Exercise best anti-aging treatment, study suggests

Canadian scientists appear to have proven that you can, in fact, run away from old age.

In what could stand up as the most powerful evidence yet that exercise prolongs life, a study by McMaster University researchers in Hamilton found that signs of premature aging were halted — and even reversed — in virtually every tissue and organ in the bodies of exercised mice.

The finding, which could be a turning point in anti-aging medicine, suggests the proverbial fountain of youth won’t come from a pill or from an exotic berry from the Amazon, but rather plain old exercise.

Mice genetically altered to age faster were forced to run on treadmills for 45 minutes, three times a week.

Five months later, the mice looked as young, healthy and active as wild-type mice — mice that didn’t have the genetic mutation — while their sedentary and same-aged siblings were balding, greying and shrinking.

While the exercised mice scampered and scurried about their cages, the aging non-runners huddled in a corner, barely moving.

Not only did the treadmill-running mice look as sleek-coated, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as wild mice, but the researchers also saw “huge recovery” in age-related damage to practically every tissue they could analyze.

The study’s beauty lies in its simplicity, says principal investigator Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky.

“What’s neat about our study is that this is something that is conceivably so simple. We purposely exercised them three times a week for 45 minutes at a moderate-intensity exercise, which is something that any human — provided they don’t have . . . (an illness) — can do.”

What’s more, the exercise did more than just protect the muscles and heart, as might have been expected.

The team found “unprecedented” anti-aging effects of endurance exercise on the brain, skin, hair, gonads (ovaries and testicles), kidneys, spleen and liver.

“Every part of the body was protected by exercise,” said Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. “I think that exercise is the most potent anti-aging therapy available today and likely forever.”

Death is inevitable, “but exercise is the only way to stay healthy and free of disease for a longer period of time,” he added.

“We know that exercise has benefits even when humans start over the age of 65. But this study clearly shows that we can get closer to the fountain of youth if we start when we’re young and do moderate exercise our whole life.”

The findings, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents “one of the most striking rescues yet reported in aging models without gene therapy or a pharmaceutical intervention,” said lead author Adeel Safdar, a senior PhD student working with Tarnopolsky.

At the crux of the experiments lies the mitochondrial hypothesis.

The mice were genetically manipulated to age twice as fast as normal because of a defect in the repair system of their mitochondria, the powerhouses or furnaces inside each cell that give our body energy.

Evidence has been mounting for decades that the older we get, the more mutations we accumulate in mitochondrial DNA. The furnaces start to break down, resulting in a steady decline in tissue and organ function, Safdar said.

That not only leads to aging, he said, but also to all the diseases associated with getting older, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and Parkinson’s.

“And that’s really the premise upon which these mice were created,” Tarnopolsky said. “The people who created the mice essentially said, ‘Why don’t we create a mouse that has mitochondrial dysfunction and see if they age prematurely?’ ”

Lo and behold, the mice die about twice as fast as normal mice and show many features of human aging, he said, including hair loss, hearing loss, cataracts, brain atrophy or shrinkage, enlarged hearts and smaller muscles.

Epidemiological studies in humans have shown that people who are physically active or exercise regularly have fewer chronic diseases and tend to live longer — runners especially.

“So we thought this was a nice model that would allow us to really test how effective exercise really is in human aging,” Tarnopolsky said.

The experiments began when the mice were three months old — about 20 in human years — and ended five months later when the mice were eight months old — in their late 60s by the human equivalent.

The mice were randomly assigned to running three times per week or to just being sedentary in their cages.

Five months later, the sedentary mice showed major signs of aging: Their ovaries and testes were small and their hearts were enlarged, compared to the running mice, whose hearts were essentially normal. “The brain was atrophic, or small in the non-runners, but it was back to normal size in the runners,” Tarnopolsky added.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening. But exercise is a physiological stressor — a good one — that causes the body to produce more energy.

“In our study, we saw huge recovery in mitochondrial function (in the exercised mice),” Safdar said.

Bigger studies involving more mice are needed to determine just how strong the life-extending effect of exercise might be.

But, said Tarnopolsky, the message is “it’s never too late” to star exercising.

“I really think we have to start when people are young. We have to encourage our children and people throughout their life to maintain healthy levels of physical activity.”

Ottawa Citizen

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Full article: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Exercise+best+anti+aging+treatment+study+suggests/4324434/story.htmlhttp://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Exercise+best+anti+aging+treatment+study+suggests/4324434/story.html

Crude reality

Will a Middle Eastern oil disruption crush the economy? New research suggests the answer is no — and that a major tenet of American foreign policy may be fundamentally wrong.

For more than a month, the world has been riveted by scenes of protest in the Middle East, with demonstrators flooding streets from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond. As the unrest has spread, people in the West have also been keeping a wary eye on something closer to home: the gyrating stock market and the rising price of gas. Fear that the upheaval will start to affect major oil producers like Saudi Arabia has led speculators to bid up oil prices — and led some economic analysts to predict that higher energy costs could derail America’s nascent economic recovery.

The idea that a sudden spike in oil prices spells economic doom has influenced America’s foreign policy since at least 1973, when Arab states, upset with Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, drastically cut production and halted exports to the United States. The result was a sudden quadrupling in crude prices and a deep global recession. Many Americans still have vivid memories of gas lines stretching for blocks, and of the unemployment, inflation, and general sense of insecurity and panic that followed. Even harder hit were our allies in Europe and Japan, as well as many developing nations.

Economists have a term for this disruption: an oil shock. The idea that such oil shocks will inevitably wreak havoc on the US economy has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in turn the United States has made ensuring the smooth flow of crude from the Middle East a central tenet of its foreign policy. Oil security is one of the primary reasons America has a long-term military presence in the region. Even aside from the Iraq and Afghan wars, we have equipment and forces positioned in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar; the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is permanently stationed in Bahrain.

But a growing body of economic research suggests that this conventional view of oil shocks is wrong. The US economy is far less susceptible to interruptions in the oil supply than previously assumed, according to these studies. Scholars examining the recent history of oil disruptions have found the worldwide oil market to be remarkably adaptable and surprisingly quick at compensating for shortfalls. Economists have found that much of the damage once attributed to oil shocks can more persuasively be laid at the feet of bad government policies. The US economy, meanwhile, has become less dependent on Persian Gulf oil and less sensitive to changes in crude prices overall than it was in 1973.

