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Students line up outside their classroom at a Chicago school. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

A balance worth tipping

By Editor / 04.01.13

Sometime around Day 1 in our lives, we begin wondering what’s fair and what’s unfair. Are Mom and Dad playing favorites with the ice cream? How can that kid cut in line? C’mon, Mr. SUV, let me into the traffic.

We’re constantly weighing fairness, campaigning for it, and judging it. The perception of unfairness may start as mild annoyance, but it can make or break empires. Get it right and you’re Solomon. Get it wrong and you’re Marie Antoinette.

So basic is the desire for fairness and the revulsion at unfairness that scientists are increasingly convinced that it is innate. A 2008 study by researchers at the California Institute of Technology indicates that the drive for fairness is tied to people’s emotion and that, instead of learning to be fair, humans are born that way. Experiments show that people feel worse when they perceive inequity and better when justice is done. Humanity, in effect, is always putting the universe on trial.

In a Monitor cover story, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo examines the problem of fairness in the meting out of school discipline. School is crucial in transferring civilization from one generation to another. It is where young people determine whether social rules are worth supporting, whether society is going to give them a fair shake, whether centuries-old wisdom really is wise – whether, in short, they should contribute to the culture they were born into or walk away from it. 

A teacher’s interest, an inspiring class, supportive fellow students – these slowly encourage adolescents to opt in. A clash with authority can derail that process, especially if a perception of unfairness takes hold. This is where the statistics are troubling.

There are significantly higher rates of suspensions and expulsions for African-Americans, Hispanics, and those with disabilities than for white students in American schools. Meanwhile, discipline has shifted in recent years from after-class detention and stern warnings to “zero tolerance” of bad behavior. The unintended consequence is that rising numbers of young people don’t get the kind of do-overs that were once common in school. They get bounced. They’re on the streets, heading toward the criminal-justice system, and convinced that life is unfair.

As you’ll see in Stacy’s accompanying article, however, that innate human drive to see justice done is actively trying to counteract that problem. Conflict-prevention programs in Oakland, Calif., and elsewhere aim to shift the view of students, to encourage them that there is something to live for, that life isn’t unfair, and that school is worth their time and attention.

Fair treatment gives rise to hope. But for many people – especially those traumatized by broken homes, violent neighborhoods, or run-ins with the police – hope can’t simply be switched on. It has to be earned through one-on-one encounters and trust-building in programs such as the “restorative justice” initiative in Oakland’s public schools.

If we come into this world wired for fairness, evidence of it convinces us that we aren’t mistaken. That, in turn, builds a defense against the inevitable moment that unfairness asserts itself. A kid will cut in line. A driver will be rude. Injustice will occur. But if an enemy forgives, a judge shows mercy, a teacher takes interest, the balance tips back. In a civilization worth supporting, fair outweighs unfair.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

An Interchange offers drivers options near Minneapolis. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune/AP/File)

Trees, meet forest

By Editor / 04.01.13

Turn-by-turn navigation is a marvel. Enter an address into a map application by Google, Yahoo, Apple, Garmin, or half a dozen other providers. You get the exact route to an exact address on the other side of the country. You are politely reminded of the turns to take. You can zoom in and out, see topography in 3-D, overlay satellite images, and mouse along at street level.

But as with anything involving digital search, the temptation is to go right to specifics without getting the big picture. I recently used turn-by-turn navigation in an unfamiliar city in the American Midwest. In the days before the Internet, I would have bought a map. Just the process of unfolding it would have provided an overview of the geography. Filmmakers call that an establishing shot. I didn’t need that with digital navigation. The nice computer lady talked me through the city. But I had no idea where I was – or what I was traveling past – until I got there.

Paper maps are clunky, easily torn, and often out of date. Travel used to entail missed exits and guesses about direction, which meant that gas station attendants were endowed with sagelike knowledge of streets and roadside attractions. There was a serendipitous aspect to that kind of trip taking – not unlike the way flipping the pages of a newspaper or wandering the shelves of a library can turn into a magical mystery tour. Poring over a state map, you’d stumble upon a Civil War battlefield near the barbecue joint that the Texaco guy recommended. 

