Democracy in Retreat?

Democracy Index 2017

The above map shows the state of democracy in the world as of 2017, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The results are based on 60 indicators that span five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each country is classified as one of four types of regime: Continue reading

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R.U.R.

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Credt: MediaArtInnovation.com

On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).

Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.

The Fateful Franco-American Alliance

Depiction of the signing of the treaties by Charles E. Mills

On this day in 1778, the United States and France signed two treaties – the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce – that established strong and perpetual military, economic, and political ties. As the Revolutionary War grinded on, the Patriots realized that they needed diplomatic and military support from abroad to succeed. France was the natural choice, as it was a longstanding rival to Great Britain and the only country that rival its power. Continue reading

A Global Economic Milestone

For the first time in a decade, all the world’s major economies — including the U.S., the European Union, Brazil, China, India, and Russia — are growing at once. Many developing countries — such as Bolivia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and the Philippines — are seeing rapid growth as well, in some cases the highest in the world.

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A Different Kind of Antidepression

In the early days of the 21st century, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were first being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and then told him they didn’t need these new antidepressants, because they already had antidepressants that work. He assumed they were talking about some kind of herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old job—working in the rice paddies—was leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression—which had been profound—went away. “You see, doctor,” they told him, the cow was an “antidepressant”.

To them, finding an antidepressant didn’t mean finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place. We can do the same. Some of these solutions are things we can do as individuals, in our private lives. Some require bigger social shifts, which we can only achieve together, as citizens. But all of them require us to change our understanding of what depression and anxiety really are.

This is radical, but it is not, I discovered, a maverick position. In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”.

— Johann Hari, in an edited extract from his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, courtesy of the Guardian.

(Please note that this is not intended to disparage or cast doubt on other treatments such as therapies or medications; rather it is meant to present an alternative, if not complementary, approach to helping those who struggle with depression in all its forms and degrees. Given that this malady affects diverse people for diverse reasons, it is sensible to consider every possible approach or treatment paradigm to address it.)

The Deadliest Earthquake You Don’t Know About

On this day in 1556, the deadliest earthquake on record struck Shaanxi Province, China, killing around 830,000 people. Given that it was the 16th century, virtually no one outside the Ming Dynasty knew that such a disaster had occurred. It goes to show how much technology and mass media have given us an amplified sense that the world is more catastrophic and violent than ever before.

Indeed, the various wars between the Romans and Germanic tribes resulted in over 15 million deaths across three centuries; the Mongol conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries killed 30-50 million people; the conflict between the Qing and Ming dynasties claimed 25 million lives; the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs had a similar death toll.

All these unfathomably awful things happened with scarcely anyone outside the respective regions knowing anything about them. Imagine if wars of these scale happened now, in light of how upsetting comparatively smaller conflicts like the Syrian Civil War or the ISIS insurgency are. How would the world react to something on the scale of Shaanxi? (I suspect we would be too numb to be moved, due in no small part to the over-exposure and amplification mentioned earlier.)

What are your thoughts?

The Countries With the Most Positive Global Influence

According to a recent poll by Ipsos MORI, a market research groupCanada is seen as having the most positive impact in the world, followed by Australia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.  The study involved around 18,000 respondents from 25 nations, including those subject to the poll.

 

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Only 40% of respondents think the U.S. has a positive global influence, down by 24 points since last year’s survey (which had asked which country would have a positive influence in the next decade).

Note that this less than emerging powers China and India (at 49% and 53% respectively) and not that far ahead of Russia (35%).

Respondents from almost every country that was polled had a worse view of U.S. influence than the previous year; Argentina, Belgium, Spain, and South Korea saw some of the biggest drops, by over 30 percentage points. Only New Zealand and Serbia were unchanged in their (already) fairly low opinion.

India, Brazil, Poland, and South Africa retained highest approval rating for the U.S., being the only countries (besides the U.S. itself) where more than half of respondents had a favorable view (even if it was less than last year).

Interestingly, China saw the lowest dip from 2016, at just 3%, with close to half its respondents holding a good view of American influence.

The poll also included international organizations, which are playing an increasingly visible and decisive role in our globalized era.

 

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The World’s First Film Screening

On this day in 1895, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière used their patented cinematograph in Paris to hold the first film screening in history. It consisted of ten short films, each an average of fifty seconds.

The Lumières went on tour with the cinematographe the following year, visiting Brussels, Mumbai, London, Montreal, New York City, and Buenos Aires. Their films were also shown in Egypt.