These findings have led a few bold political scientists and foreign policy experts to start asking an uncomfortable question: If the United States could withstand a disruption in Persian Gulf oil supplies, why does it need a permanent military presence in the region at all? There’s a lot riding on that question: America’s presence in the Middle East exacts a heavy toll in political capital, financial resources, and lives. Washington’s support for Middle East autocrats makes America appear hypocritical on issues of human rights and democracy. The United States spends billions of dollars every year to maintain troops in the Middle East, and the troops risk their lives simply by being there, since they make tempting targets for the region’s Islamic extremists. And arguably, because the presence of these forces inflames radicals and delegitimizes local rulers, they may actually be undermining the very stability they are ostensibly there to ensure.

Among those asking this tough question are two young professors, Eugene Gholz, at the University of Texas, and Daryl Press, at Dartmouth College. To find out what actually happens when the world’s petroleum supply is interrupted, the duo analyzed every major oil disruption since 1973. The results, published in a recent issue of the journal Strategic Studies, showed that in almost all cases, the ensuing rise in prices, while sometimes steep, was short-lived and had little lasting economic impact. When there have been prolonged price rises, they found the cause to be panic on the part of oil purchasers rather than a supply shortage. When oil runs short, in other words, the market is usually adept at filling the gap.

One striking example was the height of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. If anything was likely to produce an oil shock, it was this: two major Persian Gulf producers directly targeting each other’s oil facilities. And indeed, prices surged 25 percent in the first months of the conflict. But within 18 months of the war’s start they had fallen back to their prewar levels, and they stayed there even though the fighting continued to rage for six more years. Surprisingly, during the 1984 “Tanker War” phase of that conflict — when Iraq tried to sink oil tankers carrying Iranian crude and Iran retaliated by targeting ships carrying oil from Iraq and its Persian Gulf allies — the price of oil continued to drop steadily. Gholz and Press found just one case after 1973 in which the market mechanisms failed: the 1979-1980 Iranian oil strike which followed the overthrow of the Shah, during which Saudi Arabia, perhaps hoping to appease Islamists within the country, also led OPEC to cut production, exacerbating the supply shortage.

In their paper, Gholz and Press ultimately conclude that the market’s adaptive mechanisms function independently of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and that they largely protect the American economy from being damaged by oil shocks. “To the extent that the United States faces a national security challenge related to Persian Gulf oil, it is not ‘how to protect the oil we need’ but ‘how to assure consumers that there is nothing to fear,’ ” the two write. “That is a thorny policy problem, but it does not require large military deployments and costly military operations.”

There’s no denying the importance of Middle Eastern oil to the US economy. Although only 15 percent of imported US oil comes directly from the Persian Gulf, the region is responsible for nearly a third of the world’s production and the majority of its known reserves. But the oil market is also elastic: Many key producing countries have spare capacity, so if oil is cut off from one country, others tend to increase their output rapidly to compensate. Today, regions outside the Middle East, such as the west coast of Africa, make up an increasingly important share of worldwide production. Private companies also hold large stockpiles of oil to smooth over shortages — amounting to a few billion barrels in the United States alone — as does the US government, with 700 million barrels in its strategic petroleum reserve. And the market can largely work around shipping disruptions by using alternative routes; though they are more expensive, transportation costs account for only tiny fraction of the price of oil.

Compared to the 1970s, too, the structure of the US economy offers better insulation from oil price shocks. Today, the country uses half as much energy per dollar of gross domestic product as it did in 1973, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration. Remarkably, the economy consumed less total energy in 2009 than in 1997, even though its GDP rose and the population grew. When it comes time to fill up at the pump, the average US consumer today spends less than 4 percent of his or her disposable income on gasoline, compared with more than 6 percent in 1980. Oil, though crucial, is simply a smaller part of the economy than it once was.

There is no denying that the 1973 oil shock was bad — the stock market crashed in response to the sudden spike in oil prices, inflation jumped, and unemployment hit levels not seen since the Great Depression. The 1979 oil shock also had deep and lasting economic effects. Economists now argue, however, that the economic damage was more directly attributable to bad government policy than to the actual supply shortage. Among those who have studied past oil shocks is Ben Bernanke, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve. In 1997, Bernanke analyzed the effects of a sharp rise in fuel prices during three different oil shocks — 1973-75, 1980-82, and 1990-91. He concluded that the major economic damage was caused not by the oil price increases but by the Federal Reserve overreacting and sharply increasing interest rates to head off what it wrongly feared would be a wave of inflation. Today, his view is accepted by most mainstream economists.

Gholz and Press are hardly the only researchers who have concluded that we are far too worried about oil shocks. The economy also faced a large increase in prices in the mid-2000s, largely as the result of surging demand from emerging markets, with no ill effects. “If you take any economics textbook written before 2000, it would talk about what a calamitous effect a doubling in oil prices would have,” said Philip Auerswald, an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy who has written about oil shocks and their implications for US foreign policy. “Well, we had a price quadrupling from 2003 and 2007 and nothing bad happened.” (The recession of 2008-9 was triggered by factors unrelated to oil prices.)

Auerswald also points out that when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, it did tremendous damage to offshore oil rigs, refineries, and pipelines, as well as the rail lines and roads that transport petroleum to the rest of the country. The United States gets about 12 percent of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico region, and, more significantly, 40 percent of its refining capacity is located there. “Al Qaeda times 1,000 could not deliver this sort of blow to the oil industry’s physical infrastructure,” Auerswald said. And yet the only impact was about five days of gas lines in Georgia, and unusually high prices at the pump for a few weeks.

While there is an increasing consensus that oil shocks caused by disruptions in supply are not particularly harmful — and, somewhat surprisingly, have little impact on oil prices — a debate still rages among economists about whether the same can be said of oil shocks caused by increases in demand or those caused by speculators bidding prices up in anticipation of a supply disruption (such as before the first Persian Gulf War). The relation of these sorts of shocks to economic recessions is not well understood. But what’s clear is that the relationship has more to do with human perceptions than any actual change in the oil supply.

So how much should we be sacrificing to protect our oil supply? The question goes to the heart of American policy in the Middle East.

