28 September 2012

Deep Structural Problems Threaten China, Russia

Both China and Russia suffer from deep, structural problems which threaten the long-term viability of their respective governmental organisations. Many of China's problems can be symbolised by the ongoing spate of collapsing buildings, bridges, tunnels, power lines, railways, and other types of hasty construction and engineering.
Nearly every month brings news of an infrastructure failure, dramatic or mundane. In August a new $300 million eight-lane suspension bridge in Harbin collapsed, sending four trucks tumbling and leaving three dead. In 2009 a nearly completed building in Shanghai toppled like a domino because its foundation was inadequate. The U.K.’s Telegraph reported that within months of opening last year, the $210 million Guangzhou Opera House began to shed its glass window panels and developed large cracks in its ceiling. Last year writer Evan Osnos chronicled on his New Yorker blog the premature decline of his courtyard house: “When the rainy season hit Beijing, our house began to show its age. About four years old, to be precise.”

All of this is at odds with the image overseas of China winning the “infrastructure race,” as the headline of an Aug. 24 online story from Foreign Policy put it. China’s structural woes stem in part from the government’s focus on quantity of growth over quality.

...Poor materials can cause problems: The collapse of school buildings in the wake of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake was due in part to the use of low-quality cement, resulting in so-called tofu buildings. “When cement is mixed inadequately or when other materials are mixed in, it’s not very strong, so any major storm or stress on a building could make it fall down,” says Francis Cheung, author of brokerage firm CLSA’s 2012 report, China’s Infrastructure Bubble. _BW
China's problems go much deeper than corrupt and sloppy engineering, of course. China's banking system is choking on bad loans to state-owned and state-connected enterprises. Every part of China's government is tied up in the massive corruption -- from the military to civil security forces to local governments to top and mid-level political officials.

Built on such a shaky foundation, China's future as a going concern should be open to question -- at least in its present iterative form.

Putin's Russia -- a neo-fascist enterprise corrupt from top to bottom -- is beginning to suffer for its over-dependence on energy prices and profits:
Gazprom, the natural gas company controlled by the Russian state, is in crisis. It is likely to fall victim to the shale gas revolution that is under way across the US. The shale gas revolution will probably have telling consequences for Russian state capitalism and President Vladimir Putin’s power....

...Gazprom’s demise looks likely. With its demise, Russia’s revenues would dwindle. Mr Putin‘s model of state capitalism would suffer a devastating blow from Gazprom’s fall. If not even Gazprom is viable, which Russian state company is?...

...Curiously, in 2011 Gazprom was formally the most profitable company in the world with purported net profits of $46bn, but these profits were hardly real. Investment analysts opined that no less than $40bn disappeared through inefficiency or corruption. Gazprom’s cash flow was barely positive.

In their 2010 booklet Putin and Gazprom , Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, the opposition politicians, detailed how assets were being stripped from Gazprom through large kickbacks on pipeline construction and cheap sales of financial and media subsidiaries to Putin cronies. Since shareholders have realised that only their dividend yield is material, Gazprom’s market value has plummeted by two-thirds from $365bn in May 2008 to $120bn today.

For years, many analysts have said that Russia will reform only when the oil price falls because Gazprom seems to be the Kremlin’s main slush fund, which is now being drastically reduced. The Kremlin will have little choice but to forsake its mega-projects. It has already abandoned the mastodon Arctic Shtokman field. The next steps should be to back out of South Stream, the superfluous and exceedingly expensive pipeline project, as well as the planned gigantic sky-rise headquarters in St Petersburg. But that will hardly suffice. This dysfunctional former Soviet gas ministry will have to be cut up into real companies, which need to be privatised.

h/t The GWPF

Both China and Russia are nations of great ambition. But no matter how ambitious a government's goals, if the foundations of its very existence are cracked and crumbling, the Potemkin Village is unlikely to remain standing long enough to bluster its way to the final goal.

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27 September 2012

Why the US Engine of Economic Prosperity is Grinding to a Halt

...last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor's degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed. Since the recession, we've lost millions of high- and mid-wage jobs -- and replaced a handful of those with lower-wage ones. No wonder some young people are giving up entirely -- a 16.8 percent unemployment rate plus soaring student loan debt is more than a little discouraging. Yet old-guard academic leaders are still clinging to the status quo... _Atlantic
US economic growth has been almost flat for the past several years. Economists in governments, academia, think tanks, and non-governmental / inter-governmental agencies have debated the reasons for for economic slowdowns in the US, Europe, and other advanced nations -- without reaching a firm consensus.

But for the US, the reason for economic stagnation seems more than clear: In general, Americans have forgotten how to be innovative entrepreneurs, and rather than facilitating private sector entrepreneurship and innovation, the US government has become the greatest obstacle to private business and markets. Even the schools in the US have largely turned away from teaching entrepreneurial skills, choosing to enact policies of politically correct, collectivist indoctrination instead.

But there are exceptions:
Look no further than institutions like Babson College, consistently ranked #1 for entrepreneurship. Since current president Len Schlesigner signed on -- in the midst of the Great Recession, no less -- Babson's faculty has pioneered its own teaching method, applying entrepreneurial thinking and hands-on learning to every aspect of campus life. Unlike other collegiate leaders, Schlesinger saw the recession as an opportunity to expand. With Babson faculty on board, he ambitiously coordinated stakeholders on and off campus, and formed departmental task forces to review curricula.

Today, every freshman who walks into Babson goes immediately to work with a team to create, develop, launch and manage a new business (and they donate their profits to nonprofits). Students spend just 14 hours a week in class -- the other 154 are spent elsewhere, in special interest housing or working on student-led initiatives. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle, not a course.

