Category: Domestic News

SAIS Explainer Series: Russian Interference in US Elections

The new SAIS Observer Explainer Series aims to help SAIS students understand the most complex issues of the day. No politics — just the facts.

October 31, 2019

By Alex Kessler

WASHINGTON,⁠ D.C. — On October 30, several high-profile veterans of the U.S. intelligence community gathered at the National Press Club to discuss their assessment of Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, and what measures could be taken to address this threat moving forward into 2020. Present to report on the event was the SAIS Observer.

Moderated by CBS “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan and hosted by George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, a panel comprised of former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe and previous CIA leadership figures John Brennan, Michael Morell, and SAIS’ own John McLaughlin fielded questions regarding their collective understanding of Russian efforts to influence the American democratic process.

According to John Brennan, the CIA knew since at least August of 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have attempted to influence the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. The CIA reportedly passed information to executive and legislative leadership, who then confronted Russia. We can not be certain how many votes were affected, or if and how the United States’ efforts to confront the Russians may have altered the Russian strategy. However, Morell warned that there is evidence that suggests that Russia is continuing efforts to influence both voters and the voting process in the United States.

What does this foreign intervention look like? Brennan listed several major avenues of the Russian effort. The most obvious of these appears in our social media feeds, where foreign intelligence units spread targeted disinformation (or normal information) to exacerbate political division within the U.S. population. There also exist vulnerabilities in both the voting process and within companies that design and store voting software, all of which are susceptible to digital attack. Russia can also attempt to influence American politics by endorsing certain politicians, or by making financial contributions to a particular political contender and later leaking information of their contribution to discredit the contender in the eyes of the public. In short, Russia aims to take advantage of the United States’ free media environment to manipulate the perception of the electorate.

McCabe described the FBI as having a robust cybersecurity organization that is prepared for the next “attack,” but individual states’ cybersecurity infrastructure may not be as secure. The question was also raised whether the U.S. government is capable of coordinating resources to detect and combat a widespread, diffuse interference campaign⁠.

Looking ahead to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Professor McLaughlin identified four major priorities for the U.S. to combat the threat of foreign interference: Better reporting of foreign connections with U.S. officials; enhancing the intelligence community’s tracking of Russian agents within the U.S. and their data collection processes; improving the system of alerting the public of public disinformation; and securing the voting process — even if this meant returning to the use of paper ballots.

All four panelists agreed that the members of the intelligence community would continue to deter and combat the present threat.

Tencent holdings: The Chinese technology conglomerate at the center of global pop culture controversy

October 30, 2019

By Alex Cowen

NANJING, China — The NBA regular season started on October 23 in China. If you had purchased the Tencent Sports NBA package with the intention of watching the New Orleans Pelicans take on the defending champion Toronto Raptors, you would have been disappointed. Not because Kawhi Leonard left Toronto in free agency, and not because high-flying wunderkind Zion Williamson, New Orleans’ first pick and the first overall pick of the NBA Draft, wasn’t playing. You simply wouldn’t have been able to watch the game at all — and the reasons have very little to do with basketball. 

Tencent has been streaming the first week of the NBA regular season on roughly a 40 second delay, while also only streaming a select few of the games each night (or morning in China). There has been no explanation given to customers about the selection process, but the reasons for the tape delay are quite clear. On October 4, as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers were about participate in promotional events across China, including two preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, Daryl Morey — the longtime General Manager of the Houston Rockets — tweeted out vague, now-deleted support for the months-long protests in Hong Kong. What followed was one of the stranger sports stories of the decade and has brought questions of the intersection of entertainment and politics to the fore. And every time the story starts to lose steam, something happens or someone says something that fires up headlines yet again.

Daryl Morey tweeted this image on October 4.
 Image credit: Yahoo Sports

In a story that involves multiple high-profile personalities, including but not limited to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver; players LeBron James and James Harden; Congresspeople Ted Cruz, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and Marco Rubio; President Donald Trump; and the Chinese government, one of the more underreported aspects of the affair is the technology conglomerate at the center of it all — Tencent Holdings.

Daryl Morey with Rockets star player, James Harden, who apologized for Morey’s tweet.
 Photo credit: Houston Chronicle

Tencent is a Fortune 500 company with over $47 billion in revenue and $105 billion in assets. It possesses a portfolio of over 600 companies. It owns a huge stake in Alibaba’s biggest e-commerce rival, It has a huge stake in Meituan Dianping, a Chinese combination of Seamless, Postmates, and Yelp. It owns WeChat, a Chinese combination of Instagram, Twitter, and Venmo with over 1 billion users. It owns 12% of Snap Inc., the developer behind the Snapchat app. Subsidiary Tencent Video has an exclusive partnership with HBO and owns the streaming rights to Game of Thrones. When the final episode of the series aired after a multi-day delay in China, Tencent was at the center of the story. Many customers demanded refunds for their Tencent Video subscriptions, while Tencent apologized and blamed “media transfer issues” via a Weibo post. Tencent Music (TME) is analogous to Spotify and trades on the New York Stock Exchange (Spotify and TME have a strategic cooperation where they each own 10% of the other’s shares). When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion, it was Tencent who they outbid. 

