Monday, October 16, 2017

The Decline of the Midwest's Public Universities Threatens to Wreck Its Most Vibrant Economies

Four floors above a dull cinder-block lobby in a nondescript building at the Ohio State University, the doors of a slow-moving elevator open on an unexpectedly futuristic 10,000-square-foot laboratory bristling with technology. It’s a reveal reminiscent of a James Bond movie. In fact, the researchers who run this year-old, $750,000 lab at OSU’s Spine Research Institute resort often to Hollywood comparisons.

Thin beams of blue light shoot from 36 of the same kind of infrared motion cameras used to create lifelike characters for films like Avatar. In this case, the researchers are studying the movements of a volunteer fitted with sensors that track his skeleton and muscles as he bends and lifts. Among other things, they say, their work could lead to the kind of robotic exoskeletons imagined in the movie Aliens.

The cutting-edge research here combines the expertise of the university’s medical and engineering faculties to study something decidedly commonplace: back pain, which affects as many as eight out of every 10 Americans, accounts for more than 100 million annual lost workdays in the United States alone, and has accelerated the opioid addiction crisis.

“The growth of the technology around us has become so familiar that we don’t question where it comes from,” says Bruce McPheron, an entomologist and the university’s executive vice president and provost, looking on. “And where it happens consistently is at a university.”

But university research is in trouble, and so is an economy more dependent on it than many people understand. Federal funding for basic research—more than half of it conducted on university campuses like this one—has effectively declined since 2008, failing to keep pace with inflation. This is before taking into account Trump administration proposals to slash the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) budgets by billions of dollars more.

Trump’s cuts would affect all research universities, but not equally. The problem is more pronounced at public universities than private ones, and especially at public institutions in the Midwest, which have historically conducted some of the nation’s most important research. These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor. Yet many flagship Midwestern research universities are being weakened by deep state budget cuts. Threats to pensions (in Illinois) and tenure (in Wisconsin) portend an exodus of faculty and their all-important research funding, and have already resulted in a frenzy of poaching by better-funded and higher-paying private institutions, industry, and international competitors.

While private institutions are better shielded from funding cuts by huge endowments, Midwestern public universities have much thinner buffers. The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times. They also have robust revenues from high tuitions, wealthy alumni donors, strong credit, and other support to fall back on. Compare that to the public university system in Illinois, which has cut its higher-education budget so deeply that Moody’s downgraded seven universities, including five to junk-bond status.

This ominous reality could widen regional inequality, as brainpower, talent, and jobs leave the Midwest and the Rust Belt—where existing economic decline may have contributed to the decisive shift of voters toward Donald Trump—for places with well-endowed private and better-funded public universities. Already, some Midwestern universities have had to spend millions from their battered budgets to hang on to research faculty being lured away by wealthier schools. A handful of faculty have already left, taking with them most if not all of their outside funding.

“We’re in the early stages of the stratification of public research universities,” said Dan Reed, the vice president for research and economic development at the University of Iowa. “The good ones will remain competitive. The rest may decline.” Those include the major public universities established since the 1860s, when a federal grant set aside land for them in every state. “We spent 150-plus years building a public higher-education system that was the envy of the world,” said Reed, who got his graduate degrees at Purdue, in Indiana. “And we could in a decade do so much damage that it could take us 30 years to recover.”
That land grant was called the Morrill Act. Abraham Lincoln signed it into law during the depths of the Civil War, in 1862, resulting in the establishment or major expansion of, among others, Purdue, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, and Ohio State. Along with many other major public universities in the Midwest, each would go on to have an outsized impact.

It was at Illinois that the first modern internet browser was developed, along with other advances in computer science and technology including early versions of instant messaging, multiplayer games, and touch screens. Today, researchers there are working on a new treatment for brain cancer, a way to boost photosynthesis to increase crop yields, and a solution to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Scientists at the University of Minnesota created the precursor to the World Wide Web, performed the first open-heart surgery, and developed Gore-Tex waterproof fabric. The University of Wisconsin is where human embryonic stem cells first were isolated, and it has since become a center of stem-cell research. Researchers there are trying to develop new drugs to fight the Ebola and West Nile viruses. The University of Iowa’s Virtual Soldier Research Program uses human modeling and simulation to design new military equipment, and its National Advanced Driving Simulator is heavily involved in driverless-vehicle research.

Universities perform more than half of all basic research in America, and public research universities in particular account for two-thirds of the $63.7 billion allocated annually by the federal government for research. That spending, in turn, produces more than 2,600 patents and 400 companies a year, according to the Association of University Technology Managers.

The impact on local economies is hard to miss. In places like Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia, Missouri, the big research universities are among the most important institutions in town. The checkerboard patchwork of farms on the approach to Port Columbus International Airport gives way to office buildings housing high-tech companies spun off by Ohio State and the affluent suburbs where their employees live. The real-estate company CBRE ranks the city as the country’s top small market for attracting tech talent.

More than one in five graduate students who worked on sponsored research at eight Big Ten universities studied by Ohio State economist Bruce Weinberg, including Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue, and Ohio State, stayed in the state where they attended school—13 percent of them within 50 miles of the campus. That may not sound like a lot—and, indeed, the exodus of highly educated people is a serious problem—but it’s significant when considering that the jobs for these students exist in a national labor market. People with engineering Ph.D.s from Minnesota could take their talents anywhere. If even 20 percent stick around, that’s a big win for states that can’t expect an influx of educated elites from other parts of the country. These graduates provide an educated workforce that employers need, create jobs themselves by starting their own businesses, and pay taxes.

These universities have served as bulwarks against a decades-long trend of economic activity fleeing smaller cities and the center of the country for the coasts. Since the 1980s, deregulation and corporate consolidation have led to a drastic hollowing out of the local industries that once sustained heartland cities. But a university can’t just be picked up and moved from Madison to New York in the way a bank, an insurance company, or even a factory can be.