Ironically, despite arguably being the world’s first filmmakers, the brothers stated that “the cinema is an invention without any future” and subsequently went on to focus on color photography (in which they also broke much ground).

Below is the world’s first movie poster, advertising one of the brothers’ comedies, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the first comedic film and the first film to portray a fictional story.

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Map: Internet Prices Around the World

What do Moldova, Tunisia, Russia, Iran, and  Kazakhstan have in common? Apparently, these disparate (and not particularly prosperous) countries have some of the cheapest broadband Internet in the world, with an average package cost of less than $20 a month.

By contrast, citizens of the West African nation of Burkina Faso top the list with the most expensive Internet, paying an an average of $924 for a monthly broadband package. Folks living in Namibia, Papua New Guinea, and Haiti far slightly better, but still need to shell out a few hundred dollars for the typical broadband package.

Americans are in the middle range, paying around $66 for the average broadband service; our neighbors to the north and south pay about $54 and $26, respectively.

These results are from a joint study by two British consultancies, which analyzed over 3,500 broadband packages worldwide from August 18 to October 12 of 2017. You can read the results here, which have been helpfully visualized by HowMuch.Net.

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See here for a more detailed visual breakdown by region and price.

The results show an interesting and often unexpected mix of cheapest and most expensive. Who would have thought that the likes of, say, Iran and the former Soviet Union would offer world-beating Internet access? Or that some African countries outperform far wealthier and more digitally connected nations?

Iran offers the world’s cheapest broadband, with an average cost of USD 5.37 per month. Burkina Faso is the most expensive, with an average package price of USD 954.54.

Six of the top ten cheapest countries in the world are found in the former USSR (Commonwealth of Independent States or CIS), including the Russian Federation itself.

Within Western Europe Italy is the cheapest with an average package price of USD 28.89 per month, followed by Germany (USD 34.07), Denmark (USD 35.90) and France (USD 36.34). The UK came in 8th cheapest out of 28, with an average package price of USD 40.52 per month.

In the Near East region, war-ravaged Syria came in cheapest with an average monthly price of USD 12.15 per month (and ranked fifth overall), with Saudi Arabia (USD 84.03), Bahrain (USD 104.93), Oman (USD 147.87), Qatar (USD 149.41) and the United Arab Emirates (USD 155.17) providing the most expensive connectivity in the region.

Iran is the cheapest in Asia (as well as cheapest globally) with an average package price of USD 5.37 per month, followed by Nepal (USD 18.85) and Sri Lanka (USD 20.17), all three countries also ranked in the top 20 of the cheapest in the world. The Maldives (USD 86.08), Laos (USD 231.76) and Brunei (UD 267.33) provide the most expensive package price per month.

Mexico is the cheapest country in Central America with an average broadband package cost per month of USD 26.64, Panama being the most expensive with an average package price of USD 112.77 per month.

In North America, Canada offers the cheapest broadband on average (USD 54.92), coming in 21 positions ahead of the United States globally (USD 66.17). Bermuda provides the most expensive packages in the region with an average price of USD 126.80 per month.

Saint-Martin offers the cheapest broadband in the Caribbean, with an average package price of USD 20.72 per month, with the British Virgin Islands (USD 146.05), Antigua and Barbuda (USD 153.78), Cayman Islands (USD 175.27) and Haiti (224.19) at the most expensive end both regionally and globally.

Sub-Saharan Africa fared worst overall with almost all countries in the bottom half of the table. Burkina Faso will charge residential users a staggering USD 954.54 per month for their ADSL. Meanwhile Namibia (USD 432.86), Zimbabwe (USD 170.00) and Mali (USD 163.96) were among the 10 most expensive countries.

All 13 countries in Oceania were found in the most expensive half of the global table. Generally, larger landmasses such as Australia and New Zealand were cheaper than smaller islands in the region. Fiji, however, was actually the cheapest in Oceania with an average cost of USD 57.44. Vanuatu (USD 154.07), Cook Islands (USD 173.57) and Papua New Guinea (USD 597.20) are the most expensive in the region, the latter second-most expensive in the world.

I would be very curious to know what accounts for these results. Is it government policy? Geographic location or size? An abundance of competing ISPs? Perhaps a combination of all three? Or maybe it depends on the specific country?

What are your thoughts?

 

The World’s Oldest and Smallest Republic

Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual countries in the world today is the Republic of San Marino. Spanning a little over 23 square miles (roughly equal to one-third the size of Washington, D.C.) with a population of around 33,000, it is one of the smallest independent countries in the world, and is located entirely within Italy. Yet despite its size (or perhaps because of it), San Marino is one of the most successful nations in the world. Continue reading