Archive for month: December, 2018

Our Cultural Distances, Is it Safe, and Gender Inequity

There is a house in New Orleans. More than one. Ott Howell, now an old man, stayed behind during the winds, rain and flood of Katrina to protect the house he has worked in for nearly three decades, the Beauregard-Keyes house, named after both the complicated confederate general and the now mostly forgotten best-selling female author. As he gave us a personal tour of the historic mansion, it was hard to believe that the kindly, gentle Ott, who professed a hatred for guns, was once a prison guard in the notorious Angola prison just outside of New Orleans. Al Jackson, a 72-year-old kindly man with lineage dating back to the early 20-century jazz greats, similarly gave us a personal tour of the Treme Petit Jazz Museum housed in the old Black Musicians Union Hall, a smallish home in the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. Al explained through photos, paintings and old tape cassettes how jazz sprung from the gumbo of African, Caribbean, German and French influences. He described the rampant racism such musicians experienced in pioneering an original American art form that like all things American, came from many lands. Well, there is a house in New Orleans. More than one. And they influence us to bring you news of the cultural distance between countries, China’s Achilles heel and a ranking of gender equity. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, a jambalaya of international data and information.

The Treme Petit Jazz Museum in New Orleans

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NINA SIMONE – The House of The Rising Sun (Best Version) Lyrics

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

Our Cultural Distances

How important is culture to a country’s economic and political success? We have no idea but some researchers have attempted to quantify just how culturally similar countries are to each other. Or, as they ask, “Just how psychologically different are the nations of the world compared to each other and to the over-scrutinized United States?” They come up with some interesting answers. Countries in general are more culturally distant from China than they are from the United States. And Hong Kong is just as culturally close to the U.S. as it is to China (or distant, depending on  your point of view). India has the most cultural diversity within its country, the United States the least (making New Orleans just that more special for its distinctness). Yemen is most culturally distant from China and the second most culturally distant country from the U.S, which I guess makes them pretty unique. Given the checkered history between the two, Vietnamese may be surprised to learn they are culturally closest to China. Although we are unqualified to vouch for their methodology, the study looks at a variety of cultural factors, including individualism, long-term orientation, value of hierarchy and others. We await a study of the culture of the researchers.

Is It Safe?

A former boss once told us that innovation is successful in places where it is okay to fail. So we’re very innovative. We have written that China does not get enough credit for being technologically innovative; case in point Chinese researchers apparently have succeeded in transforming copper into gold. But is the Chinese government now implementing policies that will put such innovation at risk? You’ve heard of the social credit system they have been instituting. They’ve now also begun instituting such a system for its scientists, according to an article in Nature (via Marginal Revolution). “Researchers in China who commit scientific misconduct could soon be prevented from getting a bank loan, running a company or applying for a public-service job. The government has announced an extensive punishment system that could have significant consequences for offenders — far beyond their academic careers.” As in the broader social credit system created in China, accused researchers will be banned from flying and getting on trains, along with losing grants and promotions. At the same time, on China’s popular Wechat app, censorship is on the rise at the same time as many Chinese receive their news via WeChat. But if you were wanting to read about the arrest of Huawei’s CFO, you were out of luck, according to the Vancouver Sun. Draconian consequences for failure and increased censorship could smother Chinese innovation in its high-tech, Internet of Things cradle.

Breaking News: Gender Inequity Still Exists

All over the world. But there have been some slight improvements over the last year according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report while noting “there is still a 32 percent average gender gap that remains to be closed.” The annual report benchmarks 146 countries across  four categories: economic opportunity, educational attainment, health factors and political empowerment. The largest gender disparity is in political empowerment. The smallest disparity is in education and health. Healthy, wealthy and wise? We’re doing okay on two out of three. Europe and North America lead the way on having the best gender equity with the Middle East bringing up the rear. Worrisomely, Africa has regressed in the last year. In terms of countries, Iceland is tops for gender equity while Yemen comes in last. Peruse the top and bottom tens below.

