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Saturday, 24 February 2018

Britain sees Europe through the distorting mirror of Brexit

"Brexit has had the unfortunate effect of turning British political analysts into football fans. The issue is so divisive that the two camps — Leave and Remain — are no longer capable of dispassionate analysis. Instead, they react to news from Europe like football supporters; cheering anything that seems to confirm their prejudices — and dismissing any discordant information, with the partisan certainty of a fan disputing an offside call against his team.

Any new development — viewed from Britain — now goes through the distorting mirror of confirmation bias. So Leavers saw the recent crisis in Catalonia, as confirmation of their belief that the EU is falling apart and is, besides, an anti-democratic project. They were also delighted by the struggles of Angela Merkel to form a coalition government; further evidence, as they saw it, that the EU is collapsing. By contrast, Ms Merkel’s apparent success in forming a coalition government and the easing of the Catalan crisis is interpreted by Remainers as confirmation of the innate stability of the European project.

The truth is more nuanced and more interesting. After a lousy half decade, the EU has had a very good year. Fears of a populist surge were beaten back in France and the Netherlands in 2017.

In Emmanuel Macron, the French president, the EU has found a new and charismatic champion. Economic growth is reviving — undermining the Leavers’ claim that being a member of the EU is liked “being shackled to a corpse”.

But it is also true that the long-term questions facing the European project have not been answered. The pro-EU centre is shrinking and political developments that would once have seemed shocking are now greeted with a shrug.

A decade ago, the powers-that-be in Brussels regarded Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, as a dangerous populist and Eurosceptic. But the rise of more radical populists is now so pronounced that the EU is left hoping that Mr Berlusconi will emerge as the kingmaker, after next month’s Italian election. In 2000, the presence of the nationalist Freedom party in the Austrian government was shocking enough to provoke the rest of the EU to shun the country. But when the Freedom party rejoined the government in Vienna a few months ago, there was little reaction from Brussels.

This lack of comment reflects the fact that the EU now faces even more troubling political challenges in central Europe — where both the Hungarian and Polish governments have moved in an increasingly illiberal direction. And even if the “grand coalition” goes through in Germany, the political centre is likely to continue to shrink — as the venerable, centre-left Social Democrat party loses support to the far-right and the far-left.

The danger for Britain’s Remainers, (and I am one of them), is that they are so determined to prove the idiocy of leaving the EU, that they endorse a one-sided narrative, in which everything is rosy in the Brussels garden. When bad news from Europe comes along — and there will be plenty — Remainers will be in danger of looking loftily out of touch.

Leavers have the opposite problem. Their difficulty is being the “boy who cries wolf” — forever proclaiming the imminent collapse of the EU, and then looking petulant and dishonest when the much-anticipated crisis fizzles out.

Britain’s anti-EU forces already have a record of consistently underestimating the resilience of the European project. This analytical flaw stems partly from a failure to understand the utter determination of the European elite to preserve the bloc’s integrity.

The Brexit process is also underlining another important point — the extent to which the EU underpins what businesses and ordinary citizens now regard as normal life in Europe. Breaking up the EU — by reimposing border controls and tariffs and restrictions on freedom of movement — would have a disastrous effect on the operations of businesses and a hugely disruptive impact on the lives of millions of people.

Ideology aside, Brexit is illustrating that the EU now provides the framework of laws and regulations that keep goods and people moving. The EU undoubtedly faces serious problems and — after a good patch — these may worsen again. But as long as the single market exists and the EU hangs together, the UK will still clearly suffer economically from leaving.

And then there is a moral question, as well as a practical one. Britain’s Leavers are so desperate for confirmation of their view that the EU is heading for disaster, that they often slide into quietly cheering on some of the darkest forces in Europe; tacitly supporting every nationalist movement, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary.

In that sense, the current problems of the EU actually support the case for remaining — not leaving. When faced with problems such as supporting liberal values in Hungary, dealing with the refugee crisis or preserving financial stability in Europe, there is no substitute for the EU. For all its flaws, it is the only real mechanism for trying to find solutions to pan-European problems that are legal, humane and equitable, and that prevent Europe sliding backwards into beggar-thy-neighbour nationalistic antagonisms. Britain should be part of the effort to find those solutions. Instead, through Brexit, it has become part of the problem."

Source: FT article written by Gideon Rachman

Cashless in China (Bloomberg)

"I spent last week in Beijing, where Tencent's WeChat has become inescapable for the roughly 900 million daily users (out of a national population of 1.4 billion) who use the app to do everything from chat with friends to hail a taxi or pay rent.

