Pocketbooks, Cars and the Mystique of the Handmade

Machines can make many things better, and for less.

Louis Vuitton has been caught pulling the wool—a very fine and delicately woven wool, no doubt—over the eyes of consumers. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority this week demanded that the luxury company cease and desist with ads that imply their products are made by hand.

The glossy magazine advertisements featured a Vermeer-worthy model at a workbench, addressing a leather handle: “A needle, linen thread, beeswax, and infinite patience protect each over-stitch from humidity and the passage of time,” read the ad copy.

The bureaucrats paid to protect the public from flimflammery declared this to be a fraud. “[C]onsumers would interpret the image of a woman using a needle and thread to stitch the handle of a bag,” the agency ruled, “to mean that Louis Vuitton bags were hand stitched.” In truth, some of the work is done with the efficacious and none-too-tony assistance of sewing machines. For shame!

OK. We do need him.

Should we care? One is inclined to recommend the Advertising Standards Authority as a fine place for the U.K.’s new coalition government to find some savings.

Why the preference for the handmade, anyway? Yes, there are still goods where skilled craftsmanship makes all the difference: No machine can match the judgment of an experienced luthier, who has to adapt to the acoustic quirks of each piece of wood he carves for a violin. But does it matter whether a product is crafted by hand or stamped out by machine, if the consumer can’t tell the difference?

The aura of the handmade has been around ever since machines displaced tools as the main means of manufacture. Nineteenth-century moralists lamented the loss of honest craftsmanship and built a movement embracing goods that were objectively less well made than their factory-made counterparts.

Thorstein Veblen derided this as “exaltation of the defective,” which he disdained as just another manifestation of the leisure class’s taste for waste. He sneered at the “propaganda of crudity and wasted effort,” that led such advocates of the artisanal as John Ruskin to champion products of “painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude” over the “visibly more perfect goods” made cheaper by machines. He hated the smug vanity of people flaunting Ruskin’s rough-hewn books.

There is a robust Ruskinite movement afoot again today, celebrating the rustic and exalting in, if not the defective, the artless (where art is understood as artifice). It is in foodstuffs where the modern taste for the artisanal flourishes most fully. Many are the farmers markets now offering bruised peaches and splotchy tomatoes as a rebuke to the plastic gloss of supermarket produce.

Who knows how much of this is really grown by Mr. Green Jeans, and how much is just the battered leftovers from the warehouse, repurposed for the farm stand. But there is no doubt that perfection is now about as fashionable in foods as it is in Persian carpets.

Louis Vuitton, like many modern makers of luxury goods, is in a tricky position. Their clients expect the glossy perfection that machines make possible. But they don’t want the taint of mass-market cheapitude that comes with highly productive technology.

A role must be found for craftsman, because these days nothing is more rare and exotic. For all the micro-tolerances of the machine work that go into making a Ferrari, the company has technicians assemble its engines by hand. Perhaps that’ the most efficient and effective way to do it; or perhaps it’s an inefficiency that lends its own aristocratic gloss.

Bugatti brags that it employs actual humans to caress its Veyron coachwork for hours per car—an extravagance, and purposefully so. Or take champagne: A few houses still hire men to do the riddling by hand, turning the bottles in racks to work the sediment down onto the cork for removal. Machines can now do it in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost, but of course without the elegant wastefulness of a million turns of the wrist.

Once upon a time the craftsman’s touch could be displayed through personalization—the adding of monograms and various options for customization. Machine-made goods came off the assembly line with a perfect sameness that was a liability: making the ability to choose and specify details a great luxury. But in the last 20 or 30 years, computer-controlled production has democratized customization. When you can order a computer-cut shirt from Land’s End for $50, customization loses its upper-crustiness.

What is Louis Vuitton to do? The company could always try to show that there is some by-hand work involved in its handiwork by embracing the ethic of the splotchy tomato. Myth has it that weavers once inserted errors in their work to signal that, unlike the unlucky Arachne, they wouldn’t try to achieve godlike perfection. Imperfection today is a different signal. It’s a declaration that the weaver isn’t a machine, which is why newbie carpet collectors are told to look for uneven stitching.

If imperfection becomes a desirable luxury- good quality, savvy factory manufacturers will simply start programming their computers to insert certain random and human-seeming flubs into the products. Advertising police will never stop luxury goods from delivering more mystique than reality. That may make such pricey purchases a conspicuous waste of one’s money—but wasn’t that always the point?

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268980205920578.html

A GOP Oil Trap

Panicked Republicans risk future energy development.

With oil now lapping the Louisiana shore, a political oil panic is beginning to wash over the GOP. Somewhere, Rahm Emanuel is wondering if the Gulf spill is another crisis he won’t have to let go to waste.

Start with Sarah Palin, who spent most of 2008 rapping Democrats for not being more supportive of domestic energy production, only to turn around and suggest President Obama was in bed with Big Oil. The argument seems to be that anyone who accepts oil contributions must be in favor of oil spills.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski rushed to back Interior Secretary’s Ken Salazar’s comment about putting his “boot on the neck” of BP, lecturing anyone not “angry” about the accident as lacking in “emotion.” Louisiana Sen. David Vitter jumped into a debate over the liability cap. Democrats proposed an arbitrary $10 billion; Mr. Vitter countered with an arbitrary four quarters of company profit. This allowed Democrats to accuse the GOP of flacking for Big Oil.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions publicly berated an industry witness at a hearing for not knowing his “business.” Over in the House, California Rep. Darrell Issa has taken the bold step of blaming federal employees, singling out the Minerals Management Service (MMS).

Yes, the politics of this are tricky for the GOP. The caucus is acutely aware that “drill, baby, drill” sits badly in black water. Gulf state politicians such as Mr. Vitter, up for election, are under intense pressure to be seen to be doing something, preferably to BP. Yet grandstanding is rarely smart politics.

Republicans have invested too many years supporting responsible energy development to now sound believable bashing the industry. And as the Vitter episode shows, there is little gained in engaging Democrats in legislative one-upmanship. In a competition over who is more irrationally “tough” on Big Oil, Republicans will not win.

As for conservatives who think there is black gold in politicizing this (Mrs. Palin), think again. Right now the story line is President Obama versus the Oil Spill, and that hurts him. Those hurling accusations threaten to turn it into President Obama versus the GOP, a fight the White House would prefer. Beltway politicking during a crisis just annoys the public.

What some Republicans are really risking is future energy development, and their role managing it. Oil slick or no, our energy needs remain the same. Americans get that, which is why even amid 24/7 slick coverage a CNN poll found a majority still supports offshore drilling. That number will rise with gas prices.

The left is already using this to impose the restrictions it has long desired. President Obama yesterday said he’d continue a deep water moratorium and announced a suspension in new Arctic drilling. That’s surely just a start. And Republicans currently saying the industry doesn’t know its business will be hard pressed to complain.

As for making a convenient target of the MMS, they might consider it is one of the few agencies worth its pay, a body that works with the industry to produce safe, affordable energy, rather than against it. It also has a great track record. The political pile-on instead resulted in the firing yesterday of the MMS head and guarantees a MMS larded down with new regulations. Next time gas hits $4 a gallon, Republicans (who may be in charge) will wish they had this ally.

The real worry is that Republicans are making themselves vulnerable to Mr. Obama’s last big agenda item: cap and tax. The president has never made secret his desire to replace cheap and sure fossil fuels with expensive and unreliable energy sources. Up to now the GOP has offered good opposition.

Yet not wanting any crisis to go to waste, Mr. Obama has been out beating the industry and arguing the spill backs his call for climate legislation. This is a repeat of financial regulation, an attempt to force Republicans to either go along or get slammed for siding with Wall Street (in this case Big Oil). The more Republicans join the drill bash, the more opportunity Mr. Obama has to peel off votes.

If the GOP is looking for a political role model, they might try Sen. Mary Landrieu. The Louisiana Democrat has been a beacon of calm and sense. She’s stayed focused on the immediate, avoided early accusations, and tried to keep the accident in perspective. At a recent Senate Environment hearing she summed it up neatly.

“I know that this committee has its eyes on the environment. We in Louisiana . . . not only have our eyes on it, we have our heart invested in it and we are making a living on that delta. But we need the oil that comes from offshore to keep this economy moving. We must examine what went wrong, weigh the risk and rewards, fix what is broken and move on . . . If we could do without this oil, we would. But we simply cannot—not today, not in the near future.”

How principled. How refreshing.

Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269204575270842009220082.html

He Was Supposed to Be Competent

The spill is a disaster for the president and his political philosophy.

I don’t see how the president’s position and popularity can survive the oil spill. This is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president’s political judgment and instincts.

There was the tearing and unnecessary war over his health-care proposal and its cost. There was his day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration. And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don’t see how you politically survive this.

The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. This is a terrible thing to see in a political figure, and a startling thing in one who won so handily and shrewdly in 2008. But he has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They’re in one reality, he’s in another.

President Obama promised on Thursday to hold BP accountable in the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and said his administration would do everything necessary to protect and restore the coast.

The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic. They saw the dollars gushing night and day, and worried that while everything looked the same on the surface, our position was eroding. They have worried about a border that is in some places functionally and of course illegally open, that it too is gushing night and day with problems that states, cities and towns there cannot solve.

And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public’s fears: that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore. You actually don’t get deadlier as a metaphor for the moment than that, the monster that lives deep beneath the sea.

In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—”catastrophe,” etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture. The unspoken mantra in his head must have been, “I will not be defensive, I will not give them a resentful soundbite.” But his strategic problem was that he’d already lost the battle. If the well was plugged tomorrow, the damage will already have been done.

The original sin in my view is that as soon as the oil rig accident happened the president tried to maintain distance between the gusher and his presidency. He wanted people to associate the disaster with BP and not him. When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way. In any case, the strategy was always a little mad. Americans would never think an international petroleum company based in London would worry as much about American shores and wildlife as, say, Americans would. They were never going to blame only BP, or trust it.

I wonder if the president knows what a disaster this is not only for him but for his political assumptions. His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: “Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust.” Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: “We pay so much for the government and it can’t cap an undersea oil well!”

This is what happened with Katrina, and Katrina did at least two big things politically. The first was draw together everything people didn’t like about the Bush administration, everything it didn’t like about two wars and high spending and illegal immigration, and brought those strands into a heavy knot that just sat there, soggily, and came to symbolize Bushism. The second was illustrate that even though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. Conservatives got this point—they know it without being told—but liberals and progressives did not. They thought Katrina was the result only of George W. Bush’s incompetence and conservatives’ failure to “believe in government.” But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent.

Remarkable too is the way both BP and the government, 40 days in, continue to act shocked, shocked that an accident like this could have happened. If you’re drilling for oil in the deep sea, of course something terrible can happen, so you have a plan on what to do when it does.

How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing? We’re plugging it now with tires, mud and golf balls?

What continues to fascinate me is Mr. Obama’s standing with Democrats. They don’t love him. Half the party voted for Hillary Clinton, and her people have never fully reconciled themselves to him. But he is what they have. They are invested in him. In time—after the 2010 elections go badly—they are going to start to peel off. The political operative James Carville, the most vocal and influential of the president’s Gulf critics, signaled to Democrats this week that they can start to peel off. He did it through the passion of his denunciations.

The disaster in the Gulf may well spell the political end of the president and his administration, and that is no cause for joy. It’s not good to have a president in this position—weakened, polarizing and lacking broad public support—less than halfway through his term. That it is his fault is no comfort. It is not good for the stability of the world, or its safety, that the leader of “the indispensble nation” be so weakened. I never until the past 10 years understood the almost moral imperative that an American president maintain a high standing in the eyes of his countrymen.

Mr. Obama himself, when running for president, made much of Bush administration distraction and detachment during Katrina. Now the Republican Party will, understandably, go to town on Mr. Obama’s having gone only once to the gulf, and the fund-raiser in San Francisco that seemed to take precedence, and the EPA chief who went to a New York fund-raiser in the middle of the disaster.

But Republicans should beware, and even mute their mischief. We’re in the middle of an actual disaster. When they win back the presidency, they’ll probably get the big California earthquake. And they’ll probably blow it. Because, ironically enough, of a hard core of truth within their own philosophy: when you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704269204575270950789108846.html

This Is Not a Weed

Plants that spontaneously grow in the city are marvels of adaptation. What can we learn from them?

What makes a plant worth our admiration? Peter Del Tredici, a senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum, walks up a short grassy hill near the South Street Gate and points to what he considers to be the Arboretum’s most amazing tree: the dwarf beech, a tree seemingly born from a German expressionist landscape, its knobby branches folded into a series of right angles that create a canopy resembling barbed wire. It’s one of many impressive trees in the Arboretum’s 265 acres in Jamaica Plain, which are carefully managed by a team of professional horticulturists.

But on this sunny spring afternoon, Del Tredici is interested in a far less spectacular destination: an area just outside the gate across South Street known as Stony Brook Marsh, where untamed vegetation grows atop an abandoned trash heap. On one side, a brackish pond is filled with invasive phragmitis reeds. On the other, a hillside of rubble has been colonized by a haphazard forest of thin trees. Along the path, stalks of Japanese knotweed poke insistently from the ground. It’s filled with species that are often called “invasive,” “noxious,” and “weed,” the kinds of plants that conservationists rail against and homeowners consider unsightly.

But the very characteristics that most people deride are ones that Del Tredici admires. He calls this area an “emergent forest,” an ecosystem formed spontaneously without the help of human hands. Those thin trees, for instance, are ailanthus trees, featured in the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — planted originally for ornamental purposes, but now flourishing on their own because of their ability to grow by cloning themselves at the roots. “I don’t think anybody has planted an ailanthus tree in 100 years, yet it is the most common tree in most northeastern cities by a long shot,” Del Tredici says. The phragmitis reeds, which also fill the Back Bay Fens, are able to thrive in highly degraded wetlands like this one, where they help clean polluted water.

What some people see as a collection of undesirable plants, Del Tredici views as a valuable ecosystem that’s unique to the hostile habitat of the city. He’s the author of a new field guide, “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast,” that focuses exclusively on species like these, the hardy and self-sufficient plant life that grows spontaneously in cities. Though the book is primarily a catalog of plants, Del Tredici also sees it as part of a deeper argument: that there’s a lot more value in these plants than we give them credit for.

“I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term,” he says. “There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.”

If we saw this motley collection of plants differently, Del Tredici suggests, we’d realize they’re a kind of marvel: living things in the harsh and stressful urban landscape that don’t just survive there, but thrive. With no effort on our part, they fill the city with greenery, providing cleaner air and water, shade, and food and habitat for wildlife. They do it without expensive fertilizers and irrigation. It’s time, he suggests, that we learned to embrace them — to stop thinking of them only as weeds to uproot, and start considering what they have to offer.

When most of us think about the urban landscape, we tend to fall into one of two worldviews. One is what you might call the traditional gardener’s approach, cultivating attractive ornamental plants while eliminating weeds — think of Boston’s Public Garden, or a carefully landscaped front yard. More recently, a new idea has gained ground: to reflect the natural landscape by planting native vegetation, while eliminating alien species.

Del Tredici is offering an entirely different philosophy. Nothing is native to the city, he argues. The modern city is a new kind of habitat — one that provides pockets of livable spaces in surroundings that can be harsh, inhospitable, and polluted. The city habitat is so specialized, our divisions of “native” and “invasive” plants doesn’t really apply here. Instead, the plants that grow and thrive here could be considered the natural denizens of a new kind of habitat — what he calls “cosmopolitan” species. Like the human residents of Boston, many have immigrated from other parts of the world to coexist in a single community. “You can in many cases get as much functionality out of a cosmopolitan group of plants as you can out of a native group of plants,” he says.

In his quest to better understand urban plants, Del Tredici explored corners of the city that held habitats less obvious than open spaces like Stony Brook Marsh. As we exit onto Washington Street, we find a less hospitable environment — a spit of dirt at the entrance of the stone gate, where some greenery has managed to grow.

“Look at that spectacular dandelion,” he says, bending down and plucking a plump saucer-shaped flower from the ground.

The loose soil at the gate is home to a modest garden of what most people would call weeds: dandelions, chicory, mugwort, butter and eggs — all scrappy plants that grow stubbornly in pockets of land that no one is responsible for. At some point, he says, “someone will weed-whack all of this.”

Because most of us see these bits of greenery as aberrations, we don’t appreciate these small spaces for what they are: micro-environments that manage to support an entire specialized ecosystem. A few feet away, he points to tiny maple seedlings pushing out of the dirt surrounding a concrete light post. Further down, he finds a Virginia creeper growing along a chain-link fence — which happens to be a wonderful habitat for plants, he points out, because it gives them a protected place to grow.

Fences, pavement cracks, railroad tracks, highway medians — these are specialized habitats that humans create, and they offer niches where certain plants thrive. Many of these plants are “pre-adapted” to the urban environment. Species that grow in sidewalk cracks, for instance, originally grew in the cracks of cliffs and other marginal areas. Other urban plants are accustomed to rough conditions, and can survive being stepped on or attacked repeatedly by maintenance crews. Butter and eggs, also called yellow toadflax, originally grew in open grasslands, sand dunes, and gravelly soils; in the city, it readily sprouts up in cracked asphalt, vacant lots, rubble piles, and roadsides. Some plants are native to areas with challenging chemical conditions, and they can tolerate the pollution in city soils and waterways, and the salt that leaches off roads. Their toughness means that we can still maintain greenery in places we’ve made inhospitable to most plant life.

Like any other plants, these species are consuming carbon dioxide, producing oxygen, creating shade, and serving as food and habitat for wildlife. Even mugwort, which he calls “the quintessential urban weed,” absorbs heavy metals from the ground, prevents erosion on slopes, and helps populate barren, nutrient-depleted soils. And they do it all without help. By contrast, “the Arboretum looks the way it does because we have 15 people who come in every day” to maintain it, Del Tredici says.

