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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
November
30
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Another week of hard news drowned out some quietly compelling stories, including a couple – one playful, one poignant – that highlight the heart-swelling irrepressibility of human expression.

Pro football in the United States hasn’t escaped politicization. But last year the NFL lightened up about on-field celebrations. Players still can’t taunt opponents or delay the game. But they can use the football as a prop in their exuberant shenanigans, and this season players have taken endzone choreography to new heights. Think bowling, or dancing in unison to the Temptations.

And in a week in which reggae, the lilting Jamaican music born of overcoming oppression, was given protected cultural-heritage status by UNESCO, the work of a Michigan musicologist highlighted a very different kind of elevation through song. Two years ago, Patricia Hall made a remarkable discovery while visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum: musical manuscripts handwritten and performed by prisoners.

Since then she has worked with others to identify the individuals behind the arrangements and bring their work to life. A performance of one of the pieces is to be livestreamed tonight at 8 p.m. ET. (It has also been recorded.)

Generated under duress, the music still somehow retains the power to uplift. Resurrecting it, Professor Hall said, was buoyant work. “[O]ne of the messages I've taken from this,” she told the Associated Press, “is the fact that even in a horrendous situation … these men were able to produce this beautiful music.”

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Now to our five stories for your Friday. We look at why political change has come slowly in Mexico, at where being a good Samaritan seems to carry risks, at lessons in human adaptability from the Tibetan Plateau, and more.

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1. Which fork in the road to take? Detroit says both.

Reaching back, to move forward? The GM cutbacks story is actually a piece of something much bigger – and a bit of a paradox.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Edward Houie works on a new Chevrolet Volt at the General Motors Hamtramck Assembly plant in Hamtramck, Mich., in 2011. GM announced this month that it will put five plants up for possible closure as it restructures to cut costs and focus more on autonomous and electric vehicles.

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The Los Angeles Auto Show officially opened today at a time when the US auto industry faces a fork in the road. The show, and the events of the past week, hint that carmakers have decided to take two paths forward. One: Build bigger and more powerful SUVs and pickups, which Americans seem to crave when gas prices are low. The other: Build electric and autonomous vehicles, which sound cool but have yet to prove they can go mainstream. General Motors struck the new tone Monday when it announced it would cut 14,200 jobs and mothball five factories to finance its future, earning an angry tweet from President Trump. Automakers are also worried about sales. On Wednesday, Ford announced it was eliminating shifts at two plants. US tariffs against China and more threatened against Europe, South Korea, and Japan could force sales to fall more sharply, forcing layoffs just as automakers prepare to renegotiate their workers’ union contract. Detroit’s hoping the hype around big and profitable SUVs and pickups will keep generating the necessary profits to invest in its road less traveled: electric and self-driving cars.

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1. Which fork in the road to take? Detroit says both.

Consider the quandary of Volkswagen’s new US chief executive.

The division will be selling a new $30,000 to $40,000 electric car in 2020, the first in a long line of promised electric vehicles. But EVs aren’t profitable and make up only a tiny share of auto sales. So what can he sell – and make money with – until EV technology gets cheaper and sales take off?

How about a pickup?

"It’s something we should look at," CEO Scott Keogh told reporters during a preview of the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opened to the public Friday.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is also going the electric route with 30 models, including a plug-in hybrid Jeep Renegade, which may or may not be sold in the United States. But what is Jeep’s biggest splash at the auto show? The Gladiator, its first new pickup in 26 years.

Having hit a technological and economic fork in the road, the auto industry appears to have decided to take both paths forward. One involves bigger and more powerful SUVs and pickups, like the Gladiator, which are expected to allow the companies to pile up profits over the next decade or so.

That money will be needed for the road less traveled. The industry is building technology and expertise to create EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs), which are expected to represent the future.

There’s just one problem. Both roads forward look rough and bumpy. There's no guarantee consumers will want EVs or fully autonomous vehicles. And counting on fat profits looks iffy with the industry facing a union contract negotiation next year and the prospect of more auto-related tariffs and an economy that might just go bust.

“We don't see a cliff,” says Michelle Krebs, executive auto analyst for Autotrader, a car-shopping website. Instead, she foresees a slow decline, with sales of just over 17 million vehicles for 2018, down from the record 17.8 million set in 2016. (November car sales will be released Monday.)

Jae C. Hong/AP
Scott Keogh, Volkswagen Group of America CEO, poses with the Buzz Cargo concept van at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov. 28, 2018.

But “if we get in a trade war, and big tariffs are applied to imported vehicles and imported car parts, then all bets are off,” she adds.

After a near-death in the Great Recession that required government bailouts for General Motors and Chrysler, the US auto industry has been on a tear. Sales rose steadily through 2016. Since then, sales have softened a little. Now, the industry faces a host of looming political, technological, and consumer challenges, which signal tougher times ahead.

One of the biggest challenges is political. A trade war – levied either against Europe or China or both – could be devastating for the US industry. The Trump administration has threatened to impose 25 percent tariffs on imports of cars to the US, raising car prices for consumers coming from Europe, South Korea, and Japan.

Separately, the White House has imposed a 10 percent tariff on car parts made in China, which President Trump is threatening to increase to 25 percent on Jan. 1. The administration hopes to convince foreign companies to build cars in the US, but it would take a few years for the factories to be built and auto jobs created.

More job cuts expected

Until then, however, the tariffs are likely to reduce auto jobs. The 25 percent duty on autos and auto parts would raise car prices by an average $2,450, reduce annual sales by 1.2 million, and cut US auto-related employment by nearly 200,000, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Such massive job cuts would complicate the industry’s negotiations with the United Autoworkers, whose contract expires next September.