Programs like Babson's are worth emulating not merely because they create the next generation of business owners and freelancers (independent workers are an especially fast-growing category). These programs enable students to think entrepreneurially -- to seize opportunity, take risks and create wealth. Simply put, entrepreneurship education gives young people a toolkit to apply their field of study to the real world.

It also makes them more employable. A recent report from Junior Achievement Innovation Initiative and Gallup found that both employers and employees believe America's workforce must become more entrepreneurial if the U.S. is to remain competitive -- 95 and 96 percent, respectively. Only one in 10 believed entrepreneurship was an innate skill. _Atlantic
Entrepreneurship and innovation need to be taught from the earliest ages, in order to make them second nature. Once, that was true for large cross sections of American youth. It is no longer the case.

Part of The Dangerous Child approach to education, is teaching the child at least three ways of supporting himself economically by the age of 18. Entrepreneurial skills come in handy for just about any occupation, from the sciences & professions all the way to vocational occupations and manual labour jobs. Many people have become millionaires by running janitorial companies, for a mundane example . . . . But the same principle applies from the top to the bottom of occupations.

Many of the world's richest and most powerful people dropped out of high school or college, using knowledge and skills obtained and developed in the real world.

And who can blame them, when so many schools are failing students so badly these days?

Ultimate Resource -- Why innovation is so important

Economic prosperity comes from human energy, human innovation, and the human ability to create networks of exchange and trade.

But according to modern media, academia, and politicians, such practical skills should be secondary to enlightened political leadership -- as personified by Obama, for example.

It is okay for the dull segment of society to hold such beliefs, but if everyone feels that way, the society is on the fast road to third world status. Perhaps that is the intent of the leaders of modern government, media, and academia.

But that is their problem. Our problem is how to generate prosperity in spite of government, popular culture and media, and academia.

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26 September 2012

Rhythmic Learning: Our Oscillating Reality

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, have discovered an important mechanism for long term learning in the hippocampus of the mouse brain.
The hippocampus represents an important brain structure for learning. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich discovered how it filters electrical neuronal signals through an input and output control, thus regulating learning and memory processes. Accordingly, effective signal transmission needs so-called theta-frequency impulses of the cerebral cortex. With a frequency of three to eight hertz, these impulses generate waves of electrical activity that propagate through the hippocampus. Impulses of a different frequency evoke no transmission, or only a much weaker one. Moreover, signal transmission in other areas of the brain through long-term potentiation (LTP), which is essential for learning, occurs only when the activity waves take place for a certain while.

...Jens Stepan, a junior scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, stimulated the input region of the hippocampus the first time that specifically theta-frequency stimulations produce an effective impulse transmission across the hippocampal CA3/CA1 region. This finding is very important, as it is known from previous studies that theta-rhythmical neuronal activity in the entorhinal cortex always occurs when new information is taken up in a focused manner. With this finding, the researchers demonstrate that the hippocampus highly selectively reacts to the entorhinal signals.

...One possible reaction is the formation of the so-called long-term potentiation (LTP) of signal transmission at CA3-CA1 synapses, which is often essential for learning and memory. The present study documents that this CA1-LTP occurs only when the activity waves through the hippocampus take place for a certain time. Translating this to our learning behavior, to commit for instance an image to memory, we should intently view it for a while, as only then we produce the activity waves described long enough to store the image in our brain. With this study, Matthias Eder and colleagues succeeded in closing a knowledge gap. "Our investigation on neuronal communication via the hippocampal trisynaptic circuit provides us with a new understanding of learning in the living organism. We are the first to show that long-term potentiation depends on the frequency and persistency of incoming sensory signals in the hippocampus," says Matthias Eder.

More information: Jens Stepan, Julien Dine, Thomas Fenzl, Stephanie A. Polta, Gregor von Wolff, Carsten T. Wotjak and Matthias Eder (2012) Entorhinal theta-frequency input to the dentate gyrus trisynaptically evokes hippocampal CA1 LTP, Frontiers in Neural Circuits, Volume 6, Article 64, 1-13. _MedXPress_via_Max Planck
The translation from the German is a bit sloppy, but the basic idea is that in order for the brain to remember something, the information must be encoded properly and presented for a minimum time period.

We have looked at the importance of brain oscillations in consciousness and cognition, previously. Specifically, oscillations in the gamma band -- modulated by theta frequency oscillations -- appear to facilitate communication between different brain centres in an intermittently synchronous manner.

In other words, unlike digital computers, the brain does not have a central clock to maintain synchronous transfer of data. But by using specific modulated brain frequencies, the brain can apparently synchronise information transfer between different parts of the brain for short periods of time.

This is a key concept in understanding how sophisticated biological brains function. An incredible amount of insight can be derived from that simple concept, and Al Fin cognitivists anticipate that both neuroscience and the broader field of cognitive science will benefit immensely, once the insights are more broadly propagated within the various fields of study involved.

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Top-Secret X-37B SpacePlane Ready for New Mystery Mission

The exact purpose of the mysterious USAF spaceplane -- built by Boeing -- is being kept a secret. But when this X-37B returns to outer space, it will be the third flight for the system as a whole, and the second flight for this particular re-usable space bird.

The secret space missions of the X-37B have fueled a large amount of paranoid rumours, particularly from the Chinese.
Next month, the X-37B will blast off again aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The exact timing of the October launch is unknown and subject to change due to weather conditions, and there’s no telling how long the drone will stay in orbit. ”Preparations for launch at Cape Canaveral have begun,” Major Tracy Bunko, an Air Force spokesperson, told Space.com.

