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March 20th 2012 print

Walter Starck

And the good news is…

For a change, let’s consider some of the good news that tends to receive scant notice.

Each of us is the product of an unbroken chain of a thousand million or more generations of survivors. Although the odds against our being here now are almost infinitely great, somehow we made it.  As survivors we are hard-wired and fine-tuned to pay attention to possible dangers. This is reflected in the predominance of bad news in our news media. It’s not so much that there is so little good news as it is a matter of bad news commanding a much stronger interest. For a change, let’s consider some of the good news that tends to receive scant notice.

A New Era in Medicine

The past decade has seen a sea change in medical research and development with results from a number of new approaches now nearing fruition. Advances in molecular biology have made possible the rational design of new drugs targeted at specific molecules of particular pathogens or pathologies. A number of these are now in Stage II and III clinical trials and showing great promise for effective treatment of a variety of major illnesses. These range from cancers to metabolic and degenerative disorders such as arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and MS, to multiple drug resistant TB and Staphylococcus infections. Better still, and unlike the old scatter-gun approach of blindly testing thousands of different substances from nature hoping for a lucky hit against high odds, the new rational design approach is to a significant extent reproducible in custom tailored variants for a range of different disorders.

Another major area of medical research now beginning to reach practical application involves stem cells. Although the early development of this research was greatly impeded by ethical concerns regarding the use of embryonic stem cells, this has been largely rendered irrelevant by advances in the creation of stem cells from adult tissues. At the same time this also solves any problems with tissue compatibility. The way is now open for a whole range of regenerative therapies up to and including the growing of entire new organs for transplant purposes.

The first mapping of the human genome cost almost $3 billion and took hundreds of researchers a decade to complete. By the end of this year a complete personal genomic mapping service is expected to be available for about $1000 and it can be done in one day. Such information is already a highly valuable tool for diagnosis and treatment and it is rapidly increasing in utility as more and more information on the functions of more and more genes are discovered.

A further area of major advancement now on the threshold of widespread adoption involves the development of online diagnostics and of unified personal medical records. Both are fundamental functions that have suffered greatly from a scattered hit or miss approach and often needless repetition. Widespread adoption of information technology is now set to yield major improvements in cost and effectiveness.

Much of this medical R&D has been centred in the U.S. where billions of dollars in venture capital and government funded research have nurtured a critical mass of new knowledge and capabilities. The current condition in this area of R&D is comparable to that of computers and the Internet a couple of decades ago. Toward the end of the 1970s and early 1980s U.S. economic and technical pre-eminence seemed to be faltering and in danger of being eclipsed by Japan. Then came the IT revolution and the U.S. surged to a commanding lead again. This pattern appears set to repeat itself in medicine. The hard slog of establishing a firm foundation for big new advances is now in place and the industry is starting to take off.

Oil and Gas Not Running Out

Despite all the enthusiasm and promises regarding renewable energy, high cost and erratic generation capacity have limited its adoption to a small fraction of total requirements. In addition, the need for backup by conventional generating capacity running in inefficient standby mode has resulted in no discernable reduction in total CO2 emissions. Until the past couple of years it has appeared there was a real and immanent risk of critical fossil fuel shortages developing well before the availability of viable alternatives.

The boom in oil and gas production brought about by horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing has suddenly and dramatically changed this situation for the better. Vast new reserves of oil and gas have become available and production from old declining fields is being greatly expanded.

This extension by decades of the time available for the development and adoption of new energy technologies has improved the probability of success from unlikely to probable and the difficulty faced in this transformation from traumatic to relatively painless. At the same time, the development of new and geographically widespread oil and gas fields outside of the politically volatile Middle East is also a huge gain to energy security and greatly reduces the risk of a major power confrontation over that region’s oil supply.

Advances in Solar and Battery Technology

Solar cell technology is improving steadily in price, efficiency and durability. Combined with low cost manufacture in China, rooftop solar power generation is approaching economic parity with mains power. The major remaining problem is the restriction of power generation to daylight hours and truly useful capacity to about six hours in the middle of the day. 

