September, established a zoned system with a series of potential responses. If a drone approached within a certain distance of a prohibited zone, the system would jam its Wi-Fi and sever its connection to its controller. If the drone kept coming, that would mean it had been programmed to attack, and at that point the system would jam its GPS frequencies. “With zero human intervention, our system detected and identiﬁed the drone and took it down to the ground,” Romero says. “At that point, it was handshakes, smiles, and a happy customer.” Though the Black Sage jammer includes a narrow-beam antenna to minimize frequency disruptions in the surrounding area, Romero and Lamm concede that using the latest version of their system in a crowded urban area could cause hundreds of businesses to lose their Wi-Fi for up to 30 seconds. It’s not something Lamm would use casually, even if the FCC allowed it. “It all depends on the threat level,” he says. “If you see a drone headed for an airport right now,” it’d be worth the risk of knocking out the surrounding Wi-Fi.
It also depends on the environment. Lamm says he’d be comfortable using his system at an airport far from the city center or a stadium on the outskirts of town. Another good example, he says, is what Utah legislators had in mind last year when they passed a law that allows incident commanders at wildﬁres to use frequency jamming to neutralize any drones interfering with their work. The law is so new that it hasn’t been tested yet: Legal experts wonder what the FCC will do when an incident occurs, perhaps in the next ﬁre season. (The FCC wouldn’t comment on Black Sage or the issue of frequency jamming.) Meanwhile, the FAA is hosting biweekly meetings with the FCC and other threeletter agencies to work out standards for what kind of antidrone systems can be developed and under what conditions they can be safely deployed. “The major issue is not just the technology, but the application of technology in a civil environment,” says Gibson, the FAA’s drone man. “We’ve never been in this position before; it’s the new frontier.” Romero, Lamm, and others in their young industry hope that any new regulations will include a variance for emergency jamming. “I don’t think this is going to become real until we experience a catastrophe,” Romero says. Which would sound more cynical if he hadn’t witnessed a hundred kids pretending to die in a football stadium. Everyone then knew a drone was coming. The next time might be different.
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T h e n e ws m e d i a i s i n t r o u b l e . The advertising-driven business model is on the brink of collapse. Trust in the press is at an all-time low. And now those two long-brewing concerns have been joined by an even larger existential crisis. In a post-fact era of fake news and ﬁlter bubbles, in which audiences cherry-pick the information and sources that match their own biases and dismiss the rest, the news media seems to have lost its power to shape public opinion. ¶ It’s worth remembering, though, that as recently as 30 years ago, people worried that the press had entirely too much power. In 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published a book called Manufacturing Consent, which argued that the US media puts a straitjacket on national discussion. The news, they argued, was determined by the small handful of media corporations capable of reaching a mass audience—a huge barrier to entry that kept smaller, independent voices out of the conversation. The corporations’ business model relied on national-brand advertisers, which tended to not support publications or stories they found controversial or distasteful. And journalists relied on the cooperation of high-ranking sources, a symbiotic relationship that prevented the press from publishing anything too oppositional. As a result, Chomsky and Herman wrote, “the raw material of news must pass through successive ﬁlters, leaving only the cleansed residue ﬁt to print.” The result was a false national consensus, one that ignored outlying facts, voices, and ideas.
In the three decades since Herman and Chomsky leveled their critique, almost every aspect of the news industry has changed. National-brand advertising has given way to automated exchanges that place ads across thousands of sites, regardless of their content. Politicians no longer need to rely on journalists to reach their audiences but instead can speak to voters directly on Twitter. In fact, the ability to reach a national audience now belongs to everyone. There is nothing to prevent fringe ideas and arguments from entering the informational bloodstream— and nothing to stop them from spreading. These developments have upended the business logic that once pushed journalists toward middle-of-the-road consensus. When there were only three national news broadcasts, each competed to attract the broadest audience and alienate as few potential viewers as possible. But with inﬁnite news sources, audiences follow the outlets that speak most uniquely to their interests, beliefs, and emotions. Instead of appealing to the broad center of American political opinion, more news outlets are chasing passionate niches. As media theorist Clay Shirky says, they can’t rely on captive viewers but always have to hunt down new ones, “recruiting audiences rather than inheriting them.” These trends have been in place since the dawn of the internet, but they were supercharged over the past couple of years as social media—and especially Facebook— emerged as a major news source. Media professionals’ already-eroding power to steer the national conversation has largely vanished. Before social media, a newspaper editor had the ﬁnal say as to which stories were published and where they appeared. Today, readers have usurped that role. An editor can publish a story, but if nobody shares it, it might as well never have been written. 0
The News in Crisis
We have gone from a media business model that manufactures consent to one that manufactures dissent.
If readers are the new publishers, the best way to get them to share a story is by appealing to their feelings—usually not the good ones. A recent paper in Human Communication Research found that anger was the “key mediating mechanism” determining whether someone shared information on Facebook; the more partisan and enraged someone was, the more likely they were to share political news online. And the stories they shared tended to make the people who read them even more furious. “You need to be radical in order to gain market share,” says Sam Lessin, a former vice president of product management at Facebook. “Reasonableness gets you no points.” In other words, we have gone from a business model that manufactures consent to one that manufactures dissent—a system
The Decline in News Jobs The number of Americans whose job it is to “inform the public about news and events … for newspapers, magazines, websites, television, and radio” has decreased by nearly 10 percent over the past decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The next 10 years aren’t looking any better.
that pumps up conﬂict and outrage rather than watering it down. This sounds dire. Heck, it is dire. But the answer is not to pine for the days when a handful of publications deﬁned the limits of public discourse. That’s never coming back, and we shouldn’t want it to. Instead, smart news operations, like the ones proﬁled in these pages, are ﬁnding new ways to listen and respond to their audiences—rather than just telling people what to think. They’re using technology to create a fuller portrait of the world and ﬁguring out how to get people to pay for good work. And the best of them are indeed creating really, really good work. As the past 30 years of press history shows, everything changes. Great journalism helps us understand how and why things change, and we need that now more than ever.
The Generation Gap The younger the consumer, the more dramatic the shift away from traditional news outlets. Here’s the percentage of each age group who say they often get news from … RELATED PODCAST
*BLS projection: “Declining advertising revenue … will negatively impact the employment growth.”
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Keeping Up With the
How the Gray Lady is trying to claw its way
into the digital future.
The News in Crisis
photographs by Jam es Day
A. G. Sulzberger, the deputy publisher of The New York Times and the driving force behind the companyâ€™s digital reinvention.
Arthur Gregg Sulzberger doesn’t remember the ﬁrst time he visited the family business. He was young, he says, no older than 6, when he shuffled through the brass-plated revolving doors of the old concrete hulk on 43rd Street and boarded the elevator up to his father’s and grandfather’s offices. He often visited for a few minutes before taking a trip to the newsroom on the third ﬂoor, all typewriters and moldering stacks of paper, and then he’d sometimes go down to the subbasement to take in the oily scents and clanking sounds of the printing press. This was the early ’80s, when The New York Times was nothing but ink on paper and was printed in the same building where the journalism was created. His memories are hazy, perhaps because he’s 36 now and it was a long time ago, and perhaps because that building, like the Times, was always just there, a fact of life. 0
The Times building is still there, except it’s not the Times building anymore. It’s been sold off and sliced up, and the top two ﬂoors are presently occupied by Snapchat, while the bottom two were bought by Kushner Companies, the family business of Jared Kushner, son-in-law extraordinaire of Donald J. Trump. A few blocks—but more like a century—away from that old building, Sulzberger sits in his office in the newish glass-and-steel-lattice-encased headquarters of the Times. He looks the picture of a young tech executive—close-cropped hair, tortoiseshell glasses, considered stubble— and I ask him point-blank if he worries about whether The New York Times will ever cease to be a fact of life. “No,” he says, equally point-blank, which is exactly the party line one expects to hear from the deputy publisher of the Times—a recent appointment that put him next in line to lead the paper when the current publisher and chair, his father, retires. But there could be another reason for his conﬁdence. Sulzberger, like more than three dozen other executives and journalists I interviewed and shadowed at the Times, is working on the biggest strategic shift in the paper’s 165-year history, and he believes it will strengthen its bottom line, enhance the quality of its journalism, and secure a long and lasting future. The main goal isn’t simply to maximize revenue from advertising—the strategy that keeps the lights on and the content free at upstarts like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vox. It’s to transform the Times’ digital subscriptions into the main engine of a billion-dollar business, one that could pay to put reporters on the ground in 174 countries even if (OK, when) the printing presses stop forever. To hit that mark, the Times is embarking on an ambitious plan inspired by the strategies of Netﬂix, Spotify,
and HBO: invest heavily in a core offering (which, for the Times, is journalism) while continuously adding new online services and features (from personalized fitness advice and interactive newsbots to virtual reality ﬁlms) so that a subscription becomes indispensable to the lives of its existing subscribers and more attractive to future ones. “We think that there are many, many, many, many people—millions of people all around the world—who want what The New York Times offers,” says Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor. “And we believe that if we get those people, they will pay, and they will pay greatly.” How they reach those people, and how they make them pay, is now the work of hundreds of journalists, designers, engineers, data scientists, and product managers. At stake isn’t just the future of a very old newspaper that has seen its advertising revenue cut in half in less than a decade—it’s the still unresolved question of whether high-impact, high-cost journalism can thrive in a radically changing landscape. Newspaper companies today employ 271,000 fewer people than they did in 1990—around the population of Orlando—and with fewer journalists working with fewer resources, and more Americans getting their news on platforms where the news could very well be fake, the ﬁnancial success of the Times isn’t an incidental concern for people who care about
GABRIEL SNYDER (@gabrielsnyder) is an
editor and writer living in Brooklyn.
SPOT ILLUSTRATION: MARTIN GEE
The News in Crisis
The ﬁnancial success of the Times isn’t an incidental concern for people who care about journalism. It’s existential, especially in the context of the new American president.
Completed in 2007, the current home of The New York Times is a few blocks (but more like a century away) from the old headquarters.
had surged at 10 times their usual rate. To Thompson, the likeliest explanation wasn’t that the Times did a bang-up job covering the ﬁnal days of the election—like everyone else, they failed to anticipate Trump’s victory—or that readers were looking to hedge against fake news. He suggests a simpler reason: “I think the public anxiety to actually have professional, consistent, properly funded newsrooms holding politicians to account is probably bigger than all of the other factors put together.” In other words, the president’s hostility to the press and the very notion of facts themselves seems to have reminded people that nothing about The New York Times—or the kind of journalism it publishes—is inevitable.
journalism. It’s existential, especially in the context of the new American president. Just days after the election, Trump suggested that the Times—or, per his preferred Twitter epithet, “the failing @nytimes”— would be a frequent target of his administration, calling an article “dishonest” for citing something he had said on CNN (which was
odd, since he did actually say it, in public, on video) and adding (also falsely) that the Times “is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage.” In fact, it’s been the exact opposite: Four weeks after the election, Times chief executive Mark Thompson told an industry conference that subscriptions
On May 25, 1994, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., who had stepped down as publisher of the Times two years prior but was still the company’s chair, was delivering a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, and turned to the burgeoning “information highway.” He didn’t like it much. “Far from resembling a modern interstate,” he predicted, it “will more likely approach a roadway in India: chaotic, crowded, and swarming with cows.” That same day, back in New York City, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who succeeded his father as publisher (which he remains to this day), was also giving a speech about technological change. “If they want it on CD-ROM, I’ll try to meet that need. The inter-
Sulzberger realized that the BuzzFeed leak had turned an administrative white paper into a media rallying cry. “You couldn’t read the Innovation Report and think that the status quo was an option. It’s not should we change, it’s how do we change.”
net? That’s ﬁne with me,” he said. “Hell, if someone would be kind enough to invent the technology, I’ll be pleased to beam it directly into your cortex.” It was a line the young publisher liked to repeat. “He said that in my job interview,” says Martin Nisenholtz, who was hired in 1995 as the original architect of the Times’ digital strategy. “Arthur’s notion was that these technologies were principally delivery systems for Times journalism.” When NYTimes.com launched on January 22, 1996, it was updated once a day with stories from the print edition. Like most everything then, it was free to read for anyone in the US with a dial-up connection. Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, who goes by Arthur but is known as A.G. around the Times, was 16 at the time, and the bulk of what happened next in journalism—the rise of blogs, social media, podcasts, and mobile; the fall of print circulation, advertising, and prestige—happened while he was
learning how to be a journalist. He graduated from Brown with a degree in political science in 2003 and started writing for The Providence Journal and The Oregonian before joining the Times as a metro reporter in 2009. The ﬁnancial crisis that coincided with his homecoming so damaged the Times’ advertising revenue that many started to speculate about when the Times would go bankrupt. Though digital advertising increased from an asterisk in ﬁnancial reports to well over $100 million between 2005 and 2010, it wasn’t nearly enough to offset the $600 million loss in print advertising over the same period. The Times managed to survive through savvy ﬁnancial maneuvering—taking out a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in exchange for what is now a 17 percent stake in the company; selling its gleaming Renzo Piano–designed Manhattan headquarters and leasing it back from the buyer; shed-
The Business Section 2000
The sources of revenue at the Times have shifted dramatically in the 21st century.