Tencent has also been making forays into movie production. In August, this ignited a controversy about China’s soft power projection, when the trailer for the Tencent Pictures-produced “Top Gun: Maverick” was released. In the first movie, released in 1986, Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket sports patches of the Japanese and Taiwanese flags. In the sequel, these patches have been replaced by two vague symbols with similar color schemes, so as to avoid suggesting that Taiwan is a sovereign nation as opposed to a PRC territory (or that it supports Japan). In addition to Top Gun, Tencent Pictures has produced and is producing many other pieces of classic American IP for the silver screen, including “Venom,” “Wonder Woman,” “Men in Black,” a Transformers movie, a King Kong movie, and a Terminator movie. They are also producing a movie about Mr. Rogers starring Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” 

The two patches in the original jacket, left, show the Japanese and Taiwanese flags. The new jacket, right, shows patches with unidentified symbols with similar color schemes 
Image Credit: CNN

Over the summer, Tencent Sports extended its distribution rights for all NBA games through the 2024-2025 season. Analysts estimate the deal to be worth roughly $1.5 billion, and according to Tencent’s announcement about the deal, more than 490 million people used Tencent’s platform to watch NBA games last year, with 21 million people tuning in for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. But Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong and the subsequent responses of high-profile personalities who continue to attract attention to the demonstrations in Hong Kong make it difficult for the games to stream unimpeded, while also inspiring previously neutral-on-China sports fans to read up on “what exactly is happening in Hong Kong, anyway?” Responses from players, commissioners, lawmakers and commentators on both sides of the story have alternated between playing up the outrage or trying to tone it down without having developed any clear or cogent strategy for how to move forward. The NBA, an organization that prides itself on social justice and its ability to ask hard questions, has found itself holding hands with an apparatus that prefers to keep the man behind the curtain concealed as much as possible.

On the heels of the NBA-Hong Kong kerfuffle, Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai, who streams using the name Blitzchung, was banned from Hearthstone tournaments for one year during a Grandmasters event because he made statements advocating for the liberation of Hong Kong while wearing a black mask in an interview. The interviewers were swiftly fired and Blizzard Entertainment, which makes Hearthstone (and is owned by Tencent), justified their decision by citing a rule that any action which “offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard’s image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD.” 

People use sports, video games and movies as a way to escape and forget the stress of daily life or the depressing tickers scrolling the news networks. Audiences often prefer to leave actual unpleasantness at the door when they sit down to be entertained. And it makes us uncomfortable that our entertainers might hold views about the world different than our own. But as 2019 turns to 2020, it seems as if the last thing anyone can do is just shut up and dribble.

Facial recognition: Infringing upon privacy or protecting students?

By Natalie Craig

October 23, 2019

Facial recognition gates at the main entrance to Nanjing University’s campus. 
Photo Credits: Natalie Craig

NANJING, China — Nanjing University (NJU), a top institution in China that participates in a partnership with the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC), has become one of many Chinese universities to introduce entry-exit facial recognition technology to its gates. 

For some students, this technology brings about an Orwellian feel. With each pass through the gate, students’ faces are scanned and recognized before entry. With faces and student ID information stored in the system, many HNC students feel that this is a violation of privacy, a greater restriction on their movement within China. For others, this new security measure is viewed primarily as a way to protect students. 

According to the Daily Mail, these efforts are a part of China’s latest five-year plan to modernize schools across the country through its “smart campus initiative.” In the last year alone, China has installed over 200 million security cameras throughout the country. By 2022, the total number of surveillance cameras throughout the country is projected to increase to 2.76 billion, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). With heightened surveillance, the government can easily monitor students’ movements, adding to its centralized control over the people.

Although this plan was a public government initiative, the students affected remained unaware and without the agency to oppose the installation of these devices. Nanjing University students received no official notice about the implementation of the facial recognition technology preceding its installation. It was only a few days ago that the university finally released information on these facial recognition gates and how they will impact students. The report covered the plan for non-students entering campus and cited the purpose of these gates as a new effort with the Public Security Bureau to aggregate a “gray list” of those who should be denied access to the university, thus ensuring the safety of students. 

“I went up and saw that it recognized my face and my ID number and had a green arrow admitting me into campus, and I felt very uncomfortable and sort of violated,” Amy Bodner, a masters student at the HNC, remarked. 