While it’ll be the third flight for the robotic space plane program as a whole, it’s only the second for this particular craft. Four months ago, X-37B’s second of two planes returned from its first flight and a record-breaking 469 days in orbit – more than double the first mission’s total.

...What we do know about the X-37B is that it’s a smaller, unmanned version of the now-retired space shuttle and is ostensibly used for Air Force research missions of an indeterminate nature. The manned space shuttle, we know, was retired last summer and just completed a three-day ferry flight across the United States. The X-37B is like a lighter robotic version, and can stay up for more than a year at a time — far longer than the manned shuttles ever could. The drone measures 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, weighs 11,000 pounds and is about a fourth the weight of the space shuttle, and launches into orbit on a conventional rocket but glides back down to Earth like a plane. Inside the plane is a payload bay roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. It costs around an estimated billion dollars.

The done has also received attention from secretive sources. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), America’s secret spy satellite agency, has shown interest in using reusable launch vehicles like the X-37B to carry sensors. Right now the X-37B happens to be the only reusable space plane currently in service by the U.S. military, which narrows the NRO’s options.

The Air Force is also considering a shift of the craft’s landing site from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California — where the two previous X-37B flights touched down — to Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. The Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility was used for most of the old shuttle landings, which would be a way to use leftover infrastructure and save money by leveraging “previous space shuttle investments,” said Bunko.

Trying to find a way to reduce costs is crucial if the X-37B is to survive, and promoting the X-37B as an affordable replacement for the shuttle has figured prominently in statements from Boeing. There have been recurring questions as to why the Air Force needs a new reusable orbiter when contrasted with existing — and cheaper — conventional satellites. The facility, called Building 31, has been the center of a fractious labor dispute between Boeing managers and engineers.

There’s also increasing competition from the private space industry pushing the Pentagon and Boeing to find cheaper alternatives to get into space. Paul Rusnock, Boeing’s vice president of Government Space Systems, has said the return of the first X-37B to space will demonstrate that it’s “an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused.” _Wired

While the X-37B is far ahead of anything the Chinese have been able to put into space, it is also ahead of anything else currently flying for western nations -- including the US -- in terms of re-usability, and extended length of missions in space.

We may not understand what the X-37B has been doing in space, over its long-term missions. But we do know that it represents a proof of concept of sorts, for small scale, re-usable spaceplanes.

Much more development is needed before private launch services can make space access more affordable to larger areas of private enterprise. But between SpaceX, Boeing, Stratolaunch, Planetary Resources, and other ventures, we have reason to hope that things are developing in the right direction.

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Russians Are Disappearing from Siberia

Siberia’s population is disappearing. In a generation, if current trends continue, the vast land—one and a half times the size of China—will have fewer inhabitants than Moscow or St. Petersburg. Today, only 38 million people live in Siberia—2 million fewer than 20 years ago, according to Russia’s Institute of Demography—even though the region constitutes up to 77 percent of the nation’s landmass. Almost three quarters of Russia’s population is crowded west of the Ural Mountains, where the best and brightest of Siberia are flocking, too, away from the crumbling infrastructure, widespread corruption, and lack of opportunities in their homeland.

... _DB Newsweek
Siberia is where most of Russia's energy and mineral wealth resides. If there are no Russians in Siberia, who is going to fill the vacuum, and harvest Russia's natural resource wealth?

Meanwhile, the rest of Russia is suffering from many of the same problems that are causing the Russian population of Siberia to dry up and blow away.
Russia’s biggest problems are inefficient healthcare and public services, and rampant corruption.

“In Vancouver, an ambulance crew takes three minutes to arrive,” Pavel said. “In Russia you can wait for 40 minutes. If you’re in a critical condition, you can die.” On his blog, Pavel reported corruption at a medical academy, whose alumni are often given priority places at the St. Petersburg hospital where his grandmother died. “I looked up what the students write on social networks,” he said. “Every other conversation is about which professor accepts bribes and how much an exam costs.”

“In 2007 I was optimistic about my future in Russia, in 2008 I hoped Putin would leave and the situation would start to improve gradually,” Pavel said. “I also hoped that millions of people like me would change the situation for the better. But there are too few of us.” _Moscow News
And there are fewer and fewer all the time. While Russia's immigrant population is growing and propagating, much of the ethnic Russian population is planning how they can get out.
When there is no demand for talented and innovative Russians in their own country, it is inevitable that they will seek better and more productive lives in other countries. As a result, Russia is turning into a blank space on the world map. _Moscow Times

Given the opportunity, over 20% of Russians -- mainly young, educated ethnic Russians -- are prepared to leave the country. This number is greater outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but even in those cities, significant numbers of Russians are fed up with living and working conditions.

Beautiful Russian Girls

The link above is to one of dozens of sites geared to men of Europe, North America, Oceania, and wherever else working males may feel under-appreciated by the women of their acquaintance. Young fertile Russian women across the country want to find greener meadows for establishing new lives and starting families. The same is true for young, ambitious and educated Russian men.

Official government news outlets will deny all of this, of course. According to the Russian government, there is no problem here, so just move along please. But to anyone observing the international situation dispassionately, it is clear that there is a serious problem, which is likely to affect a number of important international trends.

Keep your eyes open, and be aware of both the dangers and the opportunities. Perhaps someday, Russians can find a way to make their country a place worth living.