After spending more than three decades at the Arboretum focusing on the kinds of plants that people use to beautify landscapes, Del Tredici began turning his attention to this so-called spontaneous vegetation, prompted by the interest of his students at the Harvard Design School, where he is a lecturer. “Even though it’s a very common and very important part of the city, nobody pays much attention to it,” he says. His students calculated that spontaneous vegetation covers about 10 percent of the land in Somerville.

With all the interest in sustainability these days, he argues, nothing is more sustainable than landscapes that grow on their own. For that reason, spontaneous vegetation could be an attractive alternative for landscape design: It conserves water and other resources, and it’s affordable for cities with diminishing maintenance budgets.

In his book and lectures, Del Tredici proposes an approach to urban wild spaces that is less about planting and more about editing, in which plants are allowed to grow naturally and then only maintained minimally to weed out truly undesirable species, like vines that choke out other plants.

Although it’s hard to imagine such an approach being implemented in high-profile spots like the Public Garden, it could be a way to boost the city’s plant cover in spaces that are open but unmanaged — for instance, vacant lots that are not currently in use. Del Tredici also proposes creating what he calls “spontaneous roofs,” in which soil on a roof is allowed to self-colonize with plants — a low-maintenance alternative to planted green roofs that only requires occasional weeding.

His ideas aren’t an easy sell with the professional landscapers who look after parkland in and around the city. Bree Harvey, a spokesperson at Mount Auburn Cemetery, says, “We have to keep the place looking the way all the people who have purchased grave space here expect it to look.” Dennis Collins, the cemetery’s horticultural curator, says that there are also historical and cultural regions for preserving the space, which is designated as a National Historic Landmark, from encroaching weeds. “We’re not a natural area; it’s 170-plus years of managed landscape,” he says.

Jeremy Dick, a horticulturist for Boston Natural Areas Network, known as BNAN, says that while Del Tredici’s ideas makes sense and offer potential benefits for urban spaces, implementing them would require major shifts in attitude. “Land stewards and conservationists in the future will need to overcome their bias toward these plants to appreciate them,” says Dick. Many of the urban plants Del Tredici talks about are alien to the area, and these people have been trained to view all invasive species in a negative light.

Dick says that BNAN, which owns or helps to manage several community gardens, urban wilds, and greenways in the Boston area, often receives complaints from residents if an area becomes too weedy or unkempt. When people see spontaneous plants springing up, they see a mismanaged area and start to worry that it invites trash-dumping, or crime.

Del Tredici is aware that he faces an uphill battle. We can’t escape the fact that neatly trimmed rose bushes signal wealth and safety, while dandelions poking out of asphalt cracks are signs of poverty and neglect. Even if weeds are a symptom of urban blight, not the cause, it would take quite a campaign to disconnect the two in people’s minds. Del Tredici himself admits that features like spontaneous roofs have a slim chance of being widely accepted in the United States. However, there are small signs of change. At Mount Auburn Cemetery, Collins says that landscapers have begun to phase out pesticide use on the grass in recent years, resulting in lawns that are marbled with dandelions and clover. “People are getting used to a different concept of turf; they’re not expecting the perfect golf course in quality,” he says.

As Del Tredici and I walk back through Stony Brook Marsh, we stop to look at the smooth, undulating trunks of the ailanthus trees — which although not as dramatic as the dwarf beech, are striking in their clonal similarity. I ask him if he looks at plants like this and sees beauty. “I’m open-minded about beauty,” he answers. It may take a while before the rest us catch up.

Courtney Humphries is a freelance science writer and the author of ”Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…And the World.”  

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/this_is_not_a_weed/

Saved by the crown

What monarchs offer modern democracy

The tumultuous past two months in world politics have brought a surprise with them: Suddenly, monarchy seems relevant again.

In Belgium, where the fragile government constantly is on the verge of collapse, King Albert II has been essential in trying to prevent its dissolution, mediating between leading politicians and pushing them back to the bargaining table. After Britain’s recent election, as politicians from the Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties struggled to negotiate a ruling coalition, Queen Elizabeth’s presence reminded Britons that the country retained institutions that would prevent it from really melting down.

And most notably, in Thailand, the chaos that has ruled the streets of Bangkok stems partly from fear over the country’s future after the eventual death of increasingly frail 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has helped resolve past political crises by forcing the leaders of the army and the demonstrators to meet and reconcile. Without him, notes James Ockey of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, “Thailand may not be able to resolve future crises without major conflict.”

The idea of a monarch may seem like an anachronism in a 21st-century democracy, a relic of an earlier era in which a small elite intermarried and ruled much of the world, while most average people had no say. And to be sure, in states where kings and sultans still actually rule, like Brunei, Jordan, and Morocco, monarchs can be every bit as oppressive and opaque as any other dictatorship. Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, for example, presides over “repressive legislation to punish and imprison peaceful opponents,” according to Human Rights Watch. In Brunei, Jefri, the brother of the ruling sultan, allegedly embezzled billions in state funds, which he spent on some 2,000 cars and a lasciviously named royal yacht, among other items.

But in Europe and parts of Asia, many politicians, political scientists, and citizens have lately developed greater respect for the positive role a constitutional monarch can play in democracy. As in Belgium, monarchs can be arbiters of last resort when elected politicians cannot resolve deep divisions. They can offer their nations a unifying figure to prevent political crises from spiraling into something worse. And in an era of partisanship and diminished individual rights, monarchs can serve as a means of stability in a democracy that might otherwise tear itself apart. A.W. Purdue, author of the book “Long to Reign?”, argues that a king or queen “enables change to take place within a frame of continuity.”

Some political scientists have even argued for reviving defunct monarchies in the interest of democracy, especially in developing nations where monarchs could serve as figures of national unity to prevent ethnic and tribal bloodletting. Cambodia did so in the early 1990s following its civil wars, and the king helped inspire average Cambodians and heal wounds after the Khmer Rouge era. After the toppling of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan welcomed back former king Zahir Shah to launch the Loya Jirga and serve as a figure of unity as political parties bargained to build Afghan democracy. In Iraq, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a descendant of the last monarch, has begun publicly arguing that a constitutional monarchy could help reduce the vicious ethnic and sectarian divides roiling the country. In Laos, where people can see the Thai monarchy on Thai television broadcasts, the exiled royal family has become a rallying point for some opponents of the authoritarian government. Southeast Asia academic Michael Vatikiotis argues, in an essay pushing for a return of the crown in neighboring Burma, that monarchy provided a unifying factor in that diverse society — a unifier ripped away during British colonial rule and never effectively replaced.

“The forlorn hope of progressive political change in Burma using all modern means,” he writes, “suggests that reaching back in time and resurrecting the long-dismantled monarchy could provide a prescription.”

Although the House of Windsor dominates global media coverage of monarchy, in reality 12 European countries still have monarchs, as do Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Bhutan, and other nations. Despite occasional republican movements that attempt to end the monarchy, polls show strong support for the crown in nearly every nation that has one. In the Netherlands, 70 percent of respondents in one poll wanted to retain the monarchy; in Spain, 65 percent of respondents supported it; in Japan, the number was 82 percent. In many of these countries, poll respondents have more respect for the monarchy than any other public institution.

Many modernizing countries have found that a monarch provides a source of authority and national identity that stands apart from political squabbles. He or she can serve simply as a figurehead, or more substantively as a kind of independent power center that can check the worst impulses of elected politicians, in the way that a Supreme Court or House of Lords might.

Although a ceremonial president can fill this role, as in Israel or Germany, the monarch has a unique claim on the public imagination. Neil Blain, an expert on modern monarchies at the University of Stirling in Britain, says the monarch’s symbols, like the scepter and crown, can’t be replicated by a ceremonial president. The queen, he says, “attests, however mythically, to the country’s political stability and enduring historical foundations.”

“The English do not wish to see the queen on a bicycle,” he says, “because from where people stand here she looks just right in a Rolls-Royce Phantom or better still, a horse-drawn carriage.”

In developing nations, modern monarchs can do more than provide links to the past — they can help usher in democracy. In Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck pushed his once-isolated country toward its first truly democratic elections. In Spain, King Juan Carlos midwifed a new Spanish democracy after dictator Francisco Franco’s death. In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk returned to the country after the wars of the 1970s and 1980s and helped oversee a transition to democracy in the 1990s that brought the country a vibrant, if sometimes rough and bloody, democracy.

Some of these monarchs also helped bring economic and cultural modernization. The royals of Bhutan have prodded their citizens to embrace the Internet, satellite television, international trade, and other modern changes. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, though not a constitutional monarch, has been credited with pushing for social and economic reforms that have diluted the power of the conservative religious establishment and pushed the kingdom to invest in science and technology education.

European monarchy experts also now see a growing role for kings and queens at a time when countries are becoming more diverse. As democracies take in more and more immigrants, and countries give up some of their national identities to superstructures like the European Union, these changes can make national unity more difficult, and a monarch can serve to welcome newcomers and help them feel like citizens.

Sweden’s king, Carl XVI Gustaf, for example, has used the monarchy to integrate immigrants. In one famous speech, he said that “new Swedish citizens…have come here from countries all over the world…under these circumstances it is precisely the strength of the monarchy that the king can be an impartial and uniting symbol.” The Netherlands’ queen, Beatrix, has used royal speeches to call for tolerance at a time when right-wing anti-Islamic politicians have made headway among the Dutch public.

Scholars of monarchy also suggest that, in an era of tightening internal security and control, when elected politicians are amassing previously unheard-of powers and courts are loath to challenge them, a monarch can safeguard public freedom. Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank in London, recently argued in the Financial Times that Queen Elizabeth has stood aside too often while the prime minister has become too powerful, but that she remains a figure, under the British constitution, who could check the executive’s power. “The only solution is to make our current constitution work,” Butler wrote. “It certainly means having a monarch who is prepared to intervene on behalf of the people.” In fact, Britain’s unelected House of Lords — often criticized as a relic of a vanished feudal aristocracy — has played a similar function, trying to limit the British government’s surveillance efforts and other new powers.

Similarly, in Cambodia former King Sihanouk (who has since stepped aside because of health reasons and now holds the title of King Father), frequently clashed with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is elected but has amassed near-dictatorial powers in his office. Sihanouk frequently criticized Hun Sen’s strongman tactics, and invoked the royal institution as the protector of average people abused by the prime minister.

Monarchs, however, must walk a very fine line. Because today’s constitutional monarchs’ power is so nebulous, to use it effectively they must be extremely careful in wielding it.

In Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej frequently has used public speeches to criticize what he sees as politicians who are too venal or power-hungry — which sometimes has veered into a political alignment with Bangkok-oriented elite parties and against parties aligned with rural people, who came to Bangkok and eventually led the demonstrations that resulted in violence. “The palace is thus very much in politics, although the general myth is that the king is above politics,” says Irene Stengs, an expert on the Thai monarchy at the Meertens Institute in the Netherlands.

In fact, the king sanctioned the 2006 coup, after it happened, that deposed populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. With these actions, Bhumibol — who is protected from public criticism by strict lese majeste laws — has chipped away some of the respect he earned over decades. Among the “red shirts” battling the government, one has begun to hear anti-monarchical sentiments, though they are careful not to disdain the current monarch. In contrast to many previous rallies in Bangkok, the red shirts did not hold up noticeable photos of the king this time — interpreted as a sign of distrust of the palace.

Nepal’s royal family recently learned of the devastating consequences when a king overtly takes sides. After a Maoist insurgency rooted in the rural regions challenged Nepal’s parliamentary government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-King Gyanendra in 2005 took control of the government himself and attempted to dominate the security forces and to wipe out the Maoist movement. The suppression failed, even parliament turned against the crown, and the Maoists eventually took power in Kathmandu as part of a power-sharing agreement. In 2008, with Gyanendra’s reputation in tatters, Nepal created a republic and abolished the monarch, and Gyanendra moved out of his palace like a delinquent tenant.

For now, most of the other constitutional monarchies seem to have absorbed the lessons of places like Nepal. In Spain, Juan Carlos, though given an extremely conservative education and hailing from a conservative background, has worked with politicians from across the ideological spectrum. In Britain, even as the Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties haggled with one another about forming a new government, Queen Elizabeth did not appear in public to bless any of their leaders — although she personally, according to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, disdained the Labor policies of Tony Blair. And according to British tradition, when the new Parliament convenes for the first time and the government formally announces its agenda for the year, the person who reads the speech — as she always does, no matter who is setting the policies — will be the Queen.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/saved_by_the_crown/

Uncommon knowledge

Beware of chivalry

People generally think of discrimination as a manifestation of negative attitudes about another social group. Yet, in the case of gender discrimination, it can also be motivated by ostensibly benevolent attitudes, with the aim of protecting women. Though perhaps not as offensive as hostile sexism, new research finds that benevolent sexism can damage a woman’s career, too. In surveys, women managers reported having fewer challenging experiences and less negative feedback in their jobs, something that may hinder their opportunities for development and advancement. In experiments, men who held paternalistic attitudes towards women were less likely to recommend challenging experiences for women subordinates.

King, E. et al., “Benevolent Sexism at Work: Gender Differences in the Distribution of Challenging Developmental Experiences,” Journal of Management (forthcoming).

Educated smokers quit sooner

A new analysis of smoking suggests that educational background is a critical component of people’s health, affecting how quickly new ideas are acted on. On Jan. 11, 1964, the surgeon general issued the first widely publicized report about smoking’s negative health effects. By analyzing data collected from pregnant women between 1959 and 1966, two researchers found that educated women cut back their smoking almost immediately on the release of the surgeon general’s report, while less educated women actually increased their smoking. This divergence of smoking rates — and the associated rate of newborn health problems — between people of different educational backgrounds continued all the way up until the mid-1980s, when the rates began converging. The effect of education was amplified by the level of education of one’s community, such that educated people surrounded by other educated people were especially likely to quit.

Aizer, A. & Stroud, L., “Education, Knowledge and the Evolution of Disparities in Health,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2010).

What video games do to judgment

Though not yet up to the standards of the Matrix movies, video games are becoming increasingly realistic. This has prompted many studies of whether video games induce violent behavior, but an even broader question is whether experience with video games can skew judgment. In a new experiment, researchers asked people to play True Crime, a game where the player is a police officer who must catch as many criminals as possible, by any means necessary. After two hours of play, participants were asked to judge real-life cases where either a civilian or a police officer had committed a particular crime. Compared to people who hadn’t played the video game, those who had were significantly more lenient on the police officers.

Lee, K. et al., “Will the Experience of Playing a Violent Role in a Video Game Influence People’s Judgments of Violent Crimes?” Computers in Human Behavior (forthcoming).

E-mail makes lying easier

If you’ve ever caught yourself writing something on the Web or in an e-mail that you would never have written in a letter, you’re not alone. A recent study confirmed that people are more willing to bend the truth in e-mail. In one experiment, anonymous business students were asked to divvy up an imaginary pot of money between themselves and another person. Students who were required to submit their decision by e-mail were more likely to misrepresent the size of the pot than students who were required to submit their decision using pen and paper. Likewise, in an experiment involving real money and without anonymity, business managers misrepresented the size of a pot of money in an e-mail communication more than they did in a paper communication.

Naquin, C. et al., “The Finer Points of Lying Online: E-Mail versus Pen and Paper,” Journal of Applied Psychology (March 2010).

The war really did come home

What is the true cost of war? The psychological trauma that many Vietnam combat veterans experienced led some of them to violence in civilian life. An economist analyzed survey and personnel data on Vietnam veterans and found that combat exposure increased their propensity for subsequent violent acts. The economist also estimated the social cost of this post-combat violence to be around $65 billion in 2007 dollars.

Rohlfs, C., “Does Combat Exposure Make You a More Violent or Criminal Person? Evidence from the Vietnam Draft,” Journal of Human Resources (March 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/beware_of_chivalry/

Getting ‘untracked’

The surprisingly deep history of a bit of jock-talk

IN THE FIRST playoff game against the Celtics last Sunday, the Orlando Magic “finally got untracked” only in the last quarter, the Globe’s Frank Dell’Apa wrote.

That untracked is standard usage in sports reporting, but it still puzzles readers who look at it closely. Tom Fitzpatrick of Groton recently e-mailed to suggest that it might be a corruption of the more sensible get on track: “After all, a train can’t go anywhere unless it’s on the track, and if it were to get ‘untracked’ it would crash.”

An excellent theory, and the one I embraced a decade ago, when a reader first pointed out the get untracked usage. It obviously wasn’t related to “untracked wilderness,” but to the later mechanical senses of track. But when wheels or radar systems track properly, it’s a good thing. Why would an athlete want to get untracked?

Several readers offered rationales for the usage: The image reminded one of breaking free of a deeply rutted dirt road. Others suggested untracked implied “jumping the tracks” to surprise opponents. Or was a slump like being on a runaway train that has to be derailed? Globe sportswriter John Powers dismissed those guesses: “Just jockspeak,” he said.

Like Fitzpatrick, I leaned toward the simplest explanation: Untracked was probably what linguists playfully call an eggcorn — an unwitting modification of on track that changed that plodding expression into one that suggested breaking free.

But 10 years later, the status of untracked has changed. It’s no longer a stealth usage; several standard dictionaries (though not the Oxford English Dictionary) now include it. The New Oxford American gives it as the phrase — get untracked — and defines it as “get into one’s stride or find good form.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dates it to 1939. And a wealth of online sources have accumulated since those early attempts to trace untracked to its roots. Who knew what might lie deep in the archives?

Asked to search for get untracked — the usual phrasing nowadays, and a term that avoids calling up thousands of citations for untracked deserts, moorlands, and snows — Google News whisked me back to September 1927. There was Jack Dempsey himself, in a widely syndicated first-person essay, musing on his upcoming rematch with Gene Tunney. “I either get away to a whirl-wind start…or I can’t get untracked for a long while,” the ex-heavyweight champ explained.

