January 2, 2015
It's becoming unavoidably obvious that the current global order is unraveling. Add investor fears that we've ignored warning signs of slower growth, particularly in Europe, and that the easy-money days of quantitative easing may finally be coming to an end, and it didn't take much to send equity markets plunging last month. ... A distracted, war-weary America is no longer willing and able to provide global leadership, and no other country is stepping up to take its place. The U.S.'s international disengagement and seemingly improvised foreign policy are leaving allies, distracted by their own problems, looking to hedge their bets. Meanwhile, developing countries have become powerful enough to block U.S.-led plans but are not yet coordinated, motivated or influential enough to offer alternatives. Fast-changing China, revisionist Russia and a host of emerging markets with competing priorities and different political and economic systems leave us with too many major powers with too many divergent interests. The result is a global power vacuum - and markets are afraid of what might come next. ... We've now reached a crossroads where the outcomes of four combustible geopolitical crises could begin to reshape the global economy. Two of these crises are already reaching a critical point. The conflict between Russia and the west will rage in and around Ukraine, on Russia's borders with other neighbors, in energy markets, in financial markets, in the defense budgets of countries on both sides, in cyberspace - and anywhere else Moscow may try to undermine what remains of American global leadership. ... In the Middle East the battle with ISIS has just begun. ... Two other crises, not yet dominating headlines, are very much in play. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has his hands full with transformational economic reforms that will reshape the Chinese market and his country's global standing. But as its economic agenda comes under pressure, Beijing will look to deflect frustration and attention onto foreign companies, neighborhood adversaries or Washington. ... Second, new fissures in the U.S.-Europe alliance are taking shape. Divisions among European countries as well as global challenges that disproportionately threaten Europe are widening a structural divide between Europe and America.
Thousands of teenagers swarmed out of the towering front gate of Maotanchang High School. Many of them wore identical black-and-white Windbreakers emblazoned with the slogan, in English, “I believe it, I can do it.” It was lunchtime at one of China’s most secretive “cram schools” — a memorization factory where 20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population, train round the clock for China’s national college-entrance examination, known as the gaokao. The grueling test, which is administered every June over two or three days (depending on the province), is the lone criterion for admission to Chinese universities. For the students at Maotanchang, most of whom come from rural areas, it offers the promise of a life beyond the fields and the factories, of families’ fortunes transformed by hard work and high scores. ... Nothing consumes the lives of Chinese families more than the ever-looming prospect of the gaokao. The exam — there are two versions, one focused on science, the other on humanities — is the modern incarnation of the imperial keju, generally regarded as the world’s first standardized test. For more than 1,300 years, into the early 20th century, the keju funneled young men into China’s civil service. Today, more than nine million students take the gaokao each year (fewer than 3.5 million, combined, take the SAT and the ACT). But the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. ... Even as cram schools have proliferated across urban areas, Maotanchang is a world apart, a remote one-industry town that produces test-taking machines with the same single-minded commitment that other Chinese towns devote to making socks or Christmas ornaments.
If we want to safeguard our languages, stories and ideas against extinction, we had better study Egyptology ... The scientific community has recently begun to think hard about natural and technological existential risks to human beings: a wandering asteroid, an unfortunately timed gamma-ray burst, a warming planet. But we should also begin to think about the possibility of cultural apocalypse. The Egyptian case is instructive: an epoch of stunning continuity, followed by abrupt extinction. This is a decline and fall worth keeping in mind. ... for all its carven glyphs, Egypt cannot claim to have passed down its dreams, memories and hopes for the future. Some of its civilisation has been recovered, but some was lost irretrievably. This is sobering enough on its own terms. When you examine our beloved present day from an Egyptological distance, you see that we are vulnerable to a similar fate. ... Imagine the pharaohs’ frustration at all the bits of language lost, the prayers and tributes especially. This was a civilisation that had its eyes fixed on eternity. Its civil calendar was apparently keyed to the heliacal rising of Sothis, whose astronomical cycle has a period of some 1,400 years. By dint of longevity, the first Egyptologists were Egyptian, and ditto the first tomb robbers. Is it a bridge too far to say the first futurists were Egyptian too? ... Cretan hieroglyphs remain impenetrable, Olmec – the language of the first major civilization in Mexico – is largely a mystery, and only within the past half-century or so has meaning been teased from the Mayan script. For every civilisation retrieved, another remains substantially beyond our comprehension.
