Audi R8 – A review

My Audi R8 V10

I always thought the letter R and the number 8 went together well. When you add “v10” to it it then starts to sound a little bit silly. But there is a massive difference 2 cylinders (and 1l of engine capacity) can make. I have driven the V8 before and it looked good, sounded good, but it didn’t have the one thing you want – balls to the wall speed. It was fast in a “well I am racing a merc here” sort of a way, but to take on a real challenger and qualify for supercar status, something more was needed.

Some clever wig at Audi suggested bolting on a Lamborghini Gallardo engine, management said sure, give it a try, and the R8 V10 was born. Be in no doubt then, while its pedigree is Audi, who is known for good construction and a slight boringness, its heart is that of the raging bull – the 5.2l Gallardo engine is anything but timid. take 35hp off the stock Gallardo engine and you are still left with something near the performance of a nuclear ramjet. (Yeah ok, that engine is taken from the S8. Dont wreck my story here)

First drive. Boring. Given that I had already bought the car my heart sunk. I did buy it without taking it for a test drive – it’s a fucking Audi R8 – whats a test drive going to do?Waste of time, or so I thought. But given the first experience of driving it for real I thought – blew cash for what – an ultimately unimpressive ride that looked good. I bought the car for the experience, and that experience sucked. At low speeds you felt like you were driving a battle tank. Difficult to turn, so bad even that the universal joints popped out at full lock and I was busy revving the car with no movement back or forward. Some serious disappointment going on, but too late, it was mine, and I had to put on a brave face and show mum and dad the lemon that was mine. That’s actually kindof how I felt – capped off by the fact that I stopped traffic by not applying the brake before engaging gear. Queue honks of disapproval (and derision).

Get out of town and – Wait. One. Second. The speedo clicked over 80km. The transformation from “Heavy handed unwieldy battle tank” to “5.2 liters worth of pure fun” was pretty quick. Now. Drive from Auckland to Tauranga. Take the back roads where you know there are:

A) No cops

B) No one else

C) Tight roads

D) Speed available

I was grinning like a schoolkid. And fuck was I moving. Getting over 200 without even pushing it. I hit 230 and was still accelerating fast.

The car was suddenly transformed from a deadweight (last car was an AMG Merc which was as easy to park as a mini. This was like parking a oil freighter) into the most sure footed, heart racing, electrifying supercar I have ever driven. Jeremy Clarkson has been quoted as saying that “this is the best car I have ever driven” I have never driven another supercar. I doubt very much I will. You point and it shoots. Some of the shit that I got up to was solely as a result of the car teaching me to drive it – shooting gaps I would never have thought possible otherwise. Taking corners marked 35 at 100 (and I shit you not, I did), simply because you knew you could without any trouble. I dont know what to compare this thing to, because as I say I will probably never have the chance to buy another supercar. This is it. The only one I will ever own. But I could have done way worse. Everything about this car says that it was designed and built by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Except for making the car not feel like an embarrassment at low speed. Maybe they did that on purpose to make you go faster. Works for me. I have given a couple of my better friends a drive and the results were unanimous. Big smiles. If anything I feel relieved that I have taken some of my money out of the sharemarket and turned it into something have enjoyable. There is no joy in stocks, but there sure as hell is in possibly one of the most well engineered machines invented.

Bottom line is you only live once. Plan for the future – but if time permits, live for today.

 

I wrote this one a few years back. Whilst living the life of a single consultant. I am now married with kids and no car – I dont need one where I live. I have no regrets, Nothing could replace the black car as we called it. Except a daughter. And I’d take my daughter over any car, any day of the week. Looking back it was a privilege and an incredible thrill to own one, and I am in business, so maybe one day – if I have the money I would want another – even the same one back again. It was a masterpiece.

 

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The Myth of ISIS

(Republished from 2015)

Say whatever you like about ISIS, but for most of us, nearly everyone, ISIS is little more than a bunch of guys who have taken over a desert. They manage to poke the west in the eye every so often, and the response is always the predictable assortment of bombs, rhetoric and underlying lack of coordination between parties who if they really wanted ISIS gone, they would form a coalition and go in and get rid of them.

This hasn’t happened.

ISIS need a few things to survive. They need weapons, they need to sell their oil, and its very likely they need a lot of additional funding. These all come from, or go to, places outside their area of control. That implies complicity on the part of others who either sympathise or benefit from dealing with them. None of this is any surprise. And if you take any of the above support away from ISIS, they would quickly evaporate. But easier said than done. They key element here is weapons and  ammunition – militants need plenty of these. They have to come from somewhere.

