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This was meant to be the last entry in my 2019 time capsule series, looking at current world issues and how they might develop over the next 10 years, but I think I will add an extra posting tomorrow, and then I’m done. Today I look at some of the after-effects from the Bush era wars.

Iraq

iraq-warIn 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair marched into Iraq on a wing and a prayer. It was arguably one of the greatest and most avoidable foreign policy blunders in decades. Iraq was a tinder box under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the first year of occupation was an object lesson in how not to invade a country. By 2005, the “coalition of the willing” were stuck in the middle of a vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Now in 2009, the US is starting to think about pulling its troops out and leaving the region for good. The big question is whether Iraq will manage on its own once the Americans have left, or whether the warring tribes will pick up where they left off. My bet is that it will do just fine. Ten years should tell a lot.

Afghanistan.

talibanIn 2009, Afghanistan is as close as you will get to witnessing hell on Earth. Afghanistan is the archetypal failed state. Divided up by tribal leaders, it resembles the world as it was back in the 14th Century. It took a bunch of religious madmen – the Taliban – to create a semblance of order in the place until they backed the wrong horse and got ousted by NATO after the 9/11 attacks. Now they are on the resurgence, fed by hordes of uneducated boys crossing over from Pakistan, and whole areas are now back under Taliban control. It is likely that a very large troop increase will be required to establish any sort of security in the country. My guess is that Afghanistan, like Somalia and the Sudan, is a generational problem, and that the militaries of many nations will be based there for decades to come. Reinvigorating failed states could well be one of the most important political and economic challenges of the century.

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Over the last few days I have been blogging on what life might look like in 2019. The bottom line, of course, is that nobody knows. For sure, there will be wild-cards in the next ten years that nobody could have predicted. Even so, it’s interesting to speculate about how the events and trends of today will play out over the coming decade. Today it’s the turn of the dismal sciences. 

The Great Recession

unemploymentThe world has never seen anything quite like it. During the last six months of 2008, every country in the world caught an economic ‘flu precipitated by years of care-free lending across the globe. Stock markets crashed and some of the biggest names in banking were forced into government ownership. Unemployment soared. Breadlines and tent cities have began to appear. The USA was caught out very badly, and it’s likely that its standing in the world may never again be the same in the face of growing competition from China and India. As I write we are still unsure how deep this recession will cut or how long its effects will be. The Economist, in a recent article, declared that the recovery is going to be prolonged and painful, with double-digit unemployment rates and horrendous levels of public debt. Such crises have massive after-effects: history has shown us that revolutions and wars are common outcomes. Will this time be any different?

The European Union

eu-flagIn 2004, the European Union grew in size to 25 states: a new political entity at the heart of Europe based on the free movement of people and capital, the promotion of democratic values, and a pooling of resources when it comes to foreign relations, humanitarian aid, financial policies, agriculture and lots of other areas that impinge on everyday life. That said, the political structures required to govern such a large and diverse group of nations are not quite up to it. Two attempts have been made so far to resolve this problem, but the first foray failed outright and the second attempt – the Lisbon Treaty – has been driven into the mud primarily as a result of an unsuccessful referendum in Ireland. What is clear is that the EU is comparatively toothless if it doesn’t resolve these issues quickly. Its long term future is far from certain, despite evidence that it has lead to a greatly improved quality of life for many people within its borders. There are several groups within the EU who desire to see it fall under it’s own weight and while a legislative vacuum remains, these groups have been gaining in confidence. No-one knows what a post-EU Europe might look like, but my guess is that it would not be pretty. Nationalism, once you get beyond the flag waving and the late-night singing, is often an ugly spectacle to behold. So where will it be in ten years time? Dead? Broken? Stagnant? Or, perhaps, reinvigorated? Thriving? We can hope.

Last installment tomorrow: The 9/11 Wars.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

This is the third entry in my 2019 Time Capsule series, where I discuss questions that may well have answers within the next decade. Today I take a brief look at technology. 

The Internet Copyright Wars

Internet mapWe are currently living through a period of time when many big industries are under threat. The industries in question are publishing, music recording, telephony and movie-making, and the threat is the Internet. For the first time in history, the expression of human thought in pictures, words and sound can be sent around the world in the blink of an eye, and for free. It is the ultimate vision of Gutenberg, and the vested interests who wish to make scarce this infinitely available commodity are fighting a losing battle, mainly resorting to courts and politicians. But like Gutenberg, such wars cannot last forever and the world will some day settle into a new economic relationship with the Internet. What will it look like? How will we enjoy music and art and films 10 or 20 years from now? Will the battles continue to rage in the courts or will relatively new players such as Google eventually render the incumbents powerless? What will the business models look like? What scarcities will these businesses exploit? Who will be the winners? 

