YouTube is a garbage fire. Google is mean. We are victims.

New Scientist magazine has named YouTube a garbage fire that is best shut down for the public good. It claims that Google, which owns YouTube, is using special algorithms to get viewers hooked on YouTube, allowing Google to rake in more money for ads:

It is working hard to sculpt its users into the ideal audience for video adverts. And the ideal audience is one that can’t look away. Ever.

I don’t know why NS is upset about this situation. Regular TV has been doing this for decades. Big studios spend millions of dollars on huge departments whose job it is to keep you glued to that chair in front of your TV.

NS claims that the random selection/suggestion of YouTube videos expose viewers to ever more extreme content. That may be true but it is the user who must click on the thumbnail to view the video. Sure, some people can get lost in a rabbit hole by following the suggested videos but using common sense will prevent this from happening to you.

NS is portraying viewers as hapless victims, unable to withstand the lure of click bait videos or extreme content, thus repeating the lament du jour: we are all victims and the Big Bad Tech Companies are making us do things we don’t want to. Google is mean and robbing me of my safe space.

Your freedom is just a mouse click away. Close that window if you think Google is manipulating you. Shut down your Komputer and settle down in front of your TV and binge-watch the latest, highest rated (by Rotten Tomatoes) TV show instead. Or play with your smartphone, or your tablet, or your video game, or your digital camera, or your web-aware microwave oven, or your digital pet/spouse/sex doll/pizza/garden hose/fridge/watch/shower or whatever gadget is lit/dope/in/hot at that particular moment. Just make sure your alternate activity includes interacting with electronic gadgets and precludes interacting with real humans in real time and in real physical space. That’ll show Google who’s boss.

Or read a book. Oh, wait, I have a Kindle for that.

After 25 years adoption of complex digital technologies remains slow

The McKinsey Global Institute recently published Twenty-Five Years of Digitization, a report offering insights to help business leaders navigate this still relatively new digital world.

McKinsey quantified the pace of digitization in the U.S., Europe and China, and found that, on average, all three economies have achieved only around 20% of their total digital potential. Adoption of complex digital technologies remains slow. One of the reasons cited for this is that:

The typical observation is that technology takes time to spread globally; for instance, it took more than 40 years for the first car to be used in most countries. In general, however, the adoption rates of new technologies have decreased significantly in recent years with the newest technologies only needing a few years to diffuse in all countries. What is more crucial for the impact of technology on productivity is the integration of that technology into new workflow and business practices.

In other words: the problem is us. You and I simply aren’t adopting new technologies fast enough. Makes you wonder how the world can still go around while we remain stuck in our ways.

Americans spend over $300 billion annually on illicit drugs and alcohol

A new RAND study claims that Americans spend nearly $15o billion a year on illicit drugs. Another study finds that Americans spend $158 billion a year on alcohol. Imagine: over $300 billion a year just to get high, or low, if your’e into that. That is almost half of the amount the US spends on education per year ($706 billion).

Missing from the report is how US spending compares to the rest of the world, like Latin America or the EU. That would have been interesting to know. My preliminary research shows that Americans are world champions in both areas: illegal drugs and alcohol. Add to that the estimated 250 to 300 million guns owned by private individuals and the US is the undisputed drug, alcohol and gun capital in the world. Is that the eigendynamik that keeps the US going? Is the Chinese plan of undermining the US by pumping in fentanyl through Mexico failing? Are illegal drugs making us stronger in some twisted Darwinian way by weeding out the illegal drug users through premature deaths?   In 2016, approximately 174 people died every day from drug poisoning, outnumbering deaths by firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and homicide. Let that sink in for a while.

On another front one can see the tax numbers dancing in the eyes of certain politicians: if only we could declare these drugs legal, like we did for marijuana, we could tax the hell out of them and realize our dream: free everything for all!

That day will come, maybe sooner than you think. Already, a judge in Mexico has legalized recreational use of cocaine. These drugs could be declared legal just like the federal regulations allow “emotional support animals” on airplanes, including pigs and rats. I look forward to somebody making the connection between needing illegal drugs for emotional support while citing the emotional support animals case as legal precedence and finding a federal judge crazy enough to support that motion.

Just connecting some dots here…

Think before you share!

Misinformation, that is.

Purveyors of disinformation—content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm—are motivated by three distinct goals: to make money; to have political influence, either foreign or domestic; and to cause trouble for the sake of it.

Those who spread misinformation—false content shared by a person who does not realize it is false or misleading—are driven by sociopsychological factors. People are performing their identities on social platforms to feel connected to others, whether the “others” are a political party, parents who do not vaccinate their children, activists who are concerned about climate change, or those who belong to a certain religion, race or ethnic group. Crucially, disinformation can turn into misinformation when people share disinformation without realizing it is false.

