The Chinese leadership will face daunting challenges in the coming year
It is appropriate that the year began with the Tiger Mom and closed with an official indictment of the management of the Chinese high-speed rail program. The book ends of this year's China narrative capture the zeitgeist in 2011: the ever fiercer duels between the China bulls and bears. Yes, Amy Chua is American, but her story became instantly linked to the general competitive fears that Americans had about what appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut -- perhaps one of the most overused nouns in describing China. From raising future Ivy Leaguers to clocking the fastest bullet trains, the Chinese can do it all and with exacting efficiency. It was a year in which many latched onto the China story, many more traveled to China for days or weeks and commented on it, and many used the country as a reflection of America's own debilitating dysfunctions. A "juggernaut" it may be, but China's size is also its curse. The country is no longer under the proprietary province of China specialists -- it is now subject to Saturday Night Live parodies and Gary Shteyngart's literary satire. For better or worse, 2011 saw the democratization of the China narrative.
This debate is due in large part a consequence of this democratization, leading to a proliferation of "takes" on China that make it difficult to separate the good from the bad. Each camp can marshal enough evidence to support their respective cases. To be sure, the China bulls had plenty of ammunition entering into 2011. China was the indisputable growth engine in the wake of the financial crisis, just as the Eurozone was lurching from fiscal to political crises and the U.S. faced abysmal employment figures. Formally assuming the #2 spot in the global economy, China took on some swagger. President Hu Jintao's January state visit in Washington was popularly viewed as a debt-collection exercise (call that the "SNL effect"). I recall watching Hu's motorcade, regaled in Chinese flags, descending Connecticut Avenue as a random passerby quipped, "you know what that means, he's gonna want his money back."
Of course, Hu wasn't asking for his money back and in fact continued to pile China's foreign exchange reserves into U.S. Treasuries as the export sector boomed amid a global downturn. Yet support for an export-led strategy had already waned and was clearly de-prioritized as Beijing finally unveiled its long-awaited 12th Five-Year Plan in March, as I have previously discussed. (Also see here, here, and here.) The rebalancing agenda incorporates a major effort to restructure China's energy landscape, including a commitment to nuclear energy. And so, despite initial concerns over the prospects of China's nuclear program in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Fukushima disaster, China never intended to ditch its ambitious program. The Chinese position lent some cheers for those hoping for a nuclear renaissance.
Things appeared rather swell, even as the perception on China began to shift. For the next several months, China was walloped by investor bears, who overwhelmed the bulls. Few were as colorful as investor guru Jim Chanos in describing China as running on a "treadmill to hell". But the compounded effect of stubbornly high inflation, a clampdown on the property sector, cleaning up the stimulus hangover, a deadly bullet train crash, and embarrassing discoveries of fraudulent Chinese IPOs all made China appear much more wobbly than many had thought. And all of this took place as the Arab Spring reached a crescendo, prompting the arrest of activist Ai Weiwei -- the Liu Xiaobo of 2011 -- and as the mood over Eurozone prospects grew darker than ever. "Pork prices," "ghost cities," "hard landing," "political repression," and "debt-laden local governments" became the watch words for the rest of the year.
So did the Beijing mandarins over-tighten as it was heading into a double dip because of Europe? In other words, was China repeating the mistakes of the 2007-08 period? For markets, China was the remaining leg in the tripod of global growth -- the other two being the U.S. and EU -- and any sputtering of its economic engine could prove disastrous. Beijing responded by signaling a looser fiscal and monetary policy to put a floor on growth, even as it is determined to keep the screws tight on the housing market to prevent another bout of irrational exuberance. Why? Because despite the preference for full-throttle growth by some, the Chinese public still ranked inflation and housing prices as top issues in 2011, according to a recent survey by an influential state think tank (h/t China Smack):
Indeed, nearly 60 percent of respondents believe that inflation was the #1 issue, while housing costs ranked #6. Healthcare and education costs, employment, social security, wealth gap, and corruption all made the top ten. These are largely bread-and-butter issues that have little to do with demanding Western-style political liberalization, though corruption and the income gap would require political solutions. What transpired in "Occupy Wukan" over the last month or so was not an urgent demand for democracy, but is emblematic of the worsening rural-urban divide and local government malfeasance. Wukan alone won't bring down the Chinese government, but the two structural maladies, if left untreated, could, not least because they have before.
That is precisely what the rebalancing agenda seeks to solve. It is meant to rescue the party-state from defeating itself by allowing these problems to fester. I think what I wrote in last year's wrap-up remains valid as we head into 2012:
...But the outstanding question remains whether China's leaders will pursue the right policies with the kind of urgency necessary. Major economic adjustments are usually never pleasant, and most leaders would prefer to minimize the pain on the largest swath of the population possible during that process. The Chinese are no different in this regard, but how much heavy-lifting can they tolerate?
Yu and a similarly reform-minded lot are advocating temerity over timidity, likely in a bid to influence the direction of debate as there are forces inevitably arrayed against them. Plenty of interests in China eschew these changes that will involve taking away some of their wealth, likely prompting a vigorous defense of the status quo...
To me, one of the biggest questions next year is whether China can create the necessary political conditions, amid one of the most important transitions in a decade, to forge ahead with its restructuring. With the anticipated slow down in growth and a shrinking export surplus, there appears to be an opportunity to steer the ship of state in a different direction. Yet with a political leadership still unsettled, I find it hard to be optimistic over the extent of progress next year. But I am fully open to being surprised.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
“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.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
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.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
The president signaled that he doesn’t want a government shutdown after all, and for the second time in a high-stakes congressional negotiation, he saw his bluff get called.
The president blinked.
Donald Trump wants his border wall funded, but he apparently wants to keep the government open on his 100th day in office a little bit more. Facing the prospect of a government shutdown in four days, the president reportedly backed off his demand that a must-pass spending bill include a downpayment for the wall he wants to construct along the nation’s southern border. Trump told a group of conservative journalists on Monday eveningthat he would be willing to accept money for the wall during the next government-funding debate in September, effectively defusing a clash that had been building between Capitol Hill and the White House ahead of the April 28 deadline to avert a partial shutdown.
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.
Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.
Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
Just as Republicans pined for their old foe Bill Clinton during the Obama years, Trump has made Nancy Pelosi and some members of her party nostalgic for the 43rd president.
In February 2010, a series of billboards began popping up around the nation. A grinning, waving George W. Bush appeared beside the phrase, “Miss Me Yet?” The answer was a resounding, Eh, sorta. Bush had bounced back somewhat from his abysmal final approval rating, but while Republicans were feeling rosier about the ex-president, Democrats were not.
It turns out that for some Democrats, the question was not mistaken but merely premature.
Pelosi is the most specific but not the first example of Democrats expressing surprising fondness for the 43rd president. His refusal to endorse Donald Trump, his decision to skip the Republican National Convention, and rumors that he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election softened feelings about him. Perhaps his alleged reaction to Trump’s inaugural address was the coup de grace: “That was some weird shit.”