So the next step is working out who is supporting ISIS from the outside, and why. The weapons that pour into the ISIS controlled area have to come through a coordinated logistical supply network – and these are expensive and hard to maintain. And, in theory, given that the terrain that ISIS holds, and the fact that they are not on the move – should be well known. For any nation with an effective strike capability, targeting these supply lines is one of the most simple ways of weakening them. ISIS could be defeated quickly if these were severed.

So where from, and why?

If you look at the countries surrounding the Syrian desert, you have Iraq, Jordan, Syria itself, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey.

To look at each country in turn:

Iraq – They have their own ISIS problem, so they are in a similar position to Syria when it comes to the question of where the weapons are flowing from. It has to be from a non ISIS controlled area – either the south through Iraq, which is unlikely – the supply lines run through unfriendly territory for ISIS. To the northwest along the Jordanian border however is a likely route – Saudi is a tacit supporter of ISIS and ISIS controls the road down to the border through Iraq. So yes, Iraq indirectly is one possible supply line.

Jordan – not directly, but as above, an inlet through which Saudi can import arms.

Israel – I dont think anyone seriously believes that Israel is supporting ISIS. They are interested in a contained middle east that poses no threat to them, but apart from conspiracy theories, not really much chance.

Lebanon – No chance. They are a strong supporter of Syria.

Turkey – with the shortest route to areas under direct ISIS control, and the complicity of the Turkish government, this is where the majority of the arms are coming from.

http://www.dw.com/en/is-supply-channels-through-turkey/av-18091048

But why? Why would a NATO member support what is by all measures one of NATO’s perceived largest threats?

To start with, there is a lot of nuance in this situation – forget “Good guys” and “Bad guys” – it is more about regional claims, religion, state actors, and power. Firstly Syria – it wants to cling onto its territory. If Assad falls, there is a good case to be made that the country will disintegrate – the Kurds will claim a chunk, the Alawites, and others will go for theirs, and the country will likely remain in a state of chaos until a strong government once again gets into power. But the key thing to this is the idea of a strong government. Western style democracy in the case of Iraq has been shown to be weak in terms of governance and control – its not like different tribes want to peacefully coexist there – they are all out for settling scores – and that means continual conflict.

Turkey wants Assad gone, no matter the consequences. And this is the part where ISIS comes back in. If ISIS can be controlled – to the degree that they are effectively doing someone else’s bidding, and this is what appears to be happening, then collateral damage, as long as it is not in the sponsor’s country, is acceptable. Dont try and convince France, or Russia, or Lebanon of that, but Turkey seems to be allowing, if not abetting this.

So ISIS seems to me at least to be the weapon of choice for Turkey to pursue its ends in the middle east. Duplicitous in the extreme, myopic in its focus, but in terms of achieving a goal of keeping Syria in perpetual chaos, quite effective.

It will eventually backfire – unintended consequences usually change the form of any battle where many players have competing aims, but one side will emerge as the victor eventually there. We have no idea who. It’s like any demon – we think we can tame it, but if we keep feeding it, it will come back to bite us. It is a mirage, but given enough time and energy, could solidify and pose a real threat. Their supporters, just like the rest of us, had better be aware that if they do become a real force then they are to be feared. Currently however, they are a balloon, with messages of hate scribbled all over them, but incapable of survival without support from outside. It may change, for better or for worse, but currently they are an artificial demon, summoned in support of someone else’s cynical purpose. We run the real risk of turning them into a fighting force. Currently they live in the desert, they may not stay there.

Universe 25

Life is possibly the most tenacious idea we have ever been presented with. Forget business, love, work, just the actual idea of a continually self replicating, functional biological machines that as soon as they are born don’t need a manual on how to be themselves – you feed them and put them in the right environment and they will thrive. From humans on one end to extremophiles (biological beasts that have learned to adapt to some pretty extreme environments) on the other – life itself is characterised by the fact that it is hard wired to survive.

Except when it isn’t.

