October 28, 2016
At some point towards the middle of the decade, shortly before the cult of the expert smashed into the populist backlash, the shocking power of central banks came to feel normal. Nobody blinked an eye when Haruhiko Kuroda, the head of Japan’s central bank, created money at a rate that made his western counterparts seem timid. Nobody thought it strange when Britain’s government, perhaps emulating the style of the national football team, conducted a worldwide talent search for the new Bank of England chief. ... nobody missed a beat when India’s breathless journalists described Raghuram Rajan, the new head of the Reserve Bank of India, as a “rock star”, or when he was pictured as James Bond in the country’s biggest business newspaper. ... The key to the power of the central bankers – and the envy of all the other experts – lay precisely in their ability to escape political interference. ... The call to empower experts, and to keep politics to a minimum, failed to trigger a clear shift in how Washington did business. But it did crystallise the assumptions of the late 1990s and early 2000s – a time when sharp criticisms of gridlock and lobbying were broadly accepted, and technocratic work-arounds to political paralysis were frequently proposed, even if seldom adopted. ... If the clashes of abstractions – communism, socialism, capitalism and so on –were finished, all that remained were practical questions, which were less subjects of political choice and more objects of expert analysis. ... Greenspan’s genius was to combine high-calibre expert analysis with raw political methods. He had more muscle than a mere expert and more influence than a mere politician. The combination was especially potent because the first could be a cover for the second: his political influence depended on the perception that he was an expert, and therefore above the fray, and therefore not really political.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
Russian happens to be one of the nine languages Droujinsky speaks, but the job also required agility and urgency. ... It was an open secret in Washington that the FBI wiretapped and watched the Soviet Embassy, though a number of would-be spies either were unaware of that or thought they could avoid detection by concealing their identities. ... I first heard from an intelligence source in the mid-1990s that the FBI had a “fake Russian,” and I had chased him ever since. An FBI contact of mine cautiously confirmed that the bureau had an agent who impersonated a KGB spy handler, but would say no more. After I discovered his name buried in a news article about a court case, I found it in a phone book—a seeming stroke of luck, since most FBI agents are unlisted. But when I called the number I got his son, who has the same name. The son agreed to pass on my request for an interview, and eventually relayed his father’s reply: Sorry, but no. ... I asked him why, after all these years, he had decided to talk to me. “I’ve been out of the bureau for many years,” he told me, “and I didn’t think it would jeopardize anyone.” He deflected my offer to meet at his home, but unlike other counterspies I have interviewed, he said I was free to quote him by name. One lunch led to eight more; over ten months, the FBI’s bogus Russian discussed his life and career with a reporter for the first time.
Smokejumpers would like you to know that they are not the firefighters who bust down your door or save your baby from the flames or rescue your cat from a tree. They are wildland firefighters, which means they deal with burning forests, not burning buildings. They are also not generally the ones battling the big fires like those in California this summer. Instead, a smokejumper’s job is to parachute in to remote wilderness areas to fight smaller wildfires before they encroach upon populated areas and start threatening homes and lives. (In 2015, the most expensive firefighting year on record, wildfires burned 10 million acres and destroyed 4,636 structures, costing $2.6 billion and killing 15.) Smokejumpers are called in to handle the initial attack—that is, jumping in while a wildfire is still small, and ruthlessly extinguishing it as quickly and efficiently as possible. ... There are only 400 smokejumpers in the entire United States, and maybe only half of those are actively jumping fires on a regular basis. ... Last year, 172 people sent in applications to the Missoula Smokejumper Base; only eight were hired. And there are only nine permanent smokejumper bases in the entire country. Even if you’re tough, talented and skilled, you’ll probably still get rejected for three or five or eight years in a row.