Bomb Suspect Spent Time In Afghanistan And Had Money Trouble

This undated photo provided by the FBI shows Ahmad Khan Rahami who was charged Monday in connection with the bombs in New York and New Jersey. AP hide caption

toggle caption AP

Here’s what we know about Ahmad Khan Rahami, the suspect in weekend bombings in New York and New Jersey, who was taken into custody today after a shoot-out with police and charged with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and two counts related to possession of a weapon:

  • He was born in Afghanistan on January 23, 1988.
  • It’s unclear when Rahami first came to the United States. He is now an American citizen. Records indicate that his father, Mohammad R. Rahami, now 53, got a Social Security card in New Jersey in 1989 or 1990.
  • The father incorporated his restaurant, First American Fried Chicken, in 2003 and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2005 in Newark. He and his wife, Najiba, were separated, according to bankruptcy documents, which also showed he was responsible for eight dependent children.
  • Ahmad Rahami graduated from Edison High School, in Edison, N.J., in 2007.
  • In 2008, Rahami was sued for child support, totaling $996, by a New Jersey woman named Maria Mena.
  • Rahami briefly attended Middlesex County College in Edison. A spokesman there says he studied criminal justice from the fall of 2010 to the fall of 2012. He didn’t graduate.
  • Around 2012, Rahami went to Afghanistan, according to neighbors interviewed by The New York Times. Some say when he returned, he had changed. The Times quotes neighbors who say Rahami grew a beard, traded his jeans and t-shirts for robes and began to pray in the back of the family’s restaurant.
  • Rahami has had money problems. He was sued in small claims court in 2012. He was evicted from an apartment in 2013.
  • Rahami worked at his family’s fried chicken restaurant, on Elmora Avenue in Elizabeth. Recently, he lived above the restaurant.
  • The Rahami family says they were the target of anti-Muslim harassment. They filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the city of Elizabeth, the police department and a neighbor. The lawsuit says the restaurant was cited multiple times — from July 4, 2008 to April 28, 2010 — for staying open past 10 p.m. The family says the complaints were spurred by James Dean McDermott, a neighbor, who came into the restaurant and said: “Muslims make too much trouble in this country,” and “Muslims don’t belong here.” McDermott, in court documents, denied saying that. Elizabeth’s mayor, Christian Bollwage, told NPR that the dispute had nothing to do with religion, but with noise and loitering.
  • State records show no criminal history for Rahami. But according to the New York Times, “a high-ranking law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation,” says Rahami spent over three months in the Union County Jail on weapons and aggravated assault charges in 2014. A grand jury declined to indict him. The Times also quoted the official as saying Rahami spent a day in jail in February 2012 for allegedly violating a restraining order, and in October 2008 he spent another day in jail for unpaid traffic tickets.

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Trump Calls It 'Sad' That N.Y. Bombing Suspect Gets Medical Care, Lawyer

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Estero, Fla., Monday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump said at a campaign rally Monday that it’s “sad” that the suspect in the weekend bombings in New York and New Jersey will receive medical attention and legal representation.

The GOP presidential nominee told a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., that it was due to the work of law enforcement that the “evil thug who planted the bombs” was caught. Ahmad Khan Rahami was arrested Monday after being injured in a gun battle in police in Linden, N.J. He is suspected to have planted pressure-cooker bombs over the weekend that injured 29 people in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“But the bad part,” Trump continued, “now we will give him amazing hospitalization. He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world. He will be given a fully modern and updated hospital room. And he’ll probably even have room service, knowing the way our country is.”

He added, “And on top of all that, he will be represented by an outstanding lawyer. His case will go through the various court systems for years and, in the end, people will forget and his punishment will not be what it once would have been. What a sad situation. We must have speedy, but fair trails and we must deliver a just and very harsh punishment to these people.”

It’s not clear what, presumably harsher, punishment Trump was referring to with his nostalgic lament for something that “once would have been.” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death last year after he was convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and left 240 with serious injuries, including 17 who lost legs.

