As students in my "Mission Possible: Global Issues, Leadership Choices" class quickly find out, soft power matters. Even though all evidence suggests the novel coronavirus began in China, China has successfully parlayed its response to the virus and its (largely untested) vaccine into soft power, especially in developing countries. The U.S., by contrast, is mostly viewed as having fumbled its response to the novel coronavirus, as this graphic, based on data gathered in U.S. ally/partner countries by the Pew Research Center, shows: www.statista.com/chart/22923/international-views-on-us-handling-of-coronavirus
The urban-rural divide in the 2016 election has been well documented. But can the actual color palette of our landscape predict how we vote? "For his latest undertaking, [Tim Wallace] worked with Krishna Karra, a data visualization engineer, to process imagery of every square meter in the contiguous United States. They asked the question, 'Do people who vote similarly live in similar-looking places?' The resulting article is more museum piece than map, a rich American canvas made mostly of natural greens and urban grays, complemented by less dominant shades of watery blues and arid browns and yellows. ... [V]oting precincts with more gray color — urban developments — were more likely to have voted for Hillary Clinton, while those with greener open spaces, but also sand or rock, were more likely to have supported Donald Trump. Randomly selected precincts with the same color often had a similar political makeup." www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/insider/journalism-and-geography.html
Celebrate fall: here is this year's interactive map from SmokyMountains.com of 2020 peak foliage predictions across the U.S.: smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/
When it is unlikely any individual vote will affect the outcome of an election, does one still have a moral obligation to vote? This piece, from the 1000-Word Philosophy project, explores the ethics of voting from a utilitarian or expected-value perspective.
"You often have some very good reason to act, even when doing that action only has a very small chance of creating a benefit, when the benefit is large enough. For example, in any particular car trip, a serious collision is unlikely, so fastening your child’s seatbelt only has a very small chance of making the difference about whether your child survives the trip—there probably won’t be a collision at all. Still, you ought to fasten the seatbelt, because of the small chance of major harm. ... For example, if there’s a 1% chance that buckling a seatbelt will save your child’s life, and the value of saving the child’s life is equal to ten million utils, and it costs you one util (say, in lost time) to buckle your child’s seatbelt, then the expected value of buckling your child’s seatbelt is equal to (1% of 10,000,000 utils) – 1 utils, i.e. 99,999 utils. Even though there is a small probability of having an effect, the value of the effect is so high that it’s worth doing. Let’s apply expected value to voting. There might only be a tiny chance that your vote will change who gets elected, but the net benefit of one candidate’s getting elected might be huge, for example in the billions of utils. Therefore, to decide whether you ought to vote, you must take into account the result of your vote’s changing the outcome, along with any other possible harms or benefits. ... But what if we were mistaken in our estimates? We could also be mistaken in our values: what we think is morally important. Most Americans have relatively little politically-relevant knowledge. It might be obligatory to abstain from voting if you don’t know enough about the election. By analogy, if you walk into a complicated factory and see a big, red, unlabeled button, and you don’t know what it does, don’t push the button. ... [But as with] every moral question, we must take seriously the possibility that expected consequences are not the only relevant moral consideration."
This Reddit map based on Eurostat data shows youth unemployment in Europe (before COVID): i.redd.it/z7y1d5rirqn51.png
The National Park Service's Every Kid Outdoors program provides a free annual park service pass to 4th graders across the U.S. The pass can be used for free entrance at any national park through Aug. 31, 2021 for a 4th grader and his/her family, including all children under age 16 and up to three adults. For more information or to register for a pass, see https://everykidoutdoors.gov/pass.htm.