John Calhoun made a number of experiments in the 1960’s and 70’s around mice populations in controlled environments with an abundance of everything where all the natural threats to them had been removed. They ended in disaster. For the mice. Society tore itself apart. http://www.mostlyodd.com/death-by-utopia/ – You can read it for yourself – it contains links to other similarly well written articles as well. There were a couple of important conclusions that Mr Calhoun makes. The first was in mathematical form:

Mortality, bodily death = the second death
Drastic reduction of mortality
= death of the second death
= death squared
= (death)2
(Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization
= death of the establishment
Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death
= loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival
= the first death
Therefore:
(Death)2 = the first death

This formula might apply to rats and mice—but could the same happen to humankind? For Calhoun, there was little question about it. No matter how sophisticated we considered ourselves to be, once the number of individuals capable of filling roles greatly exceeded the number of roles, (attribution – this is quoting from the website)

only violence and disruption of social organization can follow. … Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation. Their most complex behaviors will become fragmented. Acquisition, creation and utilization of ideas appropriate for life in a post-industrial cultural-conceptual-technological society will have been blocked.

Now to take a step back and apply this to the current condition for humanity as it nears the third decade in the 21st century.

There is no doubt that humanity is becoming very bottom heavy. Educated and industrial nations’ birth rates are sinking, many well below the replacement mark of 2.1 children per adult couple. The natural response to this is to bring in people from other countries. Long story short, in most cases, the population keeps rising. This is ok as long as there are jobs and stability and the required infrastructure is built and able to cope – the net effect is that the engines of growth and the tax base are happy. This reaches a plateau at some point however, after which things like social integration of foreign cultures, inter-racial tensions etc go from being something that from time to time is noticed to becoming more and more of a problem that is constantly there and needs to be dealt with.

So in this there is a direct link to the conditions (NOT outcomes) that Mr Calhoun describes – increasing population, no or limited resource problems, finite space in which to house people. Add in religion and cultural differences and after a point of continual expansion, you reach a point where no one wants any more incomers. It’s entirely an issue of perception and who to blame when things start looking as though they are taking a turn.

If you take one step back from the detail of the experiment and look at the wider picture of exactly what he did – a simulation of more or less ideal conditions for these creatures to thrive – no predators, no widespread disease, plentiful food, and the two constraints – finite space, and less obviously finite functional roles within a society, this was a combination that proved to be deadly to the survival of the species.There was no decline and stabilisation, there was at some point, the destruction of the idea, even at something of as simple a level as a rodent, of the society in which they lived. It seems that past a certain point of social disintegration that even depopulation didn’t turn the situation around – something fundamental to survival was lost, and nothing internal to the remaining population could bring it back – there was no innate sense of structure left.

Life’s natural balancers to this are conflict and disease (and predators, if you’re not at the top of the food chain) – and a sort of equilibrium can be maintained. What we have currently in the world can best be described as a major shift in equilibrium, at worst, I have no idea. Not good though. The point is, with an abundance of everything, the mouse society broke. Not just went into a balance at a lower population, but simply went out of existence – the skills the new mice needed to keep society running vanished.

Previously I had an optimistic outcome for us – that mirrored what Calhoun’s intentions for the experiments were – he set about trying to understand and design environments where the problem of lack of space could be minimised. This was originally written in 2015, when I thought there was still room for some adjustments that would have kept us away from disaster. But here we are once again, after a massive influx of migrants into Europe, who cause chaos, and one questions whether or not after a certain point the same conditions within the human system could bring about a similar fate. As time goes on and the dislocations grow larger, I think it’s very difficult to tell what will happen. But I will make two very open caveats – inequality and the disconnection of the wealthy – the growing unrest that this seems to cause could be a catalyst for breakdown – but this falls outside of the mode described above, the other is open revolution. And I’ll write about that separately.

For me the parallels between the mouse world and ours are this:

Growing dislocation – the poor having to abandon family to try and do anything to survive. Families survive better when they are together. This is working its way from the poorer classes on into the middle classes these days. In the mouse world it meant that instead of proper rearing of the young, they were kicked out at an early age and had to fend for themselves.

Fewer and fewer meaningful positions – if you look amongst any biological group, roles and responsibilities are a natural occurrence, and our society is progressively devaluing and removing these, with fewer alternatives.

Isolation. some groups, instead of partaking in society, shit themselves off in isolation – and forget how to interact with other members of society (in Calhoun’s world, he called them the “Beautiful ones”, in ours, we have various names for them, depending on where you are from. The “Hikkikomori” of Japan is one that has been examined in detail. There is no shortage of media coverage about how social anxiety is on the rise.

