Archive for January 8th, 2010
The US infrastructure is falling apart. But we don’t want to fix it. We want it to heal on its own. Apparently. Take a look at the watermain-break clock (via James Fallows).
Orville Schell lists the things that other nation do that the US can’t manage:
Lately, I’ve been studying the melting of glaciers in the greater Himalayas. Understanding the cascading effects of the slow-motion downsizing of one of the planet’s most magnificent landforms has, to put it politely, left me dispirited.
It is impossible to focus on those Himalayan highlands without realizing that something that once seemed immutable and eternal has become vulnerable, even perishable. Those magnificent glaciers are wasting away on an overheated planet, and no one knows what to do about it.
Another tipping point has also been on my mind lately, and it’s left me no less melancholy. In this case, the threat is to my own country, the United States. We Americans too seem to have passed a tipping point. Like the glaciers of the high Himalaya, long-familiar aspects of our nation are beginning to seem as if they are, in a sense, melting away.
In the last few months, as I’ve roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai, I’ve taken to keeping a double- entry list of what works and what doesn’t, country by country. Unfortunately, it’s become largely a list of what works elsewhere but doesn’t work here. In places such as China, South Korea, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and (until recently) the United Arab Emirates, you find people hard at work on the challenges of education, transportation, energy and the environment. In these places, one feels the kind of hopefulness and can-do optimism that used to abound in the United States.
China, a country I’ve visited more than 100 times since 1975, elicits an especially complicated set of feelings in me. Its Leninist government doesn’t always live up to Western ideals on such things as political transparency, the rule of law, human rights and democracy. And yet it has managed to conjure an economic miracle. In China today, you feel an unmistakable sense of energy and optimism in the air that, believe me, is bittersweet for an American pondering why the regenerative powers of his own country have gone missing.
As I’ve traveled from China’s gleaming, efficient airports to our often-chaotic and broken-down versions of the same, or ridden on Europe’s high-speed trains that so sharply contrast with our clunky, slowly vanishing passenger rail system, I keep expanding my list of what works here at home and what doesn’t.
Over time, the list’s entries have fallen into three categories.
- There are things that are robust and growing, replete with promise, the envy of the world.
- Then there are those things that are still alive and kicking but are precariously balanced between growth and decline.
- Finally, there are those things that are irredeemably broken.
Here is the score card as I see it.
Aspects of U.S. life that are still vigorous and filled with potential: …
Thanks to Jack in Amsterdam for the pointer. An article by David Gosset in the Asia Times:
The co-existence of a gigantic bureaucratic state with an overall social plasticity and transformation whose scale has no equivalent in world history is an apparent paradox that puzzles the observer of Chinese society. Why is China so comfortable with change while Western democracies are dangerously lacking in the capacity to question their assumptions and could, in the long term, be threatened by inertia and complacency?
As the Chinese renaissance gradually reshapes the 21st century and takes the global system to another level, understanding China has become a practical necessity. Instead of continually lecturing in a tone of superiority about what it poorly frames as an “emerging market”, the West would gain much by a more modest approach: accepting inspiration from a civilization whose resurgence, far from being a threat, is a contributor to global equilibrium. As Chinese intellectuals endeavor to reconnect with the universal message of their traditions, China’s humanistic revival is also the promise of a more harmonious global village.
By considering the board game weiqi (known as go in Japanese and familiar in the West under that name), one of the most significant symbols in the Chinese mental geography, one can develop a better understanding of Chinese dynamics in politics, in business, and even in more trivial social interactions. The Tao of weiqi envelops an esthetic and an intellectual experience that take us closer to Chinese psychology and give us insights on Chinese strategic thinking, but are also, to a certain extent, a way to approach the fundamental patterns of China’s collective success. Beyond their ritualistic rigidity, the bureaucrat-mandarins of the Chinese Communist Party are, above all, individuals whose behavior is determined by an underlying cognitive culture that also explains what can appear, at first glance, to be paradoxical.
Using a universally relevant metaphor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to US president Jimmy Carter, wrote in The Grand Chessboard (1997): “Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.” But is Beijing playing chess? In Eurasia and beyond, Chinese strategists are more probably spontaneously designing a series of moves compatible with their own understanding of strategy. While Westerners might navigate a world mapped as a chessboard, the Chinese mind circulates on a weiqi board.
The chronicle by Japanese writer Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) of an intense intellectual duel, translated in English as The Master of Go, certainly contributed to the popularity of the game in the West, but weiqi is a product of Chinese civilization and spread over time in the educated circles of Northeast Asia. Kawabata, who viewed Master as one of his favorite creations, knew that for China the game of “abundant spiritual powers encompassed the principles of nature and the universe of human life”, and that the Chinese had named it “the diversion of the immortals”. 
