Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Maps of Japan

This map from Die Zeit shows the area "affected by the earthquake and tsunami" and also places it within Germany for a better perspective.

Nonetheless, it's not what I'm looking for. News reporters say that the main damage was caused by the tsunami, and they often report from areas affected by the earthquake, which they say are safer and still have infrastructure.

I'd be interested to see this kind of map, but with a distinction made between the area affected by the tsunami and the one affected by the earthquake.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Germany's no-fight zone

I'm not much of a warmonger, but the resolution of the UN Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya is good news. Unfortunately, Germany abstained from voting and will not be helping out militarily.

The reasons given by the government are that there is no way to tell where military intervention will stop – we may become as entangled as we are in Afghanistan and Iraq. Prominent German intellectuals, such as Josef Joffe of Die Zeit, agree that the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

I disagree. The Arab revolution is potentially the best thing to happen to the planet this century, but in countries like Libya and Bahrain the people saying "give me liberty, or give me death" are getting death. We have a moral obligation to stop these dictators from using military equipment they largely bought from us against their own people, and if that means we become militarily entangled, so be it – we are entangled anyway, which is what too many German intellectuals refuse to accept. And I say that to as someone who never supported the attacks on Afghanistan or Iraq (either in 2003 or 1991).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japanese TV on German TV

While most of the attention on German television has shifted away from the effects of the earthquake and tsunami towards the nuclear problem, a German news channel (ZDFinfo) is broadcasting live Japanese television with German interpreters, and the coverage is once again quite different. The Japanese are focusing on hospitals with intermittent electricity (people are dying because their life-support systems and treatment are unstable), the lack of blankets and food for the countless people who are homeless, and similar issues. They do mention the nuclear disaster, but the footage is from shelters, clinics, etc.

Seeing Japanese television helps put into perspective the claims on international TV that the Japanese are playing down the nuclear danger. I don't think they are playing down anything. These folks need help.

Although we are flooded with information, it is surprising to see how hard it is to get a good idea of what area was actually devastated by the tsunami. If anyone has any information about square kilometers, please let me know. The maps I find about the area affected by the tsunami primarily concern wave propagation across the Pacific.

The maps about the landmass in Japan vary greatly, from this map, which shows a small strip of the coast, to this one at the New York Times, which indicates a much lager area of "heavy shaking" with pictures showing tsunami damage a long way down the coast. If anyone knows of any more specific maps, please comment below.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Situation here is slowly deteriorating"

Sad words from a friend in Tokyo, Japan. Over the weekend, he wrote that everything was okay, and the worst had been averted.

It's heart-breaking. You can't turn on the TV in the morning anymore. There's something new every day.

The New York Times has a list of ways to help.

Gizmodo has a posted video of the tsunami rolling in taken by an amateur along with a Google Street View link of the same area before the earthquake. At Facebook, my brother has also posted a link to this set of photos of satellite images before/after, including an image of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan on BBC and German TV

This image from the BBC is wrong. It should be a pie chart for electricity, not "energy" -- as a quick search at Wikipedia reveals, oil makes up roughly half of Japan's energy supply, which is what I would expect. Nuclear makes up less than half of what the BBC reports.
As the dire events in Japan apparently continue to worsen, I can't help noticing some clear differences in the reporting on the German public television and the BBC (which is what I have at home). On the BBC, there has been a lot of talk over the weekend about how markets will react and how what is going on compares to Three Mile Island. A number of nuclear experts in business suits from this or that institute or university have come on to explain the technology to the general public.

In Germany (in my subjective perception), there was absolutely no talk about stock markets over the weekend (though that changed slightly today after the Nikkei opened), and comparisons are made primarily to Chernobyl, not Three Mile Island. Nuclear experts explaining what is exactly happening have prominently included people like Michael Sailer of the Institute of Applied Ecology and a handful of nuclear experts from Greenpeace; spokespeople from nuclear institutes have been few and far between. While the folks from Greenpeace generally look like a 30-year-old PhD students in physics in casual wear, Sailer outright looks like a hippie from the 1970s.