Arrested Development, Self-Driving Cars Are Here, and Tehran Is Sinking

In openings, we prefer whimsy, metaphors and analogies, punctuated with a bit of joy and a dash of amusement. In these weekly missives, we have often pointed out that we live in the most peaceful, prosperous time in all of human history. And this remains true. But today we open by directly stating we are entering an age perhaps as dangerous as any since the 1950s. This is both because of advances in technology and because of the new geopolitical age that has emerged. First, as technology has become more powerful and democratized, Moore’s Law of Mad Scientists looms ever larger: “The minimum IQ required to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.” Our forthcoming novel premised on this law also grows ever closer to completion. Second, the combination of a more powerful China and a U.S. in leadership retreat raises another flag of danger. China’s ascension and America’s relative descent were inevitable, given the Economic Center of Gravity has shifted east into China. But the transition from one great power to another is almost always rife with danger. So though we usually try to write about what’s not at the top of the news, today we begin with what was the most important news of last week–the much covered arrest of Huawei’s CFO, then dive into what should have been a big story last week–the first commercialization of self-driving cars, and end with some surprising news in Tehran. But because even in the most direst of times, there is always joy, whimsy and amusement to be found, and because we will again be in New Orleans next week (INTN will return on Dec 27) for Reveillon dinners, Professor Longhair tributes and Creole Christmas tours, we offer first this trailer for a movie on New Orleans dancing. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, buckjumping to the world’s complicated beat.


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

Arrested Development

The arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, Canada, just up the road from INTN’s worldwide headquarters, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, was indeed the world’s most important news story last week. Why so important? It marks a new front in the increasingly frigid war between China and the United States (and other western nations). It occurs as China’s economy is slowing with lots of rumors the government will inject large stimulus to keep the economy humming and as deflation is clawing into its economy. The assumption has always been that China’s ruling government must have high economic growth to justify its continued existence. But, as we wrote a while back, the election of Donald Trump has accelerated China’s political prominence in the world. The Center of Economic Gravity shifting east meant regardless that China will play a much larger role in the world going forward. But the U.S., by pulling away from leadership in the world, accelerated that process. All well and good except that for all of the U.S.’s faults, and they are many–as in any institution involving that very imperfect species known as humans–America is not an authoritarian government with no sense of rule of law.* China is. Indeed, China has censored reports on the arrest of Ms. Meng. It continues to “re-educate” millions of Uighers. Rather than the current rule-based world order in which it is relatively easy to do business, China promotes a more opaque one that is based on its ascending interests, not on rule of law. Already China has detained a former Canadian diplomat and two other Canadians in retaliation for Ms. Meng’s arrest. What comes next, the reactions of the various parties and reactions to the reactions, will help set up the next 20 years of geopolitical transition.

*The current U.S. president is not an argument that the U.S. no longer has rule of law. Although he has complete disregard for the law and other conventions, the American system of checks and balances is, well, checking him and balancing him. That is a very different scenario from the system in China.

Self-Driving Cars are Here

As we noted, the two most important news stories last week were the arrest of the Huawei CFO in Canada and Waymo’s launching of commercialized self-driving taxi service in Phoenix. The latter received almost no press coverage for reasons that elude us. But that a company is now charging for self-driving car service (even if there is still a safety driver in the car) is a revolutionary step for technology, the economy and humankind. But our beat is international so we are here to show you where autonomous vehicle pilot programs are taking place in the world. The U.S. is first to be sure but there are also pilot programs in the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands, France, China and, of course, Singapore. However, the U.S. Congress this week is rebelling against legislation that would help ease the entry of autonomous vehicle technology in the market. So our bet is still on Singapore, with perhaps China right behind. Either way, we are entering a new world with autonomous vehicles now commercialized. Buckle your seat-belts, autonomously driven or not.

Tehran is Sinking

Tehran is literally sinking and not in the figurative way people often use the word “literally” as if they meant sinking under sanctions or government repression. No, according to an article in Nature, Tehran, the capital of Iran is “falling by as much as 25 centimetres a year, and that the collapse is spreading to encompass the city’s international airport.” This rate of metropolitan falling is among the highest in the world and is due to the “depletion of groundwater aquifers, which are being sucked dry to irrigate nearby farmland and serve greater Tehran’s 13 million or so residents.” That sinking feeling Iranians have is the damage to infrastructure they are witnessing and the fact that this is an apparently irreversible problem because the ground beneath the city has lost its porosity—water can’t fill into that ground anymore. This is likely to lead to more flash flooding and other problems in the city. Environmentally, the ground is sinking beneath our feet.