“The concern going into the 2019 negotiations will be largely maintaining jobs,” says Marick Masters, a labor expert at Wayne State University. “With the whole restructuring of the companies … the union is going to be very concerned about product placement, investments in plants in the US, and also how they might take advantage of the move toward electrification and ensure that their workforce is trained to perform those types of jobs.”

Another trend: Americans increasingly prefer pickups, SUVs, and crossovers to passenger cars. That’s good news for US carmakers, because they make more money with the former than with the latter.

Already automakers are trying to realign themselves. On Monday, General Motors announced it would be cutting 14,200 jobs and closing factories in order to pay for a transition to EVs and AVs and prepare for slower sales. The mothballed factories include the Hamtramck, Mich., and Lordstown, Ohio, car-assembly plants, where workers have endured previous downturns. 

The move earned an angry tweet from Mr. Trump: ''The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get!”

Two days later, Ford announced it was eliminating shifts at two factories in order to increase production of its popular Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs. For both automakers, it’s an uncertain future.

EVs' small market share

For example: The industry is pursuing Tesla by committing to EVs in a big way, even though there are no guarantees that customers will buy them. Currently, all-electric vehicles account for some 1 percent of annual auto sales. Navigant Research predicts global sales will grow sixfold through 2025. But that will still account for a small share of the overall market, and much of that growth may come from China, which is heavily subsidizing EVs.

“The gasoline engine will be dominant for at least 10 years or more,” says Ms. Krebs of Autotrader. “All those alternative-propulsion systems are extremely expensive [to develop]. Automakers are not going to be making money on them” anytime soon.

Another uncertainty: autonomous vehicles. The industry has partnered with Silicon Valley firms to create cars that drive themselves. But in March, a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Ariz., hit and killed a woman.

Since then, consumer skepticism about the technology has grown. In a May survey of 1,250 people, Cox Automotive found that autonomous driving appealed to only 17 percent, compared with 30 percent two years ago. Nearly half said they would never buy a fully autonomous car.

The industry’s challenge with both AVs and EVs will be to take the niche interest and grow it into mainstream appeal.

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2. With new president’s inauguration, leftist leadership comes back to Mexico

Since 1940, Mexico has defied a regional trend toward leftist leaders in Latin America. That will change Saturday. This piece explores why the shift took so much longer than many expected.

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When Andrés Manuel López Obrador is sworn into office this weekend, he will end a nearly 80-year absence of left-wing politicians from Mexico’s highest office. Even as communists and leftists thrived across Latin America over the decades, including during the “Pink Tide” since the turn of the millennium, they found no footing in Mexico. That stems in large part from the reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years and was defined more by its authoritarian grip than coherent party platforms. But US influence played a role too. In the late 1980s, the PRI prevented leftist Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas from winning the presidency. And the United States did not react. “The US looked the other way” from the allegations of voting fraud, says John Ackerman, a law professor. “Mexico would have been the first country in the Pink Tide if it weren’t for electoral fraud.” Now as Latin America’s second-largest economy turns left, the regional trend is shifting the other direction, with conservative and right-wing leadership taking power from Brazil to Argentina. “There’s a lot at stake,” says Professor Ackerman. “Mexico is going left when others are going right, which turns Mexico into a focal point” for other nations to watch.

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With new president’s inauguration, leftist leadership comes back to Mexico

Mexico has a long history of ties with the global political and intellectual left, from taking in exiled leftist politicians like Leon Trotsky to cozying up to Cuba during the cold war, or even dating back to its famous 1910 Revolution that overthrew dictator Porfirio Díaz.

Yet, despite these instances that suggest Mexico as a bastion for leftist, revolutionary ideals in the region, it hasn’t had a leftist leader of its own for nearly eight decades.

This weekend, surrounded by world leaders including Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro, that’s poised to change. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, will be inaugurated as Mexico’s 58th president and its first leftist leader since 1940. He campaigned on promises to end corruption and stamp out inequality, and has pledged that his sexenio, or six-year term, will go down in history as the newest Mexican revolution, creating an entirely new political and social landscape here.

Latin America rode a wave of leftist leadership, focused on broad social-welfare spending and policies that emphasized equality and opportunities for minorities, for most of the 21st century so far. Yet, this so-called “Pink Tide” never reached Mexican shores. Now, the regional trend is shifting to the right, with conservative and right-wing leadership taking power from Brazil to Peru to Argentina.

As Latin America’s second-largest economy turns to the left this weekend, many question whether AMLO can deliver on his vast promises. But perhaps more pressing on Mexico’s left is the concern that a failure to deliver could mean another return to the wilderness, excluded from power and out of the political game.

Left on the outside

Mexico’s lack of leftist leadership stems in large part from the reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years. The PRI was defined more by its authoritarian grip on election boxes than coherent party platforms and policy approaches shared from one leader to the next.

“The PRI was a multi-class, multi-region monster of a party. It was very inclusive,” says Joy Langston, a professor of political science at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, who studies Mexican political parties. In fact, AMLO launched his political involvement as a member of the PRI, splitting off in 1988 and joining an early leftist opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. “Part of the reason the left was unable to win elections [for so long] was basically this enormous authoritarian party and regime took away its voters.”

Even today, the PRI has a strong base in poor enclaves of the country, where for decades there’s been an understanding that a vote for the party’s candidate would translate to vital handouts, whether food, land, or financial support from the state. “That took away part of the left’s obvious voting base – the poorest of the poor,” Dr. Langston says.