I say that not to disparage Sailor and the folks from Greenpeace; indeed, you take these folks lightly at your peril. They will explain current law, the history of nuclear power, and the differences between Japanese and German nuclear reactors in great detail, so if you want to oppose them, you have your work cut out for you. Sailer himself is the chairman of the German government's Nuclear Waste Commission.

I wonder whether such people would be taken seriously in the UK – or the US, for that matter; but alas, I do not have US TV at home. My feeling is that, whatever their actual expertise, critics of nuclear power would need to look like conservative businessman to be heard out.

As I was writing this, there was also a report on the BBC about how events in Japan might change Germany's plans to extend the lives of its nuclear power plants beyond 32 years. I tend to agree with German Environmental Minister Röttgen, who says that we need to focus on what has changed. Just because an accident happens does not mean that the risk of nuclear is any greater. As I wrote back in my book (published in 2006 but completed in 2005):

... nuclear power plants should not be built in areas prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, such as Japan, which has 52 plants. As Leuren Moret, the whistle-blower from the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory’s Yucca Mountain Project, recently put it, “Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list.”

So we knew such accidents could happen. As Röttgen points out, what we now know is that the precautions taken at nuclear plants in Japan were apparently not great enough – the plants may have been insufficiently protected against tsunamis, and they were designed to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.2, whereas they got magnitude 9.

Röttgen seems to be suggesting that German nuclear plants should be reviewed with an eye to increasing safety requirements considerably. As Sailer points out, nothing has been done to the plants over the past decade since they were expected to be taken off-line anyway. Germany may very well decide that far stricter safety requirements are needed, and power companies could then react by opting to shut the plants down instead.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan rocks

13 years ago this month, I was in Japan with a group of Germans. We visited Kobe, which had been leveled by a giant earthquake less than three years earlier. As we stood above the city at a lookout point, the German Consul said that everything we were looking at had been flattened. It was hard to believe that the Japanese had taken less than three years to put a whole city back together.

Roughly 7 years later, I thought of Kobe again when I visited my hometown of New Orleans four months after Katrina. I also went back four years later in November 2009. Too bad the Japanese are not in charge of rebuilding New Orleans.

Only a few weeks ago, there was a report of a sizable earthquake in Japan that had apparently caused no deaths and little damage. I wasn't surprised. Of all the countries I visited, I don't think any impressed me more than Japan. In the 1990s, they had toilet tanks with sinks on top (something like this) – while the tank was filling up, you could rinse your hands using the same water. Taxi drivers had buttons to open the back doors for you. Someone in our party left a briefcase in the train, and the thing was returned to us in a different part of the country several days later. While visiting a famous site, we found an expensive wristwatch sitting atop a railing. Apparently, it had been lost, and the finder put it there in case the person came back looking.

But a magnitude of 8.9 is too much. To get an idea, keep in mind that the largest earthquake ever recorded is only 9.5. According to this list, the Sendai earthquake that happened today is the seventh largest ever. Good luck, Japan.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy 100th Women's Day!

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, 1910.Image via Wikipedia
Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg
International Women's Day is a German invention that goes back to Clara Zetkin. In a previous life, I studied German history and culture and remember being blown away by her life story. At one point, I wanted to write a biography about her; her unwavering bravery inspired me. (I should admit that I have practically forgotten everything I learned for my Masters, so I couldn't tell you anything about her today.)

It is with all the more dismay that I read the comments about Women's Day in Germany, for instance here at Die Zeit. A weekly newspaper, Die Zeit is arguably the most intellectual in Germany, so it is perhaps all the more surprising to read what some men are willing to post. In a nutshell: women are not further along because they don't deserve to be.

I have the impression that German men are, by and large, less macho than Americans, but the openness with which so many German men express their bigotry never fails to surprise me. Any self-respecting American racist/sexist knows how to preface a real whopper: "now, I'm not racist/sexist, but…" No such false modesty in Germany.

