Category Archives: Reorganization

briefly noted: disruptive technological change

1) The Atlantic on the Digital Underground of North Korea

2) New York Times Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software about innovations in AI that allow textual analysis of large sets of documents. The article discusses two approaches it terms “linguistic” and “sociological.”:

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.
Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

3) An interactive example on game theoretic AI that plays rock paper scissors quite well.

4) New Yorker’s Letter from China interviews Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet in China – censorship, the state, the public, and corporations.

Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.

OECD global shock reports

The OECD’s Risk Management project has commissioned a number of reports to examine possible future global shocks and how society can become resilient to them.  They write:

The Project … recognises that shocks can provide opportunities for progress, not just negative consequences. Amongst the inputs from which the final report will draw are six background papers and case studies on the following themes: Systemic Financial Risk ; Pandemics ; Cyber Risks ; Geomagnetic Storms ; Social Unrest and Anticipating Extreme Events.

I haven’t read these reports (which are available through the links above), but they look interesting.  For example, prolific complexity scientist John Casti wrote the report on Anticipating Extreme Events.

thanks to Victor Galaz for the tip.

Haiti a year after the quake

The strong 2010 Haiti earthquake had its epicentre near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. It killed about 230,000 people, injured another 300,000, and made another 1,000,000 homeless a huge impact on a country of 10 million. The earthquake caused an estimated $10 billion worth of damage, more than Haiti’s annual GDP, a huge impact on a small, poor country.

The Big Picture photoblog has a great collection of photos from a year after the quake:

Soccer players from Haiti's Zaryen team (in blue) and the national amputee team fight for the ball during a friendly match at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince January 10, 2011. Sprinting on their crutches at breakneck speed, the young soccer players who lost legs in Haiti's earthquake last year project a symbol of hope and resilience in a land where so much is broken. (REUTERS/Kena Betancur) #

New York Times has a collection of aerial photos that show Haiti before the quake, immediately after, and now.  They also have the stories of six Haitians in the year after the quake.

NPR has a collection of stories on the post-quake recovery.

Michael K. Lindell writes in Nature Geoscience on the need for earthquake resilient buildings. He writes:

Usually, the poorest suffer the most in disasters that hit developing countries, but this may not have been so in Haiti. The lowest quality housing experienced less damage than many higher quality structures. Specifically, shanty housing made of mixed wood and corrugated metal fared well, as did concrete masonry unit structures made of concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofs. These inexpensive shacks probably had a very low incidence of failure because they are such light structures. At the other extreme, the most expensive seismically designed structures also seem to have performed well, but for quite different reasons. Although they were heavier, they had designs that avoided well-known problems, and the materials used in building were of adequate quality and quantity. It seems to have been the moderately expensive structures, built with concrete columns and slabs, that were reinforced, but concrete block walls that were not. Such structures frequently experienced severe damage or collapse because their builders cut costs with inadequate designs, materials and construction methods.

The relationship between building cost and seismic safety thus seems to be not just non-linear, but non-monotonic. That is, people can spend their way into hazard vulnerability, not just out of it. To avoid this problem, three main requirements must be met. First, earthquake risk maps are needed to identify the areas where seismic-resistant construction is required. Second, building codes must then be adopted, implemented and enforced. Finally, insurance is required to fund rebuilding after an earthquake in which building codes have saved lives but not buildings.

Today, mitigation of earthquake hazards is not held back primarily by a lack of engineering solutions: architects had access to manuals for seismic-resistant design for nearly 20 years at the time of the Haiti earthquake. But substantial further research is needed to examine how people can be convinced to make use of existing options for achieving physical and financial safety — especially in areas, such as the Central United States New Madrid seismic zone, that have earthquake recurrence intervals of hundreds of years. Implementing risk-management strategies for coping with such low-probability, high-consequence events will require innovative public/private partnerships.

Ultimately, even the poorest countries must regard building codes as necessities, not luxuries. Moreover, even relatively wealthy countries need to develop more effective strategies for managing seismic risks. This will require collaboration among earth scientists, social scientists, earthquake engineers and urban planners.

Africa’s economic growth

While China’s economy continues to rapidly grow, during the first decade of the 2000s, most of the world’s fastest-growing economies were in sub-Saharan Africa and the IMF projects that this trend will continue over the next five years.

The Economist writes about this recent rapid growth:

Africa’s changing fortunes have largely been driven by China’s surging demand for raw materials and higher commodity prices, but other factors have also counted. Africa has benefited from big inflows of foreign direct investment, especially from China, as well as foreign aid and debt relief. Urbanisation and rising incomes have fuelled faster growth in domestic demand.

