TIME society

Why Won’t America Go Metric?

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Our centuries-long ambivalence about meters and liters mirrors our ambivalence about our place in the world

We Americans measure things our own way. Our yardsticks are marked in feet and inches, measures that are unfathomable to foreigners, nearly all of whom have been brought up in a decimals-only environment.

It was supposed to have been different. My generation of schoolkids was told a switch to the metric system was imminent. The popular narrative holds that this 1970s conversion movement failed, and that Americans have never gone metric because we are too obstinate or patriotic or just plain stupid to do so. This tale is wrong.

The United States is metric, or at least more metric than most of us realize. American manufacturers have put out all-metric cars, and the wine and spirits industry abandoned fifths for 75-milliliter bottles. The metric system is, quietly and behind the scenes, now the standard in most industries, with a few notable exceptions like construction. Its use in public life is also on the uptick, as anyone who has run a “5K” can tell you.

Why is it that America hasn’t gone full-on metric? The simple answer is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have never wanted to. The gains have always seemed too little, and the goal too purist.

The measurement debate actually goes back to our nation’s very beginning. The original metric system was developed in France during its revolution, and was so radically decimal that it divided the day into 10 hours. As our first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson was charged with deciding which set of measures would be best for the country. He had been instrumental in creating the dollar—the first fully decimal measure any nation ever used. Jefferson rejected the metric system, however, because in origin he found it to be too French—which was saying something coming from the nation’s foremost Francophile. His beef was that the meter was conceived as a portion of a survey of France, which could only be measured in French territory. John Quincy Adams, for his part, couldn’t recommend that the United States adopt a measurement system that nearly vanished after the demise of the French Empire.

The meter’s fortunes would soon rebound, however. A new wave of revolutions in the 1830s would see France and Belgium re-adopt the system, while the second half of the 19th century would see it become a truly international system. The reasons for its adoption were various. Italy and Germany were unified out of dozens of statelets, duchies, and principalities, and a neutral system of measurement helped soothe parochial jealousies. Decolonization in Eastern Europe and South America created new nations keen to adopt modernity and standards that would align them with Western Europe. In all these cases, however, conversion was dictated by democratically deficient governments bucking the will of the people. The 1880s imposition of the metric system in Brazil led to a full-scale uprising that lasted months.

The strongest push in the U.S. actually came at the start of the 20th century, Alexander Graham Bell, and other notables testified at congressional hearings on metric conversion. The head of the new Bureau of Standards put forth the metric system as a vital national interest. But charges of elitism and wasting money came from a public that increasingly believed the U.S. should be the leader in global affairs and not just another follower.

Politics and economics have been the real incentives to go metric. The world’s most anti-metric nation—Great Britain—grudgingly began to ditch its Imperial system in the 1970s because it was the only way to gain access to the markets of continental Europe. Most of the rest of the world adopted the measures in order not to fall behind in the global economy.

There is no question that a uniform global system of measurement helps cross-border trade and investment. For this reason, labor unions were among the strongest opponents of 1970s-era metrication, fearing that the switch would make it easier to ship jobs off-shore. (Which it did.)

Is global uniformity a good thing? Not when it comes to cultural issues, and customary measures are certainly a part of our national culture. But to have brains trained in the thirds, quarters, sixths, eighths, and twelfths of our inches and ounces, as well as the relentless decimals of the metric system can only be beneficial, in the same way that learning a second language is better than knowing only one. That ours is a dual-measurement country is part of our great diversity.

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism. John Bemelmans Marciano is the author of Whatever Happened to the Metric System? He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

This Hanukkah-Themed Parody of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ Is Pretty Clever

"Cause we’re counting up to eight, eight, eight, eight, eight / And these latkes taste so great, great, great, great, great"

A Jewish a cappella group Six13 has composed a catchy, Hanukkah-themed parody of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” It works, considering “Shake It Off” and “Hanukkah” have the same number of syllables.

The two versions of the holiday-themed refrain:

Cause we’re counting up to eight, eight, eight, eight, eight
We escaped an awful fate, fate, fate, fate, fate
We’re gonna celebrate, -brate, -brate, -brate, -brate
It’s Hanukkah, Hanukkah!

Cause we’re counting up to eight, eight, eight, eight, eight
And these latkes taste so great, great, great, great, great
Yeah that’s how we celebrate, -brate, -brate, -brate, -brate
It’s Hanukkah, Hanukkah!

Hanukkah begins the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 16.

TIME language

Merriam-Webster Announces Its Word of the Year

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A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

This word saw a big spike in lookups this year, for lots of good reasons

Culture.