As Mexico opened up and modernized, many expected to see parties and organizations outside the PRI emerge and become more powerful. That happened, but for the left it took longer than many hoped or expected, with a handful of small, radical movements and parties bursting onto the scene following electoral reforms in the late 1970s, only to fizzle out.

In the late 1980s, the left looked poised to win the presidency under a charismatic candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.

“Mexico would have been the first country in the Pink Tide if it weren’t for electoral fraud in 1988,” says John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, whose wife Irma Sandoval will be part of AMLO’s cabinet.

It was one of the final efforts by the PRI to hold on to power as the electoral system opened up to broader competition. By 2000, it was ousted by the National Action Party – whose ticket had the most appealing candidate profile, though not necessarily the most attractive platform, Langston says.

But Mr. Cárdenas’ loss highlighted another key factor that may have impeded the left’s progress in Mexico: US influence. “Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas implied a change in economic policy that would have been radically different from previous takes and the interests of the US,” says Mr. Ackerman. “The US looked the other way” from the allegations of voting fraud.

Mexico’s proximity to the US has influenced its relationship with the global left – and the left at home, experts say.

Part of the “reason Mexico had relations with Cuba and the Soviets was about balancing power against the US,” says Aaron Navarro, associate professor of Mexican history at Texas Christian University. Allying with the left allowed Mexico to create a diplomatic space between it and its much more powerful northern neighbor. “They kept relations with these communist countries not because Mexico has these inherent leftist tendencies, but because it was trying to demonstrate to the US that they were independent of US policy in a way no other Latin American country did.”

‘There’s a lot at stake’

This summer’s election was AMLO’s third attempt at the presidency, but unlike previous campaigns, this time he created his own political party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). His party coalition won control of the Senate and Congress in the July 1 elections, giving him broad power to push through his proposed agenda, which includes expanding pension programs for the elderly and creating vast scholarship opportunities for the poor.

MORENA’s victory completely shook up Mexico’s historic party system. The election results were seen as a sign of widespread rejection of the status quo in Mexican politics.

But with a five-month transition period, AMLO has had plenty of time to raise concerns over his ability to govern within the constraints of democracy. A poorly managed referendum in October resulted in the cancellation of a $13 billion airport project – a major campaign talking point, but a move that created widespread panic in financial markets. According to a poll in daily newspaper El Universal, his approval ratings have fallen 9 percent since August – even though he has yet to take office.

“There’s a lot at stake,” says Ackerman. “Mexico is going left when others are going right, which turns Mexico into a focal point” for other nations to watch, he says.

Some say it’s not just the reputation of a governing left in Mexico that’s at stake, but democracy as a whole. Even before his victory, many academics and opposition politicians sounded alarm bells here that an AMLO victory could mean an erosion of democracy in Mexico, based in part on his reaction to losing the presidency in 2006. He lost that vote by less than a percentage point – which he protested by holding a parallel inauguration and declaring himself the nation’s “legitimate president.”

“There’s an enormous amount riding on AMLO’s ability to govern,” says Langston. “If he really blows it, it will be worse than just ‘bad for the left.’ ”

Given the strong link between AMLO and the party he created, some experts see any potential failure reflecting poorly on the new leader – not necessarily leftist movements as a whole. “If his government fails to a greater or lesser degree, it would probably be on him,” says Dr. Navarro. “It would be on his plate.”

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3. How being a ‘good guy with a gun’ carries new risks for black men

What do Americans picture when they hear the word “hero”? That’s one of the questions raised by two tragedies in which good Samaritans may have been altogether misperceived. 

Jay Reeves/AP
April Pipkins holds a photograph of her son, Emantic ‘E.J.’ Bradford Jr., in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 27, 2018. Bradford was shot to death by a police officer in a shopping mall on Thanksgiving night, and Pipkins said she believes her son would still be alive had he been white.

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At a time when guns rights activists have suggested that “good guys with guns” are a solution for stopping mass shooters, some black gun owners are wondering if “helping while black” is too dangerous, pointing to recent tragedies where African-American military veterans and security guards were killed rather than the shooters they were trying to stop. Law enforcement officers push back on the idea that racial bias played a role in the killings. “Make no mistake, this is not a race issue. We have over a million concealed carry license permits in Texas alone, and here we have two shootings where people happen to be black,” says Sheriff A.J. "Andy" Louderback of Jackson County in Texas. But for more than one black gun owner, the shootings reinforce the struggle for police – and Americans more broadly – to address biases that become heightened when guns are drawn. “There are 16 million concealed carry permit holders around the nation ... and the training has not caught up from the law enforcement side or the civilian side,” says Maj Toure, founder of Black Guns Matter. “Meanwhile, the television has told you that the white dude with the AR-15 is supposed to have it. When you see a black guy with a gun, the ‘good guy with a gun’ goes out the window. There is conditioning involved, and we have to break that stigma.”

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How being a ‘good guy with a gun’ carries new risks for black men

On Thanksgiving night, a shooter opened fire at the Riverchase Galleria mall in Hoover, Ala. Police killed one man.

But as has become increasingly clear, Emantic “E.J.” Bradford Jr. was one of the good guys.

The military veteran and legal gun carrier from Hueytown, Ala., was likely killed while trying to protect his fellow citizens, according to eyewitness reports. And for that, his family says, he died ignominiously. Police arrested the alleged shooter Thursday.

The Thanksgiving tragedy in Hoover, Ala., highlights an American problem: The deaths of black men, legally armed and who have committed no crime, at the hands of police. At a time when the president and guns rights activists have suggested that “good guys with guns” are a solution for stopping mass shooters, some black gun owners are wondering if “helping while black” is too dangerous.

