Good morning, Quartz readers!
Some American pundits, especially the hawkish ones, welcomed Barack Obama’s UN speech this week as a sign of a more grown-up, aggressive president—one not afraid to call ISIL ”evil,” or Russia a “bully,” one who would admonish his Arab allies for letting extremism fester at home, and call all countries to pull together against big, global threats such as climate change and Ebola. ”Obama understands today that the US is the world’s indispensable nation,” wrote our colleague Jeffrey Goldberg.
Another way to look at the speech is as a cry for help and an admission of America’s—and in particular Obama’s—weakness.
Obama touted the unprecedented, 40-country coalition the US has assembled against ISIL. But as much as that’s a sign of ISIL’s perceived threat, it’s also a measure of how desperately the US needs this not to look like a US-led war, and indicative of how many countries there are that would have done nothing on their own, despite ISIL being—for now at least—a much bigger direct threat to them than to the US.
Obama’s response to Russia, meanwhile, is little more than a frustrated stamping of the foot—an admission that neither the carrot (the vaunted ”reset“) nor the stick (the sanctions imposed since Russia invaded Ukraine) have any influence on Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
And the president’s call to fight climate change—which somewhat embellished how much the US already has done—also was an implicit reminder that, come November and the mid-term elections, Obama’s party probably will have less room to maneuver on that score.
So yes, America is still indispensable—but we shouldn’t confuse that with being powerful. Obama himself clearly doesn’t.—Gideon Lichfield
Tune into Quartz India for a livestream of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s 9/28 speech at Madison Square Garden in New York City starting at 11 am EST and 8:30 pm IST. We’ll take your comments on our Facebook page.
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
The case for paternity leave. Giving mothers plenty of time off to raise kids is considered the enlightened thing to do. Gwynn Guilford counters with the definitive argument for why economies worried about a shrinking workforce need to get mothers back into it faster, and why most incentives to get dads to take time off aren’t sufficient.
Foxconn’s reluctant democracy drive. Faced with growing worker unrest, the Taiwanese electronics giant is giving workers and their unions more power. Or so it says. Lily Kuo talks to activists and workers and finds the reality to be a little less glossy.
India’s remarkable space program. While Mars missions have a notorious history of failure, India’s first-ever Mars probe reached the red planet, and on an astonishingly low budget. Saptarishi Dutta breaks the mission down by the numbers (it cost less per kilometer than a Delhi auto-rickshaw) while Devjyot Ghoshal highlights the work of the women who make up 20% of ISRO, the Indian space agency.
Where Facebook and Google are really competing. You might think of one as a social network and the other as a search engine. Instead, says Leo Mirani, think of them both as identity providers, competing to control the data that define who you are in the online world—and offering a range of tradeoffs to entice you.
Narendra Modi’s flawed big idea. India’s prime minister is pushing “soft power” as a way to build Brand India, pointing to the country’s long history of cultural influences, from Buddhism to Gandhi to Bikram yoga. Just one problem, explains Bobby Ghosh: None of these things came from Indian governments.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Warnings for would-be Wall-Streeters. Michael Lewis, one-time Wall Street broker turned blockbuster author, explains on Bloomberg View how the financial industry pressures its new recruits to gradually accept the moral compromises that lead to them doing things that would have horrified their student selves.
Four stories of living with HIV. Thanks to antiretroviral drugs, most people now think of HIV as just another chronic but manageable condition. Patrick Strudwick for Mosaic meets four Britons who describe a much less pleasant reality of continued stigma, associated diseases, drug reactions, and mental-health problems.
Will this be the last Dalai Lama? For most global leaders, their political troubles are over once they die. But for the Dalai Lama, whether or not to reincarnate has become a serious conundrum, tied up with the politics of China’s control over Tibet, as Tim Robertson explains in the Diplomat.
How to tell when a robot is writing to you. It’s easy to spot those automated letters that are made to look handwritten. But why? Clive Thompson at Medium dissects the telltale signs that distinguish human script and speculates on how more cleverly-designed machines could turn handwriting into the new Turing test.
How languages grow up. In Israel’s Negev desert, a community of deaf Bedouins is developing a new sign language that, unlike every other known language, doesn’t exhibit “duality of patterning,” whereby meaningful elements (morphemes) are composed of smaller, meaningless units (phonemes). Julie Sedivy in Nautilus explains what we’re learning from this about the way languages evolve.
Our best wishes for a relaxing, thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, robot-written letters, and strange, new languages to email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.