In imperial China, weiqi had the status of an art whose practice had …
Another good post from Dan Colman at Open Culture:
If you’re completely new to the concept of “open” courses, then this primer is worth a good look. The new edition of the AARP Bulletin (which targets millions of Americans over the age of 50) tells you where to find open courses, what software you might need, how to store files, etc. We get a little mention here, and if you’re visiting from AARP, I would encourage you to delve into our large collection of free courses from top universities. (It currently features over 250 courses.) Our collections of free audio books, free foreign language lessons, free e-books, free online movies, educational video sites, and smart YouTube channels will also be of interest. Some of these collections also appear on our free iPhone app.
Interesting post by Dan Colman at Open Culture:
Last year, Michael Sandel made a splash when he put online his popular Harvard philosophy course, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Over the past 30 years, more than 14,000 Harvard students have taken his course. And now you can access the course online at no cost. (Details here.) In recent days, Sandel has surfaced one again, this time on Philosophy Bites (iTunes – Feed – Web Site), a British podcast that features top philosophers being interviewed on bite-sized topics. In this conversation (listen here or below), Sandel and Nigel Warburton tackle some big questions: What are the limits of free market thinking, especially when it comes to what we can do with our bodies in the marketplace? Can we sell blood consensually? Perhaps. But what about selling our kidneys on the open market? Or “renting wombs”? (There are whole villages in India where women act as “paid surrogates” for Western couples.) Or what about consensual prostitution? Or engaging, however willingly, in degrading forms of wage labor? Are these inherent freedoms, as some free market/libertarian thinkers might hold? Or do these acts violate our collective sense of the “good life”? And do they diminish our freedoms in some kind of larger sense? The conversation gets more heated (in a good way) as it goes along. Give it some time, hang with it, and see what you think. For more philosophy, see our collection of Free Philosophy Courses…
I just got the four knives I ordered. They’re quite cool, and a bargain at less than $15 for all four. I’ll use them this afternoon to make a chicken-gizzard curry with cauliflower and potatoes.
Upon entering office, President Obama made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority for his administration, saying the issue is “interrelated” with “what’s happening” throughout the region. Part of the administration’s strategy has been to get Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government to endorse a two-state solution and a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
After many months of balking and intransigence, Netanyahu finally announced that he would accept a Palestinian state (although a highly “circumscribed” one at best). And last November, the Israeli government announced a settlement freeze in the West Bank. Yet the move would only be temporary, exclude so-called “natural growth” construction already started and exclude East Jerusalem, where just yesterday, Israel’s Jerusalem municipality approved construction of new apartments for Jewish settlers.
In a recent meeting with Yaki Dayan, Israel’s Consul in Los Angeles, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly expressed his frustration with the situation, saying the U.S. is “fed up” with the Israelis who “adopt the right ideas too late“:
Emanuel’s complaint was made with regard to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “belated recognition” of the principle of “two states for two peoples,” as well as the Jewish construction freeze in the communities of Judea and Samaria, which was only announced “many months” after the United States asked, or instructed, Israel to carry it out.
Emanuel also lashed out at the Palestinians, who he said “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” for peace. According to Dayan, Emanuel said “if there is no progress in the diplomatic process, we will reduce our involvement and effort in the conflict, because we have other matters to deal with.”
By contrast, in an interview with Middle East Progress just last month, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace former Sen. George Mitchell said the administration is “determined” to get a deal, but that it will take time:
With time, with patience, and with courageous leadership, however, such compromises can be reached for one overriding reason: It is in the best interest of the region’s people — Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. The next generation should not have to live through what the present leadership has endured, and we are determined that peace can be achieved.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “have been clear about our commitment both to Israel’s security and to the two-state solution based on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state with contiguous territory,” Mitchell said. “This commitment is unwavering and in the national security interests of the United States.”
“Hot food issues ready to boil over this year.”
Q: What do you think will happen with food and nutrition in 2010?
A: I wish I could read the leaves while I drink tea, but the best I can do is tell you which issues I’m going to be watching closely this year.
Hunter Public Relations recently asked 1,000 Americans which food-related issues they thought were most important in 2009. The top three? Food safety, hunger and food prices. For the decade, the winner was childhood obesity.