While the HNC has its own center with separate security on the northeast corner of campus, students still have access to the facilities on NJU’s campus. For second year international students, their information has been entered into the NJU database, so their faces will scan successfully. Certificate students, on the other hand, must either walk around the scanner or ask the guard to let them through, which calls into question the legitimacy and the true purpose of the facial recognition technology.

Two HNC international students attempt to pass through the gates. 
Photo Credits: Amy Bodner and Natalie Craig

“It’s not an effective measure of keeping campus safe because anyone can walk right through; the guards don’t seem to care, so I have to wonder what the actual purpose of this is…I think that it is ineffective at best and disturbing at worst,” Bodner said. 

As for Zhou Jie, a second-year Chinese HNC student, the scanners seem to be as effective as the locks that used to be on the gates at night on campus. “If you are a bad person looking to do harm, you will always be able to find a way to get in, but it may reduce the probability of some bad people from entering campus,” she stated.  

Besides the questionable efficacy of the device, the purpose that it serves is also ambiguous. “I think the purpose is data collection and eventually to restrict movement; I think that these things roll out so slowly that you become acclimated to it and then one day it is actually restrictive,” Brad Hebert, a certificate student, remarked. 

However, many Chinese students believe that this device serves two purposes: to protect students and to restrict the flow of outsiders into campus. A few years ago, at NJU’s Xianlin campus, reports circulated of a woman who had been sexually assaulted on campus. This attack outraged students, and led to widespread desire for a response from the university. According to Zhou Jie, “This probably was not the cause of the implementation of these devices, but is most likely one of the reasons the university installed them so quickly—because students were indignant this harm had taken place.” 

Meanwhile, other Chinese students believe that these facial recognition gates help to reduce the number of non-students on campus. According to Ruoyin, a certificate student, if universities are completely open, then the campus will be filled with too many outsiders. “This could influence students’ studies, so they restrict the flow of tourists,” she said. 

One key idea that both Chinese and international students could agree on with regard to these entry-exit face scanners is that they are restricting. Not only does it limit access, but also it is indicative of a future of control and targeted constraints on migration. 

“I think there is a wave to control migrations of people any way you look at it, whether it be foreigners, ethnic minorities, anyone; I think in different areas it is becoming increasingly strict,” Bodner said. 

While one can only speculate as to the true purpose and future implications of these devices, this pilot program is only a fraction as strict as new measures being taken elsewhere. Pinnacle universities in China, including Beijing University and Qinghua University, have set the trend in heightened security for university campuses throughout the country. This past year, both campuses introduced face scanners, identification card registration systems and the requirement that all visitors be accompanied by a student to enter campus. Although conditions in Nanjing are much more relaxed than in Beijing, it appears to be evidence of a small but definite step toward a more monitored and controlled China. 

America’s economy is dematerializing

October 22, 2019

By Gerhard Ottehenning

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 30 years ago, a full page Radio Shack advertisement listed 15 items with a total value of $3,054.82 — or roughly $5,750 today. Of the 15, only two haven’t been replaced by smartphones (unfortunately there’s no app for Tiny Dual-Superhet Radar Detectors). Integrating all of these appliances into a single item not only saves consumers thousands of dollars, it also results in the use of less natural resources by the economy as a whole. Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, said that since the 1970s in the United States, “a decoupling is occurring so that our economy no longer advances in tandem with exploitation of land, forests, water and minerals.” 

From approximately 1900 to 1970 the U.S. economy grew at a rapid clip with total resource use increasing correspondingly. “We just had this kind of Cookie Monster Economy…and, it’s really understandable why people would start blowing the whistle really hard around 1970, and saying, ‘Gang, we cannot keep doing this,’” said Andrew McAfee, a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The clarion call of the environmental movement ultimately led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passage of a number of laws protecting wildlife and limiting the emission of pollutants. 

Though the U.S. economy is roughly 21 times larger today as compared to the economy of 1970, the relative — and in many cases, the absolute — quantity of resources consumed has actually diminished. Between 1980 and 2018, the EPA reports that “total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 68%.” Agriculture constitutes the largest use of land in the U.S., with corn outstripping every other crop combined in terms of land use. Since the 1940s, American farmers have quintupled yields of corn while using the same or less land. Crucially, Ausubel says, “rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water.” 

With less land required to grow the same amount of food, much of the marginal agriculture land is returned to nature. This transition began in 1900 when states such as Connecticut went from being primarily wheat fields and pasture land, almost completely denuded of trees, to densely forested land. Measured by area, the total land reverting back to forest has been growing since 1990. This phenomenon is not unique to the U.S. A study by geographer Florian Schierhorn found that since the 1990s, an area the size of Poland has been abandoned and reforested within the area of the former Soviet Union. 

The reduction in resource intensity extends well beyond cropland. In the 1970s, there was a fear that the U.S.’s insatiable appetite would strip the planet bare. Instead, Ausubel says, “a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before…America has started to dematerialize.”