Pacific Islanders summit ends in furor over coal

China has moved swiftly to capitalize on divisions in the Pacific over climate change at an acrimonious summit in Tuvalu, offering a regional “step up” initiative to counter cash handouts by Australia and New Zealand. Note: China has the highest carbon emissions of any country in absolute terms, along with the United States, but was oddly not singled out for any criticism in Tuvalu.

Consider: The eleven Pacific Island countries have a combined population of about 2.3 million people, scattered across an area equivalent to 15% of the globe’s surface. China can swallow up the entire Pacific Island population and have the biggest back yard on the planet.

Oops! Scientists Question “Man-made Climate Change”

How could this happen? Are you trying to tell me that in this day and age, with human activity climate change deniers being stoned and quartered (figuratively, at least for now) almost every day, there is still research money being spent on science that aims to disprove that human beings are to blame for climate change? Finnish research claims that human activity only accounted for 0.01°C of the 0.1°C temperature increase during the last hundred years while a Japanese study claims that low cloud cover was to blame for the increase in temperature.

Now there is a new Chinese study that found that winters in northern China have been warming since 4,000BC – regardless of human activity. Driving forces include the sun, the atmosphere, and its interaction with the ocean. The study also suggested that the impact of the sun on the Earth’s climate may be greater than previously thought. As a result of the research findings, the Chinese scientists are now more worried about cooling than warming. “A sharp drop of temperature will benefit nobody. The biggest problem is, we know it will come, but we don’t know exactly when.”

Looks like the last word in climate research has not been spoken which is exactly as it should be.

Medicare for All? India Might Have the Answers.

Two articles in Scientific American and New Scientist question the efficacy of medicine. A new book (Medical Nihilism) reviewed by SA claims that: “Most treatments do not work very well, and many do more harm than good. Therefore we should “have little confidence in medical interventions” and resort to them much more sparingly.” while NS cites a study: “An analysis of 216 medicines launched in Germany since 2011, most of which would have been made available throughout Europe, has found that only a quarter brought significant benefits over existing treatments, according to the available evidence. The rest had only minor or no benefits, or the impact of the medicine was unknown.”

SA likes “medical nihilism” because it stings. It delivers a much-needed slap across the face of health-care providers and consumers, a slap we need to rouse us from our acceptance of the abysmal status quo. If more of us accepted medicine’s limits and acted accordingly, our health would surely improve and our costs plummet.”

I agree but what can consumers do to turn this around? India may have found the answer. In India you can get cancer surgery for $700 and a heart bypass for $2,000. How do they do that?

Dr. Shetty is the founder and chairman of Narayana Health, a chain of 23 hospitals across India that may be the cheapest full-service health-care provider in the world but has outcomes for patients that meet or exceed international benchmarks. They control expenses by re-using medical tubing, for instance. The tubing gets washed and sterilized as opposed to being thrown away after one-time use in Western hospitals.

Under a new Indian health reform initiative Dr. Devi Shetty speculates that “In 10 years, India will become the first country in the world to dissociate health from affluence. India will prove that the wealth of the nation has nothing to do with the quality of health care its citizens can enjoy.”

India also introduced price controls for pharmaceuticals in 2013. The controls produced mixed results, as stated in a study of India’s price controls: “the legislation led to decreased sales of price-controlled and closely related products, preventing trade that would have otherwise occurred. The sales of small, local generics manufacturers were most impacted by the legislation, seeing a 14.5 percent decrease in market share and a 5.3 percent decrease in sales. These products tend to be inexpensive, but we use novel data to show that they are also of lower average quality. We provide evidence that the legislation impacted consumer types differentially. The benefits of the legislation were largest for quality-sensitive consumers, while the downsides largely affected poor and rural consumers, two groups already suffering from low access to medicines.”

Over the years India’s price controls proved to be too restrictive, causing profit loss and the ensuing decline in R&D funding and foreign direct investment. New legislation announced in January 2019 removed price restrictions on new and innovative drugs developed by foreign pharmaceutical companies for the first five years.

At the same time the Department of Pharmaceuticals introduced another policy measure: for formulations that are not manufactured in India, the minimum local content was capped at 10% in 2018-19. Preference for public procurement programs in the pharmaceutical sector was to be given to domestically-produced drugs with minimum of 75% local content in the ongoing fiscal, which will go up to 90% by 2023-25. The move is likely to benefit the micro, small and medium enterprises in the drug sector.

It looks like India may have most of the answers for affordable healthcare for all. Is it an experiment worth watching and maybe duplicating in the future.