Bob Iger has spent much of his near decade at Disney wearing an additional corporate hat: CTO. The result? He has brought the coolest innovations from Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, and ESPN into a single galaxy. ... “blue sky” experimentation has always been part of Disney’s ethos, going back to the days of multiplane cameras (to add visual depth to the background in the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and early use of lifelike robots (Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room, which features electromechanical singing birds, pioneered the concept in 1963). But more than six decades ago, when founder Walt Disney first created Imagineering as the company’s innovative arm, virtual reality chambers were almost as far-fetched as talking animals. ... while there are many lessons to learn from the way he has run Disney over the past decade, this one is right up there: Not only do today’s media companies need to start thinking like technology companies—their CEOs also need to start thinking like CTOs. ... a former upstate New York weatherman who began his career at ABC in 1974 ... Every few months the CTOs of Disney’s respective businesses meet—at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., or at the company’s development center in Seattle, or at another locale—to discuss challenges and share information. Over the past couple of years the CTO council has launched “hackathons” and convened a “Best of Disney” annual symposium in which 50 new innovations are on display for the whole company to view. They’ve also partnered on technology initiatives like creating a single user ID that customers can use with various digital products. More recently they’ve started strategizing ways to incorporate drones into Disney’s businesses, such as flying them over football games with high-resolution cameras. Last summer the company filed a series of drone-related patent applications. (Eighty-four percent of Disney’s active patents were filed during Iger’s tenure as CEO.)
In 2009, roughly 5 percent of the global population owned a smartphone. Before 2015 is out, that number is expected to hit 35 percent, or 2.5 billion people—approximately the populations of China and India combined. Considering the ever-quickening pace of technological innovation and the shrinking cost of processors and chipsets, it does not take a particularly fertile imagination to picture the day when, perhaps as soon as 2017, half the world will be hooked up to the small screen of a smartphone. ... street theft of mobile devices—or “Apple picking,” as it’s known—has been such a widespread crime in recent years. According to Consumer Reports, 3.1 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft in 2013, up from 1.6 million in 2012. The mobile security firm Lookout believes that one in 10 smartphone users in the US have had their phones stolen; 68 percent of those victims never saw their device again. Nationally, about one-third of robberies now involve a smartphone. ... estimated Americans spend $4.8 billion annually on premium phone insurance and $580 million a year on replacement devices.
By 1999 John DeLorean was bankrupt and swimming in $85 million debt, but he still hoped that his namesake De Lorean car would eventually come back into style. The thought wasn’t entirely absurd – Volkswagen was enjoying phenomenal success with its ‘new’ Beetle and the retro-styled PT Cruiser was a hit for Chrysler. Then again the De Lorean Motor Company’s signature car, the DMC-12, only had a ten to 11-month run of less than 9,000 cars. In other words, the 1982 De Lorean car was retro by 1983. By 1985 the De Lorean was a joke in Back to the Future, so dated it made for a perfect time machine. ... The timeline of DeLorean’s personal history is so tied to the history of automobiles that, even after his death in 2005 (at age 80, after suffering complications from a stroke), his various supporters and detractors are still debating his accomplishments and foibles. Both lists are long. Some argue for the flashy and obvious, such as the DMC-12’s gull-wing doors and rust proof stainless steel body. Others point to a design accomplishment that is far more ubiquitous but rarely attributed to DeLorean: the lane-change turn signal.
On a surface level, Scotch tape may seem like just about the most boring product in the world. Though it can be found in nearly 90% of American households and is used for everything from wrapping gifts to “repairing” ripped dollar bills, we'll forgive you for never being curious about its origins. But stick with us: this gets interesting! ... The story of Scotch tape is one of incredible determination and risk-taking -- and its invention was thanks to a banjo-playing, college-dropout, “misfit” engineer who believed in his ability to invent. ... He ended up not just pioneering Scotch transparent tape and masking tape, but revolutionizing the way that his company, 3M, treated creative people.