This geo-graphic shows the toll of COVID-19 on health care workers, by country: www.statista.com/chart/22795/highest-number-of-health-worker-deaths-from-covid
The Institute for Economics & Peace (headquartered in Australia) has released its first Ecological Threat Register, "which measures ecological threats that countries are projected to face between now and 2050. The report uniquely combines measures of resilience with the most comprehensive ecological data available, to shed light on the countries least likely to cope with extreme ecological shocks." Among the report's findings: by 2040, more than half of the world's population will be living in countries experiencing "high" or "extreme" water stress; by 2050, the number of people suffering from food insecurity could more than double, to 3.5 billion; mass population displacement is likely with more than one billion people living in countries where the country’s resilience is unlikely to withstand the impact of ecological events by 2050. To download the report and explore the data, visit visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2020/09/ETR_2020_web-1.pdf
Spring has returned to the Southern Hemisphere. In the Southern Ocean, as in the rest of the world's oceans, illegal fishing accounts for a significant proportion of all fishing activity. In the Crozet Islands, in the far southern Indian Ocean not far north of the Antarctic Convergence (the point at which cold polar water sinks beneath slightly warmer subantarctic waters, creating a churning of nutrients and a biological and hydrological "moat" encircling Antarctica), researchers fitted albatrosses with radar devices. Because albatrosses are naturally drawn to fishing ships and can spot them from as far as 30 km away, albatrosses carrying radar sensors were used to identify fishing ships that had illegally turned off their automatic identification systems. More than a quarter of the ships albatrosses detected in the waters around the Crozet Islands, which are a French-protected marine sanctuary, had turned off their AIS as had 37% of the albatross-detected fishing ships in nearby international waters. www.popularmechanics.com/science/a30694308/bird-cops-illegal-fishing
Late mail is not a figment of your imagination. These maps were produced by The New York Times using a variety of data from the U.S. Postal Service as well as private mailers and mail-monitoring firms to understand when and where mail deliveries have slowed down. (from www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/14/upshot/is-the-mail-getting-slower-tracker.html)
As Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus found during World War II, times of social stress can be a productive crucible in which to observe human ethics. This piece from The Washington Post goes back to a different turbulent period in world history -- the reign of the Roman emperor Nero -- to consider how the observations of Seneca and Epictetus, both Stoics, are useful food for thought during this time of pandemic:
"The happy life is not to be found in pleasures or possessions, wrote Seneca, who was soon to be stripped of both. It is a life spent in pursuit of virtue, of learning what is the right thing to do and then doing it — no matter how many people do otherwise. We may live to old age or die young; we may be healthy or sick, rich or poor: These are matters of fortune beyond our control. We control only our own thoughts and actions, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat others. ... In written versions of his plain-spoken lessons, Epictetus stressed the difference between the few things we control — our own thoughts and actions — and the many things beyond our control. Like the slightly older Seneca, he observed how much unhappiness is caused by confusing these matters. When my daughter read the philosopher’s admonition to greet even the death of one’s child with equanimity, we cringed together. But then I ventured that maybe Epictetus was trying to shock us into seeing that his philosophy of taking nothing for granted, of making the best of each moment, applies even in the worst of circumstances."
Education at all levels is in flux this year. This geo-graphic compares how much various OECD countries spent on education as a percentage of GDP in 2017: www.statista.com/chart/15434/the-countries-spending-the-most-on-education
Banned Books Week is coming up Sept. 27-Oct. 3. If you are interested in reading a banned book or two to celebrate, the American Library Association has assembled this list of banned books that one can use to find banned classics (e.g., The Grapes of Wrath), YA literature (e.g., Ender's Game), children's books (e.g., Blubber), books with diverse content (e.g., The House on Mango Street), and the most-frequently-banned books by year (e.g., The Hate U Give): www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks
Today is perhaps the most important overlooked holiday in the United States: Constitution Day. (As history shows, anyone can declare independence; coming up with a stable governing framework is a very different matter.) The U.S. is not the only country with a constitution, though: in fact, nearly every country now has a document they refer to as a constitution. (Notable exceptions: the UK, New Zealand, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.) This map shows the two countries with the oldest constitutions, the two countries with the newest constitutions, the country with the wordiest constitution, and country with the the shortest constitution. Which is which? Answers will be posted later today.
