January 14, 2011

How the banks want to make China sick - and broke

Is it me, or are some banking people incredibly stupid as well as being venal and sociopathic?

A Deutschebank report about health spending in China states that "at less than five per cent of GDP, Chinese expenditure on health is distinctly lower than that of OECD countries. So it would seem a good idea to improve the health system".

Hmmm. The 'problem' the bankers want to solve is that not that Chinese citizens are unhealthy, but that they don't pay vast sums into wasteful medical insurance policies each month. Indeed, it is because they are accustomed to saving cash for medical emergencies that the savings rate is so high in China. This, for banksters, is a problem.

Their proposed solution is to 'modernize' China's system so that it catches up with advanced countries such as the US - whose new, post-Obama-reforms system is mapped by the celebrated chart below:

health chart.png

A large version is here

Each of those bubbles on the chart is a profit centre for someone or other. As Charles Hugh Smith explained recently, of the $2.3 trillion spent yearly in the US on healthcare, roughly $1 trillion goes on overhead: paper-shuffling, insurance fraud, Medicare fraud, lawsuits, counter-claims, etc. Another big chunk is wasted on costly medications that don't work or actually degrade health. It can costs a million dollars per bed to build a hospital. Five administrators for every doctor. And so on.

The result of this advanced system is that Americans live about the same number years, and are about as healthy overall, as Cubans - and Cuba spends 5% per person on their health system compared to the US.

cuba health.png

The 'improvement' that Deutschebank advocates for China's health system would make its people poorer, if not sicker; and plans along Deutschebank lines are indeed in place for all Chinese to have health insurance by 2020. "Once people no longer have to rely on their own savings for their health protection, consumer spending will increase" drools Deutschebank. "The international health sector is also likely to profit from this".

No doubt it will. The only downside of that is that when, a few years down the line, a modernized Chinese system begins to bankrupt the country - much as the US system is doing today - Chinese citizens will forced back to---where they are right now.

Posted by John Thackara at 06:13 PM | Comments (0)

November 05, 2008

"Presidents are only presidents"

Our election night here in France was febrile. As I listened to the results (and finished Sharon Astyk's book during the dull bits on the box) a tremendous storm raged outside and the power went down several times. That has has not happened here in seven years. All very Macbeth-like.

I don't suppose you need more punditry right now - but if you can't get enough, World Changing has just published a bunch of answers to this question: "In 100 words or less, what should the next president do in his first 100 days to address the planet's most pressing problems?"

Answers from the likes of Hunter Lovins, Bill McKibben, Bruce Sterling, Cameron Sinclair, Howard Rheingold, Pierre Omidyar, Mathis Wackernagel, Jacqueline Novogratz, Paul Hawken, Robert Neuwirth (et moi) are here.

“There ain't no cure, and I'm not sure he knows". Illargi's take is darker than the generally can-do comments of the the World Changing group. "Whatever hope a new administration may evoke in the hearts and minds of Americans and people across the globe", Illargi writes, "one thing still stands…millions upon millions of jobs will be lost in the US alone within the next 12 months. Obama’s task will not, because it can not, be to lead his nation back into prosperous times".

If prosperity means returning to a world of perpetual, inequitable, resource-intensive growth, then for me at least it's not a desirable destination.

A better word than Prosperous, for me, would be Prepared.

That's why my advice to the President would be to tell the truth about the likely consequences of peak energy, food and water and the like. This truth will confront people with the need to prepare for hard times, yes - but also to regenerate, and mend.

He should ask each U.S. region to map its ecosystems and human resources; identify any gaps; and then hold Transition Meetings to draw up Living Economy Action Plans.

In other words, he should delegate the whole thing to the people and re-cast the President's role as Co-ordinator in Chief.

