Economics Geopolitics History Science Society

Predictions, Creativity, Noses, Alaska, Pill

There is a better way, one that would allow the United States to make decisions based not on simplistic extrapolations of the past but on smart estimates of the future. It involves reconciling two approaches often seen to be at philosophical loggerheads: scenario planning and probabilistic forecasting. Each approach has a fundamentally different assumption about the future. Scenario planners maintain that there are so many possible futures that one can imagine them only in terms of plausibility, not probability. By contrast, forecasters believe it is possible to calculate the odds of possible outcomes, thereby transforming amorphous uncertainty into quantifiable risk. Because each method has its strengths, the optimal approach is to combine them. This holistic method would provide policymakers with both a range of conceivable futures and regular updates as to which one is likely to emerge. For once, they could make shrewd bets about tomorrow, today.

The atomic bomb marked the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. The creativity of Manhattan Project scientists and engineers has been abundantly celebrated by later commentators, not so much in the immediate aftermath: the word ‘creativity’ doesn’t appear in the official Smyth Report (1945) on the Project. And the only invocation of the notion of genius is deflationary and morally exculpatory: ‘This weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius but by the arduous labour of thousands of normal men and women.’ But the new atomic world was just the institutional and cultural environment in which creativity emerged, flourished and was variously interpreted.

Ancient Egyptians were an African people who created a distinctive, stable, and long-lasting civilization in the Nile Valley by at least 4400 BCE. They believed that images — objects representing the human form, rendered in stone, metal, wood, clay, or even wax—could be activated to host a supernatural power. This power could be either divine or the soul of a deceased human who had become divine at death. The occupied image was a meeting point between the supernatural and the terrestrial. It was also a physical body enabling such powers to act in our material world. Without an image, supernatural forces could not intervene in events on earth.

When the hapless JFK is assassinated in 1963, it seems that America may be on the losing side of history. The USSR has put a man in space, extended its influence in Latin America and it also has a large nuclear arsenal in the American SSR. The explosion of the Apollo 11 rocket on the launchpad in 1969, killing everyone on board, set against a background of civil unrest and the disastrous war in Vietnam, becomes a bitterly potent symbol of a nation that has lost its way. A year later Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, becomes the first man to walk on the moon.

Advocates of psilocybin-assisted therapy tout it as the solution to the burgeoning mental health crisis. But, like MDMA, psilocybin is far from a culturally neutral drug, carrying both the shame of Schedule 1 status and a checkered social history. It too may need to build the kind of politically heterogeneous coalition of supporters that MDMA-assisted therapy enjoys.

But to generate a breadth of appeal, one challenge stands out: psilocybin seems to make people more liberal. Scientific reports associating psychedelic use and liberal values stretch back as far as 1971, and although these findings have been replicated more recently, a noncausal explanation is readily available. Those with conservative attitudes tend to look more disapprovingly on illicit drug use, making them less likely than liberals to try a psychedelic drug in the first place.

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Story of blood transporter in Nigeria

Inventing a mechanical basketball hoop – an ingenious work of engineering creativity

Morgan Freeman narrates a mini-doc about the ocean’s newest species: plastic

Sound designer Al Nelson and paleontologist Julia Clarke talk about how the cries of dinosaurs were created for the Jurassic Park films

An interesting discussion on Life and works of Alan Turing.

Four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei’s scientific findings were rejected because they didn’t fit the prevailing beliefs of the time. His story is disturbingly relevant today. Astrophysicist and author Mario Livio talks about its relevance.

Geopolitics Science Technology

Jellyfish, Labs, Questions, Surveillance, Rice

In the hope of solving this, some naturalists proposed a new grouping. Dubbed ‘protozoa’ or ‘protoctista’, it would consist of all those ‘indeterminate’ or ‘incomplete’ subjects, that seemed to bear no relation to anything else. But no one could agree whether it should be a class, a phylum, or a kingdom – much less what it should contain. 

This left jellyfish in limbo. There were, of course, some who still believed that they were animals. In 1843, Richard Owen (1804-92) gave an exceptionally detailed description of their anatomy and argued forcefully for their inclusion in Animalia. But he struggled to explain why. He had to admit that, at certain stages in their life cycle, they actually looked more like protozoa – and when pushed, had to fall back on the ‘essentialist’ arguments of old.