Economic management has improved, too. Government revenues have been bolstered in recent years by high commodity prices and rapid growth. But instead of going on a spending spree as in the past some governments, such as Tanzania’s and Mozambique’s, have put money aside, cushioning their economies in the recession.

Some ambled through the decade rather than sprinted. Africa’s biggest economy by far, South Africa, is one of its laggards: it posted average annual growth of only 3.5% over the past decade. Indeed, it may be overtaken in size by Nigeria within ten to 15 years if Nigeria’s bold banking reforms are extended to the power and the oil industries. But the big challenge for all mineral exporters will be providing jobs for a population expected to grow by 50% between 2010 and 2030.

Commodity-driven growth does not generate many jobs; and commodity prices could fall. So governments need to diversify their economies. There are some glimmers. Countries such as Uganda and Kenya that do not depend on mineral exports are also growing faster than before, partly because they have increased manufacturing exports. Standard Chartered thinks that Africa could become a significant manufacturing centre.

Global history: Ian Morris and the Great Divergence

Two of the big questions of global history are why did the industrial revolution happen, and why did it happen in NW Europe?

I’ve been partial to the explanation offered by historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (here’s Cosma Shalizi’s review) that China and Europe were quite similar and industrial revolution in Europe is largely explained by the accidental discovery and then imperial conquest of new world by Europeans.

Stanford archaeologist and historian Ian Morris has a new popular world history book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, that similarly proposes that geography has been the main factor shaping history. He takes a longer view and argues that the aspects of geography matter depend on social development.

In the videos below he outlines the thesis of his book in a short publicity interview from Stanford and a longer lecture at the RSA . (Here’s a review from the Economist).

update:

In response to comments.  Morris is concerned about fossil fuels and environmental degradation. Here is a quote from a review of his book by Orville Schell in New York Times:

Finally, Morris surprises us. … what really concerns him, it turns out, is not whether the West may be bested by the East, but whether mankind’s Promethean collective developmental abilities may not end up being our common undoing.

The competition that East and West have been pursuing for so long, Morris warns, is about to be disrupted by some powerful forces. Nuclear proliferation, population growth, global epidemics and climate change are in the process of radically altering old historical patterns. “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history,” he says.

… Morris counsels that we now need to concentrate not on the old competition between East and West, but on a choice. We must decide between what Morris, borrowing from the writer Ray Kurzweil, terms “the Singularity,” salvation through the expansion of our collective technological abilities, and “Nightfall,” an apocalypse from the old Five Horsemen aided by their new accomplices. He warns that this choice offers “no silver medal.” One alternative “will win and one will lose.” We are, he insists, “approaching a new hard ceiling” and are facing a completely new kind of collective historical turning point.

For the Singularity to win out, “everything has to go right,” Morris says. “For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.”

Because distinctions of geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant, Morris views the old saw that “East is East and West is West” as a catastrophic way of looking at our present situation. Like it or not, East and West are now in a common mess, and “the next 40 years will be the most important in history.”

Twenty two countries in protracted crisis

FAO reports that:

Twenty-two countries are … are in what is termed a protracted crisis, FAO said in its “State of Food Insecurity in the World 2010” hunger report, jointly published today with the World Food Programme (WFP).

Chronic hunger and food insecurity are the most common characteristics of a protracted crisis. On average, the proportion of people who are undernourished in countries facing these complex problems is almost three times as high as in other developing countries.

More than 166 million undernourished people live in countries in protracted crises, roughly 20 percent of the world’s undernourished people, or more than a third of the total if large countries like China and India are excluded from the calculation.

… Faced with so many obstacles, it is little wonder that protracted crises can become a self-perpetuating vicious cycle,” said the preface to the SOFI report, signed jointly by FAO Director General Jacques Diouf and World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

…For the first time, FAO and WFP offer a clear definition of a protracted crisis that will help improve aid interventions. Countries considered as being in a protracted crisis are those reporting a food crisis for eight years or more, receive more than 10 percent of foreign assistance as humanitarian relief, and be on the list of Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries.

The “Ctrl+Alt+Del” of Global Change Sciences

Twitter|@vgalaz
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This is one of those important things that seldom make the headlines. While climate change science has received considerable public attention, especially since the controversies around the IPCC scientific assessments, another fact is seldom, if ever, acknowledged – that  a number of international global change programmes are reorganizing to better match the increasing need for policy-relevant, integrated sustainability science.

