Afghanistan

The news and images from Afghanistan recently have been painful to watch. I have been in and out of the country for about 15 years now. First time in 2007, as the Belgian head of mission. Pol-mil work, as they call it in diplomatic jargon. I was exhausted after two years and took a career break, which never happened because the country had drawn me in. The UN offered me a consultancy contract to help them spin off all of their information technology projects: I transformed Afghanistan Information Management Services from a UN project into a national NGO. Then I moved on to the Asia Foundation, resourcing and leading programmes such as the Performance-Based Governors Fund. Around 2011-2012, I was probably exhausted, although I did not feel that way. I just thought it was time for me to try to settle somewhere else. I fell in love with an American USAID worker, who had worked in Afghanistan but moved to Nepal. Hence, I went to Nepal and settled there, but still went to Afghanistan for shorter or longer jobs (see my LinkedIn profile for the detail of my career).

About four years back, I divorced my American lady. She went to Africa. I went back to Belgium and reintegrated. New job. Re-connecting with friends and family and, first and foremost, my two wonderful children who had then started university. My daughter is a full medical doctor now, and my son is in his last year of engineering studies. I still need to find a woman here to make my reintegration complete, but that will come when I am ready for it (I had not one but two divorces in my life – expat life is nice, but it does come with unanticipated family sacrifices).

I continued doing consultancies, though. My last consultancy job was a three-month stint – yes, in Afghanistan. It was just before C19 outbreak (end of 2019 and beginning of 2020). I worked with the EU and the Ministry of Finance on a direct budget support program, evaluating whether the criteria for releasing a few hundred million Euro were met. I was invited to the Palace by high officials. There is no way you can just walk in there, like the Taliban did. When I was there, even tanks would not have been able to break through the defenses. I was, therefore, utterly shocked to see the Taliban were able to walk into the Palace just days after they had reached the outskirts of Kabul.

Now I am watching the news and images from Afghanistan. I thought I had no tears left inside of me, but it is not true. My heart bleeds. I think many people like me went to these far-flung places more because of a desire for adventure. Because you want to be some kind of hero doing good. A great professional. You think you want to get involved but, deep inside, that is not what it is about. But Afghanistan is a special country: even if you are not involved, it drags you in. Its sad history but, more importantly, its people. I will not be emotional. This blog is not about emotions, but I do want to share what I have to say about, which I summed up in a brief LinkedIn post on the events. I write this:

“It is tough to watch what is happening in Afghanistan. All people who have worked there probably feel betrayed. Not by Americans. Not by Afghans. But by their leadership and governments. It did not have to be a worse repeat of Vietnam. It is a dishonor to the US veterans and those who have died or were injured there, the very ones Biden talks about in his press briefings.

Those 400,000+ of internally displaced since the fighting started this year, the distress, thousands of Afghans climbing the walls to get on the tarmac of Kabul Airport, and – worst of all – the total dashing of any spark of hope that was left (many Afghans honestly did believe in some kind of national reconciliation). That could have been avoided. That should have been avoided. It will stick with Mr. Biden as his single biggest foreign policy failure forever. And it will stick with worldwide sentiment about the intentions and capabilities of the US Government for decades longer.

US force (tested shock and awe tactics) always wins the war, but is uncapable of winning the peace that should come afterwards. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, just to name a few everyone knows. But there are also smaller troublesome interventions which led to nothing: Uganda, Somalia, Lebanon, etcetera. Perhaps I should label the invasions of Panama and Grenada as successes – just to make it look somewhat more balanced? And the Kosovo wars, of course. There were a few stalemates and returns to the status quo ex ante too. But – when looking at the investment, in terms of casualties and money – the record is all but but impressive.”

I will not say anything more about it (the words do not come easy, this time) except, perhaps, one thing. The longest war that the US has been fighting is the Cold War. And it won that too. But it is very clear it is not winning the Cold Peace that ensued. Further antagonizing China, Russia, Iran, etcetera seems to be both Republican and Democrat long-term policy. There is no difference between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden there. The US Government is making yet another big long-term mistake here.

Post scriptum: For the fleeing ex-President Ashraf Ghani (whom I met personally only once, but that meeting did reinforce my earlier impressions: he was/is too arrogant to lead a country), I have only these words: “Not only were you an inept leader, but you turned out to be a coward as well!”

Former President Karzai had the decency to stay behind – now, when a heroic President is needed – and, when thinking a bit further back in Afghan history, when Russian forces were rapidly leaving the country (in 1996), President Najibullah also stayed in Kabul – till the (bitter) end (unfortunately, he was effectively killed by the then-equivalent of the Taliban but, while that may have led to Ghani’s flight, Karzai at least shows real courage and ancestry now).

The latest news (Al Jazeera, 18 August, 09:41 GMT) has it that Anas Haqqani, one of the leaders of one of the hard-core factions of the Taliban, has met the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for talks, together with Abdullah Abdullah, who would probably have been a better President than Ghani (but the 2019 presidential elections did not allow to declare who of the two (Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah) actually won those). This is promising, or something that might be promising. Or, at least, we may think the next Taliban regime may actually be some kind of true national reconciliation government.

Finally, I should also encourage you to read alternative narratives, like this editorial article on Al Jazeera. It does help to, perhaps, think somewhat more positively about the turn of events.

Cold and hot fusion: just hot air?

I just finished a very short paper recapping the basics of my model of the nuclear force. I wrote it a bit as a reaction to a rather disappointing exchange that is still going on between a few researchers who seem to firmly believe some crook who claims he can produce smaller hydrogen atoms (hydrinos) and get energy out of them. I wrote about my disappointment on one of my other blogs (I also write on politics and more general matters). Any case, the thing I want to do here, is to firmly state my position in regard to cold and hot fusion: I do not believe in either. Theoretically, yes. Of course. But, practically speaking, no. And that’s a resounding no!

