Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, April 3, 2008

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately as I prepare for my return to the States this summer as well as my “move” to China in September. So I’m a little behind in my article reading. Here’s a few interesting texts I came across recently. Happy Reading! 1.) Depression, You Say? Check Those Safety Nets. The New York Times brings up several interesting ideas as the world, especially the United States, moves towards an economic recession. “To understand the Great Depression is the Holy Grail of macroeconomics.”Equally important is understanding all the new protections or “safety nets” put in place to avoid another economic collapse: “I used to give a lecture explaining that the Great Depression could never happen now because of the regulations that emerged from that crisis,” said Barry Eichengreen, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. “But we’re learning that there is a shadow banking system, of hedge funds and investment banks, that are outside of those safety nets. What happened to Bear Stearns last week looked a lot like a 19th-century run on the bank. And that’s why the Fed reacted so quickly.”

Indeed, when the government moved last weekend to help save Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest securities firm on Wall Street, from bankruptcy, policy makers were motivated by concerns that the investment bank’s failure could start a chain reaction of collapses at other investment houses. Stopping those dominoes was such a priority that the Federal Reserve helped broker the sale of Bear Stearns to its rival JPMorgan Chase.

[…] But in the wake of the Great Depression, American policy makers began actively managing the economy with a handful of tools, including adjusting interest rates and using massive government spending to spur growth. Since 1945, there have only been 10 boom-and-bust cycles, most of them much shallower than earlier ones, and the unemployment rate has never topped 9.7 percent.Much of that stability, economic historians say, stems from reforms designed to calm consumers during downturns, like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guarantees most checking and savings accounts up to $100,000 if a bank fails.

[…]As homeowners see the value of their homes decline, they become more likely to delay purchases of the big items — like automobiles, electronics and home appliances — that are ballasts of the American economy. When those purchases decline, large manufacturing firms, suddenly short on funds, could begin laying off employees. Those workers, uncertain about the future, might in turn stop buying Starbucks lattes and movie tickets, and in a worst-case scenario, that could spur coffee shops and theaters to begin layoffs of their own.

[…] But today, say economists, fundamental changes make such contagion unlikely. For one thing, incomes are more stable. Many more Americans hold jobs in service sectors, like medicine or education. And more Americans work for the government, which is less inclined to fire people just because the economy turns gloomy.

2.) Origin of the Peace Symbol. According to an article in the NYTIMES:

It started life as the emblem of the British anti-nuclear movement but it has become an international sign for peace, and arguably the most widely used protest symbol in the world. It has also been adapted, attacked and commercialized. It had its first public outing 50 years ago on a chilly Good Friday as thousands of British anti-nuclear campaigners set off from London’s Trafalgar Square on a 50-mile march to the weapons factory at Aldermaston. The demonstration had been organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament joined in.

Gerald Holtom, a designer and former World War II conscientious objector from West London, persuaded DAC that their aims would have greater impact if they were conveyed in a visual image. The “Ban the Bomb” symbol was born. He considered using a Christian cross motif but, instead, settled on using letters from the semaphore — or flag-signaling — alphabet, super-imposing N(uclear) on D(isarmament) and placing them within a circle symbolizing Earth.

3.) “The desire for cognitive enhancement is very strong, maybe stronger than for beauty, or athletic ability.” I’ve been talking a lot recently with my students and friends aboutrobots and “upgrading” mental performance. The New York Times has a good article Brain Enhancement Is Wrong, Right? Admittedly:

In his book “Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution,” Francis Fukuyama raises the broader issue of performance enhancement: “The original purpose of medicine is to heal the sick, not turn healthy people into gods.” He and others point out that increased use of such drugs could raise the standard of what is considered “normal” performance and widen the gap between those who have access to the medications and those who don’t — and even erode the relationship between struggle and the building of character.

Yet:

“I think the analogy with sports doping is really misleading, because in sports it’s all about competition, only about who’s the best runner or home run hitter,” said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. “In academics, whether you’re a student or a researcher, there is an element of competition, but it’s secondary. The main purpose is to try to learn things, to get experience, to write papers, to do experiments. So in that case if you can do it better because you’ve got some drug on board, that would on the face of things seem like a plus.”

One person who posted anonymously on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site said that a daily regimen of three 20-milligram doses of Adderall transformed his career: “I’m not talking about being able to work longer hours without sleep (although that helps),” the posting said. “I’m talking about being able to take on twice the responsibility, work twice as fast, write more effectively, manage better, be more attentive, devise better and more creative strategies.”