The Constitution guarantees due process under the law and legal representation if the suspect cannot afford it. Rahami, 28, is a U.S. citizen who was born in Afghanistan. No foreign terror groups have claimed responsibility at this point.

Trump also said that “whatever lawful methods are available to obtain information” should be used on Rahami “to get information before it’s no longer timely” and called on Congress to “pass measures to ensure that foreign enemy combatants are treated as such.”

But such a measure would not apply to Rahami since he is a U.S. citizen.

The Republican presidential nominee used the weekend attacks to paint his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton as weak on national security. Earlier on Monday, during an appearance on Fox News’s Fox and Friends, he urged police to use racial profiling more often.

At the later Florida rally, Trump claimed that the terrorist groups “want her so badly” to become president. Clinton has made a similar charge of her rival, saying that ISIS wants him to win.

In response to the weekend’s attacks, the former secretary of state said it was “crucial that we continue to build up trust between law enforcement and Muslim-American communities.”

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Metropolis: 9/17/16

This week’s episode of Metropolis includes a new song from French duo Justice, “Randy.” Perou/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Perou/Courtesy of the artist

This Week’s Playlist

  • Justice, “Randy” (Ed Banger/Because)
  • Phantogram, “Run Run Blood” (Republic Records)
  • DJ Shadow, “Pitter Patter [Feat. G. Jones & Bleep Bloop]” (Mass Appeal Records)
  • GRiZ, “Gotta Push On [Feat. Brasstracks & Eric Krasno]” (All Good Records)
  • Nick Murphy, “Fear Less” (Downtown Records)
  • Frank Gamble, “Heart Speaks”
  • Tee Mango & The New Wave Aztecs, “Enjoy What We Have”
  • Todd Terje, “Inspector Norse” (Olsen)
  • Låpsley, “Operator [DJ Koze’s Disco Edit]” (XL Recordings)
  • Lucky Charmes, “Bobotie” (Spinnin Deep)
  • Tensnake, “Freundchen” (True Romance)
  • No Mana, “Lethargy [Feat. Catcat]” (Mau5trap)
  • No Mana, “Nostalgia Drive” (Mau5trap)
  • Jim Morrison, “Ghost Song” (Elektra/WEA)
  • Whilk & Misky, “Burn With Me” (Universal)
  • Roosevelt, “Moving On” (City Slang)
  • Elohim, “Hallucinating” (B3sci Records)
  • The Chemical Brothers, “The Salmon Dance [Clean Edit]” (Astralwerks)
  • The Glitz, “Chubby Cheek” (Desert Hearts)
  • Moon Boots, “Gonna Give It” (Promo)
  • Robyn, “Love Is Free [Moonboots Remix]” (Konichiwa/Interscope)
  • Siege, “Play Me” (Nothing Else Matters/RCA)
  • Bob Moses, “Tearing Me Up [Erik Hagleton Mix]” (Domino Recording Co)
  • The Seshen, “Distant Heart” (Tru Thoughts Ltd. (TRT))
  • Com Truise, “Open” (Ghostly International)
  • Machinedrum, “Do It 4 U [Feat. Dawn]” (Ninja Tune)
  • Gigamesh, “I’D Do It Again [Feat. Gavin Turek]” (Our Label International)
  • Static Revenger, “Happy People [Rrotik Remix]” (D-Dub)
  • Stardust, “Music Sounds Better With You” (Roule)

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A Diversified Economy Cushions Columbus, Ohio, From Downturns

People attend the Independents’ Day Festival in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. The city has become a nearly recession-proof hub. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. This week, as part of NPR’s collaborative project with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we’re asking the question: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

Columbus has become a nearly recession-proof hub of Ohio. Ohio State University, state and local government, insurance and retail are the central spokes of the city’s economy, which at a glance looks remarkable.

“In a service economy Columbus was destined to do better, much better than places with smokestack industry,” says David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State. Columbus has a set of built-in advantages, including a countercyclical set of employers — insurance, government and the university. “Even in bad times insurance is insurance,” he says.