The illustration below (from Wikimedia Commons) shows how fusion actually happens in our Sun (I wrote more about that in one of my early papers). As you can see, there are several pathways, and all of these pathways are related through critical masses of radiation and feedback loops. So it is not like nuclear fission, which (mainly) relies on cascaded neutron production. No. It is much more complicated, and you would have to create and contain a small star on Earth to recreate the conditions that are prevalent in the Sun. Containing a relatively small amount of hydrogen plasma in incredibly energy-intensive electromagnetic fields will not do the trick. First, the reaction will peter out. Second, the reaction will yield no net energy: the plasma and electromagnetic fields that are needed to contain the plasma will suck everything up, and much more than that. So, yes, The ITER project is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money.

As for cold fusion, I believe the small experiments showing anomalous heat reactions (or low-energy nuclear reactions as these phenomena are also referred to) are real (see my very first blog post on these) but (1) researchers have done a poor job at replicating these experiments consistently, (2) have failed to provide a firm theoretical basis for those reactions, and (3) whatever theory there is, also strongly hints we should not hope to ever get net energy out of it. This explains why public funding for cold fusion is very limited. Furthermore, scientists who continue to support frauds like Dr. Mills will soon erase whatever credibility smaller research labs in this field have painstakingly built up. So, no, it won’t happen. Too bad, because LENR research itself is quite interesting, and may yield more insights than the next mega-project of CERN, SLAC and what have you. :-/

Post scriptum: On the search for hydrinos (hypothetical small hydrogen), following exchange with a scientist working for a major accelerator lab in the US – part of a much longer one – is probably quite revealing. When one asks why it has not been discovered yet, the answer is invariably the same: we need a new accelerator project for that. I’ll hide the name of the researcher by calling him X.

Dear Jean Louis – They cannot be produced in the Sun, as electron has to be very relativistic. According to my present calculation one has to have a total energy of Etotal ~34.945 MeV. Proton of the same velocity has to have total energy Etotal ~64.165 GeV. One can get such energies in very energetic evens in Universe. On Earth, it would take building special modifications of existing accelerators. This is why it has not been discovered so far.

Best regards, [X]

From: Jean Louis Van Belle <jeanlouisvanbelle@outlook.com>
Date: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at 9:24 AM
To: [X]
Cc: [Two other LENR/CF researchers]
Subject: Calculations and observations…

Interesting work, but hydrino-like structures should show a spectrum with gross lines, split in finer lines and hyperfine lines (spin coupling between nucleon(s) and (deep) electron. If hydrinos exist, they should be produced en masse in the Sun. Is there any evidence from unusual spectral lines? Until then, I think of the deep electron as the negative charge in the neutron or in the deuteron nucleus. JL

How science works nowadays…

A few days ago, an honest researcher put me in cc of an email to a much higher-brow researcher. I won’t reveal names, but the latter – I will call him X – works at a prestigious accelerator lab in the US. The gist of the email was a question on an article of X: “I am still looking at the classical model for the deep orbits. But I have been having trouble trying to determine if the centrifugal and spin-orbit potentials have the same relativistic correction as the Coulomb potential. I have also been having trouble with the Ademko/Vysotski derivation of the Veff = V×E/mc2 – V2/2mc2 formula.”

I was greatly astonished to see X answer this: “Hello – What I know is that this term comes from the Bethe-Salpeter equation, which I am including (#1). The authors say in their book that this equation comes from the Pauli’s theory of spin. Reading from Bethe-Salpeter’s book [Quantum mechanics of one and two electron atoms]: “If we disregard all but the first three members of this equation, we obtain the ordinary Schroedinger equation. The next three terms are peculiar to the relativistic Schroedinger theory”. They say that they derived this equation from covariant Dirac equation, which I am also including (#2). They say that the last term in this equation is characteristic for the Dirac theory of spin ½ particles. I simplified the whole thing by choosing just the spin term, which is already used for hyperfine splitting of normal hydrogen lines. It is obviously approximation, but it gave me a hope to satisfy the virial theoremOf course, now I know that using your Veff potential does that also. That is all I know.” [I added the italics/bold in the quote.]

So I see this answer while browsing through my emails on my mobile phone, and I am disgusted – thinking: Seriously? You get to publish in high-brow journals, but so you do not understand the equations, and you just drop terms and pick the ones that suit you to make your theory fit what you want to find? And so I immediately reply to all, politely but firmly: “All I can say, is that I would not use equations which I do not fully understand. Dirac’s wave equation itself does not make much sense to me. I think Schroedinger’s original wave equation is relativistically correct. The 1/2 factor in it has nothing to do with the non-relativistic kinetic energy, but with the concept of effective mass and the fact that it models electron pairs (two electrons – neglect of spin). Andre Michaud referred to a variant of Schroedinger’s equation including spin factors.”

Now X replies this, also from his iPhone: “For me the argument was simple. I was desperate trying to satisfy the virial theorem after I realized that ordinary Coulomb potential will not do it. I decided to try the spin potential, which is in every undergraduate quantum mechanical book, starting with Feynman or Tippler, to explain the hyperfine hydrogen splitting. They, however, evaluate it at large radius. I said, what happens if I evaluate it at small radius. And to my surprise, I could satisfy the virial theorem. None of this will be recognized as valid until one finds the small hydrogen experimentally. That is my main aim. To use theory only as a approximate guidance. After it is found, there will be an explosion of “correct” theories.” A few hours later, he makes things even worse by adding: “I forgot to mention another motivation for the spin potential. I was hoping that a spin flip will create an equivalent to the famous “21cm line” for normal hydrogen, which can then be used to detect the small hydrogen in astrophysics. Unfortunately, flipping spin makes it unstable in all potential configurations I tried so far.”