So – I think the parallels are there, to some degree. It’s what we are going to do about them – what we think is important to keeping our society together and acting on that, that counts long term.

Will China Crash – Part 2

I am from New Zealand, and we look at the world from about as neutral a perspective as I think is possible. Which is not to say neutral, but maybe somewhat less biased than other nations. It is when you start analysing what is going on in the world that you can quickly lose objectivity and start taking on a more judgmental approach. And certainly when you engage in debate with people from other nations, it becomes very difficult to maintain objectivity.  Nevertheless, I will state from the outset that I am trying to be as objective as possible here.

Will China crash? I know I said in part 1 that No, China wont crash, but I am starting to wonder now what the future for China is – is it overstepping the mark? Are internal tensions going to tear it up? Are the systems China operates on (Guanxi etc) compatible with the rest of the world, and how much of the news that makes it out of China (GDP Reports, basically ANY governmental report) realistic, and if not, how much can you expect that they are out by.

First up – is China overstepping the mark. There is one clear case of where the rest of the world is confronted by this question – the South China Sea, and the Island building going on there. To those who dont know some of the intricacies, here is a map of the south China sea and the claims of China (in Red), and the international 200 Nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that is the normal marker for territorial claims:

https://lakansugo.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/wo1211-china-rr-fig-03.gif?w=622&h=494

Basically China has claimed the entire area for itself. Why?

China’s reason: It was traditionally our waters, we have fished there since ancient times.

More likely reason: Fossil Fuel reserves, Fishing, and sea lane control.

China’s reason for the claim has been challenged, by its own records: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/ancient-maps-spark-debate-between-china-and-philippines-020179

The Chinese map referenced which dates from 1169 shows that the southernmost limit to China was Hainan Island. Yet China is saying that the claim of the entire South China Sea dates from ancient times.

Whatever it is, the claim is dubious at best, and goes in direct contravention of the U.N. Convention of the law of the sea (which China has ratified) that stipulates a 200 Nautical Mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from the shoreline of each country. So even without the claims to rocks and features, China is blatantly in breach of this (its closest claim to the Philippine mainland is 80 Nautical miles, and is not covered by any EEZ derived from its island claims)

So – to return to the question – has China overstepped. The answer, in the perception of many other countries is clearly yes, and in a very troubling way. Troubling because it is building military bases in the South China Sea to extend what it claims to be its indisputable sovereignty in the area – and there is no easy solution – the other claimants have ever friendlier bonds with the USA (even Vietnam…), because they fear China, and the stage is slowly being set for an eventual confrontation. Not lost on these nations is Chinese incrementalism. A little bit here, a little bit there, an Island here, an ADIZ there, nothing that in itself could trigger a major response, but gradually China is getting what it wants, step by small step.

The question then becomes – what is the motivating factor behind China’s expansion, and why does China think it will prevail?

In the case of the South China Sea, I think you see the locus of Chinese thought, Chinese perceived might, and Chinese projection and protection of its mainland. Ancient fishing ground is a convenient, if not somewhat disingenuous, excuse to claim an area that can be exploited for the tremendous gain of China.

It will (and has) provoked a reaction. The USA nor her allies are going to get into a military engagement here – the long term reaction will be an economic humbling of China, and one that it cannot avoid. This will be covered off in a future post. As will the other questions above. But China has made quite a strategic blunder here – while it may gain and hold ground, it should have instead made friends. China has no real friends, except for North Korea, Laos and Cambodia. This is where it is critically weak. China has a somewhat clearly articulated policy of no alliances. My post on Great State Autism goes into this further – suffice it to say here however that this is counterproductive on any conceivable level. It is a massive country and increasingly willing to throw its weight around, maybe it thinks it doesn’t need friends, but instead of a battlefield outcome, the battle will be one of perceptions, and in this, the USA is winning comfortably against a country that is starting to show worrying signs of belligerence.

