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Thursday, June 20, 2002


According to the New York Times:

"Layne Holt and his business partner, John Furrier, both software engineers, have started a company with a shoestring budget and an ambitious target: the cable and phone companies that currently hold a near-monopoly on high-speed access for the "last mile" between the Internet and the home.

At the core of their plan is the inexpensive wireless data standard known as Wi-Fi or 802.11b, which is already shaking up the communications industry, threatening to undermine the business plans of cellular phone companies by offering a much cheaper method for mobile access to the Internet.The pair's company, known as Etherlinx, has taken the 802.11b standard and used it to build a system that can transmit Internet data up to 20 miles at high speeds — enough to blanket entire urban regions and make cable or D.S.L. connections obsolete.

Their secret weapon is a technology known as a "software-designed radio," which has permitted them to create an inexpensive repeater antenna that can be attached to the outside of a customer's home. The device, which the Etherlinx executives said they believe can be built in quantity for less than $150 each, would communicate with a central antenna and then convert the signals into the industry-standard Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, signal for reception inside the home."

This one's got everything. Two guys working from their garage. Using a part of the radio spectrum the US government decided not to regulate. They didn't even get venture capital backing, and just six blocks from the birthplace of the apple computer they are working at making cheap radio repeaters by tweaking the already inexpensive WiFi cards. So while the mobile phone industry has almost bankrupted itself going for the UMTS 3G structure, two unknowns may be about to change everything. The thing is so inexpensive that they already have had a trial running in Oakfield, California for a year now. Total development costs around $200,000, and another dynosaur industry down the shutes. Well, good luck to them, I hope it does proves successful, and if it doesn't, well there's surely more budding talent out there with more fresh ideas. When will the telecommunications industry learn that the internet is a bottom-up, not a top-down phenomenon.


"Summer camp season is approaching, conjuring images of kids sitting around the campfire, toasting marshmallows and exploring the wonders of ... computer programming and the Internet? These days designing Web sites is as popular a camp sport as hiking.

Despite some business casualties that coincided with the dot-com bust, computer camp operators such as Cybercamps) and iD Tech Campssay business is great......

More than two-thirds of the nation's 10,000 camps allow parents to communicate with their kids via e-mail, and about 60 percent have Web sites, said Connie Coutellier, director of professional development of the American Camping Association in Martinsville, Indiana.

"It's a good thing. Parents today want to maintain contact and make sure their child is safe," she said"
Source: Yahoo News LINK.


"Five years after the U.N. World Food Summit promised to halve the number of hungry people by 2015, the follow-up summit opens Monday with no significant change in that number — 800 million. Heads of state and ministers attending the four-day meeting are expected to recommit themselves to reducing the number of hungry to 400 million. But they also will be asked to make good on those promises this time around"
Source: Yahoo News LINK

In a world were so much attention is given to bad and depressing news, it's important to take note of some of the areas in which we are making progress. One of these areas is in the capacity of our planet to feed the ever growing number of its inhabitants. During the 60's and 70's a lot of attention was paid to the pessimistic scenarios surrounding our inability to feed ourselves. Since that time it seems, we have actually turned that particular corner. While there is still plenty to be done, and there is clearly little room for complacency, the fact is - due largely to important increases in agricultural productivity - that while world population continues to rise rapidly, the numbers in extreme need continue to deline.

What are the facts behind this meeting. Well, in 1996 at the World Food Summit, delegates from around the planet set the target of reducing the number of people in the world suffering from malnutrition from about 800 million to 400 million by 2015. At the present time, there is an annual reduction of about 6 million in the number of hungry people in the world.This does not appear to be a very large number, but you need to remember that the population is still RISING However the currect rate of reduction needs a significant increase to 22 million a year to meet the 1996 U.N. target by 2015.

Of course the problem is not principally one of the production of food. We have the capacity to produce it, the problem is distributing it. At the same time the controversy over whether or not genetically modified foods are a boon or a menace continues unabated.

According to the UN, at the present time:

About 12.8 million people in six southern African nations — Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique — are at risk of starvation because of drought, floods, depleted food stocks and economic instability.

Of the 9.5 million undernourished people living in former East European transition countries, nearly 60 percent live in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova.

UNAIDS estimates that more than half of the 28 million people who have HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are in rural areas. The result is the devastion of thousands of farming communities with many families left struggling to produce enough food to survive.

About 54 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean.


