China's Premier Li Keqiang (C) visits after a strong earthquake hits Lushan county, Ya'an, Sichuan province, April 20, 2013. (Reuters)
Here's what we know about Saturday's massive earthquake that has, for the second time in five years, thrown China's Sichuan Province into despair: Over 200 people are either dead or missing. Over 11,000 are injured. 17,000 more are homeless, a number that will surely go up. And while the toll from this quake was much lighter than the May 2008 tremor that claimed nearly 70,000 lives, the damage done from this earthquake is significant. This is a major disaster.
In 2008, Beijing dispatched then-Premier Wen Jiabao to Sichuan right away, eager to correct an impression that it couldn't handle major crises. The avuncular Wen kindly reassured the region's grieving survivors -- famously referring to himself as "Grandpa" -- and promised a huge amount of government aid. The reaction this year was little different. Premier Li Keqiang flew directly to the town of Ya'an (near the epicenter) and reportedly spent the night in a tent as a gesture of solidarity with the earthquake's newly homeless survivors.
The takeaway from this tragedy is that Beijing, at long last, has learned how to handle natural disasters. After all, earthquakes aren't, at least on the surface, political: you can't accuse tectonic plates of fomenting dissent. The events in Sichuan provide the Chinese government with a rare public relations opportunity to gain legitimacy through crisis management.
Yet as we learned in 2008, even natural disasters have political consequences. Soon after the dust cleared and Premier Wen returned to Beijing, grieving survivors wondered angrily why so many of the county's schoolhouses collapsed while government buildings stood. And when the artist Ai Weiwei attempted to document each of the earthquake's victims in a piece of politically-inspired art, he was beaten and detained by local security forces. A natural disaster quickly turned into a shameful example of government corruption, an issue that increasingly poses an existential threat to Communist Party rule.
Will this time be different? Superficially, yes: The earthquake happened on a Saturday when far fewer children were in class, so China was spared a repeat of 2008's horrific school collapse tragedy. But now there are rumblings that the government is taking too long to provide shelter to the newly homeless. And then there's this, from the South China Morning Post:
But Zhang Xueming, a rescue worker from Wenzhou-based Blue Sky Rescue Team, said the road conditions were not the main problem. "Most of the tents are provided by companies and they all want them to be sent to major areas to get more public recognition," he said.
Later, the piece quoted a villager from a remote area who complained that the government is only taking care of those living in larger towns.
It's hard to imagine any government handling a disaster of this proportion seamlessly, and there are always going to be victims who feel unjustly compensated for their losses. But it'll be worth keeping an eye on the Chinese government's handling of this disaster in the coming days and weeks. Beijing might think that an earthquake, in comparison to, say, ethnic unrest in Tibet, is an apolitical crisis. But in China, where the Communist Party has a say in just about everything that goes on, politics can't be entirely escaped.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
Tracking the controversies, allegations, and investigations into the president and his administration
Donald Trump entered the White House as one of the most scandal-tarred presidents in American history—what his imbroglios may have lacked in depth, they made up in variety, encompassing legal, ethical, and sexual controversies. (In a twist, one of Trump’s few competitors for the crown was his rival, Hillary Clinton.) They ranged from race discrimination to mafia connections, from petty hypocrisies to multimillion-dollar alleged frauds.
Now that Trump is president, some of those controversies have continued to shadow him. But the presidency has also occasioned a whole new set of disputes. Looming largest is the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russian agents to interfere in the election, a question being investigated by the FBI as well as panels in both houses of Congress. They also include ethical and legal questions surrounding members of his cabinet, his allegation that Barack Obama spied on him before the election, and various conflicts of interest.
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
After a quiet start, the demonstrators grew louder as they drew closer to Capitol Hill—mirroring the long arc of the protest itself.
WASHINGTON, D.C.—They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chants that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.
Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
Inside Walmart’s curious, possibly ingenious effort to get customers to build up their savings accounts
Late last summer, Dawn Paquin started keeping her money on a prepaid debit card from Walmart instead of in a traditional checking account. The wages from her factory job—she works from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., inspecting blades on industrial bread-slicing machines—now go directly onto the Visa-branded card, which she can use like a regular debit card, though unlike most debit cards, it is not linked to a checking or savings account. She made the switch after a $4 check she wrote to buy coffee for herself and a friend tipped her checking account below the required minimum and triggered $100 in overdraft fees.
This was before she got the factory gig, and she wasn’t working full-time. Paquin lives in Salem, Illinois, where, she told me recently, if you don’t have a college degree, your job choices are “fast food or factory.” Money was extremely tight. “I kind of had a bit of resentment about banks after that,” she said dryly.
In the age of the digital hermit, a psychologist explains what it means to avoid other people—and what to do about it.
People today might not actually be avoiding social interaction any more than they did in past decades, but they’re certainly more vocal about it. The rise of digital communication seems to be spawning a nation of indoor cats, all humble-bragging about how introverted they are and ordering their rides and groceries without ever talking to a human.
Sometimes reclusiveness can be a sign of something more serious, though. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, but it’s still poorly understood outside of scientific circles. The good news is that it’s highly treatable, according to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
I recently talked with Hofmann about how social anxiety works and what people who feel socially anxious can do about it. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
If girls were allowed to accelerate through school, then perhaps their peak career- and family-building years would not overlap.
Jane Charlton never intended to skip high school.
“I was planning on just skipping ninth grade,” says the renowned astrophysicist, who spent her summers taking calculus classes at Carnegie Mellon University. “But when the school year was about to start, the teachers went on strike and my math professor said, ‘Why don't you just start here?’”
Three years later, Charlton received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and physics. She headed for the University of Chicago, where she earned her master’s at 19, and her Ph.D. at 22. By the time Charlton had her first child, in her late 20s, she was a tenured professor at Pennsylvania State University, where she maps the universe and charts the history of evolving galaxies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.