Tea leaves

May 28th, 2010 — Wordman

Some days, the Google News home page overflows with stories that tell you more about the future than you want to know. Today is one of them, though the stories seem, on the surface, innocuous.

First, a pair of stories out of China (one about a strike, one about a pay raise following some suicides) suggest that China’s standard of living is starting to rise. I’ve mentioned before that this will probably slow its growth a bit, as it will raise costs, making Chinese labor correspondingly less attractive to foreign businesses.

Next, I hope you’ve got your plans for a warmer world ready, as the warm seas look to make this hurricane season a doozy. An added wild card this year will be to see how these storms churn all that oil leaking into the gulf around.

More depressingly, the “global economic meltdown” is causing doctors in eight African countries to turn AIDS patients away. You will see “triage” like this a lot more often in the future. During battle, combat medics have to make choices about where to spend their limited resources and time to best effect. When things get bad, the first to get passed over for care are those who probably won’t make it even with care, the mortally wounded who have not yet died. It’s a crappy choice, but a moral one, because it means that care instead is given to someone with a fighting chance to survive. If you can treat them all, you will, but if you can’t, you pick to save as many as you can. It won’t be long before that happens on a global scale, and you can see it starting with this story in Africa. When health care is rationed, assume that those with incurable, terminal illnesses will get abandoned first. And, of course, Africa will get the shaft, as always.

On the more upbeat side of healthcare, a study shows a correlation between brushing your teeth and reduced heart disease. I bring this up because it points to something that I’m guessing will start happening a lot more often: connections being discovered between things that don’t seem like they are connected, but are. (In this particular story, the connection may be that inflammation anywhere does things to your blood.) One reason this will happen with more frequency is that people are now actually looking. That is, rather than looking for cause and effect for a particular ailment, research is now being based on the notion of “well, we have all these huge data sets from various places, let’s mash them together and see if they tell us anything”. One such project takes the human genome data, information about drug interactions, and data on connections between diseases and certain genes, and builds “neighborhoods” of related information. This might reveal that a drug that treats one disease, for example, might wind up treating something that seems totally unrelated. This kind of thing will totally change medicine in your lifetime.

Manufacturing enemies

June 20th, 2007 — Wordman

According the the old maxim, those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Assuming that’s true, a quick look at US foreign policy over the last forty years or so suggests at least one lesson we can learn. In that period, the US government often gave backing to questionable men as “lesser evil” allies of convenience, only to be bitten later by these men when the political climate suddenly changed. Noriega worked for the CIA. The Reagan administration gave financial, intelligence and military support to Saddam Hussein against Iran. The CIA funded and trained the people who became the Taliban to fight the Soviets. Since the current administration contains many of the same people who adopted and executed these policies, it’s a good bet that the future thorn in the side of the US is someone we’re currently cuddling up to while (supposedly) holding our nose.

From where might such a thorn grow and who might he be? Looking at numbers for total aid or even just official military aid may help, but past “backfires” were usually done in secret, so it is tough to say for certain who the US is really aiding at the moment. Still much of this is either reported or widely suspected, so some possibilities, in no particular order:

Middle East

The Middle East seems like an obvious place for the thorn (or thorns) to arise, especially since it is the site of the more recent such troublemakers. On the other hand, the US already has so many enemies there, we’re running out of candidates for turncoats. There are a few, though, especially since the US is losing the propaganda war there so badly that it doesn’t even know it is fighting one. (Hint: start with food.) The most obvious candidate for the US being betrayed in the future by those they are backing now is one of their more recent partners:

Sunni dissidents are now being armed by the US to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. While on the surface, this seems like a boneheaded repetition of the mistakes made with the Taliban, there are a few differences (which may make it a better move, or even worse). One is that Sunni also may be receiving arms from Iran. Since Iran’s regime is Shi’a, this seems a bit odd, but perhaps they assume that anyone willing to resist the US in Iraq is worth befriending (i.e. they are making the same mistake in arming potential turncoats as the US). If this is true, the US effort to arm the Sunni may be more of a “better they get guns from us than them” move, attempting to point them at other targets. (Is that better? Worse?) Another difference is that authority to negotiate arms deals has been given to officers on the ground, not secret CIA operatives. (Better? Worse?) In any case, I can’t find any references to situations where dumping a lot of guns into an area experiencing heated religious strife and wrath against a foreign occupier ever helped much, so this seems like a good candidate for some future backlash. Photo by Xinhua/AFP Photo

The House of Saud presents a much different set of possible “backfire” threats. It is clear that Saudi Arabia has received official aid from the US and the House of Saud has ties with the Bush family, suggesting that unofficial aid is not out of the question as well. Three types of backlash seem possible. First, given the number of Saudi Arabian citizens involved in the 9-11 attack, it’s not clear how loyal the House of Saud is already. At the very least, a perception against them now exists, which may snowball into an official souring against them from the US, which would really give the House no choice but to turn against America. A second threat is that the House of Saud is very large, which makes it unlikely that all members share the same opinions of the US and provides lots of opportunities for infighting and coup. A “wrong” king seizing power could change everything quickly. Thirdly, should the House fall, the US would be confronted with a situation somewhat like that of Iran in the 1970’s, when the Shah fell. While the House of Saud is nowhere near as propped up by the US as the Shah was, the US has more to loose in Saudi Arabia than they did in 1970’s Iran. Photo by BBC Television

