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Reading Diary 8-9 September 2012

Posted in reading diary by Sam X. on 10 September 2012

Laid into last week’s issue of the Economist. This reading diary turned into way too much of an exercise. In the future I’m going to simply list all the articles I read and only discuss the pertinent items. I can’t spend 2+ hours on each entry! Sheesh. Or maybe I’ll give more articles a one-sentence review.

  • “Snow dragons” by Dominic Ziegler in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Interesting comparison of the trade advantages that a shrinking Arctic cap presents with the distinct environment concerns the shrinkage brings. Certain countries will benefit, like Russia and America–and certain countries are seeking to benefit, like China and South Korea. Best bits are about the diplomatic give-and-take between China and the other countries that are directly impacted by the Arctic Sea. This includes how they will “swallow their fury with Norway for the award in 2010 of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a jailed Chinese dissident.” Nothing in here screams legendary story, but the behind-closed-doors maneuvering makes a fun read. And at the end, a reminder: The melting of the ice will endanger many places we’ve just discussed!

  • “The conflict in Syria: Worse and worse, and no end in sight” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Catalogue of recent events in the Syrian civil war. Massacre at Darayya, ongoing seige of Aleppo, gunning down of government helicopters and planes. The real changes are in the scale of the conflict: Near 400 people were murdered in Darayya, and total estimated dead in the war ranges from 17,000 to 23,000. Horrific numbers; each time I read about massacres, I recall the Algerian Civil War. And of course, the ethnic difficulties between the pro-Assad Alawites and the majority Sunnis reminds one of the powderkeg Balkans. The “no end in sight” in the title is the worst part, and honestly I don’t even know what to say anymore about Syria. It looks like recent ethnic conflicts, its become a civil war, what can we do?

I’m torn between the adventurism, wanting to establish a no-fly zone, safe havens around the borders for refugees–but those necessarily require men with guns, Turkish or Egyptian or UN or our own, to guard the civilians, which leads to an inevitable confrontation one day when a pro-Assad unit goes too far and kills say 10 non-Syrians. Then what? So if we avoid our adventurism, instead feed the rebels guns and support–maybe this conflict lasts years (see: Algerian Civil War) and we get 150,000 dead instead. I’d feel worse about my indecision except the entire fucking world is being indecisive so I’m at least not alone.

One interesting suggestion I heard listening to the BBC’s Global News podcast was: there needs to be neutral space for dictators like Assad, wherein they can peacefully leave before things explode out of control. A willful exile. Assad had no Western allies and only a few local allies (Iran, Hezbollah) so his options were limited to begin with, and there’s the ever-present threat of ICC war crimes trials etc. Not that he should be exempt: but there should be a peaceful exit route for dictators, and right now it barely exists. I guess that’s kind of a weak argument–Ben Ali took the easy way out, right? Reading the article now though, I see his military essentially forced him out. How sensible of them. If only the Syrian army were more loyal to their citizens.

And of course! There’s always the proxy war issue. Iran v the West. There’s so many angles to this. Maybe that’s why we’re all indecisive.

  • “Egypt’s foreign policy: Independent–or not?” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]
  • “Yemen and the United States: Don’t drone on” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Short article about the growing blowback from America’s ongoing drone war. See: the other articles already on the topic. Really a full feature should be devoted to this, but what we have here are five token paragraphs. Certain Yemenis hate it, others near the capital are ambivalent because they want US support. Considering drones have zero moral credibility–and now they have little pragmatic credibility–we should probably rethink this policy. Sadly I doubt anything along those lines will happen.

  • “Private equity in China: Hony ahoy” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Great in-depth article about one of China’s biggest private equity firms, Hony. This is news I don’t actively seek out but it’s interesting when I come across. Hony has done well in the last few years and positioned itself as the most successful private equity firm in China, but of course hurdles remain, including spreading outwards across the globe. And apparently its returns haven’t been astounding. You can begin to tie this into the “Summertime blues” article below, and wonder if the Chinese hard/soft landing will impact private equity’s ability to expand and stay profitable. Maybe their struggles with good returns is indicative of the drying Chinese economy?

  • “Democracies and debt” by Philip Coggan in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Alternately insightful and aggravating, Coggan quickly paints the duality between democracy and money. Political leaders have apparently long feared that democracy would “lead them to ruin”, I imagine they mean the rich people’s ruin. But the more applicable point is that a democracy appears more stable, and thus is extended larger amounts of credit. For many countries, that credit is now drying up and they are instead stuck with large amounts of debt. A useful facet of the debt bubble from the last 30 years–the only question is, do we have the balls for another system? When times are good, debt is so cheap and easy and wonderful. But then you have the last five years and wonder if it’s worth it.