So nothing happens in isolation – while the USA isn’t dumb enough to start a fight in the area, both economically and strategically, China is being undermined both externally and by itself in ways that it cannot overcome. Some of them are demographic, some of them are based around cost-of-labour and China’s sprint to become a middle or high income country, but their dependence on foreign multinationals whom are already looking to lower cost alternatives to China (Google “PC-16 Straftor” for a clear explanation of this) has the ability to hollow China out. China is an export driven country – it is heavily dependent on exports to maintain stability. Currently China exports around 24% of their GDP per year. (The US around 13% and Germany around 45% – and Germany is in crisis – they are major creditors and when the debtor countries start winding back  on the credit – where does Germany export to? – that is another story – Google “German export problem Ambrose Evans Pritchard” – This more than anything else is the European Achilles heel). Back to China. If China withdraws credit to the US – “Calling in her debts” – China will be the one who loses – there will be immense pain, but the US already has diversified manufacturing and is quickly reducing its dependence on China as the sole source of products. If China makes conditions bad enough there that foreign companies pull back manufacturing (Microsoft, Intel and others have recently relocated to Vietnam) – China loses. The legitimacy of the CCP is predicated on delivering a slowly improving standard of living, to offset the increasingly authoritarian method of governing the country. They have made huge steps, but now they face huge challenges which they have not had to deal with before.

The South China Sea as I see it is a trap for China, and they’ve created it and walked straight into it. There is no doubt that China’s actions there have frightened and annoyed all the surrounding countries. China’s plan to change the reality on the ground by its own say so, regardless of the wishes of her neighbours seems to follow (some of this hasn’t happened yet, so there is a bit of conjecture here) 3 steps:

A) Appeasement. “We don’t want the trouble, and the pain is not over the threshold that really requires a response”

B) Naked Opposition. 10 years ago,  things may have stopped at appeasement for some time. After which the facts on the ground would have been established and it would be essentially too late to do much about it. With the rise of nationalism and a rightward swing in many countries (most recently in the Philippines with the election of Duterte) – you dont have to be a big player to cause trouble – China loves to bully its neighbours as is clearly visible in the case of SCS – but the neighbours are increasingly less and less afraid to fight back.

C) War. No one wants this, because there is no telling how it would end. The chances of it going nuclear are very real. A national conflict involving China and a US ally that could either conceivably draw the US in, or cause humiliation and a withdrawal from the US in the area – the US currently is clear that That calculus alone means

So why is it a trap for China? If you look at cost/benefit, the costs to China are enormous. The US has many bases abroad, but very few of them face opposition. They are a fact of life for many countries. SCS reclamation, development and defense on the other hand faces universal opposition. China may well think this is just a cost of doing business, but nearly every surrounding country has a vested interest in amplifying that to make the cost to China as great as possible. I think many people are incredulous that China could be so tone deaf to the consequences of their actions, and even more so about their current methods of achieving their desired outcome. I can only imagine that this makes the 6pm news in Beijing the best hour of the day for many Chinese, we’re socking it to ’em everyone, you better keep cheering for the home team. Elsewhere however, people are pointing to agreements and treaties that they have signed, and blatantly ignoring. The US sometimes does exactly the same thing, except they drag others along with them and convince them to add time and resources (think Iraq and the coalition of the willing) – China doesn’t even bother with this sop. It just charges in and thinks it can do as it likes.

In some small part, and I think this has not really been picked up at all in the media, I think Donald Trump’s rise is in some small part attributable to the rise of nationalism in China. President Xi Jinping is one incredibly scary guy. Very widely considered to be the most authoritarian leader since Mao, has taken over direct leadership of the military  (Financial Times article), Xi must walk a tightrope of conflicting demands, rising social tension, falling growth, a population that is aging faster than any other country (and even the relaxation of the one child policy is neither showing any effect, Economist article from 2011, nothing much has changed even though the law was changed in exactly the way the article describes), the fracturing of the country along the relatively affluent coastal cities who are the trade hubs with the west, and the impoverished west – none of these are problems that are going away quickly, and the CCP response to all of these has been to increase the repression and block the media. I’m fairly ambivalent on all of this – it remains to be seen what the outcome will be – I only mention it to point out that the good run China has had to date is well and truly over. What’s next is anyone’s guess.

As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War “When weak, appear strong, when strong, appear weak”

China is appearing a little too strong currently. Look beneath the surface and the reality over there is not good. Do I take back what I said in the original post about China wont be crashing any time soon – I’ll rephrase it – I don’t think anyone can tell what is going to happen over there now. China is not the west, refuses to be dealt with on western terms, and how thing plays out from here are anyone’s guess.

Will China Crash

The answer in short: No.

There is a level of paranoia about China, the rise, the methods, and who stands to gain and lose out of this ascent. They are an unknown quantity, an opaque figure with seemingly few friends, but an enormous and growing influence that buys a seat at any table it chooses.

