A Stunning Tally of War

The price tag, which includes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and increased spending on veterans’ care, will reach $5.9 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2019, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University. Since nearly all of that money has been borrowed, the total cost with interest will be substantially higher.

. . . . .

Nearly 7,000 service members — and nearly 8,000 private contractors— have been killed. More than 53,700 people returned home bearing physical wounds, and numberless more carry psychological injuries. 

End the War in Afghanistan

How is it that through 17 years and three administrations, we are still at a point where we have not defined victory? It is a shocking failure of civilian leadership and an outright abuse of our military.

I’m not sure we should exit Afghanistan, but it is long overdue to ask, “if not now, when?”

Population Equilibrium

This is a great paragraph:

It is unlikely that the trend towards lower fertility will reverse. “Once having one or two children becomes the norm, it stays the norm,” write Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson in “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline”. “Couples no longer see having children as a duty…to their families or their god. Rather, they choose to raise a child as an act of personal fulfilment. And they are quickly fulfilled.”

Thanks to education, global fertility could fall faster than expected

This Atlantic article is now 20 years old. I still remember it because it blew me away and I have believed its premise ever since: “Fifty years from now the world’s population will be declining, with no end in sight.”

Our long-term problem may indeed be maintaining a stable population, not managing a growing one.

Corporate Gatekeepers

This is not sustainable:

During the midterm elections in the United States last year, Twitter added, most of the false content on its site came from within the country itself. Many of the misleading messages focused on voter suppression, with the company deleting almost 6,000 tweets that included incorrect dates for the election or that falsely claimed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was patrolling polling stations.

Twitter Says False Content Is Evolving, and More Comes From the U.S.

It is both dangerous and ineffective to rely on big corporations to curate messages so that only “good messages” are seen. We can’t even decide whether we want this. On the one hand, it scares us that big companies have this power. On the hand, we insist that they use it.

It will get worse. Deepfakes are coming to the political space. (This one is amazing.) And videos do not have to be fake to be taken out of context.

So what to do? Facebook/Twitter/Apple/Google are not the solution. Corporate decision making is not immune from bias, mistake, and poor policy. But it is less transparent and less aligned with our social goals.

We need to slow down and stop making snap judgments. We need a renewed emphasis on the legitimacy / authority of the source. The good news is that we might get better at this over time.

Geopolitics vs. Globalism

The principle that investors and firms should be treated equally regardless of their nationality is being ditched.

Evidence for this is everywhere. Geopolitical rivalry is gripping the tech industry, which accounts for about 20% of world stockmarkets. Rules on privacy, data and espionage are splintering. Tax systems are being bent to patriotic ends—in America to prod firms to repatriate capital, in Europe to target Silicon Valley. America and the EU have new regimes for vetting foreign investment, while China, despite its bluster, has no intention of giving foreign firms a level playing-field. America has weaponised the power it gets from running the world’s dollar-payments system, to punish foreigners such as Huawei. Even humdrum areas such as accounting and antitrust are fragmenting.

The steam has gone out of globalisation

Perhaps this is a necessary adjustment, and temporary. But if there is a long-term strategy for growth (and there should be), this kind of splintering is deeply problematic. The goal should not be “we win, you lose.” The goal should be “we all win.”

I hope someone intelligent gets ahold of Trump’s trade war and pivots into reducing the impact of geopolitics. China is fairly to blame for pervasive national favoritism. So blame them. But this is not a zero-sum game.

Five People Shot in Florida

Another day, another senseless shooting.

Even the Onion has seemed to stop posting its satirical commentary unless the shooting is truly shocking. Are more than 10 people required now? Do kids have to be involved?

Worth amplifying this:

But it’s interesting what you said about the shootings here in the US. It’s something that, of course, as an outsider and as someone who it’s his first visit to the country, it would be not proper to give a very deep reflection on that.

Going back to the hitchhiking issue, there is some sort of relation I can establish. When you hitchhike, you’re trying to establish social links with random people.

I feel that in a very developed society like the US, where the value of independence has been stressed over interdependence too much, and much more than in Latin America, for example, or even Europe.

I feel that when you are absolutely independent and you don’t need help from your neighbors, then also, no one is needing your help.

Then how do you feel that you are needful for your community? I think that we are losing…probably something happening here that some people — just some people — don’t have the chance to demonstrate their value to the community. This leads to social anomie.

Juan Pablo Villarino on Travel and Trust

What are the rules for AI?

No one knows. But lots of folks are asking.

Microsoft has one answer. Google has another, similar answer. The Future of Life organization has another (23 point!) list of ethical rules.

These rules have a lot of overlap, but also a lot of noise. Of course systems should be safe and reliable and just and secure. This is marketing noise and no one disagrees. We need to figure out the hard rules. How transparent should we require AI systems to be? How explainable? This could be hard.

In any case, this year seems the one for forming advisory boards to figure out what rules we should have around (1) letting AI’s defend / kill us; (2) letting AI’s treat us; and (3) maintaining US dominance in AI.

Fragmenting the Internet

As we all get more concerned about privacy, content moderation, and intellectual property protection, we are making lots of new rules about what can and cannot be done online. These new rules apply only to specific countries. For example, the online privacy regulation known as GDPR enforces complex rules on data collected and distributed via the internet, but it applies only to European residents.