The same thing is there digitally, of course, along with Yelp reviews and 1,700 articles about the battlefield. So don’t worry, this isn’t a paean to the good old days. It’s just that search technology too easily takes us to the very specific. We get exactly where we are going without knowing how we got there. If you’ll forgive the metaphorical leap, that’s not unlike what is happening with news – astounding access to trees but less and less attention to forests. 

The Monitor tries to provide both views. We want you to understand the world in its close-up detail and in stand-back patterns. Take a recent edition of our weekly newsmagazine: Our cover story examined two landmark cases before US Supreme Court: the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. The former was a 1996 attempt to set a national standard for marriage, the latter a 2008 attempt to do the same at the state level. The eventual ruling will affect individuals, families, businesses, government programs, and society as a whole.

In our Focus stories, we tightened the lens somewhat, looking at the dangers and opportunities in the Middle East as President Obama visited the region and also at the future of humans in space. An even closer-up view could be found in the articles of One Week, where we briefed you on everything from the new pope to Washington budget battles to the fishing industry in India. Serendipity might have taken you to our photo essay of Ukrainian seniors dancing. Would you have thought to search for that?

There’s much more in each issue. You could say that we publish a weekly map of the world along with a turn-by-turn guide to its rich, difficult, and often triumphant variety. If the Monitor Weekly nav works for you, we’re happy to be of service. If you think it would work for others who appreciate both trees and forests, we’d be grateful if you pointed them in our direction.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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Volunteers work in a community garden in Racine, Wis. (Mark Hertzberg/Journal Times/AP/File )

The hottest global trend is local

By Editor / 03.19.13

When was it that “local” – a word that rhymes with yokel and has long been a synonym for small-time and provincial – became hot? When did a gnarly heirloom tomato replace a spotless Calgene Flavr Savr as the “it” produce? What has prompted people to enthuse over artisanal cheeses, dirt-caked root vegetables, micro-batch beverages, and sketchy-looking salsas in Mason jars? 

Bright lights and big cities are undeniably fun and productive, especially Monday through Friday. But town squares and farmers’ markets – even in big cities – are where the action is most weekends in most neighborhoods. 

Let’s go back to where it all began. (Well, since most things start locally, perhaps not quite that far.) In recent history, the back-to-the-land 1960s begat communes and a small-is-beautiful movement. Most of those experiments fizzled as idealism crashed into practicality. But something was stirring. In the ensuing decades, urban pioneering, organic farming, slow food, and a “think global, act local” ethos gathered pace. By the ’70s, preservation movements were stopping the wrecking balls of urban renewal and forcing the rethinking of neighborhood-crushing superhighway projects such as Interstate 95 in Boston and the Westway in Manhattan.

I’d argue, however, that the tipping point for localism didn’t occur in one epic battle. Localism prevailed in ten thousand places where residents began to care about the community around them instead of just launching away on their morning commutes and reentering their neighborhoods at night. The shop around the corner may not have more stuff or better deals than Wal-Mart, but it contributes to the fabric of life and is worth patronizing. 

Most local business get nowhere near the Fortune 500, though a few occasionally make it big. Wal-Mart started locally in Bentonville, Ark.; McDonald’s was once a lone burger joint in San Bernardino, Calif. But their small time was a long time ago.

In a Monitor cover story, Yvonne Zipp has good news about a quintessential local enterprise, the independent bookstore. For decades these were under threat, first by chains like B. Dalton and then category-killers like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The 1998 romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” tells the tale of a friendly little bookstore driven out of business by a B&N-type giant (which, in the end, turns out to be a friendly enough place – and, surprise, onetime rivals, played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, fall in love).

Interestingly, 1998 was just about the high-water mark of big bookstores. Amazon was already stalking them with a cheaper and more plentiful inventory, and the Internet was disrupting reading habits and information availability. As Yvonne shows, however, independent bookstores had two secret weapons: They were small. And they were loved. 