In 1997, Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser, two political analysts at the Rand Corporation with long records of US government service, estimated that the United States spent “$60 billion a year to protect the import of $30 billion worth of oil that would flow anyway.” A 2006 study by James Murphy, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Mark Delucchi, at the University of California Davis, similarly found that when the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken into account, the expenditures ranged anywhere between $47 billion and $98 billion per year. But the amount of oil coming to the United States from the region was worth less than $35 billion per year.

“Why is it that American consumers are bearing a disproportionate cost of having oil flowing to the international marketplace?” said Christopher Preble, head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

In their Security Studies paper, Gholz and Press argue that there are indeed a few threats in the Persian Gulf that might overwhelm the oil market and threaten US energy security. One of these would be an attempt by a single power to conquer the majority of the region. Another is Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the only irreplaceable sea channel. The third is revolution in Saudi Arabia. The first two scenarios are highly unlikely, Press and Gholz argue, and could be countered by moving in US forces stationed elsewhere in the world, such as the neighboring Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. (There is debate among security analysts about whether Iran has the military capability to close the strait, or could itself economically survive such a move.) A revolt in Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is looking increasingly possible given the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt — but it could not be prevented by the US military deployed in the Gulf. Our presence could even make such unrest more likely, if soldiers became flashpoints for revolutionary anger.

Gholz’s and Press’s argument has gained some currency in academic circles. “I have believed for a long time that the US presence in the Gulf has been ‘under argued’ strategically,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where both Gholz and Press received their PhDs, wrote in an e-mail response to questions about this topic. “Press and Gholz undermine the usual ‘simple’ arguments for being there. That leaves us looking for other arguments that may be the ‘true’ ones, or suspecting that there is no strong argument.”

But it has gained little traction so far either on Capitol Hill or in the corridors of the Pentagon. “Did it immediately change people’s minds? Not really,” Gholz said of his paper.

Auerswald, who has grown frustrated by the lack of response to his own research on this topic, said that the problem is that the fear of Middle Eastern oil shocks is now politically useful to a whole spectrum of powerful interest groups. “This argument is like the familiar old jeans of American politics,” he said. “They are nice and cozy and comfortable and everyone can wear them. Because of ethanol, the farm lobby loves it; for coal, well it’s their core argument; for the offshore drilling folks, they love it.” Even the environmental movement relies on it, he said, because they use it as bogeyman to scare Americans into taking renewable energy and energy conservation more seriously. As for the US military, “The US Navy is not interested in hearing that one of their two main theaters of operation has no justification for being,” Auerswald said.

The costs to US foreign policy, of course, cannot be calculated in dollars and cents alone, although certainly the cost here has been very high. But it looks even higher when one considers the lost opportunities and squandered chances — what we could be achieving if we weren’t so concerned about a threat that looks increasingly like an illusion.

“If we are going to commit our troops to prevent something from happening, it should be something that would be an existential threat to the United States,” said Auerswald. “Having people wait in line for five days for gas in one part of the US is not an existential threat.”

Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Dehli.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/crude_reality/

Uncommon knowledge

How class affects your brain

Most of the kids who attend top colleges come from affluent families. As if that isn’t discouraging enough for kids from lower-class families, a new study at Northwestern University suggests that, even for kids who’ve already made it to a top university, coming from a lower-class background can wear them down. After talking about their own academic achievement, lower-class students ate more candy and had more trouble with self-control than more affluent students. This didn’t happen when they talked about a nonacademic topic, suggesting that lower-class students are more self-conscious about their academic status; the psychological pressure of discussing it wears them out. However, the researchers did find a way to psychologically undermine students from all backgrounds more equally: comparing them to students at an even more elite university!

Johnson, S. et al., ”Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Mom, get away!

One of the stereotypes of a detached personality is that such a person will not only avoid close relationships but must not have been loved by his or her mother. In a novel experiment, researchers found that the word “mom” does indeed have an automatic negative association for these people. The researchers asked people to stand in front of a screen that randomly displayed various words and push a lever as fast as possible upon seeing the words. People with more detached personalities pushed the lever away faster than other people in response to the word “mom” but not in response to other words.

Fraley, C. & Marks, M., “Pushing Mom Away: Embodied Cognition and Avoidant Attachment,” Journal of Research in Personality (forthcoming).

I am yours

A longstanding feminist critique of dating culture is that men are expected to be promiscuous, while women are expected to be loyal, doting partners. This may be unfair, but evolutionary psychology would suggest that women are compelled to signal their faithfulness to prospective partners because men can’t be certain about paternity, and are therefore wary of unfaithful women. In a recent study, women who were made to think about long-term romance reported that they wouldn’t want to go to a concert with — and would otherwise distance themselves from — another woman who is unfaithful to the men she dates. Women were not as put off by the company of a cheater if they were made to think about short-term romance or just hanging out with friends. Although men had a generally negative reaction towards a cheating friend, this reaction wasn’t particularly sensitive to the romantic context, suggesting that the signaling of faithfulness is more important for women.

Dosmukhambetova, D. & Manstead, A., “Strategic Reactions to Unfaithfulness: Female Self-Presentation in the Context of Mate Attraction Is Linked to Uncertainty of Paternity,” Evolution and Human Behavior (March 2011).

Sorting the dead

TV crime dramas like “CSI” usually present the autopsy as a clear-cut analytical exercise. However, criminal investigators and medical examiners are prone to biases just like everyone else. Comparing a nationally representative sample of death certificates to survey responses from next of kin, researchers found that the racial identity of decedents was often misclassified — at a rate of about 1 percent for whites, and up to almost 9 percent for Native Americans. Worse, misclassification to a particular race was more likely if the cause of death fit the stereotype for that race: Death by cirrhosis was associated with misclassification as Native American, while being murdered was associated with misclassification as black.

Noymer, A. et al., “Cause of Death Affects Racial Classification on Death Certificates,” PLoS ONE (January 2011).

Speed thinking

In the race to boost brain performance, some British psychologists have found one trick: the click. When various mental tasks were preceded by several seconds of clicking — compared to silence or white noise — people’s minds seemed to perform a little bit better. Not only was this the case for reaction times to basic stimuli, but math problems were solved slightly faster, data was recalled a little bit more fluently, and previously seen pictures were more likely to be recognized. The authors of the study aren’t exactly sure how clicks produce this effect but figure that the clicks might speed up the perception of time, speeding up the underlying thought process.

Jones, L. et al., “Click Trains and the Rate of Information Processing: Does ‘Speeding Up’ Subjective Time Make Other Psychological Processes Run Faster?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (February 2011).

