Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chinese Cargo Cult Mimicry: If We Build It Will They Come?

China is building a replica Alpine village in a grimy industrial city.

It hopes the chalets in the southern city of Huizhou will be sought after by homesick Europeans.

The village will be a £5.7billion copy of Hallstatt in Austria, complete with artificial lake. Posing as tourists, the Chinese have been photographing every building there for three years. _DailyMail
Hallstatt, Austria on Lake Hallstatt

Chinese developers have built other duplicate towns, based upon villages in the UK. Now a Chinese developer has gone to extraordinary lengths to mimic an Austrian mountain village, down to the boards on building exteriors. Something tells me that the Guangdong version of Hallstatt will not provide that same fresh, brisk, clean feeling as the original. the Chinese site, in the city of Huizhou about 100 miles north of the border with Hong Kong, there is little to indicate that the copycat version will ever approximate the beauty of the original.

A few low-rise buildings are in the early stages of construction, their frames covered with bamboo scaffolding and green mesh. Cranes and trucks moved around the area Friday dodging workers carrying steel construction elements.

Though the area is hilly, there was not an alpine peak in sight and the waters of a nearby lake - apparently the faux Lake Hallstatt to be - were green and murky. Instead of mirroring majestic alpine mountaintops, several dead fish floated on the surface. _DailyMail
The Chinese would do better to try to build a cleaner China, where people will want to go to understand both contemporary and historical China. Mimicking ancient European villages projects a feeling of desperate cluelessness and naivete.

First, build a better China, then if you want to build European village replicas, at least the air and water will be clean.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

D-Dalus: A Possible Revolution in Flight from Austria

At the heart of D-DALUS is a revolutionary propulsion system containing a number of patented inventions, including a friction free bearing at the points of high G force, and a system that keeps propulsion in dynamic equilibrium, thereby allowing the guidance system to quickly restore stability in flight.

The propulsion consists of 4 sets of contra-rotating disks, each set driven at the same rpm by a conventional aero-engine. The disks are surrounded by blades whose angle of attack can be altered by off-setting the axis of the rotating disks. As each blade can be given a different angle of attack, the resulting main thrust can be in any required direction in 360° around any axis. This allows the craft to launch vertically, remain in a fixed position in the air, travel in any direction, rotate in any direction, and thrust upwards thereby ‘gluing down’ on landing. _D-Dalus Detail
Austrian research company IAT21 has presented a new type of aircraft at the Paris Air Show which has the potential to become aviation's first disruptive technology since the jet engine.

The D-Dalus (a play on Daedalus from Greek mythology) is neither fixed wing or rotor craft and uses four, mechanically-linked, contra-rotating cylindrical turbines, each running at the same 2200 rpm, for its propulsion.

The key to the D-Dalus' extreme maneuverability is the facility to alter the angle of the blades (using servos) to vector the forces, meaning that the thrust can be delivered in your choice of 360 degrees around any of the three axes. Hence D-Dalus can launch vertically, hover perfectly still and move in any direction, and that's just the start of the story. _Gizmag_via_NBF
This propulsion system may eventually scale from the microscopic to the size of large freight haulers. I suspect it will be pursued initially as a spy and surveillance platform, and as an insertion and extraction method for special ops teams. Also as remotely-operated stealthy substitutes for attack helicopters such as the Apache. Eventually, it may provide the platform for flying cars and flying boats, among other consumer and adventure toys.
The most obvious and immediate application for D-Dalus is as a little flying spy robot that can fly in doors and windows and snoop around indoors. Larger versions would be perfect for search and rescue missions, and the designers even think that in the long term, vehicles based on this technology might be what you use to commute to work. That's right — flying cars! _Dvice

I suspect that these toys will prove quite expensive to buy, operate, and maintain, but I would like to be proven wrong about that. At this point, they are at the prototype stage, and may not become reliable enough for even military use for quite some time.

What Does it Mean for Africa to Grow at 4.9% per Year?

Africa boasts an abundance of riches: 10 percent of the world’s reserves of oil, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 to 90 percent of the chromium and the platinum metal group. Those are just the known reserves; no doubt more lies undiscovered. _MQ
Global Map of Nations by per cent Living Under $1.25 per day
McKinsey Quarterly has published a fascinating look at recent economic growth in the continent of Africa (h/t Brian Wang). According to the report, real GDP growth over the continent averaged 4.9% per year between the years 2000 and 2008. This was twice Africa's growth rate over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. The report goes on to discuss the many issues leading to such growth, and other factors that will be involved in future African growth. From McKinsey:
Africa’s collective GDP, at $1.6 trillion in 2008, is now roughly equal to Brazil’s or Russia’s, and the continent is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions. This acceleration is a sign of hard-earned progress and promise.

While Africa’s increased economic momentum is widely recognized, its sources and likely staying power are less understood. Soaring prices for oil, minerals, and other commodities have helped lift GDP since 2000. Forthcoming research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) shows that resources accounted for only about a third of the newfound growth.1 The rest resulted from internal structural changes that have spurred the broader domestic economy. Wars, natural disasters, or poor government policies could halt or even reverse these gains in any individual country. But in the long term, internal and external trends indicate that Africa’s economic prospects are strong.