  • “The global economy: Summertime blues” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Numbers round-up from revised Q2 analyses and summer reports. Everyone’s down, some less than others (U.S., Germany). Most interesting is the point to diminished Chinese imports; the author here speculates this hints more at the “hard landing” for China. Every one has been predicting China’s landing this year. Early on it seemed to be hard, then numbers eased up and it appeared more soft, but here we are talking a hard landing again. Be worried, etc.

  • “Four more years?” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Leader]

Presents all the doubts of the Obama presidency with a Republican-tint. “Approval ratings are well under 50%”–are they really? I suppose 47.5% is under 50 but “well under” seems an overstatement. The rest of the article follows this pitch: trying to be even-handed while clearly favoring anything but Obama. That’s fine, Obama’s not great I’ll grant you, but they don’t provide any solutions. I suspect they don’t want to. “What would you do with another four years?” is how the article ends. It’s a 700-word question mark. Why did I read this?

  • “Life in an Icy Inferno” by Olivia Judson in National Geographic, July 2012. [Feature]

An antidote to world news: natural history! This article is mostly interesting as description of all the extra work that goes into traveling to Mt. Erebus, a volcano in Antarctica. It’s a lot of work. The photographs are good, an incredible shot down into the caldera of the volcano with molten rock laying bare to the world.

  • “As North Dakota goes…” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

I tend to favor international articles and analysis but keeping up with the home news is probably a good thing. This article details the current election landscape in North Dakota–the state had long been locally Democratic, but that changed in the Tea Party 2010 elections and quite possibly will continue in these elections. One quote I found particularly telling: “[T]hanks to high prices for the wheat and soyabeans the state’s farmers grow, and to the oil boom in the western half of the state, he says, North Dakotans no longer turn so instinctively to the government for help. They are becoming more self-reliant and, as a result, more Republican.”

Thanks for all the help, government, but I’m rich now so you can take your taxes and shove them up your ass.

  • “The trials of Ernesto Zedillo” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

I’m only three issues into my whole Economist kick but this is a great example of my favorite aspect of the magazine: in-depth articles about current events with relevant historical details fleshed out. Ernesto Zedillo was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, a reign I’m entirely unfamiliar with. The article describes the bloody Zapatista uprising in the early 90s, and explores a potential trial of Zedillo for his role in a 1994 massacre.

  • “High gloom” by Anton La Guardia in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Will Draghi save the day? Stay tuned! I wish I had the most recent issue, I bet there’s analysis of Draghi’s announced bond-buying plan. There’s a complicated song and dance around all of this talk of bond-buying because so many countries have so flagrantly disregarded their debt obligations. Draghi wants assisted countries to commit to reforms (austerity) and the debt bought will only be short-term and yadda yadda.

Everyone’s to blame for this mess. Banks got nuts with cheap credit, governments loved building shit on cheap bonds, average citizens were happy to buy a house and a car and etc. We saw easy ways to become rich and seized them. It’s a bit chicken-and-the-egg to blame one side for being greedy and the other side for fulfilling that greed (especially because the other side were acting out of greed, too). My feelings on debt as a process are mixed: it quite possibly has positive uses, although it seems a terrible system to run an economy on. More on this when I finally get to the debt book, after the Africa book.

  • “Erdogan’s counterproductive ambition” in The Economist, 1 September 2012. [Article]

Portrait of the current Turkish Prime Minister’s political difficulties and ambitions; he has long been successful in the country (they rattle off a whole host of reasons–improved GDP, better roads, rights for women) but of late has hit roadblocks. He blames Syria and the Kurds–which recalls an article from two weeks ago (“Turkey’s Kurds: Violent times”) which gave a fuller picture of the Kurdish reality as of now. Assad has surrendered portions of northern Syria, and thus local Kurds have assumed control, thereby buttressing Kurds in eastern Turkey. Their rebellion has become increasingly violent. This diversion may prove to be one of the lasting legacies of the Syrian revolution, an unintended consequence. There are near 30 million Kurds who live between Iran/Iraq/Turkey/Syria and they quite possibly see an opening to seize political sovereignty.