I’ll let Yvonne explain the clever and heartwarming ways these paper-and-ink (and now e-book and often also coffee and greeting cards) survivors have made their businesses work in a digital age. The main thing to understand is that because they were part of a community, locals have embraced them. A bookstore is a safe, pleasant place to frequent. And, of course, their merchandise is hardly small-time and provincial. The volumes sitting on their shelves have the power to expand thinking across the globe, out into the universe, and deep into the realm of soul.

Local, you see, isn’t about geography. It’s a state of mind.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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Volunteer Stephanie Porzio reads a condolence letter sent to Newtown, Conn.; she is helping to create an archive. (Jessica Hill/AP)

After Newtown: a time for solace

By Editor / 03.10.13

Time is a blanket. It settles over the wars, disasters, and violence of today, softening the contours of the raw and immediate, turning them first into memory, then history, and eventually half-remembered legend. Time itself doesn’t heal wounds. That takes a higher order of thought. But almost without effort, time gentles the present and helps us move on.

The world is overflowing with places and dates we vow never to forget: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Gettysburg. At first, we lay wreaths and feel the rush of memory. Then time’s blanket descends. We mark a month, a year, a decade, but new generations cannot feel the same way we do. Dates that will live in infamy once again become Sundays in early December. Hallowed ground in one era is a pleasant park in another.

Less than three months have passed since that terrible Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. G. Jeffrey MacDonald has listened and watched as the pastor and parishioners of the Newtown United Methodist Church comfort one another and lean on a church family that was always there but has now become an even more essential part of their lives. (You can read Jeff's report here.)

The church sits at the entrance to the Sandy Hook village and has a large parking lot. Media from around the world swarmed in after the shooting. From the outset, the Rev. Mel Kawakami and members of the church kept reporters at bay, determined to maintain a community sanctuary. Still, there was a story to tell. 

An official of the national United Methodist Church reached out to Jeff, who has written about religion for many years (see his Dec. 24, 2012, cover story, “The new face of faith”), knowing he would be respectful and trustworthy. His report – and Melanie Stetson Freeman’s sensitive photographs inside the church – is an intimate look at a faith community working through pain, sorrow, and questions engendered by crisis.

One of the church members told Jeff that Newtown had always seemed like Sesame Street to her – safe, diverse, kind, intelligent, happy. That was turned upside down on Dec. 14. But the essential qualities of the community haven’t disappeared. They are manifest in the kindness of a customer paying for everyone’s coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, the simple act of looking in on a neighbor, the care and discretion people exercise in deciding whether this is or is not the moment to speak up on the issue of gun violence.

We often see news reports of packed churches the Sunday after a tragedy, Jeff notes. And that’s usually where the story ends. News moves on. “But there’s so much more to it,” he says. “Church is a safe space for people to confess, to cry, to feel the presence of sanctuary, to reinterpret the meaning of powerful symbols, to find deeper meaning in hymns and sacraments.” Some of this can be done alone; more needs to be worked out in community, which is what a church is when it is at its best.

Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, was especially hard in Newtown. Lent, which is approaching its midway point, is a hard season by definition and has been made harder by a cold, snowy winter. Ahead are anniversaries and birthdays and more tears. Good Friday will be 15 weeks to the day. Only 3-1/2 months will have passed by Easter Sunday. Spring and summer will come. But the gentling blanket of time takes time.

America is a ‘move on’ society,” Jeff notes. “We don’t like to sit with things. We need to sit with things.” 

Chinese Middle-schoolers held emblems of the Communist Party of China in Suining, Sichuan province, during a ceremony. (China Daily/Reuters/File)

Chinese communism: cause or club?

By Editor / 03.04.13

Most organizations launch with unbridled enthusiasm. “Victory is ours!” their slogans proclaim. “From each according to his ability to each according to his need!” Some causes go on to change the world. Others fizzle. And many just keep going and going like a battery-operated bunny long after their original mandate has been forgotten.

That’s especially the case with political parties. In the United States, Republicans began life as radicals. Democrats were so conservative that they were the party of the Confederacy. Over time, both changed dramatically. Closer to the present day, Ronald Reagan redefined Republicanism as the less-government party, and Bill Clinton maneuvered the Democrats toward the political center. At heart, both parties care about democracy and freedom; over time, they have pursued it differently.

