Friday, 25 July 2014

SAMs everywhere: No Where (Air) To Fly

Three air crashes is the past one week. The most chilling one is the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine with 298 on board. The other two crashes have attributed to weather related causes. If we recall there have several near collisions of aircrafts in air or on runaways. Air travel was touted as the safest. I am not sure what the basis of that claim was. The right way of comparison would be the ratios of fatalities to respective modes of travel like air, train, roads and waterways at some macro level.   

International commercial passenger air travel is increasing @ of 5.1% pa & its doubling every 15 years. In addition to this there is freight air traffic, plus military air force traffic. Add to this lower altitude traffic from helicopters, small private plans. Executive jets, etc. So skies are indeed quite crowded at all points of time.

Highest traffic is in the North American airports. About 2 mn passengers fly daily, one bn per annum and 60 million flights per annum. But over the next twenty years there will be a tectonic shift towards Asia Pacific where most of the incremental traffic will emanate with huge incremental GDPs, rising middle class and wealth.  Are we prepared for this explosion of air traffic. As it is, we are facing so many near misses through providential whiskers of cat. The infinite forces have been kind. Below I have quoted shares of global air traffic:

Based on 2013 figures, Asia/Pacific remains the world’s largest region, with a 32% share of total capacity representing an increase of +7.0% over 2012. Despite an improving economic climate in Europe and North America, the capacity of the European and North American airlines grew below the world
average, growing at +2.8% and +2.1%, respectively. The Middle East region remains the fastest growing in the world, expanding at +11.9% in 2013 and accounting for 9% of the world traffic. The capacity offered by the airlines of Latin America/ Caribbean and Africa represents respectively 5% and 3% of the world total, and expanded +4.6% and +4.9%, respectively.

All this is adding tremendously to the CO2 emissions which a aggravating global warming and climate change precipitously. The carbon footprints left by airlines are lethal.
Some of the other collateral risks in air travel are: proliferation of drones both military and commercial which sometimes come dangerously to the paths of the big metal birds.  Bird hits near airports are yet another unavoidably hazard of flying. With greater urban concentrations these poor birds have no option but to meet their doom by coming in the way of the big birds.

There has been a new urban phenomenon of aerotropolises coming up around new international airport. Just like 100s of years all great cities grew around port towns on rivers and seas.

Some of the other risks which flying entails are pilots who report to duty with higher than permissible alcohol and substances in their blood streams.  A notable movie “Flight” stirs up a lot of existential emotions. But the biggest risks in airline industry has been spawned post 9/11. Airport security checks have been heightened considerably. Cost of flying gone up considerably. As it is most airlines are flying at losses. There is a lot of mergers and amalgamations in the airline industry in order to keep afloat.

All is if we compare with our pastoral lives 500 years ago when people hardly ventured beyond twenty miles of their villages by foot mostly. Life was truly simply and less energy intensive. Then came trains, cars and finally planes. The world truly became our oyster. Globalisation truly has its dark underbelly and flipside. All this scientific progress comes  with a cost.

Now the new face of terror is truly diabolical. These rogue terror outfits equipped with these deadly SAMs are ably the reach for the skies and no one is safe. Any long international fight has to fly over so many not so friendly countries and also so many with conflict zones. It’s difficult to predict which of these rogue terror outfits does not have SAMs. We are truly at the mercy of international terrorists.  In addition there are military aircraft flying all the time, including stealth aircraft which are off the radars.

Hence the question arises how long flying will be safe with these proliferating SAMs like virtual landmines and the other big birds.

If I may touch upon a pet theme of mine: UFOs are also out there adding more complexity to an already complicated picture. The truth is truly out there.

Which leaves us with the existential question: to fly or not to fly. Are these signals for us to rewind our hi tech lives and gradually adopt pastoral lives. Back to the family where we belong. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Motivated vs True Research

Recently there was an article in the papers on ketogenic diet, which espouses fats, animal proteins and  very low carbs. Several have followed it with immense beneficial results. At the same time there other schools of research who position themselves at the very antipodes of ketogenic diet. High fat diets have very few takers. In fact they are roundly held responsible for all modern heart problems which become endemic in most societies. The general perception is that high carb diets are good for sports. So we see that there are a lot of contradictions between the various types of diets for sports, well being, healthcare and various age groups. Hence research turns out to be myriad edged sword.

Hence we see that broadly there are two types of research: concept of true fundamental unbiased research vs biased industry funded agenda based research.

In my first job, which was in one of India’s largest banks, I was posted in the Research Department. Soon I was discontented with the age old research reports sent to the Board of the Bank. The reports served no commercial purpose. No great policy or strategy emerged from them. Hence I started a quest for True Research which pioneered and focused upon the strategic initiatives of the bank, its profitability across all segments, classes of branches and SBUs, costing of services, customer satisfaction.

Research has increased by leaps and bound over past thirty years or so. More often than not, research has been a hand maiden for the socio-political bent and structure of the industrial organization. Hence we often come across research outputs which are contradictory in substance, mostly to support the industry which has sponsored the research. Hence we come across diametrically opposite findings which for example will talk about the virtues of tomatoes, and then few months later the reverse findings will be published. This happens all the time with views of benefits of certain vegetables or meats, followed in no time by the research on the negative impact of the same vegetables or meats. Research is the new PR tool of industries. 

There a huge racket prevalent in terms medical trials all over the world. Here the pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, regulatory authorities and health insurance companies all join hands in promoting clinical trials of drug on the unsuspecting public, often banning more effective drugs, in order gain monopoly for clinical trial medicines. The health care mafia is a strong one which in order to provide its drugs will go to any length to push its medicines.

Research in the financial system has also created weapons of mass destruction which led to the 2008 financial meltdown. Sophisticated instruments like packaged bonds sold to other banks. The traders and rocket scientists also added to the woes with trading in the black pools of the net apart from other rogue products.

The other ugly side of research is that it needs funding. So there a tenuous relationship between investors and those in charge of research. So the later bend backwards to support the view of their financiers.  Even the research of climate change which has snowballed out of all proportions has those who believe in climate change and the rival camps who are climate skeptics.

We have reached a stage where there is a cacophony and we are not able to believe in any particular research and sift the noise from the signal. There is too much at stake. Hence research is muzzled and has to listen to its master’s voice and the agenda and objectives of the organization. No objective can truly be based upon clear socio-political foundations. There will always be some element of bias.

US has led the world in research through its great educational institutions. Most of fundamental research has been funded by industry but generally with no strings attached. Hence as per Robert Solow of MIT, 90% of the growth of USA during the 100 years ending 1970 can be attributed to R&D.

Hence need for more fundamental research. Companies are setting aside about 1% of profits for research. There is a long and winding road to a world which pays feed to true research. Till then we have to sift the grains from the chaff. True fundamental universal research is our goal.  Some people like Bill Gates, etc are truly funding research will help the poorest of the poor with toilets, drinking water, viable shelter, food, etc. We need more boundary less research helping the have-nots. 

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