I have never come across a more blatant case of making a theory fit whatever you want to prove (apparently, X believes Mills’ hydrinos (hypothetical small hydrogen) are not a fraud), and it saddens me deeply. Of course, I do understand one will want to fiddle and modify equations when working on something, but you don’t do that when these things are going to get published by serious journals. Just goes to show how physicists effectively got lost in math, and how ‘peer reviews’ actually work: they don’t. The reviewers check if you are part of the in-crowd. If you are not, you are out. If you are in, you are in. :-/ And this is physics: the king of science? It is a whore.

The implosion of the EU

The Russian Foreign Minister pronounced the EU officially dead – as far as Russia is concerned, at least: ““There are no relations with the European Union as an organization. […] Moscow only has relations with individual EU nations now.” Similarly, China finds the EU also increasingly difficult to deal with, and may also decide to just treat the EU for what it has become: a wasteful international bureaucracy. Brexit, the mismanagement of the COVID-crisis, and the increasingly diverging politics and political views within the EU only exposed the deep-rooted rot.

The Russian and Chinese Foreign Minister both want to strengthen the UN Security Council, which is probably a good thing – because the UNSC embodies the kind of nasty but effective realist deal-making our brave new multi-polar world desperately needs – especially now that all trust in the US as a ‘global policeman’ has been eroded. Biden calling Putin a ‘killer’ has not helped matters in this regard.

The UNSC might work – especially with Germany playing a more active role now as non-permanent member, probably seeking to reform it so as to achieve permanent member status. Enlargement of the UNSC should not be based on the preferences of the current permanent members, but on real power-projecting capabilities and other assets that may help to stabilize an increasingly volatile world. We may criticize Russia and China but – unlike democracies such as India – these are societies – or social systems – which have managed to define and, more importantly, implement medium- and long-term political and economic objectives. The numbers of 20 years of Putin, and a rapid comparison of China’s growth versus that of India (similarly endowed with natural and human resources) speak for themselves. Measured against Bentham’s utilitarian moral rule (what produces the greatest good for the greatest number?), Russia and China have surely done better than any other (large) society over the past 20 years.

As for Europe, I am not sure it has much future. Even as a name, it does not work very well: Europa was just a consort of Zeus, and she came from a region which is currently referred to as Turkey. So what message were ‘European’ politicians trying to convey with the idea of Europe anyway? :-/

Ursula von der Leyen still has another four years to go, and does much better than inebriated Juncker (but then he was, without any doubt, the weakest EUC President ever), but she faces an uphill (impossible?) housecleaning task. Perhaps she should speak more German than French? With Brexit, a return to either is good. Let’s see what Germany’s voters say in September. Their vote is more important than others’. That is not a racial prejudice, but just fact: some people matter more than others, and some countries matter more than others, too!

[…] So what makes sense, then – in terms of international order? Perhaps the idea of weighted voting in the larger UN system should be re-considered. It may well be the only rational alternative to a return to the 19th-century international system, which was based on rivalry between nation-states. The only difference is that the world population will soon reach the staggering 8 billion mark, up from less than 2 billion in 1900: it more than doubled since I was born (which is 50 years ago). Doomsday thinking is not warranted, however. 🙂 And the nation-states are different. Two of them (China and India) now account for 36% of the world’s population. Asia as a whole will account for about 55% of the total in 2050, Africa 25% share. Europe and North America? Probably about 10% only, but this projection is based on healthy (overoptimistic?) demographics for the US and Canada.

The US alone still accounts for about 40% of the world’s spending on arms and the military. To protect whom against whom? Europe from Russia? The Middle East, Central Asia or Africa from fundamentalists? Democracies against dictatorships? And with what mandate, really? The US bypassing the UN Security Council in 2003 (the invasion of Iraq), as well as on numerous other occasions and related matters (including the first Gulf War) damaged its international credibility beyond repair. I worked for about 10 years in Afghanistan – about half of that time I was paid out of US taxpayers’ money – and I understand the appeal of the Yankee, go home idea very much. I believe that, since Trump, more Americans start to understand it too.

What about NATO? It served two purposes: one was to prevent war between its members, the other was to protect Europe against the Russians. The latter threat is no longer relevant in this interdependent world, so NATO should (also) scale down its xenophobic rhetoric, and focus on the first: reduce tensions between Greece and Turkey, focus on stability in the Balkans, reduce tension in former Eastern Europe (please stop expanding, NATO!), etcetera). Unfortunately, rational decision-making and international institutions are difficult to marry. :-/

Remembering 9/11

11 September. A sad day of remembrance of a historical event on another continent. The world has changed in the meanwhile – and very much so. Unfortunately, it is not a better world now. The refugees who try to reach Europe may be said to be refugees from the great act of vengeance of the US.

[…]

I hate Trump, but today I thought US politics are actually none of my business. Worse, if Trump wins, that may be bad news for the US but – if America First would effectively mean the end of US interventionism – that would probably be good news for the world. At the very least, it would force our Old Continent to finally deal with the world as it is, and on its own terms rather than on those dictated by the US military-industrial complex.

Post scriptum: By the way, I do think Trump is going to win. Let me absolutely clear on this: I do not hope so, but I do think so. I follow very few people on Twitter—but Trump and Biden are among them. I usually junk their tweets immediately. Trump’s tweets make no sense. Biden’s tweets − about the shenanigans of the likes of Michael Flynn or other débris from an ill-timed and totally disastrous impeachment attempt − are too complicated to look at.

So, yes, I hope Trump loses the next US elections. I really do. Why? Because another four years of Trump will completely demolish the US as we know it. However, being rational, it looks like Trump will win. Hands down. Like Boris Yeltsin in the UK. […] Sorry. I meant Boris Johnson. Why do I think Trump is going to win? Because the Democrats are too stupid to handle him.

Polls reveal support for Biden is based on an anti-Trump feeling. That’s it: an anti-Trump agenda. Nothing more. The Democrats are making the same mistake: they are putting Trump in the underdog position. Nothing that suits him better: if Biden would admit Trump might win, he would have a chance. But the Democrats will not even consider that, so they will lose. Again.