But what happens when your party’s past is so checkered that you dare not go back to first principles? In Peter Ford’s vivid Monitor cover story, you’ll see what a head-spinning array of contradictions the Chinese Communist Party has become. 

Mao Zedong’s “great proletarian cultural revolution” has evolved from cause to club. Under China’s 21st-century social compact, the Communist Party has a monopoly on power but has loosened its grip on the economy (though many party members also wear the hats of corporate chiefs), and largely stays out of the private lives of Chinese citizens as long as they do not agitate too aggressively for change. Party members prosper, and the communist-capitalist system they control keeps 1.3 billion people fed, clothed, sheltered, and productive.

That is a signal achievement in Chinese history: Tens of millions starved during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” and the social order was turned on its head by the Cultural Revolution. That toxic past haunts the party’s present. Rigidity of thought is the last thing modern Chinese communists want.

In preparing his Monitor cover story, Peter spoke with Prof. Chen Xiankui, a teacher of Marxism, and asked him at one point about Karl Marx’s classic tenet that “religion is the opium of the people.” “That is a leftist slogan,” the professor said in a shocked voice. “The party has abandoned it,” having decided instead that “religion is helpful to improve people’s morality and social stability because people showing goodwill leads to a harmonious society.”

As for contradictions, Peter notes that the life story of Zong Qinghou, China’s richest man (net worth around $10 billion) is a classic rags-to-riches tale. His first business was a popsicle stand. Now he is chairman of a massive beverage conglomerate called Wahaha. Mr. Zong calls himself a communist. At least he is a member of the party. But what would Mao think?

“The paradox is resolved,” Peter says, “when you realize that ‘communist’ in China does not mean what it means everywhere else in the world: It is just the name of the party in power.”

Movements, organizations, and parties are made up of humans who want their cause to succeed. That inevitably means either changing with the times or withering away. The Chinese Communist Party has survived by walking away from its Marxist foundation and Maoist mismanagement – a metamorphosis that unquestionably has improved the lives of millions of Chinese and transformed China into an economic superpower.

What’s left, however, is a ruling clique with all the inherent self-dealing and corruption that comes from a privileged position. The party’s central belief is that the party must go on. Will the Chinese people always agree?

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

An atypical view of Pakistan: roadside barber Adnan Khan shaves a customer in the suburbs of Islamabad. (B.K. Bangashi/AP)

Finding the true focus

By Editor / 02.28.13

 Anyone can be a photographer, but it takes a trained eye and intellect to use photography to make sense of the world. Filmmakers are masters of the captured image. So are photojournalists. Each works a different field, but each has essentially the same problem to navigate: truth.

 Though most movies are fiction, they seek to be true in their own way. World War II veterans, for instance, have said the harrowing assault on the Normandy beaches in “Saving Private Ryan” felt disturbingly real. Was “Zero Dark Thirty” truthful about torture? Did “Lincoln” and “Argo” get it essentially right, or was history subordinated to drama? As Peter Rainer notes in his review of the Chilean film “No” (page 38), factual accuracy has become a hot cinematic issue. 

 Photojournalism is supposed to be all about factual accuracy. We think of a camera as an objective collector of reality. But as with reporting, history writing, and any form of documentary, subjectivity is unavoidable.

 Monitor photo editor Alfredo Sosa and his team pore over dozens of images each day from photographers and agencies, looking for interesting but also fair depictions of the world. This requires honesty about stereotypes and biases. 

 The photos that flow into the Monitor, Alfredo says, too often show a sprawling culture like India as a place of snake charmers and poverty. “What you never see,” Alfredo says, “is the middle-class couple going to the movies or having dinner.” Images from China usually show masses of people, and across the Middle East the cliche is angry crowds. But what about people just taking their kids to school or sharing a laugh? 

 Can normal be interesting? The answer is yes, but it takes a sensitive photographer and a careful editor.

 Monitor photojournalism aims to counteracts visual stereotypes. In recent weeks, we’ve shown you a cowboy-themed park in Lebanon, an Indian religious festival, Cairo’s ancient al Azhar University, and the streets of Northern Ireland.