Despite this optimism, there exists a profound tension in connection with climate change and environmental costs incurred by unbridled economic growth. However, the connection between the two does not need to be zero-sum, says Andrew Blake, a second year Southeast Asia concentrator at SAIS. “Because climate change is a global phenomenon, the U.S. has [an] incentive to assist in the development of green technologies abroad. Technology transfers and investments in green technology in industrializing countries not only promotes economic growth, but allows for sustainable growth with long term dividends for the global economy.” 

While noting that “climate change is real. And it’s bad. And the range of bad is somewhere between bad and catastrophically bad,” Mcafee said, “My great frustration is that we have…something close to a silver bullet in our policy toolkit and our economics toolkit…and we’re not using either of them.”

Mcafee strongly supports the use of market mechanisms, such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax or cap-and-trade, to regulate carbon emissions. Together with a mix of regulatory and technological changes, a similar system saw sulphur dioxide emissions reduced by approximately 80% between 2005 and 2014. Ausubel cites the potential to turn an area the size of Iowa into a wildlife refuge  by eliminating corn cropland dedicated to ethanol production for use in cars. 

For Mcafee, the implications for the rest of the world are that “we have to help the rest of the world get rich. That will bring them past that hump of maximum exploitation of the planet.” Blake agrees, stating that “the onus is on high-income countries to help incentivize the developing world to adopt policies and instruments that can mitigate the carbon emission-filled growing pains of industrialization.”

Public policy and biotechnology

By Leif Olson

October 2019

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, better known as its acronym CRISPR, is a new biotechnology at the cutting edge of a revolution in genetics. . The  technique allows geneticists to cut out specific parts of the genome within living cells. The technology originated from a natural process in which bacteria combat viruses by “remembering” them via a strand of DNA. This “DNA array” can be referenced later by proteins like Cas-9 (CRISPR associated protein 9). When the same virus attacks again, the bacterium produces an RNA strand, which Cas-9 uses to find the virus and “snip out” that segment out of the virus DNA, disabling the virus and preventing infection.

Geneticists have discovered that this process can be used for genetic modification. In the same way that a bacterium can use Cas-9 to disable attacking viruses, scientists can use the same protein to seek out specific DNA sequences in the constituent cells of living organisms and alter the genetics of that organism with near-perfect specificity.

What does this mean for the future of genetic engineering, specifically in humans? According to Jeffery Kahn, the Robert Henry Levi and Ryda Hecht Levi Professor of Bioethics and Public Policy at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, “whatever you can imagine wanting to change you can.” “The limitations are really less about the tools and more about what we know about genetics,” he added. Since the 1970s, geneticists have been using less effective methods to manipulate genetic code. According to Kahn, older tools like “recombinant DNA” were more akin to using “a shotgun” where CRISPR is “a much more targeted approach.”

Kahn believes that CRISPR will be used for simple modifications at first. Since it cuts a specific part of the genome, he said, “the most obvious place to go are single-gene mutations that cause disease,” where “there is a known mutation and if you inherit the gene, you get the disease.” CRISPR will be especially useful to those who suffer from diseases like Huntington’s, where a single segment of the DNA can be removed to remove the disease from the subject.

But what happens as we get better at manipulating genetic code? CRISPR makes genetic modification extremely easy. This new tool opens possibilities for riskier alterations for a wider range of society as it is relatively cheap and easy to use. Expressing concern at this prospect, Kahn said that “many more people are able to use CRISPR, which means we have a governance challenge… How do we control the uses of these new technologies? This is actually, in my opinion, the biggest issue.”

When asked what SAIS students should know about this technology from a public policy perspective, Kahn said, “Well one, it’s a really interesting area for thinking about what the regulatory environment ought to look like.” Continuing, he said, “there really isn’t a good framework for governance of this or other similar technologies on an international scale.” The regulations at the domestic level in the United States are lacking. According to Kahn, they are “dictated by government funding,” meaning that anyone with sufficient capital is only regulated at the state level and not at all by the federal government.

Further, there appears to be a governance gap at the international level as well. Kahn said, “There is no body for the international governance of emerging biotechnology,” even though “these issues have serious foreign policy implications.”

SAIS students and faculty might benefit from focusing on this issue. Kahn said, “Of course SAIS should be working on this—it’s a perfect example of how SAIS and other Johns Hopkins schools can work together.” Johns Hopkins is in a unique place to research this issue as it has access to institutions like the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bergman Institute.

Indeed, if SAIS wishes to remain on the cutting edge of foreign policy, it might consider focusing on emerging biotechnologies. CRISPR and the biotechnologies which rise in its wake will fundamentally alter the international landscape. Without detailed analysis, this rising issue could take the international community by surprise. SAIS has an excellent opportunity to position itself as one of the first international relations schools to address international policy on biotechnology and help fill the international governance gap.