In terms of personality contests, there is no comparison: it is pretty obvious Trump eats guys like Biden for breakfast. Finally, and most worrisome, public rallies – like these boat parades, the Trumptillas – draw incredible support and basically show the Americans have had it with democracy: they want enlightened dictatorship. Like Germany in the 1930s: the people want change. However bad the change may be. Trump may not be very enlightened but he sure brings the dictatorship part of that scary New American Dream.

I am just trying to rationally think this through here. No emotion.

The new EU Commission

I will be honest: when I first read through the new political program of the new European Commission, which is to be led by Mrs. Ursula von der Leyen, I was quite enthusiastic. It hit all of the right notes. [By the way, the lowercase v in von der Leyen is there fore the right reason: pedigree.] But then I started to read a bit. I thought: I’ve been abroad for too long, so I should check what it’s all about.

I found this: most – if not all – of the Political Guidelines for the 2019-2024 Commission are just copy-paste from Juncker’s Guidelines for the 2014-2019 Commission (‘A New Start for Europe’). Mrs. von der Leyen only re-packaged Juncker’s ‘Forward-Looking Climate Change Policy’ into a new ‘European Green Deal’ and put it first place to please the Greens and other left-wing movements.

These guidelines continue to reflect the federal utopia of the ruling pro-European political parties: the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists (PES), and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), which dominate the Commission (85% of Commissioners) and the European Parliament (60% of MEPs). It blatantly undercuts the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality as laid down in the TEU and TFEU treaties. Mrs. von der Leyen’s programme will also continue to feed a sprawling EU bureaucracy (32,000 staff in the European Commission alone, not counting agencies and committees) which EU citizens can no longer identify with.

The European Union does not need a new start. It needs to get back to basics, and that is to promote free enterprise, liberty, democracy and security – internally and externally. The EU needs to stay away from redistributing hard-earned taxpayer money and dictating the economic and political choices of its member states. Countries with lower productivity growth, for example, should not be forced into a monetary union. They should, instead, be encouraged to fully unleash the potential of free-market policies, and the benefits of deregulation, lower taxation, and effective governance. The EU should stop gradually increasing its power in each and every area: power should, instead, be given back to the lowest level possible.

Instead of proposing another European Democracy Action Plan, or launching another Conference aimed at expanding the powers of the EU, Mrs. von der Leyen should initiate an honest reflection on why a majority of the British people voted to get out of the European Union while – back in 1975 – almost 70% of the UK’s population was in favor of the then Conservative government’s choice to accede.

While Mrs. von der Leyen refers to the May 2019 elections in her mission letters to all of the Commissioners-designate, she fails to accept European voters voted overwhelmingly right-wing: the EPP and S&D fractions no longer have a majority in European Parliament: only by co-opting the ALDE MEPs who, unfortunately, subscribe to the same federalist utopia, will they be able to propose and adopt more of the same. By refusing to acknowledge the need for a Euro-realist reform of the EU’s institutions and policies, these three status-quo parties pave the way for Euro-skepticism and worse: increased support for extremism, authoritarianism and racism is already evident now. Burying one’s head in the sand is not an option.

While climate change, the economy, big data,  social inclusion and the return of extremist political views are, obviously, very real concerns, the solutions that the likes of Mr. Juncker and Mrs. von der Leyen have been pushing at the European level are not working. On the contrary, they are making things worse by further alienating citizens from politics and government. Most citizens in EU member want less regulation, lower taxation and smaller government: not more !

The EU’s migration policies and its tentative Common European Asylum Policy are not working. Political leaders simply need to accept European countries cannot accommodate all people fleeing from war or poverty. If it does not want to radicalize populations in Czechia, Poland and Hungary, then the EU should stop imposing quota. Uncontrolled migration and abuse of the right to political asylum are to be stopped by a strong defense of the external borders of the European Union and by moving forward on full integration of the Western Balkans.

The EU should pursue solid agreements with the countries of origin ensuring a safe return. Such agreements, and the EU’s external action in general, should also address the root causes of the problems that make people flee. Such external action should not be pursued in splendid isolation: if Mrs. von der Leyen’s call for a ‘genuine European Defense Union’ leads Mr. Macron to proclaim NATO’s ‘brain death’, then we should not pursue this union – because it is clear to all that NATO, and NATO only, has enabled the new democracies in Eastern Europe to resist Russia’s attempts to re-establish the Cold War border between democratic and authoritarian states.

Mrs. von der Leyen wants her incoming Commission to be a ‘geopolitical Commission.’ If that is her true objective, she made a very poor start in laying out its vision and foundations. The citizens of Europe’s nation-states voted for another platform just a few months ago. :-/

International laborers

I am in Dubai airport, waiting to catch a plane en route from Kabul to Kathmandu. Dubai airport was built and is serviced by foreigners. All of the hubs in this sheikhy region are. I’ve seen most of them. They all look more or less the same-and surely the people who work in them. Poor Nepali, Indians or Bangladeshi clean the toilets and the public areas. Philippinos, or others who happen to speak somewhat better English that the others, run the shops and eateries. Africans are making inroads into this job market as well. The fanciest jobs – airline staff, for example – are reserved for pretty ladies from all over the world, just like anywhere in the world. Asian or Eurasian, it doesn’t matter: a stewardess has to be pretty, smile and look smart. The diversity of stewardesses matches the diversity of travelers. Wherever they are in the pecking order, they’re international laborers. Just like most people who are transiting through here.

The South Asian laborers working outside, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun, sip from their bottle of water as they take a rest. The Russian, British and Singaporean stewardesses at the table next to mine sip Costa coffee, just like me. [I am actually not sure about the last girl’s nationality but she sure looks like the ‘Singaporean girl’ of the publicity.] We are lucky.