A major advance in battery technology is needed before both rooftop solar power and electric vehicles can become widely adopted. Fortunately IBM may have the solution in the form of a new lithium air battery which provides ten times the energy density of current lithium-ion batteries as well as effectively unlimited recharging cycles. IBM expects working batteries by next year and commercial production by the end of this decade. 

A high capacity battery good for thousands of recharge cycles would permit solar power and electric vehicles to become economically and functionally competitive with mains power and petrol fuelled vehicles. 

Near Field Communication (NFC) Technology is Poised for Widespread Adoption

The latest smartphones have started to feature NFC capability. This will permit secure high speed wireless data communication over distances of a few centimetres and will open the way to a cashless society. While this does present issues of privacy these are not insurmountable and the advantages are so great as to make widespread adoption inevitable:

  • Governments could save billions from not having to maintain and police the production of paper currency and coins.
  • Armed robbery would be reduced to a niche industry restricted to jewellery.
  • ATMs would join phone boxes, film processors and hitching posts as quaint artefacts of the past.
  • The underground economy would no longer be able to hide behind the anonymity of cash.
  • With every transaction creating a detailed digital record payments from bribes, drugs and other crimes would become  very difficult to hide or explain.
  • Keeping track of invoices and expenditures would become automatic and entail minimal effort.
  • A clear path would be opened to a vastly simpler, more equitable and economically efficient tax system based on spending rather than earning. 

NFC capability is already appearing in the latest mobile phones and its adoption for financial transactions is being actively pursued by venture capital startups and major companies such as Walmart and Apple. The credit card companies will have to either jump onto the new tech or go the way of Kodak. For users the enhanced convenience and security guarantees a rapid uptake and the rest will follow naturally. 

For another approach to digital money see: PayPal’s Digital Wallet lets you decide how you empty yours 

An Entire Library in Your Pocket

Over the past three years e-books have come from being a niche market of techno-nerds to a mass market already outselling print editions. Although still dismissed by many book lovers, the advantages of e-books are simply too compelling to deny.  

For readers they offer:

  • Much lower cost
  • Immediate purchase and delivery from anywhere with no shipping charges
  • The ability to carry a whole library of thousands of different titles in your pocket with secure backup elsewhere
  • Every title opens instantly on the page where it was last closed
  • Bookmarks and personal notations can be made easily and non-destructively
  • Instant dictionary access to any word by just touching it
  • Read anywhere anytime without the need for room lighting or disturbing anyone
  • Font styles and sizes are readily selectable to personal choice
  • Screen lighting is easily adjustable, uniform and consistent
  • Textbooks and reference works are starting to be available at big savings in cost and bulk 

The prices of e-book readers are already no more than the cost of two or three print titles and are still falling. Even better still, colour tablets with gamut, contrast, luminosity and resolution all better than print are already becoming available. 

For authors e-books offer:

  • A much better royalty than print books (e.g. 70% vs. 10%)
  • Never being out of print
  • No need for dreadful promotion tours
  • Your work is immediately accessible to a global market
  • No rejections from opinionated publishers
  • No need for an agent to find a publisher or to avoid being shafted by them 

For publishers e-books are:

  • Simply an unmitigated disaster 

Publishers are rapidly being reduced to superfluous middlemen. Their only remaining value is their editorial function and that is now open to competition from independent editors without having to also support the overheads and profits of a big city publishing house. 

For myself as a reader, e-books have resulted in my buying about as many new books in the past year as I did print editions in total over the previous ten years. 

Accessible Affordable Advanced Education

Over the past few decades a university degree has become less an advantage and more a requirement for most employment above the unskilled service level. Government fostered this trend by subsiding higher education until it was well established and accepted as necessary. Then the subsidy was converted to an interest bearing loan obligation with no time limit or default provision other than death.  For all but the very wealthy the choice has become one of either serving burgers or signing up to government as an indentured labourer. 

With a guaranteed supply of students offering blank cheques against their future earnings, university fees have escalated at a rate well above the CPI.  Combined with half-million dollar prices for an average home, Generation Y has become Gen S1 of wage serfs bound to government and the banks. From the standpoint of the governors  and banksters this is a distinct improvement on slavery as this new class of servitors have to provide their own maintenance and there is none of the investment, overheads and property concerns of outright ownership. 