The Human / Computer Interface

HALI have a feeling that the next decade will be a time of big changes in how we interact with computers. For years we have communicated mainly through the use of keyboards, and although I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, I suspect that very different forms of computer interaction are going rising to prominence. Take Multitouch for instance: the technology popularised by the movie “Minority Report“. The iPhone has given us an example of how natural and engaging this technology is – a small child can understand it intuitively. Another technology that seems to be whispering it’s way towards us is Recognition. Voice Recognition – the ability of a compute to recognise and respond correctly to voice commands – is probably the best known. It’s been around for a while and results can still be somewhat patchy. But it’s improving and other forms of recognition are also appearing: face recognition (e.g. iPhoto) and music recognition (e.g. Shazam). Given that, I don’t see why we would not be communicating in very different ways with computers in just ten years time. 

Stem Cell Research

Stem cellsWe are being told that we are on the brink of a revolution in medical care. Diseased and damaged organs can be replaced, not via anonymous donors, but grown instead from cells found in the patient’s own body. These miracle cells are known as stem-cells: generalist cells that can be conditioned to transform into specialised cells: heart muscle, kidneys, skin – anything you like. From there they can be grown in laboratories into complete organs – thus allowing people to gain to have transplants with no concerns about rejection. I have already seen footage showing replacement teeth and bladders being developed. It is possible that this breakthrough will transform medicine in the next ten years. It will be interesting to see to what extent it will have developed.

Up next: Global Threats.

This is the second posting in my 2019 time capsule series, where I consider how the questions of the present will be viewed in 10 years time or afterwards. Today, I’m going to focus on space, and some of the big questions that may well have convincing answers within the next decade.

Dark Matter

Dark matter in the observable UniverseWe look into the skies and we try to understand why the universe acts as it does. Unfortunately some of our biggest questions don’t have good answers. We resort to placeholders such as “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain why galaxies spin the way they do, why the universe seems to be expanding at an accelerating rate, and other conundrums that make little sense to us with our conventional models of the world. With the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it it possible that answers may be found and that our understanding of the world will need to be rewritten within the next 10 to 20 years. What progress will we have made by 2019?

Extraterrestrial Life

ET DNAThe Earth is the only place we know of that contains life. Our planet is saturated with living organisms: from the deepest undersea valleys to the highest mountaintops; the rims of the hottest volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Life came into being only a few hundred million years after the Earth itself formed and somehow managed to survive the hellishness of our world’s early existence. Life is pretty rugged. And yet, we know of no other place: no planet, no moon, no comet or asteroid, where life is present. But there are hints. Methane, water and microfossils on Mars, ice volcanos on Europa and Enceladus. Who knows what we may find? Probes are being developed as we speak. Will we discover, as some think, that life is not just confined to one small planet, but is virtually everywhere?

Tomorrow: Technology.

The following series of entries is a time-capsule of sorts. Today in 2009 I have many questions that may someday have answers, so  I’m writing these postings to anyone who might be bored enough to come across this blog in ten or twenty years time, i.e. 2019 or afterwards. The list of questions covers technology, economics, politics and space and war. I will lay out some open questions that may be resolved by the time we reach the third decade of the century – well, here’s hoping anyway.

First off: some international politics.

Zimbabwe
Robert MugabeIn 2000, Robert Mugabe began to show his true tyrannical colours when he seized white-owned farms, disrupted elections and intimidated opponents, with the aim of staying in power by whatever means necessary. His actions since then have resulted in an economic collapse of apocalyptic proportions. He won’t live forever, and the suffering that he and his cronies have inflicted will not go unpunished forever. So what will the eventual demise of his regime be like? Will the implosion follow quickly from his death, or will Mugabe and his entourage take flight to Morocco or Saudi Arabia like ruthless dictators of his ilk before him? Will his replacement be worse and more insane than himself? Time will tell.

North Korea

North KoreaThis tiny country, abutting some of the wealthiest and fast-developing countries in east Asia, has long been known as the last Stalinist dictatorship in the World. Ruled by the so-called “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, and then by his unstable (and possibly now dead) son, Kim Jong-il, this outpost of paranoia has proceeded to develop nuclear warheads and to threaten its neighbours regularly, acting more like a spoilt child than a mature state in its negotiations with other countries. Meanwhile its people starve. Human rights are non-existent, and it is believed that concentration camps are in operation within its borders. This abomination of a regime will some day come to an end. But how? Will it be fast and painless, slow and gangrenous, or could it possibly end amidst the white heat of a nuclear fireball?

Next up:  Space.

I’m just back from a trip to Germany. I started in Munich, proceeded to Stuttgart and ended up in Wiesbaden.

A couple of random things from my trip:

Munich Airport

In all the flights I have made – and I have flown hundreds of times – I have never seen anybody freak out when the plane is taking off and landing. This unblemished run ended last Saturday, when the woman seated in front of me had a full-blown panic attack. As the plane took off, the poor woman started to hyperventilate, emitting regular eeping noises as we hit any bumps or turbulence. She let out a full blown scream at one stage when the plane encountered an air-pocket in the cloud layer. She relaxed completely once we reached cruising height, but as the plane began it’s final approach, all around her were treated to a repeat performance. It must be terrible for her, as such an atavistic fear is not easily remedied.  

Vineyards on the Wuttemberg (Stuttgart)

The German train system is pretty unforgiving if you make the mistake of leaving a suitcase on board. I had only stepped out of the train at Munchen – Pasing, when it dawned on me that something was wrong. Too late. Doors had closed and my suitcase was happily on it’s way to the small village of Geltendorf, about 20 km away. Suffice it to say that my suitcase and I were eventually reunited and that I spent the rest of the day making up for that brief moment of forgetfulness.