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25 September 2012

Massive Pre-Fabricated Towers a Metaphor for China

Wired magazine features an article on Chinese visionary engineer and architect, Zhang Yue. Zhang is the human force behind Broad Sustainable Building, a company that speed-builds prefabricated skyscrapers inside giant factories in Hunan.
In late 2011, Broad built a 30-story building in 15 days; now it intends to use similar methods to erect the world’s tallest building in just seven months. Perhaps you’re already familiar with Zhang’s handiwork: On New Year’s Day 2012, Broad released a time-lapse video of its 30-story achievement that quickly went viral: construction workers buzzing around like gnats while a clock in the corner of the screen marks the time. In just 360 hours, a 328-foot-tall tower called the T30 rises from an empty site to overlook Hunan’s Xiang River.

....The pace of Broad Sustainable Building’s development is driven entirely by this one man. Broad Town, the sprawling headquarters, is completely Zhang’s creation. Employees call him not “the chairman” or “our chairman” but “my chairman.” To become an employee of Broad, you must recite a life manual penned by Zhang, guidelines that include tips on saving energy, brushing your teeth, and having children. All prospective employees must be able, over a two-day period, to run 7.5 miles. You can eat for free at Broad Town cafeterias unless someone catches you wasting food, at which point you’re not merely fined but publicly shamed. _Wired

So far, Broad has built 16 structures in China, plus another in Cancun. They are fabricated in sections at two factories in Hunan, roughly an hour’s drive from Broad Town. From there the modules—complete with preinstalled ducts and plumbing for electricity, water, and other infrastructure—are shipped to the site and assembled like Legos. The company is in the process of franchising this technology to partners in India, Brazil, and Russia. What it’s selling is the world’s first standardized skyscraper, and with it, Zhang aims to turn Broad into the McDonald’s of the sustainable building industry.

...modular and prefabricated buildings in the West are, for the most part, low-rise. Broad is alone—perhaps forebodingly alone—in applying these methods to skyscrapers. For Zhang, the environmental savings alone justify the effort. According to Broad’s numbers, a traditional high-rise will produce about 3,000 tons of construction waste, while a Broad building will produce only 25 tons. Traditional buildings also require 5,000 tons of water onsite to build, while Broad buildings use none.

...Broad’s method offers a rare sort of consistency. Its materials are uniform and dependable. There’s little opportunity for the construction workers to cut corners, since doing so would leave stray pieces, like when you bungle your Ikea desk. And with Broad’s approach, consistency can be had on the cheap: The T30 cost just $1,000 per square meter to build, compared with around $1,400 for traditional commercial high-rise construction in China.

The building process is also safer. Jiang tells me that during the construction of the first 20 Broad buildings, “not even one fingernail was hurt.” Elevator systems—the base, rails, and machine room—can be installed at the factory, eliminating the risk of a technician falling down a 30-story elevator shaft. And instead of shipping an elevator car to the site in pieces, Broad orders a finished car and drops it into the shaft by crane. In the future, elevator manufacturers are hoping to preinstall the doors, completely eliminating any chance that a worker might fall.

While Jiang focuses on bringing Broad buildings to the world, her boss is fixated on the company’s most outlandish plan—the J220, a factory-built 220-floor behemoth that would just happen to be the tallest building in the world. It’s hard to say for sure that the 16-million-square-foot plan isn’t entirely a publicity stunt. But Zhang has hired some of the engineers who worked on the current height-record holder, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and Broad has created two large models of “Sky City” (as the J220 has been nicknamed). The foundation is scheduled to be laid in November at a site in Hunan; if everything goes well, the building will be complete in March 2013. All in all, including factory time and onsite time, construction is expected to take just seven months. Again, that’s assuming it really happens: When my guide at the T30 plugs in one of the models and the lights flicker on, he tells me, “My chairman says we have to attract eyes. We have to shock the world.”

But if all Broad ever does is build 30-story skyscrapers—in 15 days, at $1,000 per square foot, with little waste and low worker risk, and where the end result can withstand a 9.0 quake—it will have shocked the world quite enough. _Wired

If these buildings are as safe and economical as is claimed, the technology is likely to catch on in the emerging world -- where populations are still growing, and urban living and office space can come at a premium.

China is still in the process of urbanising its massive rural populations, and requires safe building methods to replace its current infrastructure -- which tends to collapse almost as soon as it is built.

These buildings are monotonous, and living in them is likely to be mind-numbing in many ways. But increasingly wealthy Chinese leaders and princelings are unlikely to spare much concern about these things, where the masses are concerned.

The inevitable problems which follow any massive program of social engineering, are unlikely to be widely publicised anytime soon, inside China or any other of the emerging or submerging nations with growing populations.

The visionary technologies embodied in Zhang's approach should be celebrated. We can only hope that these breakthroughs will not be used by China's corrupt leadership to further confine and regiment an already long-suffering people.

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The Destiny of the World, As Told by Demography

According to a leading demographic researcher, Russia, Japan, and Germany are finished as world leaders.
Demographics is destiny, the theme of [David Foot's] Boom, Bust & Echo books, and national outcomes are therefore predictable by charting population mixes...

Among large economies, Germany, Russia and Japan are aging so rapidly they will not be major powers in the future. In all three, deaths will continue to rapidly outpace births every year.

Europe’s exceptions are France and Scandinavia, where social policies have encouraged higher birthrates through generous family benefits, day-care subsidies, lengthy maternity leaves, among other policies.

Southern Europe is hopeless, in terms of birthrates and economic activity. Interestingly, even though Germany ages, the country has overcome its demographic decline by aggressively automating, thus enhancing productivity and economic growth through exports.

_Financial Post
These are the words of David Foot, a Canadian demographer and author.

Foot captures some of the aspects of "demography as destiny," and badly misses other crucial demographic factors. But no one is perfect.
For a country to successfully replace its aging workforce, it needs a birthrate of 2.2 children per family, Foot said. He added that Canada is only managing a rate of 1.7 per family and that means Canada's labour woes are going to get even worse.