“What difference does having a major research university in a place like Wisconsin make?” said Rebecca Blank, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. “It’s the future of the state.” If Blank is right, then current trends put that future in doubt for much of the Midwest. Many of these same universities have suffered some of the nation’s deepest cuts to public higher education. Illinois reduced per-student spending by an inflation-adjusted 54 percent between 2008 and last year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The figure was 22 percent in Iowa and Missouri, 21 percent in Michigan, 15 percent in Minnesota and Ohio, and 6 percent in Indiana. While higher education funding increased last year in 38 states, Scott Walker’s budget for 2015 through 2017 cut another $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system. The University of Iowa recently had its state appropriation cut by 6 percent, including an unexpected $9 million in the middle of the fiscal year. (...)

These financial woes would only be made worse by Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut funding by between 11 percent and 18 percent for the federal agencies that provide the bulk of government support for university research. Congress has so far resisted this call, instead adding $2 billion to the NIH and $8.7 million to the NSF in the five-month budget extension approved in April. But budget cuts remain a threat. So does a Trump budget proposal to eliminate so-called indirect cost payments—billions of dollars’ worth of federal reimbursements for overhead such as lab space and support staff to conduct the research. (The House Republicans’ 2018 budget plan rejects that idea, at least for medical research.)

Private universities with big endowments and wealthy donors may be able to weather the storm. (So, too, may the handful of public universities, like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, that receive far more private than public funding.) But most public research institutions won’t.

by Jon Marcus, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: David Mercer

Ana de Armas - Blade Runner 2049


[ed. I finally got to see Blade Runner, 2049 last night and left half-way through. Too boring for me (watching Ryan Gosling act as an emotionless replicant for over an hour? No thanks.). But I could have watched Ana de Armas forever (Joi, a holographic computer program and the main character's girlfriend). What a beauty, and what a beautiful performance. Reminds me of someone else who very nearly stole the show on a big screen blockbuster.]

On the Political Uses of Evil

It’s strange to think of evil getting an unduly bad rap, and yet it has. “We should be extremely suspicious of the post-attack rhetoric of evil, whose modern incarnation dates to the evening of September 11, 2001,” brilliant left-wing writer Meagan Day noted, astutely, on Twitter after commenters and politicians rushed to describe the Las Vegas slaughter as such. “Evil is morally urgent but structurally vague,” Day explained, and “Can be used to abdicate responsibility (weapons regulation) & grant special powers (wage war).”

Day is right to observe that the political use of evil, especially in the post 9–11 world, seems intentionally vague and directionless. If something or someone is simply evil, that line of reasoning goes, nothing can be done about them but total defeat; likewise, a good actor can hardly be faulted for whatever measures they take in the process: we’re dealing with evil, after all. President George W. Bush dubbed Iraq part of an “axis of evil” in order to pursue conflict in the region, and President Barack Obama linked the necessity of his drone policy with “the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings.” In each case, the attribution of evil to nameless persons or governments describes little but justifies plenty.

But the trouble with contemporary political uses of evil isn’t the concept itself, but rather the intentional vagueness thrust upon it by an era without any well-defined theory of the good. Defined well and deployed clearly, evil is an illuminating concept with useful political punch, but it can’t function, either personally or politically, without a correspondingly useful theory of the good.

It’s easy to see why evil is often considered amorphous to the point of uselessness as a concept; it’s both applied so promiscuously and dishonestly as to drain it of meaning, and it genuinely has many expressions. But these difficulties (perhaps paradoxically) point to a fairly useful definition of evil — one proposed by the ancient Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo, and advanced throughout the medieval period: evil isn’t any existing thing, but rather negation itself. Or, as contemporary author Terry Eagleton put it in his book on the subject: it is “supremely pointless,” the utter perversion of meaning, creation, existence. It is meaningless, destructive, chaotic nothingness.

It’s less abstract than it sounds — and it can actually help us shape up our understanding of the good. When people pointlessly destroy themselves and one another, that’s evil. When people inflict harm, rob one another of peace and create disorder, that’s evil. Suppose you grant me that: Now how, you’d rightly ask, do we make political use of that kind of definition?

We do so by recognizing that evil is a shadow that falls where good is negated. If we do evil when we turn away from our obligations to one another via acts of destruction, that implies we do good when we lean into those obligations. Leaving one another alone isn’t enough: It might get you out of the ‘evil’ zone, but it doesn’t get you into the ‘good’ zone. If evil is abandonment, indifference can’t be good, even if it’s somewhere closer to neutral.

Rather, defining acts as evil helps us imagine what the good really is. If mass killings are evil, which they are, then we don’t merely have an obligation to let each other be, but to actively support one another in living life — that is, to help others acquire and use the necessities of life, and to participate in society with them. In other words, the opposite of evil mass shootings isn’t the kind of atomized, lonely society we’re currently engaged in cultivating (at our own risk), but a society full of engagement, where we work to build programs, policies and cultural norms that promote life and quality of life.

by Elizabeth Bruenig, Medium |  Read more:
Image: A 15th century depiction of Satan, uncredited

A Flawed Character

In recent years literary studies of the Bible have explored all kinds of topics -- save God, the chief protagonist of the narrative. That not insignificant subject has now received its due, a tour de force called "God: A Biography," by Jack Miles.

If some people may find a biography of God an irreverent enterprise, Mr. Miles is not one of them. He says that over centuries the Bible has been the fundamental document for both Jews and Christians. Its stories and characters have permeated the whole of Western culture. To track, then, the stories to their central character is in no way disrespectful. But Mr. Miles does engage in occasional provocation. At the outset he remarks that "God is no saint, strange to say." As the reader will find out, that is true enough, and the fact is not so strange.

Mr. Miles treats the Bible as a literary work. To produce a biography of a literary character is a complicated undertaking, and so in a sometimes amusing introductory chapter he guides the reader through the contrast in approaches taken by scholars and critics. With a light touch he describes his own approach as naive, seeing God as a real person, much the way a theatergoer thinks of Hamlet or a reader perceives Don Quixote. But he also knows there is a difference. "No character . . . on stage, page or screen," he says, "has ever had the reception that God has had." (...)

