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.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
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.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.