The EU: better to jaw-jaw than war-war

An entertaining and bitingly satirical novel about the European Union has finally been translated into English. The book is The Capital by the Austrian writer Robert Menasse. 
Foreign Policy magazine has the best review:

The deification of negotiation and compromise is expressed in the union’s famously bureaucratic procedures, its love of norms and baroque protocol. As long as this way of doing politics was infused with the memory of the devastation that preceded the founding of the union, it had a raison d’être. Better the language of labyrinthine bureaucracy than hate speech; better to jaw-jaw than war-war.

The Capital catches the moment when the bureaucracy forgets the reason for its creation and becomes something that exists simply to perpetuate itself and thus can no longer justify its existence to the general public.

I ordered my copy in German and look forward to the evocation of memories of my 25 years living in Europe, from pre-Maastrich EFTA to monthly meetings with European Union officials in Luxembourg during the early 80s.

By the way, it is only fair that the EU finds itself in disarray. Consider the story about how the Treaty of Rome, which laid the groundwork for what was to become the EU, was signed on blank pieces of paper, and you will understand its malaise.

Tatler report: The rise in class A drug usage at British schools

In an exceptional report, British Tatler magazine writes about the rise of class A drug use in British boarding schools. The report is exceptional for two reasons: first, the topic is the complete opposite of the usual Tatler menu of snippets about Britain’s high society, royalty, fashion, lifestyle, and where to summer, and, second, it openly and unabashedly describes the drug scene at British boarding schools. Again, very unusual for Tatler.

As a long time subscriber to the print issue (one of my small vices, being a secret royalist) I was at first slightly taken aback at the “affront” of having a real world issue rear its ugly head in my escapism window, but then applauded Tatler for its audacity. You might think that audacity it too strong a word for a report that in its style and topic appears almost weekly in magazines like Rolling Stone, Pacific Standard or Quartz, but you have to understand that Tatler, a more than 300 year old publication, is supposed to be all about gossip and having fun and parties. Writing about how the offspring of its upper-middle-class readership is wasting its youth on drugs (some drug users start at age 13) is startling and extraordinaire.

As interesting and informative as the report is, I have my misgivings about it appearing in Tatler. It soiled my happy vicarious dreamlettes of hobnobbing with Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, or the the best rosés to drink this summer, and how the Royal Family are spending their summer holidays.

To each his own. I prefer my British Tatler bubbly and lighthearted, as served at the Royal Champagne hotel and spa. Leave the grunge to those who wallow in it.

Tatler, 1709

Is it time to say goodbye to artificial grass?

The Guardian carries an article about the evils of artificial turf and how it is being used more widely in the UK for various reasons, one of them being for keeping up with the Joneses. Who would have thought the the country that gave the world the ideal of the perfect lawn would stoop so low? The evils are plentiful: from the degradation of the product into microplastics, denying insects and creepy-crawlies their natural habitat and subsequently birds a source of food, to the difficulty of recycling the acres and acres of worn out, shaggy plastic grass.

The claimed environmental benefits to using artificial grass, like it doesn’t need to be mowed (with fossil fuel mowers), or watered (water stress due to climate change), nor does it require fertilizers or herbicides is only correct to a point. Mowing is necessary, for sure, but lawns can also be maintained without those negative practices and products. It would also help if neighbors and various home owners associations wouldn’t be such sticklers for the perfect lawn. Even golf courses are going back to a more natural, sustainable look.

I haven’t watered or fertilized my own lawn in 30 years. Sure, it not pure grass out there. There is clover and some weeds but it is green and maintenance free except for weekly mowings. Let nature rule.

Astronomers spot hyper-velocity star hurtling through space

Astronomers have spotted a star tearing through the Milky Way that appears to have been flung outwards following an encounter with the super massive black hole at our galaxy’s heart. It is travelling through the galaxy at a blistering speed of more than 1700 kilometres per second. Compare that to the stately 16.08 km/s of the Voyager 2 spacecraft launched in 1977 and you will have an idea of how far we still have to go to reach the stars.

China issues white paper on Xinjiang, home of the Uighur people

China issued a white paper on historical matters concerning Xinjiang, home of the Uyghur people. The white paper said “Xinjiang has long been an inseparable part of Chinese territory and has never been the so-called East Turkistan. The Uygur ethnic group came into being through a long process of migration and integration, it said, adding that the region is part of the Chinese nation.”

In the 2000 census, Han Chinese made up 40% of the population, as well as large numbers of troops stationed in the region. The Han Chinese are said to be given the best jobs and the majority do well economically, something that has fuelled resentment among Uyghurs.

The white paper said “different cultures and religions coexist in Xinjiang and ethnic cultures had been fostered and developed in the embrace of the Chinese civilisation. But the surge in religious extremism around the world has caused a rise in religious extremism in Xinjiang and has resulted in an increasing number of incidents of terror and violence.”

