Around the world in six ideas.
Heads in the Cloud
It all started with the wall. In 1999 education researcher Sugata Mitra and his colleagues thought it would be interesting to install a computer in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi to see what the kids there might make of it. The results were stunning. With no supervision, the children taught themselves how to use the computer, including picking up English to look for answers to all sorts of questions. Subsequent similar experiments led Mitra to conclude that the most creative and productive education comes when children aren’t threatened but inspired—especially by their peers. The traditional approach was created by the British to train the subjects of the empire, and, he argues, the system continues to produce “identical people for a machine that no longer exists.” Instead, what he calls a self-organized learning environment is all about getting kids excited about what they can know. In a proposal that won Mitra the TED award this year, he suggests creating an enormous self-organized school in the cloud, where, with a little guidance but minimal interference from “grandmothers,” kids can explore the universe at will to answer their own questions and those that are put to them.
NAFTA on Steroids
Twenty-some years ago, wild-card U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot warned of a “great sucking sound”—American manufacturing jobs going to Mexico, if the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. Well, that didn’t quite happen. The jobs—even Mexican jobs—went to China instead. Meanwhile, drug wars south of the border, and a tendentious debate about securing the frontier against immigrants, deepened American suspicions about closer ties with their southern neighbor. To the north, post-9/11 concern about terrorism made commerce across the Canadian border more complicated and costly, too. But Robert Pastor at American University in Washington, D.C., wants to turn conventional wisdom, or at least conventional wariness, on its head. He is proposing what he calls “a seamless North American market” developed to compete with Asia and Europe. Adding 113 million Mexicans and 34 million Canadians to the U.S. market is “the quickest external route to economic recovery,” says Pastor, in a paper published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Much would have to be done, from creation of common external tariffs to the construction of common infrastructure. But Pastor makes a convincing case that the benefits would be great, or at least they wouldn’t suck.
Fooling with Mother Nature
The shock of superstorm Sandy last year got a lot of people wondering about better ways to deal with the weather—perhaps even how to change it. John Latham, a climate scientist based in Colorado, has been proposing ways to do that for more than two decades. His studies show that it should be possible to spray fine particles of seawater into clouds, increasing their ability to reflect sunlight and thus reduce temperatures below. Latham argues that global warming is leading to “irreversible and possibly catastrophic consequences” and that the major polluting countries appear unwilling to take dramatic action. But Latham claims his cloud-seeding techniques would help to hold Earth’s temperature constant “until a clean form of energy is developed to take over from oil, gas, and coal.” He says, quite optimistically, that they could keep the planet’s temperature stable for “perhaps 50 years.” If true, that would be a welcome breather from impending doom. But what’s missing is money to fund large-scale experiments—and perhaps for a reason. One thing we should know by now about our climate is that when you fix one problem, you may create another.
Emily Bazelon’s personal experiences colored her views when she wrote Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. When she saw a bunch of teenagers harassing an old man on a train, she tried to persuade them to back off. They turned on her. “They yelled at me in the car,” she told a recent Harvard panel. “I got off; they got off with me. They followed me off the platform, up the escalator into Union Station, yelling at me the whole way.” When you tell someone to stand up to big, aggressive bullies, said Bazelon, that’s “a tough thing to ask.” The long-term solution is “to give kids a variety of strategies that are actually realistic for them.” The biggest challenge is to create an environment where kids learn to feel more powerful by including, rather than excluding other kids. Such ideas are gathering momentum, at least among adults. Forty-six U.S. states now have anti-bullying laws, and there’s a federal website: stopbullying.gov. Whether the kids are listening is another matter.
Among the Pharaohs
Few places on Earth are so spectacular, so mystical, or hold so many enduring mysteries as the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak and the necropolis on the Giza Plateau in Egypt, where the pyramids are. If, as a German philosopher once said, “architecture is frozen music” because of the way it combines geometry and emotion, then these monuments remain among the grandest symphonies ever built. But, hey, you should have seen them a couple thousand years ago. Archeologists have long used their imagination to try to explore the inner precincts of these holy places, but only recently has 3-D modeling allowed them to view the sites in four dimensions, including time. Working with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Dassault Systèmes, archeologists at Harvard have digitized more than a century of modern research. The results have shown that buildings at Karnak “were renovated, pulled down, and replaced in a seemingly constant stream,” University of California archeologist Elaine Sullivan recently told the Harvard Gazette. Egyptologist Peter Der Manuelian, who worked on the Giza project, says the 3-D models lead scientists in “great new research directions.” And as ever with ancient Egypt, new answers will no doubt bring new mysteries.
Over the last decade, as the U.S. military defeated dictators and occupied foreign lands, counterinsurgency (COIN) became the doctrine du jour. But that now seems like ancient history. There was always a fundamental flaw in the idea that COIN was the future of the American armed forces: if you don’t invade other countries, you won’t be stuck fighting people who are fighting you for being there: no occupations, no COIN. Fred Kaplan, author of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, argues that “Afghanistan was COIN’s Waterloo” because success or failure essentially depends on the talent and skills of the local government. The increasingly crazy and insulting performance of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul underscores the weakness of the U.S. position. Going forward, Kaplan told the website Small Wars Journal, the existential problem for the military is to figure out “what is the American way of war, and what is the Army’s place in it.” Bottom line: nobody’s sure.
From our March 29, 2013, issue; Around the World in Six Ideas.