“Black heroes don’t get the same deference that white heroes do,” says Chad King, an African-American IT worker and co-founder of the Black Bottom Gun Club in Detroit. “In fact, I wish that wide latitude of deference was extended to African-American heroes and victims in the same way that it is extended to white American perpetrators of mass shootings [who have been taken alive]. That is a gap that is irreconcilable to me. It can’t work like that.”

When the helpers get killed

The killing of Mr. Bradford is not a stand-alone example. Three days before his death, a young man named Jemel Roberson was buried in Illinois. An aspiring police officer and legal gun-carrier, Mr. Roberson singlehandedly apprehended a mass shooter at Manny’s Blue Room bar in Robbins, where Roberson worked as a security guard. A Midlothian police officer responded, and shot and killed Roberson. In June, Navy veteran Jason Washington was shot and killed by Portland State University police in Oregon, after reportedly trying to stop a fight outside a bar. Witnesses say Washington was trying to de-escalate the situation, including confiscating his friend’s gun. He had a pistol permit. A grand jury declined to indict the two officers involved.

“We now live in a time where there are no longer clear rules of engagement on the street for law enforcement, and where people who try to help often wind up suffering the most – for trying to help,” says Charles Rose, a law professor at Stetson University, in DeLand, Fla. “It also points to a fundamental problem in society: that a black man carrying a weapon is a suspect and a white man carrying a weapon is not always a suspect. That doesn’t speak to law enforcement. That speaks to American society.”

Studies have found that Americans are more likely to see armed black men more as threats than armed white men. Active shooter situations leave police officers little time and space to sift through biases.

“Cops have to assume that when they roll up on a situation everybody is armed, and you have to assume that anyone with a weapon that is not identified as a police officer is a potential threat,” says Professor Rose. “And those decisions have to be made in a split second.”

In both cases, law enforcement faulted the men – Bradford for allegedly “brandishing” his weapon, Roberson for not responding to police orders quickly enough. Investigations will determine whether eyewitness accounts agree with those assessments.

“One of the real issues here is that law enforcement cannot change the way they address people that they see with weapons in a shooting confrontation area. We can’t change our training or else we are going to suffer from that,” says Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback of Jackson County in Texas. “Make no mistake, this is not a race issue. We have over a million concealed carry license permits in Texas alone and here we have two shootings where people happen to be black. But the way to address it is that we have millions who carry and who make that choice and accept that risk, and may not be handling law enforcement intervention correctly.”

Sheriff Louderback believes that license-to-carry programs should better train people on how to interact with law enforcement and to minimize risk.

“You know that law enforcement is coming to every shooting. It is just a matter of minutes, seconds, for them to get there,” he says. “What you do after that time frame is critical, and that’s the message.”

Even as a majority of states have embraced laws that support expanded gun and self-defense rights, the US is also seeing shifts in African-American perceptions about gun ownership. While the majority of African-Americans support gun control, Pew found that the percentage of black Americans who support gun rights rose from 18 percent in 1993 to 34 percent in 2014.

It also comes amid a philosophical clash among those who see themselves as armed protectors, also highlighted by the shooting at Riverchase: Bradford was trained as a soldier in deescalation techniques, but a different use of force paradigm was in operation on Thanksgiving.

“As a side effect of the global war on terror, the military is very well-trained in how to deal with noncombatants in volatile situations without having to engage in deadly force,” says Rose, a former US Army judge advocate. “US law enforcement is routinely trained to start with deadly force. Those two mindsets don’t cross-pollinate very well, and I don’t know that it’s law enforcement’s fault.”

The shootings have shocked communities and stunned police departments.

The mayor of Hoover and other officials offered an apology to Bradford’s family Tuesday for the city initially publicizing a false narrative that Bradford was the shooter. “The mayor was shaking like a leaf,” Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson told AL.com. “The family was crying; the mayor was about to cry; I was crying.”

In Illinois, Midlothian Police Chief Daniel Delaney called Roberson “a brave man who was doing his best to end an active shooter situation.”

African-Americans and the Second Amendment

The victims “are the idealized armed citizens ... yet time after time our law enforcement and our legal structures do not support their Second Amendment right,” says Harvard University historian Caroline Light, author of “Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense.” These tragic police shootings are “evidence of the massive gaping holes in our understanding of self-defense in the nation. It is about who is really allowed to protect and defend themselves, ... [which] is exclusionary to its very core. No matter how law-abiding you are, a black man holding a gun is perceived as a criminal – not a good Samaritan or lawfully armed citizen.”

But even as departments assess the incidents – and state authorities investigate more deeply – the killings suggest an uncomfortable truth about the Second Amendment itself, historians say: That it was at least in part designed to give legal leeway to settlers to deal with Native Americans and to stamp out slave rebellions in the South. Echoes of that history still infiltrate the modern gun rights debate.

“The history of this country suggests that the Second Amendment [is] not intended for people like the gentleman in Alabama, which is why he got shot,” says Gerald Horne, author of “The Counter-Revolution of 1776.”

In researching her latest book, the University of Arizona gun culture expert Jennifer Carlson interviewed 79 US police chiefs. She found that active shooter scenarios especially are “scramb[ling] the racial politics of policing.” It leaves police chiefs “grasping for a narrative” that explains the “unpredictable vulnerability of active shooter situations.”

For one black gun owner, the shootings reinforce the broader struggle for police – and Americans more broadly – to address biases that become heightened when guns are drawn.

“There are 16 million concealed carry permit holders around the nation and less than two decades ago there were a minuscule amount, and the training has not caught up from the law enforcement side or the civilian side,” says Maj Toure, a Philadelphia hip-hop artist and founder of Black Guns Matter. “Meanwhile, the television has told you that the white dude with the AR-15 is supposed to have it. When you see a black guy with a gun, the ‘good guy with a gun’ goes out the window. There is conditioning involved, and we have to break that stigma.”