"Canada is significantly older than the U.S. and Mexico, with a much bigger percentage in the older-age brackets and ever fewer numbers of young people being born in Canada," said Foot.

...Canada is in better shape than many other countries around the world, said Foot. Italy, Spain and Greece have the oldest populations in Europe, while former powerhouses such as Germany, Japan and Russia have been watching their populations decline significantly.

"These are three countries that are never coming back as global powers. Germany, Russia and Japan are powers of the past ... not the powers of the future."

Foot said the future superpowers include China, India and Brazil while Turkey is emerging as the future power within Europe.

"Within five years a Muslim country will be the biggest market in Europe." _Canadian Business

Russia's immigrant population is growing, and is responsible for recent rises in Russian birth rates.
Russia is now an immigrant society. In Moscow and other major cities, migrants from the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe do the work that natives turn down. Tajiks sweep the streets, Moldovans wait tables and Uzbeks work on construction sites. The metro flutters with flyers stuck inside carriages hawking the mobile numbers of professional forgers -“We Make Your Moscow Permit.”

Russia has become the second most popular destination for migrants in the world after the USA. In St. Petersburg hour long queues snake round the migration bureau where hundreds of migrants nervously swap cigarettes for job tips as they wait to register. Magadan on the Pacific has several Georgian restaurants and even on the dirt tracks of northern Siberia, Uzbek cafeterias are not uncommon.

...In 2009 the Russian Migration Service claims over 10 million migrants entered the country. They add that as many as 5 million illegals“are living in the shadows.” Many experts agree that the migrant population is over 8.5 million, although off the record, some diplomats suggest the real figure may be over 15 million. That would be roughly 8 million more workers that the 6.7 million drop that Russia has recorded since 1991. _Immigrant Russia
Russia has been trying hard for several years to boost its program of legal immigration. At the same time, the Russian government has not been able to stem the ongoing collapse of the ethnic Russian demographic.

The ongoing loss of highly educated and accomplished segments of the population, continues to deal the wounded bear severe demographic blows at the highest levels. And like Japan, Russia's working-age population is destined to shrink precipitously -- particularly in the ethnic Russian demographic.

Ethnic Russians are disappearing particularly quickly in the most resource-rich parts of Siberia, while ethnic Chinese and other non-Russian populations are growing in size and influence.

If one believes Russian government statistics -- and smart people probably shouldn't -- Russian birth rates have "skyrocketed" while Russian death rates have "plummeted." But those statistics -- even if honest -- are rarely if ever stratified by ethnicity for public consumption. It is likely that just as demographer Foot says, Russia's (and Japan's) glory days are in the past.

Unfortunately for Foot's other predictions, the Canadian demographer neglects crucial factors such as average national IQ, market dominant minorities, particular influences of specific political economic ideologies, levels of violence in particular populations, and other devastatingly important factors that affect the wealth or poverty of a nation.

Demographics is indeed destiny. But sometimes even the best demographers fail to understand the full spectrum of demographic influence on societal success.

Try not to make that mistake.

And remember: It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood.

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24 September 2012

Russia's Gazprom Struggles Against the Current

Gazprom profits are an important foundation of Putin's system of government. But Gazprom is confronting difficult challenges -- both outside of Russia and inside of Russia itself. No one knows how long the company can continue playing its current role of propping up the Putin regime, which is facing significant opposition on many fronts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces the biggest protests of his 12-year rule, could lose power overnight if the oil price sinks and he fails to reduce corruption... "The regime may fall apart overnight, and in a way that we don't know. It may be in a peaceful way, it may be in a bloody way," _India Times
[Gazprom] is large and sprawling and, with a seemingly eternal income stream, had no need to be innovative or especially adept at what it did. ... Unlike oil, natural gas until recently was difficult to ship except in pipelines; this gave Gazprom a guaranteed, if partial, monopoly as a gas supplier to Europe.

...But that era is passing. Gazprom executives have been very slow to recognize the competition. ... The advent of shale gas in the United States has increased supplies and driven down spot prices worldwide, and Europe can now buy liquefied natural gas from the Middle East at a relatively attractive price. It is also exploring its own shale-gas potential. Customers have been renegotiating contracts, as the Russian giant comes under more pressure.

At the same time, though, Putin is shaking up the gas business at home. A beneficiary has been a domestic competitor called Nova­tek, which recently snapped up a Gazprom subsidiary known as Sibur for way under market value. Novatek may, reportedly, get permission to start exporting gas, as well, breaking Gazprom’s monopoly.

“The favoritism toward Nova­tek is pretty striking,” Gaddy said. The company is half owned by Gennady Tymchenko — a former judo instructor who knew Putin when they belonged to the same martial arts club in St. Petersburg. He also runs a Swiss company called Gunvor that has become extremely profitable as a middleman in exports of Russian oil. His partner is Leonid Mikhelson, who rose to second-richest man in Russia on the Bloomberg billionaire index thanks to the Sibur deal — the index valuing Sibur at its actual value, not what Novatek paid for it.

The government has also announced that it is reversing its policy and once more placing its own people on the Gazprom board. That is unlikely to substantially change the way the board — already a rubber stamp — runs its business. It is probably a sign of “a fight under the rug” between Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Igor Sechin, a close associate of Putin and head of the Rosneft oil company, Krutikhin said.

One thing remains unchanged, no matter who wins that inside struggle, Milov said: “Putin is the central figure who makes the major decisions.”