Digital Subscription OTHER
ding assets like About.com and a stake in the Boston Red Sox—but its continued existence was no longer a foregone conclusion. “The former Times executive editor Abe Rosenthal often said he couldn’t imagine a world without the Times,” one critic wrote in The Atlantic. “Perhaps we should start.” Over the next few years, ﬁnding new digital revenue became the Times’ top business priority, and in 2014, Sulzberger, by then an editor on the metro desk, was tasked with overseeing an internal assessment of the paper’s digital efforts to date. The result was a 97-page document known as the Innovation Report, which found that editors too often said no to programmers and product designers from the technology group. “The newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes,” read the report, “prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’ ” Initially intended for only a handful of senior managers, most Times employees ﬁrst learned of the report from a grainy photocopy that was leaked to BuzzFeed; one employee said they cried when they ﬁrst read it because, as Harvard’s Nieman Lab reported, “it surfaced so many issues about Times culture that digital types have been struggling to overcome for years.” The BuzzFeed leak was devastating for Sulzberger—“a moment of panic,” he says. “We had written a pretty frank and candid document expressly for a small group of leaders of this organization, and suddenly it felt like our dirty laundry was being aired.” Even worse: It was a Sulzberger, of the Sulzbergers, doing the airing. Still, he realized within a few days that the public scrutiny had turned an administrative white paper into a media rallying cry. “You couldn’t read that report and think that the status quo was 0
The News in Crisis
1. With its open floor plan, the third-story newsroom is home to much of the Times’ vast reporting operation. 2. On the ninth floor, where the Beta Group works, each new app, blog, and vertical under development has its own conference room lined with whiteboards, diagrams, mock-ups, and Post-it notes.
an option. Once it’s clear that that is not an option, then the conversation all of a sudden becomes much more productive. It’s not should we change, it’s how do we change.” The privileging of print journalism over the web, the sclerotic approach to change, the lack of coordination between the growing number of digital disciplines and specialists—Sulzberger and his team laid it all bare, lighting a digital-first fuse that still burns today. “It’s not like I’m the first person who came into this newsroom and said, ‘Social media is something that needs to be accounted for in our future,’ ” Sulzberger says. “But it wasn’t until the Innovation Report that those points really landed.” The Innovation Report was also the first time that most people outside of the Times had ever heard of Sulzberger, though Times watchers had for several years pitted him against two of his cousins—David Perpich and Sam Dolnick, an executive and an editor at the Times, respectively—as a leading candidate for the publisher’s job when Sulzberger’s father eventually retired. Public scrutiny has been, by all appearances, uncomfortable for Sulzberger. He started his career at a time when snarky newsroom chatter found a public outlet on blogs and social media, and his reaction to that unwanted attention was to recoil from many of the digital platforms that are second nature to his peers. He has no public presence on Facebook or Twitter, which Sulzberger can get a little defensive about—he was promoted to management in 2015 to help implement the recommendations of the Innovation Report, and he knows there’s an easy joke to be made about how the person charged with leading the Times into a digital future has never liked, tweeted, or snapped. When I ask him how he knows what he knows about these new platforms, he says, “I’m not active on social
Highlights From the New New York Times media; I am a student of it,” and waves an arm at a wall of his office covered in dozens of color printouts of pie charts, tables, line graphs full of digital metrics—proprietary information that he asked remain off the record. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the trends that are reshaping our industry. I spend a lot of time talking to people on the front line of those trends,” he tells me, “and a big part of my job is making sense of that.”
T The Times is a big organization, with about 1,300 journalists, and management has created a number of task forces to workshop new approaches to reporting and storytelling. One committee, the 2020 Group, studied the newsroom for a year, and its report, published in January, detailed how Times journalism should evolve over the next three years. (Among the recommendations: Greater emphasis on visuals, greater variety of formats and voices. They also announced that the Times would be introducing an alternative metric to pageviews that would “measure an article’s value to attracting and retaining subscribers.”) Another division, Story[X], was created last spring to experiment with emerging technology like machine learning and translation. And then there is the Beta Group, which has become a hub for most of the Times’ digital initiatives. Beta was launched by Sulzberger’s 39-year-old cousin, Perpich, who, after working at two tech startups out of college, helped launch a
DJ training school called Scratch Academy. He went on to Harvard Business School for an MBA and landed at Booz & Company as a management consultant. When he joined the family business in 2010 as an executive director for paid products, he and his team oversaw the rollout of the paywall that for the ﬁrst time required people to shell out cash for full and regular access to NYTimes .com. The project has become the Times’ biggest business success of late. Five years on, more than 1.5 million people pay more than $200 million every year for a subscription. Even with the success of the paywall, though, “it’s a very, very steep uphill battle to simply sell people on the idea of buying one more news story,” Kinsey Wilson, the Times’ executive vice president for product and technology, admitted at a conference last year. He later told me: “I believe that the only way you create value is if you’re able to bundle various services together.” Which is where the members of the Beta Group come in. They’re tasked with developing a new suite of editorial products (apps, blogs, verticals) that, in the way of expensive original programming on HBO and Netﬂix, keep existing subscribers coming back and new subscribers coming in. Central to Perpich’s original vision was having Beta’s product people work alongside designers, developers, and—most radically for the Times—editors. No one on Beta has an office; instead, each product is assigned its own conference room lined with whiteboards covered in colorful diagrams, design mock-ups, and Post-it notes where members of the team immerse themselves in what they are trying to build. In addition to Cooking and Crossword— two of the original Beta apps—the group is now working on Real Estate, an app for home listings; Well, a health and ﬁtness blog the group wants to turn into a suite of per-
Five recent standouts from the Times’ multimedia expansion. NYT POLITICS BOT An AI-powered chatbot deployed for the 2016 election. Subscribers could type in questions and the bot would offer up-tothe-minute polling data and analysis. STILL PROCESSING A weekly podcast from Wesley Morris and (WIRED alum) Jenna Wortham about the intersection of pop culture and public policy. THE FIGHT FOR FALLUJA An 11-minute VR ﬁlm from the Pulitzer Prize– winning video journalist Ben Solomon. Viewers “embed” with Iraqi soldiers battling to retake the city from ISIS. PUZZLE MANIA A special printonly section in the Sunday Times last December. It contained the “MegaPuzzle,” a 728-clue crossword that was the largest ever created for the Times. RACE/RELATED A weekly email newsletter with features and essays on race and ethnicity in America.
The News in Crisis
PHOTOGRAPHS: RYAN PFLUGER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES (STILL PROCESSING); COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES (PUZZLE MANIA, FALLUJA)
Times reporter Michael Barbaro, who also just launched a daily audio briefing, provides insider commentary for political junkies.
sonalized training and advice services; and Watching, a vertical dedicated to TV and movie recommendations. The newest addition to Beta was an acquisition: In October, The New York Times paid $30 million for The Wirecutter, a gadget review site. (In a show of conﬁdence in the deal, Perpich stepped back from the Beta Group earlier this year to become general manager of The Wirecutter.) “Working hour by hour, day by day, with software developers and designers and product managers—to me that was a real revolution, a kind of epiphany,” says Clifford Levy, who won two Pulitzers at the Times before being promoted to the assistant managing editor overseeing digital platforms. “This is standard operating procedure in Silicon Valley, but it was radical here.” And the radical shift was felt, and heard, throughout the newsroom. “It is not incorrect for me to say that I had no idea what people were talking about in my ﬁrst couple months,” says Sam Sifton, the Times’ food editor, who started working with the Beta Group to launch the Cooking app back in 2013. “‘We can iterate on that.’ What? We spoke different languages, different cultures.” Still, Sifton has embraced his new digital mission,
agreeing this past November to host a text message experiment called “Turkey Talk” to help cooks with their Thanksgiving dinners. This shift toward personality-driven personal service echoes an earlier chapter in Times history, when, in the 1970s, the paper rolled out an array of advertiser-friendly sections like Weekend, Home, and Living. The goal, according to then-executive-editor Abe Rosenthal, was to ﬁgure out “ways that would get more revenue, more readers.” Just as those new sections were greeted with howls of derision both inside and outside the paper—James Reston, a Times elder statesman, said, “It goes against my original concept of what the Times ought to be”—today’s emphasis on news-youcan-use (“What We Know and Don’t Know About the Trump-Russia Dossier,” “15 Ways to Be a Better Person”) has provoked accusations of clickbait. To Jill Abramson, who ran the newsroom between 2011 and 2014 (and whose ﬁring was, as ﬁrings go, public and acrimonious), the choice between publishing quality journalism and clickbait is a false one. “In my years, I used to laugh that everything you agreed to in terms of lighter or more advertising-friendly content would be
because we needed that advertising revenue to support the Baghdad Bureau,” she says. “So if a certain audience wants lighter content, they can click on it. If others don’t want it, there’s still plenty of great international or investigative reporting at the Times.” In the 2020 Report, the authors announced that management would be dedicating an additional $5 million every year to its presidential coverage. They also wrote that service journalism like “15 Ways to Be a Better Person” is essential to attracting new online readers. For the Times to grow, they argued, there must be room for both.
T “There’s this fashion for media companies to call themselves technology companies,” says Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine. “Our job isn’t to make technology. Our job is to ﬁgure out how to use technologies.” Or, as Sam Dolnick puts it: “We’re not going to create augmented reality. We’re going to ﬁgure out how to use that in a journalistic way.” Which is to say, a “Timesian” way, a shorthand you frequently hear for what the Times can and cannot do in the interest of protecting its exalted status (and nowhere is it more exalted than within the Times itself). What Timesian means or doesn’t mean often depends on who’s deﬁning it, but it’s typically in the same general neighborhood as authoritative, or maybe stuffy. Editors are infamous for their lengthy divinations on 0
1. David Perpich, former head of the Beta Group, is now general manager of gadget site The Wirecutter.
3. Meredith Kopit Levien, chief revenue officer, is managing the ongoing transition from an advertisingdriven business model to subscription-ﬁrst.
2. Alex MacCallum oversees the Times’ video strategy (including its Facebook Live experiments).
4. Sam Dolnick, an associate editor, spearheads innovation in the newsroom, from AI bots to VR ﬁlms.
How Do You Take Your News?
The Pew Research Center recently asked Americans whether they prefer to watch, read, or listen to the news. Here’s what they said.
46% READ IT
35% HEAR IT
17% WHAT’S NEWS?*
*Actual answer: “No answer.”
The News in Crisis
5. Kinsey Wilson, executive VP for product and technology, oversees the hundreds of developers and engineers behind the Times’ digital expansion.
Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some inside the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at the endless waves of experimentation.
6. Dean Baquet, executive editor, has led the newsroom since 2014.
whether new headline styles are sufficiently Timesian, and, per the Innovation Report, nothing slowed down a new initiative more than when management deliberated on just how Timesian it was or wasn’t. It’s been Dolnick’s mission to drum up enthusiasm in the newsroom for testing out new applications, from VR to livestreaming, without worrying too much about the Timesian thing. After stints at the Staten Island Advance and the Associated Press, Dolnick started at the Times in 2009 as a metro reporter—the same year as his cousin A.G.—and wrote a prizewinning series on halfway houses before becoming a senior editor for mobile and then an associate editor. Inside the Times these days, he is known for the regular companywide email newsletter “Digital Highlights.” One such highlight: At the Olympics last summer, deputy sports editor Sam Manchester sent short, frequently humorous text messages to the 20,000 readers who had signed up for the service. One, which sparked a viral meme, was a photo of a lifeguard watching swimmers practice, with a caption: “You know who has the most useless job in Rio? She does. That’s right, they have lifeguards in case Olympic swimmers need saving.” “A generation ago, or even five years ago,” says Dolnick, “there’d be a lot of this Timesian stuff, ‘Oh, The New York Times doesn’t do that. We don’t make jokes in text messages.’ ” The audience responded, though, and Manchester buckled under the thousands of questions that readers texted him. That explains why, for its next engagement experiment with readers, the Times turned to artiﬁcial intelligence. Running up to the election, they created a Facebook Messenger chatbot that offered daily updates on the race in the voice of political reporter Nick Confessore. Running the 6.
backend was a tool created by Chatfuel that combined natural language parsing (so it could understand the questions posed to Confessore) with a conversation tree (so that the bot could respond to readers’ queries using prewritten answers). One of the biggest initiatives Dolnick has been involved in is virtual reality. He says it started with an email he sent to Silverstein last year: “Hey man, want to see something cool?” Dolnick had just visited a VR production company called Vrse (since renamed Within) and brought one of their ﬁlms, Clouds Over Sidra, into his office. The Times has since jumped into VR, partnering with Google to send its Cardboard VR viewers to all of its 1.1 million Sunday printedition subscribers, creating an NYT VR app that’s been downloaded more than 1 million times, and producing 16 (and counting) original ﬁlms about topics as varied as displaced refugees (The Displaced), ﬂoating movie stars (Take Flight), and battling ISIS in Iraq (The Fight for Falluja). It remains a working experiment. The ﬂoating movie stars, for example: “People liked it, it got pretty good views,” Silverstein says. “But it didn’t feel like we were advancing the ball. It had a little whiff of ‘Look at us. We have VR.’” Even as Sulzberger boasts, “We employ more journalists who can write code than any other news organization,” there are some at the Times—usually those who can’t write code—who chafe at these endless waves of experimentation. “When we’re told this is the new best practice, everyone marches in lockstep,” says one editor who asked to remain anonymous. “Facebook Live? Yep! Video? On it! The New York Times isn’t a place where people say no, and we’re ﬂat-out exhausted.” In March of 2016, Alex MacCallum, the Times’ senior vice president for video (and at the beginning CONTINUED ON PAGE 094
Attention Is Our Business
The news is a relentless 24/7 battle to grab eyeballs and achieve total domination. Here’s who’s winning.