Who is the literary character called God? Simply put, a male with multiple personalities, which emerge gradually. At the beginning God creates the world in order to make a self-image, an indication that He does not fully understand who He is but discovers Himself through interaction with humanity. Immediately the focus narrows to the man and the woman in the garden. When they disobey their creator, He responds vindictively and so reveals His own inner conflict. Called God in Genesis 1, he is lofty, powerful and bountiful; called Lord God in Genesis 2 and 3, he is intimate and volatile. Ambivalent about His image, the creator becomes the destroyer: the flood descends. A radical fault runs through the character of God.

Still other personalities surface as the cosmic God becomes the personal deity of Abraham and the friend of the family for Jacob and Joseph. In the Exodus story he shows himself to be a warrior and soon thereafter a lawgiver and liege. This mixture of identities represents a fusion of selected traits gathered from other deities in the ancient world (and teased out of the biblical texts by a generation of historical scholars). A grand speech by Moses in Deuteronomy synthesizes these conflicting personalities to produce a relatively stable identity for God by the conclusion of the Torah.

Within this identity elements of divine self-discovery continue to develop. The first section of the Nebi'im, from Joshua through Kings, turns the liberator of Exodus into the conqueror of Canaan, the friend of the family into the "father" of Solomon, and the lawgiver of Israel into the arbiter of international relations.

But the ending of Kings threatens to terminate God's life. It reports the destruction of the people with whom He has been working out the divine image. If His biography is to continue beyond their demise, God must change, and the prophetic books following Kings record the transformation. In them the conflicted character God carries on a life-or-death struggle to reassemble the unstable elements of His personality. In the first 39 chapters of Isaiah He tries the role of executioner, but He also holds up a vision of a peaceable kingdom. Then, in the next 27 chapters of Isaiah, He forgoes destruction and insists that mystery, not power, is the source of his holiness. (...)

God begins to withdraw in the last division of the Tanakh, Mr. Miles says. For the most part, testimony about Him replaces speech by Him. Psalms perceives Him primarily as counselor. Proverbs treats Him like a picture frame; He is marginal to the content of the book. But in Job His destructive impulse comes fully into consciousness. The climax happens through the man Job, who, as the perfect image of the Creator, exposes the conflicted character of God. The outcome brings about repentance -- not of Job, for he has done no wrong, but of God, who restores good fortune to Job.

After the Book of Job, God never speaks again, though others repeat His speeches and report His miraculous deeds. Two sets of four books each shape these parts of the biography. In the Song of Solomon, God does not appear in the garden of Love. Ruth treats Him as a bystander who does not interact with the human characters. Lamentations waits sadly for this recluse who never comes. And Ecclesiastes declares Him a puzzle of no compelling importance. In literary terms Mr. Miles sees these books, taken together, as a denouement: they let time pass. (...)

At the end, Mr. Miles ponders why the life of the Lord God begins in activity and speech only to close in passivity and silence. Does God's desire for self-knowledge, shown in the creation of humanity in his image, carry the potential for tragedy? Surely the confrontation staged in Job brings God near that reality. But God is rescued. The Song of Solomon changes the subject, thereby sparing the life of God, and subsequent books give Him a different life.

by Phyllis Trible, NY Times | Read more:
Image: God, A Biography/Amazon

Sunday, October 15, 2017

[ed. Dry aku (skipjack tuna), poi, and Primo. All you need for a good party.]

"Let’s just say this: if I were at a high society dinner party, and the Hors d’Oeuvres making their rounds included the likes of Russian Caviar Shots, Kuromaguro Otoro Tartar and Kobe Beef Wontons, and the server told me, “Sir, we’ve got some amazing Dry Aku from Azama’s, fresh Poi and Primo on ice in back. You want some?” Forget that other stuff, I’d say “lead to your master, master!”

[ed. I wouldn't go that far.]

via: Dry Aku and Poi

Cioppino (Fisherman’s Stew)

Brimming with fresh seafood in a tomato and wine broth that tastes like the sea, cioppino (pronounced cho-pee-no) is a rustic Italian-American fish stew. Though the dish originated with Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco, my favorite version is served on the opposite coast at Portofino, a charming bayside restaurant in Longboat Key, FL, where we celebrate my dad’s December birthday every year. When we were there over the holidays, the chef was nice enough to share his recipe with me. This is my simplified version. To save time, I cut back on the variety of seafood called for — although crab, lobster, and mussels would all make wonderful additions. Serve it with garlic bread, focaccia, or a baguette for sopping up the broth — and don’t forget a second bowl for shells and plenty of napkins.

Begin by heating 4 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and for 1 minute more. Do not brown.

Add the wine and increase the heat to high. Boil until the wine is reduced by about half, 3 to 4 minutes.

by Jenn Segal, Once Upon a Chef |  Read more:
Images: uncredited

An Alternate Universe of Shopping, in Ohio

It was a scorching day outside, hot even for late summer in Ohio, and yet I was freezing. I had stepped inside the EB Ice Box, a meat-locker-like display at the Eddie Bauer store here that was cooled to 13 degrees Fahrenheit. The metal-sheathed room looked out onto the promenade of an upscale shopping mall, and featured a large block of ice for a bench. Even though I was wearing a down jacket (the room is meant to be a place where customers can test Eddie Bauer wear), the frigid air had gotten under my skin.

The ice box was a gambit designed to attract the one thing so many stores like Eddie Bauer seem to be missing these days — customers.

For shoppers, this city of 860,000 smack in the middle of a swing state, can feel like an alternate reality, a place where up is down and down is up. Frumpy department stores feature personal shopping services and boutique wellness amenities. Workaday grocery stores like Kroger offer exotic fruits and freshly baked artisan breads.