A interesting image, carefully captured, is the start of good photojournalism. Thoughtful editing tries to make the image both true and interesting.

 * * *

 The films Monitor readers like tend to be human-oriented/ I know this from e-mails and letters you’ve sent over the past couple of years in response to an earlier column about movies. Explosions and violence aren’t absent from your top choices, but big bangs, car chases, and gore aren’t relished. Those who wrote to me favor pluck and originality. Than can range from quirky ( “Harold & Maude”) to rousing (“The Music Man”), mordant ( “Being There”), to romantic (“Moonstruck”). You enjoy epics (“Out of Africa”; “The Godfather”) and laughs (“Dumb and Dumber”; “Parenthood”). But it probably comes as no surprise that you really love classics:  “Ryan’s Daughter”; “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”; “The Scent of the Green Papaya”; “The Lives of Others.” 

 There aren’t many alien invasions or space operas among your favorites. The one that comes closest is “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which is really a parable about humanity.

 Here’s the takeaway, at least for me: I’d enjoy a bag of popcorn with any of these movies.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

Anne Davis fires her revolver at a Keene, N.H., shooting range. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

What a gun can do to you

By Editor / 02.17.13

Let me tell you about three people I know who own guns. (I hope you’ll understand why I won’t use their names.) One is a retired police officer. She straps on her holster anytime she goes outside the house. She’s a professional who doesn’t advocate others owning guns but has carried one for so long that it is part of who she is.

A second acquaintance is worried about the catastrophic breakdown of society. Though she is a “prepper” and has laid in stores of food and amassed a small arsenal of weapons, she is lighthearted, pleasant, and makes her living as a therapist helping others overcome their troubles. She just believes what she believes. 

The third is most indicative of the modern Ameri-can gun owner. She recently separated from her husband of 31 years. Her brother, who works in law enforcement, encouraged her to buy a handgun since she is living in a small Vermont town. She had grown up around rifles and learned to shoot at a young age, but she never thought of using guns for self-defense. 

“I’m now alone and in my 50s in a small town,” she says. “I hear things – mostly about kids and drugs. I talked with my brother, and in December we went to a shop and bought a .38 Beretta. He made sure I practiced with it and was confident and comfortable enough to pull the gun out.” But the gun has changed her life, she says. “I listen at night and am always thinking about what might happen. The gun is within reach and the magazine is full. I think it is horrible. It makes me feel out of control. It scares me even though I’m quite competent in its use.”

Many men and women keep secret their decision to own a weapon or simply don’t think it is important to talk about what they see as a practical necessity. Many others would never own a gun, consider the current arms race a baffling fad, and think gun owners are in much more danger of accidental or impulsive harm than likely to ward off an assailant.

Regardless of how you interpret the Second Amendment to the US Constitution – whether broadly to include assault
 weapons, high-capacity magazines, and unfettered access to firearms or narrowly to include only hunting rifles and licensed handguns after a scrupulous background check – the heart of the matter is the word “self” in “self-defense.” All of the polemics of the great gun debate now under way in the United States come down to that concept.

Self-defense has shifted in recent years as police forces – once the go-to authority when someone felt threatened – have scaled back in many communities and “castle law” and “stand your ground” doctrines have expanded. Even as crime rates have plunged, gun ownership has surged. In a Monitor special report, Patrik Jonsson and Clara Germani examine the mainstreaming of gun ownership in the US and how that is shaping the debate over rights and restrictions. 

Whether your mantra is that guns kill people or that people kill people, guns are not neutral objects. They are personal, powerful, and deadly. And they reshape thinking. Some people sleep sounder because of them. Some feel more powerful. Some, like my friend from small-town Vermont, are deeply conflicted.

“I feel I have to have one,” she says. “It’s just that now there’s this constant feeling of impending danger. Once you let in the fear, you can’t get away from it.” 