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4. Tibetan discovery: How early people conquered the ‘Roof of the World’

The human species has set itself apart by colonizing the farthest reaches of the globe. This next report looks at the continuous adaptability that process has required.

Yingshuai Jin/AAAS
Workers excavate the Newa Devu archaeological site on the Tibetan Plateau in China. Newa Devu is the highest Paleolithic archaeological site yet identified. It provides new insight into high-altitude adaptation.

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It’s rare that a single species can make its home almost anywhere on the planet. But Homo sapiens has done just that. Our species has colonized everything from the tropics to the Arctic, mountains to valleys, islands to plateaus. “If you take a look at the terrestrial environment, we can live anywhere,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced. Except, perhaps, he adds, someplace like the inside of a volcano. One of the most extreme environments for humans to live is on the Tibetan Plateau. At nearly three miles above sea level, the air is thin, the temperatures are frigid, and there’s minimal vegetation. And yet people have made this highland home – perhaps for 30,000 years, according to new archaeological evidence. There’s still a lot to learn about how humans came to colonize such a seemingly hostile environment during the last ice age. But the tale is one that highlights the adaptability and resourcefulness of early people. And our ability to migrate so readily may just explain why our species now reigns.

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Tibetan discovery: How early people conquered the ‘Roof of the World’

The Tibetan Plateau doesn’t seem like a very inviting place to live. At nearly three miles above sea level, the air is extremely thin. And yet, despite minimal vegetation and frigid temperatures, people have made this highland home – perhaps for tens of thousands of years.

Stone tools newly unearthed on the plateau could be the first hard evidence that people made a living at those high elevations some 30,000 years ago. Genetics had hinted at that timeline, but archaeologists hadn’t found any sites older than 15,000 years old – until now. The new find was published Thursday in the journal Science.

The peopling of such a seemingly hostile environment is a story of human ingenuity, adaptability, and migration. And it’s not a unique one. Our species has colonized almost the entire planet, from the Arctic to savannas, tropical rainforests to deserts. This highland chapter in the human history book highlights the overall flexibility and resourcefulness of early people.

Unlike other animals, “if you take a look at the terrestrial environment, we can live anywhere,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist specializing in high-elevation sites at the University of California, Merced. Except perhaps, he adds, someplace like the inside of a volcano.

But high-elevation places like the Tibetan Plateau have long been thought to be one of the last and most challenging places for humans to live, Dr. Aldenderfer says. So how, then, could ice-age humans possibly have come to live up there?

At the time, there was no high-tech way to know whether the landscape over the next hill was barren or plentiful with resources without going there to check it out.

That might have been part of what happened, with scouts looking around (on foot) for new places to make a living. But the Tibetan Plateau probably wasn’t a day’s jog from most populations. This migration likely happened over a long period of time, as populations perhaps followed resources or moved away from overcrowded or warring groups.

Aldenderfer is partial to the idea that people were pulled to new places by following resources, not pushed there. “It’s still not a lovely place,” he says of the Tibetan Plateau. But 30,000 years ago, he explains, the climate was improving. It was a warmer period during the last ice age, the last one before the Last Glacial Maximum, and plants and animals moved up to higher elevations. Humans at lower elevations near the Tibetan Plateau would’ve followed those familiar food resources up, and realized the high-elevation flat land wasn’t so bad. At the time, grasslands and other vegetation up there would have supported a range of animals.

But it’s not all about food at such high elevations, Aldenderfer says. “Deserts are hard [to occupy] and poles are hard, but the high-plateaus are hard in a different way. There’s the whole hypoxia problem,” he explains, referring to the added challenge of breathing at high altitudes.

That’s where biology comes in. Tibetan highlanders today have a genetic trait that helps them breathe in enough oxygen at high-elevation that other humans don’t have. Scientists aren’t sure how that evolved, but previous genetic research suggests that it may be the result of interbreeding with archaic humans: Neanderthals’ Siberian cousins, Denisovans.

Human adaptability

But some scientists think there might be something more than need and genetics behind human migrations into extremes. “From a logically intuitive point of view you might say, ‘stay low, just avoid the plateau, walk around the edges,’ ” says John Olsen, a co-author on the new paper and regents’ professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and a researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences. But “maybe part of the human story involves … a philosophy that something interesting is over the next horizon.”

There seems to be something uniquely human – Homo sapiens at least – about such colonization of the extremes.

Xing Gao/AAAS
Artifacts found at the Newa Devu archaeological site suggest that the Tibetan Plateau was occupied at least 30,000 years ago.

A team of researchers analyzed the environments in which fossils from other members of the genus Homo (such as Neanderthals, Homo erectus, etc.) have been found. Those other human species resided largely in mixed forest and grassland environments, whereas our species, even prehistorically, has lived in everything from tropical forests to the Arctic Circle to deserts and more.

Homo sapiens, it turns out, can acclimate to pretty much any environment, but once we’re in it, we can become highly specialized to that environment, developing tools and adaptations to exploit the specific resources offered there.

That combination of being adaptable generalists who also specialize is unusual. Animals are usually one or the other, explains Patrick Roberts, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who led that study. Raccoons, for example, are generalists. They can eat anything, and aren’t too picky about their environment. Giant pandas, on the other hand, live only in humid bamboo forests on mountains in China, and only munch on those bamboo forests. They’re specialists. But Homo sapiens are different.

And that might be why we now reign.