The Short North neighborhood in Columbus sparked the city’s downtown revitalization. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Columbus was once mocked as a paper-pusher town without the industrial might of Cincinnati, Toledo or Cleveland. Now those high-paying white-collar jobs are a central asset, Stebenne says.

“The ability of Columbus to attract and retain many of the brightest young people in Ohio is now well known around the state,” he says. While Cleveland and Cincinnati are losing population, Columbus is gaining.

“Columbus has become much more attractive for highly educated knowledgeable workers to stay,” Stebenne says. “Young 20-somethings go and come back. If they want to raise families, this is such a more affordable place to live than Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.”

Tara DeFrancisco and Rance Rizzutto walk around their new comedy space in downtown Columbus. The newlyweds are recent transplants from Chicago and are opening a comedy theater. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Tara DeFrancisco and her husband Rance Rizzutto just moved from Chicago to Columbus to start the Nest Theatre, an improv comedy venue. Since they’ve being touring the country, the couple realized they could save money moving to Columbus while still maintaining their lifestyle.

The low cost of a home in a major city was a lure. “I think we’re saving like $500 a month-ish on buying a home,” DeFrancisco says. “I don’t think Rance or I expected to own a home in our lifetime. And I think we assumed that we’d be renting forever or maybe buying a modest condo but not a house with a yard that has food in it,” DeFrancisco says, referring to the garden outside her newly purchased home.

She says price made her think of moving, but the culture of Columbus made her want to move. “Columbus has everything we want,” she says. And now the newlyweds say they feel a town of Columbus’ size has a growing arts scene that’s encouraged them to live there. “If you can bring art to those communities then they don’t have to necessarily push out to the bigger cities,” DeFrancisco says.

(Top) People walk by The Pearl, a restaurant owned by Cameron Mitchell, in the Short North neighborhood. (Left) Cameron Mitchell owns several restaurants in Columbus. (Right) A bartender prepares a drink at Mitchell’s restaurant, The Guild House. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Cameron Mitchell runs a restaurant company headquarted in the Short North, the neighborhood that sparked Columbus’ downtown revitalization. Mitchell, long a Columbus booster, says the city’s success is no accident. On a tour of the neighborhood, he points to North Market, an old local market that’s been turned into a hub of activity. “Twenty years ago … you wouldn’t be caught dead around here at night. There were no hotels here. It was decrepit down here. It was a rundown dead urban core.”

It was the tech boom of the 1990s and almost all of Columbus’ big players — business, the university, the city — realized they were missing out. Many point to the election of the Michael Coleman, the city’s first African-American mayor, as a turning point for the neighborhood and much of Columbus. Coleman was seen as a being pro-business and development.

People walk around the Independents’ Day Festival in the Franklinton neighborhood. Columbus’ economy is boosted by its relatively central location in the state, being the capital, and being the home of Ohio State University. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

“The truth in that is that 10, 15, 20 years ago we were stagnant,” Mitchell says. Today, he says, Columbus has the reputation of being “a smart, open, young, vibrant city.”

Stebenne, the Ohio State professor, says the city benefits from not having quite the same pitched labor or school desegregation battles that other Ohio cities had. The city also annexed land, which has allowed it to keep taxes relatively low. “It had a very committed group of civic leaders and a culture of working together and it’s not a confrontational town. It’s much more of a cooperative one,” Stebenne says.

Nile Woodson prepares a Hawaiian-style dish in his food truck, Hai Poké, in Columbus. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Nile Woodson is founder of Hai Poké, a food truck. (Poké is a Hawaiian raw fish.) The 26-year-old OSU grad says he had the choice of going to New York, “where it’s extremely competitive and extremely expensive. And even being from there … I didn’t have as strong of a network. But Columbus is all about support and community and networking. It’s just this awesome place.”

Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs, says much of the city’s success can be summed up with one word: serendipity. He says Columbus is lucky. It’s blessed by its relatively central location in the state, being the capital, and being the home of OSU. Those are the seeds of development in Columbus. Moretti says even with those seeds the city could’ve “messed up” its opportunities.