Am I an international laborer? My consultancy job in Afghanistan pays more than what I could earn in my home country with my experience and degrees. I chose to go abroad. So… No. I am not an international laborer. But then people servicing this airport-including the pretty stewardesses over there-think they made a choice as well, don’t they? [Did I choose to go abroad? Perhaps not-but that’s another story: I am where I am and I am happy with that. It’s no use complaining anyway, is it? In fact, when I see a pretty stewardess, I always think about that Belgian ambassador who married one. Both of them were lucky people (she was beautiful and he was rich and powerful), but they never seemed to be happy together, and so I always wondered why they chose to be together.]

In any case, let’s go back to the stewardesses and me. How are we different? Job-wise that is. Both our salaries are determined not in national labor markets but by global demand and supply: Dubai has to keep up with Doha, or vice versa, or with Brussels or London, and USAID-approved salary scales in Kabul can’t be too out of whack with USAID’s in Baghdad. So are we a global commodity?

If we are, then we’re obviously less of a commodity than the South Asian crew outside, digging up God knows what. They really are a commodity, I would think. They’re probably as bad off as the Belgian laborers, whose sight led Marx to re-write the theory of capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Perhaps they’re even worse off. Surely if they’d be working on some sheikhy construction yard outside of the airport. It was on the news that, in the past year, since construction started for the UEFA Cup in Qatar, a few thousand Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi construction workers have died there from ‘accidents’ building stadiums and other infrastructure. Let’s try to put that number in perspective.

As a percentage of the trade in ‘voluntary slaves’, it may not be an awful lot. Probably about the same percentage of the US and other foreign soldiers – as part of the total presence – who died on Afghan soil for a cause that no one really understands. [As for the term ‘voluntary slaves’, I don’t have a better one. What else should we call them? Upon arrival, their passport is taken away, and they can’t switch employers, even if they’re not being paid. That qualifies as ‘slave’, I think.] In comparison to the number who dies from heart attack in an average European country, a few thousand is also a rather relative number. And madmen machine-gunning innocent men, women and children in a US school or shopping mall kill as much, it seems. Conflicts or natural disasters also easily claim a few thousand victims. So what’s a few thousand?

I think the number is an indicator of the state of our over-populated world, and it’s a horrendous statistic, just as horrendous as the number of women who end up as sex slaves, or the children that get sold, in the poorest of the poor countries, to pay off a debt, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them. Trafficking in human beings – national and international – is a gray zone, but there’s gray that’s almost black, as opposed to gray that’s close to white. Those Nepali workers dying in ‘accidents’ in Qatar surely qualify for the very dark grey zone as far as I am concerned.

But let me go back to where I am – Dubai airport – and the human beings who are working here, i.e. the men and women I can see as I am typing these words: the lady serving Costa coffee, the stewardesses chatting away, and those poor guys working just next to the runway, trying to fix who knows what under the hot desert sun scorching the earth.

A benign view is that this ‘recycling’ – direct or indirect – of petrodollars serves at least two purposes. First, infrastructure gets built in what would, otherwise, just be desert, worth only as much as the market price of the oil beneath it. We can’t blame the sheikh countries to try to diversify their economy, can we? The second argument is also economic: labor has become an internationally tradable community, and the theory of comparative advantages tells us the world should indeed take advantage of that, because – when you add everything up – taking advantage of it will increase the world’s GDP more than when not taking advantage of it. An even more fundamental argument, perhaps, is that if sheikh A doesn’t take advantage of it, sheikh B and C will, and so then we have unfair competition, and that’s, surely, a no-no for any economist, isn’t it?

Perhaps. That all makes sense. I actually am an economist. However, I can’t think of many countries that have become rich by exporting their labor. None actually, including mine: Belgium’s brainy people work abroad, like me. So if a country suffers from exporting its labor (usually the best and brightest leave indeed), there might be some conflict between national and global interest here. That’s one. [Strangely enough, I find myself saying here something that Comrade Prachanda in Nepal regularly says in his speeches. So I am not in good company.]

My second point is more subtle. I’ve detailed the micro- or meso-economic logic behind the gross macro-economic simplifications underlying the comparative advantages theory in one of my other posts, and it’s a mixed story. When you walk about a bit in the Himalayan mountains, you see entire villages becoming dependent on remittances, with grandparents taking care of children, and no one taking care of the fields. The parents that should care about the kids and/or the fields are all gone: they work in Kathmandu or abroad. Comparative advantages: cheap labor goes where it’s better paid-or where it’s being paid at all. And then those fields don’t matter anymore: the remittances pay for cheap food stuff coming along the new bulldozer road that some crazy politician ordered built – often at the cost of great environmental degradation – to win a few more votes and, hence, why should we care about those unproductive fields? The road changes comparative and, in this case, even absolute advantage: growing your own barley in the high mountains instead of buying cheap rice from the over-populated Terai plains is stupid, isn’t? And then those parents are not there to raise their kids, but then they can pay for boarding school in Kathmandu as soon as they’re like ten or twelve years old. Indeed, there are not many teenagers in those villagers either: just old people and small kids.

You’ll say I sound like one of those old people. Well… 45 years is a pretty decent age in Nepal and so I should probably admit that I actually am an old man, still struggling to come to terms with a ‘revolution’ that started some 300 years ago. Indeed, the communications revolution that helped triggered the industrial revolution – railways and steam ships connecting huge factories with markets across the world – is still unfolding. It’s also spreading production and, hence, wealth. You may look at your iPhone as a product ‘made in USA’, but it actually comes from everywhere and nowhere. It’s a ‘world product’, literally: it was designed where it’s cheapest to do design (the US is still awesome for that), its components were built where it’s cheapest to build them (China), and it was assembled where it was cheapest to do so (China and Taiwan). It’s also stocked everywhere and nowhere really. Wherever it’s cheapest.

So why am I complaining? Frankly, I don’t know. We’re all part of what’s going on. I should kneel and thank God I am not one of those South Asians digging outside. The War in Afghanistan was – and still is – crazy but I cannot, and will not, complain about it because it pays my bills as a development consultant. In fact, if I should say anything at all about my job, I should only note that guys like me are increasingly following the mess: South Sudan, Syria, and now Iraq once again… I am at the forefront of globalization really.

