Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Going on a bit longer about apocalyptic stuff...

Fun factoid from recent Cornell research (taken from the EurekAlert newsitem):

About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases (...)

There is no question that ecology is becoming -has become, will become- a core political and economic concern. The only question is how it will be integrated into markets and political systems... and how it will change them. It's not only our ecosystems what will be modified by climate change, and our engineering practices what will have to shift to prevent further damage; our political and societal systems themselves will be deeply modified by these events and our reactions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The more you look at some things, the less you understand them

Studying the future-like bits of the present is sometimes just an exercise in getting your mind to grasp easily seen things so big or so weird that you can't quite wrap your mind around them. Pandemic risks, global demographic shifts, climate change, emergent technologies... those are easy to grasp.

I find this one much harder:

So. The woman was raped. By three men. She reported her rape. She was harassed by her superiors, to the point where she became too afraid to testify. The Air Force took this as meaning that the sex was therefore consensual (which isn't what it means at all), and charged her in the case of her own rape. If she loses her case, she could be publicly registered as a sex offender.

Sounds like it couldn't get any worse, right? But it does. How? The three alleged attackers were offered sexual assault immunity to testify against Hernandez on the indecent acts charge.


Old age and taxes

From the IMF's Global Aging Pressures: Impact of Fiscal Adjustment, Policy Cooperation, and Structural Reforms:

Demographic pressures will materialize in many economies over the next few decades. We examine the macroeconomic impact of alternative fiscal adjustment and structural reform strategies to address these global aging pressures using the IMF's Global Fiscal Model (GFM). The results suggest substantial spillover effects of aging through international financial channels. To maintain sustainability, fiscal adjustment needs to be broad-based, while avoiding increases in direct taxes. There are substantial benefits from fiscal cooperation, while negative growth effects can be offset by complementary structural reforms in product and labor markets with the benefits accruing early and to all income groups.

Two questions: How sensitive would these results be to increased research in medical technology and applications attempting to extend the range of economically productive ages? Can we shift significantly the point at which medical costs offset the fiscal income derived from that person's activity?

Cheaper than terraforming Mars, in any case

A report on the McKinsey Quarterly (free reg. required) describing abatement costs for greenhouse gases. It's fascinating stuff; for example, the cheaper tons of atmospheric carbon to get rid off (before they are released to the atmosphere, that is) are those that come from developing countries, which doesn't require new tech, but instead coordinated efforts in many countries and industries, some of then highly fragmented. As the report coyly indicates, the politics of this might be challenging.

The bottom line: I think it's economically feasible to stabilize our impact in climate patterns with mature or soon-to-be-mature technology (in the sense that it'd be cheaper that enduring the costs of said climate changes). That doesn't mean it will get done, as the costs and benefits might not be quite aligned yet.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Tracking soldiers but not votes

While the Pentagon is looking at RFID implants for tracking soldiers' physiological parameters, Senate Democrats are backpedaling on a push to ban e-voting machines without paper trails for the '08 election. There's a bit of a disconnect there, unless you realize that an electoral system only has to look good enough for there not to be a legitimacy crisis, and apparently the US public still hasn't quite grasped how much e-voting machines suck; military organizations succeed or fail on their logistics - of men, material, and information.

I'm not very concerned about the privacy implications, given the facts of military life. I'd say that being ordered to jump into a firefight is as dangerous to body integrity as being ordered to insert a chip under your skin, and data self-ownership in a military context is almost a paradoxical idea. An estimated five years before human testing does seem a bit too long, though, considering the current state of the art.