Drawing the Future

By Rashi Seth

October 17, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — Bolognese graffiti offers a glimpse into the social, cultural and political mindset of the Bolognesi people. The city’s walls serve as blank canvases for open expression of grievances under the protection of anonymity. 

The word graffiti is derived from the Italian word “graffito,” meaning singular scratch; graffiti refers to writings or drawings scribbled illicitly in public places. The earliest graffiti can be traced back to Pompeii, before Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.  

Graffiti is ubiquitous in Italy, especially in student towns like Bologna. Most of the graffiti is concentrated in the Via Zamboni area, home to the University of Bologna and its 86,500 students. Here, it holds more significance, reflecting the Bolognese expression of the present political order and depicting what is happening at a particular time and place. 

Today, Bologna contains 38 kilometers of porticoes built between the 11th and 20th centuries. The porticoes were recently nominated as a UNESCO cultural heritage site. The graffiti in Bologna is usually contemporary; it is only demonstrative of the current political scenario, since it is usually removed to preserve the historic porticoes. The latest issues feature Turkish President Erdogan attacking the Kurds in Syria. The walls are laden with “Erdogan Assasino” (assassinate Erdogan), “La rivoluzione è un fiore che non muore” (the revolution is a flower that does not die), and “Viva La Revoluzione Kurda” (Long live the Kurdish revolution).

Locals call Bologna the city of “La Dotta, La Grassa, La Rossa” (the learned, the fat, and the red). La Rossa refers to Bologna being the anti-fascist capital since the World War II and the heart of the Renaissance movement. The city was a fortress for Italy’s communist party along with its vibrant student protest culture for decades. 

Bologna’s lasting leftist leanings clash with the recent Italian political swing to the right over issues like immigration, portending difficult times ahead. This shift has given rise to Mussolini-influenced neo-fascism in Italy. Bologna’s history with anti-fascism and its communist local government since World War II do not stand in silence during such times. Graffiti with words like “Attaca lo stato” (attack the state) are still present in Piazza Francesco due to the Bolognese disdain for the state’s fascist, xenophobic traits. 

Even in the face of political uncertainty, Bologna will continue to be “la citta dotta” for decades to come, as it has in the past, providing insight into the Bolognese political grievances through its ever-changing graffiti. 

Il viaggio: Immigrants to Italy from sub-Saharan Africa share their stories

By Fatou Sow

October 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — Migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is not a new phenomenon. However, according to the Pew Research Center, migration from sub-Saharan Africa has increased drastically during the past decade. Europe has witnessed an influx of nearly 1 million asylum applicants from sub-Saharan Africa (970,000) between 2010 and 2017. The dangerous journey in search of better opportunities forces young adolescents and teenagers to pass through multiple countries. The trend of asylum-seekers going through the “backway” — a colloquial term for illegal smuggling channels — has resurfaced of late. This is seen firsthand in Bologna.

The group of young black men standing near Montagnola Park is immediately noticeable. Some may find it surprising to see high concentrations of black youth in Italy. However, they have established long-lasting communities in Bologna, particularly the Senegambian population. The SAIS Observer interviewed two Gambian migrants, Aly (age 23) and Boubacar (age 17), who successfully migrated to Italy and have been living in Bologna for the past few years.

The SAIS Observer: Why did you decide to come to Italy?

Aly: Since I was 17, I just decided while I was living with my family. I applied for an American visa two times but I didn’t get it, and I heard people were going to Italy. So, I woke up one day, packed my bag, took some money from my family, and I just ran away without anybody knowing. I talked with one of my friends and we decided to go on the journey.

Aly’s friends waiting to continue their journey in Sabha, Libya.

 “In the Sahara, you will go and you will meet dead bodies. The journey is a big risk,” said Aly.

Many of the “backway” stories are unsuccessful. Aly explained that he had to leave one of his friends behind because he did not have enough money to move between countries. He was exposed to situations he had never encountered in the Gambia: police roughing up migrants in Burkina Faso, young children carrying guns in Agadez, even dead bodies in the Sahara. 

“It’s like a connection, like drug dealing and a family business. For example, if you are in Bahe, the other family member will be in Taraghin, Sabha and Tripoli. If the brother takes the people from Bahe to Taraghin, the other brother will smuggle us from Taraghin to Sabha and then next to the capital of Tripoli.” -Aly

Photo of Aly’s friends waiting to continue their journey in Sabha, Libya

The SAIS Observer: How has your transition to Italy? How have the past few years been in terms of family, making new friends and working?