In a 1933 AP report, lightweight Tony Canzoneri complained of the same problem: “I felt strong all the way, but toward the last I couldn’t seem to get untracked.” And in 1939, welterweight Davey Day confessed, “I don’t get untracked till around the sixth or seventh round.”

In the following decades, get untracked crossed over to football and track, then to golf and baseball and tennis. By the 1970s it could be found in the odd music review, describing performers who got (or failed to get) untracked, though it remained predominantly a sports expression.

But wait, there’s more. Boxing may have launched the career of the phrase get untracked, but that wasn’t the earliest version of the sportswriters’ untrack. Further digging unearthed examples of the verb as early as the 1890s, in regular use at — where else? — the racetrack. “Before Carr had untracked his mind Dungarven had beaten him,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “The latter [horse] did not seem able to untrack himself in the heavy going,” said The New York Times.

This untracked might well have been confusing to some 19th-century readers, since the word was also used in the horse world to mean “never raced.” Untracked also shows up now and then with the meaning “fell to pieces,” the opposite of its standard sports sense. In 1990, for instance, a New York Times racing item reported that “the sloppy track apparently untracked the favorites.”

But the positive untracked seems to have prospered modestly, not making a splash, for more than a century before we began to notice its oddity. Then came a mild attack of the Recency Illusion — the notion, named by linguist Arnold Zwicky, that a usage new to you must be new to the language.

After 120 years, though, I think we can agree that the usage is standard. And the fact that it may have come from the racetrack may be some consolation to readers baffled by the modern usage. But we still don’t know what image (if any) the coiners had in mind. A number of early examples come in race-day reports that involve muddy tracks; could untracking refer to a horse’s hitting its stride despite the heavy going?

Or maybe untracked is meant to contrast the racetrack with railroad tracks. For a train or streetcar, getting untracked is a disaster. But in a horse race — where “tracking” another horse means following it — the only way to win is to “untrack” and overtake the leaders.

But I wouldn’t put big money on either of these theories. After all, nobody ever said idioms had to make sense.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/23/getting_untracked/

Executive honor

Can an ‘MBA oath’ fix what’s wrong with business?

The portrait of the American business world that has emerged from the financial crisis is rife with unapologetic amorality. Mortgage bankers encouraged people to take out home loans they couldn’t afford, distinguished investment houses peddled deals to their clients that they themselves wouldn’t consider investing in, and officers at those same institutions continued to pay themselves millions of dollars even as they were bailed out by the federal government, all while insisting — even in front of Congress — that this is simply how the game is played.

Several years back, of course, it wasn’t Wall Street, but firms like WorldCom and Enron and Tyco that shocked public sensibilities, their leaders engaging in outright fraud and larceny to pump up stock prices, their own compensation, or both. Whether inside or outside the law, the last decade has given many Americans the nagging sense that the members of the business elite play by a set of rules far removed from those of the society that ultimately supports them.

The political solution tends to be fresh regulation, such as the president’s push to rein in the big banks. But recent years have also seen the emergence of an alternative from within the business world itself — more specifically, from within the graduate schools that produce a disproportionate number of business leaders. The idea is both radical and straightforward: to make executives more moral, changing business itself by changing the way its leaders think about their responsibilities. And a subtly powerful way to do that,

according to a few management scholars and a growing number of business school students, is simply by creating an oath: a pledge of ethical behavior, modeled on medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, that would be administered as graduates embark on their careers.

The invention of the MBA oath is generally credited to Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, two professors at Harvard Business School who have written papers on the topic. In 2004, the Richard Ivey School of Business, a top Canadian business school, instituted a pledge that all students were required to take on graduation. In 2006, Thunderbird School of Management, a school of international business in Glendale, Ariz., instituted an oath of its own, and the next year Columbia Business School put in place an honor code meant to bind its students beyond graduation and into their working lives.

The oath that has gotten the most attention, though, is at Harvard. Last year, a group of Harvard business students organized a voluntary oath ceremony at the school’s graduation — over half the graduating class, about 550 freshly minted MBAs in all, took the pledge, promising to “create value responsibly and ethically.” A similar ceremony will be held later this month for the class of 2010. Some of those student founders, working with the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, have set out to seed an international movement: “The Oath Project” website now has pledges from 2,800 students at business schools in the United States and abroad, and two of the project’s founders have just published a book on the oath and its potential. The oath gained fresh prominence earlier this month, when Nohria was named dean of Harvard Business School.

“As managers, we’re in charge of a lot of resources, both human resources and capital resources, and we’ve seen that over the last few years, business has gone wrong, and a lot of people have lost jobs,” says Peter Escher, a 2009 Harvard Business School graduate, one of the founders of the school’s MBA Oath and coauthor of the new book. “An oath is a way to lay out the boundaries around the profession, to develop an agreed-upon body of knowledge and ethics.”

A spoken promise may seem like flimsy armor against the outsized financial incentives that come into play in corporate corner offices, but proponents point to evidence from behavioral science of the surprising power of norms and symbols in shaping our behavior. The sanctity of the Hippocratic Oath itself, they argue, along with the gravity with which everyone from military officers and lawyers to accountants and architects treat their codes of professional conduct, suggests how effective communal standards and ethical self-policing can be. A code, in other words, can be a powerful thing.

Those not won over by the business oath argue that its proponents have things backwards. A few words, no matter how earnestly intoned, are unlikely to change anyone’s long-term behavior — the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t create a doctor’s sense of duty, it merely reflects it, and that sense of professional obligation is the product of years of exposure to medicine’s almost tribal code of behavior.

To its adherents, the oath is part of an attempt to create such a value system for business — to turn management into a profession with aims beyond simply keeping share prices high. But to some of its critics, the oath is just fuzzy thinking. Businesses, they argue, are meant to make money for their owners and shareholders, and in so doing to help grow the economy. To the extent that business has a higher purpose, it is that. It’s up to a nation’s citizens and elected officials to rein in that behavior when it stops serving the public good. The oath, in other words, sits squarely in the middle of a larger debate over whether it is possible to articulate a set of higher principles for business at all.

Throughout Western history, most revolutions have had their oaths. The Tennis Court Oath helped bring on the French Revolution, the Protestation oath failed to avert the English Civil War. The Declaration of Independence was not only an announcement of rebellion but a solemn promise of solidarity, its signers mutually pledging to each other “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” (That pledge held.)

The idea of an MBA oath first occurred to Nohria in 1996. He was on sabbatical at the London School of Business and talking to a colleague, the management scholar Sumantra Ghoshal, about various parts of the traditional business school curriculum that hindered graduates in the real world.

In particular, Ghoshal was a vocal critic of the “maximizing shareholder value” mantra, the idea, ascendant since the early 1980s, that share price should be the dominant yardstick for measuring the performance of managers. Ghoshal and others had come to believe that that worldview allowed managers to ignore their other, equally legitimate responsibilities: everything from the welfare of their own workers to the environmental impact of their products. And with compensation linked to share price, executives were inevitably tempted to do everything they could, legal and otherwise, to goose stock prices quarter by quarter, even if that damaged the company over the long run.

As Nohria recalls, he began to wonder what sort of thing he could teach students as a counterforce.

“Out of the clear blue — my sister had just graduated from medical school — I thought, what if managers actually had something that was like that?” he says. “What if we provided something that was aspirational, some guidance as to what their responsibilities actually were?”

Although it may feel quixotic to invent an oath without the weight of tradition behind it, the Hippocratic Oath itself gained prominence in the 20th century as a response to troubling modern developments. Despite its roots in ancient Greece, only a minority of American medical students took the oath until World War II, as Max Anderson, a cofounder of Harvard’s MBA Oath, has written. But in the wake of the revelations about brutal Nazi medical experimentation, schools rushed to adopt it as a way to unequivocally set down the limits of medical ethics.

And it is not only history that gives weight to an oath, psychology suggests. For example, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University has done a study showing that swearing on a Bible makes even atheists more honest, and that signing honor codes does make people less likely to cheat. Work by the psychologist Robert Cialdini and others has found that making a public commitment to a cause — either by speaking it aloud or writing it down — makes people firmer in their commitment, and more likely to act on it.

The effects that have been found, however, are mostly short-term ones, and there’s no evidence a pledge can shape behavior years later. For his part, Ariely (author of the forthcoming book “The Upside of Irrationality”) is skeptical that a pledge alone will change corporate decision-making. If the goal is to get executives and managers to think more broadly about societal good, a more effective measure, he argues, would be to require the reporting of, say, pollution, or the number of patents created, or the number of jobs created, in each quarterly report. The trick, Ariely says, is “to keep these things on top of people’s minds.”

And as for the Hippocratic Oath itself, its purpose may be primarily ceremonial. Asked what role the oath played in the professionalization of American medicine, Kenneth Ludmerer, a physician and historian of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, responded, “Essentially none. It’s a nice ceremony, but its impact and role is in effect zero.’

The oath’s champions do not claim that it can transform business alone. They see it as a first step in the larger project of “professionalizing” the practice of management — turning it into a field, like law or architecture, whose practitioners are united not only by specialized knowledge but a shared set of values beyond personal enrichment.

“What professions do is come up with codes of conduct that benefit society or clients or patients. That’s missing in management,” says Gregory Unruh, an ethics scholar at Thunderbird School of Management who helped its students create the school’s oath.

In this sense, the term “profession” doesn’t just refer to a job, but a special sort of work that also represents a higher calling: Doctors make money, but their first directive is to heal people; lawyers can be rich, but their responsibility is to pursue justice for their clients.

“Many people who want to be in business today want to have the status of a profession without any of the constraints,” says Khurana.

But those trying to move business in that direction are immediately challenged by the question of what business’s higher purpose would even be. The responsibilities of a doctor or lawyer are straightforward: the good of the patient; the integrity of the legal system. But aside from the owners of a company, who should the manager be thinking of?

The “Management Oath,” the pledge formulated by the consortium behind the Oath Project, addresses this problem by referring repeatedly to the good of society at large. It commits its takers to “not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society,” to “refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society,” to “protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.”

To critics, this sort of language makes the pledge a poor guide for everyday behavior. A business manager’s job, points out Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, entails the balancing of many often competing interests. In vaguely invoking the good of society, Kaplan argues, the oath ignores these necessary tensions and compromises. The great virtue of shareholder value, on the other hand, is that it provides a single, clear goal against which all of the competing claims can be measured.

“For example, shareholders want profits and workers want higher wages, so there’s a conflict. It may make sense to move operations from one country to another, so you hurt the workers in one place, you help the ones in another,” he says. “There’s no sense of trade-offs [in the oath], and once you get into these details, it becomes meaningless, inconsistent, and impossible to actually stick to.”

The oath also runs up against an enduring strain of thinking about business: that the profit motive itself is a social good. In other words, to the extent that the oath gets its takers to think beyond profit, it only dilutes business’s positive impact on society. Writing against the MBA Oath in the Harvard Business School’s newspaper, Andrew Sridhar, a student graduating this spring, put it this way: “If you really care about those who need electricity or those who are jobless, then pursue your own ambitions aggressively, for the profit motive is the true engine of prosperity.”

Nohria understands this criticism, but believes that the elite business leaders coming out of schools like Harvard need to appreciate that corporations are creations of society, and therefore ultimately beholden to it. “A business charter is something that society bestows on businesses,” he points out. In their earliest days, corporations were only chartered for specific societally important purposes — to open trade routes throughout the British Empire, for example, or to settle Massachusetts Bay — and technically, public companies still exist because the public allows them to.

“I think that we give businesses money in return for their providing something that we value,” says Nohria. “We do this because we believe that the resources that have been used by the business have been used in a way that the value created is more than the opportunity cost of the resources consumed.”

Still, Nohria has no plans to make the oath a part of the business school curriculum. He likes, he says, the fact that students today debate whether or not to sign it, and have to defend their decision one way or another. He agrees that the oath doesn’t provide ready answers to difficult decisions. But that is not its point. Its point is to do something like the opposite: to remind its takers of the complexity and impact of the decisions they will make, and to disabuse them of the view that one measuring stick, or one model, will make those decisions easy.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/16/executive_honor/

Fraught

W.F. Young asks: “Long ago I developed the expectation that on encountering the word fraught, I’d find it associated with a prepositional phrase, ‘with [something].’  Now, in old age, I find that expectation dashed, often.  Can you say what it was based on and anything about when, how or by whom it was undercut?”

Here we have a case of a very old word undergoing a rapid shift in contemporary usage. In Middle English, fraught (an etymological cousin of freight) was a verb meaning “to load (a ship),” and the identical form could serve as a past participle meaning “laden (with).” While the verb dropped out of the language almost entirely, the past participle stuck around, typically followed by “with” and an object — often a burden, whether real or figurative.

Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning “distressed, anxious, tense,” without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation. When the word cropped up on William Safire’s radar in 2006, he offered a line from “King Lear” as a putative early example: Goneril tells her father to “make use of that good wisdom, whereof I know you are fraught.” But Shakespeare did use fraught with a preposition, whereof, and an object, wisdom, so it is in fact very much in line with the usage of the era. Lear was surely in a distressed emotional state, but that wasn’t what his daughter was driving at.

By the nineteenth century, the metaphorical extension of the word had developed a new twist. Instead of the traditional phrasing, fraught with followed by an object (something usually unpleasant or unfortunate), the object could appear before fraught in a hyphenated compound, such as danger-fraught, pain-fraught or war-fraught. Thus if a moment was fraught with emotion, it could just as well have been described as emotion-fraught or in time as emotionally fraught, signaling the implied object in the adverb.

The first glimmers of fraught without even a hint of an object start appearing in the 1920s and ’30s. The earliest example I’ve found so far comes from a 1925 serialized story by Henry Leyford Gates about a flapper named Joanna. In one installment Gates writes, “It was Joanna who at last broke the fraught silence.” The lyrical phrase fraught silence, perhaps evoking pregnant pause, shows up again in books from 1934, 1946 and 1958. Another early use is in George O’Neil’s 1931 novel about the poet John Keats, “Special Hunger”: “For Keats this was a singularly fraught circumstance.” Circumstances, along with anxiety-ridden situations, issues and relationships, would soon become familiar companions for fraught.

Standalone fraught picked up steam in the 1960s, attracting the notice of dictionaries and usage guides, but the last couple of decades have seen an even stronger uptick. In the texts collected in the Corpus of Contemporary American English from 1990 to 1994, only about 9 percent of the instances of fraught do not take the preposition with. From 2005 to 2009, however, the rate jumps to a whopping 30 percent. The usage has become a journalistic commonplace, as in the recent New York Times headlines, “For New Stadium, a Fraught Coin Flip” and “Opera Companies’ Fraught Seasons.” No doubt about it, we’re living in fraught times.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Read More Than Respected

His writing was widely loved. Critics begrudged him his popularity.

Over the course of a literary career that spanned an astonishing eight decades, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) wrote some of the 20th century’s best-loved novels (e.g., “Of Human Bondage”), a cluster of hit plays in London’s West End (“The Constant Wife”), ground-breaking travel books (“The Gentleman in the Parlour,” about Southeast Asia), an eloquent intellectual memoir (“The Summing Up”), and some of the finest short stories in the English language (“The Letter,” “Rain,” “The Outstation”). Such was his success as a writer that, in his later years, he became almost as well known for his opulent manner of living as for his work.

Thus, for some, Maugham will forever be identified with his legendary home on the French Riviera, between Monte Carlo and Nice. As Selina Hastings declares with characteristic panache: “The Villa Mauresque and Somerset Maugham, Somerset Maugham and the Villa Mauresque: for nearly forty years the two were inextricably linked, the house the richest thread in the fabric of the legend, visited, photographed, filmed, described in countless articles, regarded with awe as the glamorous and exotic backdrop for one of the most famous writers in the world.”

Famous, yes. But respected? In “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” Ms. Hastings draws on thorough research and recently released documents to trace Maugham’s busy life—his stormy marriage, his attentiveness to his daughter, Liza, his world-wide travels, his literary quarrels, his generosity to younger writers, his often furtive homosexuality—but she also pays a great deal of attention to his literary output, where the emphasis belongs. It irked Maugham, she says, that Bloomsbury and other highbrow literary circles tended to dismiss him or ignore him altogether.

“As much as his middlebrow reputation,” Ms. Hastings writes, “it was his success, and the affluence that came with that success, that in the eyes of Bloomsbury placed him beyond the pale.” Maugham himself characterized his position on more than one occasion: “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate.”

Ms. Hastings ranks Maugham rather higher than that. She singles out his ability to create in-depth portraits of both men and women, fully realized in all their fragility, ruthlessness, fury, confusion and longing—characters often conveyed to the reader through the fluent words of an ironical, sympathetic and knowing narrator. Cyril Connolly, the English critic, hailed Maugham as “the last of the great professional writers,” someone who took pains to construct his stories properly and get his sentences right.

It was precisely such studied professionalism that seemed to put Maugham at odds with the modernist vogue, with its experimental forms, its language games, its emphasis on the purely aesthetic. And yet in 1934 Desmond McCarthy—a member of the modernist- leaning Bloomsbury set—wrote a perceptive pamphlet about Maugham arguing that “he has a sense of what is widely interesting, because, like Maupassant, he is as much a man of the world as he is an artist.”

A man of the world indeed, not least of the Far East and the Malayan archipelago to which he traveled so often. Its rubber plantations, colonial outposts and local clubs, Ms. Hastings notes, serve as the settings for many of his best-known stories. These stories, she writes, “of incest and adultery, of sex-starved missionaries and alcoholic planters, of footsteps in the jungle and murder on the veranda, are what remains in the minds of many as the very image and epitome of Maugham’s fictional territory.”

Maugham has been the object of biographical attention before, of course, but “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” (despite its needlessly salacious title) is in a class of its own. Anyone who has read Ms. Hastings’s biographies of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford will know that she writes beautifully and has a talent for shaping a narrative; she is also adept at combining sympathy for her subjects with a tough-minded sense of their less pleasant traits and actions.