Even beggars in China reportedly accept handouts via WeChat, using QR codes linked to payment accounts. (Some have cautioned that this phenomenon might be more of a marketing effort, or an attempt to gather IDs).

However, as a foreigner without a bank account or phone number from mainland China, once I landed in Beijing I was locked out of WeChat's pay function. Ditto for Alibaba's Alipay, the other big pay app with about 520 million users. I could use both services in Hong Kong, but not in Beijing. In order to do so, I would need a Chinese bank account, due to know-your-customer and anti-money laundering rules. Still, I completely underestimated how difficult this would make daily life. (Tencent last month said WeChat would start accepting foreign credit cards. Hours of trying with local colleagues failed. It turns out, users may be able to link foreign credit cards, but to qualify for WeChat pay in the first place they need to verify their identities with a mainland bank account or national ID.)

Take grabbing a taxi to a meeting. Now that ride-hailing app and Uber-killer Didi Chuxing has conditioned drivers to depend on it for passengers, it's increasingly difficult to hail a cab on the street. Private cars accept only mobile payments. It's possible to use the Didi app to summon a traditional city taxi that accepts cash but the drivers I encountered rarely carried enough to make change.

Foreign credit cards aren't accepted at most restaurants or convenience stores. So when I tried to use cash to pay for meals or odds and ends at 7-Eleven, waiters and shopkeepers were either confused or bemused. Patients can now book hospital appointments using WeChat, letting them avoid wait times that can last hours.

There are more smartphone users in China than any other country in the world. Penetration stood around 52 percent in China last year, compared with 69 percent in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, according to gaming consultancy Newzoo. But almost all those who access the internet in China do so using smartphones, while Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities have an 80 percent penetration rate, according to China Internet Watch.

Alibaba, Tencent and other web businesses already have a pretty good picture of where people are and what they're buying at any given moment. The stakes are about to get even higher as China moves to digitize everything from subway and train tickets to national identity cards used for opening bank accounts or accessing social welfare programs.

At some point, being locked out of China's digital economy will make it difficult, rather than just annoying, to get anything done. Based on my week in China, it's clear that a sort of forced digitization will happen in more places. The question is, will we be be using Alipay and Wechat, or will some other payment system (Apple Pay or Android-based) become dominant?"

Source: Cashless in China by Shelly Banjo from Bloomberg's Fully Charged newsletter 

Friday, 23 February 2018

Waves (3) - history and nature always repeat itself

The wave pattern can be found anywhere: economical cycles, gravitational waves, human migration out of Africa, mass extinctions, ocean waves, and so on. This wave pattern is also hidden in expressions that history repeats itself - or nature. "The ctenophore’s brain suggests that, if evolution began again, intelligence would re-emerge because nature repeats itself" (Aeon).

George Bernard Shaw once stated that "if history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience". To some extent, this is an example of the Mediocrity principle: "The principle has been taken to suggest that there is nothing very unusual about the evolution of the Solar System, Earth's history, the evolution of biological complexity, human evolution, or any one nation".

"What’s fascinating is how these different pathways of evolution arrived at nervous systems that look so similar across the animal tree of life. Take for example the work of Nicholas Strausfeld, a neuro-anatomist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He and others have found that the neural circuits underlying smell, episodic memory, spatial navigation, behaviour choice and vision in insects are nearly identical to those performing the same functions in mammals – despite the fact that different, though overlapping, sets of genes were harnessed to build each one." (Aeon)

Aeon: "These similarities reflect two key principles of evolution, factors that are probably important on any world where life has emerged. The first is convergence: these far-flung branches of the evolutionary tree arrived at common designs for a nervous system because they each had to solve the same fundamental problems. The second is shared history: the idea that all of these differently built nervous systems shared at least some element of common origin. On our world, they each evolved from molecular building blocks that were forged in the physical and chemical environments of early Earth."

"Take these two ideas to their logical ends, and one arrives at a startling conclusion. If the history of Earth was rewound and played back, evolution might not arrive at this present year with the same assortment of animal groups that we see today. Mammals or birds, perhaps even all vertebrates, might be absent. But evolution might still arrive at most, or even all, of the same innovations that permitted the emergence of sophisticated brains: those innovations might simply emerge on other branches of the animal tree." (Aeon)

The neuroscientist Leonid Moroz explains this by stating: "‘It was much more than just the presence or absence of just a few genes. It was really a grand design." The scientific notion that nature follows a grand design is one of the root causes for the existence of religious beliefs.

“Nature, which makes nothing durable, always repeats itself so that nothing which it makes may be lost.”A quote from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish poet and playwright

History Repeating (1997) by the Propellerheads featuring Shirley Bassey

The word is about, there's something evolving,
whatever may come, the world keeps revolving
They say the next big thing is here,
that the revolution's near,
but to me it seems quite clear
that it's all just a little bit of history repeating


Note: all bold and italic markings by LO

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Does atheism cause materialism?