Aly: I arrived in Bologna on April 11, 2014. I was in a city outside of Bologna. I was there for one month since I was underage and I stayed at that camp. I went to school for one month. The boss who was living there was a very good guy. He really liked many of us and gave me an opportunity for work. After six months, I got a contract and I got my documents within three months. I just have to thank the community of Bologna. They made my life after God.

Aly has been in Bologna for almost six years and today has the opportunity to supervise incoming migrants. Boubacar is one of the young students he looks after here in Bologna. The Observer’s interview with Boubacar follows:

The SAIS Observer: What made you come to Italy and how was the journey for you?

Boubacar: I was a student in Gambia. One of my friends came the backway to Italy so I played a fake game to my daddy. I told him that I had a school excursion so he gave me money for the contribution. I took that money to pay the bus and went from Banjul to Bamako, Mali. I was in Mali for four days and then went to Algeria. After being in Debdeb for one week, I went to Tripoli, Libya. It’s too much money. After that, I was in Tripoli for three weeks and then arrived to Italy. I was around 15 years old when I left and I have been in Bologna for three years.

The SAIS Observer: Was there a language barrier for you during the journey from Gambia to Italy?

Boubacar: Yes, language is difficult. For me, I speak English, Wolof and Mandinka. So, some countries were easy. Those countries though (Algeria and Libya), people speak only Arabic so it was difficult. 

With respect to his transition, Boubacar is thankful to God for allowing him to make it to Italy. He’s made new friends, enjoys playing basketball, likes going to school and wants to be an electrician when he grows up.

Young migrant men and women face real dangers on the journey to Europe. Aly told the SAIS Observer that if someone paid him to do it all over again, he would say no. The men also said their journeys would not end in Italy. After saving enough money, Aly and Boubacar plan to return to Gambia to take care of their families and start life in their homeland afresh. Both gave thanks to Allah and to the community of Bologna for welcoming them as their own. Their journey has been difficult, but Aly, Boubacar and many other young migrants are determined to create a better life for themselves.

SAIS Bolognesi flock to Anna’s bakery for late-night sugary sanctuary

Michael Hall 

October 14, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — It took no more than a week in Bologna to understand SAIS’s dedication to instilling the precious qualities of ambition and ability in its students. Similarly apparent was the unveiling of this elite academic institution’s seedy underbelly: seeking to convince students of the necessity of long hours of study, exploration, examination, analysis and droopy eyelids in a secluded two-story library. In moments like these — when AirPods playing “chill lo-fi study beats” are more prevalent than smiles — it is especially important to find sanctuary. What environment harbors a warmer sense of envelopment than a bakery and its perfume of yeast, sugar and vanilla extract?

When a friend first mentioned the existence of a late-night “secret bakery,” an hour of online research returned a morass of subreddits, travel blogs and fruitless ‘Yahoo Answers;’ fellow foreigners entranced by the idea of an Italian grandmother serving fresh baked goods at 3 a.m. were useless here. Instead, this bakery — a garage door replete with graffiti before 12 a.m., when its door opens — demanded immersive field research.

The bakery can be found tucked away on Via Borgonuovo, and although there are no official hours, the shop typically opens around midnight and serves its loyal late-night crowd until  traffic peters out around 3 a.m. — later on weekends. Anna, the Mother Mary who operates the bakery, has been running the shop for 65 years and serves anywhere between ten and 200 night owls per shift. In terms of price, the bakery is average if not affordable, with a delicious cornetto vuoto priced at one euro and ten cents. The following paragraphs recount my personal experience of discovery and indulgence at Anna’s bakery:

Following a Friday night dedicated to a cathartic session of dance, the time had arrived when nothing could prove more satiating in the early morning then a quintessential overfilled Italian cornetto. When leaving the clubs and strolling through the city center, it is impossible to ignore the increasing population of couples and individuals practicing their certain brand of self-care by burying their faces into fresh baked goods veiled by greased wax paper. Pitying my disheveled appearance — a shirt saturated with sweat and jeans stained with the spilled drink of another club-goer — a carefree couple kindly directed me to the bakery’s location in Via Borgonuovo for salvation via carbohydrates.

Despite the absence of any signage, the crescendo of the slurred sentences of late-night party-goers guide vagabonds like myself to a nondescript storefront adorned with graffiti. A written menu doesn’t exist, so don’t bother foolishly searching for one; instead, simply get in line.

The bakery offers two main items: pizza by the slice, which comes as a dough-centric square with the option to add prosciutto or salciccia; and cornetti filled to order with pistachio, crema, chocolate, Nutella or marmellata. In the name of thorough investigation, your loyal correspondent ordered three cornetti: one crema, one Nutella, and one with both pistachio and chocolate — the baker’s recommendation. Anna, overseer of this midnight oasis, scuttled back — her apron ends trailing freely behind her like Kate Winslet in the Titanic — and within minutes returned with the night’s bounty.