In Maugham those traits were far from hidden. His wit easily turned acrid and cruel and was deployed against family and friends alike. He said of his wife, Syrie, whom he divorced in 1929, that she had made his life “utter hell,” “[opening] her mouth as wide as a brothel door” in her money demands. His late memoir, “Looking Back” (1962), made her out to be wanton: The child she bore, he claimed (falsely), was not really his. It is clear from Ms. Hasting’s account that, despite his polished manners, he was a man profoundly antinomian in his beliefs and in certain aspects of his life.

Among the new material released by Maugham’s estate is a long interview given to a family friend by Liza before her death in 1999. Liza says there that her mother was very much in love with Maugham, despite their bouts of anger, and remained friendly with him, at times, after the divorce. It had hurt her mother tremendously that the marriage ended because of Maugham’s affections for a man (Gerald Haxton) and not a woman.

Mr. Hastings attributes Maugham’s guarded and secretive attitude toward his homosexuality to the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde when he was young medical student in London already struggling with his sexual identity. While accepting that he was predominantly homosexual in his make-up, Ms. Hastings never reads that fact into his work or limits his achievement to that of a “gay writer” as such. Maugham was extraordinarily perceptive about the lives of women and the ordeals of their romantic lives. His enjoyment of sex with women was enthusiastic, Ms. Hastings says, and it is notable that the women who come off best in his fiction are those who are free both in their expression of sexuality and in their practice of it. In this way and many others, Ms. Hastings’s uncommonly absorbing and judicious biography allows us to see the writer in full. It is the first truly rounded portrait of a fine writer and a complicated man.

Mr. Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703957904575252871142772504.html

Yes, the Gulf Spill Is Obama’s Katrina

Where was the White House plan, and why has it been so slow to make decisions?

As President Obama prepares to return to the Gulf Coast Friday, he is receiving increasing criticism for his handling of the oil spill. For good reason: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up on April 20, a lethargic Team Obama has delayed or blown off key decisions requested by state and local governments and left British Petroleum in charge of developing a plan to cap the massive leak.

Now the slow-moving oil spill threatens Mr. Obama’s reputation, along with 40% of America’s sensitive wetlands. Critics include some of his most ardent cheerleaders, who understand that 38 days without an administration solution is unacceptable.

Obama officials have it backwards: They talk tough about BP’s responsibilities but do not meet their own responsibilities under federal law. They should not have let more than a month go by without telling BP what to do. And they should avoid recriminations against their partner in solving the problem until after the leak is sealed.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sounds whiney when he rails against BP. It didn’t build confidence when his opening statement to a congressional hearing Wednesday focused on future safety and inspections requirements, and not on what the administration will do now to end the leak.

Initially, Team Obama wanted to keep this problem away from the president (a natural instinct for any White House). It took Mr. Obama 12 days to show up in the region. Democrats criticized President George W. Bush for waiting four days after Katrina to go to New Orleans.

Now the administration is intent on making it appear he has engaged all along. But this stance is undermined by lack of action. Where has its plan been? And why has the White House been so slow with decisions?

Take the containment strategy of barrier berms. These temporary sand islands block the flow of oil into fragile wetlands and marshes. Berm construction requires approval from the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Louisiana officials asked permission on May 11. They have yet to hear back. The feds are conducting a review as oil washes ashore.

The federal government was even slower on the question of dispersants, chemicals used to break up the oil and hasten its evaporation from the surface of the water. On May 8, Louisiana sent a letter to BP and the EPA begging BP not to use dispersants below the surface of the water. Subsurface use of dispersants keeps oil slicks from forming. But when it doesn’t come to the surface to evaporate, the oil lingers below, gets into underwater currents, and puts at risk fisheries that supply a third of America’s seafood.

On May 13, EPA overruled the state and permitted BP to use dispersants 4,000 feet below the surface. Then, a week after BP released 55,000 gallons of dispersants below the surface, EPA did an about-face, ordering BP to stop using the dispersant and to “find a less-toxic” one. Louisiana officials found out about this imprecise guidance in the Washington Post. BP refused, EPA backed off, and Louisiana’s concerns about their marine fisheries remain.

Last weekend, as winds and currents drove oil towards particularly sensitive wetlands, the state asked Washington to mobilize all available boats to deploy booms and containment devices. Federal officials didn’t act. Local officials were forced to commandeer the boats. Even then some equipment went unused.

State officials believe their federal counterparts don’t have a handle on the resources being deployed and are constantly overestimating the amount of booms, containment equipment, and boats being used.

Could this be Mr. Obama’s Katrina? It could be even worse. The federal response to Katrina was governed by the 1988 Stafford Act, which says that in natural disasters on-shore states are in charge, not Washington. The federal obligation is to “support . . . State and local assistance efforts” by providing whatever resources a governor requests and then writing big checks for the cleanup. Mr. Bush had to deal with a Louisiana governor and a New Orleans mayor who were, by federal law, in charge.

But BP’s well was drilled in federal waters. Washington, not Louisiana, is in charge. This is Mr. Obama’s responsibility. He says his administration has been prepared for the worst from the start. Mr. Obama’s failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina’s aftermath: “I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.”

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268752362770856.html

A New Age of Reform

The mood in the country suggests the U.S. may be at the start of an era of political and economic reform.

With incumbents toppling and party establishments cracking, there is talk of November being a “reform” election. Don’t be fooled: There is political reform and there is Political Reform. Political reform with a small “r” comes and goes on tiny politicians’ feet. Big-R Reform changes the nation.

The aim of small “r” reform is to slow or kill Big-R Reform. When President Obama proposes, as he did this week, some version of the line-tem veto, that is small-r reform. When Andrew Cuomo announces his candidacy for New York governor with an attack on Albany, that is small-r reform. (We’ll know he is getting serious if he compliments the real Reforms being sought in neighboring New Jersey by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.) .

But make no mistake: When, almost at once, a spender like Barack Obama asks for the presidential power to veto individual spending items, when an Andrew Cuomo promises to cap taxes (albeit at one of the nation’s already highest levels) and cut spending, when voters are chopping down incumbent redwoods such as Sen. Bob Bennett in Republican Utah and Rep. Alan Mollohan in Democratic West Virginia, and when the Republican establishment’s candidates are routed by a Rand Paul, it is possible to imagine that the American voter is itching for a new age of reform. The mood one senses out in the country is not about tidying up politics. It is instead about reforming the way this nation thinks about its purpose.

When the history of this Reform is written, the event that ignited it may be the Obama health-care plan. The year spent with that legislation caused something to snap in American politics.

ObamaCare touched live cables buried beneath the political roadbed. Amid a deep recession, it was very expensive, and its cost required an array of new taxes and fees. Normally the trillion-dollar price tag might have rolled past a public numbed to spending numbers. This came right after the nearly trillion-dollar stimulus bill, itself a cats-and-dogs heave of taxpayer cash. The health-care celebration was followed by passage of a $3.8 trillion federal budget claiming nearly 25% of GDP.

Just off center stage, the fiscal catastrophe in the states played on. The public could watch once-wonderful California (whose deficit is now $19 billion) issuing IOUs in place of tax refunds.

For the Reform-minded, the issue clarified: The question is not just “deficits” and fiscal reconciliation, but whether the nation’s people work to support the state, or as originally, to build their lives.

There was the unseemly and irresponsible manner in which Congress legislated health care, the famously unread 2,000 page entitlement. The Republicans chose not to participate, but they had contributed to (arguably began) the agitation for Reform with an earlier reputation-destroying spending binge.

The pull to Reform is coming from the right. Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, the tea party, Massachusetts’ January disavowal of the Kennedy legacy—all suggest scales tipping rightward. Rightward, however, is not the same as right-wing.

Those who cite Palin and Paul as evidence that this is just another “antigovernment” spasm from the political right miss stronger currents running through the electorate.

Recall the Pew poll that put trust in government at 22%. The approval rating for Congress is 23%. You need more than a tea party to get numbers like that.

I would argue that the Reform wave building in the land is not antigovernment, but pro-government. When people call themselves Americans, Californians, New Yorkers, Illinoisans, Texans or, yes, New Jerseyans, they aren’t just talking about a place name, but a fought-for legal entity with a grand political history. Anger at Albany, Sacramento, Springfield, Trenton and Washington, D.C., isn’t antigovernment. It’s rightful rage at years of misgovernance.

Political corruption and social crusades propelled earlier Reforms. The drivers of this one appear to be economic balance and political competition.

The concerns of the tea partiers’ and others are mostly economic, the belief that the scale of government has tipped past anything normal to the American experience. So yes, a presidential line-item veto would be on any Reform list. So would tax simplicity.

A Reform movement seeking better politicians would have at least two other goals. Reform the gerrymandering of Congressional and state legislative districts. This is a main cause of the crises in California and New York. And abandon the archaic McCain-Feingold campaign-finance limits, which are keeping good candidates out of politics.

It’s hard to see the leftward end of the Democratic Party participating in the new age of Reform. They brought it to life. Their incumbent for 2012 has become an icon of the Gilded Age of Government. But many Democrats not literally in thrall to state financial support may be ready to change direction.

Whether a leader will emerge by 2012 to make the goals of Reform clear and compelling is a good question. The White House assumes it will not happen. But if not, expect endless tumult until Reform at last arrives.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268523673781674.html

The wrecking of Venezuela

Venezuelans are starting to fall out of love with their president. Will they be allowed to vote him out of power?

WITH his bellicose bombast, theatrical gestures and dodgy jokes, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president for the past 11 years, has turned himself into one of the world’s most recognisable and controversial rulers. His fans salute him as a saviour for the downtrodden of the planet, a man who is leading a grass roots revolution against American imperialism and its local sepoys. But to many others, including this newspaper, he has come to embody a new, post-cold-war model of authoritarian rule which combines a democratic mandate, populist socialism and anti-Americanism, as well as resource nationalism and carefully calibrated repression.

This model has proved surprisingly successful across the world. Versions are to be found in countries as disparate and distinct as Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In one way or another, these regimes claim to have created a viable alternative to liberal democracy.

In Mr Chávez’s case, that claim has been backed up above all by oil. On the one hand, he has deployed oil revenues abroad to gain allies, and to sustain the Castro brothers in power in Cuba. On the other, having kicked out Western multinationals, he has signed investment deals with state-owned oil companies. Last month China agreed to lend Venezuela $20 billion, mainly for oil development. Mr Chávez has armed his revolution with Russian jets, tanks and rifles (albeit bought on tick). Meanwhile, a Spanish judge accuses his government of sheltering members of ETA, the Basque terrorist group. Intercepted e-mails from leaders of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas suggest that they have received help, and possibly arms, through Venezuela. Of course Venezuela’s government denies such claims. So just how much of a menace is Mr Chávez, and what, if anything, can be done about him?

Venezuela’s dark age

Certainly his threats against Colombia—which include a total trade embargo if Juan Manuel Santos, a former defence minister, wins this month’s presidential election—and the evidence of his veiled support for the FARC are troubling. They are a constant, if so far manageable, source of regional tension. And his efforts to build a block based on self-proclaimed “revolutions”, anti-Americanism and managed trade in the heart of democratic Latin America have served to undermine the very cause of regional integration that he claims to champion. But rhetoric aside, his influence in the region peaked a couple of years ago. He lost one ally, albeit in regrettable circumstances, when Honduras’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown last year. Several others are on the defensive.

Much more important is the damage Mr Chávez is doing to his own country. His “21st-century socialism” is a precarious construction. The brief fall in the oil price of 2008-09 was enough to sink Venezuela’s economy into stagflation—even as the rest of Latin America is enjoying vigorous economic recovery. Venezuelans are suffering declining real wages, persistent shortages of staple goods (meat is the latest to become scarce) and daily power cuts.

The blackouts are in part the result of drought. But they are also the most dramatic sign that the bill for a decade of mismanagement of the economy and of public services is now falling due. There are plenty of other ugly portents. In one of the world’s biggest oil exporters hard currency is running short: to buy a dollar in the tolerated parallel market now requires almost twice as much local currency as the official exchange rate (and three times more than the privileged rate for “essential imports”). Investors rate the country’s debt as the riskiest of anywhere. Crime and corruption are flourishing.

The coming choice between Chávez and democracy

Awkwardly for Mr Chávez, all this is happening when he faces a legislative election in September, the prelude to a vital presidential ballot in December 2012. That points to the contradiction at the heart of his project. He sees his revolution as permanent and irreversible. But he derives his legitimacy from the ballot box. He has been elected three times, and won four referendums. He has hollowed out Venezuela’s democracy, subjugating the courts, bullying the media and intimidating opponents. But he has been unable, or unwilling, to disregard or repress opposition to the same degree as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or even Russia’s Vladimir Putin, let alone the Castro brothers in Cuba.

Public opinion still matters in Venezuela. Remarkably, opinion polls show that two Venezuelans out of five still support Mr Chávez (higher than the proportion of the British electors who voted for the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the country’s new coalition government). That is tribute to his skill in convincing the poor that he is their champion, to the opposition’s mistakes, to years of record oil prices and to the ruthlessness with which he ransacks the economy for the short-term benefit of his supporters. It means he is unlikely to fade away. But provided that the opposition comes up with a plausible alternative, it is not fanciful to imagine that in 2012 Venezuela will face a stark choice: Mr Chávez or democracy.

All the evidence is that Venezuelans, including many chavistas, are democrats and want to remain so. But Mr Chávez is pushing on regardless with his revolution, nationalising ever more businesses, expropriating private properties and selectively locking up or harassing his opponents. So the question increasingly being asked in Caracas is whether Mr Chávez’s rule will end peacefully or not.

The answer will lie largely with Venezuelans themselves. But outsiders, especially in Latin America, can play their part, by urging that the opposition receive guarantees that it can take part both this year and in 2012 on equal terms. That goes particularly for democratic Brazil, whose president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has embraced Mr Chávez far more than is desirable for his own country’s long-term interest. Mr da Silva has helped entrench prosperity, freedom and democracy in Brazil. He should hope the same happens for Venezuela. Mr Chávez, unfortunately, is not the man to bring that about.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=16109302&source=hptextfeature

Genetically Engineered Distortions

A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the “long and impressive list of benefits” that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.

It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they’ve argued over the findings.

Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.

Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.

Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga.

In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be widely beneficial.

As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

There’s also a sorghum breed that’s been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.

Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.” James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of “Just Food.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html

The Aliens Among Us

FOR centuries, speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe was the preserve of philosophers and theologians. Then, 50 years ago last month, the question entered the scientific sphere when a young American astronomer named Frank Drake began sweeping the skies with a radio telescope in hopes of picking up a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization. Initially, his quest was considered somewhat eccentric. But now the pendulum of scientific opinion has swung to the point where even a scientist of the stature of Stephen Hawking is speculating that aliens exist in other parts of our galaxy.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is predicated on the assumption, widely held today, that life would emerge readily on Earth-like planets. Given that there could be upward of a billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, this assumption suggests that the universe should be teeming with life.

But the notion of life as a cosmic imperative is not backed up by hard evidence. In fact, the mechanism of life’s origin remains shrouded in mystery. So how can we test the idea that the transition from nonlife to life is simple enough to happen repeatedly? The most obvious and straightforward way is to search for a second form of life on Earth. No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself, so if the path to life is easy, then life should have started up many times over right here.

Searching for alternative life on Earth might seem misconceived, because there is excellent evidence that every kind of life so far studied evolved from a common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. Yet most of the life that exists on Earth has never been properly classified. The vast majority of species are microbes, invisible to the naked eye, and scientists have analyzed only a tiny fraction of them. For all we know, there could be microbes with other ancestral origins living literally under our noses — or even inside our noses — constituting a sort of shadow biosphere, containing life, but not as we know it.

The denizens of the hidden “alien” biosphere — let’s call them Life 2.0 — might employ radically different biochemical processes than the life we know and love. Microbiologists could easily have overlooked their existence, because their methods are focused on the biochemistry of standard life. Obviously, if you go looking for A, you will find A and not B.

One way to go about tracking down Life 2.0 is to make educated guesses about what its biochemistry might be like. Alternative microbes might, for example, have different chemical elements. One shrewd suggestion, made by Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the United States Geological Survey, is that phosphorus — crucial to life as we know it — could be replaced by arsenic. She and her colleague Ron Oremland are dredging bugs from arsenic-contaminated Mono Lake in California in search of arsenic life.

Other researchers are focusing on the handedness of molecules. In standard life, the key amino acids are always left-handed, and the sugars are right-handed. Scientists are not sure why standard life has made this particular choice; nonliving chemical mixtures tend to contain equal amounts of both left- and right-handed molecules.

If life started again, perhaps it would select different handedness for its key molecules. Should a shadow biosphere of “mirror microbes” exist, the organisms could be identified by culturing microbial samples in “mirror soup” — a cocktail of nutrients with the handedness reversed, available from commercial suppliers. Standard life would find the soup unpalatable, but mirror life would thrive on it. Some experiments along these lines are being carried out at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville. Ala.

Life 2.0 would be easier to identify if it inhabited distinct niches beyond the reach of regular life. Microbes are known to dwell in the superheated water around volcanic vents in the deep ocean, for example. Others survive extremes of cold, salinity, acidity or radiation. Yet all these so-called extremophiles that have been investigated to date are the same life as you and me. Regular life is clearly very hardy and adaptable, and can tolerate amazingly harsh conditions. Nevertheless, there will be limits. If Life 2.0 has a different chemical constitution, it may lurk in pockets at even more extreme temperatures or higher levels of radiation.

An argument often given for why Earth couldn’t host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life. And, in any case, natural selection doesn’t always mean winner-takes-all. Some years ago it was discovered that simple microbes actually belong to two very distinct domains — bacteria and archaea. Genetically, these groups differ from each other as much as they differ from humans. Yet they have peacefully co-existed in overlapping habitats for billions of years.