I have my own top 10 list of hot-button issues for 2010, and here they are:
- Hunger: More than 35 million Americans get benefits to which they are entitled under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly, food stamps). The economy may be improving, but not quickly enough for millions who have lost jobs, health care and housing. Will Congress do anything this year to strengthen the safety net for the poor? It needs to.
- Childhood obesity: Rates of childhood obesity may have stabilized, but we all want to figure out how to prevent kids from gaining so much weight that they develop adult chronic diseases. I expect to see more efforts to improve school food and make neighborhoods more conducive to walking to school, riding bikes and playing outside.
- Food safety regulation: Congress is sitting on a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration some real authority for food safety. The bill does not do what is most needed – establish a single food-safety agency – but is a reasonable step in the right direction. Let’s hope Congress gets to it soon…
From the Anchorage Daily News, written by Rick Steiner, a marine scientist and longtime environmental activist in Alaska :
Alaska’s escalating war on science should be a grave concern to us all. On climate change, endangered species, predator control, and environmental impacts of industrial development, Alaska now has arguably the most anti-science government anywhere in the nation.
For instance, with virtually no public input, the 2008 legislature appropriated $2 million for an “endangered species conference,” for which “conclusions had already been agreed upon,” according to an Anchorage Daily News report. The stated objective for the appropriation was to refute federal climate science, particularly the science behind the listing of polar bears as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the words of its primary sponsor Rep. John Harris: “You know as well as I do that scientists are like lawyers. … we want to have the money to hire scientists to answer Interior (department) scientists.”
Many asked Gov. Palin to veto this appropriation, but being a non-believer in climate change and species protection herself, she approved it. Palin recently claimed that climate change concerns are based on “snake oil science,” questioned “whether we are warming or cooling,” and concluded that climate is simply “cyclical” and thus no reason to constrain fossil fuel development and use. If it takes place as envisioned, the state’s “conference to nowhere” and public relations campaign to deceive the public will be a laughing stock of the scientific community.
In his Dec. 12 Compass piece, Attorney General Dan Sullivan decries the “misuse” of the ESA “by Outside environmental groups,” asserts that protecting endangered species could “lock up Alaska resources and shut down our economy,” and announces the administration’s policy to fight proposed ESA listings.
Mr. Sullivan neglects to mention that Alaska already has 20 species on the federal threatened and endangered list, without shutting down our economy. As justification for the state’s ill-conceived lawsuit against the federal government over the polar bear listing, he states that polar bear populations are “robust and stable.”
Not so, says the science.
A beautiful math emerges from the acrobatic flips of supercold atoms in a magnetic field, researchers report in the Jan. 8 Science.
Scientists detected an elusive, complex symmetry known as the E8 Lie group in resonating particles, a symmetry long analyzed on paper but never seen in a physical system. The work suggests that this numerical grace may be hidden in other physical systems and may provide a mathematical link between quantum processes in condensed matter and the physics of the cosmos.
“Finding a mathematically exotic symmetry in a regular material we can find on Earth — well, it is mathematically beautiful and very interesting,” comments Robert Konik of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. Symmetries helped theoretical physicists to predict the existence of certain particles before they were detected and to explain phenomena such as superconductivity. E8 in particular may help describe the unseen dimensions in string theory. But the emergent E8 symmetry in this system may be nothing more than a mathematical curiosity, researchers say.
The team of scientists from England and Berlin began with chains of the magnetic material cobalt niobate, a material whose electrons have a preferred direction of spin — either up or down. The researchers chilled the cobalt niobate to a cool 40 millikelvins (-273.1˚ Celsius) and then applied a magnetic field to the material. Without this external magnetic field, the spins of the electrons would all align in the same direction, like in an ordinary magnet. But an external magnetic field applied from the right direction introduces a tension, and at some point the electrons align with that magnetic field instead of with their neighbors. The electron spins are associated with particle-like states, known as quasiparticles, in the system.
That’s when the magic happens. The system approaches what’s known as the quantum critical point, and blocks of quasiparticles begin changing their orientation, which is detectable with a neutron beam, says study coauthor Alan Tennant of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers in Berlin.
