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July 1 is a big day. It is not only the beginning of the U.S. Federal fiscal year, and my own birthday, but it is the 90th birthday, this year, of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in Shanghai in 1921. We spent two weeks touring China 8 months ago, and couldn’t help but note the urban explosion of housing, industry and private business, yet within a context of central state planning. Millions were pouring into the cities from rural China, and construction cranes blacked out the urban horizons. How long could China hype its economy, we wondered. This weeks Economist Magazine (June 21-July 1) attempts to explore what comes next for China in a brilliant 14-page special report. The big question: will the newly empowered Chinese middle-class and the Communist Party find common ground to move forward together, or will a new era of repression result?

Founding place of Chinese Communist Party, 7/1/1921

I wrote a blog on what we saw as the Chinese housing bubble, on Oct. 28, last year, shortly after we returned from our visit to Shanghai, Beijing and points between. Here it is: The Chinese Housing Bubble Could Burst
October 26, 2010 in China, housing bust | Tags: Beijing, China, housing bust, Milwaukee, purchasing power parity, Shanghai, Swiss franc (Edit)
Just back from 2 weeks in China, I came away with one overwhelming impression: China is temporarily hyping its economy building millions of urban residences that won’t be filled, creating a housing bubble that will make the one in the U.S. pale into insignificance. This brand new city of high rises along the Yangtze River in central China, for example, is just 5 years old and has a population of 600,000, larger than Milwaukee. Everywhere we went, from Shanghai and Beijing to cities in the interior, construction cranes span the horizon and modern highrises crop up in clusters that could house another 20,000 here or 50,000 there. 80% of the Chinese are rural, and 15 million a year move into cities in search of jobs in new and growing industries. By 2004, China had 108 cities with populations over one million, and that will swell to 221 such cities by 2025, vs. 35 in all of Europe. My feeling is that jobs won’t grow fast enough to keep up with the housing boom, and I understand from a recent article ( that there are already 65 million vacant new urban homes in China. Building all these homes employs a lot of people, generates a lot of investment in construction and artificially makes the economy seem more active and prosperous than it is. But how long can China get away with a currency with buying power 40% below the dollar, and nearly 70% below the Swiss franc? As purchasing power tries to balance out, the demand for cheap Chinese goods may falter, industrial growth may slow, and China will have a housing bust to end all busts. Then what will the central planners do — manage another people’s revolution? My sense is that China’s growth is going too fast, and being forced beyond what markets will absorb. China’s urbanization is impressive, but in my book, excessive.

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We recently noticed that our cat Banner was drinking a lot more water, and it turns out he probably has diabetes, but somehow the question then leaped to mind: Do fish drink water? I was surprised by the answer(s), and it depends on whether you are talking about fresh water or salt water fish, and there is interesting science involved. I also learned that, of course, there is a book out called “Do Fish Drink Water? Puzzling and Improbable Questions and Answers.” 1999 by Bill Mclain, published by William Morrow, and available on Amazon.

As for the fascinating answer, which could be a winner for party betting, here it is, from

“Freshwater fish do not generally drink water, i.e. not for satisfying thirst. They imbibe water only as needed for respiration and release it through gills, which draw oxygen from that water. They also urinate in large quantities to prevent their tissues from becoming too watery.

“Two terms known as Osmosis and Diffusion help answer the question. Osmosis: is a movement of liquid through a membrane from a lower to a higher concentration. Diffusion: is the movement of particles from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower of concentration.

In case of freshwater fish the liquids in their bodies are saltier than the water in their environment. Hence, Osmosis draws water into the fish’s body through its skin and gills. If freshwater fish did drink water they would blow up like balloons.

“As against this, saltwater fish have to drink water because the water in their environment is saltier than the liquids in their bodies. Osmosis causes water from their body tissues to be released into their environment. Saltwater fish have to constantly drink large quantities of water to replace what they lose through Osmosis. Diffusion then releases the excess salts and minerals taken in and not needed. The salts and minerals exit through special cells at the base of their gills back into the saltwater. Saltwater fish urinate very little because of these processes. If saltwater fish didn’t drink the water they would shrivel up!”

I recently wrote a memoir about my experiences during the Vietnam War, in the late 60s, and after thinking about President Obama’s speech last night on his strategy on getting out of Afghanistan, I realize again that we didn’t learn a thing from the Vietnam debacle. Cynical political calculations by Richard Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace talks in the fall of 1968, as revealed in recently released Presidential papers of then outgoing President Johnson (see Wikipedia under Vietnam War).

Candidate Nixon, with Henry Kissinger and Anna Chennault as messenger, told the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal in the peace talks under a Republican administration than under the Democrats. Johnson found out, and wanted to expose Nixon as a traitor, but was advised that such an accusation could be socially destabilizing, so he didn’t. The result: Vietnam did not get settled under Democratic watch, and the U.S. proceeded to lose another 20,000 troops (plus a million Asians) before the Vietnam War was finally ended in 1975.

Lesson: Pulling just 33,000 U.S. troops by September, 2012, a month before the election, is another such cynical political calculation, designed to leave enough troops there (70,000) so that Afghanistan will not descend into chaos, as it likely will do, if the troops were mostly removed before the election, embarrassing the Obama administration with a lost war on its watch.

Sound like Vietnam 1968 all over again? The economic loss, and the loss in lives, will be the test.