...Natural resources, and the related government spending they financed, generated just 32 percent of Africa’s GDP growth from 2000 through 2008.2 The remaining two-thirds came from other sectors, including wholesale and retail, transportation, telecommunications, and manufacturing (Exhibit 1). Economic growth accelerated across the continent, in 27 of its 30 largest economies. Indeed, countries with and without significant resource exports had similar GDP growth rates.

...To start, several African countries halted their deadly hostilities, creating the political stability necessary to restart economic growth. Next, Africa’s economies grew healthier as governments reduced the average inflation rate from 22 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent after 2000. They trimmed their foreign debt by one-quarter and shrunk their budget deficits by two-thirds.

Finally, African governments increasingly adopted policies to energize markets. They privatized state-owned enterprises, increased the openness of trade, lowered corporate taxes, strengthened regulatory and legal systems, and provided critical physical and social infrastructure. Nigeria privatized more than 116 enterprises between 1999 and 2006, for example, and Morocco and Egypt struck free-trade agreements with major export partners.

...The continent’s four most advanced economies—Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia—are already broadly diversified. Manufacturing and services together total 83 percent of their combined GDP. Domestic services, such as construction, banking, telecom, and retailing, have accounted for more than 70 percent of their growth since 2000. They are among the continent’s richest economies and have the least volatile GDP growth. With all the necessary ingredients for further expansion, they stand to benefit greatly from increasing ties to the global economy.

Domestic consumption is the largest contributor to growth in these countries. Their cities added more than ten million people in the last decade, real consumer spending has grown by 3 to 5 percent annually since 2000, and 90 percent of all house-holds have some discretionary income. As a result, consumer-facing sectors such as retailing, banking, and telecom have grown rapidly. Urbanization has also prompted a construction boom that created 20 to 40 percent of all jobs over the past decade.

...If recent trends continue, Africa will play an increasingly important role in the global economy. By 2040, it will be home to one in five of the planet’s young people, and the size of its labor force will top China’s. Africa has almost 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and a large share of the natural resources. Its consumer-facing sectors are growing two to three times faster than those in the OECD7 countries. And the rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region. Global executives and investors cannot afford to ignore this. A strategy for Africa must be part of their long-term planning. _MQ

The report excerpted and linked above is quite optimistic toward the economic prospects for Africa over the next 3 decades. Al Fin economic and social forecasters do not take quite the sanguine view as those of the McKinsey Institute.

As seen in the map at the top of this entry, Africa is quite diverse in terms of economic conditions. It is an act of false parsimony to consider the entire continent as one unit, economically. Instead, one should look at SubSaharan Africa separate from North Africa, economically and socially. Further, one should subdivide SubSaharan Africa into tropical and temperate regions, when considering investments and partnerships. McKinsey failed to stratify African nations other than by "economic diversification" and "exports per capita." Useful, but not sufficient. It is difficult to draw useful conclusions when data is so badly conflated.

The time period selected for extrapolating may not be representative of what to expect from a future Africa. The ongoing instability in Egypt and Libya, for example, suggest that the chronic instability of most of tribal Africa may be spreading into nations where tribal and religious instability had been temporarily suppressed by strong political regimes of long duration.

Urbanisation may bolster GDP growth numbers temporarily, for example, due to the more quantified economic nature of more modern city living vs. quasi-ancient rural life styles. Yet there are limits to how large stable cities can grow under certain demographic conditions. Many of Africa's cities are already pressing those limits.

Modern high tech infrastructures -- such as those which allow more advanced nations to enjoy the fruits of modern trade and sci-tech development -- are dependent upon an infrastructure of human capital which is capable of maintaining and improving the underlying technological infrastructure. In the absence of capable maintenance, repair, and construction, societal infrastructure tends to collapse at the most inopportune times.

Here is the blunt truth, which Political Correctness tries to obscure: Infrastructures to support widespread modern affluent lifestyles require a high tech infrastructure which can only be maintained by populations with average IQs close to 90 or above. The only exception is if the nation hosts a "market dominant minority" of higher IQ persons to maintain markets and infrastructures -- such as the Chinese in Malaysia or Indonesia, or the shrinking population of high-IQ minorities in South Africa.

For some countries of North Africa, the average population IQs are near 85. But for most SubSaharan African nations, average population IQs are well below 80. The reasons for such low average IQs are debatable, but the blunt facts are clear and stand in the way of large scale indigenous economic development across many chronically underdeveloped parts of the world.
Global IQ Map by Nation

For Africa to grow sustainably, it will need to attract leadership and energy from the outside -- and keep it there rather than driving it out, as was done in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, etc. An expansion of what it means to be "African" is mandatory -- but it can only be made to last in an Africa of greatly expanded opportunity and radically reduced corruption and populist demagoguery.

Al Fin futurists suspect that perpetually ambitious and corrupt African tribal leaders and strongmen will only accept the changes that are needed, under the sanction of a non-human "superior being." In real terms, that would mean either an extraterrestrial invader of superior technological capacity, a genuine artificial intelligence of superior wisdom and cognition, or a sufficiently convincing imitation of one or the other.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bitcoin Anonymous Virtual Currency Stimulates New Marketplaces

Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency. Peer-to-peer means that no central authority issues new money or tracks transactions. These tasks are managed collectively by the network.