People walk around the Independents’ Day Festival on Sunday. Cameron Mitchell says Columbus has the reputation of being “a smart, open, young, vibrant city.” Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

“If the local workforce is not skilled enough that seed will move away,” he says. The second way a city could mess it up is if “the cost of living increases too fast relative to worker productivity.” The third way Moretti says is if the regulatory environment makes it too difficult to do business.

Moretti says you can manufacture the seed that make Columbus’ current success, but “Columbus didn’t mess it up. Columbus took the seed and made the best of it.”

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New York's Use Of Phone Alert Shines Spotlight On Wireless Emergency System

New York officials used the wireless emergency system to alert people across the city of a suspect in connection with the bombings in New York and New Jersey.

To millions of people in New York Monday morning, the first word of a suspect in the New York and New Jersey bombings arrived at 8 a.m. with a jarring, screeching sound of their mobile phones.

Screens lit up across New York City with an emergency alert: “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-year-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.”

This was perhaps one of the most high-profile, large-scale uses of the wireless emergency alert system — and a relatively unconventional one: the city authorities calling for citizen vigilance as they searched for a bombing suspect.

But the alert is also part of a growing reliance of local, state and national authorities on the phone emergency system to look for missing children, warn of extreme weather, urge to “shelter in place,” organize evacuations, inform of chemical spills, and alert to impending power or water outages.

So far this year, non-federal authorities have already sent as many wireless emergency messages as they did in all the previous three years since the program’s nationwide launch in 2012, says Wade Witmer, deputy director of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System program management office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The current 1,200 alerting authorities include county sheriffs, local and state public safety and emergency management agencies, city and tribal governments, military bases, police and fire departments. FEMA reviews applications to become an alerting authority and serves as the conduit to the wireless networks, though it does not review individual messages, Witmer says.

Hansi Lo Wang/NPR Screenshot

A local or state authority would typically initiate a non-weather alert, and through a secured computer network, FEMA connects them to wireless carriers. Phone companies push out the message to the geographic areas selected by the authorities by using specific cell towers in that area.

“It is like a text message, but it’s not a text message — it uses a different channel on the carrier networks,” says Brian Josef, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs at the wireless trade group CTIA. This way, the mass alerts don’t congest the airwaves.

The messages have to fall into three broad categories:

– Imminent threat, such as severe weather or any other emergency as determined by approved authorities;
– Amber Alerts for abducted children;
– Presidential messages during a national emergency.

The latter category has never been used, though it was the key trigger for the creation of the system. Cellphone alerting is a modern addition to the Emergency Alert System, a TV and radio warning program that spawned from the Emergency Broadcast System, which in turn replaced CONELRAD — a 1950s emergency radio system meant to warn of a potential attack during the Cold War.

The presidential alarm is the only one that smartphone users can’t disable on their phones.

Today, the National Weather Service remains a big user of the wireless alerting system, Witmer says. The siren-like sound is probably familiar to anyone in areas that get tornado, hurricane, blizzard or flash flood warnings. But the alerts have now also been used to urge people to “shelter in place” during active shooter situations, to evacuate during brush fires or to boil water before consumption during a water main break.

“We’ve seen other areas across the country use it to describe a suspect that they were looking for or a dangerous person,” Witmer says.

The wireless Amber Alerts have also been credited in rescues of several missing children, including the 7-month-old whose abduction in 2013 triggered phone alarms to blare across New York City before 4 a.m.

Kids on the train literally started chain reaction crying. It was like seeing someone vomit. https://t.co/xFb8uPlI3G

— KendraJames (Harlem) (@KendraJames_) September 19, 2016

In New York early Sunday, city officials issued a wireless alert — through their Notify NYC program — to people in the direct vicinity of the exploded bomb in the Chelsea neighborhood, warning them of a second “suspicious package” and telling them to “stay away from windows.” An update later informed people in the area that the bomb was safely removed.