No one is quite sure why the lab model failed. It’s obvious that a scenario where Xerox is paying scientists to do research that ultimately mostly benefits other firms, potentially even competitors that help to put it out of business, could never survive. Similarly, the tension between managing scientists with their own pure research goals in such a way that they produce something commercially viable, while still leaving them enough latitude to make important leaps, seems huge. But these problems were always there in the model. What is harder to identify is an exogenous shock or set of shocks that changed the situation that existed from the 1930s until somewhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

One possibility is antitrust enforcement. From 1949 authorities pursued a case against AT&T’s Bell Labs, which ultimately resulted in the forced divestiture of their non-telecoms arms, separation from their vertically integrated manufacturing, and compulsory no-fee licensing of all 7,820 of its non-telecoms patents (1.3% of the total stock of patents in force in the USA at the time). There is evidence that this move rippled across the US economy, providing a foundation for many of the great innovations of the next fifty years. But this would be true of almost any mass patent invalidation: the monopoly restrictions of patents once they are granted are the cost we pay for the investment in innovation that came before.

People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

Below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one.

They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

In 2018, a columnist for The Guardian asked Google to give him all the data it had collected on him. The company turned over 5.5 gigabytes of information—the equivalent of three million Word documents. When I repeated this experiment in March 2020, Google informed me that I was being “tracked across fifty-one products” and that I should be patient while my data were being assembled. “This process can take a long time (possibly hours or days) to complete,” the company wrote. “You’ll receive an email when your export is done.”

Ten hours later, Google emailed to say that my “archive” was complete. When I unzipped the files, they contained 214.47 gigabytes of data, roughly equal to streaming 214 hours of movies on Netflix. As a book printed in 10-point Arial, it would be 13,893,796 pages long. The archive included all my contacts, photos, search history, purchases, call logs, and correspondence—pretty much everything I had done on the Internet from its origins to the present. Like everyone else, I had agreed to this surveillance by clicking “yes” to unread agreements that promised to “enhance your user experience.” Apart from Google, I am being tracked by a host of other companies. They scrape data from my financial transactions and then sell it back to me as my credit rating or pass it on to Bluffdale, Utah, as part of the NSA’s effort to comprehend information in its totality.

The thing to note about rice is that it is both much more productive on a per-acre basis than wheat or barley, but also much more labor intensive; it also relies on different forms of capital to be productive. Whole-grain wheat and brown rice have similar calorie and nutritional value (brown rice is somewhat better in most categories) on a unit-weight basis (so, per pound or ton), but the yield difference is fairly large: rice is typically around (very roughly) 50% more productive per acre than wheat. Moreover, rice plants have a more favorable ratio of seeds-to-plants, meaning that the demand to put away seeds for the next harvest is easier – whereas crop-to-seed ratios on pre-modern wheat range from 3:1 to 10:1, rice can achieve figures as high as 100:1. As a result, not only is the gross yield higher (that is, more tons of seed per field) but a lower percentage of that seed has to be saved for the next planting.

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The history of universe using 13,799 dominoes.

This video from KQED’s science documentary series Deep Look offers carnivorous close-ups of the Cape sundew – a bog-dwelling plant species native to South Africa.

Everyday life in the Secretive North Korean capital

An introduction to some of the finest architects and fiercest warriors of the insect world 

Interesting story on the history of air conditioning.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses about the limits of translation.

Environment Geopolitics Politics Science Technology

Pigs, Resilience, Distancing, Vaccines, Agents

Cascading shortfalls in production upended supply chains and left swaths of the country with little meat in the spring and summer. While East Germans queued in long lines for their roasts and sausages, they also complained bitterly that the regime continued to prioritize meat exports abroad, even as their own citizens grew more irate. The same industrial system that arose in the GDR continues to churn in every corner of the globe. It remains capable of producing unprecedented amounts of meat, but also pollution, sickness, and ecological disaster. In the era of climate change, environmental disruptions will only intensify, and as they do, the system of industrial meat will become more and more precarious. Before too long, it will break. It’s a lesson that East Germans learned a generation ago. And it’s one we should heed closely.