That is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2014. If it sounds awfully broad, that is because the editors based in Springfield, Mass., rely more on hard data than feeling to choose their lexical time capsule. But this big idea, broken down into specifics, does a fine job of summing up the past year.

While Oxford chose vape for its connections to health and society, and Dictionary.com chose exposure to tie big news stories like Ebola and Ferguson together, Merriam-Webster settled on culture by figuring out which of their most popular words experienced the biggest spike in lookups this year.

Looking back to see what helped drive those lookups, the editors point out that “celebrity culture” and “rape culture” and “company culture” all had big years. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, said in a statement. “And it’s efficient: we talk about the ‘culture’ of a group rather than saying ‘the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors’ of that group.”

In addition to the phrases Merriam-Webster points out, plenty of other brands of culture made headlines in 2014, including:

pop culture, consumer culture, military culture, culture wars, the “culture of free,” startup culture, cultural clashes, cultures of violence, cultures of silence, drug culture, Western culture, Scottish culture, surf culture, high culture, teenage culture, culture shocks, police culture, the NFL’s culture, media culture and hookup culture.

Other words that saw big lookup spikes this year, each with their own connections to what was going on in American culture, were nostalgia (our long goodbye to Mad Men), insidious (a certain horror movie franchise gets another installment), je ne sais quoi (Sonic selling us chicken wings) and feminism (the Gamergate controversy, for starters). In their press release, Merriam-Webster points out that TIME’s nod to 2014 as “the year of pop feminism” sent many people running for the dictionary.

Here are the three top definitions of culture that Merriam-Webster returns when someone looks up the word, one we clearly can’t get enough of:

: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

TIME society

Best Person Ever Pays Off Everyone’s Layaway Bill at Toys ‘R’ Us

She spent $20,000 to clear 150 accounts

Santa is real, and she’s a woman.

A donor visited a Toys ‘R’ Us location in Bellingham, Mass., on Wednesday and paid off more than 150 layaway accounts, to the tune of $20,000, the Milford Daily News reports. While she has elected to remain anonymous, she is reportedly an older, bubbly, local resident and told an employee that she would “sleep better at night” with all the accounts paid off.

We just hope she didn’t forget her milk and cookies before leaving.

[Milford Daily News]

Read next: 5 Times People Actually Saved Christmas

TIME society

This Man Says He Legally Changed His Name to Santa Claus

He may not hail from the North Pole, but this Santa Claus claims he's the real deal

“Good afternoon, Santa speaking.” This is how Santa Claus of Valley Stream, New York, answers his phone, and that’s because he claims his legal name is actually Santa Claus. He claims he changed it two years ago in response to children who didn’t believe him. “Now I can pull out my driver’s license or my insurance card,” he told Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran, “and it says right there: Santa Claus.”

This Claus, who installs fire sprinkler systems when he’s not in character, has always felt a strong connection to the Christmas season. He began working weekends at Macy’s in 2006 but eventually tired of the rushed visits with children, who were often disappointed by the brevity of their lap-time. After four years, he decided to go freelance. Now he dons his Santa suit at parties and private homes, reports Segran, as well as for pro bono visits with terminally-ill children.

Though the hours are long, and the beard tugs do hurt, Claus seems to find true meaning in the work. He says of the people with whom he interacts, “Their problems didn’t go away, but just for a moment, they forgot about their problems, they smiled, they became little kids again.”

Read the full story here.

TIME politics

Crime and Punishment in America: What We Are Doing Wrong

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

10.2 million people sit in prison cells today around the world– and almost half of them are right here, in the United States. While in the US we like to boast about being “#1″ we forget that we’re actually #1 at a lot of things that we probably shouldn’t be proud of – and having the highest incarceration rate in the world is one of them.

And, it’s not just our incarceration numbers that should be a shock to our system, but the recidivism rate that we should find most concerning. In a study from 2005-2010, researchers found that 3 out of 4 former prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years after being released from prison.

Simply put, the way we approach crime and punishment doesn’t work.

I remember back to my days listening to talk radio and the initial chatter of prison overcrowding once we started to realize that our prisons were beginning to bulge at the seams. I distinctly remember the solution one commentator had: build more prisons.

Unfortunately, the approach of building more prisons and punishing more harshly (aka, mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, the war on drugs) hasn’t worked and has only led to more of the same. In fact, some of our harsh approach to crime and punishment has actually led to more crime as nonviolent offenders (such as folks going to jail for marijuana offenses), come out on the other side of prison more “hardened” than they were to begin with. Throw into the mix the huge vocational barriers someone with a criminal record faces, and our situation is ripe for failure– one that actively produces more crime and brokenness, not less.