If my theory turns out to be correct, it will have sweeping consequences. Should we find a second form of life right here on our doorstep, we could be confident that life is a truly cosmic phenomenon. If so, there may well be sentient beings somewhere in the galaxy wondering, as do we, if they are not alone in the universe.

Paul Davies, the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University, is the author of “The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/opinion/14davies.html

A wild, wild place

A master storyteller retells one of America’s greatest military adventures

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking; 466 pages; $30. The Bodley Head; £20.

REINFORCEMENTS arrived too late at the site of the bloodiest military defeat suffered by whites in their settlement of the American West. They had, they told a shocked nation celebrating its centenary, found only a single survivor on the battlefield, a veteran bleeding from the wounds of seven bullets and arrows. With the help of a sling, the bay gelding Comanche was gently conveyed to a ship for medical treatment. A general order was issued later saying that as “the only living representative” of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Comanche’s “kind treatment and comfort should be a matter of special pride and solicitude” for the Seventh Cavalry. Henceforth he would not be ridden. Neither would he be put to any work.

Such sentimentality towards animals helped cavalrymen retain their humanity. The scenes, sounds and even smells of their brutalised lives suffuse Nathaniel Philbrick’s gory account of the campaign against the Plains Indians, commanded by General Alfred Terry, that culminated in the catastrophic end, in June 1876, of George Armstrong Custer. Mr Philbrick proves here as fine a writer on land as he is at sea, where he is famed for his history of the whaler that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and for arguing plausibly in his “Sea of Glory” that the ocean, not the West, was America’s first frontier.

His military biography of Custer brings balance to a life that is often distorted by the preconceptions of the historian. This also happens, as the author notes, in films where Custer, a noble hero in Raoul Walsh’s “They Died With Their Boots On” (1941), becomes a deranged maniac in Arthur Penn’s “Little Big Man” (1970). In reality he was a fine soldier, “one of the best cavalry officers, if not the best, in the Union Army” in the American civil war. Tragically for his men, his military successes there, and in later wars against the Indians, induced a hubris that led Custer to make some catastrophic decisions at Little Bighorn. While Custer divided his forces, Sitting Bull consolidated. Ever since his boyhood the Indian chief had been renowned for a methodical manner. His intimates nicknamed him “Slow”.

Custer also overestimated the stamina and hardiness of his troops. His regiment was not made up of gnarled Marlboro men; many were born abroad, 17% of them in Ireland, 12% in Germany and 4% in England. Almost all its native-born Americans came from east of the Mississippi. For these men, says Mr Philbrick, the Plains were a strange and unworldly place. They found it hard to accustom themselves to the constant eye-watering reek of horse hair and human sweat. The stench was especially bad at night when they camped near their newly dug latrines. If it was too wet to light a fire, they had to subsist on hardtack biscuits and cold sowbelly doused in vinegar. Since their boots shrank when they dried, troopers had to keep them on at night.

Their mounts were often famished, tired and weighed down by equipment, whereas the ponies of Sitting Bull’s warriors were well-watered, fresh and, in many cases, barebacked. Controversially, Mr Philbrick claims that Sitting Bull’s men were better armed, citing the findings of an archaeological sweep of the battlefield with metal detectors in the 1980s. In addition to the Springfield carbines and Colt revolvers fired by the soldiers, there were 43 weapons used by the Indians. Some were old muzzle-loaders, but up to 300 Indians possessed Henry and Winchester repeating rifles capable of firing 17 rounds without reloading. Custer’s men, with their single-shot carbines, were “overwhelmingly outgunned”.

In American military mythology Custer’s last stand ranks alongside the Battle of the Alamo, an attack by Mexican forces on a compound in Texas, which left all the defenders dead. Indian war buffs will be absorbed by Mr Philbrick’s intelligent, yet necessarily speculative, reconstruction of Custer’s reckless encounter. Others will be even more intrigued by the author’s vivid recreation of the tribulations of 19th-century cavalrymen. And of their horses, especially Comanche. His stuffed remains reside at the University of Kansas.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/culture/displaystory.cfm?story_id=16056383&source=hptextfeature

The Lamest Show on Earth

Senator walks into a bar. Bartender asks, ‘Why the long speech?’

Barring the unexpected, the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court will be confirmed. The tradition, and a good one it is, based on mutual respect, compromise and acknowledgment of philosophical differences, is that conservative presidents get to nominate more or less conservative judges, and liberal presidents liberal ones.

Is Ms. Kagan liberal, or, as liberals now say, progressive? Of course. She worked as an associate counsel in the Clinton White House, just as John Roberts as a young man was an associate counsel in the Reagan White House. She is now an Obama appointee. Along the way she visited the progressive stations of the cross, from Ivy League education (Princeton University and Harvard Law School, with a master’s from Oxford along the way) through a career in academia (University of Chicago Law School professor, dean of Harvard Law) and government.

We can infer a great deal about her politics but do not know a great deal, because she has been throughout her career circumspect to the point of self-censored.

Ms. Kagan needs and deserves a tough and spirited grilling in the Senate Judiciary Committee as to her philosophical assumptions and judicial approach. Unfortunately, senators will likely do what they did in the Roberts, Alito and Sotomayor hearings, and that is make speeches, put forth extremely long-winded questions, and barely let the nominee speak. They should stop that.

Because little is known of the views she holds, much is made of her manner. She seems to respect either conservatives or conservatism, it’s not clear which, seems to have a gift for the managerial side of things and for “forging consensus,” as the administration keeps telling us. She seems to get along with everyone and not to be insane.

“Appears not to be insane” is actually a major plus in all nominees now, as is collegiality. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of Antonin Scalia’s closest friends; personal relationships have always helped the court work. Ms. Kagan was well liked by conservatives as she rose. She will don the big black robe, and the nation will continue.

What is interesting about the nomination is that all the criticisms serious people have lobbed about so far are true. Yes, she is an ace Ivy League networker. Yes, career seems to have been all, which speaks of certain limits, at least of experience. She has been embraced by the media elite and all others who know they will be berated within 30 seconds by an irate passenger if they talk on a cellphone in the quiet car of the Washington-bound Acela. (If our media elite do not always seem upstanding, it is in part because every few weeks they can be seen bent over and whispering furtively into a train seat.) Ms. Kagan and her counterparts all started out 30 years ago trying to undo the establishment, and now they are the establishment. If you need any proof of this it is that in their essays and monographs they no longer mention “the establishment.”

Ms. Kagan’s nomination has also highlighted America’s ambivalence about what we have always said we wanted, a meritocracy. Work hard, be smart, rise. The result is an aristocracy of wired brainiacs, of highly focused, well-credentialed careerists. There’s something limited, even creepy, in all this ferocious drive, this well-applied brilliance. There’s a sense that everything is abstract to those who succeed in this world, that what they know of life is not grounded in hard experience but absorbed through screens—computer screens, movie screens, TV screens. Our focus on mere brains is creepy, too. Brains aren’t everything, heart and soul are something too. We do away with all the deadwood, but even dead trees have a place in the forest.

The ones on top now and in the future will be those who start off with the advantage not of great wealth but of the great class marker of the age: two parents who are together and who drive their children toward academic excellence. It isn’t “Mom and Dad had millions” anymore as much as “Mom and Dad made me do my homework, gave me emotional guidance, made sure I got to trombone lessons, and drove me to soccer.”

We know little of the inner workings of Ms. Kagan’s mind, her views and opinions, beliefs and stands. The blank-slate problem is the post-Robert Bork problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987 took everything Judge Bork had ever said or written, ripped it from context, wove it into a rope, and flung it across his shoulders like a hangman’s noose. Ambitious young lawyers watched and rethought their old assumption that it would help them in their rise to be interesting and quotable. In fact, they’d have to be bland and indecipherable. Court nominees are mysteries now.

Which raises a question: After 30 years of grimly enforced discretion, are you a mystery to yourself? If you spend a lifetime being a leftist or rightist thinker but censoring yourself and acting out, day by day, a bland and judicious pondering of all sides, will you, when you get your heart’s desire and reach the high court, rip off your suit like Superman in the phone booth and fully reveal who you are? Or, having played the part of the bland, vague centrist for so long, will you find that you have actually become a bland, vague centrist? One always wonders this with nominees now.

There should be and needs to be a vigorous, rigorous grilling of Ms. Kagan. But one fears we’ll all listen and come away not knowing where she stands and what she thinks. Instead, you know what we’re going to hear: opaque, convoluted, impossible-to-understand statements. “I appreciate your raising that issue, Senator. The Blewblew v. Blahblah decision was ultimately reflective, as you suggest, of jurisprudential assumptions going back at least far as Dewdew v. Dahdah as interpreted by Justice Jackson, who did not nullify, and reinterpreted by Justice Brandeis, who did, as you note.” Viewers will try to listen, give up, and wind up thinking, “I like her hair.” Everyone in public life says, “I can’t believe they only care about my hair,” but they’re lying. That’s all they want you to think about.

Actually what a nominee is likely to say is something like this: “The question of the workability of the framework is, I think, one of the main considerations that you look to under principles of stare decisis, along with the settled expectations, whether a precedent has been eroded.” That was now-Chief Justice John Roberts in his confirmation hearings on Sept. 13, 2005, and his testimony was among the more lucid of recent years.

But mostly in confirmation hearings it is senators who speak, who give long soliloquies and put forth extremely long and circuitous questions. Pose, vanity and camera hogging are the order of the day. In the first, long day of Samuel Alito’s hearings, he was barely allowed to speak. After his opening statement, it was all, “Thank you, senator,” and, “Uh—well, yes.”

The Supreme Court is our great interpreter of law and of the Constitution. It would be nice if Ms. Kagan were given the opportunity and responsibility to answer tough, clear, direct questions. But that would require senators able and willing to ask them.

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704635204575242671150751944.html

A Friendship for the Pages

Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Martin Amis (l-r) in 1979.

Martin Amis says his new novel, “The Pregnant Widow,” isn’t remotely autobiographical, but members of his circle will instantly recognize Nicholas, the protagonist’s older brother. A sandy-haired freakishly articulate leftist who’s fond of word play and more interested in politics than sex, Nicholas resembles a certain irreverent public intellectual who’s targeted figures such as Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.

Christopher Hitchens says he was “flattered and honored” to appear in the novel as an older brother figure, and he’s returning the compliment. His forthcoming memoir, “Hitch 22,” includes a chapter about his long friendship with Mr. Amis, and references banter and inside jokes that closely mirror bits of “The Pregnant Widow.”

[hitchens]

Christopher Hitchens

Both writers say it’s a bizarre coincidence that they each have books featuring their friendship coming out in quick succession. Mr. Amis’s novel, set mostly in the summer of 1970, examines the dark side of the sexual revolution through the lives of a group of young Brits vacationing in a castle in Italy. The main character, Keith, is traumatized by the unlimited sexual freedom, while his older brother, Nicholas, remains above the sordid cultural fray and focuses on politics. Nicholas affectionately calls him “My dear little Keith,” (a double inside joke: Mr. Hitchens addresses Mr. Amis in letters as “dear little Keith,” which is a reference to a dwarf character in Mr. Amis’s novel “Dead Babies”). In their correspondence, Keith and Nicholas amuse each other with a word game that involves substituting phrases like “hysterical sex” for “love” in the titles of movies, songs and novels, resulting in titles like “Stop in the Name of Hysterical Sex.”

[hitch22]

In “Hitch 22,” out next month, Mr. Hitchens describes how he and Mr. Amis perfected this word swap game over the years, and offers the examples “Hysterical Sex Story” and “A Fool for Hysterical Sex,” among others.

Mr. Hitchens says he had a mixed reaction to the homage when Mr. Amis sent him an early manuscript of “The Pregnant Widow.” He felt slightly awkward about being portrayed as the older brother, since he knows and admires Mr. Amis’s real older brother, he says. He also felt funny about being cast as the authority figure, since he’s always felt like the “smaller fish” in the relationship. When asked if he objected to anything about the character, Mr. Hitchens said “He doesn’t appear enough.”

Mr. Amis says he very rarely bases characters on real people—though his late sister Sally also appears in “The Pregnant Widow” as Violet, Keith and Nicholas’s sister. Both characters are partly fictional, of course, since “the book makes its own demands,” Mr. Amis says. He decided to draw on Mr. Hitchens because he thought it would be fun to allude to their shared past, and because the novel’s plot required a young political activist to put other characters’ sexual misadventures in perspective.

[ADVISER1]

Martin Amis

“I used to say to him, ‘You’re interested in the wrong revolution, mate,'” Mr. Amis says. The same line appears verbatim in “The Pregnant Widow,” when Keith urges his older brother to take advantage of the era’s new sexual freedoms.

Messrs. Amis and Hitchens have been close friends since the early 1970s, and while they’ve both risen to fame in their respective niches, they’ve occupied different ends of the literary and occasionally the political spectrum. They were first introduced by a mutual friend in 1973, when Mr. Hitchens was beginning his career at British magazine the New Statesman and Mr. Amis was about to publish his first novel, “The Rachel Papers.” Through the years, they’ve occasionally chased after the same women, defended one another publicly during media storms and scandals, met for regular dinners with their mutual friends Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, the poet James Fenton and Salman Rushdie, and supported each other through marriages and divorces.

“James Fenton once said wearily, ‘You and the Hitch ought to get married,’ ” Mr. Amis says.

The relationship hasn’t always been rosy. The pair fought publicly over “Koba the Dread,” Mr. Amis’s 2002 book in which he charged Mr. Hitchens with glossing over the crimes of Communist regimes. Mr. Hitchens tore into Mr. Amis in the pages of American magazine The Atlantic, accusing him of “self-righteousness” and “superficiality.” They clashed over the Iraq war, which Mr. Hitchens adamantly supported.

[hitchamis]

Mr. Hitchens (left) and Mr. Amis in 1977.

More often, though, they’ve teamed against mutual enemies. Last February, when former BBC newscaster Anna Ford accused Mr. Amis of smoking at her dying husband’s bedside in her letter to The Guardian, Mr. Hitchens wrote a retaliatory letter calling Ms. Ford’s charges “spiteful and false.”

Messrs. Hitchens and Amis, now both in their 60s, have written about their friendship before (most notably, Mr. Amis addressed it in his 2000 memoir, “Experience”). But the near simultaneous release of “The Pregnant Widow” and “Hitch 22” offers a new, 360-degree view of a literary and intellectual friendship. Mr. Hitchens writes about how Mr. Amis shaped his writing, describing how his friend often underlined clichés or misused words in his essays and articles and handed him the marked up pages like a disapproving professor. It was Mr. Amis who taught him not to subordinate style to substance when crafting an argument, Mr. Hitchens says.

“He wrote to me recently saying he thought I’d misused the word ‘infamous,'” Mr. Hitchens says. “I’m absolutely sure this is an injustice on his part.”

Mr. Amis says Mr. Hitchens rarely requires his editing these days, except when it comes to punctuation. “He’s touchingly all thumbs with the colon and the semi colon,” he says.

Mr. Hitchens’s memoir covers deeply personal, occasionally embarrassing territory, including his one night stand with Mr. Amis’s late sister Sally and the pair’s botched attempt to “research” a brothel scene for Mr. Amis’s novel “Money” at a seedy New York massage parlor.

Mr. Amis, who has read an early version of the memoir, says the chapter about him is “full of indiscretions,” but professes to love it. He adds he was surprised by the book’s overall tenor. “It’s a serious book about his political evolution and emotional evolution,” he says.

Mr. Hitchens says he sees signs in “The Pregnant Widow” that his friend, who used to pressure him to take advantage of the swinging sixties, has matured as well.

“It was slightly surprising to me, and rather gratifying, to see his reconsideration of the sixties, and his feeling that elements of the sexual revolution might have been a mistake,” Mr. Hitchens says.

Alexandra Alter, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704250104575238560552578150.html

The fruits of weakness

It is perfectly obvious that Iran’s latest uranium maneuver, brokered by Brazil and Turkey, is a ruse. Iran retains more than enough enriched uranium to make a bomb. And it continues enriching at an accelerated pace and to a greater purity (20 percent). Which is why the French foreign ministry immediately declared that the trumpeted temporary shipping of some Iranian uranium to Turkey will do nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

It will, however, make meaningful sanctions more difficult. America’s proposed Security Council resolution is already laughably weak — no blacklisting of Iran’s central bank, no sanctions against Iran’s oil and gas industry, no nonconsensual inspections on the high seas. Yet Turkey and Brazil — both current members of the Security Council — are so opposed to sanctions that they will not even discuss the resolution. And China will now have a new excuse to weaken it further.

But the deeper meaning of the uranium-export stunt is the brazenness with which Brazil and Turkey gave cover to the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions and deliberately undermined U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s program.

The real news is that already notorious photo: the president of Brazil, our largest ally in Latin America, and the prime minister of Turkey, for more than half a century the Muslim anchor of NATO, raising hands together with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the most virulently anti-American leader in the world.

That picture — a defiant, triumphant take-that-Uncle-Sam — is a crushing verdict on the Obama foreign policy. It demonstrates how rising powers, traditional American allies, having watched this administration in action, have decided that there’s no cost in lining up with America’s enemies and no profit in lining up with a U.S. president given to apologies and appeasement.

They’ve watched President Obama’s humiliating attempts to appease Iran, as every rejected overture is met with abjectly renewed U.S. negotiating offers. American acquiescence reached such a point that the president was late, hesitant and flaccid in expressing even rhetorical support for democracy demonstrators who were being brutally suppressed and whose call for regime change offered the potential for the most significant U.S. strategic advance in the region in 30 years.

They’ve watched America acquiesce to Russia’s re-exerting sway over Eastern Europe, over Ukraine (pressured by Russia last month into extending for 25 years its lease of the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol) and over Georgia (Russia’s de facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is no longer an issue under the Obama “reset” policy).

