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The Waste of War

NEW YORK – Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Yet when we look around nowadays, we can’t help but wonder whether tragedy will be followed by yet more tragedy. Here we are, at the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, and we find ourselves surrounded by cascading violence, duplicity, and cynicism of the very sort that brought the world to disaster in 1914. And the world regions involved then are involved again.


WWI began with a mindset, one based on the belief that military means could resolve pressing social and political issues in Central Europe. A century earlier, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz had written that war is “a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Enough politicians in 1914 agreed.

Yet WWI proved Clausewitz tragically wrong for modern times. War in the industrial age is tragedy, disaster, and devastation; it solves no political problems. War is a continuation not of politics, but of political failure.

WWI ended four imperial regimes: the Prussian (Hohenzollern) dynasty, the Russian (Romanov) dynasty, the Turkish (Ottoman) dynasty, and the Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) dynasty. The war not only caused millions of deaths; it also left a legacy of revolution, state bankruptcy, protectionism, and financial collapse that set the stage for Hitler’s rise, World War II, and the Cold War.

We are still reeling today. Territory that was once within the multi-ethnic, multi-state, multi-religious Ottoman Empire is again engulfed in conflict and war, stretching from Libya to Palestine-Israel, Syria, and Iraq. The Balkan region remains sullen and politically divided, with Bosnia and Herzegovina unable to institute an effective central government and Serbia deeply jolted by the 1999 NATO bombing and the contentious independence of Kosovo in 2008, over its bitter opposition. 

The former Russian Empire is in growing turmoil as well, a kind of delayed reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, with Russia attacking Ukraine and violence continuing to erupt in Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere. In East Asia, tensions between China and Japan –  echoes of the last century – are a growing danger.

As was the case a century ago, vain and ignorant leaders are pushing into battle without clear purpose or realistic prospects for resolution of the underlying political, economic, social, or ecological factors that are creating the tensions in the first place. The approach of too many governments is to shoot first, think later. 

Take the US. Its basic strategy has been to send troops, drones, or bombers to any place that would threaten America’s access to oil, harbors Islamic fundamentalists, or otherwise creates problems – say, piracy off the coast of Somalia – for US interests. Hence, US troops, the CIA, drone missiles, or US-backed armies are engaged in fighting across a region stretching from the Sahel in West Africa, through Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond.

All of this military activity costs hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. But, rather than solving a single underlying problem, the chaos is growing, threatening an ever-widening war.

Russia is not handling itself any better. For a while, Russia backed international law, rightly complaining that the US and NATO were violating international law in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

But then President Vladimir Putin took aim at Ukraine, fearing that the country was about to drop into Europe’s pocket. Suddenly, he was silent about obeying international law. His government then illegally annexed Crimea and is fighting an increasingly brutal guerrilla war in eastern Ukraine, through proxies and, it now appears, direct engagement of Russian forces.

In this context, the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is terrifying not only for its brutality, but also in its intimation of a world gone mad. At the time of this writing, those who aimed and fired the missile remain unknown, though Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine are the most likely culprits. What is certain, however, is that the violence unleashed by Putin’s war on Ukraine has claimed hundreds of innocent lives and brought the world a step closer to disaster.

There are no heroes among the great powers today. Cynicism is rife on all sides. The US effectively violates international law by resorting to force without United Nations sanction. It sends drones and secret forces into sovereign countries without their approval. It spies relentlessly on friend and foe alike.

Russia does the same, inflicting death on Ukraine, Georgia, and other neighbors. The only constants in all of this are the easy resort to violence and the lies that inevitably accompany it.

There are four major differences between now and the world of 1914. For starters, we have since lived through two disastrous wars, a Great Depression, and a Cold War. We have had the opportunity to learn a thing or two about the stupidity and uselessness of organized collective violence. Second, the next global war, in this nuclear age, would almost surely end the world.

The third major difference is that today, with our wondrous technologies, we have every opportunity to solve the underlying problems of poverty, hunger, displacement, and environmental degradation that create so many dangerous tinderboxes. 

Finally, we have international law, if we choose to use it. The belligerents in Europe and Asia 100 years ago could not turn to the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly, venues where diplomacy, rather than war, can be the true continuation of politics. We are blessed with the possibility to construct peace through a global institution that was founded to help ensure that global war would never recur.

As citizens of the world, our job now is to demand peace through diplomacy, and through global, regional, and national initiatives to address the scourges of poverty, disease, and environmental degradation. On this hundredth anniversary of one of the greatest disasters of human history, let us follow tragedy not by farce or more tragedy, but by the triumph of cooperation and decency.


Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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