As a result, more than one million ethnic Uighurs are believed to be held in internment camps. The authorities call them “re-education through labour camps”, but victims say the reality is forced indoctrination for Uighurs held in alarming conditions.

The Chinese government, however, claims that the camps are merely vocational and training centers intended to combat extremism, and that they’re teaching detainees useful and valuable skills.

The Uighurs are subject to intense surveillance by the Chinese government. Cameras and police check points are everywhere. Uighurs have to install a mandatory app on their mobile phones that monitors all calls. The Chinese are tracking the movements of at least 2.5 million residents in Xinjiang.

The white paper indicates that China has every intention to continue the surveillance and indoctrination regime. One of the reasons why is that the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang is the northern bridgehead of the China Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is intended to promote connectivity across Pakistan with a network of highways, railways, and pipelines accompanied by energy, industrial, and other infrastructure development projects to address critical energy shortages needed to boost Pakistan’s economic growth.

Although Beijing is quick to downplay geostrategic motivations behind the CPEC, many commentators have noted that over the long run, an overland link across Pakistan to the Arabian Sea could help alleviate the “Malacca dilemma,” China’s vulnerability to the fact that roughly 85 percent [PDF] of its oil imports travel through the single chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca.

Now it all falls into place, doesn’t it? China needs to keep the oil flowing and if there is the potential that a couple of million Uighurs could disrupt the flow then they will be dealt with in China’s time-proven fashion. Just to be sure.

I wonder how the Pakistani Muslims reconcile their indifference to the mistreatment of their Muslim brothers and sisters in Xinjiang with the Surah An-Nahl 16:90 of the Quran: “Surely Allah enjoins justice, kindness and the doing of good to kith and kin, and forbids all that is shameful, evil and oppressive.”

Taliban: We’re baaack!

The Taliban have long predicted that they would exhaust the patience of US and Nato forces. Now, with the US in direct face to face negotiations over a deal that allows their troops to leave and the Taliban to return to a position of power, do those predictions look set to become reality. Key issues such as women’s rights, the justice system, press freedom and the future of the Afghan constitution are being left in the dust.

“We are clear that we are the strongest entity on the battlefield and the political front, while the government have their fridges stacked full of dead soldiers and are not even involved in the current talks. And we foresee an Afghanistan that is ruled according to shariah law.” Haji Anwar, Taliban soldier.
“My fighters are not tired of war and we can see that even the Americans recognise us as the most important group in Afghanistan. We will take the whole country back, step by step, by war or peace.” Taliban commander codenamed Abdullah.

Afghanistan was once a country set to become an economic wonder. From 1956 to 1979, with aid primarily from the Soviet Union and the United States, roads, dams, power plants, and factories were constructed, irrigation projects carried out, and education broadened. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle. However, after the Soviet Union left the country in 1989 subsequent mujahideen and Taliban governments turned towards mostly illicit enterprises, such as growing opium poppies for heroin production and smuggling goods. It is estimated that Afghanistan produces more than nine-tenths of the world’s opiates. Many segments of the population, including the Taliban and supporters of the central government, profit from opium production. It seems all is lost.

Afghanistan 1978
Afghanistan Present

Recommended reading: Caravans, by James A. Michener. First published in 1963.

Written as memoir of an employee of the American embassy, it vividly captures the complicated Afghan life, in the post world-war II era. Today, when we think of Afghanistan, we invariably think of it as a victim caught in the struggle of world super-powers during the cold war, the struggle that finally led to militant movements and the way wars are fought on world scale. But, this book brings us back the memories of the time when the atom bomb had literally shocked the world.

United Kingdom: cash-for-passports scandal

Russian and Chinese millionaires can buy access to British passports by exploiting a flawed Home Office scheme fast-tracking the super-rich, an investigation has revealed. The scheme — which requires a minimum £2m investment in a UK company — has admitted more than 11,000 people since it was set up in 2008. Officially called the tier 1 investor visa, the scheme gives wealthy foreigners the right to live in the UK and the chance to apply later for full citizenship and a passport. Unlike other nations, the UK does not ask visa applicants to pay any of the £2m sum to the government or stipulate that the money should create British jobs or boost areas of deprivation. It does not stop investors taking the money back offshore after they have secured the right to live permanently in Britain.

You Should Be Using Emojis at Work

The trend of using emojis is much bigger than the latest thing the youths are foisting on their crusty elders. It’s happening for deep neurological reasons, according to recent research, and can lead to better cooperation. In a just-published paper, researchers from Colombia describe how electrical activity in the brain indicates that we process emojis in the same areas of the brain where we process faces. The key is that emojis often include the most salient features for visually conveying human emotion—eyes, mouths, sometimes eyebrows. Emojis also make messaging more efficient by conveying the intent and context that’s otherwise missing from a message. (See also World Emoji Day)