The Edge Annual Question 2009

July 21, 2009

The Edge Annual Question 2009 is an interesting read. Edge magazine asked dozens of people from all walks of life to write something on the basis of two questions: What will change everything? And, what game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see? I have been reading through all of them and will post short (twitter-style) reviews of all of them in the next days. I hope this is an enjoyable read.

You can read the full articles at Edge Annual Question 2009

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wall street y los monos

July 12, 2009

Una vez llego al pueblo un señor, bien vestido, se instaló en el único hotel que había, y puso un aviso en la única página del periodico local: estaba dispuesto a comprar cada mono que le traigan por $10.

Los campesinos, que sabían que el bosque estaba lleno de monos, salieron corriendo a cazar monos. El hombre compró, como había prometido en el aviso, los cientos de monos que le trajeron a $10 cada uno.

Pero, como ya quedaban muy pocos monos en el bosque, y era difícil cazarlos, los campesinos perdieron interés, entonces el hombre ofreció $20 por cada mono, y los campesinos fueron otra vez al bosque.

Nuevamente fueron mermando los monos, y el hombre elevo la oferta a $25, y los campesinos volvieron al bosque, cazando los pocos monos que quedaban, hasta que ya era casi imposible encontrar uno.

Llegado a este punto, el hombre ofreció $50 por cada mono, pero, como tenia negocios que atender en la ciudad, dejo a cargo de su ayudante el negocio de la compra de monos.

Una vez que viajó el hombre a la ciudad, su ayudante se dirigió a los campesinos diciéndoles: Fíjense en esta jaula llena de monos que el jefe compro para su colección. Yo se los vendo a ustedes por $35, y  cuando el jefe regrese de la ciudad, se los venden por $50 cada uno.

Los campesinos juntaron todos sus ahorros y compraron los miles de monos  que había en la gran jaula, y esperaron el regreso del ‘jefe’.

Desde ese día, no volvieron a ver ni al ayudante ni al jefe. Lo único  que vieron fue la jaula llena de monos que compraron con sus ahorros de toda la vida.

Ahora ya tienen ustedes una noción bien clara de como funciona el Mercado de Valores y la Bolsa.


undemocracy

June 15, 2009

A step-by-step to an undemocratic victory:

A party loses narrowly an election.

In the immediate days after the election the losing party brings all its supporters out to the streets with cries of oppression and election rigging.

It must use the latest technology fad to broadcast the message in order to grab international support: the politicians love causes abroad – they are so much simpler – and the public is usually clueless.

The democratically elected party trembles – democratic victory is no argument against popular rebellion.

With a bit of luck, the democratic victors will use force to impose the rule of law.

As the chaos builds up, the pathway to an undemocratic victory is assured.

Democracy is a waste of time when the needs of the few are louder than the will of a majority.


malcolm gladwell

May 28, 2009

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell – we even share the same initials! However his latest article in the New Yorker is poor by any standards.

I couldn’t bring myself to finish the article.  I stop by the time he was arguing that the Federal Reserve should make decisions in real time; I thought to myself: this is bollocks and I am getting seriously bored!  At that point, I have already been thoroughly annoyed by the Lawrence of Arabia story.  In short, the stories were bad and badly told that I wasn’t curious enough to find out they ended!

The Malcolm Gladwell writing style, which is his trademark and conquered so many fans worldwide seems, in this article, sluggish and deeply patronising.  The examples in this story lack of the universal appeal that other seemed to have and the overall theory seems too stifled – wars are not the same as basketball games.  Games have rules and are confined to a particular geographical space.  Wars are about humans and rules and space are invented as we go along.  It is obvious that tactical acumen can change the outcome.  It is certainly a variable, but to suggest that this alone can swing things the opposite way is fanciful.

I guess I am getting tired of Malcolm Gladwell’s quirkiness. He is increasingly looking like a one trick pony. Outliers, his most recent book, got a beating in several areas of the press and, I think, quite rightfully.  The style is the same as before, but the content quality is decreasing – it is getting way too exoteric and lacking of the focus of past (and great) articles.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell announced a new tour in the UK and I couldn’t even pretend to be interested – I didn’t even suggest friends to go.


economic crisis

May 18, 2009

Our economic crisis is, without a doubt, the most interesting social event since the turn of the millennium; it has become the talking point of almost all conversations and it has gained a whole new mystical language of its own with buzz words like CDOs, CDO squareds, CDSs, ABXs, CMBXs, etc. While most see these financial products as an abhorrence of a corrupt system, I see them more as an anthem for human ingenuity and creativity. The unravelling of our economic crisis, its dimension and impact, and our chosen way of dealing with it, will shape our society in years to come and will place our generation at the centre of a new historical narrative.

