As March spills into April, the "dead animals in Chinese rivers" toll seems to have stabilized: recent reports indicate that the over 16,000 dead pigs have been joined by 1,000 dead ducks and, rather ominously, 13 dead black swans. The discovery of so many carcasses has elicited no small amount of public concern in China, as well as mockery elsewhere -- even Jay Leno got into the act.
So, how the hell did this happen? Here are a few ideas:
1. There are a lot of pigs in China. A lot of people, too. But, seriously, a lot of pigs.
China has more people than any other country in the world, and even those with only a passing knowledge of Chinese cuisine are aware of the central role that pork plays. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there are a lot of pigs in China -- around 700 million, according to a MarketWatch estimate. By contrast, the United States, a country with around a quarter of China's population, has a mere 70 million porkers; and we Americans love our bacon. So it perhaps isn't too surprising that the country with a dead pig crisis is also the same one that consumes half of the world's pork. However, in China you also have....
2. ...a highly fragmented agricultural sector.
As in other developing countries, a lot of Chinese people work in agriculture -- roughly 37 percent of the population, in fact, in comparison to 0.7 percent in the United States and 1.4 percent in the United Kingdom. Many of these farmers work on tiny parcels of land rather than on large commercial farms and correspondingly raise a small number of livestock.
This fragmentation has a number of consequences. For one, the sheer number of farms makes government regulation extremely difficult owing to enormous differences in seed quality, pesticide use, and water sources. This, according to economic analyst Rich Brubaker, "creates pressure on distributors and consolidators to separate the different quality levels," giving the unscrupulous and desperate a prime opportunity to shirk on quality control.
Secondly, the small size of the farms means that there just isn't a lot of room to bury dead pigs -- especially if a lot of pigs all die at the same time from an illness. The Chinese government actually compensates large-scale farmers for their dead pigs, but this only applies to those farmers who have more than 50 on their farm, leaving out the many millions of small-scale players in the market. Therefore, a farmer with fewer than 50 pigs faces a choice when confronted with a carcass: either give the pig up to the government for processing (and get nothing for their trouble) or sell the carcass to a "dealer" who would "fix" the meat and slip it into the food supply. Understandably, many farmers chose the latter option, and that worked fine until ...
3. ... China cracked down on illegal pig meat.
Responding to political pressure to avoid food supply scandals, local authorities in Jiaxing recently cracked down on these "dead pig merchants", tossing three of them in jail for life for selling dead and/or diseased pigs to market. As a result, small-scale farmers in the area lost their one outlet for financial compensation, turning a once-lucrative dead pig into a deadweight loss. At this point, then, the fast-flowing river nearby looked like a pretty attractive solution to an annoying (and smelly) dead pig problem.
Can the government make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again? The agriculture sector is consolidating, as millions of Chinese leave the countryside for the cities each year. Bigger farms will create economies of scale and standardization -- leading to cheaper, more reliable pork for Chinese consumers -- and will perverse incentives to dump dead livestock in the river. The dead pig problem is then, like teenage acne, just another awkward byproduct of China's rapid growth spurt.
Then again, there are legitimate concerns that China's political system makes it more susceptible to these types of incidents than other countries. When news of the dead pig fiasco broke, the Communist Party immediately declared that Shanghai's water supply was safe and later, in a characteristically paranoid attempt at information control, quashed a planned protest. This behavior follows a clear pattern in China in the case of environmental catastrophe, and is one of the single leading causes of anti-government sentiment in the country.
A second problem is inefficiency. China's government has a reputation in the West for being streamlined and effective, able to implement complex policies without any of the gridlock that characterizes American and European politics. However, this competence masks the fact that, like any enormous bureaucracy, the Communist Party is riddled with inefficiencies. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, "the Ministry of Agriculture oversees the raising of hogs, while butchering is the province of the Ministry of Commerce. And at least four different departments are responsible for the quality of pork." While attempts at consolidating relevant government organizations are apparently underway, these overlapping jurisdictions are extremely common in China, making it easy for officials to pass the blame in the event of a mess-up.
No country is immune to environmental catastrophes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw conclusions to them. Hurricane Katrina in the United States resulted from a terrible storm -- but also from a chronic government underinvestment in infrastructure as well as an incompetent federal emergency-management organization. China's dead pigs can be dismissed as simply an unintended consequence of a government crackdown, but this misses the larger point: China's government seems unable to prevent the environmental catastrophes that most threaten their hold on power.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
A robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
A murmuration of starlings over Israel, a robotic road safety worker in India, a sacrificial llama in Bolivia, border barriers between Tunisia and Libya, a sea otter receives a valentine, a deadly earthquake in Taiwan, the annual Shrovetide football match in England, a leopard attack in India, and much more.
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.