Pervez Musharraf, dictator of Pakistan, most closely fits the historical “type” of leader that ultimately turns on his US backers. Clearly a key ally in current US involvement in the Middle East, it is not so clear how loyal an ally Pakistan actually is. Pakistan is repeatedly accused of harboring terrorists, and signed a truce with the Taliban. Islamists in Pakistan are becoming more vocal and it appears that Musharraf may be starting to loose political standing. That’s a dangerous situation for a leader that might turn against the US to be in, as he may think he could boost his following by reversing course. Taking the danger to a whole new level, he controls nuclear weapons. Photo by Reuters

Fatah, being an arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), would seem an odd horse for the US to back; however, they fight Hamas, who wants to wipe Israel off the map. It is unlikely, however, that Fatah will emerge as the next big “turncoat” enemy. They are being trounced by Hamas, so probably will not survive long enough to betray American backers. It is likely, however, that the US will continue to back any anti-Hamas groups it can find, and some of those may eventually succeed in eliminating Hamas, only to rise against the hand that fed them. Even Fatah itself, should it survive, can be counted on for betrayal. Already, as Michael Oren says in the Wall Street Journal (see previous link), “a distinct correlation exists between the amount of support that Fatah receives from the West and its need to prove its ‘Palestinianess’ through terror.” Photo by AFP

Former Soviet states

A number of ex-Soviet (usually ex-KGB) types managed to gain power in the former Soviet states after the collapse of the USSR. Fortunately, the citizens of most of these countries seem to have more sense than the US, as they’ve been overthrowing these Cold-War relics with surprising ease, and almost no blood. Some possibilities, however, remain:

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, at first glance, isn’t much of a candidate for this scenario, because the US doesn’t seem to have done much for or with Turkmenistan, the country who recently “elected” him. One would like to think the US has stayed away from the country because it’s former leader was so odious, but the truth is more likely that they are more fixated on other nations in the region at the moment. Still, even if Berdymukhammedov’s regime turns out to be as hard as his name is to spell, Turkmenistan’s natural-gas wealth nearly guarantees outsiders will try to make deals with him. Photo by ?

Nursultan Abishuly Nazarbayev, the current leader of the false democracy of Kazakhstan, provides a good example of the “dictator masquerading as democrat” that seems trendy these days. The current US administration seems intent on cozying up to him, in spite of typical post-Soviet thuggery. On the other hand, he evidently gave up huge numbers of nukes voluntarily (back to Russia) and seems more interested in playing nice with all sides. If Kazakhstan is a future thorn, it will probably be under a different leader. His son-in-law was making a bid for power in 2012, but Nazarbayev fired him and issued a warrant for his arrest. He also recently changed laws to allow himself to remain in power indefinitely. Photo by Associated Press

Islam Karimov, leads Uzbekistan similarly, but even more overtly dictatorially. The US government liked him, since he was trying to squash an Islamist rebellion in his country, but that’s changed since his troops gunned down a peaceful protest. (Given the fact that this action made the Bush administration say “woah! too brutal for us! see ya!”, you can assume it was pretty bad.) At this point, it seems the US already burned the bridge with Uzbekistan’s regime, which is now purging itself of pro-American members and cozying up to China and Russia. It’s possible Karimov might become a thorn, but it’s probably more likely that the brewing insurrection will succeed, making yet another Islamist state that hates America. Another possibility is that the growing rift over which country will dominate the region will grow worse, creating yet another opportunity for the US to pick the wrong side. Photo by Associated Press

Africa

Like much of the first world, the historically US has done its share of meddling in Africa, although to a much lesser extent than, say, France or England. Recently though, it’s joined the world in ignoring much of it. While the US has been throwing money at fighting AIDS promoting abstinence in Africa, it doesn’t appear to be exercising much political will there lately. Uganda appears to be on the rise, but it’s not clear it owes much of that to America. The US concern in Africa now seems not to be famine, genocide or mineral wealth, but terrorism. Which leads us to…

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has joined the US war on terror by launching an offensive against anti-American targets in Somalia and becoming much more involved in the rest of Africa. Zenawi’s regime has a history mixed messages. It leads Africa in the percentage of GDP spent on programs for the poor, but has little to show for it and a horrible human rights record. It opens its airwaves but stifles freedom of the press. Ethiopia is also surrounded by Muslim countries, with a growing Muslim population of its own (from 30%-50% of the country, depending on which source you check). The threat here seems to be that, as Ethiopia is slowly dragging its way to become more genuinely democratic, it’s demographics may be shifting. This could portend an ousting (legitimately or otherwise) of Zenawi, leaving an American equipped army in the hands of the ousters. Alternatively, Zenawi may develop visions of granduer from his military outings and turn feral. Another possibility is that tensions between Egypt and Ethopia over the water rights of the Nile could turn ugly, which would put the US in a tight spot. Photo by Ethiopian embassy

Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt, served as a high ranking officer in several wars against Israel before attaining his current office. During the first Gulf War, he allied his country strongly with the coalition, Egyptian soldiers being some of the first to fight in Kuwait. Presently, he is not as enthusiastic about the Iraq war, but still receives nearly five times more military aid from America than does all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It seems unlikely that Mubarak would rabidly turn on the US, but if it happens, it will almost certainly be over Israel. As in Ethiopia, another possibility is that increased democracy could actually oust him in favor of a more Islamist ruler. Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty

Other locations

No doubt a number of other people and areas are missing from this list. Thailand? Indonesia? Mexico? What do you think?

Africa’s ruin or salvation

June 2nd, 2005 — Wordman

The Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory can now make gem quality diamonds at reasonable speed. This seems like a great thing because it seriously threatens to destroy one of the more repugnant companies on the planet: DeBeers. For decades, DeBeers has enjoyed a monopoly on the world’s diamond market, keeping the price of what is actually a fairly common mineral high by means of controlling its supply. They’ve used this monopoly to fix prices, influence and back brutal governments and indirectly fund violence against civilians. To it’s credit, DeBeers has been strongly lobbying against conflict diamonds recently, though I can’t help suspect this has more to do with further controlling supply than altruism.

Nearly all of the “common knowledge” about diamonds is a direct result of DeBeers marketing. They completely invented the “traditions” of the diamond engagement ring and tenth anniversary band and how much should be spent on each (“two months salary”, unless you live in Japan, where it is three). They are directly responsible for glamour attached to diamonds in film, backing films featuring diamonds and seeding celebrities like Marilyn Monroe with jewels for public occasions, a practice with many imitators today. All of the “common sayings” about diamonds are either DeBeers marketing slogans (“diamonds are forever”) or commissioned songs (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). Recently DeBeers has been using feminism to market the right hand diamond ring. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were also masters of the altered deal.)

Synthetic diamonds are nothing new. Heck, you can even get the carbon released from cremating your body pressed into a gemstone. What is new is the low cost and high speed of production already achieved by Carnegie Institution. Mass produced gem-quality synthetic diamonds could completely undermine the DeBeers monopoly by creating an essentially infinite supply of diamonds that are higher quality than nearly all mined diamonds and completely independent of geography. Further, if the inventors of this process are really interested in using it to usher in the diamond age, they would license it very widely and cheaply. It’s conceivable that anyone with electricity could eventually grow gem-quality diamonds in their home. In this scenario, though, making gems would likely be a small afterthought to more impressive uses of similar technology (like building an elevator to space). Chances are, this won’t happen, at least for a while. Either DeBeers will come to control this new process or those that do control it will reach a “gentlemen’s agreement” with DeBeers limiting production of gems (tactics similar to those they used with GE and the Soviet Union).

Sooner or later, though, technology will reach the point when diamonds and other gems can be manufactured on a scale large enough to destroy conventional mining. The descendants of DeBeers will probably end up owning a big chunk of this industry, so they should (unfortunately) come out OK. The citizens of Africa, on the other hand, are likely to get really, really screwed by this development.

Over half the world’s diamonds are mined in Africa. In the country of Bostwana alone, in the year 2000, diamonds represented 36% of GDP and 82% of exports. Imagine that just vanishing over the space of a couple of years. Add to that the ancillary economy that supports and surrounds all that mining and you get a fairly bleak future, especially since unemployment there is already between 22 and 40% and roughly a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.

More diversified countries like South Africa should fare better, but trouble in African countries tends to spill into its neighbors one way or another.

Should the rapid collapse of the diamond mining industry come to pass, I predict an equally rapid increase in what Africa has proven, over the last fifty years, that it does really well: genocide. Since the rest of the world has indicated that it doesn’t give two shits about what happens in Africa, loss of mining income will lead to battles for control of natural resources coupled with campaigns against nearby helpless ethnicities. While militaries seize oil fields and logging operations, “terrorists” sporting equipment mysteriously identical to the local military will start slaughtering the scapegoats of the day. The tinpot thug who runs the place will vocally decry the “terrorists” but, equally mysteriously, will be unable to stop them. His wife(s) will embezzle several hundred million dollars and relocate to Europe. After the killing has gone on for several years, Kofi Annan will be horrfied and state that something must be done. The UN will ignore him by endlessly debating “sanctions”.

After a long period of this, maybe fifty years or so, people will start realizing that Africa is the only place left on Earth with easily accessible natural resources (timber, oil, various metals, uranium, cheap labor, etc.) The resulting resource rush and potential Renaissance should be something to behold, for the dozen or so Africans still alive to witness it.