Having fed the camera first with a few quick snaps, a gentle separation of the Nutella-filled cornetto revealed two findings. First, the plentiful fragile flakes that fell in the process spoke to the proper lamination of the dough — Mary Berry would approve. Second, provided the cornetto was filled only minutes before, it made sense that the filling was more molten than your average 9 a.m. cornetto. The Nutella filling was the runniest of the three, presenting an exciting opportunity to mop up the drippings with the handy tools provided by the pastry’s empty ends. 

Alas, my eager anticipation was rewarded only with bleak disappointment. The filling’s hazelnut flavor matched that of a jar of sun-bleached Lavazza. This absence of nuttiness left an imbalanced sugar-to-cocoa ratio that, when combined with the dough’s innate sweetness and confectioners’ sugar, tasted of half-melted chocolate rediscovered a month after Halloween. 

Conversely, the pistachio cornetto’s intensity provided a nutty, fatty backbone that achieved a delightful balance with the rich, presumably milk chocolate filling. The crema filling was the firmest of three and was made using a different dough adorned with nonpareils, rather than confectioners’ sugar. Less flakey, more rigid and lacking the thick center vein of cakey, tooth-sinkable dough distinguishing a good cornetto from the bad, this was the least interesting of the three. Nonetheless, the exposed insides of all three cornetti released an intoxicating aroma of lemon and yeast that cuts through the sweetness and inspires customers to clean their plate — or in this instance, a stone doorstep.

By sunrise, the crowd had thinned considerably, and Anna had a moment to chat. Bolognese through and through, Anna has spent her whole life in the city. She feels that the bakery has had an unmistakable impact on the city, and believes that it is widely understood that fresh baked goods after midnight is a privilege — and almost all customers, despite their varying levels of inebriation, treat her with immense respect. Pointing to the gate that bars guests from entering and up at the nearby windows of the residences of families and working people, Anna said her biggest problem was noise complaints. Anna sells from the building’s door as a strategy to defend herself to city authorities when complaints are filed; all customers are on public grounds and thus, she contends, they should be fined instead of her. However, she lamented, this rarely works out as planned. Instead, she pays the occasional fine, though she is generally more concerned about  inadvertently disturbing the viccolo’s residents than the fines themselves.

As the clock neared 6 in the morning, Anna sent her fellow baker home and momentarily removed the bakery’s small gate to allow for a few photos. Italians don’t drink without food,even if it is a lowly potato chip, and you shouldn’t either. With that in mind, Anna’s bakery is a highly recommended pit stop during a night giro through the city.

Giulio: The man behind the vest

Michael Hall

October 22, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — Pity the poor soul who comes to SAIS by the name of Giulio; that unlucky person is destined to be overshadowed by Giulio, the bar-owner, bracelet-connoisseur and musician that all SAIS Bologna students come to know and appreciate. His scarves iconic and Friday afternoon pours delightfully generous, Giulio is a character who contributes to the “Bologna experience” of many — maybe even too much. The SAIS Observer had the wonderful opportunity to interview our beloved barista. As one may expect, there wasn’t a dull moment.

Giulio, born and raised in Bologna but Calabrese at heart, has been slinging coffee at SAIS for well over a decade now since assuming the role of owner in 2005. Although Giulio had an academic passion for philosophy which he explored at the University of Bologna (UNIBO), he has always cherished the beauty of food services and the accompanying human interaction. Nonetheless, living outside the city walls while studying at UNIBO, Giulio found himself searching for a more geographically convenient job. Enter SAIS: a school attracting diverse, sociable students. It seemed the stars had aligned for our favorite barista-but-could-pass-for-magician Italian.

Giulio was quick to share that this was, and has remained overwhelmingly his favorite part of the job. Students have changed, he explained, but in a positive way, gravitating away from strictly business and finance toward harboring a broader set of interests. It is somewhat ironic that over the similar course of time, Giulio has perceived the construction of a thicker wall around the school. Prompted into discussion by a question regarding what it is like being many students’ first or primary foreigner-Italian interaction, his mustache-adorned smile slowly inverted into an unpleasant symbol of distaste.

Giulio began recounting years past with the glossy tinge of nostalgia, when the building’s mechanic blockade — relishing in the panic of students two-minutes late sans ID card in hand — instead was a revolving door through which both SAIS and UNIBO students passed. The café’s clientele was even more diverse and, perhaps for Giulio, lent a sense of legitimacy to his business. Now, as regulations have made entering the building increasingly difficult for anyone unaffiliated with SAIS, Giulio’s has increasingly come to resemble the cafeteria-style, contracted restaurants often found at universities in the United States. [Editor’s note: Wait until the Bolognesi see the Grab-n-Go that passes for food service at SAIS DC. Refrigerated, packaged hot dogs and hamburgers, anyone?] 