Is he preparing for Gazprom’s decline? “I would hope they’re thinking about that,” said Greene, at the New Economic School. But it’s difficult to imagine, he said, how you could remove Gazprom from the political and economic system in Russia and still have the system. _WaPo

Russia itself is a nation in slow motion decline. Its best young people choose to emigrate to the west. Capital flight continues to plague efforts to create an economy separate from energy, mining, and logging. The public health situation is horrendous, and the core ethnic population is slowly being replaced by Muslim immigrants -- both in civilian and military populations. And in the far East, Chinese influence continues to expand rapidly.

Russia's leaders and ruling classes have never been known for thinking on their feet, or being able to quickly adjust to changing circumstances. The next 2 decades are likely to be a time when they may wish to increase their flexibility more than just a bit.

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20 September 2012

Quirks of the Evolving Human Mind / Brain

It has been a long journey from the brain of a vole to the brain of homo sapiens sapiens. At times, I doubted whether we would ever make it. And surprise! We haven't.

We have a long distance yet to travel, and many innate quirks and weaknesses to grow beyond. Here is more on one surprising brain-quirk that may leave you scratching your head:
Brain's Evolution

People can be tricked into reversing their opinions on moral issues, even to the point of constructing good arguments to support the opposite of their original positions...

The researchers, led by Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden, recruited 160 volunteers to fill out a 2-page survey on the extent to which they agreed with 12 statements — either about moral principles relating to society in general or about the morality of current issues in the news, from prostitution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

...Each survey was given on a clipboard, on the back of which the researchers had added a patch of glue. When participants turned the first page over to complete the second, the top set of statements would stick to the glue, exposing the hidden set but leaving the responses unchanged....Two statements in every hidden set had been reworded to mean the opposite of the original statements. For example, if the top statement read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the word ‘forbidden’ was replaced with ‘permitted’ in the hidden statement.

Participants were then asked to read aloud three of the statements, including the two that had been altered, and discuss their responses.

About half of the participants did not detect the changes, and 69% accepted at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favor of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements, the authors write.

...The study raises questions about the validity of self-report questionnaires, says Hall. The results suggest that standard surveys “are not good at capturing the complexity of the attitudes people actually hold”, he says, adding that the switching technique could be used to improve opinion surveys in the future.

...The possibility of using the technique as a means of moral persuasion is “intriguing”, says Liane Young, a psychologist at Boston College in Massachusetts. “These findings suggest that if I'm fooled into thinking that I endorse a view, I'll do the work myself to come up with my own reasons [for endorsing it],” she says. _SciAm

Original Study from PLoS One

Why am I not surprised that a college psychology professor would see these findings as a possible means of moral indoctrination -- or brainwashing? Perhaps because so many college professors consider indoctrination into "correct ideology and morality" to be their primary goal.

My first inclination is to suspect that the researchers tumbled across some particularly stupid or brain-damaged volunteer subjects. Since the "survey" for the study took place in a public park in Sweden, one has to wonder whether most of the respondents were tourists or immigrants who lacked a firm mastery of the Swedish language. Or are survey respondents so eager to please pollsters that they are willing to go out of their way to "play along?"

I admit that it was a great shock to learn that at least half the people of most communities and societies have IQs below 100. I had always wondered why people did so many idiotic things, and created such perverse systems of government and education. Of course, in countries such as Haiti, around 90% or more have IQs below 100. When seen in that way, the dysfunction of Haiti -- and nations with similarly low average IQs -- do not seem so surprising.

But the extent of quirkiness of the human brain goes far beyond low IQ, poor EF, cultural blind spots, and predictable sensory illusions. Even intelligent humans can be led into logical traps and delusions, without being aware. Popular news and entertainment media are geared to exploit these human weaknesses, as are political campaigns, attorneys, advertisers, educational indoctrinators, organisations that solicit funds from the public, religious groups, and any good salesperson.

Try not to be a sitting duck for a society that is likely to be packed with grifters and arrogant and demanding public "servants." As for your children, don't you think it's time you set about making them truly dangerous? In today's world, their survival is apt to depend on it.

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Commercial US Spaceport to Launch Cargo to ISS

On 17 September aerospace firm Orbital Sciences of Dulles announced a deal with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority to launch cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS) from a private spaceport on the state's eastern coast.

If Orbital's pre-mission tests go as planned next month, their first demonstration flight could happen by the end of the year, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island will become the first commercial spaceport to launch a mission to the ISS. The new deal formalises Orbital's use of the Virginia spaceport, where a launch pad has been built to send the company's Antares rocket beyond the stratosphere. _New Scientist
Other private US spaceports are located in southern California and New Mexico.

Of course, if Burt Rutan's Stratolaunch system is successful, just about any airport with a sufficiently long runway could become a "spaceport," in a manner of speaking.

The development of space resources is one of a number of crucial steps which humans must make to achieve the next level. It is clear that the competitive nature of private space launch and development can provide the activation energy necessary for humans to climb over the obstacles that have held them back so far.


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19 September 2012

Mephedrone -- A Popular Party Drug -- Could Help President Obama Get Re-Elected

Mephedrone was first synthesised in 1929, but did not become widely known until it was rediscovered in 2003. By 2007, mephedrone was reported to be available for sale on the internet... _Mephedrone, from Wikipedia

US President Barack Obama faces the most difficult election challenge of his young career. Obama presides over an America that suffers a profound and worsening malaise, of a type not seen in the US since the late 1970s. From the worsening economy -- teetering on the brink of recession -- to deepening social divisions, Obama has given American voters very little rational reason to vote for him.

But voting is not necessarily a rational action, for most persons. In past elections, many people have voted a certain way in exchange for cigarettes or beer money. In fact, for many politicians, it would be better for voters to enter the polling booth in a deep stupour, with just enough wits to vote for the "right" person.