Indeed, we’re not doing any development there. We’re just following the money. Aid agencies are now all formally or de facto extensions of their political counterpart: the State Department, or the Foreign Office, or le Ministère des Affaires Etrangères. The communications revolution has also shortened planning and implementation horizons: money gets re-directed – in a matter of months, or even weeks – to wherever there’s a ‘problem’ that needs ‘fixing’. There’s no sequencing anymore: war; humanitarian aid; negotiation, reconciliation and peace-building; reconstruction; development; whatever-all needs to happen simultaneously. Why? Because we can. In our globalized world, we can be everywhere and we can do everything.

Can we? No. Of course the international community is now in a position to re-direct billions of dollars to wherever the international media directs its gaze, but one can’t fight and reconstruct simultaneously. Worse, pouring in resources while the conflict is still raging usually worsens the fight-because now there’s even more to fight for: international resources (not only money but also international credibility or other assets-civilian or military). So we come and meddle with good intentions, but the first impact is usually negative: we deepen the conflict.

Obama is right to look inwards again: he needs to fix the problems of Americans first. The rest of the world used to take care of itself, until the myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ made the white men think they had a moral responsibility to do so. I am one of those white men. My problem is that I don’t feel any moral responsibility anymore. I am just doing a job for which there’s demand, and for which I’m qualified and smart enough apparently. Just like the stewardesses. A job in an inter-connected world. So I am an international laborer too. I feel for those guys outside. When everything is said and done, I actually am one of them. What could I do to help them?    

Exploring space: where is NASA?

A visit to New Mexico triggered some reflections, which I want to share here.

New Mexico boasts a private spaceport: Spaceport America. While the spaceport is described as a commercial spaceport, it was built and funded by the state of New Mexico. Its ‘anchor tenant’ is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Indeed, for the moment, Spaceport America mainly serves as a base for Virgin Atlantic’s SpaceShipTwo, which – at some point in time – should take commercial passengers to space. So far, Virgin Atlantic’s ‘spaceship’ has only reached a height of 22 km, which is way below the 100 km it is supposed to reach – the line where outer space begins. Even Baumgartner had gone higher for his skydive: his helium balloon – sponsored by Red Bull – brought him to an altitude of 39 km, which is 8 km higher than Joe Kittinger’s jump from a gondola in 1960. It can be noted that these two jumps also took place above New Mexico, which is in fierce competition with other US states, such as California, Florida, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and even Alaska, to attract space business.

Virgin Galactic and Red Bull obviously still have some way to go when it comes to space travel. Perhaps I should mention some better-known aerospace companies. But that’s not the point here. As I drove around in New Mexico, seeing all these facilities and reading somewhat more about New Mexico’s history in regard to space exploration, I suddenly wondered: where is NASA?

I checked online: NASA stopped its manned missions after the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and contracts whatever it needs to get in space out to private companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital. The European Space Agency (ESA) also abandoned its Hermes manned spaceflight program. So what’s going on?

The focus is more on earth science nowadays, as evidenced by the collaborative effort known as the International Space Station, but even that is serviced mainly by Russian Soyuz rockets. President Obama scrapped the idea of a permanent moon base, as well as NASA’s Constellation program (i.e. NASA’s successor program to the Space Shuttle), and ordered NASA to focus on Mars. However, when it comes to exploring Mars, the private Mars One initiative – which plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025 – seems to attract more media attention than NASA’s current unmanned missions to Mars.

What we are seeing is, obviously, the privatization of the space industry and what’s not being privatized is militarized. For example, NASA’s X-37 spacecraft project was transferred to DARPA in 2004 and is now operated by the US Air Force. It must be said that they got it off the ground very quickly. However, it is rumored they intend to use the X-37 as a spy satellite, or to deliver weapons from space. But then that’s what one would expect from the military, isn’t it?

Hmm… Interesting. NASA is obviously in search of a new mission. Perhaps they did what they were supposed to do, and that was to bring a man to the moon. What NASA is currently doing, can be done cheaper and faster by others it seems.

Is Doomsday thinking on the rise, and is it warranted?

Answering the first question (is Doomsday thinking on the rise?) is difficult. Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances on all kinds of worrying trends (like the melting of glaciers (and of the North Pole itself), changing weather patterns (which resulted in more cyclones and devastating flash floods in recent months here in South Asia), over-fishing, the continuing deforestation of the Amazon forests etcetera) would surely suggest so. But then that is not very objective as a measure, is it? In any case, even if Doomsday thinking would not be on the rise (I note that all generations have indulged in it), perhaps it should be. Let us take a look at the crude facts.

When I was born back in 1969 (by the way, that’s a year which I associate with men landing on the moon, not with Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war, as the currently retiring flower power generation does), the world’s population was only half of what it is now: 3.6 billion, as opposed to an estimated 7.2 billion today. Isn’t it amazing to realize that we, as compared to the previous generation  (I am part of generation X it seems, but I’ll readily admit I had to look that up), have to share the world with twice as many people?

More worryingly (for our children and grandchildren in particular I’d say), the world’s population continues to grow fast, even if the world’s population growth rate has come down from more than 2% per annum then (again, ‘then’ is when  I was born: sorry for my egoistic perspective) to an estimated 1.1% today. Still, it means that my children (I think they’re generation Y or Z – I am not sure actually), when they will have my age (around 2040 that is – so when my generation will be retired), will live in a world trying to take care of not less than 9 billion people.