Don’t say it

The art of dodging bad words

What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.

We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)

Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)

For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.

Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians…presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”

This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.

But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.

In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.

But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/dont_say_it/

Well worth not reading

Some of my favorite books are the ones I’ve never opened

Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I enjoy running my fingers along the spines of books and reading titles and authors’ names, pulling the books out and flipping through them, thinking about the stories inside them.

I buy or borrow the books and read them. This is where an unexpected and troubling thing happens. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading.

There are hundreds of films I’ve never seen, thousands of songs I’ve never heard. But I don’t anticipate them the way that I do books. I don’t imagine the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had experienced them. With books, the anticipation is different. In fact, with books, it is sometimes the best part.

Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple vacationing in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual.

Except that it wasn’t about that at all: It was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be. That dense, bittersweet story I had anticipated reading did not exist, and I felt a sense of loss, a yearning for something unreal. And yet somehow I had read that nonexistent book, because I had created it myself. I was not changed by the experience of reading that book, but perhaps I was changed by my own anticipation of what it could have been.

So I save books. I buy a book with every intention of reading it, but then the more I look at it and think about how great it is going to be, the less I want to read it. I know that it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, and slowly, the joy of my own imaginings becomes more precious to me than whatever actually lies between the covers.

Most books I read just get chewed up and spat out. I enjoy them, but ask me in a year and all I’ll remember is a vague shape of plot, the sense of a character, perhaps the color of a sky in summer, or the taste of borscht. My favorite books, of course, do stay with me. They shift and color my world, and I am different for having read them. But before reading a book, there’s no way to know which it will be: a slick of lipstick that I wear for a day and then wipe off, or a tattoo that stays on my body forever. An unread book has the potential to be the greatest book I have ever read. Any unread book could change my life.

I currently have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But to me, my imagined library is as personal and meaningful — or perhaps even more so — than the collection of books I have read. Each book is intense and vivid in my mind; each book says complex things about my life, history, and personality. Each book has taught me something about the world, or at least about my own expectations of the world, my idea of its possibilities. Here are some examples:

I think that Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say aloud, “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”

Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it, I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at college.

Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has been on my shelves for 10 years, dragged from house to house without its spine ever being cracked. It was given to me by a friend when I was a teenager, and I cannot read it because when I do, I will finally understand my friend, and that scares me. Her life is a set of nesting dolls with something solid and simple at the center, and I do not know whether that thing is pure gold or sticky-dark tar-poison. Holding the book is holding my friend’s hand, and that is as close as I dare to get.

Jeff VanderMeer’s “City of Saints and Madmen” is an entire universe between two covers. It contains sculptures and mix tapes and skyscrapers and midwives and sacrifices, and everything else that exists in my own world, but with every edge crusted in gilt and mold. It will open my eyes to a new way of seeing, and when I finish it, I will somehow have been transformed from being just a person who writes into A Real Writer.

Anais Nin’s “Journals” will shatter my illusions and create new ones. Anais Nin is everything that I fear and hope that I am; when I read her “Journals,” she might be everything I think she is. This is thrilling and terrifying at the same time, because then I will be forced to emulate her life of complex heartaches, pearls and lace, all-day sleep, and absinthe-soaked dinner parties — and those things are just not practical. And, even more frightening, she may not be who I think she is. If she is not special, then no one can be special.

I am not ready for Françoise Sagan’s “Aimez-Vous Brahms.” At 18 I read her novella “Bonjour Tristesse” and I was transformed: This book held a truth I didn’t even know I knew. The protagonist of “Aimez-Vous Brahms” is 39, and so when I read it at 39 it will tell me the truth the same way that “Bonjour Tristesse” did when I was 18. Like 18, 39 is a the perfect meeting of anticipation and experience, and this book will guide me through into the next phase of my life.

I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. Perhaps I will never read them. This is the same logic that means I will probably never visit Russia: I imagine that a trip to Russia will be the crux of my life. Every moment will be candy-colored buildings and strong coffee on silver platters, steam trains slipping past quaint farmhouses and huge black bears glimpsed through the snow, furred hats against my ears, and history seeping into my veins. I know that if I actually go to Russia, there will be moments where I don’t like the food, or my feet ache, or I can’t sleep, or I get annoyed at not being able to read the Cyrillic signs. If I keep it in my imagination, it stays pure and perfect.

There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I really will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I know that certain books will resonate deeply and perfectly because they are similar in some way to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Alice Greenway’s “White Ghost Girls,” a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, “Ecstasia” and “Primavera”; or Stewart O’Nan’s small-town ghost story, “The Night Country”; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.

I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

Try an experiment with me. It might seem odd at first, but go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book, the best book you have ever read. But I suggest that the literary universe you have just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. Your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.

Kirsty Logan is a fiction writer in Glasgow.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/well_worth_not_reading/

The Way Forward in Egypt

The U.S. risks ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that includes U.S. enemies.

Is there a coherent explanation for the bizarre muddle that is the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt?

The charitable view is that the administration is deliberately speaking out of both sides of its mouth—sometimes hostile, sometimes conciliatory to Hosni Mubarak—because it’s hedging its bets about the outcome of the unrest. Frank Wisner, the administration’s handpicked envoy to Cairo, told a security conference here that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical—it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Yet Hillary Clinton declared at the same conference that democratic reform was a “strategic necessity” and that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to let his vice president take matters in hand.

The alternative explanation is that the administration has no idea what it’s doing. Considering that Mrs. Clinton has now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in negotiations with the regime, I find myself leaning toward the uncharitable view.

So what should the administration do now? Here’s a simple exercise:

1) Identify worst-case scenarios and set priorities. The worst outcome for the U.S. would be an Egypt led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The next-worst outcome is that the current regime survives by returning to its Nasserist roots as a secular but reactionary regime—populist in its economic policies, hostile to the U.S. and Israel, potentially a client of China, and in the market for a nuclear arsenal. Also conceivable is that the regime and the Brotherhood strike a devil’s bargain and rule in condominium.

The U.S. should work toward a more democratic future for Egypt. But that should not be the primary goal of U.S. policy. What’s paramount is to ensure that worst-case outcomes don’t come to pass.

2) Define a position. So far, the administration’s principles, as Mrs. Clinton describes them, are to encourage “an orderly, expeditious transition,” free of violence and culminating in “free and fair elections.”