In extreme cases, you want to prepare voters well in advance of election day. Even an intoxicated person may retain enough inconvenient memories of a politician's incompetence and corruption, to vote against him even when besotted with intoxicants. Particularly bad leaders -- such as Obama -- will want to prepare ahead, by erasing bad memories of voters.

Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to selectively erase specific memories, so it would be necessary to destroy a broad memory spectrum, to ensure that the voter is unable to go against the instructions of his handler, once alone in the booth.

Fortunately, mephedrone -- a popular party drug -- may be exactly what Obama White House physicians ordered.
"You get the euphoria and touchy-feeliness of ecstasy together with the intense addictiveness of methamphetamine or cocaine," said Motbey.

...Rats were given an injection of mephedrone once a day for 10 days. The brains from one group of rats were examined an hour after their final dose. Another group of rats had several more weeks of drug-free living and were then given behavioural tests to find signs of long-term cognitive impairment, before their brains were also analysed.

"With this second group that lived drug free for an extended period we found a substantial memory impairment in animals that had been given the higher dose of the drug. This is concerning because it confirms earlier hints of memory problems in human mephedrone users. The fact the impairment was still there many weeks after the end of the drug treatment suggests that this damage may be permanent," said Motbey. _Mephedrone Brain Damage

Permanent brain damage from a party drug that makes you feel good and is addictive too? It may just work, for the unscrupulous incumbent who considers voters to be little better than laboratory rats.

Full PLOS mephedrone study

We know that convicted felons, drug abusers, and illegal aliens favour Obama (aka President Food Stamp) over his opponent by a very wide margin -- perhaps by as wide a margin as African Americans favour Obama.

By slipping mephedrone into municipal water supplies, and food suppliers such as Starbucks Coffees, and popular Ben & Jerry's ice cream, large portions of the US public could be made addicted to the drug unawares.

The sooner this covert campaign can be instituted, the earlier we should see the breaking down of unpleasant memories by American voters, and the sooner that Obama should start inching up in the opinion polls.

Obama may not quite be the absolute worst president the US has experienced. But already, he has created much hardship and many bad memories. Relying on the news media and educational system to dumb down US voters would probably take too long, in terms of the November election. A little more fast-acting help in the dumbing down department may be necessary.

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17 September 2012

When Big Boys Play Hardball, Small Fry Had Best Clear the Field

Economic markets are experiencing significant uncertainty and volatility. Europe and the US are on the sharp edge of recession. The world reserve currency US dollar is slowly sinking under fiscal and monetary mismanagement, Japan is in a chronic state of stagnation, and China is becoming one big question mark.

Many of the big traders and funds are fleeing to commodities as a safe haven, but the same thing was happening in the first half of 2008, just before the huge slump in commodities prices. Large numbers of funds (hedge, pension, university endowments, etc) suffered losses into the billions when that fiasco failed to show up on their radar screen.

On the one hand, many analysts see big gains in global commodities -- and bullish wagers on the commodities futures markets are said to be at a 16 month high. Recent big stimulus announcements from the US, China, and Europe appear to bolster this view.

On the other hand, respected China economist Michael Pettis is predicting a hard crash in commodities prices by 2015 at the latest. Pettis bases his prediction upon his perception of the actions which the Chinese government will be forced into taking to avoid total catastrophe.

Is it possible that some big analysts, traders, and trading houses would talk up commodities futures -- while at the same time hedging against catastrophic collapses in commodities prices? Of course. Public pronouncements are one thing, but profit-making and financial survival are closer to the heart.

Take Ray Dalio, head of top hedge fund Bridgewater. If you read Dalio's PDF outline on How the Economic Machine Works, or watch the videos at this link, you can get an idea of how one of the world's top hedge traders approaches global markets. But is Dalio telling us everything he knows?

Of course not. Much of the information Dalio provides is most insightful, and some of it is even useful for smaller traders and ordinary observers of markets. But the closest that Dalio comes to truly opening up, is when he talks about the need to put a significant part of one's personal portfolio in gold or similar hard currencies (see the Q&A toward the end of the CFR video).

Big traders and big trading houses are in business to make profits. When they make public announcements, they make them for the purpose of influencing public and political actions in ways that will help them make more profits.

This self-interested nature of public pronouncements also applies to any other large organisation that is seeking power and/or profit. Such as big media news organisations, governments, environmental organisations, large foundations, political lobbies, universities, popular mass movements, etc. Always take their public pronouncements with several grains of salt. Most of them have the money to put up smoke screens and misinformation campaigns from here to eternity.

When the financial news reports the pronouncements of the Federal Reserve or big money traders and trading houses -- those should be treated no differently than a political speech by Obama. Don't bet your future on it, whatever you do.

If you have not bothered to inform yourself independently of such public skanks, you are going to have problems knowing what is real, as things get a bit more frantic. Be careful. If you can still learn to make yourself dangerous to those who do not have your best interests at heart, you had best do so.

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16 September 2012

From Monkeys to Muslims: Excitable Primates

The differences between the minds of monkeys and the minds of men are differences of a graded evolutionary nature. Natural selection follows a forked and winding pathway, diverging and converging unpredictably. The range of primate emotions is remarkably similar from monkeys to humans. All primates -- from monkeys to higher species -- are excitable to a greater or lesser degree.
Monkeys Attacking Automobile

Monkeys are excitable, like all primates. Monkeys experience rage reactions -- like apes and humans -- but they do not typically organise in up close and personal group attacks like common chimps and people are wont to do. When they flock together, it is more likely in search of food or out of curiosity.
Evolving Apes on Rampage

In an evolutionary sense, apes are much closer to humans, and ape behaviour has many more parallels with human behaviour. Apes have been known to carry out sustained genocidal wars against competing groups of apes. The superior size and organisation of the ape brain makes it capable of organising and sustaining rage for longer periods of time on a larger scale.
Excitable Muslims

The human brain is larger yet, and formed in such a way to allow for even more complex levels of societal organisation than is found in ape societies. Human groups have been aroused to violence and warfare for as long as there is recorded history.