The “WANTED” message during the suspect search on Monday was ultimately praised by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a “very valuable tool,” that “created a lot of focus and urgency” and “definitely contributed” to the capture of the bombing suspect. But the alert also drew criticism for its mass scale and vagueness in describing the man only by his age and name “Ahmad Khan Rahami.”

Shoutout to my fellow brown persons who originally planned on taking the subway to the airport today with luggage pic.twitter.com/Lz0tiiD7uv

— kenyatta cheese (@kenyatta) September 19, 2016

The reason why the phone messages often seem short-handed is because they’re restricted to 90 characters — less than two-thirds of a tweet — a vestige of the tech limitations at the system’s origin. “When the technology was developed, that was the state of the maximum capacity of the messages, including routing information,” CTIA’s Josef says.

The system for now can’t send photos or video either. “That’s not something where there’s the capability today,” Josef says.

Both may change in the future: The industry is already working with regulators to increase the character limits, Josef says, and “discussions are underway” on including multimedia.

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Syrian Military Declares End To Cease-Fire; Aid Convoy Comes Under Attack

A Red Cross vehicle carrying aid arrives in the rebel-held town of Talbiseh, Syria, on Monday. Mahmoud Taha /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mahmoud Taha /AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian military announced Monday it is no longer observing a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia to allow food and medicine into besieged areas.

Seven days after the agreement was reached by Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the U.S., which backs anti-Assad rebels, the regime blamed the truce’s collapse on the rebels, and unilaterally declared that the cease-fire is over.

NPR’s Alice Fordham reports this about the cease-fire:

“There was an initial lull in violence, but very little aid moved and by the end of the week both sides were fighting again. If the cease-fire and aid movement had been successful, the U.S. and Russia had planned to work together against extremists in Syria. There was even talk of peace talks restarting. None of those things seem assured now.”

An airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, which involves fighter jets from several countries, killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday and further undermined an already-eroded cease-fire. Assad appeared on state-run media in Syria to condemn the attack, which the U.S. apologized for and said was an accident.

As the cease-fire crumbled Monday, the watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported airstrikes and clashes on the ground near Homs and Aleppo, killing at least one woman and leaving multiple people injured.

Alice reports an aid convoy traveling with the permission of the Syrian government was attacked from the air on its way to a rebel-controlled area west of Aleppo city in the morning, and several trucks were destroyed. Activists say the regime or its allies are to blame.

U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said he was outraged that the aid vehicles would come under attack after days of waiting for official government permission to move.

Another 20 U.N. trucks carrying enough flour and other food for 185,000 people are still stopped at the Turkey-Syria border, waiting for entry permits from the Assad government, according to a statement by U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien.

The U.N. estimates that up to 275,000 people are trapped without adequate food, water, shelter or medical care in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo, which has been under siege since July.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says a convoy of its trucks carrying food for 84,000 people did make it to Talbiseh, near the city of Homs, today, even as fighting near the city resumed.

A spokesman for the State Department, John Kirby, released a statement on Monday saying the U.S. is “prepared to extend the cessation of hostilities,” and noting that the cease-fire was negotiated between the U.S. and Russia, which has yet to comment.

The State Department called on Russia to use its influence over Assad to extend the cease-fire and make way for aid.

“Despite continued attacks by the regime on opposition positions, we have witnessed a measure of reduced violence over the last week,” Kirby said. “But we have not seen a sustained flow of relief supplies. Indeed, deliveries only began today and only then in limited areas.”

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'The Face Of Britain' Tells A Nation's History Through Portraits

The Face of Britain

Simon Schama calls portraiture “the least free of painterly genres.” He writes: “No rose will complain of excessive petal-droop in a still life; no cheese will take you to task over inaccurate veining. … But portraiture is answerable as no other specialty to something lying beyond the artist’s creativity. That something is the sitter paying the bill.”

Schama, a professor of both history and art history, has a new book out called The Face of Britain. It’s about the faces immortalized in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the stories behind the paintings — some of which he shared with NPR’s Robert Siegel.


