Archive for month: December, 2017

Trickling Down to Authoritarians, Out Like Flynn, Virtual Singer Killed the Video Star

We had just returned to campus from the Christmas holiday during our sophomore year of college when it happened. We were playing in a pick-up basketball game in the university’s main gym and our team kept winning so we kept playing, taking on all comers on the court. We were getting tired and a little post holiday celebration the night before surely did not help. We went up for a rebound and landed on one of our opponent’s two left feet. And this was when our kneecap dislocated. Now it was certainly painful but the thing we most remember is two guys sitting on the sideline screaming, “Look at his $#%ing knee, look at his $#%ing knee.” Even granting that a knee sticking out an unnatural angle would surely trigger their alarm, we were scared enough without their added hysterics. The kneecap soon moved back into the correct position, which was nice, our knee swelled up and we commenced to having a “bad knee” for the rest of our life, which for many years didn’t stop us from playing lots more basketball and other high impact sports. But it does mean even at our tenderly young age, next week we are getting knee replacement surgery. Earlier this week, our surgeon emailed to inform us to “expect extreme pain for two to three weeks.” We equate such a message to the one screamed by the two guys on the sidelines those many years ago, though we will not inform the surgeon of our judgment ’til after the surgery. So, this will be the last INTN of 2017 as we’re guessing opioid-fueled international stories may not be the best ones. But we hope to return on January 4th (or the 11th at the latest) with everything you need to know about the world. Still, this week we bring a dose of authoritarian economies, check up on the reverse Flynn Effect and do an MRI on China’s virtual singing sensation. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, wishing you and yours a healthy and happy holidays.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Trickling Down to Authoritarians

As we have noted before, democracy is not as popular around the world as it once was. And as people such as Tyler Cowen point out, this is partly because of the economic success of China and other authoritarian regimes. The Philippines is another example. President Duterte is a less than savory character with a waterboard load of human rights problems. But the Philippine economy is doing as well as it has in the last 30 years. The country is on pace to have the 10th-fastest growing economy in the world, according to the World Bank, with GDP growth of around 7 percent. Its debt to GDP level is decreasing, non-performing loans down to 1.8% and its inflation rate at a reasonable 3.3%. The World Bank notes that fiscal expansion has “boosted capital formation and private consumption.” Unlike many Asian economies, currently the Philippines’ economic growth is being built on domestic demand even as its exports grow. The world is cyclical and as long as authoritarian governments are in an economic up cycle, liberal democracies’ brand will suffer. But someday, perhaps sooner than their rulers think, their economies will spin into less favorable waters, washing ashore challenging political flotsam and jetsam.

Out Like Flynn?

If you watch the news, scan through Facebook or read your Twitter feed, it would be very easy to come to the conclusion that we humans are becoming dumber. And, there is indeed evidence this is so! At least in some places, where there is an anti-Flynn Effect taking place. You may remember that the “Flynn Effect” is a phenomenon where IQ scores have been rising with each successive generation, at least since 1930, when such standardized testing began. There may actually be a reason that children think their parents are idiots. Comparatively, they are. But, now a new paper asserts the Flynn Effect is in reverse in a number of countries, including all the Scandinavian countries, Britain and Germany (Germans are actually better at verbal parts of these tests but are doing worse on spatial). But if you are about to say, “Aha, this explains politics in America,” actually U.S. IQ test scores continue to increase. Korea is not going in reverse either. In fact, the study states South Korea “is gaining at twice the historic U.S. rate.” The beginning of the reversal appears, according to the study, to date to 1995. Hmm, what really started to take off around the world in 1995?

Virtual Singer Killed the Video Star…

It has come to our attention, much later than one would hope, that there is a virtual music star in China named Luo Tianyi. Such a creature, we learned, is called a “vocaloid”, i.e. a “singing voice synthesizer.” It is unsurprising that such a digital creature was created by a Japanese company, the place of origin of so much kawaii (lovable, cute) culture, but it is both a bit surprising and hope inducing that Japan and China collaborated on this pop culture project. An article in The Global Times–the People’s Daily’s tabloid–notes that Luo Tianyi has come to “special attention from the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC) and other governmental organizations, who try to instill correct thinking into the younger generation with her singing.”  Nothing speaks to young people like governmental organizations promoting the right way to think. As CYLC states in an article on the mobile platform WeChat, “Although CYLC is 95-years-old, our heart is always with you, the young people.” And we can’t think of a better way to leave 2017 than with Luo Tianyi, singing “In the Center of the Peculiar Storm.” See you next year.

【洛天依】Luo Tianyi – 在異樣的風暴中心 In the Centre of t…
941 likes 41624 views

Chinese Wages, State of Carbon & is Life Better or Worse?