Online education is set to change the whole structure and nature of education. Some of the top universities in the world are now providing free online access to their class material and even online courses. While this admittedly does not equal actually attending those schools, for most subjects it can provide a high quality substitute which is superior to attendance at the second and third rate degree mills to which the vast majority of students are relegated. As students and employers begin to recognise this, look for many of the halls of academia to empty out and for the surviving institutions to have to markedly improve the quality and price of their offerings. 

An ancillary aspect that must naturally emerge will be services that rate courses, curricula and degrees and link them to job opportunities. This would be a huge improvement over the existing approach of early commitment to a narrow career path with little real information as to where it leads, what the market needs or opportunity to change one’s path. Such a service would also reveal that for many trendy, important sounding and popular degrees now being offered the real world prospects are most likely taxi driving or the dole. 

Although the form all this will take is still in the early stages of its evolution there seems little doubt it will soon play a major role in ongoing education. The potential advantages of cost, quality and accessibility are too great to remain unexploited. Widespread affordable access to specialised education will in turn foster education as an ongoing process rather than it being a limiting upfront commitment. 

For interesting recent articles on this development see Instruction for Masses Knocks Down Campus Walls and The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever
 

The Robots are Coming

Continuing developments in computer and sensor technology combined with advances in artificial intelligence are enabling major advances in robotics and remote control. This is another nascent industry set to boom over the next decade.  It is foreseeable that mass produced robots will become far less costly and better performing than human labour for many, or even most, jobs. 

While such a prospect tends to raise knee jerk concerns about unemployment this only reflects past experience wherein production depended on human labour. If production is not tied to labour people will be free to engage in other more creative endeavours and the matter of unemployment becomes moot. At most it may entail provision for some form of base level income sufficient for comfortable existence with anything above that up to individual effort and fortune. 

In any event, robots are poised to soon become ubiquitous and to have huge impacts on the way we live our lives. For a start watch for them to begin to take over many rote production line jobs and in so doing wipe out the labour cost advantages of offshore manufacturing. Consider a $50K/annum employee who works 40 hours a week, makes mistakes, gets sick, and requires pension and health plans as well as mounds of government imposed paperwork and other obligations. Then consider a robot having a lifetime cost of about one year’s wages for an employee but which works every day all day, performs flawlessly, can be quickly repaired and doesn’t entail any of the rest. The choice is a no-brainer. 

For an interesting example of advanced robotics approaching commercial availability click here… 

A Truly Amazing New Material

We are all accustomed to breathless news about exciting new materials which turn out to actually offer only modest advantages at not so modest increases in cost and nothing really very new. However, there is a recently discovered material with a whole spectrum of truly amazing properties. Graphene is a form of carbon. I won’t go into its properties here. Just do a Google search on Graphene for more info or this link for a good summary. 

That it’s a form of carbon is particularly ironic in that in other forms carbon also gives us diamonds, coal, carbon fibres, nano-tubes, bucky balls and is the atom around which life itself is constructed. Where the irony comes in is that this most extraordinary of all elements is the one chosen by the ignorati to vilify it with the monumentally inappropriate term “carbon pollution”.  

Suffice it to say here, graphene shows realistic promise of enabling a whole spectrum of greatly improved, as well as entirely new, ways of doing things in the not too distant future. 

Effects of Carbon Emissions More Good Than Bad

The evidence is becoming stronger every day. The greenhouse effect of increasing atmospheric CO2 has been greatly overestimated by faulty computer modelling and deficient understanding of atmospheric physics. The only actually important effect of increased CO2 of which we may be reasonably confident has been a significant enhancement of plant productivity including a greening of arid regions. 

Climate Catastrophe Cancelled

The doomsday threat of climate change has proved to be an artefact of overheated imaginations and faulty computer modelling. All of the dire predictions by the self-proclaimed climate experts have thus far repeatedly failed their reality test. We are not all expiring from heat stroke. The polar ice caps are not melting away and rising seas are not inundating the world’s coastal regions. Tropical diseases aren’t becoming epidemic in temperate regions. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t dying and myriads of other imagined ills of climate change are simply not happening. 