They’ve watched our appeasement of Syria, Iran’s agent in the Arab Levant — sending our ambassador back to Syria even as it tightens its grip on Lebanon, supplies Hezbollah with Scuds and intensifies its role as the pivot of the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance. The price for this ostentatious flouting of the United States and its interests? Ever more eager U.S. “engagement.”

They’ve observed the administration’s gratuitous slap at Britain over the Falklands, its contemptuous treatment of Israel, its undercutting of the Czech Republic and Poland, and its indifference to Lebanon and Georgia. And in Latin America, they see not just U.S. passivity as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez organizes his anti-American “Bolivarian” coalition while deepening military and commercial ties with Iran and Russia. They saw active U.S. support in Honduras for a pro-Chávez would-be dictator seeking unconstitutional powers in defiance of the democratic institutions of that country.

This is not just an America in decline. This is an America in retreat — accepting, ratifying and declaring its decline, and inviting rising powers to fill the vacuum.

Nor is this retreat by inadvertence. This is retreat by design and, indeed, on principle. It’s the perfect fulfillment of Obama’s adopted Third World narrative of American misdeeds, disrespect and domination from which he has come to redeem us and the world. Hence his foundational declaration at the U.N. General Assembly last September that “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation” (guess who’s been the dominant nation for the last two decades?) and his dismissal of any “world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another.” (NATO? The West?)

Given Obama’s policies and principles, Turkey and Brazil are acting rationally. Why not give cover to Ahmadinejad and his nuclear ambitions? As the United States retreats in the face of Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela, why not hedge your bets? There’s nothing to fear from Obama, and everything to gain by ingratiating yourself with America’s rising adversaries. After all, they actually believe in helping one’s friends and punishing one’s enemies.

Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/20/AR2010052003885.html

Invasion of the Full-Body Scanners

My wife and I often experience the same things differently, but few as strikingly as the 3-D body scans we had in New York clothing stores.

Mine took place in the Brooks Brothers flagship store on Madison Avenue. I undressed in a fitting room, donned a colored undergarment called scanwear, entered a dark booth, and grasped handles that fixed my position. When I pressed a button, patterns of light from 16 sensors played around my body for almost a minute, producing 600,000 to 700,000 data points accurate to two-tenths of a millimeter. By the time I had dressed and emerged, a computer had smoothed, filtered and compressed the data into a 3-D body image. I got a printout, along with lists of measurements.

These were only numbers, but they were mine, and I could use them to virtually try on and order suits and other clothes sewn to fit my particular shape. The experience was Disney-like: comfortable, smooth, dazzling, and leaving me feeling entertained and even special.

The technology is astounding, and partly your government-sponsored basic research at work. In 1980, a nonprofit R&D organization was created to help the garment industry stay competitive. The Tailored Clothing Technology Corp., or [TC]2, was funded by government and industry, and its first major quest was to deflect the flow of apparel-production jobs to low-wage countries by developing equipment to robotically manufacture men’s suits. That attempt ultimately failed, although it did help automate things like sewing T-shirt sleeves. But [TC]2 kept up research, and by the end of the 1990s its 3-D body technology wound up in retail stores. The first scanner was installed in a San Francisco Levi Strauss store in 1999. Buying jeans went (potentially) high-tech.

Two years later, Brooks Brother installed the first 3-D scanner in New York City. The tradition-laden company was then struggling to modernize and cut expenses without compromising quality. Senior staffers were uneasy with the technology at first, according to Joe Dixon, senior vice president of production and manufacturing, who initially operated the device himself. But he found customers prepared to take a “leap of faith” to bypass the traditional fitting for expensive suits.

Women also dropped by, though the machine wasn’t intended for them. “I got propositioned,” Mr. Dixon told me. “Several women said something to this effect: ‘If you can make me a pair of pants that fit me perfectly, I’ll be yours forever!'”

The scanners are expensive. Brooks Brothers’ first machine cost $75,000 and took up 140 square feet. Yet a newer model costs $30,000 and needs only 20 square feet, and the company has outfitted 10 of its stores with space for them.

The drop in cost and square footage of the machine increased demand elsewhere, too. The Coast Guard induction center at Cape May, N.J., has even purchased a couple—one for men, one for women—so recruits can be lined up in their underwear for faster scanning. More than 40 universities now have scanners, mostly in apparel or fashion teaching departments. [TC]2 Vice President David Bruner expects to sell 40 to 50 machines this year.

Two more scanners have recently appeared in Manhattan. One is at Alton Lane, a small menswear company that uses the scanner to promote a bespoke approach, trying to reach a high-volume market by doing for custom suits what Netflix did for movies and Bluenile.com for diamonds. Customers can use their 3-D image to “try on” different kinds of lapels, trouser breaks, cuffs and so forth, and to see what the suit looks like on them from all angles. Alton Lane hosts events where partygoers are individually scanned as the warm-up activity, followed by wine and cheese.

As my wife discovered, Victoria’s Secret in SoHo has yet to create a wow experience to accompany its scanner. She stepped from the plush, pink fitting room into a black closet, and as the lights flashed a recorded voice assured her that the scan’s measurements would result in the best-fitting bra she ever had; “Body Match” is the company’s name for the scanning process. She was then handed a card listing six off-the-shelf items, which the salesgirl dutifully brought to her. Two fit, one fabulously.

Same technology, different experiences. My wife and I wound up at the opposite poles of the bespoke and made-to-measure divide, and in terms of customer appreciation. Her experience lacked the luxe appeal of a Parisian lingerie salon or the sensitive hands of an experienced fitter; it was less Disney than airport or doctor’s office.

Sometimes, customer experience has to be integrated into a technology for it to succeed. Otherwise, the numbers just don’t add up.

Mr. Crease, chairman of the philosophy department at Stony Brook University, is writing a book about measurement for W.W. Norton.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704608104575220542781522702.html

The Eyes Have It

In the post-privacy era, we all know too much about one another.

This column is about privacy, a common enough topic but one to which I don’t think we’re paying enough attention. As a culture we may be losing it at a greater clip than we’re noticing, and that loss will have implications both political and, I think, spiritual. People don’t like it when they can’t keep their own information, or their sense of dignified apartness. They feel violated when it’s taken from them. This adds to the general fraying of things.

Privacy in America didn’t fall like the Berlin Wall, with a cloud of cement dust and cheers. It didn’t happen over a few days but a few decades, and it didn’t fall exactly, but is falling. If you’re not worried about that, or not feeling some nostalgia for the older, more contained and more private America, then you’re just not paying attention.

We are all regularly warned about the primary threat of identity theft, in which technologically adept criminals break into databases to find and use your private financial information. But other things, not as threatening, leave many of us uneasy. When there is a terrorist incident or a big crime, we are inundated on TV with all the videotape from all the surveillance cameras. “We think that’s the terrorist there, taking off his red shirt.” There are cameras all over. No terrorist can escape them, but none of the rest of us can either. If you call 911, your breathless plea for help may be on tonight’s evening news, even though a panicked call to the police is a pretty intimate thing.

Do you want anyone who can get your address on the Internet to be able to call up a photo of your house? If you don’t, that’s unfortunate, because it’s all there on Google Street View, like it or not. Facebook has apparently taken to changing its default settings so that your information—the personal news you thought you were sharing only with friends—is available to strangers and mined for commercial data. And young people will say anything on networking sites because they’re young, because no one has taught them not to, because they’re being raised in a culture that has grown more exhibitionistic.

In the Oxford English Dictionary the first definition of privacy is: “The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion.” The third definition casts some light on how our culture is evolving: “Absence or avoidance of publicity or display; secrecy, concealment, discretion; protection from public knowledge or availability. Now rare, or merging with sense 1.” You said it, OED.

We increasingly know things about each other (or think we do) that we should not know, have no right to know, and have a right, actually, not to know. And of course technology is not the only force at work. An exhibitionist culture will develop brutish ways. And so candidates and nominees for public office (and TV stars) are now asked—forced is a closer word—to make public declarations about aspects of their lives that are, actually, personal, and private. “Rep. Smith, 45 and unmarried, has refused to answer persistent questions on whether he is gay. But bloggers have revealed that he owns antiques and has played badminton.” Those who demand that everything be declared see themselves as street fighters for the freedom in men’s souls. But they’re not. They’re bullies without boundaries.

“The private life is dead in the new Russia,” said a Red Army officer in the film of Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago.” There were many scarifying things in that great movie, but that was the scariest, the dry proclamation that the intimate experience of being alive would now be subordinate to the state. An odd thing is that when privacy is done away with, people don’t become more authentic, they become less so. What replaces what used not to be said is something that must be said and is usually a lie.

When we lose our privacy, we lose some of our humanity; we lose things that are particular to us, that make us separate and distinctive as souls, as, actually, children of God. We also lose trust, not only in each other but in our institutions, which we come to fear. People who now have no faith in the security of their medical and financial records, for instance, will have even less faith in their government. If progressives were sensitive to this, they’d have more power. They always think the answer is a new Internet Privacy Act. But everyone else thinks that’s just a new system to hack.

At technology conferences now they say, “Get over it.” Privacy is gone, get with the new world. But I’m not sure technologically focused people can be sensitive to the implications of their instructions.

We all think of technology as expanding our horizons, and in many ways of course it does. How could we not be thrilled and moved that the instant transmission of an MRI from New York to Mumbai can result in the correct diagnosis that saves a child’s life? But technology is also constricting. It can restrain movement and possibility.

Here is a fanciful example that is meant to have a larger point. If you, complicated little pirate that you are, find yourself caught in the middle of a big messy scandal in America right now, you can’t go to another continent to hide out or ride out the storm. Earlier generations did exactly that, but you can’t, because you’ve been on the front page of every website, the lead on every newscast. You’ll be spotted in South Africa and Googled in Gdansk. Two hundred years ago, or even 100, when you got yourself in a big fat bit of trouble in Paris, you could run to the docks and take the first ship to America, arrive unknown, and start over. You changed your name, or didn’t even bother. It would be years before anyone caught up with you.

And this is part of how America was born. Gamblers, bounders, ne’er-do-wells, third sons in primogeniture cultures—most of us came here to escape something! Our people came here not only for a new chance but to disappear, hide out, tend their wounds, and summon the energy, in time, to impress the dopes back home. America has many anthems, but one of them is “I’ll show ’em!”

There is still something of that in all Americans, which means as a people we’re not really suited to the age of surveillance, the age of no privacy. There is no hiding place now, not here, and this strikes me as something of huge and existential import. It’s like the closing of yet another frontier, a final one we didn’t even know was there.

A few weeks ago the latest right-track-wrong-track numbers came out, and the wrong-track numbers won, as they have since 2003. About 70% of respondents said they thought the country was on the wrong track. This was generally seen as “a commentary on the economy,” and no doubt this is part of it. But Americans are more interesting and complicated people than that, and maybe they’re also thinking, “Remember Jeremiah Johnson? The guy who went off by himself in the mountains and lived on his own? I’d like to do that. But they’d find me on Google Earth.”

Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703559004575256732042885638.html

What Blumenthal might have learned from the war zone

I  have a thing for Marines, always have. It began a long time ago when I watched my older brother amble away in the night toward his barracks at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

I cried myself dry that evening, thinking that I might not see him again, knowing that the next morning he was off to Vietnam. Khe Sanh, his ultimate destination, might as well have been another planet. As it turns out, it was Hell.

Jack came home eventually, a different boy than the one who left. Still just a teenager, he was leaner and meaner. His eyes gave nothing away. When our father and I visited Jack at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, where he was being treated for “battle fatigue” and other afflictions, we stuck to safe subjects: college, cars and girls, his primary interests at that point.

To this day, I’ve yet to hear any stories of war from him, or, for that matter, from any of the men in my family, all of them veterans of various conflicts. A few scattered pictures of tough boys sporting knives and guns occasionally find their way to the top of a shoe box, but there are no videos or journals, no displays of Purple Hearts.

Like most veterans, with a few notable exceptions, my brother has expressed no desire to revisit that time and place, nor any need to boast of his exploits. When you’ve witnessed the horrors of war, you apparently don’t need to tell anyone.

All of these thoughts surfaced as I pondered Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general recently infamous for exaggerating his role as a Marine reservist during the Vietnam era. At various times, he has accurately said that he wore the uniform during that period; other times, he has said that he wore the uniform in Vietnam. In fact, he received several draft deferments while a student at Harvard and Cambridge and enlisted in the Marines only when those deferments were running out.

And, he did falsely and knowingly imply that he was a combat veteran. The question is: Why? And what should voters make of it when they go to the polls?

Blumenthal, a Democrat, is running to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Chris Dodd. His fiercest opponent has been Republican Linda McMahon, who says her campaign assisted with a New York Times investigation into Blumenthal’s false claims. As an unintended consequence, McMahon’s involvement may have provided momentum to her principal Republican rival, former representative Rob Simmons, who did serve in Vietnam and received two Bronze Stars.

On a certain level, it is gratifying that those who served in America’s most unpopular war — and who were vilified back home — now can enjoy some measure of pride in their service. But the humility common among heroes is in scant evidence these days, and selective memory has rarely been so repugnant.

Blumenthal isn’t the first to exaggerate his service, of course. “Stolen Valor” is the title of a book that chronicles phony heroes falsely claiming to have served in Vietnam.

There is, indeed, something unique about the Vietnam era that haunts a generation. All are familiar with the deep divisions that brought students to riot, leaving four dead at Kent State and others to trek to Canada. The draft was the Maginot Line of America’s heart, and too many of the unlucky never came home.

Who knows what motivated Blumenthal to stretch his truth? Perhaps it was survivor’s guilt.

“There is nothing that binds Marines together like combat and, if you missed it, I can understand that he [Blumenthal] may have actually convinced himself he was there,” my brother wrote in an e-mail. “But those who served in combat consider Marines who did not the same brothers, regardless. We are a team and those in the rear are just as important as those on the line.”

The deception, as always, is something else. Blumenthal had every right under the law to seek deferments. He had every right to be proud of his service during the Vietnam era. But he did not have the right to build personal equity on the borrowed suffering of others.

Had he gone to Vietnam, as he apparently thinks he should have, he would have learned that, and this: Real heroes never brag, and real Marines don’t lie.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/21/AR2010052103258.html

Can Obama save his Afghanistan surge?

The countless red carpets rolled out for Hamid Karzai in Washington this week could not disguise an ugly emerging reality: So far, Barack Obama’s surge in Afghanistan isn’t working.

Yes, it’s early. As the president pointed out at his White House news conference with Karzai, only slightly more than half of the reinforcements he ordered to the country last December have arrived. They still have 14 months to make a difference before withdrawals are due to begin. But five months into the surge in Iraq in 2007, the evidence that it would succeed was already visible: Sectarian violence was dropping, Sunni tribes were turning against al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government was delivering on its promises.

In May 2010, it’s already pretty clear what will doom the Afghanistan campaign if nothing changes. Areas cleared by U.S. troops, such as Marja in Helmand province, are still not free of the Taliban — because no effective Afghan authority has emerged to take its place. In Kandahar, where a make-or-break offensive is getting underway, the chances of effective non-Taliban governance are being systematically undermined by assassinations as well as by Karzai’s refusal to remove his corrupt brother from his perch as a local power broker. At the moment, there appears to be no coherent political plan for the city.

Perhaps most disturbing, there is obvious discord among the U.S. and allied generals and diplomats who are supposed to be implementing Obama’s strategy. None of the multiple American civilians charged with doing business with Karzai appears to have his trust. Nor are they in sync with the top American military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Despite avowals to the contrary, “the gap between the senior commanders on the ground and the political side has never been greater,” a senior Afghan told me.

Obama couldn’t avoid some of this mess. The lack of Afghan civilian capacity was always going to be the weak point of the counterinsurgency strategy. The problem starts with Karzai, who has little interest in constructing a modern government and has resisted U.S. efforts to build up provincial and local authorities.

“Karzai is not the leader of a modern state,” said the Afghan I spoke to. “He is not a commander in chief. He sees himself more as a mediator — and his personal aim is to stop the bloodshed.” Hence Karzai’s interest in negotiating with the Taliban — and arms-length approach to the Kandahar operation.

Obama compounded his Karzai problem by mishandling the Afghan leader until recently. After a year of coldness, he has now belatedly embraced the usual strategy for managing a weak client, which is to heap love on him in public and pragmatically push for deliverables in private. Whether it will work remains to be seen. The test will not be not so much what Karzai does but what he allows other Afghans to do in building working institutions at the national and local level.

What’s harder to understand is Obama’s failure to fix the dysfunctionality on the American side. A pivotal player here is Karl Eikenberry, the retired general Obama appointed as ambassador. Eikenberry’s relations with Karzai are bad; his relations with McChrystal may be even worse. Since January a steady stream of stories has documented their clashes over tactics, including Eikenberry’s opposition to the formation of local militias and quick development projects in Kandahar. Now they are at odds over how to respond to an Afghan request for an upgraded strategic partnership, including a U.S. security guarantee. Here’s another contrast with Iraq: There was no daylight between military commander David Petraeus and then-ambassador Ryan Crocker.

At a White House press briefing Monday, Eikenberry was put on the spot by a reporter who asked if he now believed that “President Karzai is an adequate strategic partner.” Incredibly, the ambassador refused to offer his personal endorsement to the man he is supposed to be working with. “President Obama has expressed his confidence in President Karzai and our work together,” he answered.

“Hamid Karzai is, for better or worse, the United States’ man in Kabul. He can be forgiven, though, for not knowing who his man is in the United States,” analyst Andrew Exum of the centrist Center for a New American Security wrote in a searing new critique of the administration’s civilian strategy. Exum, who sensibly proposed that Obama “settle upon one point person for dealing with the Afghan president,” asked: “Is either the ambassador in Kabul or the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan an effective interlocutor with Afghan policymakers? Is the U.S. Embassy in Kabul fully supporting the counterinsurgency campaign?”

The obvious answer to these questions — no — points to the first fix Obama must make if he is to save his surge.