There is a term for news organizations that predate the internet— legacy media—and you may have heard that they’re dying. But in researching who was watching and reading what at the end of 2016, one thing became clear: Some of the oldest voices in the news are still the biggest. Just the print issue of The New York Times reaches more people every day than the Huffington Post does, and the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC each have many millions more viewers than even the highest-trafficked news site. At least for now.
1 unit = 100,000 daily viewers
The New York Times has the greatest combined print and web audience, with 5.4 million readers, followed by USA Today (3.8 million) and The Washington Post (3.4 million).
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The News in Crisis
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within a week of having recorded it.
Wrote This Story
What The Washington Post’s journalism-generating software means for the future of news.
When Republican Steve King beat back Democratic challenger Kim Weaver in the race for Iowa’s 4th congressional district seat in November, The Washington Post snapped into action, covering both the win and the wider electoral trend. “Republicans retained control of the House and lost only a handful of seats from their commanding majority,” the article read, “a stunning reversal of fortune after many GOP leaders feared double-digit losses.” The dispatch came with the clarity and verve for which Post reporters are known, with one key difference: It was generated by Heliograf, a bot that made its debut on the Post’s website last year and marked the most sophisticated use of artiﬁcial intelligence in journalism to date. ¶ When Jeff Bezos bought the Post back in 2013, AI-powered journalism was in its infancy. A handful of companies with automated content-generating systems, like Narrative Science and Automated Insights, were capable of producing the bare-bones, data-heavy news items familiar to sports fans and stock analysts. But strategists at the Post saw the potential for an AI system that could generate explanatory, insightful articles.
What’s more, they wanted a system that could foster “a seamless interaction” between human and machine, says Jeremy Gilbert, who joined the Post as director of strategic initiatives in 2014. “What we were interested in doing is looking at whether we can evolve stories over time,” he says. After a few months of development, Heliograf debuted last year. An early version autopublished stories on the Rio Olympics; a more advanced version, with a stronger editorial voice, was soon introduced to cover the election. It works like this: Editors create narrative templates for the stories, including key phrases that account for a variety of potential outcomes (from “Republicans retained control of the House” to “Democrats regained control of the House”), and then they hook Heliograf up to any source of structured data—in the case of the election, the data clearinghouse VoteSmart.org. 0
The News in Crisis
Rise e of th sNew bots
ILLUSTRATIONS: 520 DESIGN (TOP), MARTIN GEE (BOTTOM)
Three identiﬁes the releThe Heliograf software AI-powered tools dpon res cor the h wit it es for journalists. tch vant data, ma s them, rge —G REG BA RB ER me te, pla tem the in ing phrases oss acr ns nt versio and then publishes differe WIBBITZ system can also e Th s. rm USA Today has tfo different pla malies it ano used this AI-driven any of ck Sla via ers alert report production softrma er tance, wid ﬁnds in the data—for ins ware to create short investican y the o —s ted videos. It can condic gins than pre get a tip” dense news articles to y wa re mo one t jus gate. “It’s into a script, string s. bert say on a potential scoop, Gil together a selection the project at h wit l goa in of images or video ma t’s The Pos w its audifootage, and even Gro st: Fir d. fol two is this point add narration with a ce ien aud ing a big ence. Instead of target synthesized newsintens ive orlab of er mb caster voice. nu all wit h a sm raf can tarliog He s, rie sto n itte human-wr NEWS TRACER with a huge numget many small audiences Reuters’ algorithhe or local nic ut abo ries sto d mic prediction tool ate ber of autom e audience helps journalists wid a be not y ma ere topics. Th gauge the integrity , 4th a Iow e for the for stories about the rac of a tweet. The tech , with local and ce, ien aud e scores emerging som is but there stories on the basis Post can tap the g, rin nde ﬂou s let news out of “credibility” and g hin ryt Eve t of the it. “It’s the Bezos concep “newsworthiness” CIO and VP h, kas Pra h iles by evaluating who’s Sha s Store,” say tweeting about it, ent at the Post. pm elo dev t duc pro of digital how it’s spreadto ne chi ma a need “But growing is where you ing across the nete that many hav ’t can we e work, and if nearby aus bec help you, users have taken to ” pt. kru ban go ’d We humans. Twitter to conﬁrm ess str to ns e pai Prakash and Gilbert tak or deny breaking er reportush to e her not is developments. tem that the sys brings them t tha d An . nce sce ole ers into obs BUZZBOT of Heliograf: Make to the second objective Originally cient. By removing designed to crowdthe newsroom more effi lrea and ge source reporting l covera tasks like incessant pol the Republi-
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(hu JOE KEO HA NE is a in New York City.
from can and Democratic National Conventions, BuzzFeed’s software collects information from on-the-ground sources at news events. BuzzBot has since been open-sourced, portending a wave of bot-aided reporting tools.
time election results from reporters’ plates, Heliograf frees them up to focus on the stories that actually require human thought. “If we took someone like Dan Balz, who’s been covering politics for the Post for more than 30 years, and had him write a story that a template could write, that’s a crime,” Gilbert says. “It’s a huge waste of his time.” So far, response from the Post newsroom has been positive. “We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings,” says Fredrick Kunkle, a Post reporter and cochair of the WashingtonBaltimore News Guild, which represents the Post’s newsroom. “But this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.” Consider the election returns: In November 2012, it took four employees 25 hours to compile and post just a fraction of the election results manually. In November 2016, Heliograf created more than 500 articles, with little human intervention, that drew more than 500,000 clicks. (A drop in the bucket for the Post’s 1.1 billion pageviews that month, but it’s early days.)
REL ATE D POD CAS T
Note to Self Whether analyzing the debate over Apple’s security or assessing a new device used by cops to see if motorists have been texting, this WNYC series offers a timely look at the tech industry.
Gilbert says the next ste p is to use Heliograf to keep the data in both machine- and hu ma n-w rit ten sto rie s up -to -da te. For ins tan ce, if som eon e sha res a Tu esd ay story on Thursday, and the facts change in the meantime, Heliog raf will automatically update the story wit h the most recent facts. Gilbert sees Heliog raf developing the potential to function like a rewrite desk, in which “the reporters wh o gather information write more discre te chunks—here’s some facts, here’s som e analysis—and let the system assemble the m.” With the rapid advanc es in AI technology dri ven by che ap com pu tin g po we r, Prakash sees Heliograf moving beyond mere grunt work. In time, he believes, it could do things like search the we b to see what people are talking about, che ck the Post to see if that story is being cov ered, and, if not, alert editors or just wr ite the piece itself. Of course, that’s where things could get sticky—when Facebo ok fired the human editors of its Trending module last year and let an algorithm curate the news, the world soon learned (falsely) that Megyn Kelly had been ﬁred from Fox News. “Will there be controversy when the bot thinks this is important, and humans say this is important, and they’re the exa ct opposite thing?” Prakash asks. “It’s going to get interesting.” The Post, like every oth er major news organization, is lookin g to tap new revenue streams, and it’s rep ortedly in talks to license out its CMS to clients like Tronc, a consortium that includ es the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Tim es, and dozens of other regional papers. As those newsrooms struggle with dwindling resources, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which AI plays a larger and larger role in creating journalism. Whether that’s good new s for journalists and readers is another story. 0
News Matters Behind the scenes at a media outlet for millennials of color.
Code Switch Five minority journalists confront thorny, occasionally uncomfortable issues of race and identity in NPR’s cathartic weekly show.
When Morgan DeBaun was a student at Washington University in St. Louis during the early Obama years, she and a handful of friends often found themselves at this one lunch table in a campus cafeteria. It was big and round, whereas the other tables in the cafeteria were long and rectangular, and it was perfect for the hours the group spent talking about what shows they were watching, what music they were listening to, and whatever was happening in the news or around campus. They were among the very few black students at the predominately white university, and the table became a place of both sanctuary and celebration. Over time, other black students would drift into their orbit and join the conversation. It almost felt like gravity—or what DeBaun came to think of as black gravity.
Carl Brooks Jr.
The News in Crisis
CARL BROOKS JR. is a writer in Los Angeles.
Diversity in the Press The percentage of nonwhite journalists in a few of the country’s biggest newsrooms. Miami Herald
Los Angeles Times
The Washington Post
The New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle
21% The Boston Globe
The Philadelphia Inquirer
14% The Denver Post
SPOT ILLUSTRATION: MARTIN GEE
The LA headquarters of three-year-old media and tech company Blavity.
That was six years ago, and today DeBaun is the CEO and cofounder of Blavity, a three-year-old media and tech company that’s been described as “BuzzFeed for black millennials.” With 17 full-time staffers in its LA offices, Blavity publishes articles with titles like “From Trayvon Martin to Alton Sterling: Tears That Never Dry” and “Why Atlanta Is the Most Authentically Modern Black Experience on TV Right Now.” At the core of the site is the sense of community DeBaun found at the round table. “Our audience likes to talk to each other,” she says. “You can’t just say, ‘Beyoncé released an album.’ They want to talk and argue about it. So how do we facilitate that engagement?” Part of her strategy is a reliance on user-generated content. Roughly 60 percent of the articles and videos on the site are submitted by readers, then edited by Blavity’s staff. To DeBaun, this isn’t just free content that invites readers into the editorial process—it’s journalism created by and for her target audience. “The people who make the best content on Instagram and Twitter are usually black,” she
Source: American Society of News Editors
says. “With Blavity we built a platform to showcase that creativity.” When a series of racist texts were sent to black students at the University of Pennsylvania after Donald Trump’s election victory, Blavity didn’t link to or rely on reporting from, say, The Philadelphia Inquirer (with its 86 percent white newsroom); it published “Reﬂecting on Racism at UPenn: A Call to Action From the Front Lines,” written by the director of the college’s Black Cultural Center and featuring on-the-ground, in-the-room-where-it-happened details about the incident and its aftermath. “Black people are being attacked at an institutional level,” DeBaun says. “Blavity having scale, and being able to distribute their stories, will be really powerful, especially now.” With the launch this past November of Afrotech, a summit in San Francisco for black people in tech, Blavity is expanding its reach into another community where, as in journalism, people of color remain painfully underrepresented. DeBaun and her growing team at Blavity have another future in mind. photograph by A ng ie Smith
Need Edward Snowden
America’s most wanted whistle-blower is helping to protect journalists from government snoops.
When Edward Snowden leaked the biggest collection of classified National Security Agency documents in history, he wasn’t just revealing the inner workings of a global surveillance machine. He was also scrambling to evade it. To communicate with the journalists who would publish his secrets, he had to route all his messages over the anonymity software Tor, teach reporters to use the encryption tool PGP by creating a YouTube tutorial that disguised his voice, and eventually ditch his comfortable life (and smartphone) in Hawaii to set up a cloak-and-dagger data handoff halfway around the world. ¶ Now, nearly four years later, Snowden has focused the next phase of his career on solving that very speciﬁc instance of the panopticon problem: how to protect reporters and the people who feed them information in an era of eroding privacy—without requiring them to have an NSA analyst’s expertise in encryption or to exile themselves to Moscow. “Watch the journalists and you’ll ﬁnd their sources,” Snowden says. “So how do we preserve that conﬁdentiality in this new world, when it’s more important than ever?”
Since early last year, Snowden has quietly served as president of a small San Francisco–based nonprofit called the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Its mission: to equip the media to do its job at a time when state-sponsored hackers and government surveillance threaten investigative reporting in ways Woodward and Bernstein never imagined. “Newsrooms don’t have the budget, the sophistication, or the skills to defend themselves in the current environment,” says Snowden, who spoke to w i r e d via encrypted video-chat from his home in Moscow. “We’re trying to provide a few niche tools to make the game a little more fair.” The group’s 10 staffers and a handful of contract coders, with Snowden’s remote guidance, are working to develop an armory of security upgrades for reporters. Snowden and renowned hacker Bunnie Huang have 0
The News in Crisis
ANDY GREENBERG (@a_greenberg)
wrote about Google subsidiary Jigsaw in issue 24.10.
How to Leak (and Not Get Caught)
ILLUSTRATIONS: 520 DESIGN (BOTTOM). MARTIN GEE (TOP)
A brief guide to becoming an anonymous source.
partnered to develop a hardware modification for the iPhone, designed to detect if malware on the device is secretly transmitting a reporter’s data, including location. They’ve recruited Fred Jacobs, one of the coders for the popular encryption app Signal, to help build a piece of software called Sunder; the tool would allow journalists to encrypt a trove of secrets and then retrieve them only if several newsroom colleagues combine their passwords to access the data. And the foundation’s coders are building a plug-and-play version of Jitsi, the encrypted video-chat software Snowden himself uses for daily communication. They want newsrooms to be able to install it on their own servers with a few clicks. “The idea is to make this all paint-by-numbers instead of teaching yourself to be Picasso,” Snowden says. But the foundation’s biggest coup has been SecureDrop, a Tor-based system for WikiLeaks-style uploads of leaked materials and news tips. The system has now been adopted by dozens of outlets, including The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. “It works. I know,” hinted a tweet from Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold the day after he published a leaked video of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault. Snowden’s own leaks have shown the dire need for the foundation’s work: In early 2015 he revealed that British spies had collected emails from practically every major newspaper and wire service. Other signs of encroaching state surveillance have also put journalists on guard. Late last year it emerged that Montreal police had tracked the phone calls and texts of a reporter in order to identify sources critical of the department. And in early January, before he had even taken office, Don-
ald Trump called on Congress to investigate a leak to NBC news—one that gave the network a sneak peek at an intelligence report on Russia’s role in inﬂuencing the US election. In the months since Trump’s victory, the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s phones “have been ringing off the hook” with requests from newsrooms for training sessions, says Trevor Timm, the foundation’s executive director. Snowden is quick to note it was the administration of President Obama, not Trump, that indicted him and at least seven others under the Espionage Act for leaking information to journalists. That’s more such indictments than all other presidents in history combined have issued. But Snowden and Timm worry that Trump, with his deepseated disdain for the media and the full powers of the US Justice Department at his ﬁngertips, will be only too happy to carry forward and expand that precedent. All of that makes the media’s technical protections from spying more important than ever. “We can’t ﬁx the surveillance problem overnight,” Snowden says. “But maybe we can build a shield that will protect anyone who’s standing behind it.” If the group succeeds, perhaps the next Snowden will be able to take refuge not in Moscow but in the encrypted corners of the internet.