Bound by the externally applied magnetic field and the slight magnetic field that exists between chains, the quasiparticles start resonating at mathematically intriguing frequencies. Two of the frequencies occur in the ratio of the golden mean, the influential and aesthetically pleasing ratio of 1.618 often used in art and architecture, says Tennant. The ratios of five frequencies correspond to the complex E8 Lie group symmetry, which represents a 57-dimensional solid. Defining a location on this kind of shape requires 57 coordinates, making it much more elaborate than the three coordinates needed to define a point in ordinary space…
The Eldest draws my attention to a home scale with these specs:
Highly accurate body composition monitor Weight and Body Fat recall 4 person memory Athlete Mode – special calibration for extremely fit adults to ensure the most reliable results Body water and Muscle Mass recall Daily Caloric Intake Metabolic Age Bone Mass Indicator Visceral Fat Rating – Measure the fat in the abdominal cavity (stomach), surrounding the vital organs. Physique Rating – lets you check your status as you become more active. As you reduce the amount of body fat, your physique rating will also change accordingly. Healthy Range Indicator
The visceral fat rating is particularly interesting, since visceral fat is the bad boy.
KABUL — The U.S. military has begun investigating allegations that two Afghan teenagers were beaten and humiliated by guards while in American custody last year at a secret detention center at Bagram air base, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
U.S. military officials took statements from the teenagers last month and are contacting others who say they were held at what Afghans call Bagram’s “black prison,” a detention center run by U.S. Special Operations forces. This classified facility is separate from the main prison at Bagram, which holds about 700 detainees.
The two teenagers — Issa Mohammad, then 17, and Abdul Rashid, who said he was younger than 16 — described austere living conditions and rough treatment while undergoing extensive daily interrogations about their alleged links to the Taliban.
Mohammad and Rashid said that during their incarceration in early 2009, they were punched and slapped in the face, photographed naked and deprived of sleep while being held in solitary confinement. In addition, Rashid said interrogators forced him to look at pornography, which the young Muslim described as deeply humiliating. The Pentagon prohibits such treatment of detainees.
The two teenagers, along with a third Afghan youth, Sayid Sardar Ahmad, 17, who said he was detained at Bagram but not at the Special Operations site, were interviewed by The Washington Post in November at the Afghan-run Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Kabul, where they were transferred after their time in U.S. custody. Last month, six American military officials visited the center to examine the case, according to the director of the facility, Abdullah Moqbel.
Continue reading. The military has a much more extensive record of cover-ups and whitewashes than of rigorous investigation, and that’s why they want to keep the results of investigations secret. The military, in a word, should not be investigating itself. Call in the FBI (though their own track record is getting pretty bad—Mueller should be replaced).
Just discovered this site today: Google Health (beta). So you can start building your on-line medical records now. No need to wait for healthcare reform to get around to it.
Also, you can link your Withings scale to your Google Health account so your weight, %fat, and BMI are updated automatically.
UPDATE: This page explains how it works.
At the Wonk Room, Igor Volsky highlights a new study in Health Affairs that shows how misguided — and political — Republican lawmakers’ opposition to health reform legislation is. “States with the most to gain under health care reform are overwhelmingly represented by Republicans, while those states likely to do worse are much more likely to have Democratic senators,” conclude the study’s authors. From their findings:
[T]he states most likely to “win” as a result of health care reform are Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. All of these states have a relatively high number of uninsured and all are in the bottom half of states in terms of cost under both financing mechanisms. … Among the states most likely to “lose” are Delaware, Nebraska, and New Hampshire as well as the District of Columbia. Each of these states has a relatively lower-than-average proportion of uninsured residents, and each would fall in the “High Cost” category under either of the financing options. There are four states — Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, and Rhode Island — that while also “Low Benefit” are “Low Cost” as well.
Volsky writes that “if Senators and Representatives dropped their ideological allegiance and voted to advance the interests of their constituents, the health care reform effort would actually attract bipartisan support.”
Interesting to watch the efforts to airbrush problems out of Bush’s presidency—and that requires a LOT of airbrushing. The latest effort is to try to claim that no domestic terrorist attacks occurred while Bush was president, which means either forgetting or moving 9/11, Richard Reid (the shoe bomber), and the anthrax attacks. Dana Perino was first in the effort, though to be charitable, she may have just forgotten—she seems to a total airhead. But now Rudy Giuliani, Mr. 9/11 himself, takes a stand:
Much as I want the Koh-I-Noor to be a fine brush, I have to recognize that it still carries only enough lather for a single pass, whereas my (second) Omega 48 boar brush today held enough lather for three passes, though I admit to doing some brush-squeezing for the third pass. But the Omega is not really even broken in—about 4-5 uses—and it’s coming along quite well. The Omega, I have to say, is a better brush despite the cheaper handle.
And Floris London’s JF shave soap is extremely nice—a significant contributor to the excellent lather. This iKon razor always feels quite dangerous on the face, so I don’t know that it’s a completely pleasant experience, but OTOH I got a smooth shave and no nicks.
A splash of the JF aftershave and I’m good to go..