Interview Highlights

On the portrait that helped make 18th-century Shakespearean actor David Garrick famous

Garrick was extraordinary because he was an overnight star, and the word “star” was actually used for the very first time. … Garrick himself had the sense in which if he was going to make it as a young man he needed people to know who he was as a personality. So he went into partnership with a brilliant artist who had a very strong sense of theater, William Hogarth, and before long there was an enormous painting of Garrick at an extraordinary moment: the moment of Richard III’s comeuppance, when he has a bad night and he’s visited by the ghosts of his many victims. … This as an extraordinary huge painting, much bigger than anything else Hogarth did. Hogarth always knew that it was going to become a print. And once you put that star moment into a print, it could circulate all around the country. And Garrick became overnight a sensation and it was due entirely to the manufacture of his portrait image.

This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (painted circa 1600 by an unknown artist) mimics an earlier portrait of King Richard II. Schama says the queen “knew what power lay with the royal stare. But she also knew that image was not everything.” Reprinted from “The Face of Britain” by Simon Schama with permission from Oxford University Press/National Portrait Gallery, London hide caption

toggle caption Reprinted from “The Face of Britain” by Simon Schama with permission from Oxford University Press/National Portrait Gallery, London

On artist Graham Sutherland’s 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill

It’s [Churchill’s] 80th birthday. It’s going to be the moment when the nation and [Parliament] is going to thank him for saving the country during the war. And the parliament indeed picks this fashionable and rather brilliant portraitist and then they have a kind of testy relationship. It’s a testy relationship because Churchill, you’ll remember, is himself a painter, so Churchill thinks of it as a partnership. But he has certain political issues that are desperately important to him. Unbeknownst to the country, he’d had a stroke a few months before. And because he had a stroke, his own party, the conservatives, were very keen to get him out of the door in time for the next election. Churchill accepted, but he kept on thinking of reasons why he didn’t want to go.

So when portrait time happened, he wanted a version of himself where he was still in the full prime of his veteran power — an old man, but a perpetually energetic man. And what he got from Sutherland, as became quickly apparent, was a portrait of a magnificent ruin, as I say. And [Churchill] said, “I don’t want this presented to me,” but the ceremony had to go ahead and it was a shocking moment: Churchill very straightaway got his revenge by facing this huge audience, a television audience as well as the audience in Westminster Hall, and saying, “This is a very remarkable example” — heavy pause — “of modern art.” And everybody fell about laughing except for the poor artist who felt destroyed by the moment. …

Churchill knew exactly what he was doing. But this wasn’t good enough because when the portrait was given to the family, it was not long before they put it on a bonfire and burnt it. … We have a slide, which for me shows that if it had it survived it would have been one of the grandest and most expressive and moving portraits ever done of a statesman, I think.

Winston Churchill was so displeased with Graham Sutherland’s portrait that his wife asked his secretary to destroy it. Pictured here is a preparatory sketch. Reprinted from “The Face of Britain” by Simon Schama with permission from Oxford University Press/National Portrait Gallery, London hide caption

toggle caption Reprinted from “The Face of Britain” by Simon Schama with permission from Oxford University Press/National Portrait Gallery, London

On the essential truth he discovered about the portrait

I think it has an extraordinary power beyond its beginnings in vanity or self-congratulation. All portraits are really — or most of them — are triangular relationships. Because quite apart from a person saying, “Now do me at my finest,” and the artist saying, “We’ll see about that, sunshine,” there is the public — people other than you who will be looking at it. So, very unusually for a work of art is an active collaboration. And things can go swimmingly — that collaboration can produce a kind of enriched image of truly hypnotic power — or things can go terribly wrong.

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Pundits Vs. Machine: Predicting Controversies In The Presidential Race

Quid, a data analytics firm, uses proprietary software to search, visualize and analyze text. Quid hide caption

toggle caption Quid

Predictions are for psychics — and in this very unpredictable political season they might do a better job than the pundits. But what about a computer? I set out to see how well it could predict which controversies around the candidates were likely to re-emerge over the course of a month. And two human pundits have agreed to compete against the machine.

