Tag Archives: developing countries

2017 in Review

Most frightening stories of 2017:

  • January: The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • February: The Doomsday Clock was moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight. The worst it has ever been was 2 minutes to midnight in the early 1980s. In related news, the idea of a U.S.-China war is looking a bit more plausible. The U.S. military may be considering sending ground troops to Syria.
  • MarchLa Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • April: The U.S. health care market is screwed up seemingly beyond repair. Why can’t we have nice things? Oh right, because our politicians represent big business, not voters. Also, we have forgotten the difference between a dialog and an argument.
  • May: We hit 410 ppm at Mauna Loa.
  • JuneThe Onion shared this uncharacteristically unfunny observation: “MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”. It’s not funny because it’s probably true.
  • July: Long term food security in Asia could be a problem.
  • August: The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.
  • September: During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
  • October: It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
  • November: I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • December: A lot of people would probably agree that the United States government is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but I don’t think many would question the long-term stability of our form of government itself. Maybe we should start to do that. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been doing a decent job of protecting consumers and reducing the risk of another financial crisis. The person in charge of it now was put there specifically to ruin it. Something similar may be about to happen at the Census Bureau. A U.S. Constitutional Convention is actually a possibility, and might threaten the stability of the nation.

Most hopeful stories of 2017:

Most interesting stories that weren’t particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • January: Apple, Google, and Facebook may destroy the telecom industry.
  • February: The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • March: Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • April: I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.
  • May: The sex robots are here.
  • June: “Fleur de lawn” is a mix of perennial rye, hard fescue, micro clover, yarrow, Achillea millefolium, sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, baby blue eyes, Nemophila menziesi, English daisy, Bellis perennis, and O’Connor’s strawberry clover, Trifolium fragiferum.
  • July: Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • August: Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • September: I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • October: Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • November: It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
  • DecemberMicrosoft is trying to one-up Google Scholar, which is good for researchers. More computing firepower is being focused on making sense of all the scientific papers out there.

I’ll keep this on the short side. Here are a few trends I see:

Risk of War. I think I said about a year ago that if we could through the next four years without a world war or nuclear detonation, we will be doing well. Well, one year down and three to go. That’s the bright side. The dark side is that it is time to acknowledge there is a regional war going on in the Middle East. It could escalate, it could go nuclear, and it could result in military confrontation between the United States and Russia. Likewise, the situation in North Korea could turn into a regional conflict, could go nuclear, and could lead to military confrontation between the United States and China.

Decline…and Fall? A question on my mind is whether the United States is a nation in decline, and I think the surprisingly obvious answer is yes. The more important question is whether it is a temporary dip, or the beginning of a decline and fall.

Risk of Financial Crisis. The risk of another serious financial crisis is even scarier that war in some ways, at least a limited, non-nuclear war. Surprisingly, the economic effects can be more severe, more widespread and longer lasting. We are seeing the continued weakening of regulations attempting to limit systemic risk-taking for short-term gain. Without a pickup in long-term productivity growth and with the demographic and ecological headwinds that we face, another crisis equal to or worse than the 2007 one could be the one that we don’t recover from.

Ecological Collapse? The story about vanishing insects was eye-opening to me. Could global ecosystems go into a freefall? Could populous regions of the world face a catastrophic food shortage? It is hard to imagine these things coming to a head in the near term, but the world needs to take these risks seriously since the consequences would be so great.

Technology. With everything else going on, technology just marches forward, of course. One technology I find particularly interesting is new approaches to research that mine and attempt to synthesize large bodies of scientific research.

Can the human species implement good ideas? Solutions exist. I would love to end on a positive note, but at the moment I find myself questioning whether our particular species of hairless ape can implement them.

But – how’s this for ending on a positive note – like I said at the beginning, the one thing about 2017 that definitely didn’t suck was that we didn’t get blown up!

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!


June 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • Coral reefs are in pretty sad shape, perhaps the first natural ecosystem type to be devastated beyond repair by climate change.
  • Echoes of the Cold War are rearing their ugly heads in Western Europe.
  • Trump may very well have organized crime links. And Moody’s says that if he gets elected and manages to do the things he says, it could crash the economy.

3 most hopeful stories

  • China has a new(ish) sustainability plan called “ecological civilization” that weaves together urban and regional planning, environmental quality, sustainable agriculture, habitat and biodiversity concepts. This is good because a rapidly developing country the size of China has the ability to sink the rest of civilization if they let their ecological footprint explode, regardless of what the rest of us do. Maybe they can set a good example for the rest of the developing world to follow.
  • Genetic technology is appearing to provide some hope of real breakthroughs in cancer treatment.
  • There is still some hope for a technology-driven pick-up in productivity growth.

