An injured woman receives treatment at a hospital after a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit Minxian county, Dingxi, Gansu province July 23, 2013. (Reuters)
China's unfortunate streak of major earthquakes has continued. On Monday, a tremor measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale struck near the city of Dingxi, a mid-sized city (by Chinese standards -- it still has 2.7 million people) in impoverished Gansu Province. As of this writing, 94 people have lost their lives in the quake, and more than 1,000 are injured. The quake has affected over 120,000 people and will undoubtedly cost millions of dollars in reconstruction fees.
Devastating earthquakes are a global phenomenon, as anyone in Indonesia, Haiti, or Japan can tell you. But China has experienced more than its fair share of earthquake tragedy; according to this list of the world's 10 deadliest earthquakes, the two highest-casualty ones of all time -- and three overall -- happened in China. Given the immutable laws of plate tectonics, the chances that an earthquake will again inflict China in the near future is high. What, then, are the reasons for China's high number of fatalities -- and, more importantly, what does the government have to do to minimize this number in the future?
The first reason has to with some simple, irreversible facts: China has a lot of people -- and a lot of earthquakes. But in addition to being the most populous country in the world, China also is extremely dense -- at least 90 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people live in the eastern half of the country, and the coastal provinces are especially crowded.
Fortunately for China, the area of most seismic activity overlaps with a less populous part of the country: the southwest. This map plots Asian earthquakes, by magnitude, since 1964, and shows a concentration of mega-quakes in Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet, and Xinjiang: none ranking among China's most crowded provinces.
California Institute of Technology
The flip side, however, is this: The areas of heightened seismic activity also overlap with remote, mountainous parts of China, where poor transportation infrastructure makes recovery efforts difficult. For this challenge, at least, China is well-equipped: According to Kit Miyamoto, the president and CEO of the earthquake research firm Miyamoto International, China's dispatch of almost 100,000 well-organized soldiers to Beichuan within hours of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake was "highly impressive given the challenging conditions." Beijing received considerable praise for its recovery effort, especially in respect to how badly the government botched a quake that struck the city of Tangshan in 1976, a calamity that killed a quarter of a million people while China refused offers for assistance.
Yet for China's skill in implementing rescue and recovery operations, its record in pre-empting excess casualties is more problematic.
Much of the infrastructure damage in earthquakes is simply unavoidable, and in hilly areas landslides cause tremendous loss of life long after the earth stops shaking. But in China, the prevalence of low-quality buildings -- many constructed in violation of building codes -- has exacerbated the damage and caused a political headache in Beijing. Following the 2008 Sichuan quake, relatives of the victims wondered aloud why the town's schools had collapsed while the sturdier government buildings remained standing. The uproar -- soon squelched by the government -- touched upon a number of broader controversies in China: government privilege, official corruption, and the yawning gap between rich and poor.
Prior to the onset of economic reforms, the quality of Chinese construction was poor; as in many rural, developing countries, most structures were made from adobe or watered-down concrete and thus were ill-equipped to survive earthquakes. But in the years since, China's improvement in this regard has been striking: major cities boast modern, steel high-rises, and a far higher percentage of the population lives in earthquake-proof structures. Building codes in China are well-defined and up to international standard.
Enforcement of these codes, though, is a problem. As Miyamoto told me, "You need more than just good building codes. You also need good engineers to implement the code, and good contractors to implement the engineers' vision." And along the way, a lot can go wrong: Contractors feel pressure to complete projects ahead of schedule and cut corners. Builders substitute cheap materials in order to cut costs. And then, you have the omnipresent specter of bribery and corruption.
As a result, for a country whose defining structure is an enormous ancient wall, modern Chinese structures have an surprisingly short half-life. New buildings in the country are expected to stand for 25 to 30 years -- a far cry from the U.S. expectation of 70 to 75 years. This difference is partly explained through economics -- China's binge in fixed-asset investment encourages major construction projects, least of all to keep workers employed, and one by-product of all this construction is a huge raise in living standards. But from an earthquake prevention standpoint, the new buildings remain worrisome.
After the 2008 quake devastated the town of Beichuan, local authorities resettled approximately 40,000 people into a new city called Yongchang located 10 or so miles from the epicenter. The new town is clean and picturesque and is, at first glance, a worthy tribute to the victims of the earthquake. But, as this piece by NPR's Louisa Lim describes, there's trouble in paradise: Cracks have appeared in the brand new homes, and a local official has been detained for accepting bribes. Residents have complained of corruption, and when one man attempted to organize them, he was arrested and thrown in jail.
The subject of earthquake damage prevention symbolizes one of the central challenges of contemporary Chinese governance. At the federal level, China has good building codes, the willingness to invest in safe housing, and the means to respond quickly and effectively when tragedy strikes. But at the local level, where the country's population actually interacts with its government, difficulties with corruption and law enforcement mean that subsequent earthquakes will be more tragic than necessary.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
It is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
Hillary Clinton is running as the candidate of continuity—but Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most white Democrats think America is headed in the wrong direction.
Many commentators, watching the two party’s conventions, have noted that Democrats and Republicans seemed to describing different countries. But if you listened carefully last night, you heard two groups of Democrats describing different countries too.
The night began with Michelle Obama, who said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters—two beautiful intelligent black young women—play with the dog on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. Don't let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great. That somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.”