Shutdown Upshot

Dear Americans, as you read this week about the particulars of the latest US government shutdown and stopgap funding deal, spare a thought for the confused citizens of other countries. Yes, there’s plenty of instability, unrest, and vitriol in their political lives too, but the shutdown seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon. Two quick points:


First, why does this seem to happen only in the US? In parliamentary systems, budget deadlocks often result in a vote of no confidence, and then a new government. But in the US, the presidential veto and the Senate filibuster enable one person or a small group of people to hold political rivals hostage over a political issue (in the current case, immigration reform) by preventing government from funding its own operations. Since the US doesn’t do early elections, the result is a bitter stalemate and, from time to time, a shutdown.

Second, more broadly: how does it look to the rest of the world? Well, it sure doesn’t help the already tarnished image of liberal democracy globally. “What’s happening in the United States today will make more people worldwide reflect on the viability and legitimacy of such a chaotic political system,” claimed an editorial by China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency on January 21. Like it or not, Xinhua is right — and a majority of Americans seem to agree.

Scientists, engineers and technologists are turning to nature in search of solutions to climate change. Biomimicry is now being applied in the energy sector, medicine, architecture, communications, transport and agriculture in a bid to make human life on this planet more sustainable and limit the impacts of global warming. New inventions have been inspired by humpback whales, kingfishers and mosquitoes.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

The drumbeat for regulating artificial intelligence (AI) is growing louder. Earlier this week, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, became the latest high-profile Silicon Valley figure to call for governments to put guardrails around technologies that use huge amounts of (sometimes personal) data to teach computers how to identify faces, make decisions about mortgage applications, and myriad other tasks that previously relied on human brainpower.

More

January 27 marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi extermination camp. But even as some 40 heads of state gathered in Jerusalem this week to commemorate the six million Jews who were killed, a recent Pew survey revealed that many American adults don't know basic facts about the ethnic cleansing of Europe's Jews during the Second World War. Fewer than half of those polled knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and close to a third didn't know when it actually happened. Here's a look at some of the numbers.

1: The Greek parliament has elected a woman president for the first time since the country's independence some 200 years ago. A political outsider, Katerina Sakellaropoulou is a high court judge with no known party affiliation. "Our country enters the third decade of the 21st century with more optimism," Greece's prime minister said.

More

A quarantine in China– Local authorities have locked down the city of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak of a new and potentially deadly respiratory virus that, as of Thursday morning, had infected more than 540 people in at least six countries. Other nearby cities were also hit by travel restrictions. Rail and air traffic out of Wuhan has been halted. Public transportation is shut, and local officials are urging everyone to stay put unless they have a special need to travel. Wuhan is a city of 11 million people, many of whom were about to travel for the Chinese New Year. We're watching to see whether these extraordinary measures help stem the outbreak, but also to see how the people affected respond to the clampdown.

More