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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A woman walks at Karnak Temple in Luxor, southern Egypt. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/File)

What rulers overlook

By Editor / 02.11.13

Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself as another person. Specialists say most children express empathy by age 4 but probably feel it much earlier. Behavioral research shows that most animals – dolphins, primates, rodents – empathize when a family member is in pain.

When empathy is absent, cruelty reigns, selfishness is celebrated, majorities oppress minorities. When present, empathy recognizes that other people’s concerns are valid, encourages mercy in victory, and tempers extremism. Empathy is the crucial factor in a healthy society; it undergirds moderation – but only if it goes beyond the surge of pity that most people feel when someone else is in distress. Empathy requires practical implementation.

You can see the need for empathy all over the world – from politically polarized Washington, D.C., where President Obama has talked of an “empathy deficit,” to austerity-constrained Southern Europe, where the brilliant promise of young people is clouded by debt and stagnation. But the need for empathy is perhaps most vividly on display in the Middle East.

The unprecedented protests, revolutions, and uprisings of the past two years began, in fact, with a massive upswelling of empathy. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, felt so desperate that he set himself on fire. Millions of people in the Arab world saw their own voiceless, oppressed condition in Mr. Bouazizi’s plight. The tumult that followed began with a we’re-all-in-it-together spirit. Anything but the status quo would be better, most felt. Why not freedom? Why not democracy?

But two years on, the spirit of the Arab Spring has been overtaken by anger, violence, and suspicion. Opinion polls continue to show that large majorities throughout the Middle East say they want democracy. But that is where consensus ends, especially in Egypt. Some people want Western-style pluralism; some crave order; some support democracy only if it gives a central place to Islam; and some are no longer sure they want an Egypt at all.

The long-persecuted Muslim Brotherhood now holds power, but as Dan Murphy’s cover story explains, even people who voted for it in the three democratic elections it has now won are beginning to sour on it for using state power to tighten its grip on the country. Technically, democracy has come to Egypt. People have voted, and power has transferred out of the hands of the military – at least on the surface – and into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. But democracy is failing in reality because the newly empowered majority has been silencing dissent and disregarding the interests of minorities.

Nations coalesce around many things – history, language, religious heritage. They can be held together by force, as Egypt was from the time of the Pharaohs until the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. As one authoritarian ruler weakened, another rose up. Although that pattern can persist, it is ultimately unsustainable. Democracies are sustainable – but only if parties that win elections actively understand that they, too, can become unpopular, resented, and vulnerable to overthrow; that they may one day be the minority. Self-interest, in other words, is a very good reason to empathize.

The paradox is that Egyptians, more than any other people, have vivid reminders of the fleeting nature of power all around them – a surfeit of pyramids, temples, and statues marking Pharaonic immortality. Every monument to the great Ozymandiases of their day is now a colossal wreck. What has endured are the Egyptian people. It is out of their lives and experiences – not just the fortunate few, not just the newly empowered, but all Egyptians – that a functioning nation must be built.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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Robots deliver dishes to customers at a Restaurant in Harbin, China, that opened last year. The 20 robots can cook as well as serve. (Sheng Li/Reuters)

Machines versus people

By Editor / 02.06.13

The liberating promise of technology was neatly captured in the old IBM slogan “Machines should work; people should think.” Back in the day of gas station attendants, stenographers, and telephone operators, automation seemed like a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to see menial, repetitious, uncreative work replaced by a machine? Who wouldn’t want to swap a plow horse for an air-conditioned tractor?

Then brains were added to the automation agenda, first as simple mechanical programs, then computers, then complex algorithms – accelerated by advances in microchips, networks, robotics, hardware, and software. Now automation is displacing even people who think. A machine can do almost any task that falls into an observable pattern. If your work feels routine, you are a candidate for obsolescence by automation.

There will always be a place for artisanal craftsmanship. At least, I think so. At this point. Probably. But the steady, middle-class jobs that powered industrial countries through most of the 20th century are disappearing. The center of the workforce is being hollowed out. Most jobs of the future will be either at the high-skilled upper end or the low-skilled lower end. 

When politicians lament the loss of middle-class jobs, they are right about the difficulties workers face and the need for retraining and buffering during this continuous and often painful wave of dislocation. But while outsourcing and a tepid economy are often blamed, the real story is inexorable automation: ever-smarter machines working their way through the workforce. 