In fact, that statistic may be optimistic, as it assumes the world’s population growth rate will continue to decline as it is currently doing: it should be around 0.5% per annum only then. Of course, statistics are tricky – especially when they rely on all kinds of assumptions, as is the case here. While it is clear that, at some point of time, the world’s population will have to max out, it is impossible to predict when that will happen, and how. UN figures suggest the world’s population may max out at around 10 billion around the end of this century (2100). As evidenced from the graph below, that assumes a medium-growth scenario only (the orange future line). Still, even such middle-of-the-road scenario (which assumes a classical demographic transition scenario really: advances in medical science bring down the death rate first, while the birth rate declines a few decades later only – with a big population surge in-between as a result) means continued expansion and, hence, many many more mouths to feed indeed.

World-Population-1800-2100

Ten billion people in 2100? That’s an awful lot. But 2100 is also three generations from now. Hence, we may just shrug our shoulders and think it is not of any concern to us and our children and/or grandchildren really (what letter could we possibly use for the generation after Generation Z anyway?).

A more interesting question, perhaps, is the question of how many people could possibly be fed.

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus (who, besides being a cleric, also was one of the world’s first true ‘political economists’) was of the opinion that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” In other words, Malthus was of the opinion that man would indeed overpopulate Earth and just eat everything and then die in some kind of mass famine or some other kind of man-made catastrophe – like bacteria in a Petri dish running out of nutrients. Well… Sort of. While few would subscribe to such a view nowadays, scientists do suggest that 10 billion people may really be all the Earth can carry – in some kind of sustainable way that is.

Let’s look at the basics. First, real food prices (i.e. the price of food in comparison to the price of other goods) – and nominal food prices as well actually – have come down historically. That has not only helped to sustain the population growth we have been witnessing, but it actually made it possible, as many of those who had children over the past few decades were poor, very poor (I mean not able to pay for much else than food). Moreover, predictions are that food prices will continue to decline over the next decades as agricultural yields will probably continue to rise at a higher rate than the world’s population growth rate. [Recent price hikes are/were temporary only, and have nothing to do with population growth.] So we could say that ‘the world’ has managed to cater to a doubling of the population without any impact on food prices. Moreover, ‘the world’ is likely to continue to support even more people.

Second, while the world’s population has been growing rapidly, the number of hungry or undernourished people has remained stable (around 800 or 900 million). In fact, their number has gone down in all regions of the world – and very notably so in the Asia-Pacific region as well as in Latin-America – except for Africa. Now we all know that Africa is a continent suffering from a deep and complex crisis – much of it with roots in historical wrongs that cannot be corrected – which can surely not be explained by pointing to population growth statistics only. In short, one might actually say that the number of hungry and undernourished people has come down significantly – both in relative (percentage-wise) as well as in absolute numbers – without being factually wrong. Indeed, speaking in general (and we know the limitations of that), many more people have better lives now than twenty years ago (I apologize once again for looking at the world from my own perspective). That’s good news – if only because it also causes population growth to slow down, as parents finally see it makes sense to have less children. [I think the most significant invention of the 20th century was birth control, and Malthus would probably not have written what he wrote if he would have known about it. Indeed, advances in medical science (and in food production) are responsible for the explosive growth of the world’s  population, but so they also made family planning possible.]

In short, food is surely not the issue – not now and, most probably, not for the coming generations either. The real issue is how we can govern ourselves as a species in relation to our environment (could we please stop polluting it and establish some kind of equilibrium situation in regards to the management of our natural resources?) and – equally important if not more – in relation to the marginally different other members of our species (could we please stop murdering each other for religious or political purposes?). Personally, I am not all that optimistic in these regards – but then that’s probably because I live in a beautiful but very troubled country which does not inspire much confidence to me (but then I have to admit I am just a casual western observer of course): Nepal, if anything, has gone backwards on all of the aspects of development: political, economic, ecological, and societal. Indeed, no one really believes in the ‘malleability of society’ here (we just pray that this country will go through its next election in a more or less peaceful manner) – let alone in the capacity of man to steer the world’s destiny.

So what?

Well… Frankly, I don’t know. I am part of that European generation that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was twenty at the time and, as students usually are, very critical – but more of others than of myself I guess. A lot of my views on life in general are influenced by that event and, more importantly, by what happened immediately afterwards: I have the impression that Bush’s strange victory over Al Gore (remember the margin of 537 votes only?) in 2001, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Gulf War II quickly put an end to whatever dreams my generation had in terms of a just new world order. More recent events – like what is going on in Syria right now – have been equally discouraging, if not more (especially because we’re supposed to be the generation ‘in charge’ at the moment).

So, yes, I do think that global warming, over-fishing, environmental degradation etcetera are serious problems. And, yes, I do believe that biodiversity will continue to suffer from us humans expanding our footprint and, in a sense, overpopulating the world indeed. I also believe that mankind will be confronted with more regional crises and disasters, both natural (especially weather-related) as well as man-made (such as the current crisis in the Middle East) – or a combination of both (think of the increased frequency of hurricanes). I am also skeptical (very skeptical actually) as to mankind’s capacity to manage such crises. But so I do not believe in a soon-to-come dinosaur-like extinction of our species because of climate change, disease, a supervolcano eruption or an asteroid crashing into our planet (i.e. extinction through one of the four commonly advanced causes of the mass extinction of dinosaurs (and 70% of all other living species at the time) some 66 million years ago) or, as Malthus predicted it, from generalized hunger. Frankly, I think mankind will be able to produce the resources it needs. So what do I believe then?

I think we will end up having to share our planet with 10 billion others indeed. I also believe that this crowded world will have many good things (even more good things than today, although I cannot imagine the next generation will be able to improve the current mountain-bike designs :-)). However, it will also have its fair share of Big Issues, and I think our/my generation has not done much to make it easier for our children and grandchildren to manage these Big Issues – or even to prepare them for it.

That being said, I also realize that, unlike my parents, my generation has not had to live through a world war or so. I can only hope the world of my children and grandchildren will – at the very least – be as good as mine. Whether or not that will be so will depend on whether or not the generation of our children and grandchildren will turn out to be better managers than ‘my’ generation. That may or may not be the case. In any case, I think the world is much less malleable than we all implicitly assume it to be: a lot of it is probably just pure chaos in my view (and that may be a good thing actually). Hence, they will probably have as much trouble as we have (had?) to find levers for well-intended collective change.

