The Economist’s US editor on how we’re covering this year’s race for the White House

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I am fascinated by American political history and have been doing a bit of digging into our archives in the run-up to launching a new podcast. The Economist’s first lead story on a US election appeared on Saturday November 30th 1844. The newspaper expressed “agreeable surprise” at the victory of “the free trade American president” James Polk. The 2020 presidential election will be our 45th, but this will be the first one with its own dedicated podcast, “Checks and Balance”, which we launched on January 24th.

A presidential election is a long and transparent process to choose the world’s most powerful person. This election promises to be one of the most absorbing and consequential in recent memory. Some 139 million Americans took part last time around, but that still leaves 98% of the world’s population looking on rather nervously to find out what American voters have in store for them. The Economist’s team of staff writers in America and abroad will explain what is going on in America and why it matters so much elsewhere. We are opinionated and sometimes spikey, but our views are always based on rigorous reporting. …

Advanced call-blocking will make Americans harder to survey

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Photo: by Robin Worrall

American mobile-phone users are inundated with spam callers. Hiya, a Seattle-based call-monitoring service, estimates that consumers received 26.3bn robocalls in 2018, up 46% from 18bn the previous year. Phone manufacturers have taken note of their customers’ woes. In its latest software release, Apple has made it possible for iPhone users to send all unknown callers to voicemail automatically. Although the feature will no doubt prove useful to the millions of customers whose peaceful suppers are ruined by fake calls, it could be disastrous for the faltering public-polling industry.

The challenges telephone pollsters face have been growing. Polling by phone has become very expensive, as the number of Americans willing to respond to unexpected or unknown callers has dropped. Back in the mid-to-late-20th century response rates were as high as 70%, according to SSRS, a market research and polling firm. But the Pew Research Centre estimates that it received completed interviews from a mere 6% of the people it tried to survey in 2018. Although polls with low response rates can still be accurate, their costs increase dramatically as pollsters must spend more time and money calling more people. According to the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a traditional, high-quality survey of 1,000 Americans costs roughly $48,000. …

A leaked paper has given the game away

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Photo: Fabio Ballasina

In an article published in 2012 John Preskill, a theoretical physicist, posed a question: “Is controlling large-scale quantum systems merely really, really hard, or is it ridiculously hard?” Seven years later the answer is in: it is merely really, really hard.

Last week a paper on the matter was — briefly and presumably accidentally — published online. The underlying research had already been accepted by Nature, a top-tier scientific journal, but was still under wraps. The leak revealed that Google has achieved what Dr Preskill dubbed in his article, “quantum supremacy”. …

Officials pray that the goddess Mazu will help them woo Taiwan

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Lion dancers perform at Jenn Lann Temple in Dajia near Taichung as festivities begin to mark the nine day Mazu pilgrimage on April 13, 2018 in Taichung, Taiwan. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

There are several ways to gauge whether the Communist Party of China approves of an institution. A brass nameplate, issued by an arm of the party or state, is one sign. A stamp for endorsing important materials can be used as a further badge of respectability. But the best test of approved status, arguably, is the issuing of lots of paperwork. Somewhat surprisingly, a Ming dynasty temple hidden up an alleyway off Shipu harbour, one of eastern China’s largest fishing ports, passes all these tests.

An incense-scented haven of red woodwork and worn grey flagstones, the temple is dedicated to Mazu, a tenth-century maiden who miraculously saved relatives from a shipwreck and later became a goddess. Older residents remember when the temple risked destruction as a den of feudal superstition. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, when sacred sites were razed by Maoist zealots and countless priests and monks were harried to death, the temple became a primary school. Red Guards tried to ransack the place, says Han Sulian, a temple volunteer. But locals “threatened to beat them up so they backed off”, she recalls with pride. Sailors never stopped believing in Mazu, adds Ms Han. They would wear incense pouches as secret talismans when they left Shipu to hunt eels and yellow croaker in the East China Sea. …

We can’t tell you how to stop climate change, but we can tell you how to write a good essay

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Reading a zillion essays numbs the mind. But poring over the vast volume teaches you a few things about how to write an article that stands out.