I’ll take a different tack in the way I look at this. To start with, galling as it is for China, they have a lot to thank the Japanese for in their strategy. What China has done is more or less a carbon copy of what Japan did 40 or so years ago. With one critical difference that we will get to. Japan figured out very early on that manufacturing and export earns cold hard cash. The first trade deficit they had in 30 years was in 2011.

http://www.customs.go.jp/toukei/shinbun/trade-st_e/2011/2011_117e.pdf

This was as a direct result of the Fukushima eathequake and the idling of their nuclear power stations and follow on reliance on fossil fuels.

http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=13711

$248 billion in 2012 for fossil fuels. It isn’t hard to see why they need to restart the reactors, but thats not the point here. The point is despite the “lost decade”, Japan’s economy is still very strong, and natural disasters aside, it would have remained so. Healthy trade surpluses are healthy trade surpluses. They weren’t made a big point of in Japan, everyone seemed a bit too focused on growth rates or the lack thereof. Back to China. They have followed Japan in making their economy export driven. And its working for them. Even with the downturn in Europe and the US only now getting back on its feet, China still posts solid gains in export earnings.

http://www.statista.com/statistics/263632/trade-balance-of-china/

How much you believe that is up to you. By other measures it looks on the high side:

http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/01/20/what-chinas-electricity-usage-says-about-growth/

Li Keqiang  (Chinese Premier) said in 2007 that the GDP figures are “Man-Made” and for “reference only”

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-13/china-economic-data-questioned-as-electricity-use-slows.html

So its hard to draw a solid conclusion, and will get even harder as China’s economy slows – local governments are told to reach a figure, but no one knows how they do it – borrowing, debt fuelled construction, who knows, the figures are not available, and what is seems questionable.

So to go back to the subject line – will China crash – we need to draw in 2 more points before making any conclusion. Firstly is who owns the businesses in China that export, and secondly demographics and cost-of-manufacture and how this is changing. No mention of debt levels, shadow banking industry or corruption – thats in another post.

Ok, so who owns the industry in China – the exporters are generally not Chinese brands, with a few big exceptions. Apple, Nike, Sony, Toyota, etc, all use Chinese labour. But they dont HAVE to, they use it simply because the cost is cheaper. There are very few Chinese name brands – Huawei, Lenovo and Haier are among the few exceptions. As wages in China rise, the very thing that China offered to the world vanishes – cheap labour. And its unfortunate that the world regards China as a factory to make its goods for it, but the jump to a “knowledge Economy” and a move away from manufacturing is very difficult to do in practise. It cannot be done quickly. And it makes for massive inequality along the way. Factory workers are the backbone of an economy. Certainly true in China’s case. But the squeeze is on for China – on one hand rising wages, and on the other hand non-Chinese brands who will move if the price is not right. Stratfor has posted about the 16 countries identified as follow-ons for China, the “PC-16”

http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/pc16-identifying-chinas-successors

One quote from that report “The arcs along which nations rise and fall vary in length and slope. China’s has been long, as far as these things go, lasting for more than 30 years. The country will continue to exist and perhaps prosper, but this era of Chinese development — pyramiding on low wages to conquer global markets — is ending simply because there are now other nations with even lower wages and other advantages. China will have to behave differently from the way it does now, and thus other countries are poised to take its place.” – it makes for interesting reading, even if you dont agree with it.

And the final point before the conclusion is drawn – demographics.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/20/china-next-generation-ageing-population

This is a problem that many countries are facing, but will likely hit China much harder than others. The “one child” policy and the lack of immigration are going to put massive strain on the country as the population gradually ages. This has to be tackled now, and they are starting to relax the one Child Policy in the latest 5 year plan. As in Japan’s case, immigration on a large scale will be avoided at all costs.

So – conclusion – will China crash? Up until now China has had a good run, and the west has a lot to thank China for, but the pressures are steadily mounting – growth is slowing, population is aging and wages and costs are rising. To add to this, local governments are now saddled with mountains of debt and there is corrption on a grand scale.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/29/zhou-yongkang-china-profile

For a taste of how far the corruption goes there.

So for now, China wont crash in any major way, but it is likely to slow a lot more.

It will still be an important player on the world stage, I doubt it will ever reach no.1.

Predictions for the next 30 years

I’ve been reading with interest someone in Australia pulled out a letter stashed in a wall in 1995, that turned out to have some eerily prophetic guesses as to the future.