Human excitability -- particularly in groups -- can be a serious problem for human societies, and for the ability of humans to get along in non-violent ways. Religious excitability and violence has been a problem ever since disparate human tribes began to assert the superiority and dominance of their particular tribal gods over the gods of rival tribes.

Some forms of relgion - instigated rage appear indistinguishable from caricatures of rage as portrayed in feature films such as "28 Days Later." In that film, a "rage virus" escaped from the lab to infest human populations, leading to cataclysmic violence.

Human rage will often build in normal circumstances -- as in "road rage," "computer rage," and other common situations where other humans may act to frustrate or oppose the wishes of a protagonist (that would be you).

Opinions vary widely, as to what should be done to manage human excitability and rage, to prevent out-of-control violence. Would it be better -- for example -- to release one's anger in a real life "fight club?" Or is it better to salve one's anger in meditation, yoga, or even a "laughter club?"

One interesting suggestion is the creation of "rage clubs," as a means to purge the inevitable anger and rage that tend to build over time.
This is how they would work. People first gather together in a large open space (a barn or warehouse type area – incidentally, no alcohol would be allowed), then several passionate speakers incite the crowd with stories of injustice and exploitation inter-cut with biased news reports (there could even be a standard canon of examples; Bhopal, Gaza, The Crusades, Big tobacco. For ‘light hearted rage’ the subjects could be narrowed down to, poor user interface or badly designed electronic equipment or non existent customer service). The speakers would then lead the crowd into demonstrating their wrath and frustration with screams, tears and rending of shirts (bought specifically for the event from charity shops). A percussion ensemble or rock band will create a throbbing soundtrack of primitive trance like rhythms building in volume. The crowd will simultaneously produce various implements of noise making capability and commence to create a cacophony of sound so powerful it would even make Lemmy from Motorhead stop his ears.

Areas will be set aside where crockery seconds can be hurled furiously at a brick wall. Effigies of slippery political criminals will be stuck on poles and aggrieved victims given fifteen minutes with a baseball bat to put their point across to them (this is contentious I know, but it is meant to be purely symbolic. The signal sent out will be that such behaviour will only be tolerated at the Rage Club but at the same time it will also be a reminder to the authorities and multinationals: “we people know of our power, so don’t screw with us and ignore us at your peril.”)

Ultimately, an energy of pure rage will be created and each individual will experience a catharsis which will lead to exhaustion, reflection and a reasoned course of action to methodically change those things which enrage them. _Rage Club

Would this work? Consider that some of the most spectacular rage displays put on by groups of Muslims often occur immediately after Friday noon prayer at the mosque. Religious clerics often learn to work a crowd into a righteous frenzy. If the group is then released directly onto the streets in the form of a mob, the results can sometimes be quite photogenic.

But what if these excitable primates were steered into a rage club instead? Allowed to vent their rage in a controlled and relatively private manner, such frenzied zealots might gradually ease into a more controlled mental state. Their internal rages may even be satisfied -- at least until next week's Friday noon prayer at the mosque.

It is something to think about.

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14 September 2012

QS World Top University Rankings Bad News for China, Russia, Europe

The UK and North America did very well in the 2012 QS World University Rankings. Russia, China, and continental Europe did not do very well, however.

QS World University Rankings methodology

Rankings of world universities reflect on both the past and the future. You would expect nations with a wealthy history of achievement to build universities that rank high on the list. At the same time, you expect nations with highly ranked universities to produce a better class of graduates -- as a whole -- than those nations with universities that rank low on the list -- or fail to rank altogether.

Following are listed the top 20 in the 2012 rankings:

Fees Range (USD$)DomesticInternational
Undergraduate38,000 - 40,00038,000 - 40,000
Postgraduate40,000 - 42,00040,000 - 42,000

Score details
US universities continue to dominate the list, although four of the top six this year are British. American institutions make up 13 of the top 20 and 31 of the top 100 – the same as last year.

There is only one new entrant to the top 20 – the University of Toronto, at No 19.

Continental Europe performs poorly in the table. France has two entries – ENS Paris and the École Polytechnique, also in Paris – in the top 50, and two Swiss universities make the top 30, but there are no German universities in the top 50. _Guardian
Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea did the best out of the Asian universities, although none of them were able to break into the top 20.

Top 200 ranked universities 2012

Brazil and Mexico barely slid into the top 150 with one university apiece. Saudi Arabia managed to land one university at a rank of 197, representing the Arab and muslim worlds. Sub-Saharan Africa, to the surprise of only a few, failed to place.

These rankings represent both the past and the future. It is best not to place too much weight on them, or too little.

Update 15 Sept 12: The 2012 Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities utilises a somewhat different methodology, and thus provides a somewhat differently ranked list. (h/t Dan Kurt in comments) In this list, UK universities were ranked less highly, while Japan and continental Europe did somewhat better.

Further comment 15 Sept 12:

Reviewing the respective methodologies of the QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, it appears that the Shanghai rankings are based more clearly upon objective criteria. The QS rankings are largely based upon academic reputation rankings derived from opinion survey results. The two rankings contain considerable overlap, but also display significant differences.


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