Bitcoin is meant to be an anonymous digital currency placed online, beyond the whim and caprice of greedy governments and their corrupt co-conspirators. An anonymous marketplace where almost anything could be bought or sold, is the dream of free marketeers across time and space. Perhaps Bitcoin will pave the way to this nirvana of free marketdom. More about Bitcoin:
Bitcoin—a pseudonymous cryptographic currency designed by an enigmatic, freedom-loving hacker, and currently used by the geek underground to buy and sell everything from servers to cellphone jammers. No, this isn't a cyberpunk artifact from Snow Crash or Neuromancer; it's a real currency currently valued several times higher than the US dollar, the British pound, and the Euro.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, designed to allow people to buy and sell without centralized control by banks or governments, and it allows for pseudonymous transactions which aren't tied to a real identity. In keeping with the hacker ethos, Bitcoin has no need to trust any central authority; every aspect of the currency is confirmed and secured through the use of strong cryptography.

Over the last few months, Bitcoin's value has risen by an order of magnitude as the sagas of Wikileaks and Anonymous (among others) have highlighted the limits of a financial system which relies on centralized intermediaries. With a current estimated market capitalization of about $100 million, Bitcoin has recently graduated from a theoretical techno-anarchic project patronized by libertarians and hackers to a full-fledged currency prompting comment from technologists and economists. At the time of this writing, one Bitcoin (BTC) is worth about US$15.

...The Bitcoin solution uses cryptography and an open transaction register. Whenever you spend a Bitcoin, you cryptographically sign a statement saying that you have transferred the coin to a new owner and you identify the new owner by their public crypto key. Whenever they need to spend the coin, the new owner uses his private key to sign it over to some further owner. As soon as a transaction takes place, the recipient (who has a very strong incentive to ensure that you don't spend the coin twice) publishes the transaction to the global Bitcoin network. Now every Bitcoin user has incontrovertible evidence that the coin has been spent, and users won't accept that coin from anyone but the new owner.

...In a process known as mining, individual Bitcoin users attempt to generate new coins by checking the integrity of the transactions list. They confirm the previous transactions and attempt to solve a difficult proof-of-work problem which involves exhaustively trying different solutions. There are a very large number of such potential solutions, so the likelihood of finding the solution depends how many other people are looking for it and how much computing power you devote to the problem. The first client to find the solution announces its good fortune to the whole network and earns a little reward for itself in the form of some shiny new Bitcoins. _ArsTecnica
One new marketplace taking advantage of Bitcoin's anonymity is Silk Road.
Silk Road, a digital black market that sits just below most internet users’ purview, does resemble something from a cyberpunk novel. Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics — and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon — if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.

Here is just a small selection of the 340 items available for purchase on Silk Road by anyone, right now: a gram of Afghani hash; 1/8 ounce of “sour 13″ weed; 14 grams of ecstasy; .1 gram tar heroin. A listing for “Avatar” LSD includes a picture of blotter paper with big blue faces from the James Cameron movie on it.

The sellers are located all over the world, a large portion from the United States and Canada. _Wired
Silk Road accepts Bitcoin as payment, and is accessible only via the Tor network of anonymous proxy servers.

More about Silk Road from Kevin Kelly:
Silk Road is all of four weeks old, so its stealthiness is unproven. In theory it looks viable. But Tor and Bitcoin are open source, so the savvy can see what they are standing upon. But there are inherent challenges with any private currency, and there are inherent challenges with any encryption scheme. At the point where either of these systems touch the legitimate world (and they must to be useful), there is potential for breakdown, scams, break-in, or disruptions.

Bitcoin in particular has serious complexities. It is a private currency, and all private currencies are liable to scams. But an anonymous peer-to-peer one is even more liable, because there is no central enforcement -- by definition. The technicalities of Bitcoin are impressive, complex, and almost beyond the understanding for most lay users. For a sobering critique of Bitcoin, I recommend reading at least one skeptic's take on it before you decide to use it. His argument is that the way Bitcoin is engineered makes it biased towards the earliest users (the value of their "dollars" will increase more than later users) and is therefore a type of pyramid scam. That is a long-term consideration; this deflation probably will not deter a kid who wants to score some speed this week.

And the critique says nothing of the potential weaknesses of Bitcoin's encryption aspect. Usually these cypher schemes are not broken directly, but indirectly via patterns of use. As the cypherpunks say, encryption is economics. Anything can be hacked if you apply enough money. As long as the amount of money in these stealth markets remains modest, they will be secure. But once they rise to some threshold, they will trigger investments into cracking them. Perhaps bit traffic is analyzed network wide, or honey pot sellers rated high by shills set up to pounce on the unsuspecting -- whatever. _KevinKelly

The economic arms war between governments and free marketeers is as old as organised human society. Anonymous online versions of digital currency are likely to take the contest to a new level, as government enforcers devote ever more time and tax resources to stamping out the competition and incorrigible independent minded.

What is Bitcoin?