Jackson Diehl, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/13/AR2010051304377.html

Tough on Wrinkles, Soft on Sales

Japanese cosmetics companies are known as some of the most technically advanced in the world, with promises of creams and emulsions that use rare ingredients to stop wrinkles and create a flawless complexion.

But these days, they are finding one problem tough to conquer: the U.S. market.

Shu Uemura, a Japanese beauty brand that’s best-known here for a sophisticated eyelash curler, will soon cease to have a retail presence in America, moving to online-only sales in the U.S. Kanebo, whose pricey Sensai luxury brand featured unusual ingredients such as a rare form of silk, quietly pulled out of 30 retail locations last year and now is sold at only one U.S. store, Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman.

Shiseido Co., Japan’s venerable leading cosmetics company, is pushing forward in the U.S., with its recent purchase of the Bare Escentuals brand, but even after 45 years of selling in the U.S., Shiseido still has a relatively minor presence in the market.

The retreat of Shu Uemura and Kanebo represents a surprising comedown for companies that represent an established beauty tradition—Japanese women have long prized ageless, porcelain-white skin—and a national reputation for quality and high-tech prowess. “The Japanese woman is the most sophisticated consumer in the world. These brands are well-respected and well-known in Japan,” says Mark Loomis, the president of Estée Lauder Japan. “When they go overseas, this recognition is not automatic. You have to adjust your strategy.”

The pullbacks come at a time when Japanese and American beauty ideals are closer than they have ever been. The Japanese concept of bihaku, which literally means “beautiful white” and refers to Japanese women’s quest to achieve an alabaster complexion, long carried uncomfortable racial overtones here and was at odds with Americans’ love of tanning.

Recently, however, the aesthetic in the U.S. has shifted, thanks to growing awareness that excessive sun exposure damages skin and causes wrinkles. (Japanese women have always walked around with parasols under the summer sun.) Americans now spend more money than ever on anti-aging products that target wrinkles. And “brightening” products, which have long been popular in Japan, are gaining ground in the U.S. for the purpose of lightening dark spots and evening out skin color.

Japan’s Hits and Misses

  • The Shu Uemura eyelash curler became popular with American women.
  • Future Solution LX is one of Shiseido’s best U.S. sellers.
  • Shiseido White Lucent Brightening Moisturizing Emulsion promises an eventoned complexion.
  • Kanebo Sensai Premier “The Cream” (below) retails for $650.

“The brightening/whitening market is becoming as large as anti-aging” in the U.S., says Tomoko Yamagishi-Dressler, Shiseido’s vice president for marketing in the U.S. Shiseido launched its White Lucent intensive brightening serum in the States in 2005, and since then it has achieved double-digit growth.

Despite the growing U.S. interest in anti-aging and skin-care products and Japanese companies’ reputation as global leaders in this segment, Japanese companies have still had a rough time in the world’s biggest cosmetics market. Through aggressive marketing, including cultivating key relationships with beauty editors at magazines, editorial placement and social networking, Shiseido has become the No. 4 prestige brand in the U.S. Ten years ago, it wasn’t in the top ten.

But in the year that ended March 2009, only about 20% of its sales were from the U.S. market, compared with 45% from Asia and 34% from Europe. “We are still weak in the U.S.,” said its chief executive, Shinzo Maeda, in an interview earlier this year.

To bolster its U.S. operations, Shiseido in January bought Bare Escentuals, a San Francisco-based mineral-makeup line, for $1.7 billion, marking the largest acquisition in its history.

Japanese companies “have amazing product formulations,” says John Demsey, group president of Estée Lauder Cos. But so far that hasn’t been enough. “Japan has been so successful at building up their presence in the U.S. in the electronic and automotive industries. There has been a disconnect on the beauty side,” he adds.

The challenges for Japanese brands in the U.S. are myriad. Consumers aren’t familiar with the brands; on Shiseido’s website, it explains: “Shiseido is pronounced “She-Say-Doe.” Also, Japanese companies have high distribution costs for the products they have to ship from Japan, and operating costs are high, because they tend to sell via department stores, where training sales staff and acquiring counter space are costly endeavors.

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Shu Uemura is pulling out of U.S. retail stores after failing to catch on.

This is a tough time for high-end beauty brands of all sorts. Sales of luxury beauty products have fallen in the U.S. since the recession started, as Americans have traded down to drugstore products or simply bought fewer cosmetics.

Also, American and Japanese women still take sharply different approaches to skin care. Though skin-care awareness has increased in the U.S., the amount of money and time the U.S. consumer spends on her regimen is still far lower than that of her Japanese counterpart. The average Japanese woman spends 60% of her cosmetics budget on skin care, compared with 30% for American women.

A Shiseido survey found nearly 69% of Japanese women used cleanser, toner and moisturizer religiously at night, compared with only 17% of American women.

Indeed, Shiseido has documented that the average Japanese woman employs a much larger array of products each evening—as many as six products. First, she removes her make-up with an oil-based product. Then comes cleansing the face. This is followed by a lotion—a toner-like skin softener—and then possibly an “essence,” or serum. Finally, she pats on an emulsion, which is less viscous than a cream, and then a traditional cream. All of this is achieved while performing an elaborate facial massage meant to help prevent sagging and wrinkling.

“The psyche of the American consumer is about a quick fix, and not about prevention,” says Ms. Yamagishi-Dressler of Shiseido. “It’s all about, ‘What can this product do for me now?’ We have to adapt to that.”

Kanebo, which entered the U.S. market in 2000, incurred a loss on its U.S. operations every year, according to its spokesman. Kanebo said the costs of operating in the U.S. were very high, since its only retail channel was department stores. It didn’t advertise in the U.S. much, making it hard to build an image for its Sensai line. In the U.S., “achieving profitability was tough,” a Kanebo spokesman said. The company is now focusing on expanding its presence in Asia.

Shu Uemura had several popular items, such as a cleansing oil, but it was too much of a niche brand to achieve the scale it needed in the vast U.S. market. Its parent company, L’Oréal USA, said in a statement that it wanted “to focus on the strength of its strategic brands including Lancome, Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Kiehl’s Since 1851 and other fragrance brands in its portfolio” but declined to comment beyond that.

Shu Uemura’s fans in the U.S. have mixed feelings. Christina Carroll, 32, an attorney who lives in Arlington, Va., first bought Shu Uemura’s cleansing oil in Japan a few years ago. She loved it but switched brands after about a year, searching for “a lower-cost option,” she said.

But she hasn’t given up on Japanese brands as a whole. “I think there is an implicit perception that Japanese beauty brands are luxury brands by default,” says Ms. Carroll.

“It might also have something to do with the fact that it’s an imported product that comes with certain cultural associations—that Japanese culture, by default, prizes quality, elegance, and minimalism.”

Mariko Sanchanta, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704250104575238334269862558.html

The Police and Immigration: New York’s Experience

A spouse may be reluctant to report abuse if she fears that the consequence will be deportation for the father of her children.

Arizona’s new immigration law has been roundly criticized for encroaching on the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration laws. It requires police to demand documentation from an individual when they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is here illegally. Arizona’s own police chiefs association opposes this entanglement of state law enforcement with federal immigration policy on the grounds that it will undermine the public’s trust in local officials.

Arizona isn’t alone in involving local officials in federal immigration policy to an unwarranted degree. Federal immigration officials are active in 300 local jails and nearly every state prison in the country as part of the Criminal Alien Program, which is designed to identify potentially deportable inmates.

Although the precise method of operation of the program varies across communities, the basic strategy remains the same: Federal immigration officials are allowed access to information about foreign-born inmates in local jails, either through in-person interviews with inmates or through access to local databases. This allows them to quickly identify inmates eligible for removal. Strikingly, 48% of all deportable immigrants identified by U.S. immigration officials in 2009 were discovered as a result of this program, according to an October 2009 report issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Even New York City, which has long had a reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants, works with federal immigration officials, providing them with direct access to the Department of Corrections’ database that contains information on foreign-born arrestees housed in city jails. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials maintain an office of 15 agents at the city’s largest jail, Rikers Island, where they routinely interview newly booked inmates. In 2007, ICE officers interviewed approximately 4,000 Rikers inmates. Once ICE officers identify potentially deportable inmates, they issue an immigration “detainer”—an official request that local officials notify ICE prior to releasing an inmate so that the inmate can be transferred into ICE custody for potential deportation.

Federal immigration agents in Phoenix.

In 2007 alone, ICE initiated deportation proceedings against 3,212 inmates being held at Rikers. Some 13,000 Rikers inmates have been identified by ICE as potentially removable since 2004. This includes not just undocumented immigrants but lawful, permanent residents and those with valid claims to remain here.

The close relationship between ICE and the Department of Corrections drastically alters the normal course of operations at New York City’s jails. Typically arrestees remain in jail until the city relinquishes custody, which can happen for a number of reasons: the inmate is released on his or her own recognizance; the inmate posts bail; the charges against the inmate are dropped; or there has been a finding of guilt or innocence. However, an inmate subject to a detainer is held in jail by the Department of Corrections for 48 hours past this date—even in the case of dismissed charges or an acquittal—to give federal immigration officials an opportunity to assume custody of the individual.

The city bears most of the expense of holding the inmate for the 48 hours. The issuance of immigration detainers also discourages inmates from posting bail, even when they can afford to do so, because inmates subject to detainers who succeed in posting bail are transferred directly into federal immigration custody. Thus the city also bears the expense of housing those inmates who would otherwise be out on bail. This costs the city at least $150 per inmate per day according to the Department of Corrections.

The New York City Bar Association has also argued that the use of immigration detainers lowers the rate of participation in the city’s alternative-to-incarceration programs because judges and prosecutors are quick to assume that immigrants subject to detainers are ineligible for such programs. These alternative programs reduce recidivism and lower costs to the criminal justice system.

But by far the most severe consequence of the city’s cooperation with federal immigration officials is the lack of trust in law enforcement that it creates among the public. A spouse, for example, may be reluctant to report abuse if she fears that the consequence will be deportation of the father of her children. When immigrants perceive the local police force as merely an arm of the federal immigration authority, they become reluctant to report criminal activity for fear of being turned over to federal officials. Given that immigrants (legal and illegal) currently comprise 36% of the city’s population, this unwillingness to cooperate with local law enforcement presents an obstacle to stemming crime in the city as a whole. That’s why during the 35 years I was district attorney in Manhattan, I made it a policy never to turn over names of individuals involved with the criminal justice system to immigration authorities until after they were convicted of a serious crime.

Charges are ultimately dropped against a significant percentage of arrestees in the city’s jails. In 2009, for example, charges were eventually dismissed in 34% of all cases arraigned in criminal court in New York City. Federal law provides that lawful permanent residents with green cards can be deported if they are convicted of certain offenses—including aggravated felonies and the vast majority of controlled substance offenses. But in New York City, ICE officials have access to foreign-born inmates from the moment they are booked into the city’s jails, regardless of whether charges might later be dropped. This early involvement of federal officials is unwarranted and imposes considerable costs monetarily and in terms of public perception.

No one disputes that the names of violent offenders should be turned over to federal immigration officials, but the current approach treats those charged with petty offenses (and those who may not be guilty of any crime) in the same manner as convicted felons.

A more nuanced approach to cooperation between local authorities and federal immigration officials—in which only the names of those convicted of violent crimes were turned over to ICE—would avoid this problem. It would go a long way towards separating the roles of local police and federal immigration authorities in the eyes of the public, and would encourage more inmates to post bail, thus reducing costs to the city. New York authorities should make clear they do not approve of the haphazard and sometimes cruel way that federal immigration policy is enforced.

Mr. Morgenthau, district attorney of Manhattan from 1975 until 2009, is currently of counsel to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703460404575244533350495138.html

Posted in Law

Chuck Schumer vs. Free Speech

The ‘Disclose’ Act would make election law even more incomprehensible and subject to selective enforcement for political gain.

Editor’s note: The following article is co-authored by former Federal Election Commissioners Joan Aikens, Lee Ann Elliott, Thomas Josefiak, David Mason, Bradley Smith, Hans A. von Spakovsky, Michael Toner and Darryl R. Wold:

As former commissioners on the Federal Election Commission with almost 75 years of combined experience, we believe that the bill proposed on April 30 by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen to “blunt” the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC is unnecessary, partially duplicative of existing law, and severely burdensome to the right to engage in political speech and advocacy.

Moreover, the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act, or Disclose Act, abandons the longstanding policy of treating unions and businesses equally, suggesting partisan motives that undermine respect for campaign finance laws.

At least one of us served on the FEC at all times from its inception in 1975 through August 2008. We are well aware of the practical difficulties involved in enforcing the overly complex Federal Election Campaign Act and the problems posed by additional laws that curtail the ability of Americans to participate in the political process.

As we noted in our amicus brief supporting Citizens United, the FEC now has regulations for 33 types of contributions and speech and 71 different types of speakers. Regardless of the abstract merit of the various arguments for and against limits on political contributions and spending, this very complexity raises serious concerns about whether the law can be enforced consistent with the First Amendment.

Those regulatory burdens often fall hardest not on large-scale players in the political world but on spontaneous grass-roots movements, upstart, low-budget campaigns, and unwitting volunteers. Violating the law by engaging in forbidden political speech can land you in a federal prison, a very un-American notion. The Disclose Act exacerbates many of these problems and is a blatant attempt by its sponsors to do indirectly, through excessively onerous regulatory requirements, what the Supreme Court told Congress it cannot do directly—restrict political speech.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Disclose Act is that, while the Supreme Court overturned limits on spending by both corporations and unions, Disclose seeks to reimpose them only on corporations. The FEC must constantly fight to overcome the perception that the law is merely a partisan tool of dominant political interests. Failure to maintain an evenhanded approach towards unions and corporations threatens public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system.

For example, while the Disclose Act prohibits any corporation with a federal contract of $50,000 or more from making independent expenditures or electioneering communications, no such prohibition applies to unions. This $50,000 trigger is so low it would exclude thousands of corporations from engaging in constitutionally protected political speech, the very core of the First Amendment. Yet public employee unions negotiate directly with the government for benefits many times the value of contracts that would trigger the corporate ban.

This prohibition is supposedly needed to address concerns that government contractors might use the political process to steer contracts their way; but unions have exactly the same conflict of interest. So do other recipients of federal funds, such as nonprofit organizations that receive federal grants and earmarks. Yet there is no ban on their independent political expenditures.

Disclose also bans expenditures on political advocacy by American corporations with 20% or more foreign ownership, but there is no such ban on unions—such as the Service Employees International Union, or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—that have large numbers of foreign members and foreign nationals as directors.

Existing law already prohibits foreign nationals, including corporations headquartered or incorporated outside of the U.S., from participating in any U.S. election. Thus Disclose does not ban foreign speech but speech by American citizen shareholders of U.S. companies that have some element of foreign ownership, even when those foreigners have no control over the decisions made by the Americans who run the company.

For example, companies such as Verizon Wireless, a Delaware corporation headquartered in New Jersey with 83,000 U.S. employees and 91 million U.S. customers, would be silenced because of the British Vodafone’s minority ownership in the corporation. But competing telecommunications companies could spend money to influence elections or issues being debated in Congress.

The new disclosure requirements are unnecessary, duplicating information already available to the public or providing information of low value at a significant cost in reduced clarity for grass-roots political speech. In many 30-second ads, Disclose would require no fewer than six statements as to who is paying for the ad (the current law already requires one such statement). These disclaimers would take up as much as half of every ad.

The Disclose Act also creates new disclosure requirements for nonprofit advocacy groups that speak out. These groups already have to disclose their sponsorship, but Disclose requires them to go further and provide the government with a membership list. This infringes on the First Amendment rights of private associations recognized by the Supreme Court in NAACP v. Alabama. Groups can avoid this only by creating a new type of political action committee called a “campaign related activities account.”

The result of these overly complex and unnecessary provisions is to force nonprofits to choose between two options that have each been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court: Either disclose their members to the government or restrict their political spending to the campaign related activities account. This runs contrary to the explicit holding in Citizens United that corporations (and unions) may engage in political speech using their general treasuries.

These requirements will be especially burdensome to small businesses and grass-roots organizations, which typically lack the resources for compliance. So the end effect of all of this “enhanced disclosure” will be to ensure that only large corporations, unions and advocacy groups can make political expenditures—the exact opposite of what the sponsors claim to desire.

While the Disclose Act does include an exemption for major media corporations, it does not include websites or the Internet, which means the government can regulate (and potentially censor) political dialogue on the Web. Additionally, the law would require any business or organization making political expenditures to create and maintain an extensive, highly sophisticated website with advanced search features to track its political activities.

As a result, small businesses, grass-roots organizations, and union locals that maintain only basic websites would be discouraged from making any expenditures for political advocacy, because doing so would require them to spend thousands of dollars to upgrade their websites and purchase software to report information that is already readily available to the public from the FEC. Large companies and unions could probably meet this requirement, so once again the bill benefits large, institutional players over small businesses and grass-roots organizations.

The Disclose Act’s abandonment of the historical matching treatment of unions and corporations will cause a substantial portion of the public to doubt the law’s fairness and impartiality. It makes election law even more complex, more incomprehensible to ordinary voters, and more open to subjective enforcement by those seeking partisan gain.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703460404575244772070710374.html

The best books about Thailand

Simon Long is Asia editor for The Economist, a London-based position he’s held since 2006. He joined the paper in 1995 as South-East Asia correspondent, based in Bangkok. In 1999 he became the Finance and Economics editor, and in 2001 a writer for Global Agenda, The Economist‘s daily online news section (now called News Analysis). In 2002 he moved to India as South Asia Bureau Chief. For ten years prior to this, he worked for the BBC in London and as a Beijing and Hong Kong correspondent. He is the author of a number of Economist special reports, most recently one on Indonesia, published in September.  