Oldest ratified constitutions: U.S. (1788) and Norway (1814)
Newest ratified constitutions: Thailand (2017) and Cuba (2019)
Wordiest constitution: India (146,385 words)
Shortest constitution: Monaco (3,814 words)
In my "Mission Possible: Global Issues, Leadership Choices" class, students are often confronted with "Grey Swans" -- my term for low-probability, high-impact events -- as part of their world affairs simulation. In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the British news magazine The Economist recently ran a series of articles looking at a variety of Grey Swans that merit government consideration.
"Low-probability, high-impact events are a fact of life. Individual humans look for protection from them to governments and, if they can afford it, insurers. Humanity, at least as represented by the world’s governments, reveals instead a preference to ignore them until forced to react—even when foresight’s price-tag is small. It is an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of the future. ... Pandemics are disasters that governments have experience of. What therefore of truly novel threats? The blazing hot corona which envelops the Sun—seen to spectacular effect during solar eclipses—intermittently throws vast sheets of charged particles out into space. These cause the Northern and Southern Lights and can mess up electric grids and communications. But over the century or so in which electricity has become crucial to much of human life, the Earth has never been hit by the largest of these solar eructations. If a coronal mass ejection (cme) were to hit, all sorts of satellite systems needed for navigation, communications and warnings of missile attacks would be at risk. Large parts of the planet could face months or even years without reliable grid electricity. The chances of such a disaster this century are put by some at better than 50:50. ... Keeping an eye on the future is part of what governments are for. ... It might seem quixotic to insist on esoteric preparedness when there are greater threats staring the world in the face, including catastrophic climate change and nuclear war. But this is not an either/or. ... Scanning the future for risks and taking proper note of what you see is a mark of prudent maturity."
www.economist.com/leaders/2020/06/25/politicians-ignore-far-out-risks-they-need-to-up-their-game (related articles in the same issue)
NASA is investigating a growing area over the South Atlantic where the earth's magnetic field is mysteriously weakening, already posing a problem for satellites that fly over the region. "On average, the planet's magnetic field has lost almost 10% of its strength over the last two centuries - but there is a large localised region of weakness stretching from Africa to South America. Known as the South Atlantic Anomaly, the field strength in this area has rapidly shrunk over the past 50 years just as the area itself has grown and moved westward." news.sky.com/story/nasa-investigates-mysterious-south-atlantic-anomaly-12051548
Slate has assembled this state-by-state guide to voting in the November election. "This guide is designed to help Americans vote—and make sure their ballots are actually counted. ... Our chief goal is to recommend the safest, easiest, most reliable voting options in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We explain how you can vote absentee, from the safety of your own home, then return your ballot without relying on USPS." slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/08/2020-voting-guide.html
What does it mean to create literature? Is it an exclusively human art? In 2017, for instance, a fiction author partnered with an artificial intelligence algorithm to write a science fiction short story (https://www.wired.com/2017/12/when-an-algorithm-helps-write-science-fiction/). Now The Wall Street Journal has reported that a new AI system known as GPT-3 can write memos, produce business ideas, write letters and short stories in the style of famous people, and "generate news articles that readers may have trouble distinguishing from human-written ones," surprising even its creators.
