Good Reads: From Japan’s new stance, to women in science, to floating cities

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes how Crimea is prompting a geopolitical shift in Japan, efforts by Bill Gates to solve world problems, how to get girls to become computer scientists, and a classic essay on baseball.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/File
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviews members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

The Russian gambit in Crimea has deeply affected geopolitical thinking beyond the United States and Europe. Japan, which had high hopes of negotiating a friendly settlement over Japanese islands seized by Russia at the end of World War II, now is bracing for life with a more aggressive neighbor to its west across the Sea of Japan. The result will “require Asian countries to strengthen their defenses and unite to demand adherence to international law,” writes Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister, on the website Project Syndicate.

Russia’s move may also embolden Japan’s other giant neighbor, China. “The days of an inward looking Japan are over,” Ms. Koike concludes. Japanese eyes have been opened to how events elsewhere in the world will affect Japan’s own security. The island nation already has signaled its new policy by becoming the largest donor to Ukraine, pledging $1.5 billion in economic aid, the most by any country, including the US.

How an engineer solves world problems

Despite his concerted effort to give away his money, Bill Gates keeps making more, with his net worth now around $76 billion, making him the richest person in the world. And no ultra-rich person has probably ever worked harder at shedding the moniker of the “idle rich.” In an extensive interview with Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone, Mr. Gates talks about his efforts to solve some of the most pressing problems in the world, including diseases that hold back progress in the developing world, such as polio. He attacks these problems as an engineer seeking to fix broken systems.

In his worldview, he fits into no easy political category. He agrees with Democrats that the wealthy could easily pay a much higher portion of their incomes in taxes. But like conservatives, he’s not convinced that governments know how to run programs efficiently, calling them “a pretty­ blunt instrument” prone to “not doing things very well.” US immigration laws need fixing: They “are bad – really, really bad.... [T]reatment of immigrants is one of the greatest injustices done in our government’s name.” The top three problems in the US that he says need fixing? Political deadlock, the education system, and health-care costs.

Getting girls to like code

The US needs more talent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. A great source would be women, who traditionally have not shown much interest in STEM careers. Under its president, Maria Klawe, herself a computer scientist, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., has pioneered a three-step program to attract more women students to STEM studies, writes Manoush Zomorodi in Quartz, an online business journal.

It renamed esoteric-sounding computer science courses to sound more accessible and interesting, has arranged for women students to go on field trips to meet successful women working in tech fields, and created summer research programs that take place between freshman and sophomore years so the students can apply what they have learned. The result? The number of women pursuing computer science majors soared from 10 percent to 40 percent. Duke, Northwestern, and the University of California, Berkeley have also had success using similar schemes.

Floating utopias for a crowded planet

With sea levels on the rise, the once-fantastic idea of floating cities is getting a more serious hearing. While people have long lived on boats moored in city harbors, more formal floating neighborhoods are being developed in such places as London and Rotterdam, Netherlands, writes Jessa Gamble in Britain’s The Guardian.

The greatest need may be in the developing world: A Nigerian architect has designed floating houses that could provide homes for those now living in a slum. A floating school has already been built there. The most ambitious scheme? The “Freedom Ship” would be a mile-long, 3-million-ton barge with apartment buildings. It would tour the world, making stops just outside major ports, allowing onshore visits for its 40,000 permanent residents and 20,000 crew members. But is life on a fancy movable city feasible? “Many of our essential goods arrive by tanker anyway – a sea-based location would be all the more convenient,” she writes.

The best game of summer

With baseball returning to only recently defrosted northern US cities, the Boston Review has reprinted a classic essay on why America’s national pastime is “The Best of All Games.” Written in 1981 by the late John Rawls, an American philosopher and Harvard University professor, “The Best of All Games” recalls a conversation he had with another scholar, Harry Kalven. Among Mr. Kalven’s points: The dimensions of the baseball diamond (the distance from home plate to the pitcher’s mound and between the bases, etc.) have proved to be an ideal size to display an array of skills and “graceful exercise” in running, throwing, and batting, dimensions that have stood the test of time.

In baseball, unlike in sports such as football and basketball, players of average height or weight can be successful. And unlike in other sports, scoring is done without possessing the ball, creating simultaneous excitement both where the ball is in play and where the runner is trying to advance. Finally, Rawls wrote, winning doesn’t depend on time running out. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback. “The last of the ninth inning becomes one of the most potentially exciting parts of the game,” he says.

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