“World” Category

The Giant Squid Hunter

Along with the news that the giant squid has been captured on film for the first time (alive, anyway), this story about a New Zealand giant squid researcher/Ahab popped back up:

The currents were pulling us toward the rocks, and I could hear the massive waves crashing into them. I was holding a flashlight, and I shone it in front of us: there was a twenty-foot wall of water. I turned around, and discovered that another enormous wall was pressing down on us from behind.

“You won’t find this in New York, will you, mate?” O’Shea said.

For a moment, I wondered if O’Shea was fully in command of his faculties. But we made it through the gap in the rocks, and he skillfully steered the boat into a protected inlet. It was indeed the perfect spot.

Lovely story to file away in your read-later service of choice and read when you’ve got a moment. It’s the kind of story I loved reading as a child: a person obsessed with discovering a mystery, driven to extreme lengths despite constant failure, and the blending of myth, science and reality.

January 29th, 2013

China’s New Graduates

China’s increasing rate of education is astounding:

Sheer numbers make the educational push by China, a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, potentially breathtaking. In the last decade, China doubled the number of colleges and universities, to 2,409.

As recently as 1996, only one in six Chinese 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That was the same proportion as in the United States in 1919. Now, three in five young Chinese graduate from high school, matching the United States in the mid-1950s.

They have very little choice but to increase the number of people receiving a college education at a dramatic rate because China must transition from infrastructure investment and low-cost labor-fueled growth to an economy based more around consumption and higher-value work in the next two decades.

Their challenge, though, is that finding qualified people to teach is very difficult, and that while they may be increasing the quantity of students receiving a college education, they are not necessarily receiving one of the same quality as international schools provide.

January 17th, 2013

Journalists Strike in China to Protest Censorship

In Guangzhou, China, journalists for the Southern Weekend newspaper are striking in opposition to censorship of an op-ed that called for rights in China’s constitution to be better respected.

After passing through China’s censorship process, the op-ed was altered to praise China’s current political system.

Significantly, many people have showed up to support the protest, and a number of famous actors have voiced their support. This could end up being a major test for the new regime led by Xi Jinping, and an indicator of how he intends to rule. If he sides with the protestors (in some form), it should indicate that he seeks to decrease censorship of China’s news media. Or he could side with the government and maintain China’s status quo.

Follow this story. It may quiet down, but it could also end up being important.

January 7th, 2013

An Open Data Standard For Food

I came across this article by Stacey Higginbotham for GigaOm while doing research for Basil:

An open data standard for food has emerged on the web. With such a tool, restaurants, food apps, grocery stores, the government and other interested parties can tell that arugula is also called rocket salad, no matter where on the web it occurs or what a restaurant menu or recipe app calls it. Right now, that’s an impossible task, which leads to inefficiencies in both consumer-facing apps and the supply chains of restaurants and grocery stores.

A group of folks concerned about sustainable foods have built the seeds of an open food database hosted on Heroku, with the code pertaining to it located at Github.

Really, really cool idea, and something we absolutely need more of. Theoretically, this sort of thing would allow Basil to do a lot of very powerful things. For example, it could have much smarter tagging; rather than just tag recipes with ingredients it uses that happen to be in a built-in list of ingredients or user-added ones, Basil could use the service’s list of ingredients, so you’d get a much fuller tagging system. But it could also be more intelligent about it; if one recipe says it uses “coriander” and another recipe says it uses “cilantro,” Basil could use this service to see oh, they’re the same thing, and to tag both recipes with “cilantro.” Or, if this service ends up providing translations of food names into different languages, Basil could be language-independent: whatever language you save a recipe in, it would display the tags for it in the user’s native language. That’s awesome.