WEB The anonymity network Tor obscures your identity by routing your online traffic through computers worldwide. Access it via the web-based Tor Browser to visit any site related to your planned contact with the press. Find a directory of the 35 or so news organizations that maintain SecureDrop portals—Torenabled inboxes for anonymous tips. Then choose an outlet and leak away. PHONE Buy a burner— a cheap, prepaid Android phone— with cash from a nonchain store in an area you’ve never been to before. Don’t carry your regular phone and the burner at the same time, and never turn on the burner at home or work. Create a Gmail and Google Play account from the burner, then install the encrypted calling and texting app Signal. When you’re done, destroy the burner and ditch its corpse far from home. SNAIL MAIL Pick a distant mailbox, don’t carry your phone on the trip, and—duh— don’t include a real return address.
The News in Crisis
Welcome to Veles, Macedonia,
photographs by Guy M artin
News Factory to the World.
The first article about Donald Trump that Boris ever published described how, during a campaign rally in North Carolina, the candidate slapped a man in the audience for disagreeing with him. This never happened, of course. Boris had found the article somewhere online, and he needed to feed his website, Daily Interesting Things, so he appropriated the text, down to its last misbegotten comma. He posted the link on Facebook, seeding it within various groups devoted to American politics; to his astonishment, it was shared around 800 times. That month—February 2016—Boris made more than $150 off the Google ads on his website. Considering this to be the best possible use of his time, he stopped going to high school. ¶ Boris isn’t his real name. He prefers the anonymity because he doesn’t want to break ranks with the other people in his town of Veles, in the Balkan nation of Macedonia. Nobody here wants to dwell on Trump anymore. 0
Veles has the feel of a small community clamming up out of a suspicion that it’s being talked about for all the wrong reasons. In the ﬁnal weeks of the US presidential election, Veles attained a weird infamy in the most powerful nation on earth; stories in The Guardian and on BuzzFeed revealed that the Macedonian town of 55,000 was the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites, many of them ﬁlled with sensationalist, utterly fake news. (The imminent criminal indictment of Hillary Clinton was a popular theme; another was the pope’s approval of Trump.) The sites’ ample trafﬁc was rewarded handsomely by automated advertising engines, like Google’s AdSense. An article in The New Yorker described how President Barack Obama himself spent a day in the ﬁnal week of the campaign talking “almost obsessively” about Veles and its “digital gold rush.” Within Veles itself, the young entrepreneurs behind these websites became subjects of tantalizing intrigue. Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites. The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371. Boris is 18 years old, a lean, slouching youth with gray eyes, hair mowed close to his skull, and the rudiments of a beard. When he isn’t smoking a cigarette, he’s lighting one. He listens to a lot of gangsta rap: the Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy, Wu-Tang Clan; after watching Notorious, the 2009 biopic of B.I.G., he decided he would like to visit Brooklyn, a New York City borough he imagines overrun more by gangsters than hipsters. He is an affable raconteur, with a droll sense of humor and a clear-eyed view of himself and his town. Someday he wants to leave Veles, because of how little there is to do. You can live with your parents and have them pay for your evenings in a bar, or
you can bus tables in a café. If you’re a gym rat, you might work security. A few factories on the outskirts of town still offer regular employment, but nothing lavish. “We can’t make money here with a real job,” Boris says. “This Google AdSense work is not a real job.” At best, Boris’ English is halting and fractured—certainly not good enough to turn out ﬁve to 10 articles about Trump and Clinton every day for weeks on end. Fortunately for him, the election summoned forth the energies of countless alt-right websites in the US, which manufactured white-label falsehoods disguised as news on an industrial scale. Across the spectrum of right-wing media—from Trump’s own concise lies on Twitter to the organized prevarication of Breitbart News and NationalReport.net— ideology beat back the truth. What Veles produced, though, was something more extreme still: an enterprise of cool, pure amorality, free not only of ideology but of any concern or feeling about the substance of the election. These Macedonians on Facebook didn’t care if Trump won or lost the White House. They only wanted pocket money to pay for things—a car, watches, better cell phones, more drinks at the bar. This is the arrhythmic, disturbing heart of the affair: that the internet made it so simple for these young men to ﬁnance their material whims and that their actions helped deliver such momentous consequences.
SAMANTH SUBRAMANIAN (@samanth_s)
is a Dublin correspondent for The National.
PANOS PICTURES; SPOT ILLUSTRATION: MARTIN GEE
The News in Crisis
Veles was once a town of modest glory, alive with industry. Its residents recall with perverse pride that, for a time, Veles was the second-most polluted town in the former Yugoslavia.
A moribund brick factory on the outskirts of Veles, Macedonia.
V Veles lies plumb in the center of Macedonia, on either side of the Vardar River, and its red-shingle-roofed buildings appear to be climbing the slopes of low knuckled hills. It was once a town of modest glory, turning out revolutionaries and intellectuals and alive with industry. One of its largest fac-
tories, a ceramic works named Porcelanka, employed 4,000 people. For a time, its residents recall with perverse pride, Veles was the second-most polluted town in the former Yugoslavia. After Macedonia became independent in 1991, though, Veles began to decline. The factories closed; the jobs evaporated. The local soccer team, FK Borec, won so infrequently that it was dropped from the ﬁrst division to the third. The town’s only movie theater folded a decade and a half ago. Its downtown withered. Briefly, in the mid2000s, the economy shook itself awake when a few men splashed around money they’d made selling heroin in Germany and
Austria, but the police soon broke up that drug ring and Veles returned to its state of morose dilapidation. For Boris, growing up here, Veles didn’t have much to offer. His father worked for the town as a plumber. Like other kids, Boris wandered around up near the old Ottoman clock tower or down by the river, loitering in one coffee bar after another. He played soccer but later discovered that he was more proﬁcient at the videogame version of the sport. He joined a Counter-Strike club: nine or 10 teenagers gathered in a room, sitting behind their laptops and shooting each other up. One day a couple of summers ago, Boris was walking to school when he saw a BMW 4
For a week in July, Boris experimented with fake news extolling Bernie Sanders. “Bernie Sanders supporters are among the smartest people I’ve seen,” he says. “They don’t believe anything.” Series parked by the side of the road. “What the fuck?” he thought. “My favorite car is in this town?” He asked around, but no one seemed to know who owned the BMW. Later, in a café, he met a Counter-Strike acquaintance named Aleksandar Velkovski. “Aleksandar, I saw this BMW 4,” Boris told him. Velkovski revealed that the car was his. He’d bought it, he said, with the money he made off his website. In Veles, Aleksandar and Borce Velkovski are so renowned for the health food website they started that they’re known as the Healthy Brothers. HealthyFoodHouse.com is a jumble of diet and beauty advice, natural remedies, and other nostrums. It gorges on advertising as it counsels readers to put a bar of soap under their bedsheets to relieve nightly leg cramps or to improve their redblood-cell count with homemade beet syrup. Somehow the website’s Facebook page has drawn 2 million followers; more than 10 million unique visitors come to HealthyFoodHouse.com every month. After seeing the BMW, Boris decided to start some websites of his own. He already knew there was money to be made off the
internet; for a while, when he was 17, he’d been one of the many peons around the world laboring online for MicroWorkers.com, earning something like a tenth of a cent for liking a YouTube video or leaving a comment. Now he bought a succession of domains from GoDaddy—GossipKnowledge.com, then Daily InterestingThings.com—built basic WordPress sites, and stuffed them with sports, celebrity, health, and political news, the articles all pilfered from elsewhere. (Boris pulls out his phone and logs into WordPress to show that he does, in fact, own the sites he mentions.) When the piece about Trump slapping a man turned briefly white-hot, he sensed the intrinsic viral potential in the American election and founded NewYorkTimesPolitics.com, a website that resembled The New York Times homepage and carried plagiarized articles on American politics. The Times sent Boris a cease-anddesist order; Boris received the email when
Reputable Sources Percentage of Americans who trust the information they get from … LOCAL NEWS
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
Source: Pew Research Center
The News in Crisis
Trumpcast 1. The Central Market in Veles. The townâ€™s economy declined throughout the 1990s after Macedonia gained its independence.
Psychiatrists, historians, and business experts weigh in on our unpredictable tweeter-in-chief in Slateâ€™s quasi-daily, somewhat snarky series.
2. An office at a local TV station, which broadcasts basketball and handball games.
The News in Crisis
Boris fed the beast with diligence. â€œAt night I would make four or five posts to share the next day. When I woke up, I shared them. I went to drink coffee, came back home, found new articles, posted those articles on the website, and shared them.â€?
Ceselkoski built seven or eight websites—all oriented toward the American reader. This made sense. In web-advertising terms, an American click is roughly three times more valuable than a non-American click.
1. Men gather in a garden shed for moonshine and winter caroling. Holding the mic is a resident who profited from political websites. 2. The same man shows the ad revenue he earns from his websites, which churn out (sometimes fake) content.
I went to drink coffee, came back home, found new articles, posted those articles on the website, and shared them. Then I went out with friends, came back home, found articles, and shared them to Facebook.” When his ad engines started to pay out, Boris bought himself things: new clothes, an Acer laptop to replace his old Toshiba, a vacation at a resort on Lake Ohrid. His phone carries a photographic record of the life he could briefly afford. “It was like: ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’” At one point, practically all of Boris’ friends had set up similar websites, and they all had money to blow. As a posse, they’d go to one of Veles’ three nightclubs—Tarantino or Club Avangard or Club Drama—and order $100 bottles of Moët to shake and spray. “I don’t drink champagne,” Boris says. “I bought it for spraying. All eyes on me!” It was nothing but the best for Boris. “Moët! Moët! Roberto Cavalli! Jack Daniel’s!” he says, making a gesture with his hand as if hailing a bartender. “It’s part of life. You must live once.” Boris still goes to the clubs, but he says he has lost his taste for expensive things. “It isn’t interesting anymore.” Which is just as well, because on November 24, after an erup tion of concern about the malign effects of fake news, Google suspended the ads from his websites. The last item Boris posted to USAPolitics.co was a poll that inquired: “Do you support immediate deportation of all criminal illegals?” In one of the Facebook groups where Boris shared the link, the post received 292 shares and 361 responses. It 2.
Making Fake News Pay 0
Here’s how advertisers follow you around the web—and how their money flows to fake news sites. —Davey alba
BRANDS used to designate exactly where they wanted their ads to appear. Now they increasingly rely on automated
advertising—a system that matches ads to anonymized profiles of consumers, based on data like what they have searched for.
The News in Crisis
looked like another blockbuster from USAPolitics.co. But then the Google ads van ished, so Boris lost interest and consigned his websites to the deep oblivion of the internet.
