Digest: 14 October 2014




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In Why I Won’t Vote This Year – Or Any Year, Michael Malice (for The Guardian) discusses how his view that governments will follow the course they will follow regardless of his vote undermines his incentive to take part in the electoral process. Malice’s personal experience of the Soviet Union and professional experience pertaining to North Korea informs his view that elections are not all they are cracked up to be. While the notion of voting is commonly held to undergird the functioning of a democracy in theory, he argues, in practice it is all something of a sham.  He likens the immediate reality of elections to school age popularity contests, and points out that while it may be true that having more than one candidate broadens the political field, it does not necessarily follow that the additional candidate actually means a material change in state policy or state action.


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In Read This To Get a Better Understanding of How Ebola Spreads, Celine Gounder (for Reuters) discusses the difference between droplet-borne and airborne transmission of viruses. So far Ebola is known to be droplet-borne, but not airborne. While the virus may mutate in time to become airborne it has not been seen so far to have done so. The difference is significant as it is what guides what protective measures can be set in place to protect against the spreading of the disease. Concerns have been raised already about the risk of such a mutation, as it would increase the spreadability of the virus. Gounder lays out the background of laboratory tests and previous outbreaks of Ebola to place the current outbreak and its risks in context.

In Giant Battery Unit Aims at Wind Storage Holy Grail, Whitney McFerron (for Bloomberg) discusses a project by Southern California Edison to amass more than 600,000 lithium-ion battery cells to collect and store power generated from wind turbines. One major difficulty with wind and solar is their intermittent nature of energy production. Solar produces energy during the day, and wind when it is windy, but storing the energy so that it can be used effectively to provide relief during periods of peak demand requires storage. Currently energy storage is expensive in comparison to pre-existing options that can be switched on and off – such as petroleum, thermal, and hydro power. But as battery technology develops and costs lower it is expected that wind and solar will be able to more effectively gain ground against their better established competitors.


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In Much Ado About the Islamic State, Stephen M. Walt (for Foreign Policy) discusses how the issues posed by governments and the media as pressing do not necessarily pose the biggest threats to society at large or to the economy in the long run. It is important, he argues, to separate out the important issues from those that are not so important. Currently there is no seemingly no end to the problems in the world – it does not particularly resemble the tidy “new world order” that certain US politicians sought to establish in the post Cold War world. Globalization unquestionably produces benefits, but it also exacerbates social, economic and political differences and inequalities. He points out that most of the problems dominating current headlines are actually relatively limited in their scope…unless we screw them up, in which case they may just prove to be more consequential than they need to be.

In Obama: Europe’s Biggest Disappointment, Christian Christensen (for Al Jazeera America) discusses what went wrong in the relationship between Europe and President Obama. After a sunny patch where all seemed wonderful, things started going downhill when Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. The apparent embarrassing absurdity of that decision was highlighted with Obama’s increasing use of drone attacks for targeted assassination, the resulting collateral civilian deaths, and the failure to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Edward Snowden’s revelations, which provided insight into the US domestic and foreign surveillance operations, along with the Obama Administrations’s stance on whistleblowers in general, strengthened the dismay. The militarization, racism and brutality of US police forces that came to light in Ferguson didn’t help. Ultimately Obama comes across better than his predecessor but he is, Christensen argues, playing the same game.

In The Extremist Trap: Don’t Sacrifice Civil Rights in Battle Against Islamists, Der Speigel discusses what Germany can do to effectively counter the potential danger posed by its citizens becoming radicalized in the conflict surrounding the rise of the Islamic State. DS argues that the course the US took following 9/11 is definitely one to be avoided. In responding to those attacks the US did not diminish the threat of further attacks, it became poorer and squandered its position as a beacon for democracies around the world. DS describes certain measures that can be taken within the confines of a truly democratic society to counter the threat of Islamic extremism, and argues that Germany must address the threat through such measures while resisting the temptation to itself become extremist in its defensive response.


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In Network Theory Reveals The Hidden Link Between Trade and Military Alliances that Leads to Conflict-Free Stability, MIT Technology Review discusses a game-theory study that shows that military alliances are not able to prevent conflict alone.  Two researchers at Stanford University have shown that the major determinant of conflict-free stability since 1950 is the increased trade that has developed since then. By better understanding the sort of relationships that prevent war, the approach may be able to predict cases where there is an increased probability of conflict and provide insight into how those conflicts can be avoided.

In Scholars Fear Loss of Eden in London, Rachel Donadio (for The New York Times) discusses the financial difficulties of the Warburg Institute library in London. The library’s collection of Renaissance and post-classical material was originally developed by banker Aby Warburg in the late 19th century and has since been significantly enlarged. It was brought to London during the War and housed in Bloomsbury by the University of London. The Institute has no endowment of its own and it has been suggested that charges by the University for rent are undermining the financial viability of keeping the collection intact and accessible to the public. Donadio quotes British historian Martin Kemp as saying that any such dissolution would be “the greatest act of vandalism in Western academia of my lifetime.”