“We’re not just making use of the most rationally optimal environments,” Dr. Roberts explains. And so, during periods of challenging climate, humans are able to survive more readily off the resources available. During the last ice age, when the other members of the genus Homo went extinct, he says, “It’s very clear that we were specializing at the same time as other species were generalizing. And that’s what allows us to exploit all these environments.”

Secret of our success

But what is it about our species that allows us to do that? Some researchers have suggested human intelligence and creativity are part of the answer. Although Neanderthal artwork has been found, and there’s evidence that Homo erectus used fire, Homo sapiens have been particularly adept at altering our environments.

“Human beings have developed this response, the sort of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ quality of human behavior that says, ‘well, yeah we have a challenge here in this environment. But how do we overcome it, technologically?’ ” Olsen says.

Roberts says because Homo sapiens evolved out of a period of climate fluctuations (during the last ice age), our species probably inherited traits to make us particularly successful at adapting to varying environments. It’s natural selection at work. And that, in turn, helped us out-compete other hominids.

But that’s a “double-edged sword,” Roberts says. During the last ice age, such a voracious ability to exploit the environment was advantageous. But now, he says, with a disconnect from knowledge of how the environment responds, that capability is seeming more dangerous.

There’s still a lot to learn about what makes our species unique. But our view of our own ancestors has already changed. It used to be that scientists wouldn’t look in extreme environments for prehistoric human remains. But now, Roberts says, scientists believe our species has long been capable of living in the extremes.

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On Film

5. Seven November movies that you shouldn’t miss

Talk to critic Peter Rainier this time of year and he’s likely to mention the surge of Oscar bait. “Though this year,” he tells us, “the crop is especially plentiful and tasty.” The value of family is powerfully rendered in “Shoplifters” and “Roma.” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” may make converts of Coen brothers holdouts. There’s “Green Book,” a master class in acting. And there’s even something long delayed from Orson Welles. Click below to read Peter’s November picks. 

Alfonso Cuarón/Netflix/AP
Yalitza Aparicio stars in “Roma,” by filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The film is a semi-autobiographical reminiscence, filmed in lustrous black and white, of an upper-middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma, where the director grew up in the early 1970s.
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Seven November movies that you shouldn’t miss

Monitor film critic Peter Rainer was impressed by several movies that were released this month, including "Roma," Alfonso Cuaron's most personal film, and actor Willem Dafoe portraying Van Gogh.

‘At Eternity’s Gate’ features career-best Willem Dafoe

“I am my paintings,” says Vincent van Gogh, played by Willem Dafoe in a career-best performance, in Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” which follows the artist through his last tumultuous and astonishingly prolific years in the late 1880s in the south of France. Watching this explosively lyrical film, you can believe it.

Schnabel is, of course, a celebrated artist as well as a powerful, if powerfully uneven, filmmaker, and what he captures here is what it must have been like to be Van Gogh. It’s an artist’s imagining of what another artist might have felt. He never does break away from the romantic, madness-of-genius cliché that has dogged so many movies and commentaries about Van Gogh. Instead, he embraces it because he believes it authenticates the turmoil that goes into creating great art. Of course, turmoil can also create bad art, but such is Schnabel’s ardor that I bought into the banality even though I think Van Gogh was a great artist despite rather than because of his mental anguish.

I have a bit less sympathy for the ways in which the filmmakers shoehorn conjecture and flat-out mythmaking into the narrative. But the film comes to a great and sorrowing finish when we hear Vincent’s words, “I thought an artist has to teach a way to look at the rest of the world. Not anymore. Now I just think of my relationship with eternity.” One of the great achievements of this movie is that, in the end, Van Gogh’s words enter into our soul with the same force as the paintings. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some thematic content.)

'Roma' is Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film

Alfonso Cuarón is probably the most prodigiously versatile film artist working today. His new film, after a break of five years, is “Roma,” which he also wrote and served as cinematographer for, and it’s his most personal, a semi-autobiographical reminiscence, filmed in lustrous black and white, of an upper-middle-class family in the Mexico City neighborhood of Colonia Roma where he grew up in the early 1970s. 

Its central figure is Cleo, played by a young woman, Yalitza Aparicio, with no previous acting experience. A domestic worker, Cleo lives in a guest house in the back of the family estate and is nanny to the four rambunctious children of Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a physician in a local hospital who, not long after the film begins, walks out on the family, leaving behind a kind of makeshift matriarchy that also includes the children’s grandmother. The focus is almost always on Cleo, which is probably just as well, since Sofía’s grievances are not richly rendered. 

The fact that Cuarón films so much of this film somewhat distanced from the action, with such sparing use of close-ups that it took me a long time to get a fix on what anybody looked like, is no doubt intentional: It’s his way of memorializing his story, his reminiscence, by fixing it in the mind free of melodramatic ploys. But as evocative and soulful as I found parts of this movie, I experienced these stylistics as more evasion than immersion. Cuarón is so careful to avoid overdramatizing the narrative that his steady-state underplaying ends up seeming equally coercive. But this is not how we are supposed to react to “Roma.” We are supposed to regard it as “real life.” Grade: A- (Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language. It’s in Spanish and Mixtec with English subtitles.)

Orson Welles would likely approve of making-of doc 'They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead' 

From the indefatigable filmmaker Morgan Neville, who earlier this year came out with the marvelous Fred Rogers documentary "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?," comes "They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead," which chronicles the making of Orson Welles’s “final” film, "The Other Side of the Wind." "Wind" was shot between 1970 and 1976 and was only partially edited. It was beset by legal woes and held in French vaults and labs for almost 40 years. Both Neville’s film and “The Other Side of the Wind” are being released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix. I would advise seeing Welles’s film first. It’s more rewarding and less confusing that way.

