Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Interdependence and the fracturing world: China, Russia, Europe and the United States

The most salient fact about natural resources such as minerals and fertile soil is that they are unevenly distributed around the world. That means some countries have far more than they need and others are desperately dependent on imports.

Some writers think that trade between nations of resources and practically everything else leads to an interdependence that makes war much more costly and thus less likely. Others believe that the many causes of war—for example, a desire to dominate, fear of being attacked (leading to pre-emptive war), ethnic rivalries and grievances, and the desire for direct control of resources—often negate concerns that the cost of war will exceed its benefits.

After the relative quiet of the post-Cold War era during which the world's economies integrated into one global market, major powers and their leaders are again weighing the two arguments. Russia, of course, decided that its fear of being surrounded by NATO-allied countries outweighed the possible economic consequences of war (though it's not clear that the Russian government realized the far-reaching effects its war with Ukraine would have on its trade).

Earlier this year an American general predicted war with China by 2025. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) said that the general's views do not represent those of the DOD. Not surprisingly, the DOD stated that it prefers peace in Asia.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Climate change and the uninsurable future

A person buying insurance does so because he or she is concerned about the future. A house fire could lead to a financial wipe-out. A car accident resulting in hospitalization could result in savings-depleting bills without insurance.

Insurance companies, however, concern themselves primarily with the past. They pay people called actuaries to create detailed models of risk using voluminous data from the past regarding medical diagnoses, life expectancy, damage due to natural disasters, auto accident statistics and myriad other pieces of information. These models help insurance companies predict the frequency and severity of the events they insure against and thereby set their rates.

If, however, conditions that create risks are rapidly changing—as they are now with climate change—models dependent on past data become unreliable. As a result, property and casualty insurers have been stung by huge losses due to severe weather. For example, the California wildfires of 2017 and 2018 resulted in $29 billion in insurance claims. But insurers only took in $15.6 billion in premiums.

Hurricanes and floods resulted in $120 billion in insured losses in 2022. Companies expect insured losses to continue to rise as climate change intensifies.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Climate change: Our infrastructure is built for another Earth

We humans now face an era of climate that is uncharted for the size and complexity of the human community. Our roads, rails, ports, buildings, electric grid, water systems and food systems are not designed for this new climate. For example, we continue to build infrastructure based on data for rainfall that does not reflect the dramatic changes that are taking place in rainfall patterns and amounts.

In fact, practically all the standards for building our infrastructure to withstand rain, snow, wind, flood and heat are out of date. In addition, termites that weren't a huge problem for buildings in some climates are now causing greater damage as more destructive species spread to new areas.

Our maladapted infrastructure problem is becoming even more obvious now as a combination of climate change and the warm phase of the periodic fluctuation of warm and cool waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is bringing record worldwide temperatures. A temperature higher on average across the globe than any previously recorded since instrument readings began in the 1850s was measured on July 3. That record was broken again on July 4, and then again on July 5.

Even during the cool phase of ENSO known as La Niña in 2020 the world recorded an average temperature that was "effectively tied" with the warmest year ever in 2016.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Autonomous chaos: Self-driving vehicles block emergency services

Self-driving vehicles are stopping in traffic for no apparent reason and blocking emergency vehicles reports the Los Angeles Times. The writer alludes to a famous high-tech shibboleth: "Move fast and break things." But in this case the things that are being broken are the health and lives of California residents who are having to endure the growing presence of so-called autonomous vehicles on the state's streets and highways.

I have repeatedly warned that autonomous vehicles could only be truly safely operated on closed courses where the possible moves of all other vehicles would be known in advance and therefore predictable. Humans and the environments in which they drive will never be that predictable.

Beneath the bravado of the self-driving booster club is a completely obvious truth: Autonomous vehicles can only do what they are programmed to do, and that programming is limited to what their creators can put into words or, more precisely, that subset of language we call code.