The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) as an example, has been reorganizing its work the last years, to better integrate the natural and social sciences and acknowledge the non-linear features of global change. This integration is to be developed by a range of ESSP associated research programmes and projects, including (prepare for an alphabet soup….) DIVERSITAS, IGBP, IHDP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, GWSP , GECHH, START and MAIRS. This paper lays out the thinking behind the ongoing reorganization.

One important change under the ESSP, and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change, is the reorganization of the previous programme Institutional Dimensions of Global Environmental Change (IDGEC, lead by the international institutions legend Oran Young), into a new initiative: the Earth System Governance Project (ESG). The ESG, lead by Frank Biermann in Amsterdam, aims to study the role of multilevel governance, institutions and actor-networks in dealing with global environmental change, and includes several international research centres.

In addition, the International Council for Science (ICSU), in partnership with UNESCO and the United Nations University, is launching a new international initiative based on the insights and framework provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS). PECS ambition is to address the following question: ‘how do policies and practices affect resilience of the portfolio of ecosystem services that support human well-being and allow for adaptation to a changing environment?’. PECS will provide scientific knowledge to the newly launched “IPCC-like” Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An article published in PNAS in 2009, lays out the thinking behind the PECS programme.

So, if you ever get the question “where are the scientists that will help save the world”, the answer is easy: it’s ESSP, PECS, DIVERSITAS, ICSU, IPBES, ESG, IHDP, IGBP, WCRP,GCP, GECAFS, ….

Planes & Volcanoes vs. Banks & CDOs

P O Neill of Fistful of Euros compares The volcano crisis and the financial crisis:

Are the two crises alike? Consider the similarities. In each, an unexpected event in a forgotten part of the system ends up having global ramifications. The unexpected event occurs in a system that needs constant motion for its effective operation: as long as the securities/passengers can be moved on to the next stage, the system keeps functioning. When one part of it stops working, the rest quickly breaks down. But there’s more.

Both the finance and airline industries have to balance the tension between 2 parts of their business: the “utility”, the bit that people and governments view as an essential service (payment systems and getting people from A to B) and the rest of the business model that has grown up around that, and at least in the good times, where the big profits are made. And although both industries have seen a progressive loosening of government oversight in the last 3 decades, it takes just one crisis to show how quickly the leash can be suddenly pulled back.

Finally, each crisis does a good job of revealing the hidden assumptions: we buy pieces of paper because we’re confident we’re able to sell them, and we get on a plane to somewhere because we’re confident we’ll be able to get back. Each industry built up its “illusion of liquidity”.

Then of course, there are the differences. We mentioned above the tightening leash on each industry as a crisis developed. That on airlines is much tighter. Even as banking systems seemed to be dragging down the world economy in late 2008, governments never gave any serious thought to suspending their operations. But the airspace was shut down not in the basis of a specific airplane event, but a worst-case scenario.

Second, in contrast to the G20-inspired rush to coordinate responses to the financial crisis, the response to the volcano crisis looks very ad hoc. Yes there are some pan-European agencies and the EU, but the ripple effects are all over the world and once one reviews the tales of woe, one sees that passengers are subject to the varied policies and rules for airlines, airports, hotels, visas, and travel agencies. In contrast to the concerns about “financial protectionism”, the airline business does not seem to have characterized by any assumption of equal treatment for all: the airline and the airport is still the flag carrier (even when privately-operated) and where you were when your journey got interrupted mattered a lot.

Cochabamba picking up after Copenhagen

The Bolivian city of Cochabamba will host what is called “The Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” writes Sarah van Gelder in YES! Magazine.

Once a pivotal popular struggle arena against water privatization (see e.g. here and here) the city of Cochabamba is now hosting what is reported as a new kind of people-centred forum on climate change, supported by Bolivian president Evo Morales, who is joined by representatives of 50 governments.

Sarah van Gelder reports:

[The] Cochabamba [meeting] represents a new mindset with new players taking the lead: the activists who are stopping new coal plant construction; the towns and cities, businesses, faith groups, and farmers who are adopting sustainable practices; and each one of us who cuts back on driving, meat, and waste and works to “live well” where we are, without using up the life-giving capacities of our finite planet.

Bolivia

A concrete objective concerns the “climate debt”, as reported by Sarah van Gelder:

Participants at the Cochabamba summit will develop ways to measure the climate debt that the wealthy nations—where just 20 percent of the world’s population lives—owe the rest of the world for having emitted 75 percent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Organizers are calling for binding agreements, with United Nation sanctions for those who fail to live up to their climate commitments.

Representatives of 50 governments will meet with ordinary people and social movement leaders from around the world in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work on solutions to what may be the biggest threat ever faced by humankind.