Neville’s film, which draws on interviews with surviving crew and actors as well as behind-the-scenes footage, explores the making of “The Other Side of the Wind” (less so the mechanics of its restoration) but focuses equally on Welles’s mythology, some of it self-made, all of it enthralling.

His film isn’t just a companion piece to “The Other Side of the Wind.” As it turns out, bearing Welles’s words in mind, it becomes almost a meta version of Welles’s movie. I would like to think that the great magician himself would have approved. Grade: A- (This movie is not rated.)  

For ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ Coens travel to Old West

This new movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which is in theaters and on Netflix, strikes me as mid-to-upper range Coen fare. It’s an anthology film consisting of six discrete vignettes set in the Old West. 

The eponymous first episode, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy and deadly marksman, is also the film’s best. From here on, the episodes are hit-and-miss. Even the good sections have their weak spots. 

In this new film, the Coen brothers' extraordinary jeweler’s-eye attention to detail, their gift for concocting dialogue in plummy 19th-century vernacular, their lyrical embrace of wide-open landscapes, and their woeful nihilism that conceives of a world where paradise is always on the precipice of ruination are hallmarks of something much more than mere jokesterism. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some strong violence.)

In 'Green Book,' lessons are learned in Jim Crow South

There are certain movies that shamelessly manipulate you and yet, even while knowing this, you fall for them anyway. Such a movie is “Green Book,” an audience pleaser of the first magnitude that floated merrily above my many objections. Based on true events, the film is set in 1962, when we are first introduced to Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen), a cocky Italian-American bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City whose nickname comes from his genius for talking his way out of anything. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained African-American jazz pianist, hires him to be his driver and bodyguard on an extended winter music tour with his trio through the Deep South.

We are told that Doc, who doesn’t need the money, not to mention the grief, is undertaking this tour because he wants to make a political point. This social-activist motivation doesn’t really come through in Ali’s performance, though. And Tony, who is shown in the beginning trashing two drinking glasses in his kitchen because some black workers drank from them, too quickly shucks his prejudices. 

All these objections, and more, are valid, but as I warned at the outset, they don’t really matter. This film cuts right through your defenses. That’s because the performances by the two actors, especially Mortensen, are so hugely entertaining. Peter Farrelly, who directed and co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga, also co-directed “Dumb & Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary.” He knows how to work a comedy sketch (if not moments of high drama, like the one in which Tony rescues Doc from belligerent white patrons in a bar fight). Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material.)

Unreleased Orson Welles film ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ arrives

In the summer of 1970, Orson Welles embarked on a movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” that he fervently hoped would bring him back into the Hollywood fold after more than a decade of self-imposed exile in Europe following a string of commercial flops. As was too often the case in Welles’s career, things went horribly wrong. Welles died in 1985 without his cherished project ever seeing the light of a film projector. 

And so, after all this hoo-ha, what do I make of the film, which centers on a legendary, self-exiled director, played by John Huston, as he scrambles to complete the movie he hopes will revive his Hollywood glory? Welles has always been a cinema icon for me, and I approached this “new” movie as one might approach a new symphony by Beethoven. Having seen it, my overwhelming feeling is not exaltation but sadness. I look at this maddening pastiche and think of all the great movies he might have made.

For Welles aficionados, and perhaps only for them, “The Other Side of the Wind” will function as a skeleton key to the themes and obsessions of his entire career. “The Other Side of the Wind” comes to us as a kind of time capsule of an era when Hollywood, for a brief time, opened its doors wide to creative risk. It never did welcome Welles, though, and this last, bewilderingly hectic movie from him can best be viewed, I think, not so much as a high achievement in its own right as an indictment of Hollywood’s criminal neglect. Grade: B+ (This movie is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, and some language.)

‘Shoplifters’ asks, what is the true meaning of family?

In “Shoplifters,” written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda and the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Japan’s entry for the best foreign language film Oscar, 12-year-old Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Osamu (Lily Franky), presumably his father, encounter a crying 5-year-old child, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). She is alone and apparently neglected by her parents. Torn about what to do, they take her back with them, if only to provide a temporary refuge. It is then that we encounter the extended Shibata family, which appears to be a tightknit, impoverished, multi-generational assemblage hidden away from the street, in tight quarters, in a run-down section of Tokyo. As the film incrementally unwinds, we discover they are not altogether who they seem to be. 

Despite all that is good about “Shoplifters,” I found the central conceit bothersome. I also don’t think Kore-eda’s implicit thesis about what truly constitutes a family is such an earth-shatterer. It’s not exactly news that we don’t get to choose who our parents or siblings are, or that we can feel deep familial attachments to those to whom we are unrelated.

But in the end, Kore-eda, for all the cooked-up moments in “Shoplifters,” knows where the heart of his story is. Its final, wrenching fadeout, with little Yuri navigating her bereft new life, is beyond praise. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. In Japanese with English subtitles.)

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The Monitor's View

Poland rediscovers EU values

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

Poland’s governing party reversed itself last week and agreed to honor a core principle of judicial independence. It will now allow two dozen Supreme Court judges to return to work after forcing them into early retirement this year. The right-wing Law and Justice party had sought to control the courts by simply dismissing judges at will, seeing rule of law as expendable in a democracy. It chafed under European Union rules about the need for constitutional constraints on the power of majority. Yet both the EU and many Poles stood up for the democratic values that bind the bloc and have helped keep peace in postwar Europe. The victory for the EU shows it still commands the moral authority to corral member states into following the EU’s fundamental values. Central to those values is the implied equality before the law and the supremacy of law to democratic rule. Courts serve a vital role as a check on power, mooring rule of law on constitutional principles. Poland, which suffered so much at the hands of countries that violated those principles, should recognize its strength to preserve a society.