UN Food and Agriculture Organisation
World Food Program


Is the envisaged EU enlargement going to take place on schedule, or at all? I have had my doubts on this for some time now, and this latest piece from the economist only confirms me in my scepticism. Is the old continent also becoming the tired one?

" EU officials have always insisted that what they call the reunification of Europe is an historic inevitability. Earlier this year, they announced an ambitious plan to close the deal with ten applicants at a summit in Copenhagen in December, with luck ensuring that the likes of Poland and the Czech Republic become fully fledged members of the club in 2004.

But doubts are creeping in. Günter Verheugen, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, says that the “window of opportunity” is closing. Three specific problems are looming ever larger.

First, the candidate countries and the EU are still arguing over the financial implications of enlargement, particularly when it comes to the billions of euros the EU spends each year on agriculture and aid to poorer regions. Second, as Mr Verheugen puts it, there is a “new political climate” in Europe with the rise of populist anti-immigration parties in a string of EU countries. Third, there is a chance that Irish voters will again reject the EU's Nice treaty, which is deemed essential to give enlargement a green light. Taken alone, none of these problems needs be lethal. Combine them, however, and enlargement, the Union's biggest new project, might be in danger."

I can safely add one more, and potentially much bigger problem, population dynamics.

According to the UN Population Division, the ten countries in the World with the lowest fertility rates in the 2000 - 2005 period are:

1. Latvia 1.10
2. Armenia 1.10
3. Bulgaria 1.10
4. China, Macao SAR 1.10
5. Ukraine 1.10
6. Spain 1.13
7. Slovenia 1.14
8. Russian Federation 1.14
9. Czech Republic 1.16
10. China, Hong Kong SAR 1.17

Then if we look at the ten countries or areas with the lowest rates of population growth, 2000-2005:

1. Estonia -1.14
2. Bulgaria -0.98
3. Ukraine -0.94
4. Russian Federation -0.64
5. Latvia -0.56
6. Georgia -0.53
7. Hungary -0.50
8. Belarus -0.40
9. Kazakhstan -0.37
10. Republic of Moldova -0.26

You will note that all these countries show negative signs, ie the population is currently REDUCING. Now let's look at the top 15 countries in the league of population

This is the Table Caption
Country2000 millions 2050 millionsAbsolute Change% Change
Russia 149.5 104 -41.2 -28.3
Ukraine 49.5 29.9 -19.6 -39.6
Japan 127.1 109.2 -17.8 -14.1
Italy 57.5 42.9 -14.6 -25.3
Germany 82.0 70.8 -11.2 -13.7
Spain 39.9 31.2 -8.6 -21.6
Poland 38.6 33.4 -5.2 -13.6
Romania 22.4 18.1 -4.3 -19.1
Bulgaria 7.9 4.5 -3.4 -43.0
Hungary 9.9 7.5 -2.5 -24.9
Georgia 5.2 3.2 -2.0 -38.8
Belarus 10.2 8.3 -1.9 -18.5
Czech rep 10.3 8.2 -1.8 -17.9
Austria 8.1 6.5 -1.6 -20.1
Greece 10.6 9.0 -1.6 -15.3

Source:World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision, Tables

This is not exactly an EU 15, but with the new aditions it will be getting pretty close to it. Any detailed examination of the numbers makes it pretty clear that the social impact of the fall of the Berlin wall have been well nigh disastrous for the Eastern European countries as a block. Faced with declining fertility, and EMMIGRATION of young people, the ageing problems in these countries are going to be severe, not to say acute. The big question then is: can an already ageing EU handle this type of problem?

All this seems so far from the US situation, where, as reported in last Thursday's post:

"The increase in the immigrant population, which many state officials believe was undercounted, surpassed the century's greatest wave of immigration, from 1900 to 1910, when the number of foreign-born residents grew by 31 percent........Demographers noted that for the first time in the 1990's, immigrants moved far beyond the big coastal cities and Chicago and Denver and Houston, into the Great Plains, the South and Appalachia.........
"These numbers represent an enormous social experiment with very high stakes," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter immigration control. "No country has ever attempted to assimilate and incorporate 31 million newcomers, and the experiment is not over."
Other analysts add, however, that immigrants helped propel the boom in the 90's, taking low-paid service jobs and vital assignments in medicine and in technology companies"
(Based on original article in NYT).