This won’t do. It’s fine for the U.S. to support a process or pledge its support for the “choice of the Egyptian people.” But we simply cannot be indifferent to the result of that choice. When Mrs. Clinton speaks of a transition, somebody needs to ask: transition to what? One plausible answer is an Egypt that respects individual rights, private property, the rule of law, and its international obligations.

3) Cultivate the right friends. For two years, the administration cultivated Mr. Mubarak at the expense of Egypt’s genuine liberals, who were treated as nuisances. When parliamentary elections were rigged late last year, Mr. Obama raised no objection.

Now the administration is making the opposite mistake, abruptly ostracizing a regime that may yet hold on to power, while making common cause with an opposition that contains no shortage of U.S. enemies.

The U.S. doesn’t have many sincere friends in Egypt, which is all the more reason that it needs to maintain the ones it does.

Specifically, the administration ought to understand and respect the interests of an army without which there can be no reform or democracy. It could speak up for the Egyptian technocrats, particularly the recently fired Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, who was probably Egypt’s most competent civilian leader and is now being scapegoated by Mr. Mubarak. It needs to be outspoken on behalf of genuine dissidents like Kareem Amer, a blogger who spent four years in jail for “insulting Islam” and “insulting Mubarak” and has recently gone missing.

4) Understand the possibilities of the present. Nobody wants Egypt to return to the status quo ante. But the last thing the U.S. should want on the streets of Cairo is a revolution. And on current trends, there isn’t going to be one: The protests are getting smaller, life is returning to normal, and the regime, as I predicted last week, has “engaged” the opposition in what will prove to be an endless negotiation. The real question is whether what comes next in Egypt is reaction or reform.

5) “Assist and insist.” The Obama administration has an opportunity to tilt Egypt toward reform, and even commit a bit of bipartisanship in the process.

“We need to be more assisting but also more insisting,” suggested John McCain at the security conference, by linking benefits like foreign aid, technical assistance and market access to a genuine process of reform and transition. The senator called it “a new compact with our undemocratic partners,” and it certainly beats the old formula of paying off Mr. Mubarak year after year for ever-diminishing returns.

6) Practice the art of the possible. Mrs. Clinton is right that democracy is a strategic necessity, at least in the long run. Democracy Now is another story.

The world has long experience with democratic transitions. Few of them are swift. Many of them fail. Some end tragically.

Egyptians are now casting about for decent role models for such a transition. One is Turkey, where for decades the army maintained its prerogatives but allowed civilian governments considerable leeway. Another is Mexico, which gave its presidents near-dictatorial powers but limited them to six-year terms.

Would Egyptians be ill-served if they were to pursue some version of those models? Probably not. Would the U.S. be well-served if they did? Given the realistic alternatives, it surely would.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576129921076718648.html

Cloud control

Electrified sand. Exploding balloons. The long and colorful history of weather manipulation.

This brutal winter has made sure that no one forgets who’s in charge. The snow doesn’t fall so much as fly. Cars stay buried, and feet stay wet. Ice is invisible, and every puddle is deeper than it looks. On the eve of each new storm, the citizenry engages in diligent preparations, rearranging travel plans, lining up baby sitters in case the schools are closed, and packing comfortable shoes for work so they’re not forced to spend all day wearing their awful snow boots.

One can’t help but feel a little embarrassed on behalf of the species, to have been involved in all this fuss over something as trivial as the weather. Is the human race not mighty? How are we still allowing ourselves, in the year 2011, to be reduced to such indignities by a bunch of soggy clouds?

It is not for lack of trying. It’s just that over the last 200 years, the clouds have proven an improbably resilient adversary, and the weather in general has resisted numerous well-funded — and often quite imaginative — attempts at manipulation by meteorologists, physicists, and assorted hobbyists. Some have tried to make it rain, while others have tried to make it stop. Balloons full of explosives have been sent into the sky, and large quantities of electrically charged sand have been dropped from airplanes. One enduring scheme is to disrupt and weaken hurricanes by spreading oil on the surface of the ocean. Another is to drive away rain by shooting clouds with silver iodide or dry ice, a practice that was famously implemented at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and is frequently employed by farmers throughout the United States.

There’s something deeply and perennially appealing about the idea of controlling the weather, about deciding where rain should fall and when the sun should shine. But failing at it has been just as persistent a thread in the human experience. In a new book called “Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control,” Colby College historian of science James Rodger Fleming catalogs all the dreamers, fools, and pseudo-scientists who have devoted their lives to weather modification, tracing the delusions they shared and their remarkable range of motivations. Some wanted to create technology that would be of use to farmers, so that they would no longer have to operate at the mercy of unpredictable droughts. Others imagined scenarios in which the weather could be weaponized and used against foreign enemies. Still others had visions of utopia in which the world’s deserts were made fertile and every child was fed.

“Even some of the charlatans had meteorology books on their desks,” Fleming said last week. “Most had simple ideas: for instance, that hot air rises. These guys’ll have some sense of things, but they won’t have a complete theory of the weather system. They have a principle they fix on and then they try to build their scheme from there.”

What they underestimated, in Fleming’s view — what continues to stymie us all, whether we’re seeding clouds or just trying to plan for the next commute — is weather’s unfathomable complexity. And yet, the dream has stayed alive. Lately, the drive to fix the climate has taken the form of large-scale geoengineering projects designed to reverse the effects of global warming. Such projects — launching mirrors into space to reflect solar radiation away from the earth, for instance — are vastly more ambitious than anything a 19th-century rainmaker could have cooked up, and would employ much more sophisticated technology. What’s unclear, as one looks back at the history of weather modification research, is whether all that technology makes it any more likely that our ambitions will be realized, or if it just stands to make our failure that much more devastating.

The story of modern weather control in America, as Fleming tells it in “Fixing the Sky,” begins on a Wednesday morning in November of 1946, some 14,000 feet in the air above western Massachusetts. Sitting up there in a single-engine airplane was Vincent Schaefer, a 41-year-old scientist in the employ of the General Electric Research Laboratory, whose principal claim to fame up to that point was that he’d found a way to make plastic replicas of snowflakes. Prior to the flight, Schaefer had conducted an experiment that seemed to point toward a method for manipulating clouds using small bits of dry ice. If the technology could be exported from the lab and made to work in the real world, the potential applications would be limitless. With that in mind, flying over the Berkshires, Schaefer waited until his plane entered a suitable-looking cloud, then opened a window and let a total of six pounds of crushed dry ice out into the atmosphere. Before he knew it, “glinting crystals” of snow were falling obediently to the ground below.

