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.
Mr. Hardberger is among a handful of maritime “repo men” who handle the toughest of grab-and-dash jobs in foreign harbors, usually on behalf of banks, insurers or shipowners. A last-resort solution to a common predicament, he is called when a vessel has been stolen, its operators have defaulted on their mortgage or a ship has been fraudulently detained by local officials. ... Tens of thousands of boats or ships are stolen around the world each year, and many become part of a global “phantom fleet” involved in a broad range of crimes. Phantom vessels are frequently used in Southeast Asia for human trafficking, piracy and illegal fishing, in the Caribbean for smuggling guns and drugs, and in the Middle East and North Africa to transport fighters or circumvent arms or oil embargoes ... Usually the vessels are not recovered because they are difficult to find on the vast oceans, the search is too expensive and the ships often end up in ports with uncooperative or corrupt officials. ... sometimes, when the boat or ship is more valuable, firms like Mr. Hardberger’s Vessel Extractions in New Orleans are hired to find it. His company occasionally handles jobs involving megayachts, but more often the targets are small-to-medium cargo ships that carry goods between developing countries with poor or unstable governments.
In 1978, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) allocated over half its research budget ($15.76 million) to earthquake prediction, a level of spending that continued for much of the next decade. Scientists deployed hundreds of seismometers and other sensors, hoping to observe telltale signals heralding the arrival of the next big one. They looked for these signs in subterranean fluids, crustal deformations, radon gas emissions, electric currents, even animal behavior. But every avenue they explored led to a dead end. ... Since the early 20th century, scientists have known that large quakes often cluster in time and space: 99 percent of them occur along well-mapped boundaries between plates in Earth’s crust and, in geological time, repeat almost like clockwork. But after decades of failed experiments, most seismologists came to believe that forecasting earthquakes in human time—on the scale of dropping the kids off at school or planning a vacation—was about as scientific as astrology. By the early 1990s, prediction research had disappeared as a line item in the USGS’s budget. ... Defying the skeptics, however, a small cadre of researchers have held onto the faith that, with the right detectors and computational tools, it will be possible to predict earthquakes with the same precision and confidence we do just about any other extreme natural event, including floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The USGS may have simply given up too soon. After all, the believers point out, advances in sensor design and data analysis could allow for the detection of subtle precursors that seismologists working a few decades ago might have missed. ... At a time when American companies and institutions are bankrolling “moonshot” projects like self-driving cars, space tourism, and genomics, few problems may be as important—and as neglected—as earthquake prediction.
And, as human birthrates fell, pets took the place of children in some families. In 2014 there were 179 million cats and dogs in the U.S., up from 98 million in 1980. Today, according to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), more than 80 percent of pet owners think of themselves as their pets’ moms and dads. Americans love their pets so much, they spent $35 billion on veterinary care in 2015. ... In contrast to human medicine, in which everything from the nurse-patient ratio to the caloric count of injections is mandated and overseen by a web of government agencies, veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. And pet owners pay cash: Vets don’t deal with insurers haggling for better prices or questioning whether that vaccine or ultrasound or blood panel is really necessary. ... when veterinarians make fatal mistakes, they face no real financial consequences. The law hasn’t changed to reflect the attitudes of the average pet owner; courts still treat pets as property. ... a typical medical malpractice insurance policy for a veterinarian costs less than $20 a month. ... Corporations now own 15 percent to 20 percent of America’s 26,000 pet hospitals, and consolidators, copying the model pioneered by VCA, are buying them fast. ... The cost of veterinary care has risen even faster than the cost of human health care, more than doubling since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The building that houses the Heritage Foundation, on Massachusetts Avenue near the Capitol, stands as an eight-story monument to plain-faced perversity. It was here, in 1989, that the intellectual framework was first developed for what would become the Affordable Care Act. And it is here where Needham has spent the last six years trying to exterminate what he sees as the Frankenstein’s Monster that Heritage inadvertently set loose upon the land. ... premiums have been rising because of a variety of structural reasons, and because federal assistance to recipients to offset the costs has been in many cases inadequate. ... it is also because unit costs have continued to soar — like the price of prescription drugs, thanks to the sweetheart deal that the pharmaceutical industry cut with the Democrats in exchange for being an early supporter of the law. Some rural states like Alaska have seen very little competition among insurers — something that a public option might have addressed, had the insurance lobby not spent a fortune to defeat that provision. ... To make Obamacare economically feasible for insurers, the program needed to attract a large pool of young and healthy recipients to offset the costs of providing care for the older and less healthy. That ratio has yet to prove satisfactory for many insurance companies ... Collectively, those groups spent close to $273 million on lobbying during the height of the Obamacare debate. They will surely spend a similar sum haranguing Congress to pass a replacement that favors them.
Financial markets accommodate both prudent insurers and reckless gamblers. They provide investors with an opportunity to diversify their portfolios, and allow gamblers to bet on future movements in interest rates. The coexistence of the two can allow speculators to make profits by stabilising prices—buying when markets are fearful, and selling when they are greedy. But when the gambling motive overwhelms the insurance motive, speculation becomes destabilising and then risk, far from being minimised by careful management, becomes concentrated in the hands of those who understand least what they are doing. And when regulators perceive insurance when they should see wagering, their actions magnify a crisis rather than minimise it. Such destabilising speculation, mischaracterised by regulatory authorities as prudent risk assessment, is what caused the global financial crisis of 2008. ... The coexistence of insurance and gambling goes back to the earliest days of markets in risk, and the interaction of the two has been central to financial history. But it was four developments in the second half of the 17th century that combined to frame the way we think about risk, and the institutions we have for dealing with it, through to the present day.
Barely seven hours had passed since the gunmen had taken the ship. But already an international cast was activating: salvors from the region’s cutthroat ports, to scavenge millions from the wreckage; U.S. military investigators, to determine if Somali pirates had adopted brutal new tactics; and most urgently of all, an operative from the stony world of London insurance, to discover what really happened aboard his clients’ $100 million liability. Because if the hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso wasn’t a case of fumbled piracy, it would be the most spectacular fraud in shipping history. ... The events of July 6, 2011, set in motion a tangle of lawsuits and criminal investigations that are still nowhere near conclusion. Six years after it was abandoned, the Brillante Virtuoso is an epithet among shipping veterans, one that reveals their industry’s capacity for lawlessness, financial complexity, and violence. This account is based on court evidence, private and government records, and more than 60 interviews with people involved, almost all of whom asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivities of nine-figure litigation and, in some cases, concern for their own safety. Everyone at sea that night survived. But the danger was just getting started.