Even the fast-food business is living in the future. McDonald’s is offering table service from friendly waiters. Robots are taking orders at Wendy’s. Chipotle started a chain that serves hamburgers.

That kind of experimentation has long been a feature of the Columbus shopping scene, but these days it stems as much from desperation as from innovation. The physical retail market, crumbling in the face of competition from e-commerce sites, is in the midst of a transformation as fundamental as the one that shifted consumers to suburban shopping malls — and away from Main Street — half a century ago. (...)

“We are Test Market, U.S.A.,” said Irene Alvarez, director of marketing and communications for Columbus 2020, a trade group that promotes the region. “We decide the fate of cheeseburgers and presidents here in Columbus.”

A combination of demographics, geography and luck turned Columbus into the nation’s consumer laboratory. This Rust Belt city has historically been a microcosm of the national population’s age and ethnicity, ranking fourth among metropolitan areas in its resemblance to the United States over all, according to data compiled by WalletHub.

“It’s a perfect melting pot for folks like us to test new concepts,” said Roger Rawlins, chief executive of DSW, the shoe retailer, which is based in Columbus.

Ohio State University’s 65,000 students mean young shoppers are always on hand. Columbus is within a day’s drive of nearly half of the United States population, making it a convenient hub for distribution. The city’s relatively small size and contained media market make it affordable for companies to run advertising campaigns and measure their effectiveness. And its relatively low profile allows brands to try something and fail — without the scrutiny they would draw in New York or Los Angeles.

Perhaps most important, a robust network of retailers and service providers — from big brands like Abercrombie & Fitch to small design firms that focus on store layouts — has taken root in Columbus. Today there are more fashion designers in Columbus than in any other American city besides New York and Los Angeles.

by David Gelles, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Andrew Spear for The New York Times

The Death of Languages

"You mentioned before that at one point, everyone spoke Sumerian. Then, nobody did. It just vanished, like the dinorsaurs. And there's no genocide to explain how that happened. Which is consistent with the Tower of Babel story... Did Lagos think that Babel really happened?"

"He was sure of it. He was quite concerned about the vast number of human languages. He felt there were simply too many of them."

"How many?"

"Tens of thousands. In many parts of the world, you will find people of the same ethnic group, living a few miles apart in similar valleys under similar conditions, speaking languages that have absolutely nothing in common with each other. This sort of thing is not an oddity --  it is ubiquitous. Many linguists have tried to understand Babel, the question of why human language tends to fragment, rather than converging on a common tongue."

"Has anyone come up with an answer yet?"

"The question is difficult and profound," the Librarian says...

                                                                                       -- Snowcrash, Neil Stephenson, 1992

The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. News coverage of Boa Senior’s death noted that she had survived the 2004 tsunami – an event that was reportedly foreseen by tribe elders – along with the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers. The linguist Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Senior for many years, said: ‘After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.’

Tales of language extinction are invariably tragic. But why, exactly? Aka-Bo, like many other extinct languages, did not make a difference to the lives of the vast majority of people. Yet the sense that we lose something valuable when languages die is familiar. Just as familiar, though, is the view that preserving minority languages is a waste of time and resources. I want to attempt to make sense of these conflicting attitudes.

The simplest definition of a minority language is one that is spoken by less than half of some country or region. This makes Mandarin – the world’s most widely spoken language – a minority language in many countries. Usually, when we talk of minority languages, we mean languages that are minority languages even in the country in which they are most widely spoken. That will be our focus here. We’re concerned especially with minority languages that are endangered, or that would be endangered were it not for active efforts to support them.

The sorrow we feel about the death of a language is complicated. Boa Senior’s demise did not merely mark the extinction of a language. It also marked the loss of the culture of which she was once part; a culture that was of great interest to linguists and anthropologists, and whose extinction resulted from oppression and violence. There is, in addition, something melancholy about the very idea of a language’s last speaker; of a person who, like Boa Senior, suffered the loss of everyone to whom she was once able to chat in her mother tongue. All these things – the oppression until death of a once thriving culture, loneliness, and losing loved ones – are bad, regardless of whether they involve language death.

Part of our sadness when a language dies, then, has nothing to do with the language itself. Thriving majority languages do not come with tragic stories, and so they do not arouse our emotions in the same ways. Unsurprisingly, concern for minority languages is often dismissed as sentimental. Researchers on language policy have observed that majority languages tend to be valued for being useful and for facilitating progress, while minority languages are seen as barriers to progress, and the value placed on them is seen as mainly sentimental.

Sentimentality, we tend to think, is an exaggerated emotional attachment to something. It is exaggerated because it does not reflect the value of its object. The late philosopher G A Cohen describes a well-worn, 46-year-old eraser that he bought when he first became a lecturer, and that he would ‘hate to lose’. We all treasure such things – a decades-old rubber, our children’s drawings, a long-expired train ticket from a trip to see the one we love – that are worthless to other people. If the value of minority languages is mainly sentimental, it is comparable to the value that Cohen placed on his old eraser. It would be cruel to destroy it deliberately, yet it would be unreasonable for him to expect society to invest significant resources preserving it. The same might be true of minority languages: their value to some just doesn’t warrant the society-wide effort required to preserve them.

by Rebecca Roache, Aeon | Read more:
Image: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Islands

Hurricanes develop in the Atlantic ocean and move across the cold water towards the warmer sea of the Caribbean. All that energy journeys, picking up steam, driving forward with immense force. This September, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia and Maria thrust themselves into the Caribbean and devastated many of its islands as well as the coastline of the United States and Central America. One meteorologist, Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University, suggested that this September was the most deadly hurricane month since 1893.

Changes in the world’s climate, scientists suggest, have made these Atlantic cyclones much more powerful than before. Warming waters increases the ability of the storms to draw in water vapour and to engorge themselves with more energy. These devastatingly formidable storms then drag the rising waters to produce dangerous storm surges that beat against coastlines and produce large-scale flooding. (...)