Rich Indians, Rwandan Drones and I Refuse to Translate That

Last weekend we attended a benefit concert for Seattle Children’s Hospital at which three very diverse bands played. The Head and the Heart, a local Seattle band, were the headliners–a folkish trio, full of earnest melodies and lyrics. The second band of the night was New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz band, who blew the house down with the rollicking, grooving northern Caribbean sounds that infuse the crescent city. The trombone player astonished with his sound, exuberance and the fact that he is somehow overweight despite his being in constant motion throughout the show (we imagine he must lie down on a comfortable couch the other 22.5 hours of the day). The opener was Kyle Craft, a young sapling singer-songwriter out of Portland, Oregon who somehow synthesizes glam and southern rock. So the three bands were diverse in types of music, age, race and in many other ways. The audience? Not as much. We feel there is a larger point to be made here about the current state of America, its political and other divides, but while we reach for it, we examine the glam of rich Indians, earnestly apologize for placing Singapore above Rwanda and riff on the jazz of Chinese-English misinterpretations. It’s this week’s International Need to Know, crafting and preserving important international matters while using both our head and heart.

Kyle Craft – “Exile Rag” (Recorded Live for World Cafe)

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

The Increasing Number of Rich Indians

As the world watches China and the U.S. stomp around each other in a drunken global scavenger hunt, India continues to make stealthy progress.Take rich people for instance. India is growing them much faster than the rest of the Asia Pacific. Quartz India reports that, “In 2017, the number of high net worth individuals (HNWIs) in India grew 20% year-on-year, higher than in any other country, to 278,000.” The average growth rate of HNWIs (defined as people who have at least $1 million in investment worthy assets) in other Asia Pacific countries is in the 10 percent range. The increasing number of wealthy Indians is driven by a fast growing economy–India’s GDP more than doubled in the last decade. Coupled with strong GDP growth, however, India also is experiencing growing inequality—it is the 12th most unequal country in the world when measuring its gini coefficient (a crude measure of inequality). Of course, when you compare the overall number of HNWIs rather than the increase of them, India lags far behind Japan and China (see second chart below). Nonetheless, India is growing fast. Don’t tell Trump or Xi.

Never Mind Singapore, Rwanda!

So last week we were touting Singapore as ahead of the curve in preparing for drone deliveries. It took less than a week for us to sit corrected at our keyboard because it turns out Rwanda of all places is ahead in the drone delivery deployment game. This is due to the Silicon Valley based company Zipline partnering with the Rwandan government on delivering medical supplies. Says Zipline in an article on, “We now deliver over 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city of Kigali, and we are saving lives everyday.” Zipline’s drones have a 160 km range and can carry 1.5 kilos (3.3 pounds for you non-metric heathens) of cargo. According to the article, “Health workers place delivery orders by text message and receive their package within 30 minutes on average.” Zipline so far has contracts in Rwanda and Tanzania and is about to enter the Nigerian market. Africa was an early adopter of cellular technology because of its lack of landline infrastructure, leapfrogging over developed countries in this technology. Perhaps the same will hold true for drone technology. Sorry Singapore.

Zipline drones airdrop medical supplies to African villages

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I Refuse to Translate That

During the dinner in Buenos Aires last weekend with the Trump and Xi camps, many people noted the only two women in the room were the two interpreters. Some wags also noted the two most important people in the room were women. Indeed, we have been in meetings where interpreters selectively translated the participants’ words, perhaps for good reason. So, maybe you were thinking translating apps could alleviate that problem. Apparently not if you are using the Chinese translating app, iFlytek. According to, a software engineer tweeted that the app “censors politically-sensitive phrases.” Says, “when she tried to translate certain phrases such as “Taiwan independence,” “Tienanmen square” and “Tienanmen square massacre” from English to Chinese, the system failed to churn out results for sensitive terms or names.” Cnet tested this and did not find the software as censorious as the software engineer did, but noted it would stifle certain sensitive terms. Interestingly, the app would translate Winnie the Pooh from English to Chinese. Maybe China really is opening up due to pressure by Trump. Or maybe Winnie the Pooh is more powerful than we realize.