We’ve long wondered how cats planned to subvert humankind and complete their take over of the world. They’ve made a good start by conning us into feeding them, massaging them and playing with them with fake mice and feathers attached to sticks at their whim. But now they are fully implementing their devious and cruel plan with the game, CryptoKitties, which was released on November 28th on one of the more popular blockchain cryptocurrencies, Ethereum (second largest after Bitcoin). The game, which involves the trading and breeding of virtual cats, has seen $6.6 million spent on these felines since its launch. The average cat costs $130. However, the most expensive virtual feline went for $117,712. The Engineering and Technology website reports that the creation of new virtual cats will cease–the spaying and neutering of the cryptocurrency–next November to “prevent runaway inflation.” The inevitable backlash has begun, however, leading to perhaps the greatest headline of the year: “Service dog causes chaos at ‘Cats’ performance.” Yes, a service dog escaped its owner during the performance, rushed the stage and attacked one of the performers pretending to be a cat. A spokesperson for the musical told the New York Post that “in the storied history of ‘Cats’, this is the first time one of the actual cats was involved in an incident with a dog.” We are unsurprised that 2017, this year that has seen so much chaos and nonsense, would mark the beginning of the great cat uprising, and a rebellion against it. Meanwhile, as we attempt to monetize our two cats before November 2018, we examine the complexities that are China, look at the state of CO2 emissions and ask who thinks the world is better than fifty years ago. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, loyally like a dog bringing international news and data to you right to  your lap.

Without further ado, here’s what you need to know.

Chinese Wages, SOEs & Translation

The tyranny of narrative is strong with China. Too many analysts want to tell one story–China is either an economy prepared to fall apart or an unstoppable machine. It is a land of copycats (ah, even in China the felines rise) or a hive of innovation. It is working to fill the leadership gap left by the U.S. vacuum or is an authoritarian state setting a bad example for international trade and investment norms. If we were more accurate and honest in our test giving on any issue, including China, “All of the above” should be the most frequent answer. So we turn to a few different aspects of China as we head to towards the end of the year. First, is an interesting article in the South China Morning Post claiming that wages are falling in China save for a few professions: “monthly salaries dropped 16 per cent to 4,014 yuan this year, according to the recruitment website” The article also notes that nearly 8 million students will graduate university this summer (the population of Switzerland), and these students continue to be attracted to first tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai (where housing costs continue to increase). At the same time, one of the professions where wages continue to increase in China is in artificial intelligence, a sector we have noted previously China is betting big on. The UK website The Register notes how important real time translation, powered by progress in AI, is to China. “While it looks to foreigners like a monolithic language and culture, Chinese encompasses a range of generally-not-mutually-intelligible dialects.” The article asserts that AI-powered language translation is thus even more important to China. China’s complexity will drive its innovation, but its political system and regulation of the Internet may retard that innovation, its GDP may grow, but its society struggles with inequality. It’s a complex place.

State of Carbon

We have talked in this space about the possibility of peak oil usage and expressed some optimism, despite challenging U.S. politics around the issue, that progress will continue to be made in reducing climate change emissions. So in the interest of full disclosure we feel obligated to report that after three years of remaining flat, CO2 emissions will likely increase 2 percent by the end of this year over 2016, according to the Global Carbon Project. The developing world is the main reason for the increase, especially China’s increased use of coal in the last year. But there is still reason for hope. For example, as you see in the second chart below, the UK has decreased its carbon intensity (the amount of carbon released per energy generated) by 56% since 2013 (Carbexit is better than Brexit). On a larger scale, solar energy, as we first noted nearly two years ago, is on a Moore’s Law path with the amount of solar generation nearly doubling every two years (see third chart below). Pessimists note that even though the amount of solar energy generated is increasing, so too is the amount of energy consumption. But neither consumption, nor emissions, are increasing at anywhere close to the rate of the increase of clean energy generation. We expect within fifteen years that C02 emissions will have indeed peaked. This is likely too late to avoid very challenging effects from climate change but still better than what could have been.


Is Life Better or Worse?

Is life better or worse in your country than it was fifty years ago? An intriguing question that the folks at Pew Global asked of “nearly 43,000 people in 38 countries” this year. Somewhat depressingly, barely over half of the countries populations reported life is better than it was fifty years ago with 20 countries saying it is better, 18 that it is worse. Of those 18 claiming life is worse today, we would estimate that perhaps only four can legitimately have that view. But it’s good to see through the dark tinted glasses that many view the world through. It is important to recognize the despair many feel. On the other side, Vietnamese top the list of those who think life is better today than 50 years ago with 88% of the population believing so. They are followed by India, South Korea, Japan and Germany, all of whom are very right to think things are better now. For example, in 1967, real GDP per capita in South Korea was about the same as North Korea’s. Let’s hope in 2067, when the world is ruled by machines,  most people will think life is better than today.