Thailand is in the midst of a protracted and fatally violent power-struggle, with no clear end in sight. This conflict has revealed deep rifts between the metropolitan elite in Bangkok and the poorer, rural majority, especially in the country’s north-east. Can you recommend any books that consider these long-standing tensions?

No. Browse the shelves in an Asian airport bookshop and you will find no shortage of books on Thailand. The vast majority, however, fall into two categories: tourist guidebooks and thin novels written by lascivious expatriate men, whose covers feature good-looking Thai women. None of these is of much help in understanding the current crisis. The gap in the market for a good English-language introduction to Thai politics, society and the economy has been best-filled by the husband-and-wife team of Chris Baker, a British historian, and Pasuk Phongpaichit, a Thai economist. My favourite of their books is probably “Thailand’s Boom” (Silkworm Books), published in 1996. (Given the book’s unfortunate timing—just before the economic crash of1997—a new version of the book appeared a couple of years later, called “Thailand’s Boom and Bust”.) Though obviously overtaken by events, it is still an insightful introduction to the country and a good description of the economic and social transformation at the root of the present divisions. Also helpful is their biography of the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is supported by many of the protesters in Bangkok, called “Thaksin” (University of Washington, 2009).

At 82, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and a revered national father-figure. The king is not in the best of health, and one factor behind the present unrest is the sense of unease most Thais feel at the prospect of the succession, which will see the accession of his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the same respect commanded by his father, to say the least. Are there any books that chronicle King Bhumibol’s impact on Thailand?

No. Thailand has extremely severe lèse-majesté laws (against which The Economist has editorialised and about which it has held an online debate). This means that any discussion of the role of the monarchy in Thailand is strictly curtailed. Oddly, much of the foreign press has complied with this refusal to discuss one of the central issues in Thai politics (The Economist is an exception). So most writing on King Bhumibhol is hagiographic. The exception, a scholarly and thorough piece of work, is Paul Handley’s “The King Never Smiles” (Yale, 2006), which is banned in Thailand, and the only serious source on the role of the monarchy.

What book would you suggest as a general history of Thailand?

Baker and Phongpaichit have leapt into the gap again with “A History of Thailand” (Cambridge University paperback, 2009), which, like their other books, has the great virtue of being extremely readable. It has supplanted the earlier staple, “Thailand: A short history”, by David Wyatt (Yale, 2003), which was heavier going but also good value. Of books with a narrower scope, I would strongly recommend, if you can find it, the brilliant “Siam becomes Thailand: a story of intrigue” (Hurst, 1991), by the late Judy Stowe, a former colleague of mine at the BBC World Service, about the machinations that followed the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

What’s next on your reading list?

Having visited Thailand every year since 1982, and lived there for four years in the 1990s, I find recent events terribly depressing. I am reading about other things: “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel’s marvellous Booker-prize winning novel about Tudor Britain, and the forthcoming “Curfewed Night” by Basharat Peer, a personal history of Kashmir, which I will be reviewing for The Economist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=16155881&source=hptextfeature

A step closer to sanctions

America announces a deal with Russia and China, but the world is divided on how to deal with Iran

TWO leaders from two big regional powers, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, took a risk in travelling to Iran and negotiating over the country’s contentious nuclear programme. Surpassing low expectations, the two announced triumph on May 17th, clutching hands with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president. But just a day later came the American response: the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council and Germany had agreed on a draft resolution extending sanctions on Iran, to be presented soon to the full council.

Under the Brazilian-Turkish deal, Iran would send 1,200 kg of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. In exchange it wants 120 kg of uranium enriched to a higher level (around 20%) for a research reactor which produces isotopes that can be used in medicine, within a year. In outline the deal is superficially similar to the one struck last October between France, Russia, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with American support. Under that plan, 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would have been sent to Russia for enrichment to 20%. The material would then have been sent on to France to be turned into fuel rods to be used in Iran’s medical reactor (which creates isotopes for use in treating cancer).

Iran backed out of that deal, demanding higher-enriched uranium immediately, and insisting any swap take place in Iran and that it should be limited to smaller quantities of the stuff. Now, Messrs Lula and Erdogan seem to have convinced Iran to give some ground on where and how quickly the enrichment would be done. With Iran’s apparent concessions in hand, the two mediating presidents now say there is no need for further sanctions from the UN Security Council (where both countries currently sit among the 15 members).

The permanent five Security Council members—America, Britain, France, Russia and China—obviously disagree, as Mrs Clinton lost no time in pointing out. The October fuel deal, however successfully revived by Brazil and Turkey, was meant, at the time, as a way of creating some breathing space to get Iran to do a broader deal that might eventually end the stand-off over its suspect nuclear work. But since Iran pulled out of the October deal it has gone on adding to its stock of LEU. As a result it would still have some 1,100 kg of the stuff after sending the other 1,200 kg to Turkey. Worse, it says it will continue enriching its own stock to 20%. Getting uranium from 20% enriched to the 90% or so needed for a bomb is an easier task than getting to 3.5% in the first place. Whatever trust Iran might have bought by doing the deal in October, it has bought a lot less this week.

Word at the UN has it that the sanctions package includes a full arms embargo, financial and shipping sanctions and further restrictions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The permanent five will remind Iran that three sanctions resolutions have required that it suspend enrichment, not just send some of its reactor fuel abroad.

But the diplomatic picture has been clouded by the Brazilian-Turkish mission. A Security Council resolution requires 9 votes of 15 (with no veto from the permanent five). Lebanon is already publicly sceptical, and Gabon has called for a negotiated solution. Mexico may feel caught between its important American relationship and its regional partner and rival, Brazil. If the permanent five have to scrape for the nine votes needed, the signal they send is weakened. In any case, many Iran-watchers think that China has already enfeebled the resolution by opposing anything contrary to its own commercial interests, that UN action alone can do little to influence Iran.

Separately, America’s Congress is considering tougher sanctions that would clamp down on exports of refined petroleum products to Iran. But those who pin their hopes on Iran’s anti-regime “green movement” worry that such economy-wide pain will make ordinary Iranians rally round the flag. Barack Obama has been accused of stalling those bills in the name of buying time for his international diplomacy aimed at isolating Iran. But it now seems that Iran may have successfully repeated its old trick of confusing and dividing countries preparing to tighten the net around it.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=16156412&source=features_box_main

Life in the Third Realm

Archaea were first found in areas like Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park, where fissures and volcanic heat created hot springs.

It’s that time of the month again. Yes: it’s time for Life-form of the Month. In case you’ve forgotten, this coming Saturday is International Day for Biological Diversity, a day of celebrations and parties to appreciate the other occupants of the planet. So if you do nothing else this weekend, drink a toast to “Other Life-forms!” In honor of this event, my nomination for Life-form of the Month: May is a group of abundant and fascinating beings that are undeservedly obscure: the archaea.

Say who?

Archaea are single-celled microbes with a reputation for living in tough environments like salt lakes, deep sea vents or boiling acid. One strain can grow at temperatures as high as 121 degrees Celsius (249.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a heat that kills most organisms; others thrive at the seriously acidic pH of zero.

They are not restricted to life at the fringes, however. As we have learned how to detect them, archaea have turned up all over the place. One survey estimated that they account for as much as 20 percent of all microbial cells in the ocean, and they’ve been discovered living in soil, swamps, streams and lakes, sediments at the bottom of the ocean, and so on. They are also routinely found in the bowels of the Earth — and the bowels of animals, including humans, cows and termites, where they produce methane. Indeed, the archaeon known as Methanobrevibacter smithii may account for as much as 10 percent of all the microbial cells living in your gut.

But here’s the thing. The tree of life falls into three big lineages, or realms of life. (Confession: the technical term is “domains,” not “realms,” but I’m taking poetic license.) The most familiar realm comprises the eukaryotes — which is the blanket term for most of the organisms we are familiar with, be they mushrooms, water lilies, tsetse flies, humans or the single-celled beasties that cause malaria. Eukaryotes have many distinguishing features, including the fact that they keep their genes in a special compartment known as the cell nucleus.

The second member of the trinity is made up of bacteria. We tend to associate bacteria with disease — for they can cause a range of nasty infections, including pneumonia, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis and the like. But in fact, most bacteria lead blameless lives (some of which I have written about in previous columns). There are many differences between eukaryotes and bacteria; but one of the most obvious is that bacteria do not sequester their DNA in a cell nucleus.

Archaea

Methanogens, a type of archaea

The third great lineage of living beings is the archaea. At first glance, they look like bacteria — and were initially presumed to be so. In fact, some scientists still classify them as bacteria; but most now consider that there are enough differences between archaea and bacteria for the archaea to count as a separate realm.

The most prominent of these differences lies in the structure of the ribosome — the piece of cellular machinery that is responsible for turning the information contained in DNA into proteins. Indeed, it was the discovery of the archaeal ribosome by the biologist Carl Woese in the 1970s that led to their being recognized as the third branch of the tree of life.

What else sets them apart? They sometimes come in peculiar shapes: Haloquadratum walsbyi is rectangular, for example. Some archaea are ultra-tiny, with cell volumes around 0.009 cubic microns. (For comparison, human red blood cells have a volume of around 90 cubic microns. A micron is a millionth of a meter — which is extremely small.)

More diagnostic: archaeal cell membranes have a different structure and composition from those of bacteria or eukaryotes. And although archaea organize their DNA much as bacteria do (they also have no cell nucleus, for example), many aspects of the way the DNA gets processed are distinctly different. Instead, the processing is more similar to what goes in within eukaryotic cells. Archaea also have large numbers of genes that are not found in the other groups.

But to me their most telling feature is that they have their own set of extremely weird viruses. Not only do archaeal viruses also come in odd shapes — some of them look like little bottles — but the set of genes they have is unlike that of viruses that parasitize bacteria or eukaryotes. In other words, viruses can also be divided into three big groups: those that attack bacteria, those that attack eukaryotes and those that attack archaea.

The archaea still hold many mysteries. Few of them can be grown in the laboratory, so they are hard to study in detail; many of them are known from their DNA alone. Moreover, their exact position on the tree of life — when they evolved relative to the other two groups — remains disputed. Yet it may be that archaea feature in our ancestry: according to one view, eukaryotes themselves evolved from an ancient fusion between a bacterium and an archaeon.

But whether this is the case, or whether they are merely co-occupants of the planet, let’s hear it for these Other Life-forms!

Notes:

For a delightful introduction to the archaea, see Howland, J. L. 2000. “The Surprising Archaea: Discovering Another Domain of Life.” Oxford University Press. For a more technical overview, see Cavicchioli, R. (editor). 2007. “Archaea: Molecular and Cellular Biology.” ASM Press. See page 21 for a photograph of the square archaeon, Haloquadratum walsbyi; this book also contains detailed descriptions of how archaea differ from eukaryotes and bacteria.

For archaea thriving at temperatures of 121 degrees C, see Kashefi, K. and Lovley, D. R. 2003. “Extending the upper temperature limit for life.” Science 301: 934. For archaea growing at zero pH, see Fütterer, O. et al. 2004. “Genome sequence of Picrophilus torridus and its implications for life around pH 0.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 101: 9091-9096.

For an overview of places where archaea have been found, see Chaban, B., Ng, S. Y. M., and Jarrell, K. F. 2006. “Archaeal habitats—from the extreme to the ordinary.” Canadian Journal of Microbiology 52: 73-116. For archaeal residents of animal guts, see Lange, M., Westermann, P., and Ahring, B. K. 2005. “Archaea in protozoa and metazoa.” Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 66: 465-474. For archaea comprising 20 percent of ocean microbes, see DeLong, E. and Pace, N. R. 2001. “Environmental diversity of bacteria and archaea.” Systematic Biology 50: 470-478. For Methanobrevibacter smithii comprising 10 percent of the human gut microbial population, see Samuel, B. S. et al. 2007. “Genomic and metabolic adaptations of Methanobrevibacter smithii to the human gut.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 10643-10648.

Descriptions of eukaryotes and bacteria can be found in any general biology textbook. For the view that archaea are merely a type of exotic bacteria, see page 123 of Cavalier-Smith, T. 2010. “Deep phylogeny, ancestral groups and the four ages of life.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365: 111-132. For a robust account of the three branches view of the tree of life, see for example, Pace, N. R. 2009. “Mapping the tree of life: progress and prospects.” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 73: 565-576.

For ultra-tiny archaea (and for the volume of 0.009 cubic microns), see Baker, B. J. et al. 2010. “Enigmatic, ultrasmall, uncultivated Archaea.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107: 8806-8811. I took the volume of the human red blood cell from table 1 of Gregory, T. R. 2000. “Nucleotypic effects without nuclei: genome size and erythrocyte size in mammals.” Genome 43: 895-901.

For the bizarre features of archaeal viruses, see Prangishvili, D., Forterre, P. and Garrett, R. A. 2006. “Viruses of the Archaea: a unifying view.” Nature Reviews Microbiology 4: 837-848. The origin of eukaryotes, and whether it involved the fusion between a bacterium and an archaeon, is much disputed. See, for example, Yutin, N. et al. 2008. “The deep archaeal roots of eukaryotes.” Molecular Biology and Evolution 25: 1619-1630; Kurland, C. G., Collins, L. J., and Penny, D. 2006. “Genomics and the irreducible nature of eukaryotic cells.” Science 312: 1011-1014; and Hartman, H. and Fedorov, A. 2002. “The origin of the eukaryotic cell: a genomic investigation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 99: 1420-1425.

Many thanks to Jonathan Swire for insights, comments and suggestions.

Olivia Judson, New York Times

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/life-in-the-third-realm/

Quants

For the uninitiated, financial writing can sometimes sound like science fiction. Take this sentence from “The Quants,” a new book by the Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson: “To the quants, beta is bad, alpha is good.” Out of context, that could easily be mistaken for dialogue from the “Star Trek” franchise.

In fact, the quants are the protagonists of Patterson’s gripping tale; experts in mathematics, physics and computer science who brought sophisticated quantitative approaches to the world of Wall Street. The number-crunching techniques of the quants promised something better than beta, which is “shorthand for plain-vanilla market returns anyone with half a brain can achieve,” in Patterson’s words. If you can deliver a return that surpasses the benchmark indexes, you’ve achieved alpha — and with it, the “ephemeral promise of vast riches.”

In the pursuit of alpha, the quants managed to reshape the financial markets by relying on computerized algorithms to generate huge gains for investors. But with the unfolding economic crisis of 2007 and beyond, the alpha dogs ended up in the doghouse.

Regardless of how much blame the quants deserve for the current economic mess, their impact has been undeniable. From the early ’70s, math-minded academics began moving to Wall Street, designing complex models to assess risk and predict market movements. On their arrival, they were often called “rocket scientists” by traditional traders, a term of derision that belittled their lack of down-in-the-trenches business know-how. (Think of folksy disclaimers like “I’m no rocket scientist, but . . .” or “It’s not rocket science!”)

Quants then emerged as the new word for Wall Street’s rocket scientists. It had long been a scholastic shortening for “quantitative,” defined as early as 1896 in a glossary of student slang as “quantitative analysis or quantitative chemistry.” In its financial application, the word could refer either to the analysis or to those who conducted it. In 1979, Forbes magazine characterized quants as “the young consultants who do much of their monitoring by questionnaire and most of their evaluating by quantitative analysis.” That same year, in “The Dow Jones-Irwin Guide to Modern Portfolio Theory,” Robert Hagin offered some “new words”: “quants (those who apply quantitative investment techniques), superquants, pseudoquants and even turncoat-quants.”

The big quant boom began in the mid-’80s, when investment firms started attracting venerable names like Emanuel Derman, a South African-born physicist described by Patterson as an “überquant,” who eventually became a managing director at Goldman Sachs. When I asked Derman recently about his early years in finance, he said that at first he felt that quant, like rocket scientist before it, was largely a derogatory put-down for the brainy newcomers, many of them foreign-born: “two-thirds pejorative, one-third grudging praise,” by his calculation. Another popular epithet from the era was quant jock, on the model of other eggheaded jock compounds like math jock or computer jock.

Quant was still new enough in 1986 that its origin stumped William Safire, who surmised that it was an abbreviation of “quantum jump.” But soon there were quant funds (investment funds with securities selected by quantitative analysis) and quant firms (firms specializing in quantitative investment). Wall Street recruiters scoured the top tech schools for all manner of quants. As described by Mark Joshi, a former quant at the Royal Bank of Scotland, in his paper “On Becoming a Quant,” subspecies include desk quants, a k a front-office quants, who work directly with traders, and statistical-arbitrage quants (stat-arb quants for short), who plow through mounds of data to find opportunities for automated trading.

As quantdom grew more glamorous in the ’90s — and as nerdhood in general became more firmly entrenched in the business world during the dot-com boom — any lingering ridicule behind quant faded away. Derman proudly identified with the Q-word in the title of his 2004 memoir, “My Life as a Quant,” and 25 financial analysts reminisced about their roots in the collection “How I Became a Quant,” published in 2007. Reviewing the latter book in The Wall Street Journal, Derman wrote that quant had become more all-encompassing, noting that several of the contributors were in his estimation “not true quants” steeped in advanced university research but instead were simply quantitative in their investment approaches.

The geeky glamour of the quant took a big hit with the financial downturn, beginning with the so-called quant crisis in the summer of 2007, when quant funds took a nosedive. “All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffett memorably told Charlie Rose in October 2008. But The Times reported last year that student interest in the quant career track remains strong, as demonstrated by the standing-room-only attendance at a workshop at M.I.T. called “So You Want to Be a Quant.”

Despite hand-wringing over the failure of the quants, neither the term nor the type of financial analysis it designates is in danger of disappearing, according to David Leinweber, author of “Nerds on Wall Street” and the founding director of the Center for Innovative Financial Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. “As long as there’s data and money, there will be quants,” Leinweber recently told me. And as the markets move increasingly toward computer-driven, high-frequency trading, with exchanges made by the millisecond, the enduring influence of the quants will remain vast — maybe even unquantifiable.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/magazine/16FOB-OnLanguage-t.html