I In Macedonia, wringing money out of web advertising is a game that long predates Trump’s bid for the presidency—and will probably outlast it as well, despite Face book’s and Google’s postelection efforts to crack down. Mirko Ceselkoski began to play in the early 2000s. He built seven or eight websites—about muscle cars or celebri ties or superyachts, all oriented toward the American reader, because an American reader is roughly three times more valu able than a nonAmerican one. For five or six hours of daily toil, Ceselkoski says, you can earn approximately $1,000 a month. Many Macedonians can spare the time; the unemployment rate is around 24 percent. Ceselkoski turned to coaching in 2011— first with a sixweek classroom course in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, where he lives, and now online, in dense threeweek modules. For around $425, his students learn how to prepare, populate, and promote
AD TECH COMPANIES track consumers as they browse the internet, serving ads on any site they visit—provided it hasn’t been blacklisted.
their websites. A full third of the syllabus is dedicated to the mastery of Facebook. The Healthy Brothers once took Ceselkoski’s course. So did, in early 2016, a few members of the Veles squad who went on to operate proTrump sites. They surprised him. “I never instructed my students to write fake stories,” he says. “Maybe they discovered they could get away with this kind of prac tice and increase their virality.” He sounded like a delighted physics professor talking about how a pupil had stumbled upon a brandnew law of thermodynamics. After the election some of Ceselkoski’s students called him, panicking because Google had yanked its advertising without paying them all the money they had already earned. One young man, Ceselkoski says, believed he was owed more than $60,000. Ceselkoski was visiting Las Vegas around the time of the election, and Trump’s victory stunned him. He thought about the website operators in Veles. “It’s possible, maybe, they changed a few percentages.” Boris will have none of that. The socalled news he and his colleagues were filching was already on American websites, heating up the American bloodstream. How could their duplications of these articles, on their rinkydink websites, upset the election of such a powerful country? “If Americans wanted Hillary Clinton to win, Hillary Clin ton would have won. They voted for Donald Trump. Donald Trump won.” But now that everything has come to pass, Boris finds it difficult not to care about the result. “Some
WEBSITES that traffic in hardcore violence, hate speech, or pornography tend to get blacklisted, but sites with content that is less clearly objectionable
are often fair game. Which is why even sites publishing fake news can profit by hosting ads based on your browsing history.
crazy man has won the election. Maybe the guy will start World War III.” He sits in a coffee bar on a December afternoon, two days after a parliamentary election in Macedonia. Here too a minor pestilence of fake news swept through the campaigns. Websites run out of Serbia and Croatia alleged that the leftist opposition leader, Zoran Zaev, wanted to divide the country between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Voters got taken in; Zaev’s coali tion lost, narrowly. Boris feels disenchanted with the whole process. There is too much politics in life, he thinks. “People are fight ing each other. One brother is for one party, the other brother is for the other party, they argue.” He shakes his head. “The media is washing our brains, and the people are fol lowing like sheep.” Boris’ days are now consummately unoc cupied. Mostly, he and his friends convene in this coffee bar or in one of the others clus tered on the same street. They always pick a table on the veranda, despite the cold, so that they can smoke and smoke. They fiddle with their phones for about the same propor tion of time that they spend talking to one another. Boris hasn’t yet considered return ing to school, but he thinks, vaguely, that he wants to study coding and go on to work at a company like Microsoft or Apple. First, though, he wants to construct more web sites. Facebook and Google have unveiled new systems for screening out misinforma tion, but they’re not built for catching every lowlevel fib circulating around the internet. Boris won’t focus on political fake news, in all probability—but there are plenty of other topics of interest, plenty of websites from which to swipe content, and plenty of potential readers around the world who may click in sufficient numbers to finally buy him his BMW. �
SCENE STEALERS INSIDE THE DEEPLY NERDY—AND INSANELY EXPENSIVE— WORLD OF HOLLYWOOD PROP C O L L E C T I N G.
“Previous generations bought Renoirs and Cézannes,” Dan Lanigan says. “We’re buying stormtrooper helmets and Ghostbusters proton packs.” The burly TV producer is referring to his obsessive (and costly) pursuit of prop collecting. “This is the fine art of my generation.” ¶ It used to be an underground hobby. People did it, but nobody talked about it—not only because it was embarrassing to admit that you coveted Charlton Heston’s slave collar from Planet of the Apes but also because, since such things were studio property, it was illegal to own them. Shady studio insiders and a cabal of collectors struck deals in private. That all changed in 1970, when MGM cleared some clutter from its soundstages with a three-day auction. Among the frayed costumes and antique furniture that hit the block were two of the most important sci-fi props ever made: the protosteampunk contraption from the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the miniature model of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, better known as the Forbidden Planet flying saucer. The time machine sold for almost $10,000, and while there’s no record of what the silver saucer went for then, it changed hands eight years ago for $76,700. Since MGM’s auction, prices for the best sci-fi props have routinely hit six figures. In October 2015 the miniature Rebel blockade-runner ship from Star Wars: Episode IV pulled down $450,000. ¶ This very expensive hobby is about more than snatching up the coolest specimens. It’s about lost youth, self-identification, preserving the past, and—though most collectors won’t admit it—hero worship and secret cosplay. There are some things in life more thrilling than watching your favorite movie late at night while clutching a screen-used prop from the same flick in your trembling, sweaty palms, but it’s a very short list.
When the Blade Runner gun surfaced, it was a big deal for the sci-fi-prop community. After 24 years without a sighting, enthusiasts had resigned themselves to the idea that Rick Deckard’s hand cannon was lost forever, like tears in rain. Then suddenly there it was, displayed under glass at the 2006 Worldcon. Not only was this an authentic BR gun, it was the authentic BR hero blaster—hero being prop lingo for the detailed model used for close-ups. Three years later, Deckard’s PKD (a sly nod to Philip K. Dick, the author of Blade Runner’s source material) sold at auction for $270,000. The winning bidder was Dan Lanigan, a collector known for bidding up lots that pass the “mom test,” props so indelibly iconic that even your mother would recognize them. Unlike so many sci-fi heaters, this blaster looks and feels like a real gun. That’s because it’s made with real gun parts. The steel slab atop the barrel and the magazine below are from a .222-caliber Steyr-Mannlicher SL bolt-action target rifle. Other donor organs were pulled from a Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special. It’s dystopian sci-fi mixed with pure gumshoe noir.
FILM: BLADE RUNNER (1982) | PROP: Rick Deckard’s PKD blaster | DESIGNERS: Terry Lewis and Ridley Scott | MATERIALS: .222-caliber Steyr-Mannlicher SL rifle, Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special, and six LEDs (four red, two green) | MOST RECENT SELLING PRICE: $270,000
There are plenty of bogus Star Trek props in circulation, but there’s nothing fake about this phaser from “TOS,” as true fans call the original series. The provenance is stellar: purchased by a prop artist directly from Paramount in the 1970s. It’s a screenused hero constructed mostly of aluminum, fiberglass, and cast resin. The handle is a hand-painted brass tube embellished with popsicle sticks. (Yes, really. Look closely.) There were other phasers made, including midgrade fiberglass models used for longer shots and the VacuForm plastic ones used for stunt work—the kind of piece Kirk would brandish whenever he needed to pistol-whip a Klingon. But this detailed, intricate variant was employed for close-ups. Only two hero phasers were built, so an original specimen like this is worth a bundle—at least $200,000. The anonymous owner isn’t selling, though. His screen-used phaser is part of a massive sci-fi-prop collection that includes classics like a prized space suit from 2001. If you must have a TOS phaser of your own, you’re going to need very deep pockets.
The protagonist of Paul Verhoeven’s low-budget hit is the titular cyborg tasked with cleaning up the mean streets of Detroit, but the dysfunctional, homicidal ED-209 really steals the show. Lanigan purchased his ED-209 model directly from RoboCop’s VFX supervisor, Phil Tippett, in a private sale. One of only two fully articulating ED-209 miniatures made, this 8-inch-tall maquette is an exact dupe of the full-size (7-foot-tall, 300-pound) but mostly static fiberglass ED-209 used for the live-action scenes. An obsessive attention to detail—from the four hydraulic “rams” controlling each leg to the exhaust vents and radiators—was necessary so the stop-motion and live-action footage would match up perfectly in postproduction. It’s not just the history that gets collectors excited. “ED is a badass Corvette with legs,” Lanigan says. “He’s a villain but also likable, because he’s such a comical idiot.”
FILM: ROBOCOP (1987) | PROP: ED-209 VFX miniature | DESIGNER: Craig Hayes MATERIALS: Resin, wire, rubber, and foam over a metal armature MOST RECENT SELLING PRICE: Unknown SHOW: STAR TREK (1966–69) PROP: Phaser DESIGNER: Wah Chang MATERIALS: Resin, metal, popsicle sticks VALUE: $200,000
W W W T O T U N A T
HO OU AN HE WN AB NL UC CC OR
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ORENSED AR ERA-
FILM: GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) | PROP: Proton pack | DESIGNERS: Stephen Dane and Ivan Reitman MATERIALS: Fiberglass, aluminum, lights, rubber tubing, and computer parts | MOST RECENT SELLING PRICE: $169,900 Now more than three decades old, the original Ghostbusters still resonates like a giant tuning fork—which goes a long way toward explaining why the proton pack is so revered by prop collectors. After all, who wouldn’t want their own portable unlicensed nuclear accelerator? Inspired by a military-issue flamethrower, hardware consultant Stephen Dane purchased a backpack frame from an Army surplus store in Hollywood and made a rough prototype. Director Ivan Reitman then added his tweaks. The molded fiberglass shell was attached to an aluminum backplate, which was then bolted to a US Army–spec backpack frame. Dane added paint, aluminum warning labels (danger: high voltage 1 kv), flashing lights, crank knobs, and enough electronic parts to make the thing pop onscreen: Sage and Dale resistors, Clippard pneumatic tubing, Arcolectric indicators, and Legris banjo bolts (on the neutrona wand). It’s as heavy as it looks—with the battery, a hero weighs over 30 pounds. Four years ago Lanigan added this screen-used hero proton pack to his collection. Price: $169,900. Congrats, Dan, but remember: Don’t cross the streams. It would be bad.
TH TDE ST WI MO LI PA HO LO FILM: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) | PROP: Aries 1B translunar shuttle | DESIGNERS: Harry Lange, Fred Ordway, and others MATERIALS: Wood, plexiglass, acrylic, steel, brass, aluminum, and plastic | MOST RECENT SELLING PRICE: $344,000 Stanley Kubrick’s masterful tale of human evolution catapulted the humble sci-fi genre from B-movie fodder to serious art, thanks largely to the groundbreaking visuals pioneered by the auteur and his f/x master, Douglas Trumbull. Most of the original miniature models used in the film’s eerily realistic space travel scenes were destroyed, but one of the 2001 miniatures survived: the screen-used Aries shuttle that transports Dr. Heywood R. Floyd from the space station to the Clavius excavation site on the moon. When the prop was eventually consigned to auction in 2015, the final paddle price greatly exceeded the expected high mark of $100,000. The winning bidder, at $344,000, was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The prop will be restored before being displayed at the new Renzo Piano–designed Academy Museum, which opens in 2018. The hulking Aries model—it weighs 100 pounds and measures 94 inches in circumference—is finished with plastic bits cherry-picked from off-the-shelf scale-model kits. Look closely and you’ll also see wires, tubing, flexible metal foils, decals (battery location point here), and plenty of heat-formed plastic cladding.
RENE CHUN is a frequent wired
FILM: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) PROP: Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber DESIGNERS: Norman Harrison and Norank Engineering MATERIAL: Resin casting of original VALUE: $30,000
Every generation has its childhood demons. The release of The Terminator in 1984 introduced a new bogeyman to the silver screen (and VHS): the T-800. Seven years later the film’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, cemented the reputation of the crimson-eyed grim reapers. An original full-scale T-800 endoskeleton sold at auction in 2007. Bidding started at $80,000 and topped out at $488,750, crushing preauction estimates. Why so much for a shiny puppet? Because it was a screen-used T-800. Also, the T-800 happens to be Stan Winston’s Mona Lisa. The late designer’s f/x wizardry is part of Hollywood lore (Jurassic Park III, Aliens, Predator), and one of his four Oscars was thanks to this 6' 2" animatronic skeleton. This T-800 is made mostly of plastic that’s been sprayed with a high-particulate, conductive copper paint, then submerged in an electroplating bath; first nickel, then chrome.
FILM: TERMINATOR 2 (1991) | PROP: T-800 | DESIGNER: Stan Winston MATERIALS: Plastic, copper paint, and nickel and chrome electroplating VALUE: $488,750
E 800 IS SIGNER AN , NSTON S NA , SA—IT S RT OF LLYWOO D RE.
In the world of vintage collectibles, there’s always a marquee brand that demands insane prices. In the scifi-prop world, that brand is Star Wars. The prices for production artifacts with a Lucasfilm provenance make a mockery of presale estimates. A TIE fighter miniature from Star Wars: A New Hope sold for $402,500, nearly twice the expected price. More impressive, back in 2005, a lightsaber used by Mark Hamill in the same film sold for $200,600, three times its estimate. That first-generation weapon (the one lost along with most of Luke’s forearm in the showdown with Vader in Cloud City) was fashioned by set decorator Roger Christian out of an old flashgun handle for a Graflex camera, along with other doodads. This one, Luke’s greenbladed Excalibur, was a new design crafted for Jedi by Norman Harrison and Norank Engineering at England’s Elstree Film Studios. But this saber wasn’t built piece by piece—it’s a casting. In this process, a plaster mold is made of the original prop, then that mold is used to produce identical copies in hard rubber, resin, and even metal. Castings are often used in place of hero props in stunt scenes; they’re lighter, and the original doesn’t get damaged. This resin casting was used in the Sarlacc sequence at the Great Pit of Carkoon.
He wrote about the SFMOMA redesign in issue 24.05.