This isn’t to ignore the secluded market that evolves from such protection. Rather, the conversation steered more toward what it meant for students’ experiences. For the less extroverted, some now find their interaction with the outside world—Via Beniamino Andreatta, 4, and beyond — restricted to the ins-and-outs of the drab brick-and-mortar some students tragically have begun calling “home.” This isn’t to construe Giulio’s feelings as unappreciative or indignant; the transition Giulio has seen, and the ardent feelings it inspires in him, instead speak to the immense care all SAIS faculty and staff have for us fortunate students. Some may see our year as a cultural immersion — and others as a relocation of U.S.-based practices to Bologna. Offer a glass — or better yet a bottle — of wine to the man behind the perennial vest and you’ll leave more motivated than ever to muster up the courage to give more than the ambivalent ciao to that cute cashier.

A bright future awaits SAIS at the Newseum

September 26, 2019

By Dennis Murphy

Photo Credit: Celine Bteish

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It has been about half a year since the news broke that Johns Hopkins SAIS had purchased the Newseum as a future location for the Washington, D.C. campus. The move has been the subject of much rumor and speculation since. On September 26, the SAIS Observer met with Dean Eliot Cohen to put to the record some useful facts about the move, and what it means for the student body here in Washington.

As it turns out, the idea to change the Washington campus is an old one, and is related to the broader issue of consolidating Johns Hopkins University’s programs in the Washington area. As such, the Carey Business School, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and several others will also find a home in the new location. 

While the Newseum location will cast a big tent, SAIS will comprise about 70% of the new location. Other schools will contribute faculty and students, but only SAIS will make a complete transition to consolidate its Washington presence.

One of the potential benefits to SAIS of the new location at 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW to will be its closer proximity to Capitol Hill. SAIS and its graduates enjoy a close relationship with the executive branch’s departments and agencies, which employ hundreds of former SAISers across the Treasury, State, and Defense departments, among numerous others. At the Newseum, SAIS will be within walking distance of Capitol Hill as well, facilitating greater opportunities for SAISers to pursue internships and foster connections that might just be their big break. The first floor of the Newseum will be open to the public, and it is to be hoped that this space will help to foster career-shaping interactions between these students and the powerful institutions that have made their home on Pennsylvania Avenue. Such is the power of location.

SAIS has enlisted architects to ensure the Newseum can fit all of SAIS—which currently takes up three buildings on Massachusetts Avenue—as well as Johns Hopkins’ other Washington programs. Floors, walls, ceilings–anything that can be rearranged, may be rearranged, as SAIS appears to look to its Bologna campus as a guiding example.

Dean Cohen invoked the Bologna campus as he stressed the importance of commensality. He wants people from all over our school to constantly be stumbling across each other, in the process finding a good place to sit with each other, eat with each other, and build community. He expressed a strong desire for there to be an excellent cafeteria and an excellent coffee shop at the new location, so that students could have a great place to share meals together and bond.

This was one of the great secrets to academic life, Cohen continued, that Oxford and Cambridge discovered. It seems clear that Cohen envisions the same type of close camaraderie fostered at Bologna to play a powerful role at the new campus.

Dean Cohen underscored that this spirit of camaraderie should not be limited to students’ sense of community with each other. Rather, he hopes that faculty, administration and students will constantly be bumping into—and getting to know—each other. It is hoped that the close quarters will foster greater integration across social lines. One of the great things about being at SAIS, Cohen remarked, was that MIPP students and BA/MA students could sit together in the same class and learn and grow from each other. One should expect even more of these types of interactions at the Newseum.

As the move takes place, there will be a home for new degrees, joint degrees, and other types of affiliations with SAIS in the new Washington, D.C. Hopkins Center. The DIA—a practitioner’s Doctorate in International Affairs—is one of those new degrees, as is the MIEF—the Masters in International Economics and Finance. Dean Cohen mentioned that a dual degree program with the Carey Business School is likely to take shape, and hinted toward future discussions about other dual degree programs. Currently, MA students account for about 80% of the SAIS student body, but this may change in the future.

Most importantly for current students who will graduate long before they will be able to enjoy the new state-of-the-art classrooms in the Newseum location, the future of SAIS will be one where greater alumni interaction with the school will be encouraged. Discussions are taking place on how best to allow SAIS graduates to share in the future of SAIS—but the dean stressed the importance of having many different kinds of Hopkins alumni come back and spend a day to a few weeks at the new location. Dean Cohen wants this new school to be a home to us, even after we have graduated.

At its heart, the main reason for the move is this: It will provide for greater interaction and collaboration across all of the schools, and among all the students, faculty, and alumni, that form Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

2023 is a long way off for us current students, who will be long gone by then. Should the new school fulfill its promise, we will have the good fortune to have a home at SAIS in Washington, D.C. as we move forward into the unknowns of life.