Meanwhile in Europe, as the Economist wryly observes:

"In a normal political climate, a compromise would be found. The trouble is that the rise of politicians like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, Austria's Jörg Haider, Italy's Umberto Bossi, the late Pim Fortuyn's disciples in the Netherlands and the Danish People's Party, shows that populist and xenophobic movements are gathering strength in Western Europe. That will make it harder for mainstream politicians to sign a generous deal with the applicant countries as well as to accept other consequences of enlargement, in particular the free movement of workers from the east.....

All EU treaties have to be ratified by every member state, but Irish voters have already rejected Nice once in a referendum last year. Though the Irish government is gearing up for a second vote later this year, there is rising speculation in both camps that the Irish people may again say no. That, says Mr Verheugen glumly, would create a “very, very serious problem and I have no answer to the question of what we could do.”"

They sure aren't kiding.

Meantime in Poland, things don't look too good:

"These are hard times in Poland, which grew for nearly 10 straight years into a country of stocked shelves, giant malls and impressive self-confidence — a 40-million-strong symbol of Central Europe's post-Communist hopes.

Now, the will to continue privatization and other reforms, and even the desire to join the European Union, have flagged. The story is much the same around the region, as the transformation from gangly state economies has brought material comfort, but also insecurity and a new set of inequalities. In Poland, indeed, the very notion that Western-style capitalism will work in the eastern nation that embraced it perhaps most heartily is under attack

What is happening now is not economic collapse of the kind that engulfed Russia in the 1990's.

Many companies are doing well, and Poland appears set to move into the European Union in 2004. But there is a serious slowdown, compounded by what many experts say is political dawdling and disagreement about how to fix it.

Last year, growth dropped to just 1 percent. Unemployment this year hit 18 percent, the highest in the post-Communist era, and there are real worries of street disturbances and protests in the largest nation up for joining the European Union, if more people lose their jobs.

This downturn, Mr. Bledowski said, is "causing a lot of soul searching. People are revising a lot of assumptions and expectations.""
Source New York Times LINK


In the latest round of currency adjustments one thing is clear, none of them have strong positive reasons for buying. The halcyon days of the 1990's are clearly over for the time being. With the US as the world's main growth engine, if the dollar is falling due to a weak outlook for US growth, and doubts about the profitability of US companies, then it's hard to get too wound up about any of the dollar's rivals either. "It's a game of finding who has fewer negatives," according to Hideki Hayashi, who is global strategist at Shinko Securities.


The consumer confidence index, it seems, is not what it was. The index, which has formed the backbone of economic forecasting for more than 25 years, may not have the importance it was thought to have:

"A growing number of researchers and economists say that consumer confidence may be a phantom concept, an attempt to quantify a state of mind that does not exist. The much-watched indexes may not capture mood swings that lead to more or less spending, they argue, but only such down-to-earth concerns as how much the next pay check will be and whether it will still be arriving six months from now.

"The fact is there is just sheer randomness in consumer spending," said Sydney Ludvigson, a New York University economist and the co-author of one of the critical studies.........For those hoping for a quick economic recovery, that is disconcerting."

Complicating matters, American spending patterns are much more varied now than they were in the early years after World War II, when the first consumer confidence index was born at Michigan. That early index assumed the existence of a typical, average consumer, one whose mood and propensity to spend could be fathomed in a survey. That typical consumer was more likely to have existed in the 40's than today, Mr. Curtin said. "People were more focused on their jobs and wages."

Today all sorts of other factors figure into spending and interfere with consumer confidence as a national concept. Some people base their spending decisions on their wages, while others are governed by job security or the value of their stock portfolios and homes, or interest rate fluctuations, or their willingness to accumulate debt, particularly through credit cards, which did not exist in the 1940's.

And there is income inequality, which has increased since the 1970's and has affected the consumer confidence surveys, says Nicholas S. Souleles, an economist at the Wharton School of Business. Analyzing the Michigan survey data over 20 years, he found that low-income households constantly and optimistically overestimated their future incomes, while upper-income people swung from optimism in expansions to pessimism in downturns."
Source: New York Times LINK

So what are the the odds that all this could be a bit more complicated than we've been admitting?