There is huge potential here to do something incredible, and it shows the potential for what open and linked data could do. Imagine if we then take this data-set and link it up to a data-set which provides nutritional information for foods. It would then be quite simple to create a rough estimate of the nutritional content for any recipe, even if the information isn’t provided. From there, we could link up to another data-set which provides the user’s health data (say, Fitbit’s API), and from there, to a service which tells you how many calories, carbohydrates, et cetera someone with that health profile should have each day. All of the sudden, we have a very, very concrete way to recommend recipes to people that meet their health needs. And if they tell Basil that they cooked that recipe today, Basil could update their Fitbit account.

Think about how big a deal that is. We have all of this data already—we just need to unlock it. Open data has the potential to be even more important than the web browser and hypertext.

December 18th, 2012

Cuba’s Market Reform Show There’s No Silver Bullet

Cuba has allowed farmers to grow and sell crops privately in an attempt to boost production, but the changes haven’t been a success:

Mistrust is widespread. To get the growth Mr. Castro wants in agriculture and the economy, people need to trust the government, analysts say. But after half a century of strict control, many Cubans doubt proclamations from officials, who insist that this time, despite previous crackdowns, private enterprise will be supported.

Some farmers still wonder when the government is going to swoop in and take what they have built.

“What concerns me is that in a place like this, after five or six years the state might need the land to complete some kind of project,” said Reinaldo Berdecia, who is raising cows outside Havana.

This shows is just how important the rule of law is in allowing a market system. Without trust that the land and output will remain theirs, few farmers will take the necessary steps to make use of it.

Another problem farmers run into is that while they now can effectively own land, they don’t have the resources to effectively farm it due to other restrictions still in place, like tractors (the government maintains a monopoly on selling almost all new equipment, so farmers use decades-old, unreliable equipment) and fertilizer.

Without the rule of law and relatively unfettered access to other goods, too, it’s difficult for a market to emerge.

December 12th, 2012

Snowflakes

Incredible macro photos of snowflakes just before they melt. Take it as a reminder of how different familiar things can look at different scales.

(Via Duncan Davidson.)

December 10th, 2012

Apple to Manufacture Mac Line In U.S.

Apple’s Tim Cook said that Apple will begin manufacturing an existing Mac line in the United States next year. Cook also said that it will not just be final assembly.

Absolutely good news. But what’s better news is, presumably, that Apple believes doing so is efficient enough for their needs.

December 6th, 2012

The Automated Future

For the last few decades, we have struggled with how to employ manufacturing workers who lost their well-paid job with great benefits due to a globalized economy. When workers in another part of the world are willing to work for a fraction of what it costs to manufacture something in the United States, it’s obvious why companies move their manufacturing operations: it’s a significant cost advantage and, worse, if they don’t, their competitors will. This is only more true today. In January, Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported for the New York Times that for technology products especially, the labor cost itself is less important. What matters is that Asia—especially China—is the only place where every part of the supply chain exists in one region, that can manufacture quickly and at immense scale.

Manufacturing, too, is increasingly automated. The human’s role in actually putting things together is decreasing. Automation on large scale for identical products, like cars, has been a reality for decades. What’s happening now, though, is that smaller scale, small production runs are being automated as well. Rethink Robotics has created a robot called Baxter that can be “taught” how to do repeating tasks, and can work around humans. Rethink Robotics says Baxter can work for the equivalent of $4 an hour. Vanguard Plastics, a 30-person company in Connecticut, is using Baxter for menial tasks. Vanguard’s president, Chris Budnick, says that workers who did these jobs before are not being laid off, but are now assigned to “higher-level” tasks like training Baxter for each new production run.

Robots like Baxter are a work multiplier. Whereas before Vanguard required humans to do menial tasks, now they only need humans to train robots how to do something. But many more people are required to do the menial tasks than are required to train robots, so while no one may be losing their job now, they will need to find new productive tasks for them in the future—or eliminate their jobs. As robots like Baxter get better, too, manufactures will need even fewer employees to train them.