In retrospect, the current economic situation is an absurd one; after reaching what some called the end of history (capitalism triumphed), living in the age of abundance (cheap everything) and living in the information age (all human knowledge is now instantly accessible) we arrive at the point of not knowing what to do next and possibly standing to lose all this prosperity!

How did this happen and nobody (apparently) saw it coming?

There were three main interconnected events that drove this crisis. First, there was a significant shift from the public to the private spheres in the late 70s and early 80s, in the developed world, and in the late 80s and early 90s in the rest of the world. The mass privatisation of that time was not only substantially contradictory to the social gains achieved since the beginning of the century, it also helped to push forward a level of perceived, and to some extent, real economic progress that earlier generations could have only dreamt of. Suddenly, we were all showered with extra cash without any need for extra production. The core objective of these privatisations was to stop and reverse, to some degree, the drift of democratic countries after the Second World War towards social democracy. And that was successfully achieved.

Second, this private ownership drove an agenda strongly based on efficiency gains. Societies collectively decided to forego long term investments that delivered most of the social and economic progress since the Second World War; key investments in education, health care, social security and transport infrastructure were put on hold indefinitely, because monetary returns were not immediately obvious. China, which abolished universal health care in 1979, has used these kind of efficiency gains to really push economic indicators, such as GDP, up and become an economic success and an example to other nations in the process; the real cost of this decision will only be unveiled at some point in a distant future. It is obvious that this kind of macro-economic decision would produce an extreme amount of surplus wealth with costs being deferred, first to the lower classes – now that their capacity for upheaval is greatly diminished with break up of the unions, etc – and second, to future generations in the form of credit.

More shockingly, this surplus of cash and wealth was not invested in anything that could benefit the society at large and instead was pocketed by few. The rest got a promise of cash and wealth – mostly in the form of credit. This drove inequality further forward and most social gains from the post-war period have been eroded. The consequences are being felt now, with the absence of a national health service in the United States making every lost job produce a larger exclusion for that individual than in previous recessions.

Finally, the private ownership philosophy changed our collective mindset. We became more selfish and atomised in the process – albeit, I believe and hope, momentarily – with increasing commodification of all aspects of our lives. For example, our homes became an asset: a shift from homes, a sacred place where individuals enjoy the company of each other, to houses, a tradable commodity where profit is the key driver. This turned out to be the key catalyst of the economic crisis. The housing crisis is certainly a massive, government sponsored, pyramid scheme that has left some extremely wealthy, but, as most pyramid schemes, left a majority to foot the bill.

Throughout this time no self-respecting commentator failed to call for reforms to cure society’s ills, for which the remedy was largely the need for more competition in services and education, more freedom for the market in production and consumption, and a more disciplined and streamlined state. The general philosophy has been focused on free markets and private property, where people can compete for resources using social status or money extracted from credit. This competition is not only for money, jobs and houses as we may have observed in the past, but the competitive philosophy now extends to all areas of society with education and health care taking the lead.

Another evidence of the increasing atomisation of individuals is that few think this crisis will affect them. Inflated property prices, alleged job security and personal financial investments have left an entire generation feeling smug about themselves and drunk in security. The mindset encourages competition and a belief that social equality is definitely not the best policy from an individual’s point of view.

This excessive individualisation has led to a gigantic stratification of society, where everyone has an exact social positioning and can compete for everything in an increasingly disorderly fashion – a societal league table. I do not think this symbolises who we are and, it is not the kind of society we ought to be promoting.


distractions

May 15, 2009

It is interesting that this kuffufle over MPs expenses comes straight after a similar one over bankers pay. The magnitude is stark: millions for the bankers, thousands for MPs. You could argue that the MPs expenses is of more importance for the public debate, because they are taking tax payers cash, but given that the banks brought down the economic system and credit – to the banks – is heavily subsidised I am not sure this should stick as a valid argument. But it does. After all many still think the economic mess is not the banks fault, but the government. The result is that in the day that MPs ‘concluded’ that bankers bonuses contributed to bring the system into disrepute, MPs are on the front of every newspaper bickering with the public over mortgages, swimming pools, tennis courts, jars of Branston Pickle and small bags of mouse poison. No wonder the bankers are ready to break out the champagne and restart business as usual.


biking

April 21, 2009

English urban nuisance never looked so cool. There is something about bikes that is truly fascinating.