Meet the Contestants

The Computer

The computer is run by Quid, a data analytics firm that uses proprietary software to search, visualize and analyze text. Since the computer can’t speak, Dan Buczaczer, Quid’s head of marketing, is going to speak for it and explain how it “thinks.”

“Quid uses proprietary software to search, visualize, and then analyze massive amounts of text,” Buczaczer says. “In this case, what we’re talking about today, that massive amount of text happens to comes from news sources and blogs written about a particular topic, in this case the presidential election.”

And Buczaczer is talking about some 300,000 U.S. blogs and publications amounting to nearly 7.5 million articles — everything that has been written about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump since they announced they were running for president.

Quid’s computers sifted through all that coverage to find every controversy that has plagued each candidate. “Two-thirds of them were Donald Trump, one-third Hillary Clinton,” Buczaczer says. “So Trump is the winner in terms of overall number of controversies generated.” Though Clinton had fewer controversies, they still generated as much coverage as Trump’s.

The computer sifted through all them for patterns — like, which ones kept re-appearing.

“We kind of mapped it against both reoccurrence and importance — what sort of an impact did it have at its peak?” Buczaczer says. “In a lot of ways this was probably the heaviest part of computation around what we think is going to show up again and again for each candidate.”

Buczaczer and his computer have done some forecasting about which controversies will get the most coverage for each candidate between Sept. 12 and Oct. 12. But I’m not going to tell you what they are — not yet.

The Humans

In the right corner: Jonah Goldberg, who writes for the conservative National Review.

“This is a very intimidating thing to do because obviously you’re putting me up against Skynet,” Goldberg says.

Skynet is the computer in the Terminator movies that ends civilization as we know it. While Quid was searching through millions of articles looking for patterns — Goldberg has a much more poetic way of predicting the future.

“It’s always safer to bet making predictions that are in line with the character and personality of the people you’re making predictions about,” Goldberg says. “Like in Aesop’s fable, it’s really easy to predict that the scorpion is going to sting the frog — because that’s the scorpion’s nature.”

In the left corner: Simon Maloy, a political writer at the liberal Salon.

Maloy agrees that the personalities of the candidates are part of his prediction process. But so is the media itself. It has to draw readers and viewers and create buzz, which is why the media likes controversies.

“I think media organizations understand that there’s value in writing a story that people will fight about and people will talk about. I think that absolutely factors into it,” Maloy says.

The Rules of the Game

Each contestant will predict which controversies will get the most coverage over a month-long period. They each gave a list of predictions for each candidate. The list is ranked in order of which controversy will get the most coverage.

On Oct. 12, Quid’s computers will search the Web to find out which controversies got the most coverage. And we will announce the winner on air and on this blog. Each contestant will get their own NPR T-shirt. Then, we will do some deeper analysis of other areas where both humans and machines are used to make predictions.

The Predictions

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First Presidential Debate To Focus On Prosperity, Security And Nation's Direction

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s first onstage matchup will be Sept. 26. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The first presidential debate, to be held next Monday, Sept. 26 at Hofstra University in New York, will be divided into three 30-minute segments on three topics, according to the Commission On Presidential Debates co-chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf.

That’s a bit different from the original announcement for the first debate, which said there would be six 15-minute segments. Farhrenkopf told NPR that it was moderator Lester Holt’s decision to combine the segments.

The topics will be: the Direction of America, Achieving Prosperity and Securing America.

Fahrenkopf says there will be an audience, divided between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump supporters, with tickets also available for the commission and Hofstra University.

Like the country, Fahrenkopf says he doesn’t fully know what to expect at the debate. “It’s clear that there’s no love between them,” he said. “And how they will present themselves to the American people is anyone’s guess.”

There will be no commercial breaks, and Fahrenkopf said Clinton and Trump will stand at lecterns for the first debate. Two other presidential debates and a vice presidential debate have also been scheduled.

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