Some weeks ago, I read a Dutch newspaper interview with the Egyptian-Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela. She argues that the rise of European atheism causes more materialism. This ongoing debate has resulted in many Google search hits (eg, Quora, source 1, source 2).

At first glanceLeila Aboulela seems to have a valid point. However, materialism is certainly not limited to atheists. Nor is it limited to Christians and/or Jews. Just look at the extravagant wealth in several countries in the Middle East. In fact, the opposite might be true.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14) and the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:12) show that "God gives us our gifts for a purpose, and that is to be profitable servants" (source). Wiki: "A thematically variant parable appears in the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews." To some extent, the Quran provides a similar parable, related to the Sower (source, Wiki).

I think, feel and believe that the human focus largely was - and still is - on the first word: profitable servants. In most - if not all - religions, people forgot to focus on the 2nd word: servants.

I'm tempted to connect this "omission" to the surge of Liberalism, which focuses on freedom (Liber). Liberalism came in waves: (1st) personal freedom by the ancient Greeks, (2nd) economic freedom in the 18th century, and (3rd) today’s individual human - rather than group - right of freedom (my 2017 blog).

The 3rd wave of Liberalism may, however, cause a break with materialism. The current surge in individual human rights seems to coincide with different views on consumerism (eg, cars, houses, jobs). There is a tendency of not owning cars but using Uber. The tiny house movement may become persistent. The rise of AI Robotics (my related blogs) and the loss of human jobs, may also change the view on (lifetime) employment. 

Although Religion is in decline due to secularization, spirituality seems to be on the rise. Ultimately, everybody needs something to believe in. This expression is also a Jimmy Randolph song and part of a funny quote by American comedian W.C. Fields. Usually, consumerism / materialism and spirituality do not go well together.

There is another - more fundamental - reason why atheism does not cause materialism. Every society follows at least 3 phases: Needs, Wants, and Beliefs (my concept and related blogs). An Awakening might be the 4th stage (my related blogs). Materialism belongs the 2nd phase of Wants. Atheism and Religion both belong to the 3rd stage of Beliefs. 

“To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.” A quote by Baroness Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach from her 1879 book Aphorisms.

Material Girl (1985) by Madonna - artist, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl


Note: all bold and italic markings by LO

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A future view on the 7 Belief systems

An article in Futurism mentioned the recent World Government Summit in Dubai which discussed "vital future topics including artificial intelligence, space, youth and happiness, climate change" (WGS). In one of these WGS sessions, theoretical physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku described what life would look like in 20 years.

The diagram below shows my future view while using the 7 Belief systems and today's drivers. This future view is dystopian rather than utopian, which is - to a large extent - due to the disruptive impact of technology on our societies. The book and movie Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) by George Orwell was probably a century too soon.


Our future can already be witnessed in China 2018. Please see my 2017 blog on "China: from Hukou to Social Credit" and Bloomberg's recent article on China's cashless society. China's Social Credit System and its cashless society make anonymity virtually impossible. Big Brother is watching your every move (eg, Guardian-2017Telegraph-2008, WaPo-2017).

The 1st Futurism article claims that "The Next Step in AI is Augmenting Humans". Similarly, news reports stated that the Chinese police is using Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that enable facial recognition "to spot criminals in crowds" (eg, ABC, GeekTelegraph, the Verge).

China was once "the world's technology copycat" (FT). News reports now compare China and USA in respect of innovation (Bruegel, CNN, Fortune, FT, NYT, Quora, SD, USA Today). SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is however viewed with envy in China (Diplomat, Quartz, SCMP).

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed his (deep) concerns in Davos on China’s 2025 high tech ambitions: ”That is a direct threat. And it is a direct threat that is being implemented by technology transfers, by disrespect for intellectual property rights, by commercial espionage, by all kinds of very bad things.” (Reuters)

China in Your Hand (1987) by T'Pau - artists, lyrics, video, Wiki-1, Wiki-2

Don't push too far your dreams are china in your hand
Don't wish too hard because they may come true
And you can't help them
You don't know what you might have set upon yourself
China in your hand


Note: all bold and italic markings by LO

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Water - states of matter do matter

In physics, these 4 states of matter are observable in everyday life: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Other states of matter only happen under extreme circumstances: extremely high cold, density, and energy. Wiki: "Some other states are believed to be possible but remain theoretical for now. For a complete list of all exotic states of matter, see the list of states of matter."