GE announced the results of the demonstration the next day. “SNOWSTORM MANUFACTURED,” read the massive banner headline on the front page of The Boston Globe. The GE lab was deluged with letters and telegrams from people excited about the new technology for all sorts of reasons. One asked if it might be possible to get some artificial snow for use in an upcoming Christmas pageant. Another implored the company to aid a search-and-rescue effort at Mount Rainier by getting rid of some inconveniently located clouds. Hollywood producers inquired about doing up some blizzards for their movie sets. Separately, a state official from Kansas wrote to President Truman in hopes that GE’s snow-making technology could be used to help end a drought there. It seemed to be an all-purpose miracle, as though there was not a problem on earth it couldn’t fix.

Insofar as technological advancement in general is all about man’s triumph over his conditions, a victory over the weather is basically like beating the boss in a video game. And GE’s breakthrough came at a moment when the country was collectively keyed up on the transformative power of technology: World War II had just ended, and we suddenly had the bomb, radar, penicillin, and computers. But the results of Schaefer’s experiment would have inspired the same frenzied reaction in any era. “Think of it!” as one journalist wrote in a 1923 issue of Popular Science Monthly, about an earlier weather modification scheme, “Rain when you want it. Sunshine when you want it. Los Angeles weather in Pittsburgh and April showers for the arid deserts of the West. Man in control of the heavens — to turn on or shut them off as he wishes.”

It’s a longstanding, international fantasy — one that goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where watchmen stood guard over the skies and alerted their countrymen at the first sign of hail so that they might try to hold off the storm by quickly sacrificing some animals. The American tradition begins in the early 19th century, when the nation’s first official meteorologist, James “the Storm King” Espy, developed a theory of rainmaking that involved cutting down large swaths of forest and lighting them on fire. Espy had observed that volcanic eruptions were often followed by rainfall. He thought these fires would work the same way, causing hot air to rise into the atmosphere, cool, and thus produce precipitation.

For years he unsuccessfully sought funding from the government so that he might test his theory, describing in an 1845 open letter “To the Friends of Science” a proposal wherein 40-acre fires would be set every seven days at regular intervals along a 600-mile stretch of the Rocky Mountains. The result, he promised, would be regular rainfall that would not only ease the lives of farmers and make the country more productive but also eradicate the spread of disease and make extreme temperatures a thing of the past. He did not convince the friends of science, however, and lived out his distinguished career without ever realizing his vision.

Others had better luck winning hearts and minds. In 1871, a civil engineer from Chicago named Edward Powers published a book called “War and the Weather, or, The Artificial Production of Rain,” in which he argued that rainstorms were caused by loud noises and could be induced using explosives. He found a sympathetic collaborator in a Texas rancher and former Confederate general by the name of Daniel Ruggles, who believed strongly that all one had to do to stimulate rain was send balloons full of dynamite and gunpowder up into the sky and detonate them. Another adherent of this point of view was Robert Dyrenforth, a patent lawyer who actually succeeded in securing a federal grant to conduct a series of spectacular, but finally inconclusive, pyrotechnic experiments during the summer and fall of 1891.

A few decades after Dyrenforth’s methods were roundly discredited, an inventor named L. Francis Warren emerged with a new kind of theory. Warren, an autodidact who claimed to be a Harvard professor, believed that the trick to rainmaking wasn’t heat or noise, but electrically charged sand, which if sprinkled from the sky could not only produce rain but also break up clouds. His endgame was a squad of airplanes equipped to stop droughts, clear fog, and put out fires. It was Warren’s scheme that inspired that breathless Popular Science article, but after multiple inconclusive tests — including some funded by the US military — it lost momentum and faded away.

For the next 50 years, charlatans and snake-oil salesmen inspired by Warren, Dyrenforth, and the rest of them went around the country hawking weather control technologies that had no basis whatsoever in science. It wasn’t until after World War II, with the emergence of GE’s apparent success dropping dry ice into clouds, that the American public once again had a credible weather control scheme to get excited about. Once that happened, though, it was off to the races, and by the 1950s, commercial cloud seeding — first with dry ice, then with silver iodide — was taking place over an estimated 10 percent of US land. By the end of the decade, it was conventional wisdom that achieving mastery over the weather would be a decisive factor in the outcome of the Cold War. In 1971, it was reported that the United States had secretly used cloud-seeding to induce rain over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in hopes of disrupting enemy troop movements. In 1986, the Soviet Union is said to have used it to protect Moscow from radioactivity emanating from the Chernobyl site by steering toxic clouds to Belarus and artificially bursting them. There’s no way to know whether the seeding operation actually accomplished anything, but people in Belarus to this day hold the Kremlin in contempt for its clandestine attempt to stick them with the fallout.

You’d think, given mankind’s record of unflappable ingenuity, we would have had weather figured out by now. But after decades of dedicated experimentation and untold millions of dollars invested, the world is still dealing with droughts, floods, and 18-foot urban snowbanks. What is making this so difficult? Why is it that the best we can do when we learn of an approaching snowstorm is brace ourselves and hope our street gets properly plowed?

The problem is that weather conditions in any given place at any given time are a function of far too many independent, interacting variables. Whether it’s raining or snowing is never determined by any one overpowering force in the atmosphere: It’s always a complicated and unpredictable combination of many. Until we have the capability to micromanage the whole system, we will not be calling any shots.

Fleming, for his part, doesn’t believe that a single one of the weather modification schemes he describes in his book ever truly worked. Even cloud-seeding, he says, as widespread as it is even today, has never been scientifically proven to be effective. Kristine Harper, an assistant professor at Florida State University who is writing a book about the US government’s forays into weather modification, says that doesn’t necessarily mean cloud-seeding is a total waste of time, just that there’s no way to scientifically measure its impact.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find evidence even at this point that there’s a statistically significant difference between what you would get from a seeded cloud and an unseeded cloud,” she said.