All of the sophisticated computer models, consensus of experts and estimates of probability have been wrong and in many instances they were worse than wrong. They were lies.

Ongoing revelations of extensive scientific and ethical misconduct by leading climate alarmist researchers have severely discredited them. Politicians not willing to admit they were seriously duped are simply going quiet on the issue. Although the failed prophets of climate Armageddon are still trying to beat the drums and re-hype the issue, their credibility is now in tatters and their ravings are only being seen as further confirming their foolishness and dishonesty. 

The Population is Imploding not Exploding

Fertility rates in most developed countries have fallen to below the replacement level of 2.1. Surprisingly, that most Catholic of nations, Italy, has one of the lowest of all rates at only 1.3. More surprising still, all across North Africa and the Middle East fertility rates are also falling rapidly and in a number of these muslim countries they are already well below replacement level. 

Although this may be seen as good news in already overpopulated areas and in regard to avoiding a future Malthusian population/resource crisis, it does present a future demographic problem when too many old people have too few young working people to support them. This will be especially critical in poor nations which cannot bear the costs of welfare for the aged. 

A pattern is clearly apparent of high birth rates accompanying poverty and of rapidly declining rates with increasing economic development and education. Improving education and the opening of minds to better possibilities are proving to be a key to alleviating many problems. 

Greece Will Soon Have to Default on its Sovereign Debt

This is good because no effective reform is politically possible until economic collapse makes it impossible to continue to maintain their non-productive bloated bureaucratic system. It is also necessary because the primary problem is not just profligate spending by Greeks but also profligate lending by foreign banks and all the concern is not really so much about bailing out the Greeks as it is about bailing out the foreign lenders to whom they owe the money. 

The government/financial nexus has become as much or more a threat to democracy than is the military/industrial complex. All of the so=called “rescue” plans for Greece entail turning their working population into tax serfs repaying even more loans in which they have no say and from which they will receive nothing. 

All over the developed world the bureaucratic nanny state model of government is stumbling into economic self-destruct. In a number of the most indebted economies debt has reached a level where it is increasing faster than economic growth and it is compounding. A return to solvency is not possible. Default and a serious rethink about the proper role and limits for government must come and the sooner it does the better. The Greeks led the way to democracy. Perhaps they can lead in finding the way out of its excesses, if not by example to be followed then at least by one to be avoided. 

Australian House Prices are Coming Down

Although many people would also not see this as a good thing, the benefit far outweighs the detriment and in any event it is unavoidable. The real estate bubble cannot keep going higher when buyers have reached the limit of their capacity to pay. At recent price levels only dual income families can afford to buy a home and to do so must indenture themselves to a bank and struggle on the edge of insolvency for most of their working lives. In a nation with more unused habitable land than any other, this is obscene mismanagement. For Australians of Gen Y and beyond it means many, and probably most, can never own their own home. For families it means increasing poverty both economic as well as in terms of parental care and attention. 

Having most of the nation’s wealth tied up unproductively in overpriced real estate is not good and certainly not very smart.  Having 60% of bank assets based on property mortgages with much of it funded by short term overseas borrowing is more than just risky. It is also undesirable, unnecessary and unintelligent. 

For the first time in decades house prices have started to decline. Over the past year the nationwide average is about 5% down. A reduction of 50% or more is going to be required to make prices and rents truly affordable again for most people. Major collateral benefits would also be a much greater availability of capital for loans and investment in productive enterprise, a reduced need for offshore borrowing and a general reduction in debt level. 

Better Times Ahead

Over the short term the human condition has always been subject to sharp ups and downs but over the longer term the trend is to improvement. We do learn, however belatedly and erratically. Change for the better often requires creative destruction of existing dysfunctional systems and is usually preceded by increasingly desperate propping up until catastrophic collapse can no longer be avoided. It seems that the vested interests in the status quo must usually collapse before fundamental change is possible.   The time for major changes is fast approaching; but, it’s more something to look forward to than something to fear. Bring it on. ¡Viva la Revolución!