In December 2016, scientists at Stockholm University reported that they "have discovered two phases of the liquid [water] with large differences in structure and density" between 50℃ and 60℃ (eg, ConversationFuturismInternational Journal of NanotechnologyQuartz, Science DailyStockholm University).

In November 2016, scientists at the University of Florida State and Edinburgh reported that water is stored in - and transported from - a stable high-pressure phase of the mineral brucite, far below the Earth's surface (eg, IBTNWNPhysPnas). Obviously, this discovery had - and still has - far-reaching consequences, like future human space travel.

On 24 July 2017, Brown University confirmed that while "using satellite data, Brown researchers have for the first time detected widespread water within ancient explosive volcanic deposits on the Moon, suggesting that its interior contains substantial amounts of indigenous water." Also see reports by CNN, Express, Nature, Telegraph.

Early 2018, scientists discovered that NASA images of Mars reveal "layers of ice peeking out of eroded cliffs [] which start three to six feet beneath the surface [and] strongly suggest that they are made of water ice" (Nat Geo, 2018). Also see NASAUS Geological Survey, WaPo, and Wiki.

Before these discoveries, scientists assumed that other planets than Earth would not have water because their water had vaporized due to a lack of an atmosphere, like on Earth. Remarkably, the opposite appears to be true. Earth has lost much of its water due to the existence of an atmosphere. Water on planets without an atmosphere didn't vaporize but turned into solid ice.

Furthermore, "NASA recently revealed new details about the oceans that lurk beneath the surface of Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa" (Business Insider, Conversation).

In fact, "the Solar System and beyond is awash in water", according to NASA in 2015: "Astronomers see the signature of water in giant molecular clouds between the stars, in disks of material that represent newborn planetary systems, and in the atmospheres of giant planets orbiting other stars."

Water is more unique than we realise as it comes in 3 of the 4 daily observable states: solid ice, liquid water and vapor gas. Water also shows hybrid states like in a fog (gas/liquid) and snow (liquid/solid). Water stored in the volcanic mineral brucite shows what can happen to water under extremely high pressure. We may be in for a lot more scientific surprises about ........ water.

The Whole of the Moon (1985) by The Waterboys


Note: all bold and italic martkings by LO

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Maunder Minimum

In the 1980s, British PM Margaret Thatcher started warning for global warming. Before, global cooling and a new Ice Age had been the leading themes. This was probably due to the Little Ice Age which is "conventionally defined as a period extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but some experts prefer an alternative timespan from about 1300 to about 1850".

The Little Ice Age showed strange events: a freeze of the Baltic Sea in 1303 and 1306-1307, a Swedish army invading Denmark by marching across the ice in 1658, a 7 week freeze of the river Thames freeze in 1683-84, Viking settlers abandoning Greenland, and "Norwegian farmers demanded that the Danish king recompense them for lands occupied by advancing glaciers".

One could well argue that even the winters of the 1960s, and especially the one of 1963, still supported global cooling. In 1963, some 5,000 (!!) Dutch automobiles participated in a rally across the enormous IJsselmeer while riding on 70 cm of ice (eg, video 1video 2VK).

In 2015, media warned that "Earth [is] heading for [a] 'mini ice age' within 15 years". This conclusion was based on "research [that] predicted a new solar 'Maunder minimum' in the 2030s" (eg, IFL ScienceTelegraph). A December 2017 scientific study also predicts a Maunder Minimum around 2050 which could, however, start as early as 2030 (Big Think).

Although the number of events is too small for sound statistical conclusions, it's tempting to connect the timing of a Maunder Minimum with the timing of the Little Ice Age.

The 8 scientifically known causes for climate change are: (#1) strength of the sun, (2) changes in the Earth's orbit, (3) changes in the orientation of the Earth’s axis of rotation, (#4) quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, (5) carbon dioxide content of the oceans, (6) plate tectonics, (7) ocean currents and (8) vegetation coverage on the land (British Geological Survey).

In a Maunder or Grand Minimum, "we’ll see a 7% reduction in the Sun’s light and heat — and remember, that’s 7% lower than the lowest of the 11 year cycle that we usually see" (Big Think).

It's unclear whether the new Maunder Minimum (#1) will have a stronger impact than the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (#4). So far, we have been lucky because the start of a new (mini) Ice Age was delayed at least twice (eg, Bloomberg-2016, NYT-2003).

Climate change is not the exact science that many people think it is. It's more like a belief system (my 2015 blog). We know little to nothing about most of the known 8 BGS parameters for climate change. The decades following 2030 might be as Cold as Ice - or not.

Cold as Ice (1977) by Foreigner featuring Lou Gramm as lead singer


Note: all bold and italic markings by LO