In practice, however, the internet does not have borders. Americans routinely access European internet servers, and vice-versa. If different rules apply to different visitors, what are your options? You can basically go in one of two directions: (1) treat all visitors the same, or (2) try to determine who is who and treat them accordingly.

Since the dawn of the internet, we have mostly treated all visitors the same: everyone sees roughly the same version of the internet as everyone else. That may change.

Option 1: Apply the strictest of laws and treat all visitors the same.

If the strictest standard works for all laws, then great, you can use that standard for everyone. For example, GDPR is currently the strictest online privacy regime and there’s nothing preventing its application to everyone. It may be easiest to use it everywhere, so long as incentives align.

This strictest-standard-for-all approach isn’t possible if local laws either conflict or are offensive to our democratic principles (e.g., censorship). For example, we don’t want China’s censorship rules applying to the Wall Street Journal.

Option 2: Try to determine who is who and treat them differently based on their location.

It is possible to determine, with pretty good accuracy, where someone is located based on their network IP address. This isn’t foolproof and it is in fact fairly easy to circumvent, but it works most of the time for most of the people. Thus, one option is to determine where your visitor is located and use a version of your site that applies to them. (Or just block access.) There are a few major issues with this approach:

  1. Fragmentation. If everyone is doing this, we have essentially created different versions of the internet for different people. The internet has been transformative precisely because it reduced the cost of sharing and access to information. Fragmentation will make certain types of information harder to find.
  2. Cost. It is much harder to build and maintain a service with different versions depending on where visitors are located.
  3. Ineffectiveness. It is relatively easy for an interested visitor to pretend to be outside their own jurisdiction in order to access the version they wish to see. For example, you can visit Canada’s version of Google right now by typing in google.ca. And geo-blocking based on IP addresses can be defeated easily with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Different versions of the internet are already here. China is the best example. The country’s Great Firewall has been active since roughly 1998 and prevents most Chinese citizens from seeing the internet the same way the rest of us do.

The West seems to be continuing the slide towards internet fragmentation. When Spain decides that an individual has the right to be forgotten, does Google need to forget that information just on Spanish sites? Or on all EU sites? Or on all sites around the world? Does it need to take measures to actively block Spanish citizens from visiting the Canadian Google site?

So far the answer appears to be that information can be available outside the jurisdiction, but you still have to prevent local users from accessing it. And just like that a new filter bubble pops into existence, and the internet fragments a bit more.

Bad Nature News

It seems like there is an uptick in terrible environmental news.

For roughly a decade, the land snail species Achatinella apexfulva, which used to be plentiful on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, was believed to be down to a single survivor. His name was George, and he lived his last days alone in a terrarium in Kailua, Hawaii, alongside an ample supply of fungi (a food his ancestors liked to scrape off leaves in the wild).

But on Jan. 1, George died, according to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. He lived to about age 14 — a good, long life for a snail of his kind, experts say.

George the Snail, Believed to Be the Last of His Species, Dies at 14 in Hawaii

and

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group that conducts a yearly census of the western monarch, said the population reached historic lows in 2018, an estimated 86 percent decline from the previous year.

That in itself would be troubling news. But, combined with a 97 percent decline in the total population since the 1980s, this year’s count is “potentially catastrophic,” according to the biologist Emma Pelton.

With 86% Drop, California’s Monarch Butterfly Population Hits Record Low

and

Scientists say the world’s oceans are warming far more quickly than previously thought, a finding with dire implications for climate change because almost all the excess heat absorbed by the planet ends up stored in their waters.

Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds

Sure, in the long run we are all dead, but this is not ok. We are immorally depriving future generations of the bounty of life that four billion years of evolution has provided.

Health care is a simple market failure

Oakland’s Highland Hospital lists its price for a single chest X-ray at $131, while over the Bay at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, they say it’ll set you back $2,618.

An aspirin tablet? Highland wants $7 for that, but it’s $1.02 at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and just 30 cents at Walnut Creek’s John Muir Medical Center. If that seems like a bargain, consider that Rite Aid sells a bottle with 100 of those same pills for $5.49, less than 5 and a half cents each. UCSF suggests they don’t charge for an aspirin pill at all.

Hoping to empower consumers who are shouldering more and more of their health care costs each year, the federal government this year is requiring hospitals across the country to post their standard price lists on their websites.

Hospitals must now post their prices online: $7 for 5-cent aspirin?

You can explain away these deltas, but you cannot rationally defend them. Our health care system is a knot of confusion and the lowest hanging fruit is transparency. We don’t need to walk away from the market economy for health care; we need to embrace it.

Best reporting I’ve run across on health insurance: Someone Else’s Money.

Freeeeeeeeedooooooooom!

Or not.

A buyer who illegally demolished a famed house in San Francisco has been ordered to rebuild an exact replica – and install a plaque outside explaining what happened.

. . . . .

Ms Traverce called the decision “a victory for the neighbours and the little people”.

Owner who demolished famed San Francisco house must build replica

I’m not sure what San Francisco is optimizing for here, but it’s not productivity or affordable housing.