Cuba and Irma

Irma, a Category 5 hurricane—the strongest possible—struck Cuba with immense force in early September. The storm came fast and hard. The devastation was severe. In the small town of Moscu in the municipality of Esmeralda (Camaguey province), only 10 of its 289 houses remained standing. The Cuban journalist Yaditza del Sol Gonzalez reported for Granma that near Jiguey beach “the sea took it all”. The storm surge overcame the Malecon sea wall in Havana, sending water into its streets with ferocity. Havana, with its old buildings, suffered from flooding and power cuts. Ten people died, the majority of them in Havana. Cuba’s President Raul Castro took to the airwaves, calling for unity of the nation and for reconstruction of the island. “This is not the time to mourn,” Castro said, “but to build what the winds of Irma attempted to destroy.”

By all indications, the death toll in Cuba was remarkably low as was the devastation to the island’s infrastructure. Certainly, homes in the old part of Havana are brittle and parts of the infrastructure are in severe need of modernisation. But the island’s preparation for the hurricane and the general community spirit that prevails there saved it from total devastation. Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated from Havana in anticipation of the storm, and over a million people from across the island went into shelters. One such shelter was at the Karl Marx Vocational Pre-University in Matanzas, where volunteers gathered food, water and medical supplies for the evacuees.

The country’s pharmaceutical industry halted production of medicines a week before the storm in order to build up the stock of hydration salts, which were then distributed across the island. Electricity and gas supplies were cut before the storm came to the island, and measures were taken to protect the lines and transformers from the impact of the winds and the flooding. The government made sure to dispatch flour to state bakeries, which worked overtime to produce stocks of bread for the aftermath of the storm. Agricultural workers from Santiago de Cuba harvested their crops before they ripened in the field and distributed the produce.

Meanwhile, brigades and defence councils began to conduct search-and-rescue operations across the areas most affected by the hurricane. “The most important task is, and will be, the preservation of life,” said Dr Jose Luis Aparicio Suarez, a coordinator of one of the medical brigades. “The recovery will come later, gradually. Health and life are the absolute priorities.”

But rebuilding was not left to later. Radio Cadena Agramonte in Camaguey reported during the storm that electric workers had begun to restore power in the area. Within weeks, such workers restored the electric grid, which is not anyway in the best shape. The electric providers reported that the storm destroyed two high-tension pylons, downed 3,616 poles and 2,176 kilometres of power lines, and damaged 1,379 transformers and several substations. Today, almost the entire island has electrical power.

Just before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba, U.S. President Donald Trump renewed the embargo of the island. This means that Cuba will be denied crucial supplies needed for reconstruction, including financial assistance from multilateral organisations. Cuba’s finances cannot manage the reconstruction, but nonetheless the government has announced that its state budget will finance 50 per cent of the construction materials needed for the 158,554 homes that have been affected by the storm. Also, the government has said it will provide a 50 per cent discount on damaged household goods. For those who have had all their goods destroyed, the government has said it will cover 100 per cent of their expenses.

Puerto Rico and Maria

Hurricane Irma did not directly strike the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, but it did knock out its power grid. More than a million customers lost access to power and half of the island’s hospitals went offline. This happened without any rainfall on the island and without a direct hit from Irma. Last July, the government-owned power company declared bankruptcy when it could no longer service its debt of $9 billion. There was no money to protect the grid, nor was there money to hastily get it back on its feet. Irma’s strike on Puerto Rico was a warning of what was to come.

Ten days later, with the power grid still in distress, Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, struck Puerto Rico. Power went out across the island. Drinking water was no longer available and fuel vanished. The 3.4 million U.S. citizens of the island found themselves stranded in an apocalyptic nightmare. The official death toll was given as 16, although the Centre for Investigative Journalism (School of Law at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico) says that there are already dozens of confirmed deaths, with the toll likely to rise to the hundreds. As hospitals are unable to function, the infirm are under danger of death. Dialysis has been halted; oxygen is not available. The Demographic Registry that certifies deaths has no power. It cannot do its work.(...)

Power company officials said it would take at least four, if not six, months for the power to be fully restored to Puerto Rico. This is on territory that is under U.S. government control, although according to a poll only 54 per cent of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Recovery has been glacially slow. In Aguadilla, thousands of desperate people were given four bottles of water and four snacks. They are starving and frustrated. The price of water has skyrocketed from $2.99 to $10 in many parts of the island. Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of the capital, San Juan, said: “I’m begging, begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying and you are killing us with the inefficiency.”

Trump celebrated the “incredible” job his government had done. “The loss of life—it’s always tragic—but it’s been incredible, the results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life,” he said. “People can’t believe how successful that has been, relatively speaking.” He waived the Jones Act, which prevents ships from coming directly into Puerto Rico without going to a U.S. mainland port. But this will not be enough. Cuba has even offered to send its personnel to the island, but the Trump administration has not acknowledged the request.

Here is a tale of two islands, one a poor socialist state with infrastructure in grave need of modernisation and the other a territory of one of the richest countries in the world. One has slowly emerged out of the chaos caused by a hurricane’s wrath, while the other cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.

by Vijay Prashad, Frontline | Read more:
Image: Ramon Espinosa/AP

The Lasting Magic of Drift Bottles

Today, oceanographers mostly rely on the latest GPS technology to study how large masses of water travel around the world’s oceans. But it wasn’t so long ago that they relied on a decidedly less efficient, though certainly more romantic, strategy: drift bottles.

In a famous experiment run in June 1914, Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation set adrift nearly 2,000 numbered bottles. Whoever found the bottle was asked to drop a note at the nearest post office stating its whereabouts. “Our object is to find out the direction of the deep currents of the North Sea,” the instructions explained. One of them was found in 2012, making it the world’s oldest message-in-a-bottle.