Other industries face very similar problems. Retail salespersons and cashiers, for example, account for nearly 6 percent of all jobs in the U.S., but are increasingly irrelevant. For many products, shopping online is more convenient and cheaper. Tower Records, Blockbuster and Borders all failed fundamentally because purchasing music, movies and books online is much better than paying more money for the privilege of driving to a store, hoping they have what you want and waiting in line. Even grocery stores are reducing their need for cashiers by employing self-checkout machines, which allow customers to scan and pay for items on their own and require only one employee to monitor several self-checkout machines.

Almost all of the jobs lost due to offshoring and automation have been low or semi-skilled kinds of jobs. Manufacturing jobs required training, but certainly did not require several years of specialty education and training to do. Retail sales and cashier positions require almost zero training. It would appear, then, that since offshoring and automation are eliminating low and semi-skilled jobs, we can re-orient our economy toward “knowledge work,” or work whose primary task is thinking. Examples of these kinds of jobs are software engineers, engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, managers and scientists. These kinds of jobs require a tremendous investment in education and training, and therefore seem not to fall prey to offshoring and automation.

In The Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford asks a very good question: “What is the likely economic impact of machines or computers that begin to catch up with—and maybe even surpass—the average person’s capability to do a typical job?” Or, more provocatively: If computers can already beat the best chess players in the world, isn’t it likely that they will also soon be able to perform many routine jobs?

Ford argues that not only is this true, as we’re seeing for manufacturing and retail jobs, but that it is also true for highly-skilled knowledge work jobs. Think about what a radiologist does. Much of what they do is read routine x-rays or CT and MRI scans to diagnose issues with patients. Since radiology is increasingly digital, and knowledge of what different conditions and diseases look like can be digitally represented and algorithmically identified, it’s likely that some of what human radiologists do today—the more routine, easy to identify cases—will be handled by computers instead. Doing so will dramatically decrease costs for hospitals because they will have to employ less doctors, which require large salaries, health insurance, vacation and sick days, and have to be hired and managed. Computers don’t.

The same, of course, is true for much of what general practice doctors do as well. Computers like IBM’s Watson could diagnose patients with routine things like the flu and provide a treatment as well. In fact, because Watson would have access to exponentially more medical research, journal articles, studies and patient history (and aggregate patient data), Watson may very well provide better diagnoses and treatments than the average human doctor.

Ford points out this is true for other fields, too, like law. He writes:

Currently there are jobs in the United States for many thousands of lawyers who rarely, if ever, go into a courtroom. These attorneys are employed in the areas of legal research and contracts. They work at law firms and spend much of their time in the library or accessing legal databases through their computers. They research case law, and write briefs which summarize relevant court cases and legal strategies from the past.… Can a computer do the lawyer’s job? (70-71)

Is there any reason to think that computers will never be able to do this kind of basic research and summarization? I don’t think so. What this suggests is that automation will challenge many kinds of knowledge work just as much as low and semi-skilled work. Indeed, companies will have even more reason to automate these kinds of jobs, because they are generally very well-paid jobs.

Manufacturing and retail job elimination, then, is just the first wave of many to come. The question, though, is not how to get those jobs back and protect the ones that still exist. That isn’t going to happen, is counter-productive and a waste of time. The question to ask is, when many of the jobs people depend on our automated, what kind of jobs will they do instead?

That question is, I think, the most important question to answer for the next few decades.

I have some ideas, but for now, I just want to ask the question and want you to think about it. How do we productively employ these people?

November 21st, 2012

The Beijing Consensus At Work

The China Model continues to impress:

The owner of an Internet cafe in southwest China was given an eight-year prison term for criticizing the ruling Communist Party in online messages and for seeking to establish an opposition party, his wife said Thursday.

November 1st, 2012

Drug Abuse in Portugal Drops by Half After Decriminalization

After decriminalizing all drug use in 2001, Portugal’s drug abuse has dropped by half:

The number of addicts considered “problematic” — those who repeatedly use “hard” drugs and intravenous users — had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.

Infections among intravenous users and drug-related crimes have dropped significantly as well.