Individual organisms often respond to cues of environmental challenge by changing their behaviour or by influencing the traits of their offspring. For example, in my own work on birds, mothers in crowded populations put more testosterone in their eggs and produce aggressive offspring. Because they are good competitors, these offspring can leave overpopulated areas to find new habitat elsewhere. In contrast, mothers breeding in newly colonised habitat with a low density of breeders produce more mild-mannered offspring that are more likely to remain and acquire a territory nearby. By breeding next to their parents, these cooperative offspring are buffered from competition and from the costs of moving to a new area. But producing less aggressive offspring works only when there is lots of extra space for families to divide up. This example shows how mothers can influence offspring traits in a way that prepares their kids to deal with the environmental challenges they are most likely to face.

Like other animals, humans have a long evolutionary history with infectious diseases. Many of our own forms of behavioral immunity, such as feelings of disgust in dirty or crowded environments, are likely the results of this history. But modern humans, unlike other animals, have many advantages when plagues come to our doors. For instance, we can now communicate disease threats globally in an instant. This ability allows us to institute social distancing before disease appears in our local community—a tactic that has saved many lives. We have advanced digital communication platforms, from e-mail to group video chats, that allow us to keep our physical distance while maintaining some social connections. Other animals lose social ties with actual distance. But perhaps the biggest human advantage is the ability to develop sophisticated nonbehavioral tools, such as vaccines, that prevent disease without the need for costly behavioral changes. Vaccination allows us to maintain rich, interactive social lives despite contagious diseases such as polio and measles that would otherwise ravage us.

When you’re planning a large vaccine drive, predictability is vital. The immunization campaign that allowed India to eradicate polio in 2014, for example, worked methodically through the country’s populace of hundreds of millions of children, backed by a bank of knowledge about how the virus behaved, what the vaccine’s properties were, and where new cases could be found. Such factors dictate not only how much vaccine is manufactured but also the production of a host of ancillaries: chemical additives such as adjuvants; hypodermics, glass vials, rubber stoppers, and other parts of an injection kit; and storage equipment such as deep freezers. Without this gear, a vaccine is just a fine formula, a cure in search of its disease.

If a physical product that is widespread in American society could be manipulated by an adversary—imagine an army of home-service robots whose operating systems could be attacked by a foreign power, and turned to hold families hostage inside their houses—it would be immediately addressed as a top-priority national security threat. But social media has long had a free pass for a number of reasons that apply to the information technology industry as a whole. Today, it is protected in distinctive and persistent ways because of its “speech” functions and the constitutional protections that these functions carry.

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Merriam-Webster defines Baryons as any of a group of subatomic particles (such as nucleons) that are subject to the strong force and are composed of three quarks. Half of the ordinary baryonic matter has been tough to find but Fast Radio Bursts made it possible to detect the WHIM.

The most popular high-end coffee species – Arabica – is highly susceptible to Climate change. Video talks about how Columbian economy is impacted by the environmental crisis and could affect global coffee drinkers in the longer term.

Is the pursuit of GDP growth is the best priority for human society? Listen to an interesting conversation between Stephen Dubner and Kate Raworth.

Know more about monastic traditions of Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans.

Economics Geopolitics Technology

Emergence of the New five data sisters

On August 28, 1928, in Achnacarry Castle of the Scottish Highlands, there was a private appointment among a Dutchman, an American and an Englishman. If anyone knew the potential of oil, which could turn the fortune of corporations and empires, it was them. The Dutchman was Henry Deterding of Shell, American was Walter Teagle of Standard Oil the current Exxon and the Englishman, Sir John Cadman from Anglo-Persian Oil Company, soon to become BP.

With fuel-hungry ships, planes, and tanks on one side and the fast developing automobile industry on another side, when the oil became “the blood of every battle and economy”, it was these corporations that the oil men founded later known as the seven sisters, became the cartel that waged the merciless contest of money. There were times prior to the 1973 oil crisis when these Seven Sisters controlled around 85 percent of the world’s petroleum reserves.