"I am a firm believer in the people”, said Abraham Lincoln; “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

Or as Sharon Astyk puts it in her pre-election comment: “Presidents are only Presidents - the people, well, that’s something else”

So much, so portentous, I know. I'm off to buy candles - and then to eat rosti for lunch with our friend up the hill.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:56 AM | Comments (2)

December 19, 2006

Money to burn

Passing through London this week, I found the atmosphere to be even more crazed and febrile than is normal even at this time of year. I think I know why: City of London staff (ie the financial hub part of London) have been promised a record £21 billion in bonuses. Some of the biggest deal-makers expect to receive more than £10 million. Each. All told, 4,200 people, just in London, will each receive a bonus of more than one million pounds ($1.9m, 1.5m euros). Now if you're one of this lucky (but of course deserving) group of people, you might want to check out the the unsettling presentation by Margrit Kennedy at Doors 8. Read that (the file loads slowly but is worth the wait) and you may well conclude that the worst thing to do now would be to hang onto your dosh. If you don't buy Kennedy's argument (she is, after all, an urbanist, not an economist) then read the alarming because matter-of-fact warnings of your fellow deal-makers and economists. (I was especially charmed by this quote from one trader on the irrelevance of reality: "I don't care about the numbers, the economic data, whether Iraq is in a Civil war, if the President gets impeached, who controls congress, what a company does, whether we fall into a recession or if China buys Europe and turns it into a Disney theme park. My world is defined by what I see on my four 20 inch monitors in front of me. Everything else is noise"). I know, there are too many killjoys and negative thinkers in the world, which is a warm and wonderful place. But it's Christmas, so at least consider the following: If all you lucky 4,200 people were to donate your bonuses to HIV/AIDS-prevention programmes, more than 28 million lives would be saved within six years. It would be win:win. You'd feel good about yourself - and you wouldn't have to worry about losing the money in the coming crash.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:51 AM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2006

Cough, splutter, choke.....

Every time I open my computer these days another monstrosity makes me choke on my cocopops. On Monday it was reading the loony-tunes head of Saatchi and Saatchi talk about "war as a brand" (see below). Today I started to read Wally Olins - another eminence of design and communications universe - reply to the question, "Where would you say is branding going?" on a website called Design and Emotion. Wally replies that "charity....is the ultimate brand. Just because the brand has got no functional content at all. It only exists emotionally. And I think that is a very interesting phenomenon that is going to happen. Because as people get richer, and I am talking about in the West, then there will come a time where you have several houses, or several cars, etc. How many more things can you have? So people will begin to get their satisfaction increasingly from emotion, self-image if you like, of being nice, of being good, of behaving properly". Now Wally is a great man - after all, he helped me publish my first book - but really: I won't make it through many more breakfasts if barmy brand boosters keep saying stuff like this.

Posted by John Thackara at 11:10 AM | Comments (0)

August 05, 2006

Send in the Canadians

Ivorybill's Iraq Journal, a great piece of writing from Kurdistan in Daily Kos, includes this sublime conversation with Ahmed, one of the cab drivers who drove him from Turkey to Kurdish Iraq. "Ahmed's contact with people outside of Iraq has mostly been with the foreign telecom engineers who erected the (mobile phone) system. The first was a Canadian with a long beard and lots of tattoos. He had a "wolf" at home, possibly a husky, and used to call his wife and ask her to put the dog on the phone. The two would howl at each other. Kurds, like most Muslims, consider dogs unclean. Although they accept them as necessary for protecting sheep, they never keep them as pets. Ahmed could hear the howls over the receiver and considered this behavior incomprehensible". I can't imagine why: From my own experience meeting Telco types, it seems par for the course.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:29 AM | Comments (0)

July 24, 2006

Not quite so new

It's twenty years since Stuart Jane and I made this book for Thames and Hudson. One of the bright young things whose work we put in a book for the first time was James Dyson. By 1986, his patented G-Force vacuum cleaner was being produced in Japan but was not selling well. That early version was tall and garishly pink - great for publicity photos, but less so for high street sales. Daniel Weil, who designed the deconstructivist radio we used on the cover, was a constant headache for his tutors at the Royal College of Art. (He is now a partner at Pentagram). We also featured a young designer called Ron Arad; he was turning the seats of old Rover cars into collectible chairs. Perhaps the first person to varnish concrete, Arad sold his heavy and often lethally pointed furniture from a shop called One Off in Covent Garden. An architect called Nigel Coates, a young star at the insanely trendy Architectural Association, had already incorporated an aircraft wing into a Tokyo night club. We also met an angelic-looking guy called Tom Dixon who made chairs out of salvaged plumbing parts and drove around London in a Mark 10 Jag. The understated genius of that generation was a quiet young man called Jasper Morrison; the technical quality of his work shone through even then. But my most startling memory by far from that project was when Stuart told me to check out the graduating catwalk show of a St Martin's fashion designer. John Galliano's coup de theatre remains one of the most extraordinary performances I have experienced; those few minutes with will never leave me.