Portugal’s policy is to provide drug addicts with treatment rather than put them in prison. Our country would be better off with a similar policy.

November 1st, 2012

Obama: American people need to know how I make national security decisions

Barack Obama, while on The Daily Show:

‘Whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency the one thing that I’ve been absolutely clear about is that America’s security comes, and the American people need to know exactly how I make decisions when it comes to war, peace, security, and protecting Americans.

‘And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency.’

Except, apparently, for when he will kill American citizens with drone strikes, when he will support the people overthrowing one ally’s government but not the other, and when he will intervene in one country’s revolution but not another. Because this administration’s policies are not at all clear on those issues.

October 19th, 2012

Earth-Sized Planet Found in Alpha Centauri

An Earth-sized planet was found in Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system:

Bringing the search for another Earth about as close as it will ever get, a team of European astronomers was scheduled to announce on Wednesday that it had found a planet the same mass as Earth’s in Alpha Centauri, a triple star system that is the Sun’s closest neighbor, only 4.4 light-years away.

The planet is much too close to its star to be habitable, but there’s no doubt that our galaxy is littered with near-Earth sized planets. As we get better at finding exoplanets, we’re finding more and more small planets. With enough of them, there is almost assuredly rocky planets in their system’s habitable zone. And with enough of those, there has to be some where conditions were similar enough to our own that life popped up.

Intelligent life may not be very prevalent (because the conditions have to be quite good and stable for it to pop up, at least in a form similar to our own), but my bet is that life is. There’s very little that excites me more than the idea that there are many planets across our galaxy with living creatures on them, and maybe even intelligent beings wondering the same thing as us—are there others out there?

It’s unfortunate that there is almost no chance that we will ever find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, but it is nonetheless exhilarating that we may be able to soon identify a number of planets that could sustain life as we know it.

October 16th, 2012

Zhang Weiying, China’s Austrian Economist

Chinese economist Zhang Weiying is gaining in audience in China for his view that China’s Keynsian, state-run model has mis-allocated investment and made conditions worse:

In other words, the stimulus was a poster child for Mr. Zhang’s Austrian theories. And the sheer size of the failure suddenly has people paying attention. “The Keynesian policy didn’t deliver what it promised,” he says, so “more and more people realize that . . . when the government makes investment [in] something that’s useless, recession will come.”

Chinese officials no longer treat Mr. Zhang as a pariah. He reports that Ministry of Agriculture officials tell him they enjoy reading his articles. Other ministries and local governments, including in Henan and Liaoning provinces, invite him to speak. He says that when he recently wrote an article praising the late Austrian economist Murray Rothbard, the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai—a fairly high-level apparatchik—told him he liked it.

Interesting, especially because only a few short years ago, the “Beijing Consensus”—a sort of state-directed capitalism—was lauded across the world for its success.

October 15th, 2012

The Only Freedom She’s Allowed

Reporters Without Borders has a video of Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, looking out her window and smoking a cigarette at night, one of the few freedoms she has. The video is haunting. This is her only day-to-day contact with the world.

October 14th, 2012

China Pressures Liu Xiaobo By Locking Up Wife

China has held dissident Liu Xiaobo’s wife under house arrest for 2 years, since Liu was imprisoned for calling for democratic reforms in China. The Chinese government is holding Liu Xia under house arrest without any legal justification, and it’s believed they are doing so to try to pressure Liu Xiaobo to go into exile:

His wife Liu Xia, an even softer-spoken poet and photographer, has been similarly silenced. She’s being held in her own flat in Beijing.

She’s been there for two years, detained just a couple of days after her husband was announced as the 2010 winner.

That’s what the Chinese government (and CCP) does: it imprisons people who are critical of its actions, and harms their family and friends to silence them. The party has no compunction for squashing its own people, because the party is more important than mere individuals. Individuals are merely grist to the mill, resources to be ground up to achieve their goals.

October 10th, 2012