3 most interesting stories

May 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • There are scary and seemingly reckless confrontations going on between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Indian Ocean. And yet, it is bizarrely humorous when real life imitates Top Gun.
  • The situation in Venezuela may be a preview of what the collapse of a modern country looks like.
  • Obama went to Hiroshima, where he said we can “chart a course that leads to the destruction” of nuclear weapons, only not in his lifetime. Obama out.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • I try not to let this blog get too political, really I do. But in an election season I just can’t help myself. This is a blog about the future of civilization, and the behavior of U.S. political, bureaucratic, and military elites obviously has some bearing on that. In May I mused on whether the U.S. could possibly be suffering from “too much democracy“, Dick Cheney, equality and equal opportunity, and what’s wrong with Pennsylvania. And yes, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, TRUMP IS A FASCIST!
  • The world has about a billion dogs.
  • It turns out coffee grounds may not make good compost.

more on China’s “ecological civilization”

The United Nations has a new report on China’s “ecological civilization” plan. What seems notable is that it takes an urban and regional planning framework, then weaves in goals related to environmental quality and sustainable agriculture. There are also a few targets related to habitat and biodiversity conservation. It’s a good vision and contains all the right rhetoric.

February 2016 in Review

I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from February.

3 most frightening posts

3 most hopeful posts

3 most interesting posts

  • The U.S. election season certainly is getting interesting, although not really in a good way. ontheissues.org has a useful summary of where U.S. political candidates stand…what are the words I’m looking for…on the the issues. Nate Silver has an interesting online tool that lets you play around with how various demographic groups tend to vote.
  • Fire trucks don’t really have to be so big.
  • Titanium dioxide is the reason Oreo filling is so white.

where are the refugees from?

Here’s a pretty awesome data analysis on where (legal) refugees who enter the U.S. come from, and where they go. It’s great both for the information, and for the presentation of the information, which is simple yet highly effective. Click on the link, but here are a few facts to whet your appetite:

  • The country of origin for the most refugees to the U.S. in 2014 was Iraq, at 19.651.
  • Surprisingly (to me at least), next is Burma at 14,577.
  • Rounding out the top five are Somalia (9,011), Bhutan (8,316), and D.R. Congo (4,502).
  • After Cuba (4,063), the next highest country from Central or South America is Columbia at 243.

I might have guessed Iraq, but I don’t think I would have guessed anything else on this list. In a number of cases, there are groups of essentially stateless people living in various places (Bhutan and Burma, for example) that the U.S. has agreed to resettle in fairly large groups. In other cases, there are just a handful of people from a given country granted refugee status in a given year. It is a little hard to make sense of why one group is allowed and the next is not.

World Economic Forecast

The IMF has issued a new World Economic Forecast.

Relative to last year, the recovery in advanced economies is expected to pick up slightly, while activity in emerging market and developing economies is projected to slow for the fifth year in a row, primarily reflecting weaker prospects for some large emerging market economies and oil-exporting countries. In an environment of declining commodity prices, reduced capital flows to emerging markets and pressure on their currencies, and increasing financial market volatility, downside risks to the outlook have risen, particularly for emerging market and developing economies…

the persistently modest pace of recovery in advanced economies and the fifth consecutive year of growth declines in emerging markets suggest that medium-term and long-term common forces are also importantly at play. These include low productivity growth since the crisis, crisis legacies in some advanced economies (high public and private debt, financial sector weakness, low investment), demographic transitions, ongoing adjustment in many emerging markets following the postcrisis credit and investment boom, a growth realignment in China—with important cross-border repercussions—and a downturn in commodity prices triggered by weaker demand as well as higher production capacity.

September 2015 in Review

What did I learn in September? Let’s start with the bad and then go to the good.

Negative stories (-11):

  • The Environmental Kuznets Curve is the idea that a developing country will go through a period of environmental degradation caused by economic growth, but then the environment will improve in the long run. Sounds okay but the evidence for it is weak. (-1)
  • The Inca are an example of a very advanced civilization that was wiped out. (-1)
  • Consumerism and the pursuit of wealth are not sufficient cultural glue to hold a nation together. (-1)
  • Climate may be playing a role in the current refugee crisis, and the future may hold much more of this. (-1)
  • North and South America would have enormous herds of large mammals if humans had never come along.  (-1)
  • The U.S. clearly has lower average life expectancy than other advanced countries. Developing countries in Asia and Latin America are catching up, but life expectancy in Africa is still tragically low. (-1)
  • People get away with criminally violent behavior behind the wheel because police do not see it as on par with other types of crime. (-2)
  • People are still suggesting a false choice between critical and creative thinking. This is not how the problems are tomorrow will be solved. (-2)
  • This just in – an extreme form of central planning does not work. (-1)

Positive stories (+9):

    • Pneumatic chutes for garbage collection have been used successfully on an island in New York City for decades. This technology has some potential to move us closer to a closed loop world where resources are recovered rather than wasted. (+1)
    • Scientists and engineers could learn some lessons from marketing on how to communicate better with the rest of humanity. (+1)
    • There is new evidence from New Zealand on economic benefits of cycling and cycling infrastructure. (+1)
    • There has been some progress on New York City’s “lowline“, which is what a park in space might look like. The only problem is, it looks to me like a mall. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the exciting science fiction future may look a lot like malls in space. (+0)
    • The U.S. Surgeon General thinks walkable communities may be a good idea. The End of Traffic may actually be a possibility. (+3)
    • Peter Singer advocates “effective altruism”. A version of his Princeton ethics course is available for free online. (+1)
    • Edward Tufte does not like Infographics. (+0)
    • The unpronounceable Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes he has found the key to happiness. (+1)
    • The right mix of variety and repetition might be the key to learning. (+1)