Five Best Friday Columns

Madhulika Guhathakurta and Daniel Baker on the Dangers of Space Weather Madhulika Guhathakurta and Daniel Baker point out that "most people have never heard of space weather, which is a problem, because both high and low solar activity have serious effects on life on Earth." They explain in today’s New York Times that "spectacular explosions on the Sun’s surface produce solar storms of intense magnetism and radiation, [which] can disrupt the operation of power grids, railway signaling, magnetic surveying and drilling for oil and gas. Magnetic storms also heat the upper atmosphere, changing its density and composition and disrupting radio communications and GPS units, [and their] charged particles can be a hazard to the health of astronauts and passengers on high altitude flights." The authors note that "such storms are predicted every century or so, and perhaps we’re overdue. According to a 2008 National Academies report, a once-in-a-century solar storm could cause the financial damage of 20 Hurricane Katrinas." Even an inactive sun can be problematic, "cool[ing] and shrinking our upper atmosphere" and bringing cosmic rays closer to Earth, "threatening astronauts and satellites with unusually high levels of radiation." Guhathakurta and Baker insist that "the more we know about solar activity, the better we can protect ourselves." Still, they ask, "what good are space weather alerts if people don’t understand them and won’t react to them?" Pilots, in particular need to be aware of these risks, yet many aren’t. "With the sun waking up, trans-Atlantic cooperation comes at just the right time," they argue. "Let us hope it is only the beginning of a worldwide effort to forecast and understand space weather."Philip Stephens on the Tensions Between Non-Western Countries Philip Stephens spotlights "the spat between Hanoi and Beijing…the latest in a series of disputes over control of the resource-rich South China Sea" at the Financial Times today. "In crude terms, China claims all of it. But the dotted line that marks out this ambition on Chinese maps is hotly contested by just about everyone else." Though China and the U.S. are poised to face off, "the rivalries between" developing states, which Stephens refers to as "the rest" are "deeper than those with the West." Russia, for example, finds itself on China’s side of the global divide and is considered, on most counts, to be "declining." India, too, faces opposition from China as its biggest hurdle to joining the UN Security Council, as well as the threat from Pakistani loyalty to China. "What emerges from all this is a global landscape in which competition and rivalries and regional alliances and hedging criss-cross the notional boundaries between the west and the rest," Stephens explains. "Europe may well choose to sit on the margins of influence. The likely role of the U.S. will be that of the indispensable balancing power."Jorge Castaneda on Mexico’s Tamale Distractions Jorge Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico, explains Mexico’s natural aversion to competition by pointing out the country’s "obsession with getting into the Guinness book of world records" in today’s Los Angeles Times. More than "a charming national idiosyncrasy," Mexico’s drive to claim "the tallest artificial Christmas tree…the biggest taco…the greatest number of people kissing each other for the longest period of time…etc" is really just "a way of winning something without actually having to compete one-on-one," he writes. "No one really loses because no other country is actually out there trying to cook the world’s largest tamale." Mexico, so far, "is a tremendous success story, despite the prolonged time it took to accomplish it," he argues. "But the nations future is dependent on shedding traits that are holding it back," such as "a willingness to make deals with criminals," which reveals "an extreme disregard and lack of respect for the law." He recognizes that this may be an unpopular argument on both sides of the border, but insists that Mexican immigrants’ ability to adapt to American norms "demonstrates categorically that we can change. And change is exactly what we have to do," he declares.Peggy Noonan on the Republican ‘Return to Reality’ The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan believes that "the GOP debate in New Hampshire was a big success in two ways. First, there was no obvious candidate from Crazytown." But also, "it was … more realistic, different in tone and tenor from four and eight years ago. This signaled a real shift, and a heartening one." She praises the fact that "every candidate who was asked took issue with U.S. involvement in Libya" and expressed serious concern for our success in Afghanistan. "All of this had the sound of the Republican Party inching its way back from 10 years of un-Republican behavior, from a kind of bullying dreaminess about the world." It is a move toward realism, away from "the idea that we can easily, or even arduously, force the complete cultural change of other hearts and other minds." This also marks a return to the "genially sober" founding characteristic of the Republican party and the acknowledgement that "we are as a nation, on paper, almost bankrupt…We cannot lead, or even be an example, without money. And we are out of it." Ronald Brownstein on the Curious Timing of Ideology in the GOP Race Ronald Brownstein predicts that ideology will not be a key feature of the GOP presidential primary, but will return with a vengeance in the general election. Here’s why: "The agenda that the party wants to carry into 2012 already has been largely defined by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, confrontational Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, and the uncompromising ethos of the tea party activists who helped power the GOP’s 2010 recovery." As a result, "in the presidential race, the party doesn’t appear to be looking for someone to write a new script; it is debating who will be the most reliable, and effective, messenger for the script that the party has already written. That means that the nomination race is less likely to revolve around ideological differences than around questions of authenticity and electability." Republicans are chomping at the bit to make this race ideological, he writes, and "at a time when economic discontent is draining support for Obama’s performance, that may be exactly what he wants too."

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