Actually, it’s beyond ripe for failure – it has failed. Past tense.

The traditional American approach to crime and punishment doesn’t work.

This past week I’ve been reading a great new book by Derek Flood called Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and really connected with his thoughts in a section called A Practical Guide To Enemy-Love. In regards to our failed approach to crime and punishment he writes:

We commonly think of justice in terms of retribution. When we speak of a person “getting justice ” we mean getting punishment. Love of enemies challenges this understanding of justice and asks: what if justice was not about punishing and hurting, but about mending and making things right again? What if justice was not about deterring through negative consequences, but about doing something good in order to reverse those hurtful dynamics? What if real justice was about repairing broken lives?”

I’ve certainly spoken of this difference between restorative justice and punitive justice both here on the blog and in my book, Undiluted, but Flood brings up some really good additional thoughts on the matter. He goes on to say:

“The sad fact is that our current prison system has become a factory for hardening criminals rather than healing them. Instead of learning empathy and how to manage their impulses and emotions, the brutal culture of prison life teaches inmates that one must be brutally violent in order to survive. Because of these patterns learned in prison, the alarming repeat offense rate is sadly not all that surprising. Locking someone up in the hell of prison life naturally breeds violence, not reform repentance. People do not learn empathy by being shamed and dehumanized. Retribution gains popular support by appealing to our most primitive impulses, but in the end results in a broken system that perpetuates hurt instead and cycles of violence.”

In the book, Flood cites a successful program that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of a restorative justice approach over a punitive approach: the RSVP program run by the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. In this alternative program, they took some of their most violent offenders and tried a restorative approach instead of just locking them up and throwing away the key. This program that taught them communal living, personal dignity, development of empathy for others, and how to manage their own emotions, had some results many might find surprising: an 80% reduction in violent recidivism, and the total elimination of assault on prison officials (pg. 185).

The effectiveness of restorative justice compared to punitive justice is simply amazing. But, that really shouldn’t be a shock to us. Why wouldn’t restoring a life work better than simply subjecting it to punishment?

The American approach to crime and punishment needs some re-framing because the old way simply doesn’t work. A punitive focused approach results in over populated prisons filled to the brim– both with some folks who justly should be there, and some who probably should not. All however, are forced to acclimate to a violent prison life that simply turns them into “hardened criminals” even if they didn’t arrive as one. When they are released, they face so many barriers to reintegration into society that the violent survival mechanisms the prison system taught them quickly become one of their only tools to move forward in life.

We cannot continue a system with this philosophical approach and think that we’re actually doing justice– we’re not. Justice, as I write in Undiluted, is about “making the world a little less broken and a little more right,” and as Flood points out in Disarming Scripture, our current system does anything but that.

The solution?

We must become people who long to see a life restored instead of a life destroyed, and we must become willing to do whatever it takes to make the former happen, while resisting the easier path of doing the latter. Together, we can begin to influence culture in such a way that we reform our penal system to become something that sees justice as a life restored instead of punishment given.

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, is available now at your local bookstore.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Can My Clinic Fix Childhood Obesity?

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To determine if a child’s weight is a problem, a key measure is body mass index

Of the 10 children in my family, I was the only one who was obese. I didn’t know it at the time, but my family mirrored obesity trends in Holtville, the small town in California where I grew up. In Imperial County, which borders Arizona and Mexico, 1 in 10 people were considered obese in the 1970s and ’80s. I hated being obese and fantasized about a magical solution that could transform me overnight.

Fast forward to the present: My weight is under control and I’m the director of programs at Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, a non-profit community clinic in Imperial County.

Unfortunately, obesity is more common here than when I was a kid. Today, 4 in 10 children in Imperial County are considered obese or overweight. Couple this with a poverty rate of 22 percent, and you have a recipe for an unhealthy community.

To determine if a child’s weight is a problem, a key measure is body mass index—measuring the child’s weight against a national standard for their height, age, and gender. A child in the 85th percentile or more is considered overweight; at the 95th percentile and above, a child is obese.

One major problem is that many parents see obesity as something their children will outgrow—not a major health concern that requires treatment. The clinic used to tell families to eat healthy and exercise, and to come back next year for a physical exam. This method didn’t work. Most kids don’t grow out of being overweight or obese and many parents don’t know how to help them make healthy choices around food and exercise.

In 2011, my clinic saw an opportunity to join forces with other agencies—including San Diego State University’s Institute for Behavioral and Community Health and the Imperial County Public Health Department—to come up with a new strategy for controlling obesity. One focus is identifying problems much earlier, and monitoring them more closely over time.