The Curse of the Bahia Emerald BY ELI Z AB ETH WEI L
It’s a one-of-a-kind geological artifact. What’s it worth? Maybe $100 million, maybe nothing. But those who’ve pursued it—investors, schemers, dreamers—have definitely paid a price. ILLUSTRATIO NS BY TIM MCD O NAG H
Right now, 0
in a vault controlled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there sits a 752-pound emerald with no rightful owner. This gem is the size of a minifridge. It weighs as much as two sumo wrestlers. Estimates of its worth range from a hundred bucks to $925 million. Eight years ago the emerald was logged into evidence by detectives Scott Miller and Mark Gayman of the Sheriff’s Major Crimes Bureau. The two men are longtime veterans: 30 years for Miller, 28 for Gayman. They dress as the Hollywood versions of themselves, in wraparound sunglasses, badges dangling off long chains. Among Gayman’s career highlights is the time he busted Joe Pesci’s ex-wife for the hit she put out on her new lover. One thing they both hate is the emerald case. It’s a whack-a-mole of schemers. Detangling all the rackets and lies is, Miller says, “a puzzle from hell.” Emeralds invite stories—many of them dubious. At various points in history people have believed that emeralds were capable of protecting humans against cholera, infidelity, and evil spirits, and that an emerald placed under the tongue could transform a person into a truth-teller. This 752-pound emerald doesn’t quite fit under the tongue, and it appears to have had zero positive effects. Miller and Gayman got sucked into its orbit on October 8, 2008, when their sergeant forwarded a call. A man with a squeaky voice named Larry Biegler had phoned the cops in a little suburban California town called Temple City, just southeast of Pasadena. He told the officer on duty that his “840-pound” emerald (a lot of people say the emerald weighs 840 pounds, but it doesn’t) had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Mafia. So the detectives climbed into what Miller calls his “mobile office” (a Chevy Blazer), drove 15 miles out to Temple City, and spent the day in the local police station parsing the emerald dossier. The case “was fun,” Miller told me, “at the beginning.” A thing you should know is that emeralds are complicated. The chemical formula for an emerald is Be3Al2(Si6018). For the green crystals to form, beryllium must be heated to over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, under 7.5 to 21.75 tons of pressure per square inch, in the presence of chromium or vanadium. Given that beryllium exists only in tiny quantities near Earth’s crust, this seldom happens, and even
when it does, the resulting crystals, or beryls, as they’re known, are not uniform. Almost all emeralds include cracks and inclusions, aka impurities. On the Mohs scale of hardness, emeralds score 7.5 to 8 out of 10. If you cut along a crack or inclusion, they shatter. Diamonds, by contrast, are simple: pure carbon. The chemical formula for a diamond is C. Diamonds score a 10 on the Mohs scale. The trade is controlled by a few large players. There’s also a weekly international price sheet, the Rapaport Diamond Price List, that sets value based on the four c’s: carat, clarity, cut, and color. Diamond price is further stabilized by cartels that determine the quantity of gemstones released to market. Meanwhile, the emerald trade is controlled by hundreds of tiny players. The price is, to put it generously, flexible. An emerald costs what someone will pay. Period. The idea that diamonds are more romantic than emeralds is preposterous, a marketing ploy. Diamonds are a product like gold or crude oil: rational, conservative. Emeralds are Turkish rugs. When you buy one you believe that you’ve found a secret treasure and finagled a good deal. Then—weeks, months, years later—the truth comes out: You’ve been had. Time to grip up and face your wounded ego and foist the emerald upon the next guy. The market is especially shifty for so-called specimen emeralds—those that are big and weird, destined for curio cases and natural history museums. The emerald in the Sheriff’s Department vault is called the Bahia emerald and it is the consummate specimen: huge, strange, and composed of such low-quality crystals that, were those crystals broken down into smaller rocks, gemologists would call them “fish tank emeralds.” The Bahia emerald, it must also be said, is not pretty. It’s a conglomerate, a geologic chimera—a bunch of large emerald crystals lodged at odd angles in a matrix of black schist. Imagine a petrified Jello mold made by Wilma Flintstone for a dinosaur. Over the past 10 years, four lawsuits have been filed over the Bahia emerald. Fourteen individuals or entities, plus the nation of Brazil, have claimed the rock is theirs. A house burned down. Three people filed for bankruptcy. One man alleges having been kidnapped and held hostage. Many of the men involved say that the emerald is hellspawn but they also can’t let it go. As Brian Brazeal, an anthropologist at California State
University Chico, wrote in a paper entitled The Fetish and the Stone: A Moral Economy of Charlatans and Thieves, “Emeralds can take over the lives of well-meaning devotees and lead them down the road to perdition.” I too took a bad spin in the emerald’s orbit, pouring endless time into reporting this story, only, for a while at least, to become more confused rather than less. I read thousands of pages of court documents, including legal depositions that read like episodes of Drunk History. Larry Biegler hung up on me. The cops canceled the night before I was supposed to fly to go see them in LA. Then one day last summer my phone rang. “Hello! This is Jerry Ferrara!” a voice bellowed. Ferrara was one of the many people who claim the emerald ruined his life. He had declined to talk to me once before, but now he said he wanted to set the record straight. So he sent me a copy of his unpublished memoir, spent a few hours answering my initial questions, and invited me to visit him in Florida.
ERRY FERRARA IS 50 YEARS OLD, BIG, HAIRY, HALF-SICILIAN,
and huggable. He’s been gripped by the Bahia emerald for nine of the 16 years it’s been aboveground. The day I arrived in Tampa, he asked me to meet him at a Dunkin’ Donuts near Bottoms Down Weight Loss and signs advertising $1 med days and find your treasures at peaches and pearls boutique. He wore dad jeans, white sneakers, and a gray golf shirt. He sat down looking nervous, a little enraged, but also clean-shaven and earnest, like he was going to a job interview. “The Brazilians are making my life difficult,” he said, referring to his ongoing emerald struggles. “But do I regret it? I don’t regret it.” He folded his hands on the table between us. They looked strong. “I lost my identity. I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognize the guy staring back at me anymore.” Ferrara brought along a skinny woman named Chrystal (in the movie version of all this, she’d be played by Uma Thurman), whom he introduced as a “profiler,” meaning that she judges character. “I call her a bullshit caller,” he said. They told me there are 14 different personalities. When I asked Chrystal about Jerry’s type, he answered before she could. “She’s going to say I’m an asshole.” A few minutes later, Ferrara excused himself to get coffee. I asked Chrystal, who had a tasteful purple streak in When we met, Ferrara brought her hair and wore an emerald necklace, what she really along a “profiler” named Chrystal. did think about Ferrara’s character. “I call her a bullshit caller,” he said.
She glanced at the older woman doing a crossword puzzle next to us as she searched for words. “I’m trying to do this in a way that doesn’t make him look bad,” she said. “Sometimes he’s had to do bad things to protect himself and the people he cares for.” Ferrara first heard about the Bahia emerald in a low moment. It was November 2007. He was sleeping in his car, scamming free continental breakfasts at hotels for his two daughters, who were sleeping on their aunt’s floor. For the prior seven years he’d been supporting his family through his business, Honest Father Buys Houses, which purchased and resold homes and commercial properties. But then the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Ferrara lost everything, and he started working to right the ship of his life, he says, by selling foreclosed real estate portfolios for Lehman Brothers. When those deals fell through too, Ferrara, frantic, called every broker and every investor he could dial. Eventually, he says, he wound up on the phone with a man named Larry Biegler. (Remember him, of the phone call to the Temple City cops?) Biegler wasn’t really interested in foreclosed property. But he needed someone to help sell a giant emerald.
HE ROCK HAD ALREADY BEEN THROUGH A LOT. THE BAHIA
emerald was unearthed in early 2001 from the Carnaiba mine of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Then, according to some (apocryphal) tellings of the emerald’s history, the mule team dragging it through the rain forest was attacked by panthers—or some other animal—and the miners themselves had to carry the 752-pound emerald the rest of the way to civilization. From town it was trucked south to São Paulo and placed under a tarp in a carport at one of the mine owners’ homes. Those miners, it turned out, had a friend and business associate in San Jose, California. His name was Ken Conetto. A word about Conetto: Like Ferrara, he’s half-Sicilian and has spent his life looking for deals. He once held the titles to some silica mines in Nevada but never struck it rich. In fact, for the past 11 years, he has lived in a trailer with his mother, Gertrude, who is now 99. Strewn about are half a dozen pairs of eyeglasses, 10 dog leashes, six La-Z-Boy chairs, more pillboxes than I could count, a giant box of Wheaties with Steph Curry on the front, four bicycles, 10 fleece blankets, three television sets (two on). When I visited he offered me coffee cake, oranges, and bottled water and told me to come back whenever I wanted, a kindness unparalleled by many people I call friends. His mind drifts when he talks. The plots he spins can be hard to follow. If he ever comes into real money, he told me, he’s
Ken Conetto thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage. “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.”
Cast Char going to buy a big boat, a tri-hull that will do 50 knots—“I won’t be hors d’oeuvres for a shark!” He’s then going to sail that boat up the Adriatic coast and move into the castle he once saw in Dubrovnik. When his toughguy veneer falls, Conetto is very poignant. He has an adult daughter, Kendall, whom he named after himself; he hasn’t seen her since she was 3. “I wasn’t ready to get married,” he told me of his early life failings. “I just stayed away.” He thinks the Bahia emerald is garbage. “That thing is a stinking sack of Siberian seal shit.” Every time I visited Conetto I left feeling sad. Back in 2000, during the first internet boom, Conetto knew an affable guy named Tony Thomas who’d sunk a lot of money into a startup that now needed a whole lot more money if Thomas ever wanted to get his initial investment back. According to Thomas’ account in court documents, Conetto offered a convoluted plan to help. Thomas and Conetto would fly to Brazil. With these miners Conetto knew, they’d secure $25 million worth of emeralds (meaning emeralds they could sell for $25 million, though Conetto and Thomas would pay much less). They’d use the emeralds as collateral on a loan, the money from which they’d invest with a so-called highyield fund that guaranteed huge returns through the International Chamber of Commerce. Thus Thomas’ startup would have the money it needed to stay afloat and Thomas would become a very wealthy man. In September of 2001, Thomas and Conetto flew to Brazil. In São Paulo, Conetto’s miner friends arranged for them to look at $25 million worth of cut and polished emeralds. That meeting was a disaster—the lapidary shop was dilapidated, and the men
of acters (in alphabetical order)
who were supposed to finance the transaction failed to show. The miners then tried to make up for it by taking Thomas and Conetto to one of their homes to see a real treasure: the 752-pound emerald in the carport. According to Conetto, a white cat was peeing on the huge stone when they arrived, but still Thomas fell in love. He looked “like he’d found the treasure of Ali Baba,” one of the miners later recalled in court. Thomas, of course, wanted the stone. The miners, records say, set the price at $60,000. Nearly everybody involved has a different version of what happened next. Thomas said he flew home and wired the money to São Paulo. Then he set out to determine the emerald’s true value. He reached out to former business associates and received amazing news. The most comparable stone was at the British Museum: a slightly smaller emerald worth $792 million. According to testimony, Thomas passed this information to an appraiser he met in Brazil. On November 5, 2001, the appraiser—supposedly having seen the Bahia—wrote: “Such a rare specimen has never been seen, not even at an international auction house such as Sotheby’s … The stone in this report I estimate is worth $925 million.” A shocking amount of bullshit happens with big, rare stones. The Gem of Tanzania, a 10,000-carat ruby, was once valued at 11 million British pounds, but that appraisal turned out to be a forgery. The Life and Pride of America, a 1,905-carat sapphire purchased for $10, for a while was valued at $2.28 million. Then a curator at the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institution examined the rock, declared the color “awful—it’s just kind of muddy gray,” and now that sapphire is a paper-
A plumber from Northern California, with bad Yelp reviews; the one who called the cops.
An against-all-odds lovable guy from San Jose, California; lives in a trailer with his 99-year-old mother.
weight. Recently, in January 2016, newspapers reported the discovery of the world’s largest blue-star sapphire, the Star of Adam, in Sri Lanka. Its anonymous owner told the BBC that the stone is worth $175 million. We shall see. During the time the Bahia emerald was bouncing around, out of the mine but not yet in the sheriff’s safe, an emerald billed as the world’s largest was floating about, too. This one was named Teodora. It weighed about 25 pounds and was said to be worth $1.15 million. A Canadian gem merchant named Regan Reaney put it up for auction in January 2012—then he was arrested on (possibly unrelated) fraud charges. Teodora, sadly, included a bunch of white beryl, dyed forest green. As for the Bahia emerald, as Thomas told the court, in November 2001, Conetto told him he’d ship the stone home to Thomas in the US. He waited and waited, but the emerald never arrived. So a few months later he asked Conetto to return to Brazil and investigate what happened, only to learn the very worst: The emerald had been stolen en route to California. Sorry, inside job among the exporters, Conetto said. What can you do? Conetto has a different story. He claims that Thomas never purchased the stone and that he, Conetto, never promised to mail it home for Thomas. Whatever the case, for the next four years Conetto and his miner friends leveraged the emerald’s appraised value, hatching plans to take out loans against its insurance policy. They did rope in one sucker, but still the miners bickered constantly. So, in 2005, Conetto shipped the emerald, for real this time, to San Jose, California. On the packing slip he wrote, “rocha: rochedo—rock” and listed the value at $100.
T T HE DU NKIN’ DONU TS IN TAM PA, F E R R AR A INVITED ME
to go with him on what he described as that day’s job. As far as I know, he isn’t a licensed PI, but the job was a stakeout. First we needed to secure what Ferrara called “a lowprofile vehicle,” so from the Dunkin’ Donuts we stopped by a U-Haul store, where Ferrara rented a white pickup with an extended cab and excellent air- conditioning. In it, Ferrara, Chrystal, and I then drove to see the client who commissioned the stakeout, a 53-year-old woman who lived in one of Tampa’s endless and endlessly depressing gated communities, each with their own empty roads and swampy lagoons. “It’s almost unbelievable. She lost millions to her husband,” Ferrara told me as we pulled up to the woman’s house. “She’s still got some Kinkade paintings inside.” Ferrara’s job on this case, he said, was “to locate and uncover money and assets” and maybe scare the husband straight. “I do it for the adrenaline,” he said. “There are
A SpongeBob lover from outside Tampa, Florida; dabbles in diamonds and real estate; has some preColumbian artifacts for sale.
Detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Miller’s partner; loves his job; hates the emerald case.
Detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Gayman’s partner; loves his job; hates the emerald case.
a lot of sides of me. In a lot of ways I have a very calm Disneyland mentality. Then there’s a side of me that’s very Mafia, wicked mean, cold.” From there we headed to the stakeout proper, which consisted of sitting in the U-Haul outside a parking structure near Port Tampa Bay. “That’s part of stakeouts,” Ferrara said, several minutes into our boredom. “Sometimes you’ve got to wait it out.” Finally he left the relative nirvana of the air-conditioned truck to try to figure out if the woman’s husband had purchased an expensive car. He walked into the garage and texted Chrystal, “I’m in.” (The garage was open to the public.) In the cab, Chrystal opened her laptop and showed me Ferrara’s website, for a company called Global Quest. It featured pictures of pre-Columbian masks and ancient gold jewelry. “Most of the artifacts come from high individuals. These people don’t want to be known,” Chrystal said. Ferrara discovered these items, or maybe he was just brokering these items—it wasn’t entirely clear. He returned to the U-Haul with pictures of cars and we left. That night, over dinner, he told me that for a while he had a guitar owned by Elvis. He also once had opportunity to sell a Leonardo da Vinci painting. But no art historians would authenticate the work because it was on canvas and da Vinci didn’t paint on canvas. (Ferrara found this position pinched and ridiculous, arguing, “There were sails then, right?”) It was all so disorienting—the stakeout, the da Vinci painting, the Bahia emerald most of all. Because unlike the pre-Columbian masks and the painting, I knew the 752-pound gemstone really did exist. How it got to a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department vault is complicated, but as best as I could piece together from court documents (and also the obsessive research of a fellow journalist), what happened was this: After Conetto imported the stone to San Jose, he made a deal with Larry Biegler, the man with the squeaky voice. Biegler presented himself as polished and rich. Like Thomas, he fell instantly in love with the emerald, certain that he could sell it to a wealthy sucker. So Biegler made a deal with Conetto. Conetto would sign over to Biegler the rights to sell the emerald. If Biegler sold the stone, they would split the proceeds 50-50. This was one of the great many moments that tripped me up while reporting this story. Who says to a random business associate, “Hey, you want 50 percent of my $925 million emerald?” But Brazeal, the emerald expert, set me straight: There just aren’t that many buyers for a giant gemstone. Fifty percent of $925 million is $462.5 million, whereas 100 percent of zero is nothing. Thus, after Biegler took possession of the emerald, he made a similar move. He told a gem merchant in New York that he, the gem merchant, could have 10 percent of the sale price if he could sell the rock for more than $25 million. That merchant posted the emerald on eBay (yes). The minimum bid was $19 million and the “buy now” price was $75 million. The listing drew one offer—for $19 million—but Biegler refused to let the gem dealer sell. He claimed to have a $75 million deal in the works.
A Mormon from Eagle, Idaho; baby-faced, well-dressed; presents as a family man; tried to buy diamonds and ended up with a giant emerald.
amazing qualities of the Bahia emerald is that its charms seem to work every time. One person falls out of its thrall and the next floats right in. In 2007, the person who floated in was my Florida host, Jerry Ferrara. As he tells it, Biegler approached Ferrara and told him that he, Ferrara, seemed like just the guy to sell the stone. At the time Ferrara was desperate and quasi-homeless, and this was exactly what he wanted to hear. “It was just incredible,” Ferrara says. “Biegler showed up with a manila envelope and signed ownership of the world’s largest emerald over to me. He said he was looking for somebody like me.” Soon Ferrara was tangled up in yet another Biegler operation, trying to sell diamonds to a Mormon guy from Idaho named Kit Morrison. Ferrara describes Morrison as “aloof, very secretive. Likable—no. He wore handmade Italian suits, handmade Italian leather shoes.” Morrison sent Ferrara $1.3 million, supposedly for diamonds, which he’d receive in the future. In return, Ferrara says, he put the Bahia emerald up as collateral. Then that deal fell through—Ferrara did not have any diamonds. So the emerald went to Morrison. This should have made them enemies but now they had a common interest: turning the giant rock into money. Thus they became partners, if not friends. “It’s like we ELIZABETH WEIL (@lizweil) lives in San
Francisco and is a contributor for The New York Times Magazine and Outside.
A collector; his house burned down in a mysterious fire; has been in a legal fight with Conetto for years.
had a wagon full of gold,” Ferrara explained. “We’re both sleeping by the campfire, one eye open, one hand on your gun under the pillow.” At this point the emerald was in a storage unit, the Commonwealth International depository, in South El Monte, California. Ferrara and Biegler were supposedly the only ones with access to it (although
in court, Ferrara and Morrison said Morrison also had access). Ferrara told me that only people who could prove they had the means to buy the emerald could go view it. Sheikhs came to look. Conetto insists that even Bernie Madoff flew out in “his little putt-putt” and planned to buy the emerald for “$91 million in diamonds, $21 million in cash, and three watches worth $15 million.” But sadly, Madoff was arrested two days before that alleged deal could close. In June of 2008, Biegler disappeared. He had staged his own supposed kidnapping by a Brazilian warlord, sending word to Ferrara that he needed a ransom paid for his release. This sent Ferrara’s mind spinning back to all the times over the past year Biegler had asked Ferrara to send him money, requests Ferrara obliged because he did not want to blow his chance to make millions in an emerald sale. Eventually, Ferrara pieced together the truth: He learned that Biegler was not nearly as polished and rich as he pretended to be. In fact, he was really the proprietor of a business called B & B Plumbing in Citrus Heights, California. “I got taken by a damn plumber! Can you believe that?” Ferrara told me. B & B Plumbing even had lousy Yelp reviews. (“Hired Larry to install a dishwasher. He took my $125 and left …” “NO SHOW!!” One star.) Furious and betrayed, Ferrara says he managed to get the secretary at Commonwealth International to let him and Morrison remove the emerald from the vault without Biegler present. They loaded the stone into a Cadillac Escalade SUV and headed east, toward Vegas. Tony Thomas and Ken Conetto Biegler, Ferrara says, arrived at Commonwealth Internawent to Brazil with a plan to buy tional less than 24 hours later to find the emerald gone. $25 million worth of emeralds.
HE DAY AFTER I WENT ON THE STAKEOUT WITH FERRARA,
we drove the U-Haul pickup to his friend Kris Rotonda’s home. Among Ferrara’s current ventures is working with Rotonda to launch My Pet Shopping Network, which, if all goes according to plan, will be a media behemoth like Home Shopping Network but for pet products. We sat in Rotonda’s living room where his three dogs ran in circles and skidded out on his tile floor, and Rotonda’s young daughter kept toddling in, followed by Rotonda’s wife. The scene was warm, totally regular, and unslick, and in it Ferrara seemed to relax for the ﬁrst time since I arrived. Rotonda cued up their Pet Shopping Network sizzle reel. On it, he makes a pitch for a product called the Pooch Selﬁe that includes a tennis ball you clip onto a smartphone so your dog will stare at it and you can take a great selﬁe of you and your best friend looking into the camera. “Great, right?” Ferrara said, when the reel ﬁnished. It wasn’t half bad. Then Ferrara came down to earth for a bit. “Most of the networks are so busy making dead ends that they don’t have time to meet with us.” Ferrara’s life story is ﬁlled with pain. He told me his mother walked out when he was 4 and he didn’t see her again until he was 15. His younger sister died in childhood. His stepmother made him sleep with only sheets, not blankets, in the New Jersey winter. One day when he was walking home from an after-school job on a day that was –4 degrees, she drove by but didn’t pick
him up. In 2004 his sister asked to borrow money. Ferrara told me that he gave her a few thousand dollars. Then she died of an overdose. Among the more fantastical family tales he told me was that he had an uncle who owned a junkyard in Edison, New Jersey, and when developers bought the land and cleaned it up, they found 79 skeletons buried in the soil. “Let’s just say I like my soda ﬂat and my cereal soggy,” Ferrara said. This seems to sum up his outlook on life. I asked if he liked pets and he said, “No! I hate them all! What an asshole!” (He later said he was kidding.) He doesn’t drink because, he said, “I’m in the limelight,” and alcohol makes him even more of a jerk. “I hate sports too!” Ferrara’s lone outlets are smoking Marlboro Blacks and watching SpongeBob SquarePants. “SpongeBob has a per-
A Regular Gem of a Hoax Shiny rocks are hard to resist. But upon closer inspection, high-dollar stones often prove to be … not so precious. Here are a few examples. —J E N N I F E R C H AU S S E E
The Gem of Tanzania When David Unwin bought a massive ruby in 2006, it was valued at $375,000. A year later, when his company was going through bankruptcy, the gem reappeared on his books as a $14 million asset. That document, though, was forged. Eventually the gem sold for about $10,000.
The Life and Pride of America One day in Tucson, Arizona, a gem dealer bought a 1,905carat sapphire for $10 from a bin at a gem show. Then an appraisal deemed it worth about $2.28 million. Gemologists disagreed. Today the Life and Pride is a beautiful blue paperweight.
In 2011 scuba divers said they discovered treasure near the famous Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1622. The divers said the gems were rare Colombian emeralds, but they were just cheap emeralds treated with epoxy—and had been sitting on the ocean ﬂoor.
In 2012 a Canadian gem merchant announced to the world that his 57,500-carat emerald was worth $1.15 million. He called it Teodora and put it up for auction. Turns out Teodora included a bunch of white beryl, dyed forest green.
ERNST & YOUNG/AP IMAGES (TANZANIA); SHELLY KATZ/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES (LIFE AND PRIDE); REUTERS/ANDY CLARK/ALAMY (TEODORA); JAN SOCHOR/GETTY IMAGES (EMERALDS); GETTY IMAGES (HOAX)
sonality that cares about everybody, he sees the positive in everybody. He tries to make people laugh,” Ferrara explained. His favorite episode is “Band Geeks,” in which Squidward is set up to fail, yet again. He lies and promises that his nonexistent band will play a huge gig at the Bubble Bowl, the Super Bowl in Bikini Bottom. He scrambles to pull together a band but, Ferrara said, “nobody he knows has talent.” He’s going to humiliate himself. “The show starts. Squidward’s sweating,” Ferrara said. “But then it rocks.” Behind the scenes, SpongeBob steps in and saves him, turning Squidward’s friends into great musicians. Squidward succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. “People in my family think it’s creepy,” Ferrara said, wrapping up his exegesis, “but my life is extremely hard, anxietyridden. SpongeBob gives me relief. Don’t put a horror ﬂick in front of me, don’t put a Maﬁa movie in front of me. That’s my life.”
The Diamond Hoax of 1872 Cousins from Kentucky led Charles Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. and others to believe there was an amazing gem ﬁeld on the Colorado border. The investors handed over more than $500,000. Alas, the cousins had simply strewn cheap diamonds, rubies, and emeralds in the dirt.
Ferrara’s lone outlets are smoking Marlboro Blacks and watching SpongeBob SquarePants.
FTER LARRY BIEGLER REALIZED THE EMERALD WAS GONE
from the Commonwealth International storage unit, he called the Temple City police and told the officer on duty that his emerald had been stolen and that he’d been abducted and released by the Brazilian Maﬁa. This triggered the arrival of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department detectives Miller and Gayman. Soon, Ferrara and Morrison became suspects. The detectives took a few weeks to track them down, but by December 15, 2008, Miller and Gayman were in Eagle, Idaho, in the Boise foothills, staking out Morrison’s house. They set a perimeter and shivered in their rental car for two days. On the third day they knocked on Morrison’s door. His wife answered and said Morrison wasn’t home. As the detectives were talking to her, they saw a man walking around the side of the property and, ﬁguring it was Morrison, tackled him. He turned out to be a cable repairman. Morrison’s wife got Morrison on the phone and he cut a deal with Miller and Gayman. He would meet the detectives in Las Vegas, where he and Ferrara had stored the emerald, and they’d turn the stone over to the Sheriff’s Department on the condition that neither Ferrara nor Morrison would be arrested. So Miller and Gayman ﬂew home to Burbank and assembled a small army, including a dozen officers with assault riﬂes, and caravanned overnight out I-15 East. When they arrived at the depository at 7 am, the Las Vegas Metro Police Department was already onsite with a SWAT team and helicopter cover. Morrison showed up in a sport coat and slacks, and within the hour Miller and Gayman were wheeling a piano dolly topped with a gargantuan emerald into the desert sun. Everybody took a lot of selﬁes. Then the detectives loaded the Bahia emerald into a police van, drove it back over the San Gabriel Mountains, and logged it into evidence. As promised, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department threw the question of who owned the Bahia emerald over to the Los Angeles Superior Court. From 2007 to 2015, people began endless legal battles: Conetto sued Morrison, Thomas went after Conetto, the New York gem dealer sued Biegler. Ferrara spent a lot of days in settlement hearings and a lot of nights sleeping in hidden corners of hotel lobbies so he didn’t have to pay for rooms. Only once did he lunge across the conference table and threaten to beat the shit out of somebody. During the legal proceedings, Biegler disappeared. Conetto got distracted by a friend’s new business that turned manure into electricity. The detectives came to believe that the emerald belonged to Thomas. After all, courts found he was the only litigant who’d ever paid anything for the stone. But Thomas fared poorly at his trial. Several key facts were not on his side. One, he never called FedEx to see what happened to his $925 million package. Two, he claimed his house burned down in 2006 and incinerated his bill of sale. CONTINUED ON PAGE 095
years to come. “If you buy that our future is the phone, and you buy that that means our future is going to be more visual than it’s been in the past, then New York Times journalists have to be comfortable with video.” The alternative is stark. For most of the last year, the Times offered buyouts to employees, in part to make room for new, digitally focused journalists. As one editor (fearful of being quoted by name) put it: “The dinosaurs are being culled.”