Now let us consider the same perspective for the data. Since the time of counting, we have used information for making decisions. But it was never before this information used to be so concentrated in the hands of a five new emerging sisters. ‘Google’, ‘Facebook’, ‘Amazon’, ‘Apple’ and ‘Microsoft’. If we consider Google, there are over 100 million active users. It also has youtube with 1 billion unique monthly visitors. Facebook boasts around 2 billion monthly active users (Let alone the Instagram and the marketplace). Apple too has over 1 billion devices that are actively used around the world. Over half of the product searches happen on Amazon that has over half a billion active users. As far as the oldie Microsoft is concerned, 1.2 billion users use their product globally across over 100 countries. With Internet of things (IoT) developing, the world we survive is turning to a mine that churns out the new precious commodity data.

So what is the data that these companies are collecting from their users? They gather the information such as ad clicks, device details, email addresses, facial details, IP and location details, phone numbers, personal profile, search queries and the time information.They do it through cookies, device tracking and third party codes that we may not be much aware. We may not be even so much concerned about this information. But it makes a lot of logical sense for these companies to understand and predict the user behaviors. We will understand their power when PWC estimates the addressable market size of data to be at $1.3 trillion by 2019.

The question that whether the data is the new oil is not new. The data explosion has been predicted since 2006. There are 3 characteristics that are common for any resource that become such a powerful economic driver.

First is it’s omnipresence. If you consider the oil, it is not just a driver of our car. It is vital to the production of many everyday essentials. Oil’s refined products are used to manufacture almost all chemical products, such as plastics, fertilizers, detergents, paints and even medicines, plus a whole host of other products that you might not expect. Overall only 60-70% of the oil is consumed in the transportation sector that includes land, air, and water. Balance is consumed in chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry.

If the same parlance is taken, the mobile and smart devices that we use ever day has become the opportunities for interactions that produce customer data. The 2017 global edition of the GSMA’s ‘Mobile Economy’ report reveals that there is a 5 billion mobile subscriber base out of the global population of 7.5 billion. This is massive !!

Second is its economics. Through its extensive supply chain, the oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people and make a major contribution to the global economy in terms of global trade and technologies. Over 5-6 million people work directly in this industry globally and several million more indirectly. According to market research by IBISWorld, a leading business intelligence firm, the total revenues for the oil and gas drilling sector came to $5 trillion in 2014. 2015 estimates for global gross domestic product range between $77 trillion and $127 trillion. The oil and gas drilling sector make up between 6% and 8% of the global economy.

If we take the statistics, according to Forrester Research, Global tech industry is over $3 trillion and approximately it is over 3% with an average growth rate of over 5%.

The third is the potential for high correlation to the global economy. If we look at the correlation between the oil prices and the global economy, it is fairly complicated. The prices of the oil determine the fiscal and monetary policy of the governments.The fluctuations of its price could severely impact the corporate and sovereign ratings thus driving the investments in and out of a country. This is a direct impact on the common man whose daily life is impacted in all ways by the fluctuations of this commodity.

Similarly, if we take the impact of data, it is the dark horse that drives the consumer behavior. The targeted advertisements and customized product launches for specific user requirements are the ways to go.

But can we expect the nationalization drive that happened in the oil-rich nations will not happen again? The way in which governments responded to the 7 sisters, by nationalizing the oil resources, we possibly could see the nationalization of data. Since the new 5 sisters are extracting this resources free of cost and profiting from it, it may not be long enough to see this transformation. But I never expected that the history would repeat so perfectly.


Possibly the end of globalisation – The populism in Europe

United we stand, divided we fall – one of the proverbs that had been taught to us to understand what makes us – the homo economicus – a social animal, may soon change. This may not only change the seal of Kentucky, the seal of American commonwealth states that include 4 of the 50 American states but also questions the existence of the largest economic and political union that the history of mankind has ever seen – the European Union (EU) and the motivation behind it – The globalisation.

If we scroll through the history of EU formation, the roots lie in the Second World War when there was a new movement to create unity between Germany and France, which were in shambles by the end of the war. Originally formed as European Economic Community the infant step the globalisation, the union aimed to prevent wars and strengthen economic bonds. Britain joined the union in 1973. The pillars of formation were free movement of human and goods and protection of rights across countries. European union was a move from a single market to a single currency, a single banking system, a single budget and eventually a single political entity. With the Lisbon treat of 2007, the formation of EU as we see today was complete.  As on today, covering around 7.3% of the human population, the union generated 16.5 Trillion dollars of nominal GDP – around 22.2% of the global nominal GDP. To give an economic perspective, of the top 500 largest corporations in the world measured by revenue in 2010, 161 have their headquarters in the EU, which enabled the union to hold control over the global trade till date.