During lunch, there was a report about female circumcision on German television. There isn't much, if anything, that makes me cringe more -- but, of course, that's a barbaric practice from underdeveloped countries, and we are far more enlightened...

Rather than bore you with my opinion on what needs to be done, etc., I'd just like to say that, in my experience, the most likable people I have met did not really see themselves primarily as men or women.

But two things do come to mind that I think everyone should know. First, contrary to the lyrics sung by the Neville Brothers, Rosa Parks was not tired (except "of giving in") when she refused to stand up. And second, the Solidarnosc movement that eventually indirectly led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union would not have been possible without Anna Walentynowicz. Both of those movements really only took off when a man took over at the helm; we were not ready yet for a woman leader.
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Cutting funding for public broadcasting in the US

When I have the time, I try to listen to podcasts of the Diane Rehm show, and on this one from January 20 (I am a bit behind) the speakers provide two interesting statistics:

  1. Funding for public broadcasting in the US makes up only 1/25th of one percent of discretionary spending in the US budget, and
  2. Expenditures on public broadcasting in the US pale in comparison to the budgets in other countries. While PBS costs the average US citizen 1.35 dollars per year, a Brit spends 82 dollars a year on the BBC, while a Canadian spends 30 dollars on the CBC (Japan also comes in at around 60 dollars per capita each year). 

While the speaker did not talk about Germany, based on the figures I discuss here Germany would come in even above the level of the BBC at closer to 100 dollars per year per person. The monthly subscription rate is around 20 dollars a month per household, but people without televisions (and, more recently, without computers) do not have to pay, and there are exceptions for people with televisions who are undergoing hardship.

Clearly, there is no money to be saved from cutting funding for public broadcasting. The attack therefore cannot be financially motivated; it is political. Take away public broadcasting, and you are left with corporate-financed media – which is exactly what many Republicans want.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Guttenberg's gone

Guttenberg has finally stepped down.

One of the most interesting aspects of this issue was the public's continuing support for the German Defense Minister. In the recent polls published this weekend, an overwhelming majority of Germans across all political parties wanted him to stay in office.

Perhaps because of the academic nature of plagiarism, support apparently seems to differ greatly across the media, with the greatest outrage found in the more intellectual newspapers, as the second chart shows. Over the weekend, an open letter from German PhDs was delivered to Chancellor Merkel asking her not to take the matter so lightly, and more than 1,000 professors signed their own open letter along the same lines.

What I don't get – but perhaps I am too academic myself (I started, but thankfully did not finish, a dissertation) – is why everyone was so apologetic on his behalf. The German media are full of people saying, "My goodness, who didn't cheat in school?" But there was actually a recent case of a local politician (CDU) who was found to have committed plagiarism and was forced to step down, so there is an immediate precedents for the case.

Furthermore, as practically everyone else who wanted him to step down as pointed out, every other imaginable comparable situation would also have been handled differently. Soccer referees who are found to have been paid off create quite a commotion, and soccer games don't matter.

That's why I find this report (in German) so interesting. Apparently, Guttenberg got the equivalent of a C on his exams and therefore should not have been allowed to write a dissertation at all; he would have received his degree without honors and been asked to stop. But the two professors who made the decision were CSU party members.

A new Wiki was also created, where other dissertations of prominent German politicians are to be inspected.

Personally, I don't find Guttenberg to be exactly contrite. In stepping down, he said he could no longer do his job properly when the debate "about my person is being carried out on the shoulders of the soldiers," which sounds a bit like everyone should have shut up and left him alone. More outrageously, he said that anyone who accused him of consciously plagiarizing was guilty of "libel." The Wiki that investigated his dissertation has now found plagiarism on over 76 percent of the pages. Practically the only thing that isn't plagiarized is the bibliography and table of contents. I doubt that Guttenberg wants to fight this one out in court, but just in case: Guttenberg, your dissertation was either ghostwritten (in which case you may actually not have known about the extent of the plagiarism), or you did it yourself and knew exactly what you were doing.