As humans, especially in the workplace, shift from author to editor (is that a positive development?), GPT-3 and similar programs in the works raise important questions about the future role of humans in the production of the written word, including of what we think of as "literature." (Information about GPT-3 from www.wsj.com/articles/an-ai-breaks-the-writing-barrier-11598068862)
How do people feel about the prospects of receiving a COVID vaccine if available? This geo-graphic, based on a poll of nearly 20,000 adults in 27 countries about a month ago, shows a wide variation: from 97% of adults in China agreeing to receive a vaccine if available to 53% in Russia. In the U.S., 2/3 of adults polled said they would agree to a vaccine. www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/get-a-vaccine-for-covid-19-ipsos.png
Do you know a STEM student who has been doing work that should reach a wider audience? Frontiers for Young Minds, a division of the peer-reviewed Frontiers STEM journals, is an online publication just for students. kids.frontiersin.org/
It's another devastating wildfire season for California. My kids had a permit to hike Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S., for tomorrow morning, but the National Forest Service closed 8 California national forests, including Inyo National Forest surrounding Mount Whitney, and pulled all hiking permits indefinitely Monday night for the first time in decades ;-(. This interactive map from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tracks wildfires across the state, including the ones in the southern Sierra Nevadas near Mount Whitney. www.fire.ca.gov/incidents/
If violence is increasingly outside the control of the nation-state, what does that mean for the future of the nation-state? "What justifies the existence of the state, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued, is a 'social contract.' People give up certain freedoms in exchange for state-provided security, whereby the state acts as a neutral 'referee' that can intervene when people get into disputes, punish people who steal and murder, and enforce contracts signed by parties with competing interests. The trouble is that if anyone anywhere can attack anyone anywhere else, then states will become—and are becoming—unable to satisfy their primary duty as referee." In an era of growing transnational crime, including violence by algorithm, disease, and drone, which is the better option, this article asks, a sophisticated global surveillance system or "one global catastrophe after another"? Or something else altogether? nautil.us/blog/omniviolence-is-coming-and-the-world-isnt-ready
Indonesia has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any Southeast Asian country and generated nearly 1500 tons of COVID-related medical waste between March and June. In May, the walls of a landfill in metro Jakarta collapsed, sending mountains of medical waste and other garbage into the Cisadane River, which is used by local people for bathing, swimming, and laundry. www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-indonesia-waste/in-indonesia-coronavirus-floods-cisadane-river-with-extra-hazard-medical-waste-idUSKBN25S37V
Today is Labor Day. If today is a paid holiday for you or someone in your family, thank a labor union. Last Friday's jobs report showed that the U.S. unemployment rate fell below 10% in August, but the number of jobs lost permanently, rather than temporarily, has climbed. Service workers who can't work remotely remain particularly hard hit by job losses. This map from The New York Times shows the geography of remote work: not surprisingly, workers' ability to work from home is highest (shown in red) in urban areas that tend to have higher proportions of information workers. (from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/business/economy/service-economy-workers.html)
Which takes precedent: research that could benefit thousands or millions of individuals or the medical needs of a single patient? Doctors have grappled with this question since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic as they have tried, simultaneously, to care for patients and to contribute to medicine's understanding of what works and what doesn't. This article from The New York Times Magazine profiles the debate and the decisions medical professionals were trying to make in the absence of information.
"Narasimhan, who was in charge of more than 20 I.C.U.s across the Northwell Health system, knew heading into the meeting that it might be tense. Adey Tsegaye, a pulmonary-critical-care doctor who was calling in remotely, shared some of Narasimhan’s concerns. The meeting’s agenda included time for remarks from Alex Spyropoulos, a lead researcher at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research — the research arm of Northwell — who was running a clinical trial. The research was trying to determine whether a standard dose of an anticoagulant or a higher dose yielded better outcomes for Covid-19 patients who were already on oxygen or a ventilator and were at high risk of organ failure and clotting. A doctor on Narasimhan’s unit had recently been at odds with a member of Spyropoulos’s research team. Stella Hahn, a pulmonary-critical-care doctor, arrived at work the day before the meeting to find that a Covid-19 patient had gone into cardiac arrest. She knew that the patient was enrolled in the clinical trial and had been randomly assigned to receive either the standard dose of the anticoagulant or the higher one. As is always the case in the most rigorous trials, neither the patient nor Hahn was supposed to know to which group this woman belonged. Double-blind, randomized, controlled trials — R.C.T.s — are considered the gold standard in research because they do not allow findings to be muddied by any individual doctor’s biases or assumptions. But Hahn believed that the patient’s condition now called for the higher dose, which could potentially require the patient’s removal from the trial. ... [Hahn] had to rely on her clinical judgment and believed that it was unethical to wait for more information. How could researchers dictate care to a doctor right there at the bedside, especially when a patient’s condition was so dire? ... [Spyropoulos] talked to the group about the importance of high-quality, randomized trials in making scientific progress, and the risks of trying experimental treatments without them. 'I stressed to the group that we should not abandon this principle, even in the very stressful environment of a pandemic that was overwhelming our hospitals at Northwell,' he said. Relying on gut instinct rather than evidence, he told them, was essentially 'witchcraft.'"
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