  • “South Africa’s mines: In the pits” in The Economist, 25 August 2012. [Article]

Great follow-on to the Syria article above; this concisely explain the religious sectarianism that is rapidly coming to the foreground in the Syrian civil war. Essentially, you have the Alawite Assad government getting help from Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, with the Sunni-majority rebels getting help from al Qaeda. File this in the “arguments against interventionism”. Sunnis and Shiites have been warring for centuries over the legacy of Islam (see: Protestants and Catholics? Is this a fair comparison?) and the article traces current fighting in Syria to our meddling in Iraq (which benefited Shiites).

  • Pages 127-134 of Africa by John Reader. [Book]

Finally squeezed a chapter of this in over the weekend. Great stuff per usual. The chapter in particular covered the relationship between early man and the land. Because of our dependence on water, early man had to be within 12 hours of freshwater, thereby restricting his daily food-gathering routines and sleeping patterns. A couple things changed that allowed us to spread beyond these restrictions. There’s evidence of widespread fire usage at least 100,000 years ago, which increased our ability to function at night. And about 38,000 years ago there was a peak warming period, in which much of Africa became more humid than normal, increasing sources of freshwater. Populations swelled and humans moved into many different areas of the continent. And then an ice age began and much of that population diminished. Dry academic terms don’t do that justice; it sounds terrifying. Imagine those early humans 18,000 years ago dying off from lack of food due to aridity.

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Reading Diary 6 September 2012

Posted in reading diary by Sam X. on 7 September 2012

Today I read:

Short article about 40,000-year-old ivory figurines of a woman. Interesting to consider this in light of Africa as I continue to read it. Humans in their contemporary sense have only existed for about 150,000 years, and we were clearly making art almost a third of that ago. Again, the book Africa makes an important distinction that our capacity for imagination is one of the key defining traits of modern humans, and this would serve as historical evidence.

Another short article about the lies and liars in American politics and those in Dutch politics. The upshot is that Holland has neutral space in its politics due to its 4 to 6 relevant political parties whereas in America neutral space doesn’t exist because you’re either with us or against us you terrible communist. I agree, more political parties in America would be great. Because realistically neither party can represent most of person’s political views. A lot of people fall somewhere between–socially liberal and economically conservative seems to be the popular choice. But even us progressive democrats don’t feel well represented by the current Democratic party. Of course, to have more than two parties, we would need electoral reform….

The conspiracy which draws in Simonini is fleshed out a lot in these pages. In addition, we get a brief (and warped) accounting of French history between the years 1869-71, pretty much the fall of the Second French Empire and the rise of the Paris Commune. Like most Eco books, intrepid readers are required to do additional research if they want to have a full understanding of what’s going on. (The characters talk about real life figures in a very cursory way–oh that Napoleon the Third, what an idiot–which is realistic but uninformative.)

Although truthfully, I’m not sure I want to clarify events. The main character is a liar through and through and relying on his descriptions brings the reader closer to him as a persona: let us experience his fabrications. This reminds me starkly of the Economist article above, with the Dutch headline “The results count, not the truth”. That could be the motto for Lost. The article also makes reference to the “fashionable, world-weary ‘ah, but what is truth?’ pique”–and indeed, with the political fudging in present day and the lies of Simonini in this book, I do wonder what is truth. Truth is of course a human construct, there are no immutable facts really, but what I regret is that we no longer even accept the grounds for debate.

This is a tangent that I refuse to get into in the first entry of my reading diary. I find Simonini’s lies entertaining, I find modern politician’s lies annoying, and I can’t help but recognize that they’re two sides of the same coin. There’s 150 pages left of this book, this isn’t the end of this topic.

  • Left Behind” by Todd Gitlin in Foreign Policy, 5 September 2012. [Essay]

In which the author bemoans the lack of an energized, cohesive leftist opposition to middle-conservative President Barack Obama. In sum, he notes that progressives have no real options left after being stranded at the alter by Obama. If we forsake him, we risk a Romney presidency and all the neocons that might imply. So we’ve made a “cold peace” with Obama. What a sorry state for progressives like me. We could bang the drum of electoral reform: if enacted, those of us further left on the spectrum could formalize a Green or Democratic Socialist party or the like. (And the Tea Party could form their own!) Until then, we’re stuck in this deafening debate between moderates and conservatives.

Review of a book by David Priestland that paints a history of the world as a battle between soldiers, wise men, merchants, and workers. You can guess the ending: Merchants have currently won, and the author is sad we’re trying to repair the system rather than come up with a new one. He doesn’t have much advice beyond restoring technocrats to power.

Sadly no Africa last night; instead I spent six hours doing a final read-through of my e-book. Just released! Wowza. I suppose that counts as reading too, but I have nothing to say about it now because my brain is tired.

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