Posted by John Thackara at 07:09 PM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2006

Why Englishmen do it with their socks on

Did you know this? "In the old days, women exposed their adulterous husbands by marking their left and right socks". I never heard this before. But this makes me a minority among Englishmen, I now realise, because they (we) have been ridiculed for decades for making love with our socks on. (Thanks to Lucas Verweij for this extraordinary information; he wrote about it in the Spanish magazine Experimenta, issue 55).

Posted by John Thackara at 07:27 AM | Comments (0)

July 06, 2006

To sit or not to sit?

Allan Chochinov, editor of Core77, drew my attention to a remarkably cheap - in fact, free - way to increase patient satisfaction in hospitals. According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, patients perceive that health providers (their term) who sit during an evaluation "are their bedside for longer than those who stand - - for the same amount of time". This correlates with numerous studies demonstrating that time is a key indicator of patient satisfaction in health contexts around the world. Having someone just listen to you for five minutes makes most people that I know feel better. Some clinicians get very worked up on this topic: they argue that perceptions of care quality do not always correspond with actual care care quality. This may be true, but I'm confused: does it matter?

Posted by John Thackara at 06:47 AM | Comments (0)

April 29, 2006

To my friends at Microsoft

Someone programmed Word to flash this pop-up at me Every…. Single…. Time…. that I press “Save” whilst typing. “You have 22 days remaining until the Microsoft Office Test Drive expires. To order your copy of Office 2004, click Buy Now”. This happens every 30 seconds or so. Now whether or not I have a license (I do, I think, back at the office) why interrupt me every thirty seconds? Why not every seven days? And maybe every hour or so on the last day? The result of this design act is that, also every thirty seconds, I think unworthy thoughts about the person who did this to me, and about the company that made him or her do it. Some of these thoughts entail painful and probably illegal acts. So tell me this: Is that successful marketing?

Posted by John Thackara at 08:26 AM | Comments (1)

August 08, 2005

Brain boxes

During my visit to the MIT campus a few weeks ago Doug Sery, my editor at MIT Press, pointed out two large and expensive-looking buildings that were being constructed to house neuroscientists. A generation ago, the glamour building on the block was MediaLab - so we should probably ask: What do these neuro guys do all day? Why are they so well-funded? What does their work portend for the rest of us in the medium term? A blog entry is too small to do justice to these questions, but I can tell you that the MIT Press catalogue contains lots of neuro books. There are scary titles like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS: remember that acronym) which tells you how to ‘reverse engineer the brain’ in order to understand the ‘neourochronometrics of mind’. The latter, so far as I can judge from the blurb, concerns how scientists correlate activity patterns in the brain with behaviour in the world. Another book called Theoretical Neuroscience describes ‘what nervous systems do’ - which, in my case, is get nervous. A book called Social Neuroscience promises – for me, implausibly – that psychiatrists, neurologists and radiologists will enlighten me about ‘the ways human beings are influenced by other humans’. Visual designers and direct marketing hard men will want to read The First Half Second which is about the early stages of visual perception, or microgenesis. But the book I most want to read is called Neither Brain Nor Ghost. Its writer, a philosopher called W Teed Rockwell, argues that the brain cannot be isolated from the rest of the nervous system; moreover, ‘there is evidence that the mind is hormonal as well as neural…the borders of mental embodiment cannot be neatly drawn at the skull, or even at the skin’. It's remarkable how much common ground there is these days between neuroscientists, environmentalists, and philosophers.

Posted by John Thackara at 09:34 AM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2005

How can this many design events succeed?