Now’s my turn. I promise not to be too negative. I’ll break that, but my intentions are not bad.

First up – Artificial Intelligence. Some of the work I do is in Machine Learning, and I am reasonably confident when I say that we’re a long way off General Artificial Intelligence. Just today we had Glenn Gore, chief architect for Amazon Web Services come and speak to a group of us, and the questions he took at the end mainly revolved around AI/ML, its applications and future. He gave a quick breakdown of all the companies who thought they were working on ML – 90% are working on clever spreadsheets – analytics. Clever, but not real ML. Of the remaining 10%, 9% of those were working on ways of adapting ML to simple use cases within their industry. I fall squarely into that category – we’re moving things out of a simple engineering environment and into a data science environment – and learning about feedback loops and reinforcement and how we can improve our system in this way. It’s very early stages for a lot of this stuff. The remaining 1% was deep learning, where the machine was developing new ideas, and basically this is the preserve of research institutions and places like Google. I only make mention of the stuff I am working on to highlight the simplicity of what we are doing – the use cases are so simple that the whole thing can be done faster and better using a logic engine and a set of correlations. No feedback required. The challenge we have is when a machine makes a decision, we need to be able to tell if it did a good job or not. Possible if your job was to sit there and monitor this thing, but not so easy if this is a minuscule part of the many things you do in your day.

We keep well abreast of AI/ML, and I both agree and disagree with Elon Musk’s statement about regulation of AI – yes, we should, but basically it’s impossible. The main drivers behind AI are state actors with nationalistic imperatives. The following talk is one of DARPA’s director of information innovation – this is the US military’s advanced research lab – the talk is both understandable and frightening if you consider the implications of the very last piece on contextual learning.

You can imagine that China has its own lab, along with other major nations. Now talk to me about regulation. End of. I would give AI about a 15% chance of a major breakthrough that changes everything, otherwise incremental achievements will finally get us to our goal, and given that neural networks have been around since the 80’s, we have a long way to go there.

Secondly – Resource Depletion. I think we have our finger in the dyke on this currently – we’re holding back little issues, in the knowledge that they will snowball over time and become critical. Just take fish as an example.

BBC Article on declining fish stocks

While I think this is a bit alarmist, this is hardly the point. The point is that we have this out of sight out of mind approach to a very rapidly depleting resource. Documentaries like “End of the Line” paint the decline out in graphic detail, along with the incredible amount of unwanted (dead) fish we just toss back. We have a 20th century attitude to a very 21st century problem, and the longer we leave these things unaddressed the more parts of any available solution disappear. Governments don’t want to deal with it even though the science seems reasonably clear.

Before too long I believe we will see one of the first big shocks – a resource that we have depended on drying up in very short order. Candidates are:

  • Freshwater on a regional level. This is a global problem, but it will have regional effects first – we are already seeing this in places – sinkholes, aquifer depletion, water tables going down etc. There hasn’t been a city run dry yet, but some of China’s northern cities are running perilously close. Beijing’s water table has dropped 300 m since the 70’s:

China’s Northern Cities running dry

  • Phosphorous. You know, the fertiliser. We have around 50-100 years worth remaining.
  • Fossil Fuels. You all know about this one. Depending on whether electrics and renewables kick in and to what degree, even if you have an electric car it still needs to draw its power from somewhere, and fossil fuels are still a massive part of the energy production mix.

You could go on – there’s lots. Point is more and more (population is expected to top 10 billion in this century) of us puts more and more strain on resources. As it is we’re heading towards zero on a lot – and I don’t subscribe at all to the idea that we’ll figure this one out like we did for food production in the 1800’s and all of the other obstacles we have overcome. We’re dealing with hard limits here – not just our abilities to adapt. This will becoming a sharply growing problem over the next 3 decades.

Third. Mental health problems, and societal dysfunction. The first two were obvious and very current in the media. This next one is something that I think is just starting to come into focus now. It is talked about in a range of ways, but none that I think really highlight the overall risk to society in a way that encompasses the problem.

From snowflake syndrome to social anxiety to the perception (and I do make the point of saying perception – because who knows…) of reduced social mobility, Governments washing their hands of social responsibility, the most unbelievable things happening in the US with regards to healthcare (to highlight the point of how much government is winding back its support), substance abuse epidemics etc.