A science teacher in North Carolina, Susan Schambach, is the latest person to adopt Brown’s technique. As part of a lesson to teach her students about the Gulf Stream, Schambach has her students fill empty wine bottles containing a short explanation of their drift bottle experiment, a postcard, and Schambach’s email address. They then have the bottles dropped into the Gulf Stream about 40 miles off the coast, and wait. Over the past five years, three out of Ms. Schambach’s 53 drift bottles have been found stranded on European beaches, and the most recent one washed up in Normandy last month. (...)

Drift bottles have a long history. It’s said that back in 310 B.C., the Greek philosopher Theophrastus tried to prove that the Mediterranean was formed by inflowing Atlantic currents by setting some bottles adrift and waiting for their return—they never did. During the 16th century, the British navy would communicate with Queen Elizabeth I by sending encrypted messages-in-bottles. Such was the strategic importance of these drifting codes that the Queen appointed an official “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles”—anyone else who dared to open them would face capital punishment.

Back in 2000, Eddy Carmack, a climate researcher at Canada’s Institute of Ocean Science, was so inspired by some of the amazing journeys drift bottles had made through history that he launched the Drift Bottle Project. Participants throw bottles over the side of ocean-going ships and mark the ‘drop’ location—when someone retrieves them, a ‘found’ location is added. Approximately one in every 25 bottles is found. The rest sink, wash up in uninhabited locations, or end up buried in sand. Carmack originally intended to use the lost and found bottles database to study ocean currents close to North America, but later extended its scope to the entire planet.

“There have been some amazing paths followed by these bottles,” he told National Geographic in 2012. Some were dropped off in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, got frozen, and showed up five years later on the coasts of Northern Europe as a result of melting Arctic ice. Some made it from Mexico to the Philippines, while others proved that oil spills and debris from one part of the world can clearly affect far-reaching locations. It’s these deeply interconnected journeys that make the project so special to Carmack: “The main thing about this study is that it connects people with the currents of the ocean,” he told National Geographic. “We find that we are only a bottle drop away from our neighbors around the world.”

by Vittoria Traverso, Atlas Obscura |  Read more:
Image: Public domain
[ed. My first job with the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game involved assembling drift bottles to study near-surface ocean currents in Cook Inlet and the Bering Sea (in anticipation of offshore oil leasing and potential oil spill trajectories - pdf). I spent a whole summer making thousands: plastic bottle, little bit of gravel, information card with pre-paid postage, then floating each in a tub of salt water to insure they floated properly with just the cap above water. Good times (I guess?). Fortunately, I also got to take them out and drop them (at pre-selected locations, in a steeply banked, circling floatplane - just open the window and throw them out - 100 to a bag. I thought I was going out the window.) We got some percentage back (I can't remember how many, but not a high number), and from all over. One even came back postmarked from Lake Michigan. Everyone's a comedian.]

Government By Goldman

Steve Bannon was in the room the day Donald Trump first fell for Gary Cohn. So were Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner, and Trump’s pick for secretary of Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. It was the end of November, three weeks after Trump’s improbable victory, and Cohn, then still the president of Goldman Sachs, was at Trump Tower presumably at the invitation of Kushner, with whom he was friendly. Cohn was there to offer his views about jobs and the economy. But, like the man he was there to meet, he was at heart a salesman.

On the campaign trail, Trump had spoken often about the importance of investing in infrastructure. Yet the president-elect had apparently failed to appreciate that the government would need to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars to fund his plans. Cohn, brash and bold, wired to attack any moneymaking opportunity, pitched a fix that would put Wall Street firms at the center: Private-industry partners could help infrastructure get fixed, saving the federal government from going deeper into debt. The way the moment was captured by the New York Times, among other publications, Trump was dumbfounded. “Is this true?” he asked. Was a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan likely to increase the deficit by a trillion dollars? Confronted by nodding heads, an unhappy president-elect said, “Why did I have to wait to have this guy tell me?”

Within two weeks, the transition team announced that Cohn would take over as director of the president’s National Economic Council.

Goldman Always Wins

Goldman Sachs had been a favorite cudgel for candidate Trump — the symbol of a government that favors Wall Street over its citizenry. Trump proclaimed that Hillary Clinton was in the firm’s pockets, as was Ted Cruz. It was Goldman Sachs that Trump singled out when he railed against a system rigged in favor of the global elite — one that “robbed our working class, stripped our country of wealth, and put money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” Cohn, as president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, had been at the heart of it all. Aggressive and relentless, a former aluminum siding salesman and commodities broker with a nose for making money, Cohn had turned Goldman’s sleepy home loan unit into what a Senate staffer called “one of the largest mortgage trading desks in the world.” There, he aggressively pushed his sales team to sell mortgage-backed securities to unaware investors even as he watched over “the big short,” Goldman’s decision to bet billions of dollars that the market would collapse.

Now Cohn would be coordinating economic policy for the populist president.

The conflicts between the two men were striking. Cohn ran a giant investment bank with offices in financial capitals around the globe, one deeply committed to a world with few economic borders. Trump’s nationalist campaign contradicted everything Goldman Sachs and its top executives represented on the global stage.

Trump raged against “offshoring” by American companies during the 2016 campaign. He even threatened “retribution,”­ a 35 percent tariff on any goods imported into the United States by a company that had moved jobs overseas. But Cohn laid out Goldman’s very different view of offshoring at an investor conference in Naples, Florida, in November. There, Cohn explained unapologetically that Goldman had offshored its back-office staff, including payroll and IT, to Bangalore, India, now home to the firm’s largest office outside New York City: “We hire people there because they work for cents on the dollar versus what people work for in the United States.”

Candidate Trump promised to create millions of new jobs, vowing to be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Cohn, as Goldman Sachs’s president and COO, oversaw the firm’s mergers and acquisitions business that had, over the previous three years, led to the loss of at least 22,000 U.S. jobs, according to a study by two advocacy groups. Early in his candidacy, Trump described as “disgusting” Pfizer’s decision to buy a smaller Irish competitor in order to execute a “corporate inversion,” a maneuver in which a U.S. company moves its headquarters overseas to reduce its tax burden. The Pfizer deal ultimately fell through. But in 2016, in the heat of the campaign, Goldman advised on a megadeal that saw Johnson Controls, a Fortune 500 company based in Milwaukee, buy the Ireland-based Tyco International with the same goal. A few months later, with Goldman’s help, Johnson Controls had executed its inversion.