I frequently warn of the dangers that lie ahead for the organisers of design conferences, trade fairs, festivals and biennials. A growing number of me-too events is competing for our attention, and there's a real danger we'll all switch off. Since I last wrote about the subject a month ago, plans have been announced for a large event in Denmark called Index which pronounces itself to be 'the world arena for future design and innovation'. Unfortunately for Index, another ambitious biennial starting at about the same time in Gwangju, Korea, has similar global ambitions. And the theme for a full-blown world expo in Shanghai in 2010 promises 'better design, better life'. In Europe alone, biennial type design projects are happening or being planned for Lille, Brussels, Glasgow, Liege, Newcastle, London, Lucerne, Berlin, and St Etienne. It feels to me as if we need the equivalent for design events of the Bureau of International Expositions that in 1933 brought order to the unsustainable proliferation of World's Fairs. Pending that, one strategy is to go for rarity: the Critical Computing Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, only happens every ten years - a stately tempo that should ensure a more thoughful, long-term discussion than is usual in this febrile industry. Another success factor is to 'keep it live'. When choosing where to go, I far prefer events, encounters and conversations that are rooted in a particular place and time. These are always fresher and more dynamic than pre-cooked exhibitions and ponderous award ceremonies.

Posted by John Thackara at 08:33 AM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2005

Self-serving, moi?

I know it's the silly season for news, but a tech story on BBC News today wins my prize for the year's most witless tech waffle. Headlined "UK 'could become hi-tech titan'", the story refers to a report (unnamed and unreferenced) by consulting firm Deloitte that urges "swift action" (by who it does not say) "because overseas competition was threatening to eclipse the UK's advantages". And who is behind this blood- curdling warning of imminent danger? Fifty of the "UK's top technology opinion-formers", that's who. Utterly unswayed by the vast government subsidies that keeps many of them in work, this fearless 50 say disaster can only be averted if there is "co-operation and communication between all those involved in the UK's hi-tech sector - government, researchers, businesses and financiers".

Posted by John Thackara at 07:27 PM | Comments (1)

June 10, 2005

Too many events?

I learned recently that a new book is published every 30 seconds. I imagine at least that many new blogs are launched each day. Does the same rate of reproduction apply to conferences and events? I used to keep my own list of events until I discovered a bunch of databases each of which contains thousands. The European Union's Information Society department publishes IST Events covering a huge range of possibly interesting subjects. The Digital Media Events Blog features almost daily business happenings in the digital media-online and wireless sector.Upcoming.org, a collaborative event calendar, features happenings on everything from blogs and books to singers and smokers. The privately compiled Ubicomp Events lists dozens of conferences to do with ubiquitous computing. The biggest collection or all - and home of the event-as-acronym - is hosted by the American Computing Society. Listed for just the first ten days in June are ICAIL05, JCDL05, CEMVRC05, FOMI05, and the no doubt not-to-be-missed TARK X-05. If TARK is too taxing, there's a conference on podcasting in Ontario, California, in November. In the old-style design world, festivals and biennials are breeding even faster. As their number grows, claims made for their uniqueness become ever more outlandish. The London Design Festival - billed last year as "the greatest creative show on earth" - was much derided at the time but will happen again this year. It seems to have absorbed the also portentously titled, and also underwhelming, World Creative Forum. A design biennial is planned for 2007 in Newcastle, and another up the road in Scotland. Denmark is ploughing a ton of money this year into an enterprise thrillingly titled Index which is also billed as a "summit for the world’s creative leaders" whose number apparently includes His Royal Highness Prince Frederik the Crown Prince of Denmark. There are hundreds more events out there - but is it a problem? Probably not, on balance, if the cities that commission these events find ways to make their events original, fresh, engaging and place-specific.

Posted by John Thackara at 04:21 PM | Comments (0)

January 24, 2005

More for your book list

Zaid Hassan writes with the polite suggestion, concerning our list of recommended books (see button on the right) that "perhaps a couple of Indian/Sub-Continent authors wouldn't go amiss?". Mea culpa:my first list is indeed horribly occicentric. Here are Zaid's recommendations:
- Igniting Minds" by PJ Abdul Kalam (President of India).
- The City of Djinns - William Dalrymple (non-fiction - about Delhi)
- The Idea of India - Sunil Khilnani (non-fiction)
- The Autobiography of an Unknown India - Nirad C Chaudhuri (non-fiction)
- Indian: A Mosaic - Ed Robert Silver & Barbara Epstein (collection of essays)
- Anything by R K Narayan (The English Teacher, Malgudi Days, The Financial Expert...) (Fiction)
- Last Train to Pakistan - Kushwant Singh (Fiction - about the Partition)
- Ice Candy Man - Bapsi Sidwha (Fiction - about the Partition)

Posted by John Thackara at 10:40 PM | Comments (0)