Around the World in Six Ideas: Hagel, Missiles, Cyberspace Superstorms, and More

big-think-CO03-learning
Rote learning: Forget about it. Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty

Forget Your IQ

“Working memory is our ability to remember and manage information,” says psychologist Tracy Packiam Alloway at the University of North Florida. It’s about the conscious processing of information, not just accumulation. One simple example: when someone gives you directions and you repeat them to yourself, that’s not working memory. When you apply that information while driving to your destination, it is. And whether we’re educating our children or trying to hold on to our mental faculties as we age, Alloway says improving working memory is key. The author of numerous scholarly studies—and of Training Your Brain for Dummies—Alloway says tests for working memory are more reliable indicators of potential success in school than IQ tests, which often have built-in cultural biases. When privileged children are tested alongside those from less privileged backgrounds, results show “students from deprived backgrounds have the same ability to succeed.” That’s the good news. Less encouraging is evidence that children with less working memory who fall behind in kindergarten may continue to fall behind for the rest of their lives. In those cases, the key is recognizing the problem early. Specific mental exercises, nutrition, lifestyle choices—all can play a role improving working memory.

No Nukes is Good Nukes

big-think-CO03-weapons Hagel: Getting tough on missiles. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Chuck Hagel took a lot of flak from his Republican interrogators on the Hill for co-authoring the “Global Zero” report last year recommending massive reductions in the American—and Russian—nuclear arsenals. But would-be Defense Secretary Hagel was far from alone signing on to that report. (Its lead author was former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright.) At its core are some cold facts about post–Cold War defenses. First of all, reducing the number of nukes on each side from 5,000 to 900 should leave ample deterrence: 80 U.S. weapons, for instance, would remain targeted on Moscow. But those old Strangelove-era Minuteman missiles, poised in hardened silos ready on a few seconds’ notice to soar skyward with apocalyptic intent, would be scrapped. They’re total overkill for North Korea (which has perhaps 12 nukes) or Iran (which has none for the moment). But more to the point, to hit Pyongyang or Tehran, a Minuteman has to fly over Russia and risk provoking an accidental Armageddon. Meanwhile, the maintenance cost for the current arsenal is an estimated $200 billion over the next 20 years. “Global Zero” is about a negotiated reduction of risks all around.

Cyberspace Superstorms

big-think-CO03-defense Off the grid: The threat of cyberwar Chip East/Reuters

The hackers who hit Twitter and several major news organizations recently helped prove a point the United States government has been trying to make for years. There’s an arms race in cyberspace featuring all sorts of sinister players. But just how dangerous are they really? Janet Napolitano, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, has been calling the threat a “Cyber 9/11.” Yet Napolitano knows, as she told a meeting at the Wilson Center recently, “We say ‘cyber’ and everybody’s eyes glaze over.” Another analogy may hit closer to home: the nightmare menace is a potential attack on the country’s fundamental infrastructure. “It could happen imminently,” said Napolitano. And what would it look like? Superstorm Sandy gave millions of people in the Northeast a first-hand idea what happens if something—or someone—takes down the power grid. “You see how that impacts everything from the ability to heat homes to the ability to pump gasoline to the ability to have lighting at night, everything,” said Napolitano. To step up the country’s defenses, DHS is looking for congressional permission to hire the best and brightest—and sometimes costliest—talent in the digital marketplace. Sounds like it’s worth the price.

Hybrid Bad Guys

big-think-CO03-security Mr. Marlboro: A new jihadi entrepreneur. SITE Intel Group via AP

French criminologist Alain Bauer is something of a 21st-century Hercule Poirot, with his refined gourmet tastes, a little mustache—and global reach. He helps police and counterterror operations around the world, including the NYPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, keep ahead of the bad guys. But Bauer warns that many officials are blindsided by the rise of “hybrids” who are both criminals and terrorists. The problem is that they’re hard to categorize. The mastermind of the terrorist attack in Algeria last month, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was a classic case in point: a smuggler and extortionist who decided to make a name as a zealot. “Belmokhtar is 99 percent criminal and 1 percent jihadi,” says Bauer. And the Algerian authorities, obviously, hadn’t taken Mr. Marlboro, as he was called, seriously enough to stop him before he staged his terrorist spectacular. “Intelligence is about how you store information,” says Bauer. “If your storage system is not the right fit, the vital information gets lost. And the system actually works to suppress what doesn’t fit rather than creating a place for it.” Recognizing and categorizing the hybrid threat, Bauer suggests, is the first step toward crushing it.

Valuing Women

big-think-CO03-education We are all Malala: The importance of education. Rizwan Tabassum/AFP-Getty

Sometimes seemingly obvious ideas have to be repeated over years, decades, and even centuries before they are understood. But Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, never quits pushing for recognition of fundamental rights for women—and especially girls—in places where their minds and their humanity are little respected. Recent headlines show how urgent this message has become, with the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan because she advocated educating girls, and the rape and murder of a woman medical student in New Delhi that provoked national protests. “What happened in Pakistan with Malala and in India is about the value we place on women around the world,” says Osotimehin. Other manifestations of that lack of value: female genital mutilation, maternal mortality. Osotimehin, a former Nigerian health minister, believes the challenge is less to persuade governments than to change the fundamental attitudes of communities. “It is not about legislation, it is about persuading people on the ground,” he says. “The most important thing to focus on is to ensure that girls from developing countries are in school, they get education, they are empowered to make choices about their lives.”

Innovation vs. Execution

big-think-CO03-innovation Mayer: Don’t execute, innovate. Laurent Gillieron/Keystone/AP

When Marissa Mayer moved from Google to Yahoo as CEO last year, she came up against a problem that confronts many companies in the ever-morphing annals of digital progress. A huge premium is put on innovation. Indeed, “innovation” and “disruption” are a kind of mantra. But those brilliant, world-altering (and/or moneymaking) ideas do not become realities without a lot of hard—and often time-consuming—work, and while you are doing that, you may not be generating the fresh ideas needed to meet the challenge of the next disruption. “What’s the opposite of innovation?” Mayer asked rhetorically at a session during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “A lot of people will say, well, it’s the status quo, it’s stagnancy. And, you know, there’s another school of thought which says the opposite of innovation is execution: that if you have to be in heads-down execution mode, it’s very hard to find the space to innovate, to have those new ideas and to pull things in.” It can be done “but it’s hard,” says Mayer, and the first step in the process is to recognize that innovation and execution are, in fact, “natural opposites.”

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