The good news for practitioners of weather control is that amid all this complexity, they can convince themselves and others that they deserve credit for weather patterns they have probably had no role whatsoever in conjuring. The bad news for anyone who’d like to prevent the next 2-foot snow dump — or the next 2 degrees of global warming — is that there’s just no way to know. As Fleming’s account of the last 200 years suggests, it may be possible to achieve a certain amount by intervention. But it’s a long way from anything you could call control. Those who insist on continuing to shake their fists at the sky should make sure they have some warm gloves.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/06/cloud_control/

An end or a beginning?

The upheaval in Egypt

As Hosni Mubarak fights back, where Egypt’s revolt will go, and how far it will spread, are still unanswered questions

IT IS the greatest drama to shake Egypt since the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Huge nationwide protests have challenged the long rule of President Hosni Mubarak, threatening to dislodge him. As yet, the denouement remains unwritten. Will it match Tunisia, where a popular uprising sent another strongman president into exile, toppled his ruling party and opened the way to real democracy? Or will it look like Iran in 2009, where a hardline regime crushed a popular protest movement with iron-fisted resolve?

The protests have left hundreds dead, frozen Egypt’s economy, forced a cabinet to resign, brought the army onto the streets and prompted Mr Mubarak to promise reforms. Egypt’s tough 82-year-old president, in charge for the past three decades, now says he will go—but only at the end of his term in September, with dignity and with a subtle threat that if he does not get his way, things could turn uglier still. While offering a bare minimum of concessions, he has driven a wedge between millions of protesters who demand change and millions of others who fear chaos and want a return to normal. By February 2nd the two sides were battling each other.

Mr Mubarak has been slow to respond throughout the crisis, but his few appearances have been cleverly pitched. When he finally spoke, after midnight on January 28th, a day when hundreds of thousands across the breadth of Egypt had battled furiously with his police, it was with a husky voice and the petulance of a master betrayed by bungling servants. He said he understood his people’s concerns, and as a concession fired his cabinet. But he blamed the unrest on miscreants and agitators, declaring that protests had grown so loud only because he himself had magnanimously granted rights to free expression.

There was something in this. During his rule Egyptians have changed, as has the world they live in. They do speak more freely now, but not only because Mr Mubarak’s regime has belatedly allowed the airing of more critical views. New technologies have also made it impossible for states such as Egypt’s to retain the information monopolies they once enjoyed.

Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.

This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.

But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.

The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.

The bellwether country

Egypt is bigger and poorer than most other Arab states, and not necessarily a model. But it is a more of a bellwether than Tunisia was. It was Egypt’s 1952 revolution, ushering in the military-backed authoritarianism of Gamal Abdel Nasser that Mr Mubarak inherited, which inspired similar regimes to emerge, from Algeria to Iraq to Yemen. The direction Egypt chooses now could have a similar influence.

Egyptians of all classes and persuasions have joined today’s protests. But in their vanguard, except perhaps in the thickest combat, have been thousands of urban professionals, or university students who hope to be professionals one day. Such people have typically shunned politics, seeing Egypt’s stage-managed version as a waste of time. In private they have often complained that they do not feel they own their country, as if it is someone else’s private estate.

In the past—for example, in the riots that erupted in 1977 when Sadat’s government doubled the price of subsidised bread—it was the poor who forced simple demands on Egypt’s government. To prevent another climbdown, Mr Mubarak’s regime built its riot squad into a daunting force of perhaps 150,000 well-trained and well-equipped men. It also kept the economy burdened with subsidies, with bread, cooking fuel and public transport priced at fractions of their real cost.

Some 40% of Egyptians still live on less than $2 a day. In recent years, even as Egypt’s overall economy has grown apace and more consumer goods have filled even lower-income households, the poor have won little relief from relentlessly rising food prices and sharper competition for secure jobs. Such anxieties have found expression in a growing number of strikes and local protests across the country. Yet in a sense, persistent poverty has helped prop up the regime. “People survive on a day-to-day basis,” says a young Cairo lawyer. “They can’t go for long without a daily wage and daily bread, so they can’t afford to make trouble.”

Economic strains have squeezed better-off Egyptians, too, but other factors raised their anger with Mr Mubarak’s government to boiling point. Even to a people inured to politics as a farcical pageant, the blatant fakery of parliamentary elections held in November and December, which virtually shut out any opposition players, seemed a lurid insult, added to the injury of Mr Mubarak’s apparent plan to foist upon them his son Gamal as their next ruler. Equally lurid are the tales of corruption involving not just rich businessmen but also institutions of Mr Mubarak’s state. Dismay over police cruelty has also risen, especially after an incident in June when plainclothes agents in Alexandria beat to death a young internet aficionado, Khaled Said, spawning a Facebook campaign that prompted silent vigils across the country.

That such overlapping concerns seemed unlikely ever to coalesce into political action testifies to the effectiveness of Egypt’s police state. This relies less on repression than on co-opting, dividing and, perhaps most important, demoralising potential challengers. Its other prop has been a political shell-game, whereby Mr Mubarak and his inner circle simply blame any shortcomings on his ministers, and explain repression as a needed defence against menacing Islamists. Despite rising calls for change, bitter quarrels—between Islamists and secularists, conservatives and leftists—have dissipated the energies of Egypt’s opposition.

Two new factors seem to have tipped the balance. One was the emergence of loosely related groups pressing for reform, run via the internet by youths of generally secular outlook but no particular ideology. Some coalesced around labour rights. Some promoted human rights or academic freedom. Others were inspired by the appearance on the scene of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. For such a respected figure to demand an end to dictatorship seemed a breath of fresh air to educated Egyptians. Some of these groups studied other people-power movements, such as Serbia’s, and began quietly organising for a similar campaign.

The second factor was Tunisia. It was not only the speed and success of its revolt that convinced many Egyptians that their regime might prove equally flimsy. The most obvious outcome of Tunisia’s unrest was the exit of its president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of rule. His flight to exile in Saudi Arabia concentrated Egypt’s dissident minds on the one thing they could all agree on: the demand that Mr Mubarak should go.

Revolution’s trigger

The Facebook page for solidarity with Mr Said, the victim of police brutality, was what drew the widest audience for the idea of a “day of rage” to be held on January 25th. Yet few among the page’s 375,000 followers anticipated the impact this would have. The peaceful crowds that turned out that day were not huge: they numbered in the tens of thousands only in Cairo and Alexandria. By the end of the day, police recaptured Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the symbolic heart of Cairo, in a brutal charge.