When journalists read scientific reports, they usually try to find a theme, in plain language. That what The Economist Magazine (June 18-26), “Sun Down” and Popular Science magazine (July 11), “Sun Stroke,” did. The problem, their reading of the science reached totally solar opposite conclusions.

The Economist concluded that: “Several lines of evidence suggest the sun is about to go quiet.” They predict that something called “solar minimums,” in which the regular cycles of the sun slow down, with fewer sun spots and more reliable communications on Earth, not interrupted so much by solar activity. The cooling effect of such historical slowdowns could even counteract or offset some of the warming effects of greenhouse gases, somewhat canceling out global warming, or giving us some breathing space to deal with it.

Then there’s Popular Science, blaring that, “A catastrophic solar storm isn’t a question of when — and it looks like soon.” A charged cloud of particles, called a coronal mass ejection, or CME could hit the earth. Such an eruption could fry computers and power transformers across the globe, shut down nuclear power plants and transportation — in other words, put the Earth on hold. Such a massive solar storm is a low probability event, just as is a 100-year storm, says Popular Science, but the question they ask is: what are we doing to prepare?

At this time of the summer solstice, when we are all celebrating the onset of a hopefully nice summer, after a winter of devastating storms, let’s hope the sun stays on an even keel, and that the journalists take a second look into science’s crystal ball and see if there is some consensus we can trust.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac: Today is the birthday of English novelist and diarist Frances (Fanny) Burney (1752). She was born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, the daughter of a music historian. She didn’t learn to read and write until she was 10 years old, but once she did learn, she wasted no time in putting her skills to work writing plays, poems, and songs. Her mother died when she was 15, and her father remarried that same year; her stepmother didn’t think writing was a suitable hobby for young ladies, and Fanny burned all of her early work.

When she was 16, she began keeping a diary, a practice she maintained for more than 70 years. She was a keen observer of society and manners, and her journals recount visits by such luminaries as Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, and Sir Joshua Reynolds — all friends of her father. She also described the Battle of Waterloo, the madness of King George III, and her own mastectomy, performed without any anesthesia beyond a single glass of wine.

Her first published novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), was a comedy of manners, informed in large part by her own observations and experience as a young woman in society. She published it anonymously and disguised her handwriting, afraid that publishers would recognize her hand from her work as her father’s literary assistant. The novel was a great success, and she followed it with a second — Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782) — which would inspire Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Burney succeeded in making novel-writing an acceptable enterprise for women, and she paved the way for many 19th-century social satires.

Burney went to the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte in 1786, and she served as “Second Keeper of the Robes” for five years. She was unhappy in her post, since she was too busy to write novels, though she kept up with her diaries. When she was released from service, she married French expatriate general Alexandre d’Arblay, and proceeds from her third novel, Camilla, or a Picture of Youth (1796), paid for a house for the newlyweds. In 1802, they took their young son to France for a brief stay that ended up lasting 10 years, due to a renewal of the Napoleonic Wars. She recorded it all in her diaries, and her account of the Battle of Waterloo may have provided Thackeray with material for Vanity Fair.

She wrote one more novel, The Wanderer (1814), and several plays, only one of which was staged in her lifetime. And near the end of her life, she dedicated herself to publishing her father’s memoirs and to organizing her sizable collection of diaries and personal papers. She died in 1840, at the age of 88.

and they have again, as less than half as many hits came in on what I thought were some poignant comments on climate change, as I got in my previous blog entries on all the bullshit polling going on and changes to the internet. The first issue could kill us all — the others are relative fluff.

Yesterday’s 50-degree overnight temp swing in Chicago gave me new impetus to write on climate change, as I sat down to a bowl of hot chili in a neighborhood restaurant and read the lead story in the June 13-20 issue of The New Yorker, “Storms Brewing,” by the observant Elizabeth Kolbert. She succinctly reviewed the increasingly alarming aberrant climate conditions around the globe, and then proceeded to give one of the clearest explanations for it all that I’ve read. I wish I had her perspective on hand when at the Shakespeare Theatre the night before, a friend responded to me when I lamented our wildly vacillating local weather, “Well, no big deal, we’re just seeing some extremes.”

Kolbert wrote: “For decades, climate scientists have predicted, that as global temperatures rose, the side effects would include deeper draughts, more intense flooding and ferocious storms…the underlying science is pretty simple. Warm air can hold more moisture. This means that there is greater evaporation. It also means there is more water, and hence more energy, available to the system. What we are seeing now is these particular predictions being borne out.”

I was going to use the fading of the snows on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, Africa’s two highest peaks, as examples of global warming I have witnessed. But I checked and found a new theory is that deforestation is causing the receding snow, because mountain winds used to pick up the moisture from the trees and turn it into snow on the peaks. Attempts are now being made to restore the climate by replanting lost trees.

As to world climate, Ms. Kolbert maintains that today’s “new normal” of tornadoes, hurricanes and wind damage will change even more. “Each additional ton of carbon dioxide that is spewing into the atmosphere contributes to further warming, thus increasing the risk of violent weather.” Some of the reactions to this knowledge are bizarre. In Australia, some are proposing the killing of more than a million feral camels in the outback, each of which emits a ton of natural emissions a year.

Is is time for radical rejiggering of energy policy? Ms. Kolbert makes a wise distinction that is not widely recognized, especially by many leaning “right” politically, “It may be beyond our power to control the climate, but we can determine it. This is precisely what we are doing now, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.”

June 2011

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