As Gandhi (and others) famously said: if you want to improve the world, you need to start with yourself. So let’s ask ourselves how well we did in that regard and – when pushed on the question of what we did to make this world a better place (as we are obviously) – advice generation Y and Z to consider that question as well.

About my father, plate tectonics and non-linear thinking

My father passed away almost ten years ago. He was 76 years old at the time. Of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. That being said, I do remember he had difficulty accepting that gorges and valleys were the product of a river cutting down into its bed or, in the case of a valley, a glacier grinding down its floor and sides. In fact, he had actually difficulty accepting other ‘scientific truths’ as well.

Although he was not acquainted with the Himalayas, I must assume that he would probably also have reservations about the now generally accepted story of its formation: Tibet was once a fairly shallow sea, the Thetys Sea, separating the supercontinent of Laurasia in the north from Gondwana in the south, until about 50 million years ago, when India (a continental fragment of Gondwana) collided with the Eurasian plate (Laurasia). The Thetys Sea became the Tibetan plateau, and the collision zone is the Himalayan mountain range. The collision actually continues and so the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 to 10 mm per year and, as a result, the whole area is seismically extremely active still: here in Kathmandu, everyone is waiting for the next Big Earthquake which, according to geologists, is long overdue.

This is obviously more than just a theory: it is supported by evidence, such as the presence of marine fossils and abundant salt reserves in Tibet  (Tibet’s main export a couple of centuries ago), and scientists can actually observe the ongoing tectonic shifts with modern GPS technology. Still, it is mind-boggling and so I do understand the reservations of my skeptical father. In addition, I also note that the theory of plate tectonics only got general accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, when associated phenomena such as seafloor spreading could finally be observed. My father was entering the second half of his life by then and, hence, probably somewhat less ready to accept such theories, or at least less ready than today’s average schoolboy. [By the way, isn’t it amazing how recent most of our scientific understanding actually is? Think, for instance, about the discovery of the Higgs particle, which completed our understanding of matter and energy (or of the universe in general), or think about the recent advances in biology and medical science, which revolutionized our understanding of life itself.]

I guess one of the main difficulties in my father’s understanding of it all (apart from his lack of a more formal education beyond secondary school) might have been his lack of understanding of geological age. What is 50 million years after all? That’s a lot of time of course, but is it enough really to create something as big and as vast as the Himalayas?

Maybe it helps to note that adding a zero, or a digit, to a number is not a matter of simply adding a quantity to another quantity: it is a matter of multiplying the previous quantity. In our common base 10 number system, it is a multiplication with factor 10. Moreover, adding another zero is another multiplication and, importantly, it is not a multiplication of the original number but of the previous result. As such, it reminds one of the famous fable of the king and the wise man, whom the king wanted to reward: when the king asked the wise man what he wanted, the wise man took a chessboard and said he would just like to have one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, double that number of grains of rice on the second square, and so on: double the number of grains of rice on each of the next 62 squares on the chess board. The king agreed, thinking that the man had asked for a relatively small reward, but after some quick calculations his treasurer informed him that the reward would be far greater than all the rice that could conceivably be produced. To be precise, the total number of grains would be equal to 263. That’s a figure with 19 digits. To be even more precise, the number is equal to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Now, one kilogram of rice is about 50,000 grains of rice [yes: I know you think that’s not so much – but that fact in itself underscores once again our difficulty in imaging big numbers] so that number is equivalent to more than 184 billion (metric) tons of rice. The current world production of rice is about 700 million tons only. Hence, yes, the king’s treasurer was right: at current rice production rates (which are much higher now than at the time when this story was first told), it would take about 260 years to produce such amount of rice – provided the rice could be kept for such a long time.

Likewise, I think my father had difficulty accepting he could simply not imagine what a period of 50 or 60 million years actually means. Our active life as a human being spans a period of some 60 to 80 years. From 60 years to 600 years… Well… That brings us back to the Black Death epidemic, or the Hundred Years War. We can imagine that, can’t we? Sure. But can we imagine a period of 6,000 years, or a period of 60,000 years? I don’t think so, let alone a period of 600,000 years, or periods spanning millions of years. It’s like the king who could not imagine how much rice he had promised to give the wise man.

The following graph may help to illustrate the point. It displays an exponential function with base 10. The graph below actually only goes to 10 raised to the power of 5, i.e. up to 100,000 only. Now see how that graph soars, and then just note that we are not talking 100,000 years when we talk geology, but millions of years. Indeed, adding zeroes to a number is a process of repeated multiplication (with a factor 10 in our decimal system), and repeated multiplication amounts to exponentiation. I must assume my father always had linear functions in mind when thinking about time and distance, as opposed to exponential functions. Indeed, despite all of the talk about us human beings thinking non-linearly, can we actually do that – in a mathematical sense? I don’t think so. In daily life, we’re used to adding stuff, and perhaps even to adding stuff repeatedly (i.e. multiplication), but we’re surely not used to multiplying stuff repeatedly with itself, i.e. our mind is not very familiar with the mathematical process of exponentiation.

graph

How and when does man appear on these vast geological timescale? Well… The first traces of man go back 200,000 years ago. Now, 60 million years… Hey ! That’s only 300 times 200,000 years, isn’t it? So we can imagine that, can’t we? 300 times 200,000 years. Perhaps my father was right: that surely cannot be long enough to create something as formidable as the Himalayas, or the Alps for that matter? Or can it?

Yes. Read the story above once again: don’t make the mistake which that naive king made – and my father most probably too. I don’t think we can imagine a period of 200,000 years, let alone a period of 60 million years. Our mind is just not made for it. We need fables and graphs such as the one above to remind us of that. When it comes to math, our mind works linearly.