Keeping Up With the Times CON TIN UED FR OM PAGE 059
of her career, one of the first three hires at the Huffington Post), went to Baquet with a proposition from Facebook: If the Times would commit to producing dozens of livestreams a month for Facebook Live, its new video platform, the social media giant would pay the Times $3 million a year. Like most major media companies, the Times has a complicated relationship with Facebook—a 2015 deal to publish Times journalism directly on Facebook Instant led some in the newsroom to worry about cannibalizing subscriptions and losing control of their content—but following the Innovation Report, the pull of a new social platform was hard to resist. Baquet gave the green light. “We spun up a team and started producing within two weeks, which is like a land speed record in this organization,” MacCallum says. Over the next few months, the Live team recruited more than 300 Times journalists to livestream anything and everything: press conferences, protests, political conventions. It was too much for some, and the public editor of the Times, Liz Spayd, said as much in a column headlined “Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon.” Spayd complained that some of the videos were “plagued by technical malfunctions, feel contrived, drone on too long … or are simply boring.” She urged editors to slow down, regroup, and wait until the Times could stay true to its past model of “innovating at a thoughtful, measured pace, but with quality worthy of its name.” (Timesian!) MacCallum concedes that some of the early efforts may have fallen short, but today she puts them in the perspective more common in tech circles than media organizations. “I disagree that it’s possible to have every single thing be up to the standard. Otherwise you can’t take any risks.” What’s more, Baquet says, the project helped train hundreds in his newsroom in how to frame a shot, speak on camera, and all the other skills necessary to produce journalism in the 0
O One of the anxieties I heard throughout the Times is that they can get the journalism absolutely right, execute the technology perfectly, and still not find the hundreds of millions it costs every year to line the walls with Pulitzers. While other media companies collapse or implode—witness the once-proud Tribune Company’s devolution into national punch line “Tronc”—there is unease over the possibility that when (or if) the Times emerges from its digital rebirth, it might be scarcely recognizable. Even Sulzberger admits to long-term doubts for the industry, though, he says, “We feel like we’re closer to cracking the code than anyone else.” In 2010 the Times was making about $200 million in digital revenue, almost entirely from advertising; by 2016 that number had more than doubled, to nearly $500 million, with almost all of the gains coming from digital subscriptions. The internal Times goal for total digital revenue is $800 million by 2020—which, according to senior management, would be enough to fund the Times’ global news-gathering operation with or without a print edition. To find that additional $300-plus million, they need to sign up new subscribers across all its different platforms. The site’s metered paywall remains its most powerful incentive to subscribe, which is why most new subscribers sign up once they’ve maxed out their monthly allowance on NYTimes .com. (Subscriptions through mobile and social media continue to lag behind desktop.) They also needs five straight years of 13 percent growth in digital revenue, which would seem more doable if, in the first three quarters of 2016 (before the postelection bump), growth hadn’t been tracking at only 8 percent. “Look, nobody said this was going to be a straight line,” CEO Mark Thompson says. Still: credit where credit is due. The Times has had more success at building its digital subscriber base than any other publication.
Its nearly $500 million in digital revenue not only dwarfs what any print publication has managed online, it also far exceeds leading digital-only publishers. At The Wash ington Post, which has invested heavily in digital growth since it was acquired by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, digital revenue was reported in 2016 to be in the neighborhood of $60 million. In 2015, BuzzFeed brought in a reported $170 million, while the Huffington Post’s 2014 revenue, the most recent reported figure, was $146 million. “Today we have the largest and most successful pay model for journalism in the world,” says Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times’ chief revenue officer. “Our digital subscriber number is a tiny fraction of Netflix’s or Spotify’s numbers, so it still has to be proven that it can be done around news. I think it can.” None of that even accounts for the revenue that comes in from the print edition, which Sulzberger says isn’t going anywhere any time soon. “It is profitable on subscription revenue alone, and we can make the economics work, I suspect, for a long time.” As long as he’s there, anyway. Family control is one of the competitive advantages of The New York Times—there is no plan B for Sulzberger or his family. Bezos’ support brought fresh hope to The Washington Post after he bought it from the Graham family for $250 million in 2013; two years later, it surpassed the Times in unique visitors for the first time. But there is no reason why Bezos can’t wake up tomorrow and decide to dedicate all of his personal fortune to colonizing Mars instead of saving journalism. Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, bought The New Republic in 2012 with the goal of revolutionizing the century-old periodical for the digital age, spending millions of his own money in the process. Four years later, when I was editor in chief, he sold it and walked away. Sulzberger can’t just walk away. Much of the family’s fortune is tied up in Times stock, for starters, but there is also a pronounced, and profound, sense of obligation among him and his cousins to The New York Times as both a business and a public good. They have to figure this out. Whether or not they succeed, and whether Bezos is in the journalism game for the long haul, is the stuff of tomorrow’s headlines. Today’s news is all we know for sure, and today the Post has a billionaire behind it, and the Times has hundreds of thousands of subscribers it didn’t have six months ago, and the president of the United States has a Twitter account. The journalists have plenty of work ahead. �
The Bahia Emerald CON TIN UED F ROM PAGE 093
(The court found his claim awfully convenient.) It also turned out, though this was not revealed at trial, that there was no large emerald at the British Museum in London at all. The entire backstory of the $792 million comp was made up. The court had great difficulty pinning down who owned the emerald or how much it was worth—or, really, any facts at all, because so many men contradicted one another under oath. This led an observer to the possibility that the stone was really a MacGuffin, in the classic Hitchcockian sense—an object that everyone’s chasing but that doesn’t really matter. Still, in 2011, the judge rejected Thomas’ claim of ownership. Then the judge got a new job, and Thomas asked for a mistrial—which the courts granted. In 2013, a second judge heard all this insanity again. But by that point Ferrara, Morrison, and another guy had gathered into a sort of consortium, under the name FM Holdings. That way someone, any one of them, could reclaim possession of the emerald, sell it, and divide the proceeds. The LA Superior Court awarded the Bahia emerald to FM Holdings on June 23, 2015. But perhaps the emerald really is cursed. Before the Sheriff’s Department received the order to release the emerald to FM Holdings, the District Court of DC granted an injunction filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the country of Brazil. Brazil claimed that the Bahia emerald had been illegally exported and really belonged to them. “I’ll be honest,” says John Nadolenco, the primary lawyer on the case for Brazil. “When I first got the letter”—from Brazil, asking for help repatriating the Bahia emerald—“I thought it was a total hoax. I thought it was one of those Nigerian prince things where they’re going to want us to send a couple million dollars to some bank account and they’re going to take all of our money.” But Nadolenco’s partner asked him to pursue the client. Nadolenco wrote back to the Brazilians with
a real proposal, though he couldn’t resist including the jokey promise that his friend Indiana Jones could help reclaim the emerald if his own efforts failed. He got the gig. So today the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is still—still—holding the emerald, now as evidence for a criminal case they’re building. The limbo is uncomfortable for Ferrara. He’s a big man with big, tenacious, preposterous dreams stuck in a life that feels too banal, empty, and small. My last day in Florida we met up at Cracker Barrel. Ferrara likes the tchotchkes there. During a lull in the conversation, Chrystal told me she worries what will happen if Ferrara loses the emerald for good. “It would devastate him,” she whispered. “It’s his whole life.” Ferrara and I talked for hours and hours and hours, from the retiree breakfast rush past lunch, through every last detail of the saga. At one point, he placed the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. He slid them a few inches apart and set his phone on top, like the flat roof of a house. “This is our foundation in life—your mother, your father, friends, teachers, the people that mean something to you.” (He meant the shakers to represent the people and the phone to be your life.) He slid the shakers out from under the phone. “As these people fail you, these go away, one by one.” The phone, your life, falls. Before I headed to the airport, we returned the truck to U-Haul and revisited Dunkin’ Donuts for some more iced coffees. We sat outside, in the horrible humid air, so Ferrara could smoke his Marlboros. He mentioned that, along with SpongeBob, he connected with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, or at least the title. “Like I wrote one time, ‘We entered a world that was inhabited by dark shadows, the nights would never end, the mornings would never come,’ ” he said. He didn’t quite get the quote from his own prose correct. But he made his point: Life is tough. People betray you and die. We all need escapes. I drove to the airport. I boarded my flight. Even before my plane touched down, Ferrara had left me a voicemail. “Call me!” he bellowed, optimistic as ever. “You will never guess what transpired today. As you left, the winds of change blew in.” I called him back the next morning. He told me a story about the emerald, which I understood less the longer he talked. He also mentioned that he’d been approached about hosting a TV show, a reality treasure-hunter series. He would be the star. It was nice to hear his voice. � Additional reporting by BRENDAN BORRELL.
COLOPHON WRONG THEORIES THAT HELPED GET THIS ISSUE OUT: Ramen is a health food; Two Weeks Notice is a superior film to Notting Hill; no one wins in a tiebreaker in my new board game Inis; deadlines are just a social construct; the Law of Optical Volumes; Japan’s disastrously accurate highway signs; wine is definitely a healthy juice drink, chocolate is medicinal, and the warmth emanating from my phone is just love, not danger; he’ll stop tweeting so much now; we don’t need a Bluetooth-enabled patio umbrella; playing Gauntlet on my Nintendo emulator will ultimately make me more productive; purposefully hiking the redwoods in a downpour; “I’m sure the writer has sourcing for this …”; Wrong Theory; the drought’s gotta be over by now; Sudafed by day, codeine by night; I bet I can eat just one; the walrus was Scott. wired is a registered trademark of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. Copyright ©2017 Condé Nast. All rights reserved. Printed in the USA. Volume 25, No. 3. wired (ISSN 1059–1028) is published monthly by Condé Nast, which is a division of Advance Magazine Publishers Inc. Editorial office: 520 Third Street, Ste. 305, San Francisco, CA 94107-1815. Principal office: Condé Nast, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. S. I. Newhouse, Jr., Chairman Emeritus; Robert A. Sauerberg, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer; David E. Geithner, Chief Financial Officer; James M. Norton, Chief Business Officer and President of Revenue. Periodicals postage paid at New York, NY, and at additional mailing offices. Canada Post Publications Mail Agreement No. 40644503. Canadian Goods and Services Tax Registration No. 123242885 RT0001. POSTMASTER: Send all UAA to CFS (see DMM 707.4.12.5); NONPOSTAL AND MILITARY FACILITIES: Send address corrections to wired, PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662. For subscriptions, address changes, adjustments, or back issue inquiries: Please write to wired, PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662, call (800) 769 4733, or email subscriptions@ wired.com. Please give both new and old addresses as printed on most recent label. First copy of new subscription will be mailed within eight weeks after receipt of order. Address all editorial, business, and production correspondence to wired Magazine, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. For permissions and reprint requests, please call (212) 630 5656 or fax requests to (212) 630 5883. Visit us online at www.wired.com. To subscribe to other Condé Nast magazines on the web, visit www.condenet.com. Occasionally, we make our subscriber list available to carefully screened companies that offer products and services that we believe would interest our readers. If you do not want to receive these offers and/or information, please advise us at PO Box 37706, Boone, IA 50037-0662, or call (800) 769 4733.
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BY ROBERT CAPPS
ASK A FLOWCHART IS THIS A FAKE NEWS STORY? THE NEW YORK TIMES
IS IT OPINION, FASHION & STYLE, OR THE FRONT PAGE?
ISN’T IT ALL NEWS?
LOL! LOOK CLOSELY.
FASHION & STYLE
WHERE IS IT COMING FROM?
YEAH, LIKE “ARTISANAL MICROSQUATTING” IS A REAL TREND …
THEREAL LIBERTY KLAXON.ORG
OH, THAT’S REAL.
BREITBART FRONT PAGE
IS IT ABOUT HOW THE NEWS ON BREITBART ISN’T FAKE?
IT’S SUPPOSED TO SPUR YOUR OWN CRITICAL THINKING.
UM, THAT’S JUST AN OPINION.
BUT IT’S IN A NEWSPAPER!
YUP—REAL MACEDONIAN! SERIOUSLY?
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
YEAH. BUT IT’S A REAL STORY, RIGHT?
PUPPIES WHAT?! NEVER!
DONALD TRUMP’S TWITTER ACCOUNT MIGHT BE. OR IT MIGHT BE A FAKE STORY TO FAKE OUT THE REAL CRITICS.
SO … REAL? POLITICS
HMM. DOES IT SAY “UNFAIR” OR “SAD” ANYWHERE? CABLE NEWS NOPE!
WHO’S SAYING IT?
DUNNO, A NEWSPERSON! THEIR TEETH ARE REALLY WHITE.
WELL, IS IT AN ACTUAL REPORTER, OR IS IT A “CONSULTANT” WHO’S PAID TO PARROT A PARTISAN POSITION?
OF COURSE! SAD
NEWS NETWORKS STILL HAVE REPORTERS?
BUT IT SAYS “REAL” RIGHT THERE IN HIS TWITTER HANDLE!
PROBABLY NOT SO TRUE, THEN.