In order to get real money, we applied for a 4-year research grant from the Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration (or CORD) study of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant program is part of the Affordable Care Act and aims to tackle childhood obesity in impoverished communities. We were fortunate to be one of three sites funded—the others are in Massachusetts and Texas.

Last year, we invited 600 children to participate—and we allow any family to access the services. Three to four times a year, the child sees a clinician for a weight management and wellness exam. A patient care coordinator also works with the family. Finally, community health workers (or promotoras) lead a series of workshops on parenting skills, setting goals, and incorporating fun games into physical activities.

One of the first families to participate in Clinicas’ family wellness program was the Padillas, whose 11-year-old daughter had been struggling with her weight. It was difficult for them at first. The family doesn’t have a car and needed to find a ride or take the bus, which can be tricky. And, like many families, they felt reluctant to visit the clinic when they lapsed.

The Padillas eventually figured out how to manage the plan. They went on walks, watched less TV, gave up drinking sweet tea, and ate less fattening foods. Today, they eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, go to sleep earlier, and include more physical activities in their daily routine.

But it’s not just families that need to commit to change. As part of Our Choice/Nuestra Opción, experts conducted training with the staff of clinics, childcare facilities, schools, recreation agencies, and restaurants. There’s work to do in improving our own health.

The magical solution to childhood obesity that I wished as a kid doesn’t exist. Tackling this problem means making a long-term commitment—and understanding that change won’t happen overnight.

Leticia Ibarra is director of programs at Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo, Inc. She has 16 years of professional experience in research, project management, working with clinics, and consulting in community-based, collaborative health communication and promotora interventions to improve the health and well-being of Latino and immigrant communities. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME facebook

The Man Who Wired the World

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Zuckerberg in Chandauli, a village in India where a new computer center opened this year Ian Allen For TIME

Mark Zuckerberg’s crusade to put every single human being online

Chandauli is a tiny town in rural India about a four-hour drive southwest of New Delhi. India’s a big country, and there are several Chandaulis. This is the one that’s not on Google Maps.

It’s a dusty town, and the roads are narrow and unpaved. A third of the people here live below the poverty line, and the homes are mostly concrete blockhouses. Afternoons are hot and silent. There are goats. It is not ordinarily the focus of global media attention, but it is today, because today the 14th wealthiest man in the world, Mark Zuckerberg, has come to Chandauli.

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.

TIME language

Oxford Dictionaries Adds ‘Duck Face,’ ‘Man Crush’ and ‘Lolcat’

Dictionary
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'Five second rule' and 'Obamacare' also made the cut

In their latest — and biggest-ever — quarterly update, Oxford Dictionaries Online added words that remind us who we are and what we care about in 2014.

Take xlnt (adj.), a symbol of our desire to skip tedious letters in today’s fast-paced conversation. Consider digital footprint (n.), a phrase that encapsulates our increasing worries about privacy and being monitored online. Or ponder man crush (n.), which explains modern man’s natural, platonic reaction to Benedict Cumberbatch.

All told, Oxford added about 1,000 new entries this quarter. It’s important to note that this deluge is flowing into the branch of Oxford that reflects modern usage — the words we’re using now and how we use them. The bar for entry into the historical Oxford English Dictionary is much higher, requiring words to prove they have greater staying power.

Here’s a selection of the new admissions:

al desko (adv. & adj.): while working at one’s desk in an office (with reference to the consumption of food or meals).

chile con queso (n.): (in Tex-Mex cookery) a thick sauce of melted cheese seasoned with chilli peppers, typically served warm as a dip for tortilla chips.

cool beans (exclam.): used to express approval or delight.

crony capitalism (n.): (derogatory) an economic system characterized by close, mutually advantageous relationships between business leaders and government officials.

digital footprint (n.): the information about a particular person that exists on the Internet as a result of their online activity.

duck face (n.): (informal) an exaggerated pouting expression in which the lips are thrust outwards, typically made by a person posing for a photograph.

five-second rule (n.): (humorous) a notional rule stating that food which has been dropped on the ground will still be uncontaminated with bacteria and therefore safe to eat if it is retrieved within five seconds.

hawt (adj.): (chiefly US) informal spelling of “hot.”

IDC (abbrev.): (informal) I don’t care.

jel (adj.): (informal, chiefly Brit.) jealous.

lolcat (n.): (on the Internet) a photograph of a cat accompanied by a humorous caption written typically in a misspelled and grammatically incorrect version of English.

MAMIL (n.): (Brit. informal) acronym: middle-aged man in Lycra. A middle-aged man who is a very keen road cyclist, typically one who rides an expensive bike and wears the type of clothing associated with professional cyclists.

man crush (n.): (informal) an intense and typically non-sexual liking or admiration felt by one man for another; a man who is the object of another’s intense liking or admiration.

misery index (n.): an informal measure of the state of an economy generated by adding together its rate of inflation and its rate of unemployment.