With Cohn’s appointment, Trump now had three Goldman Sachs alums in top positions inside his administration: Steve Bannon, who was a vice president at Goldman when he left the firm in 1990, as chief strategist, and Steve Mnuchin, who had spent 17 years at Goldman, as Treasury secretary. And there were more to come. A few weeks later, another Goldman partner, Dina Powell, joined the White House as a senior counselor for economic initiatives. Goldman was a longtime client of Jay Clayton, Trump’s choice to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission; Clayton had represented Goldman after the 2008 financial crisis, and his wife Gretchen worked there as a wealth management adviser. And there was the brief, colorful tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director: Scaramucci had been a vice president at Goldman Sachs before leaving to co-found his own investment company.

Even before Scaramucci, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had joked that enough Goldman alum were working for the Trump administration to open a branch office in the White House.

“There was a devastating financial crisis just over eight years ago,” Warren said. “Goldman Sachs was at the heart of that crisis. The idea that the president is now going to turn over the country’s economic policy to a senior Goldman executive turns my stomach.” Prior administrations often had one or two people from Goldman serving in top positions. George W. Bush at one point had three. At its peak, the Trump administration effectively had six.

Earlier this summer, Trump boasted about his team of economic advisers at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “This is the president of Goldman Sachs. Smart,” Trump said. “Having him represent us! He went from massive paydays to peanuts.”

Trump waved off anyone who might question his decision to rely on the very people he had demonized. “Somebody said, ‘Why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy?’ … I said: ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want.’” He needed “great, brilliant business minds … so the world doesn’t take advantage of us.” How else could he get the job done? “I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.”

“Does that make sense?” Trump asked. The crowd cheered.

by Gary Rivlin, Michael Hudson, The Intercept |  Read more:
Image: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images
[ed. And in other news from The Intercept, see: The Airport Bomber From Last Week You Never Heard About.] 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Magic of Making Salt

“My mother boils seawater. It sits all afternoon simmering on the stovetop, almost two gallons in a big soup pot. The windows steam up and the house smells like a storm. In the evening, a crust of salt is all that’s left at the bottom of the pot. My mother scrapes it out with a spoon. We each lick a fingertip and dip them in the salt and it’s softer than you’d think, less like sand and more like snow. We lay our fingertips on our tongues, right in the middle. It tastes like salt but like something else, too—wide, and dark. It tastes like drowning, or like falling asleep on the shore and only waking up when the tide has come up to your feet and you wonder if you’d gone on sleeping, would you have sunk?”

That arrived in an email today from my daughter who had no idea I was working on this post. It is an excerpt from an essay on water for one of her classes. Now nineteen and a college sophomore, she has been witness to more of my food experiments than she can count. This is one that worked beautifully. I boiled a lot of seawater this summer. Mostly because while those of you down south were sweltering in one of the hottest summers ever, we were freezing our butts off here in Alaska. Anchorage experienced its coldest summer since they started keeping track of those things and in Homer, 220 miles south, we suffered through more 40-degree mornings than not. With all the cold and rain that accompanied, it just seemed right having cauldrons of hot water warming up my kitchen. And, I like to think of cooking as alchemy and while we may not call it art, I believe that there are certain mystical forces at play here—to be able to take a pot of water from the ocean and with very little effort extract from it something that will in turn transform whatever it touches. The beauty of salt is its ability to anonymously elevate everything it contacts. And to be able to conjure this valuable resource from something so vast to me is magic.

My friend Maurice is a writer who loves to cook, and I am a cook who loves writing, so whenever we get together the ideas fly. This summer, at his family’s camp across the bay for their yearly 4th of July celebration, much of the conversation revolved around making salt from seawater. We wondered if salts from other parts of the bay would taste different and discussed methods of declumping. From there the experiments continued until I think we have come up with the easiest, best method. Now that I have made the switch in my career from baker to savory chef running the dinner scene here at the bakery, salt and its many abilities rule my world and make it possible to use local ingredients as fully as they deserve.

To make your own salt from seawater: (..)

It is important to be sure your collection site is away from any possible human pollutants. Don’t collect on rainy or stormy days when things are stirred up. I gathered my water at slack tide right from the beach of Kachemak Bay. Homer has some crazy tidal changes, so it’s important to keep a tide book handy.

1. A gallon of water will produce about a cup of salt, depending on the salinity of the water in your area or recent heavy rainfall.

2. Filter your water through a fine cloth (Ruhlman’s All-Strain kitchen cloths would be perfect for this) into a glass or ceramic pot. I used stainless the first time and it worked great, but then in my research for this post I found that the stainless might react to the salt at high heat. Until I get that documented, I figure better safe than sorry. Do not under any circumstances use aluminum.

3. Once it is in the pot, bring to a hard simmer and let it go for about 2 hours per gallon of water. Yes, the house will start to smell like the sea, but that’s part of the magic.

4. As the water evaporates, stir occasionally and at the point it becomes a wet sludge, pull it off the heat and pour into a shallow glass pan. 

5. Spread the mixture out and dry further by either putting in the sun in a drafty window for a day or baking in a 200°F oven for another 30 minutes.

6. Scrape together and break it up with your fingers if you like big chunks or with a mortar and pestle to make it finer. You can also press it through a tamis or sieve.

To make flavored salt I added garlic cloves to the water and pulled them out as the sludge was forming . . . it’s got a nice caramel color and amazing roasted garlic flavor. I made the orange thyme salt by zesting orange rind into the saltwater and then grinding fresh thyme into it once it was dry. I rubbed it on pork ribs. Yeah.