Looking for fossils in Holzmaden

I can add fossil hunting to my list of achievements. One of the high-points of the weekend was a trip to Holzmaden, where some fantastic Jurassic Period fossils have been discovered over the last century. There is an open quarry there and members of the public can extract their very own fossils from the bedrock. We collected a nice set of ammonites and belemnites, although how they are going to get from Germany to Ireland is anyone’s guess. 

Fountain in Wiesbaden

Other highlights were a trip down the Rhine and a relaxing day in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden. The public park next to the casino in Wiesbaden is particularly attractive. I was also struck by the friendliness and helpfulness of all the people I encountered during my trip. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Marktkirche in Wiesbaden

great-circle

When I was younger I used to get very confused about how, if you were travelling to San Francisco from Ireland that you need to travel over Greenland and the cold wastes of Northern Canada to get there. Hold on, isn’t San Francisco to the south of Ireland? So why the hell do planes need to fly north to get there? It didn’t make much sense to me.

What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that spherical geometry is very different to planar geometry, and the fastest way to get from one location on the planet to another is a great circle – a ring around the centre of the earth connecting both points. Great circles do not care about arbitrary definitions such as North and West, only the shortest distance between two points, and if that line crosses over the North Pole, so be it.

Anyway, a few years ago I came across a mapping program on the Web called the Online Map Creator. The program produces maps of many different shapes and sizes in multiple projections. The one that captured my imagination however was Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. If you imagine drawing ever increasing circles around a chosen location on the planet you will get the idea. Consider, for instance, where you are right now. The 10 km circle represents all locations 10 km away, the 1000 km circle represents all places 1000 km away, and so on until you can’t go any further, i.e. the other side of the planet, about 20,000 km away from you. Each point on each circle represents objects that you would come across if you were able to point a telescope at a particular compass angle and see everything on the surface of the globe in that direction. It’s the route an airplane would take, if it didn’t need to worry about atmospheric currents and headwinds etc. Areas tend to get more distorted the further away you go. The extreme is other side of the world from you. No matter which direction you go, you will end up at that point eventually, so every point on the edge of the circle is actually the exact same location on the far side of the planet.

Here are a few maps I made using the map generator.

1) London, England.

London Azi

Notice that if you start out due west from London, you will end up, not in Canada, but flying across Cuba and Mexico. To get to Japan, you need to travel across the Arctic Ocean and northern Siberia. Also note how huge Antarctica and Australia are compared to everywhere else, and if you look closely you will see an enormous narrow island taking up nearly 70 degrees from North to East – that land is New Zealand, on almost exactly the opposite side of the world to the UK.

2) Chicago Illinois

Chicago Azi

This map shows that if you wish to travel from Chicago to Thailand, you need to cross over the North Pole, even though Thailand is close to the equator. It also indicates a considerably northerly path for Japan and China. To travel to Mozambique in southern Africa, you need to set out due East. Australia and Antarctica are enormous, again because they are furthermost from Chicago.

3) Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Azi

Look at how West Africa is distorted! West Africa is now gigantic compared to the rest of that continent, again owing to the fact that it is nearly on the other side of the world. The Iberian peninsula is similarly disfigured. To reach Chile, you need to travel South East, and traveling to parts of eastern Brazil requires a southern journey over the Antarctic ice cap.

4) Beijing, China

Beijing Azi

This is an interesting map. Most of the globe is recognisable and relatively well proportioned (OK Africa is a bit oversized, but we will ignore this). But look at South America! If you look closely, there is a ring of yellow encircling this map. Clearly the furthest point away from Beijing is in Argentina and as a result the mapping severely distorts the continent, The black lines are a bug that I can’t quite explain. In addition Hawaii looks a lot bigger than it should look, given it’s distance from China. I have a feeling that more gremlins are at work here.

Most people will agree that we are now going through a period of time that will be remembered for a long time, like World War II, 9/11 or The Great Depression. It’s probably the first time in world history when the entire globe has been caught in the grip of a sudden and calamitous economic crisis. No country has been untouched. Governments,  businesses and households worldwide are desperately fighting to shore up their reserves while avoiding financial meltdown. The problem is far from over and recovery will take many years.

Last month, Dominique Strauss Kahn of the IMF gave the current economic crisis the rather unimaginative appellation “The Great Recession“. Given that we still don’t know how long this crisis will last, or how deep it will be, events might yet consign this name to history.

Doing a quick trawl of the web, I have discovered a few potential alternatives.

  • The Great Deception (*)
  • The Bush Kaboom (*)
  • Depression 2.0 (*)
  • The Flump (*)
  • The Clump (*)
  • The Not So Great Depression (*)
  • The Repression (*)
  • The Econopocalypse (*)
  • World Crash I 
  • The De-Hummerization (*)
  • The Great Uh-Oh (*)
  • The Boomer Bust (*) 
  • Econorrhea (*)

And what would you call the young people who will be shaped by these events? Generation OMG.

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