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Poland rediscovers EU values

The closer Britain gets to leaving the European Union, the more people in other member states seem to remember why the EU exists. The latest example: Poland’s governing party reversed itself last week and agreed to honor a core EU principle of judicial independence. It will now allow two dozen Supreme Court judges to return to work after forcing them into early retirement this year.

The right-wing Law and Justice party had sought to control the courts by simply dismissing judges at will, seeing rule of law as expendable in a democracy. It chafed under EU rules about the need for constitutional constraints on the power of majority. Yet both the EU and many Poles stood up for the democratic values that bind the bloc and have helped keep peace in postwar Europe.

Last year, the EU threatened to strip Poland of its voting rights. The European Court of Justice, meanwhile, deemed the action illegal. And in local elections in October, Polish voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling party. The electoral setback worried leaders that they might lose parliamentary polls due next year. The party also suffered from a corruption scandal.

Within Europe, support for the EU is highest in Poland – more than 80 percent. The country is also the biggest beneficiary of EU funds. Since joining the Union in 2004, however, Poland has also joined a few other Eastern European nations in drifting toward illiberal populism. The crisis over the courts has forced it to revisit reasons for staying in the EU.

The victory for Brussels shows it still commands the moral authority to corral member states into following the EU’s fundamental values. Central to those values is the implied equality before the law and the supremacy of law to democratic rule. Courts serve a vital role as a check on power, mooring rule of law on constitutional principles. Poland, which suffered so much at the hands of countries that violated those principles, should recognize its strength to preserve a society.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Asthma and emphysema healed

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Today’s contributor shares how a demanding career in dance opened up for him after being healed through Christian Science of two debilitating respiratory conditions.

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Asthma and emphysema healed

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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As a child I was diagnosed with both asthma and emphysema. My mother was a Christian Scientist, but at the time my father was not, and to honor his wishes I received medical treatment. Both conditions persisted, though, and when the symptoms were particularly troublesome, I was grateful for how my mother’s loving and strong sharing of spiritual ideas she’d learned in Christian Science eased the discomfort. One of my favorite ideas was that our real identity is actually not material; we are spiritual expressions of God, divine Love, and therefore naturally express His harmony and goodness.

After high school I went to study at a ballet boarding school in France. However, the respiratory difficulties prevented me from participating fully in the program. The school mandated that I see a doctor, who kindly prescribed a list of medications.

But I wanted to do more than just manage the symptoms, and I knew from healings I had witnessed and experienced that Christian Science could bring permanent healing. So instead of having the prescriptions filled, I contacted a member of the branch Church of Christ, Scientist, I had been attending locally and asked her for Christian Science treatment. The woman agreed to pray for me in this way, which meant using the practice of healing prayer as explained in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy. This kind of prayer is grounded in understanding the true nature of God as Love and our unchanging relation to God as Love’s reflections.

As we both prayed, something I had been learning in Christian Science became clearer to me: that I was not a struggling mortal but the spiritual and whole offspring of God. As such, I could never be encumbered by an inability to function. God, divine Spirit, is ever active, present, and supremely powerful.

I thought of a time I’d been instantly healed of flu symptoms when I had prayed and had gained an insight into my safety as God’s child. So I felt confident that in this instance, too, I would be healed and that the breathing problems had never touched my real identity. Understanding that God’s power and goodness are supreme enables us to experience practical evidences of that fact in our daily lives.

This proved true when I was at the church member’s home for lunch with her and her husband and had the opportunity to walk their dachshunds. The thought came to me that I could never walk these two energetic dogs. But I was reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). I also remembered a statement from Science and Health referring to God as divine Mind: “Mind is the source of all movement, and there is no inertia to retard or check its perpetual and harmonious action” (p. 283).

These ideas reminded me that freedom of movement is everyone’s natural, God-given right, and our ability to express this freedom cannot be limited. The joy of demonstrating and living this is ours always.

I was able to easily complete and even enjoy the dog walking, taking delight in the dogs’ exuberance. And after a wonderful French meal, I returned home by catching the local bus and then, without difficulty, walking back to my dorm room.

The final healing occurred about a week later. I felt a recurrence of the symptoms coming on and mentally affirmed my status of spiritual perfection. I instantly felt calm and was able to breathe freely. One moment I was struggling; the next I was completely free. And from that point on, the symptoms never returned.

I was able to return to the ballet program full time and later danced professionally in both ballet and modern dance. This was over 40 years ago, and the healing has proved permanent.

Is it any wonder that I’ve dedicated my career to dance? I believe that each day that I teach, coach, choreograph, or take a class myself is a wonderful and joyous expression of the God-given freedom I gained so many years ago and living proof of the efficacy of Christian Science.

Adapted from a testimony published in the Nov. 5, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

A world of wheels

PETER MAIN
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology vehicle cranks up for what turned out to be an aborted run at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass., in 1982. In a quest to document the human narrative, Monitor photographers have witnessed a spectrum of events, some large in historical scope, others seemingly mundane. Our “time capsule” project dusts off some of those smaller moments, which gain a glow with the passing of time as they provide glimpses into the past. In this installment we offer you … bicycles. For a gallery of images, click the blue button below.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 3rd, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Have a good weekend. On Monday we’ll look at how Oakland, Calif., is working to help low-income tenants stay in their homes despite the failure of a rent-control initiative. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

November 30, 2018
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