If you don’t want to use fuel to dry your saltwater you can fill a shallow glass baking pan and leave it undisturbed in a sunny airy window. I unfortunately did not have enough heat or sun or patience to do this. I did use my oven for other things while I was baking the salt to not waste all that heat.

How does it taste? As she said, like the sea, wide and dark.

by Carri Thurman, Ruhlman | Read more:
Images: Carri Thurman
[ed. The cliffs I harvest salt from are susceptible to south swells, so it's sometimes discouraging to find evaporating pools re-inundated. Trying to be more pro-active. See also: Sea Salt]

The Philosophy of Fly-Fishing

When I was seventeen, I drove to Missoula, Montana, to learn how to fly-fish. The town is one of the best places to fish in the country. Rivers with names like the Bitterroot and Blackfoot crisscross the valley harboring trout the size of walruses. I spent that summer learning to cast and looking for the eddies and pools where fish might be lurking. I tried a thousand different flies and a hundred different rivers, and though I tensed my entire body to be ready for a strike, though I was living with a friend who made his living as a fishing guide, in three months I didn’t catch a single fish. Not one.

Published in 1653, Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler might best be described as a curiosity cabinet of a pious Renaissance naturalist. Framed as a dialogue between a veteran angler, Pescator, and his eager student, Venator, the book came recommended by practiced anglers and seemed to promise some bit of knowledge I was lacking. Next to descriptions of fish like pike (“a solitary, melancholy, and a bold Fish”), and bream (“scales set in excellent order”), were poems by George Herbert. Alongside a cheery round of fishing songs, I found instructions for making fishing line from horse hair (“take care that your hair be round and clear, and free from galls or scabs or frets”). I discovered that it was better to be “a civil, well govern’d well grounded, temperate, poor Angler, than a drunken Lord,” and that the clever angler would keep about two thousand black beetles alive through the winter in a firkin. Wasps are good bait if you dip their heads in blood, and if you wish to fish with maggots (and you are likely to wish it), find a “fly-blown” dead cat and you will soon be well prepared. Also “the crumbs of white bread and honey made into paste is good bait for a Carp.”

My curiosity was pricked, but I doubted I was becoming a better fisherman. Modern fly-fishing is so different from what Walton practiced in the seventeenth century that the similarities perhaps begin and end with the fish. Whereas we have a cornucopia of expertly tied artificial flies, floating nylon line, and evolved casting techniques, Walton didn’t even have a reel—he just used a stick with hair tied to the end. To entice the trout, he might employ a fragrant oil; to seduce perch, he would select a minnow, a feather, or a cork, though he would not dare to try his luck before the mulberry trees were in bud. It seemed more like witchcraft than fishing.

On the mystery of how eels reproduce (a mystery that puzzles scientists still) I discovered the theory that they “are bred of a particular dew falling in the months of May or June on the banks of some particular Ponds or Rivers.” Of the frog I learned that he expresses “malice or anger by his swoln cheeks and staring eyes” and makes good bait if you put a hook through his mouth and then “with a fine needle and silk sow [sic] the upper part of his leg to the arming wire of your hook.” But do not do so hastily: “use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live longer.”

What the hell was this book? I put it aside and kept fishing. But a few years later, while I was on a river in Idaho at dusk and found myself in the middle of a tremendous caddis-fly hatch, an answer occurred to me. Caddis flies, like many aquatic insects, pupate in little husks attached to rocks in rivers. At the right moment in the summer, they emerge as flies, swim to the surface and take off, but not before pausing to dry their wings. They do this by the thousands and, as Walton puts it, they make the trout “bold and lusty.” (...)

This is what the angler does: He observes and tries to imitate the world around him. He chooses the fly of a similar size, pattern, and color as those bugs he sees rising; he flicks his line back and forth over his head to lay his nearly weightless bait down without too much of a splash along the riffles where the fish are feeding. He notices the direction of the wind; he matches the length of her line with the depth of the water; he waits for the afternoon to cool off and rises early to beat the morning sun. He fishes little midges in the spring and thick hairy buggers in the summer and slim nymphs in the fall. He sees the natural world as a puzzle he tries to solve, and his success is measured absolutely: when the surface breaks, the fly disappears, and he feels that unmistakable tug. (...)

It has become increasingly difficult to say what qualifies as art today, but it certainly isn’t the perfect imitation of nature. Yet fishing does somehow feel artful. What I have grown to admire in Walton’s book most is the wonder he brings to the world, the way he converts the mysteries of the river into a tangible fish on his line. In Walton’s esteem for all the odd particularity of the fish and its environs, he seems to be attempting to merge two worlds that exist only in opposition to each other—the terrestrial and the aquatic. We know hardly anything of the vast empire that exists just below the surface of the water, but we know just enough that with a bit of study, a dash of faith, and a great deal of patience, we can, occasionally, break through. In these moments, the angler is the link between one world and the next. What could be more artful?

This might also help explain the disproportion between the amount of time I spend fishing and the number of fish I catch. Most of the time I hook only enough trout to keep me believing that I’m not chasing some myth, and even then just barely. Yet I find great solace in the sport. I delight in a day on the river, noticing all its features, trying to join its small dramas. Rarely do we have the excuse to sidestep the human perspective and become something else in a place where the only currency is camouflage and politics are straightforward. You can spend a small fortune on waders and nets and tackle boxes, but I have found that more often than not these things become a hindrance. The real task of fishing is not to try a thousand different flies and wade up to your ears; it’s to understand that you’re a stranger here. For all our prodigious technology and equipment, the necessary humility of a day spent fishing finds the angler reckoning with a world in which he has few answers and very little control. If these also happen to be the very circumstances of our lives, the measure of success lies not in dominance but in finding a place within what we don’t fully understand.

by John Knight, Paris Review |  Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. For Jerry, and my grandson Calvin, who has yet to catch his first fish.]

Thursday, October 12, 2017