The Economist’s Open Future essay competition asked people between 16 and 25 years old to answer the question: “What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?”

Entrants had 1,000 words. (The shortest essay took just two: “Abolish capitalism”.) Nearly 2,400 people from 130 countries and territories participated. …

Replacing the fossil-fuel technology which is reshaping the climate remains a massive task

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Photo: Torsten Blackwood — Pool/Getty Images

In the early 19th century Joseph Fourier, a French pioneer in the study of heat, showed that the atmosphere kept the Earth warmer than it would be if exposed directly to outer space. By 1860 John Tyndall, an Irish physicist, had found that a key to this warming lay in an interesting property of some atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide. They were transparent to visible light but absorbed infrared radiation, which meant they let sunlight in but impeded heat from getting out. …

Office design that treats workers like drones

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Photo: kate.sade

By Bartleby

The hero of the cult British TV show “The Prisoner” wakes up one day in a mysterious village. His possessions have vanished and he is not referred to by his real name but as “number six”. His every attempt at escape is frustrated and each episode ends with a set of iron bars superimposed on his face.

The experience of the prisoner will be wearily familiar to one class of office worker — those who undergo the daily trial of “hot-desking”. Every day, they may wind up in a new location, with only the possessions they can carry to sustain them. At the end of each day, all trace of their personality is erased, in the way that the Soviet Union removed pictures of Leon Trotsky from the historical record. …

Presidential candidates are competing to show off their environmental ambitions

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Photo: American Public Power Association

Earlier this month dozens of teenagers gathered in a New York City park to paint. They were preparing for the Climate Strike they would attend on September 20th, one of more than 150 rallies to be held around the world. The students made cardboard waves, to signify rising sea levels, and emblazoned banners with demands for action. “I want you to act as if our house is on fire because it is,” one sign read.

America has stood out, to date, for being the largest contributor to climate change and for its leaders’ reluctance to do much about it. In 2017 President Donald Trump announced that America would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, in which countries pledged to limit the average rise in temperatures to “well below” 2°C. In the past four weeks alone his administration has loosened regulation of methane, said it would revoke California’s right to set emissions standards for cars and rolled back rules on efficient light bulbs. …

Many expect serious returns

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Photo: Gustavo Quepón

Bets on clean technologies have ballooned this decade. Over $2.6trn has flowed into low-carbon energy alone since 2010, according to BloombergNEF, a research firm (see chart 1). Now that some ventures have soured, after green subsidies grew stingier around the world, many investors are thinking again.

Many, but not all. A clutch of industrialists and entrepreneurs are doubling down. The Economist’s unscientific survey has identified 12 with notably climate-friendly dispositions, and a combined net worth of $200bn (see chart 2). Some, like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, are household names. Others are little-known outside their industry. Their wagers cover mature technologies (electric cars, wind turbines), fast-maturing ones (high-voltage grids, meatless burgers) and out-there ideas (turning carbon from the air into useful stuff). All want to do good by the planet. …

Banning them all will cause far more harm than good

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Photo: Thomas Stephan

“It’s time to stop vaping,” says Lee Norman, a health official in Kansas. Six people are dead in America, apparently from smoking e-cigarettes. More than 450 have contracted a serious lung disease. So Mr Norman’s advice sounds reasonable. The Centres for Disease Control and the American Medical Association agree: the country’s 11m vapers should quit. A new idea is circulating, that vaping is worse than smoking. On September 11th the Trump administration said it intends to ban non-tobacco flavoured vaping fluid (see article). Some politicians want a broader ban on all e-cigarettes.

The facts have gone up in smoke, as so often happens during health scares. Although more research is needed, the evidence so far suggests that the recent vaping deaths in America did not come from products bought in a shop but from badly made items sold on the street. In five out of six cases, the tainted vaping products were bought illicitly; the other involved liquid bought in a legal cannabis shop in Oregon. One theory is that the vape fluid was mixed with vitamin E. This is an oil — something that should not enter the lungs. If inhaled, oil causes the type of symptoms that the stricken vapers display. …

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The Economist

Insight and opinion on international news, politics, business, finance, science, technology, books and arts.

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