Obamacare (n.): (in the U.S.) an informal term for a federal law intended to improve access to health insurance for U.S. citizens. The official name of the law is the Affordable Care Act or (in full) the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

permadeath, n.: (in video games) a situation in which a character cannot reappear after having been killed.

Secret Santa (n.): an arrangement by which a group of friends or colleagues exchange Christmas presents anonymously, with each member of the group being assigned another member for whom to provide a small gift, typically costing no more than a set amount.

shabby chic (n.): a style of interior decoration that uses furniture and soft furnishings that are or appear to be pleasingly old and slightly worn.

simples (exclam.): (Brit. informal) used to convey that something is very straightforward.

tech wreck (n.): (informal) a collapse in the price of shares in high-tech industries.

the ant’s pants (n.): (Austral. informal) an outstandingly good person or thing.

WTAF (abbrev.): (vulgar slang) what the actual f-ck.

xlnt (adj.): (informal) excellent.

TIME politics

Elizabeth Lauten Still Doesn’t Seem to Get How She Dehumanized Young Black Girls on Facebook

Elizabeth Lauten
Elizabeth Lauten Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

I'm glad she resigned. But her statement speaks to a much larger problem

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This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

Following a long, hard weekend that included much “shade” and reportedly even more prayer, Elizabeth Lauten has finally done the right thing and resigned from her job as spokeswoman for Representative Stephen Fincher (R., Tenn.) after posting inappropriate criticisms of First Daughters Sasha and Malia Obama on Facebook.

This is great because America wasn’t really in the market for a Troll in Chief, and the subsequent apology Lauten offered didn’t help win friends and influence people. The long weekend was a tender time that had already left a lot of people feeling exposed as many Americans wrestled with the meaning of the secret proceedings that led to the Ferguson Decision.

Then, as now, is not the time to revel in shades of racism and mean-girl snark to make a political point, which is exactly what Lauten did. Spectacularly tone-deaf to where we’re at as a country right now, she went all in on Malia and Sasha, Michelle and Barack’s daughters, and Marion Robinson’s grands for their seeming and refreshing disinterest in the corny tradition that is the annual White House Thanksgiving turkey pardon.

“I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class,” Lauten wrote.

What she neglects to acknowledge is just how awful those teen years can be. Instead, she piles on. These young ladies are shown standing exposed to the world when everything about them is changing and adjusting at a rapid pace in ways they might not understand because that is what it means to be an adolescent.

Worst of all, Lauten needlessly sexualized the girls by saying, “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”

Girls have a hard enough time feeling good about their developing bodies without creepy, inappropriate and out-of-context comments like these. This comment felt just as bad as any leering guy on the street wolf-whistling to female passers-by.

It has never been more important to value a young woman’s humanity as she works to be vital and relevant, living and loving, hoping one day she’ll be valued for her efforts and be paid fairly and rewarded accordingly.

And in a society where bullying is rampant, it’s honestly unbelievable to me that Lauten so blindly bullied these girls. Did Lauten not even see the movie Bully? I still cry thinking about it.

While I appreciate that Lauten later tried to apologize, to me it was a failure.

By not directly addressing her apology to the First Daughters (notice how her initial heartless critique was directly addressed to them, though?), Lauten ascribed “superhuman” qualities to them. Meaning, she didn’t consider how her comments might make them or other girls feel, bearing out what Adam Waytz and his research team revealed in a recent study about white attitudes toward blacks.

“Today, a subtler form of dehumanization of blacks persists, with powerful consequences; it increases endorsement of police brutality against blacks and reduces altruism toward blacks,” according to the paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

It is no surprise to me that social media went apoplectic over the weekend upon learning what Lauten had done and how she handled it. It shows that the public has had it up to here with the nastiness of political discourse, especially when race, gender and sexuality are involved.

In her position as the spokeswoman (now former) for Representative Fincher, it was Lauten’s very job to be a communications expert, yet she proved incapable of reading the signs of the times and the particularly sensitive moment happening in this nation right now.

Lauten appears to be one of those women who vote against their own interests, mistaking proximity to the white power structure for real power.

It isn’t.

The lack of respect in her original Facebook post and the subsequent half-hearted apology was unforgivable and unforgettable. Regardless of what Lauten meant, her bad behavior is a reckoning moment for so many other things.

Now that Lauten has given up her job, perhaps she can spend more time reclaiming her own humanity — on her way to seeing ours.

Douglas is a journalist living in Chicago.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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