And could help come from the study of ants? Last summer's number of the Bulletin of the Santa Fe Institute had an interesting summary of on-going work into the functioning of complex insect societies. In order to understand how social organization evolves among insects, for example, we need to try to understand the mechanisms that link the different levels of biological and social organization:

"One concept that helps us explore the mechanisms of complex behavioral interactions is the notion of response threshold. Neurons and individuals can respond to various stimuli. Responses are based on stimulus thresholds; stimuli below some threshold result in no response while stimuli above a threshold can elicit a reaction. This is evident at the level of neurons where an action potential is generated only when a stimulus sufficiently depolarizes the membrane. Once generated, the action potential propagates at full intensity. At the behavioral level of an individual, we find an analogous process. Individuals do not respond to a stimulus until it is stronger than some minimum threshold. Thus the response threshold is a fundamental organizing property of the behavior of neurons and individuals.

Because of the stimulus-threshold relationship of behavior division of labour, the hallmark of social organization, is an inescapable property of group living. This follows because of the correlation between the behavioral response and the effect of the behavior on the stimulus that caused it. For example, honey bee colonies thermoregulate, maintaining the brood chamber of the colony near 34.5¡Þ C. When the temperature exceeds this, cooling behavior begins, during which some bees circulate air through the nest by fanning their wings. The result of the response to the heat stimulus, fanning, reduces the stimulus, heat, below the temperature response threshold. This can lead to a division of labor with labor specialists, where group members have different response thresholds for temperature. Those with lower response thresholds respond first by fanning, reduce the stimulus, and thereby reduce the probability that others will perform that task."

Anyone spot the connection here?


Thousands of farmers took to the streets outside the European parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, to reject any idea of reform in European agriculture:

"The noisy demonstration which gathered farmers from across Europe demanded action to protect their livelihoods.Police estimated some 6,000 protesters took part, while organizers said more than 12,000 French farmers and 2,000 others attended.

"We categorically reject any idea of a new ... reform," said Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the Committee of Agricultural Organizations, which organized the march.Farmers drove tractors through the center of the historic city, and dumped grain and chicken feathers in front of the EU assembly.

The protest sought to influence farm reforms proposed by EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler.His proposals are expected to cut deeply into subsidies to farmers. Fischler says cuts are necessary ahead of the EU's expansion, arguing the Union cannot afford to maintain the same level of subsidies when poorer farmers from candidate countries like Poland or Hungary join."
Source Yahoo News: LINK

So the message we're sending the world is that nobody in Europe wants any changes. No immigrants, no restructuring, and now no agricultural reform. To be sure, George Bush, with his latest subsidy to US farmers, started the ball rolling. This will be a key test for FRance's new government. Remember in the latest round of negotiations for another round of trade expansion, the third world countries are looking for sacrifices from the EU and the US IN THE AREA OF AGRICULTURE, with les subsidies and better access to EU and US markets. In addition, if this reform does not go ahead this will deal another body blow to EU expansion to the East (see yesderday's post).

Meanwhile in Rome another argument is being made:

Led by Cuba, developing countries on Tuesday demanded greater access to international markets and an end to export subsidies, saying fairer free trade was the only way to end world hunger.
On the second day of the U.N. World Food Summit, leaders of the world's poorest countries called on the United States, European Union ( news - web sites) and other exporting nations to give poor farmers a competing chance to sell their wares.

"We are poor. You are rich. Level the playing field!" Teofisto Guingona, foreign minister of the Philippines, said. "Do not in the name of free trade deny us time to integrate our resources, and having integrated them deny us access to your rich markets."

Many poor countries say the current international trade framework leaves farmers in the developing world unable to compete with subsidized crops from richer countries."
Source Yahoo News LINK

And don't, please don't, mis this: "The European Union pushed for the summit to consider food a human right."

Oh, we are such hypocrites!

Wolfram Still Making Waves

The New York Times ran another piece on Stephen Wolfram yesterday:

"A New Kind of Science" may be the scientific publishing event of the season, but whether it is a revolution in science as well must await the judgment of Dr. Wolfram's peers.

In conversations over the last fews weeks, computer scientists and physicists expressed admiration for Dr. Wolfram's "engaging" and "beautifully written" exposition of ideas, like the power of algorithms, that they say are underappreciated by society.

Edward Fredkin, a physics professor at Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory and a longtime proponent of something called "digital physics," viewing nature as a computer, said: "For me this is a great event. Wolfram is the first significant person to believe in this stuff. I've been very lonely."
Dr. J. Doyne Farmer, a professor of computer science at the Santa Fe Institute and the University of New Mexico, called it "a well-written summary" of ideas that have been around for a long time.

"We've known for 50 years that complexity can come from simpler and simpler things," Dr. Farmer said, adding that it had been shown that even bouncing billiard balls could be a universal computer."

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