For Britain, the cost of EU membership was around 12 Bn Euros and it used to get subsidies and grants worth 4.5 Bn Euros. Obviously, a country still struggling to get employment for the youth will not like this bargain. In June 2016, the British public decides to vote against continuing in the union. In an emotional drama, David Cameron resigned as prime minister the next day. This is the story as we know it and is the dream of a single political entity is almost over.

How does this affect the global power politics? Brexit will inevitably increase the friction between the Britain and its international trading partners. Many large businesses, unsure of future on their access to the Eurozone, will most likely freeze their major investments in the U.K. Since global business is so interconnected, there is a good prospect of a global economic slowdown.

There has been pushing back against globalisation over the years. The violent protests seen in Seattle during the World Trade Organisation meeting in December 1999 were the first sign that not everyone saw the move towards unparalleled freedom in a positive attitude. With the Brexit populism has become an increasingly important force in global politics, followed by the promise of Marine Le Pen to move the France from EU and reinstate the French mark may trigger an avalanche that could result in similar movements in already brewing markets such as Italy, Netherlands and Austria. With the decreasing role of trade alliances such as NAFTA, OPEC and Mercosur and the TPP that Trump nailed to the wall, it is high time for us to bet on the Anti-Globalization.

Economics Geopolitics

Is the defense spending a precursor to Economic Supremacy?

I am quite sure you will not agree. But you will agree to the fact that the empire that had the strongest military always ruled the world both economically and politically and thus achieved the world domination. If one scroll back through the pages of history,  British defence share of government expenditures during the 17th, 18th and 19th century were up to 75 % of GDP, never dropping below 55 %. The predecessors for British were the Dutch who had even larger numbers to boast.

If you look at the spending pattern of US on defence, it was less than 1% during the Renaissance, grew to around 12% of GDP during the Civil War of the 1860s, 22% during World War I and culminated to staggering 41% during the WWII –  the time of the universal call by Uncle Sam for the Armageddon. Even today, U.S. military accounts for a staggering 40% of global military spending. More of a fact, US annual spending on the military is higher than the next 13 nations combined. To give you a perspective the constitutional democracies build by the people, for the people (I am not so sure about that) and of the people, as the Uncle Sam says, the allies of US account for over 80% of military spending of the world. Wow, that’s quite a large number!

But have you really thought why this country and its allies alone are spending so much money on defence? At least for a few of us, when we speak of value, the ‘Dollar’ term creeps in. Why are we speaking so much about the Dollar?

Even though there are over 180 currencies in the world, the cost of crude, an investment made by IMF, the debt of countries and even the Big Mac Index is always measured in Dollars. If we look at global forex transactions, there is a 44% chance that one of the currencies in the transaction is the greenback and hence it enjoys the status of world reserve currency. Are we reading about completely unrelated topics?

Not really. This insatiable “recall” / “demand” / “a belief” in dollars has handed the U.S. government a virtually unlimited credit card and a perfected money minting machinery. U.S., with a debt of about $60 trillion, is currently the world’s biggest debtor nation. Due to dollar’s role at the centre of the international monetary system, US has the largest domestic debt securities market ($30 trillion) which is more than double the size of the next largest domestic market Japan ($1 trillion). The defence superiority also enables the country to forge international economic and military partnerships, a trend which points to the country’s strategic clout. This is what the US achieves by retaining its first rank in the defence and military spending, which otherwise would be difficult to maintain in competition for a global superpower. Although China is trying hard to crack to this by making its presence felt, Grand Old Uncle knows that Military prowess and economic prosperity are not zero-sum games. Although “democratic countries” know that they have the potential to realise $1.30 of extra private spending over a period of 5 years for each $1.00 reduction in defence spending (study by Mercatus Center), will our Grand Old Uncle change its military and geopolitical strategy in Emerging markets for such a silly gain?

Let’s wait and see how Uncle tames the dragon… !!!