I made another post some time ago about Universe 25, the mouse universe that tore itself apart because of abundance of everything, except it seems space. To me, space is absolutely a perceptual concept. Sure it has it’s hard edges – crowded stations, full lunch canteens – etc – these aren’t the problem. The problem as I see is that there isn’t the ability to disconnect anymore. It’s the very perception of being hemmed in by society, that you HAVE to be a part of this, don’t miss out, and in the midst of it you have some very bad actors, people are arbitrarily attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the rise of terrorist events, and the dislocation and dissociation of self – you can see above it’s little slices of problems, all gnawing at us from different angles.

I see this problem steadily continuing to deteriorate. And I don’t see any solution to it either, except for some major depopulation event, after which we can start to build up again. Already the natural population growth in 1st world countries is generally below the 2.1 children natural replacement rate. The population however is still expanding rapidly. This is being fueled by comparatively disadvantaged countries, with much lower standards of education – and we need these people to fill roles in our society. If you take Japan as an example of a country which restricts immigration to an incredible degree, there are currently on average 2 job openings for every applicant.

My gut feeling is that to all of these problems, it’s only after a massive shakeup – in whatever form that takes, that these problems become so overwhelmed by a much more basic issue – survival, that it takes a long time for the distortions to start appearing again. Case in point here is WW2 until now. After the war there were a number of fairly revolutionary things happen – the new deal (which was well underway by the time, but it was very popular and continued for decades afterwards), the welfare state, the Marshall Plan etc – all growth and support plans that encouraged social mobility, education, nation building etc. Growth was explosive, national debts were kept in check as a result of this growth, and many of the problems seemed fairly manageable. Contrast that to now – in the US, a growth rate of 2%, government debt to GDP of 106% and they want to talk about tax cuts and axing of medicare.

Mental health is an unseen problem – we’re not talking schizophrenia, dementia or anything obvious, we’re talking about our natural ability to deal with ever increasing stresses, every decreasing (it seems) empathy, and extrapolating from this what might be the long term consequences.

I dont think I am pushing things too far by saying that I feel this is the biggest underlying threat that we have. It will manifest itself in some major catastrophe, but this present and growing instability is one of the central causes.

You read what some people think on this subject – that we are going to back to the natural survival of the fittest mode of life where the strongest weed out the weaker and less deserving. Except when you have the ability to destroy the planet now, I’m not so sure that this way of thinking necessarily ensures any long term chances of survival. Over the next 30 years I think this idea will be put to the challenge like never before.

 

 

Syria and the flavour of bombs

If you read the mainstream western media, you get the distinct impression that there are two types of bombs – good ones and bad ones. Good ones are those dropped by the west, and bad ones come from Russia. This is how stupid the media has become, or how much of a bunch of idiots they take us for. We hear all the time about how terrible barrel bombs are (while things like Napalm like the US used in Vietnam, or white phosphorus like Israel uses in the Occupied Territories are OK – because its us that’s using them).

The level of dipshitery in the media is amazing, but seemingly effective – when you speak to others about things like the war there, they love to parrot how bad Assad is and how the rebels deserve better given the violence that is dished out to them. Well, its a war, and I’m pretty sure the rebels are giving as good as they get, and if you stop to see who these rebels are – jihadists, and traditional enemies of the Alawites (Assad’s tribe) – just picture what a Syria run by them would actually look like. Just as brutal, only now hardline Muslim instead of the secular government of Assad. The problem with Assad is not Assad, its who’s backing him. The west has supported a lot of very bad leaders in the past. For a weak Russia who is running out of money and a declining population as well as a whole raft of other problems, we seem to be seriously afraid of them. I dont think they are on an expansionist bent. They dont have the money for it. They could have invaded Ukraine (like properly invaded, not just turned the Donbass area into a soup) – and won. The consequences would have been pretty catastrophic, but I doubt they even were seriously thinking of it. In Syria, Assad is their guy there, and things look to be heating up to dangerous levels as Russia steps up support, and the US is slowly becoming more directly involved. But why – who gives a fuck if Syria is a Russian ally. This isn’t the cold war, Russia is done as a superpower, and the sooner the war ends the better for everyone. The US can demand all it likes for Russia to stop supporting Assad, but they should stop supporting the Jihadists – they are not moderates. Moderates dont carry weapons.

Every time I hear the words “Barrel Bomb” I think of “Napalm” and “White Phosphorous” and remember its all just fucking propaganda. If you want to stop the killing, then one side has to win. If the jihadists win, then the killing wont stop.