But the eruption of protests in nearly all Egypt’s main cities at once had proved a stunning shock. As in Tunisia, the regime appeared paralysed at first. It responded solely through security measures, such as cutting off mobile telephones, text-messaging services and the internet. By the time Mr Mubarak decided to speak, three days later, it seemed too late to turn the tide.

Demonstrations on Friday January 28th prompted him at last to break his silence. Protesters were numbered not in tens but in hundreds of thousands, including people from all walks of Egyptian life. In Cairo itself pitched battles between protesters and riot police raged in more than a dozen places, leaving scores dead and thousands wounded. Flames roared through the halls of Mr Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in Tahrir Square, where youths danced amid the lingering fumes of tear-gas around the smouldering wrecks of overturned police vehicles. When night fell it was not only the riot police who retreated, beaten and exhausted. The entire uniformed manpower of Egypt’s mammoth Ministry of Interior, amounting to perhaps a million policemen, vanished from the country’s streets.

Exactly as in Tunisia, their suspiciously complete exit sparked a wave of looting, vandalism and banditry. Rioters breached the walls of several of Egypt’s main prisons, freeing more than 20,000 convicts, including several hundred on death row. In the strategic north-east corner of Sinai, along the border with Gaza, local Bedouin blew up police stations and grabbed their arsenals. Reports from Alexandria claimed that some 20,000 police guns had gone missing. The city of Suez, where the toll of casualties was particularly high, fell entirely into the hands of protesters.

The evacuation of police also fanned rumours, backed by reports of security agents engaging in arson and thievery, that the chaos was planned. If so, it had its effect. Despite the hasty organisation of citizen militias, reports of roving bands of thugs terrified many, especially in poorer districts. This kept people at home, away from the demonstrations. As bread became scarce in the shops and salaries went unpaid, many also began blaming the protesters for provoking chaos.

The regime hangs on

With his police in disgrace, Mr Mubarak sent in his army and decreed what only weeks before would have been seen as a radical change. He appointed as vice-president his dour, dapper 74-year-old intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman. Since Mr Mubarak had never anointed a deputy, this was widely seen as a first step to his own graceful retirement. He also picked a new prime minister, a former air-force commander, Ahmed Shafik.

The army’s intervention has been broadly greeted with relief, particularly since its command declared it would not use force. But Mr Mubarak’s other moves did not assuage protesters, now joined by the enraged families of those injured by police in previous clashes, as well as by the full might of previously hesitant Islamist groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The cabinet soon sworn in by Mr Shafik retained half the ministers of the previous government, a sign, perhaps, of the difficulty of manning what many perceived as a sinking ship and a signal, to some, that Mr Mubarak was up to his old trick of blaming failings on subordinates, in this case the outgoing ministers. The new vice-president failed to impress with a brief statement, his only public appearance so far. Mr Suleiman said he was open to talks with opposition forces, and would respect court verdicts over challenges to December’s election results. This could prove a big concession, since many jurists say the whole vote was fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, protests mounted to a new pitch. Despite the continued suspension of the internet and text-messaging, and the blockage of rail and road links into Cairo, a crowd of nearly half a million crammed into Cairo’s centre on February 1st, overspilling Tahrir Square onto adjacent streets and bridges. As many as 100,000 also marched in Alexandria.

Citizens find a voice

Knocked back, Mr Mubarak replied with the skill of a seasoned general. In a masterful speech that night, he declared that he had never intended to run for a sixth term this September, without explaining why he had never revealed this before. He also said he would revise articles in the constitution, inserted by himself, that narrowly restricted the field of presidential challengers. He restated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition, and reasserted his paternal concern for the people. “I am a military man and it is not my nature to abandon my duties,” he said gravely. “I have defended the soil of Egypt and will die on it, and be judged by history.”

To protesters camped in Tahrir Square, who had spent days screaming for his departure, this was again far too little, too late. But many other Egyptians, particularly the elderly and the poor, saw it as a dignified way out of the impasse. Amid a backlash of pro-Mubarak sentiment the next day, foreign newsmen were attacked by Egyptians accusing them of plotting to undermine stability. In Alexandria and Cairo large pro-Mubarak mobs of youths, some reportedly fortified by plainclothes thugs and paid criminal stooges, tried to storm the protesters’ camps, leading to mêlées in which dozens were injured.

Such dirty tactics, accompanied by calls from the army, which has remained scrupulously neutral, for the protests to end, suggest that Mr Mubarak’s regime believes it can complete what appears to be a well-devised script. Middle-class protesters will be frightened back to their homes, and most ordinary Egyptians relieved to see the unrest end. The president’s opponents will be able to declare that they have won key reforms. But the regime will remain in charge, controlling the pace of change.

Whether this will succeed in restoring stability remains to be seen. Egypt has now become starkly polarised. The fury against Mr Mubarak felt by many has only increased. Despite numbers thinned by the defection of those fearful of getting hurt, the anti-Mubarak protesters may still be able to mount mass protests, perhaps after Friday prayers. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared that it will not negotiate with the government until Mr Mubarak steps down. Mr ElBaradei has described pro-Mubarak demonstrations as criminal acts by a criminal regime.

From pharaohism to democracy

As Egypt’s powerful state regroups its forces and continues to capitalise on fears of insecurity, Mr Mubarak’s men may have their way. Still, even within his army, which has so far remained loyal to the president, many may believe that only Mr Mubarak’s departure can calm Egypt’s streets. The president could possibly announce an early retirement on health grounds. But if there is one quality Mr Mubarak has shown during his three decades of rule, it is stubbornness.

Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Egyptian society as a whole has evolved. Despite the ugly clashes of recent days, the change has mostly been peaceful. Egyptians have graphically demonstrated that they will no longer accept the old rules. They are moving, in the words of Fahmi Huweidi, a popular columnist sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, from pharaohism to democracy.

Even if protests fizzle for the time being, a certain pride of reclaiming possession was vividly in evidence. Protesters in the notoriously trash-strewn megalopolis of Cairo swept and tidied the squares they occupied, and ordinary Egyptians cheerfully and quite efficiently directed traffic or joined neighbourhood patrols in the absence of police.

In the posh district of Zamalek, one volunteer manning a citizens’ roadblock at night gleefully displayed a photo he had taken with his mobile phone, showing his patrol demanding to see the driving licence of a police officer whose car they had stopped. In such ways, Egyptians have begun to establish themselves as citizens of their own country.

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Full article and photos: http://www.economist.com/node/18063746