What does that mean if you’re a graduate looking for your first job, a mid-career professional worried about job security, or just someone who wants to do work that has real value? In a Monitor cover story, Laurent Belsie, who heads up our business and economy team, presents 10 ways to prepare for tomorrow’s job market.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have been studying the relative strengths of humans and machines. In 1997, they note, the world’s top chess master, Garry Kasparov, lost to IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer. But that wasn’t the end of the line for human chess players. It turns out that human-machine partnerships are better than either chess masters or supercomputers. As Mr. Kasparov himself described this: “Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”

Machines are good and are getting better, but humans excel at overview and improvisation. Low-skill jobs such as home health-care aides and high-skill jobs such as biomedical engineers are improved by information and tools. And human judgment improves tools and information. As Professors Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.”

A minor case in point: A vacuum-cleaning robot recently joined our household. It is amazing how smart it is. And isn’t. It diligently works the kitchen floor but needs human intervention in a tight spot. Happy to help. And, yes, little robot, message received about not leaving so many shoes and books lying around. 

If there’s a future for machines and people, it’s working together.

At least, I think so.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at

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A fan used her tablet to shoot a picture of tennis pro Andy Murray after a match in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 6. (Daniel Munoz/Reuters)

The interface is the message

By Editor / 01.27.13

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Mosaic 1.0 Web browser. For all the revolutionary disruption caused by the Internet, it was Mosaic that turned the underlying technology into the world’s instantly available library, social crossroads, and e-commerce marketplace.

Mosaic was the work of a group of computer science students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led by Marc Andreessen, who later went on to cofound Netscape and had a hand in Ning, Twitter, and Facebook. Riding on the shoulders of Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web two years earlier – which, in turn, rode on the shoulders of the thousands of scientists, engineers, government planners, and businesspeople who built the underlying Internet – Mosaic democratized the digital life. It was simple and obvious. Two decades on, it doesn’t look very different from Chrome, Safari, or other modern browsers. Mosaic made the browser a household appliance. 

The browser changed the Internet and is not going away anytime soon. But mobile applications are the interface of the moment. Apps exploded in use because of smart phones and tablets. As Chris Gaylord explains in a Monitor cover story, apps go browsers one better: They connect the digital and tactile worlds.

You can navigate with them – find restaurants, snap photos and record videos, share with friends. Everyone who uses a smart phone or tablet has a few go-to apps. My current favorites include Flipboard, Zite, and, of course, the Monitor Weekly app (admittedly, the first-generation app we have is buggy and clunky; a new and better version is on the way). I was briefly a passable talent with the Doodle Jump app. I’ve played Words With Friends. I was once household champion at Angry Birds

My app interest has settled down as the novelty of my iPhone and iPad has worn off. I now find myself relying on apps for practical things – the alarm clock app every morning, the oven timer app most evenings. I used the compass app recently to orient a weather vane. But day in and day out, the app I use most (don’t yawn) is the flashlight. It has just enough light to help me spot the tennis ball my dogs lose every night under the kitchen counter. 

The flashlight app is what any good interface should be – simple, obvious, and helpful in the real world.

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While we’re on the subject of things digital: The inner workings of the Internet era are more complex than those of the Gutenberg era. Take, for instance, advertising, which is a key way we support the continuation of Monitor journalism. 

Online advertising comes to in two distinct ways. One is through a direct sale by our advertising department. The rest flies in automatically from providers such as Google Ad Exchange. Our advertising staff checks off in advance categories we don’t want – alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, etc. Occasionally, an inappropriate ad slips through. We appreciate it when we hear from readers who see them (you can click the "About these ads" link below any ad on our site). And we quickly adjust our filters.

Some readers have complained about political ads. We hope you’ll be tolerant when these don’t fit your point of view. We monitor them to ensure they don’t engage in ad hominem attacks or fan the flames of intolerance. 

By taking ads from both sides, we think we are providing balance. And we trust our readers to decide for themselves.

John Yemma is editor of The Monitor.

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