One of my students I think hit it right on the nose when he said that this movement toward mental, physical and aesthetic enhancement does not change a central fact that we live in an “all-out-or-nothing” culture where speeding up essentially means doing more and more. Where exactly is the limit to these enhancements? When exactly do we take our time?

4.) China as a Threat to Americans? James Fallows has a great article in the Atlantic entitled The View From There dissecting American identity and American values through living and traveling abroad in England, Japan and China. Fallows bring up a point I have learned since living in France: that living abroad teaches you a lot about your home:

The real work of debating and defining a country’s prospects, of course, happens inside its borders. But I’ve found it very useful to think about America from afar. […] Inside America, we discuss what the country could and should become. Outside, we see what it is—which of its traits and habits really make it unusual, the effects of what it claims to stand for, what it actually does to the rest of the world.

While the United States represents openness, China is a country rooted in a mentality of its “5,000 years of history” or “the world’s longest continuous civilization.” This changes how China and the Chinese see themselves in dealing with their development:

People inside China have a vivid sense of the whack-a-mole challenge they face at every level. For rural people, staying alive. For the urban-employed class, finding enough money to pay for an apartment (with prices soaring), get kids into school (also expensive, with fees required even at public schools), fend off health emergencies (ditto), plus somehow save enough for retirement (in the midst of a huge demographic shift, driven by the one-child policy, toward a society with many more dependents and many fewer active workers). For company officials, managing China’s current “brand image” disaster, plus the soaring costs of water, energy, and raw materials, plus the competition from thousands of other companies just like them. For regional officials, fending off complaints about pollution and corruption while still bringing in jobs. For the national government, managing all this and political and international crises too. Based on their record over the last 20 years, Chinese at all levels will probably find a way to stay just ahead of these disasters. But the situation doesn’t leave many people I’ve met sounding boastful.

Fallows has had several conversations with a top political party member that are worth quoting:

“In the long run, China must be democratic,” he told me on my latest visit. Everyone says that—without saying how many lifetimes away the “long run” might be. But even as China became democratic, this man said, it would need to be cautious about following every detail of a U.S. model.

If China is apparently, as so many assume, becoming a dominating power, what does China stand for? What is the Chinese idea (as opposed to the American idea)?

Over the months, I’ve asked students, professors, public officials, businesspeople versions of these questions: When China is strong, what will it want of the world? What will it expect of other countries? Practically by birthright, Americans can answer such a question about America’s expectations of the world. We want liberty; we want democracy; we have, as George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural address, the “great objective of ending tyranny.”

Whether by birthright or by current circumstances, few Chinese people have any answer to this question. Usually I am greeted with a puzzled or polite silence. If there is a response, it is something like “Recognition.” Or “Respect.”

Fallows’ conclusion is worth quoting in its entirety:

When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking? How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology wasbrutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all. I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment.

Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.”When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”

Foreign examples are useful spurs to internal action. Sputnik served that purpose 50 years ago, and Japan’s industrial successes led to valuable changes in American corporate and fiscal practices nearly a generation ago. A look at China can help America address its main shortcomings—reckless fiscal and foreign policies, delay in moving away from dependence on oil—and perhaps also suggest ways the nations can work together on challenges, mainly environmental, that threaten them and others.

But let’s not panic. Let’s show the patient confidence—Lincoln, Marshall, Eisenhower—that is part of the American idea. Let’s not look for slights or imagined insults to react to. Among our worst enemies at the moment is our own hair-trigger mentality about foreign challenge, and the enemies that outlook generates. Our idea is strong. We should act as if we know that.

5.) Is the Brain wired for Language? What separates human language for that of animals? According to an article at ScienceNOW Daily News entitled Wired for Language:

The authors conclude that the evolution of specialized language areas in the human brain was accompanied by the addition of major new wiring via the arcuate fasciculus. The net effect was that Wernicke’s area, which is associated with understanding word meaning, became strongly connected with Broca’s area, which plays an important role in the construction and understanding of sentences.

The findings demonstrate “the uniqueness of the human brain, because it has been widely assumed that the basic brain structures are essentially similar between humans and apes,” says Kuniyoshi Sakai, a language researcher at the University of Tokyo in Japan. Thomas Schoenemann, an anthropologist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, says diffusion tensor imaging is a promising approach to understanding how our brains are wired, but he cautions that the approach should be repeated with more samples before drawing firm conclusions.

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Quote of the Week:

“The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”

  • Bertrand Russell