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The World Until Yesterday – Book Review

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, very interesting. If the past helps us understand the present, and help informed decisions on the future, then this work is an important one, and a fascinating read. There is an amalgam of different aspects, which do not hold together as well as some of Diamond's other works, but is interesting nonetheless. How people in traditional societies find/raise food, eat, raise children, comforted the aged, as well as wage war, are covered in this work.

Sections on "constructive paranoia" and bilingualism (and language extinction), as well as chapter 11 on "salt, sugar, fat, and sloth" are definitely a wake-up call to dangerous trends in America. In addition, the chapters on civil society "justice" vs. the more "conflict resolution" mechanisms in traditional societies is quite insightful.

Missing from this is a more extended discussion of marriage and gender relations, though certainly there is much of this sprinkled throughout the work.

In any case, one of the best works I've read this year (as of August, 2019). The book was published in 2012 but has certainly aged well (if at all) in the past 7 years. Highly relevant and an entertaining read.

Diamond has certain preferences regarding what we can learn from traditional societies, based on his fifty years of learning about them. Some takeaways:

- Crib bilingualism as a prophyactic against alzheimers
- Children cry half as much if picked up/comforted immediately upon the start of crying, vs. the Dutch and German tactics of ignoring the child some of the time
- Nuclear families tend to not function well as child caretaking/rearing, but rather extended families and a variety of "allo-parents" in terms of neighbors and villagers.
- On demand nursing is common in traditional societies (for various reasons)
- A lot more infant-adult contact (and being carried, as humans are "carry animals")
- Physical punishment is common in some societies and uncommon in others, and probably doesn't work very well
- Multi-age playgroups are a good thing (aka Montessori style and even more extended)
- Child play and education are entwined, and the current mass manufactured toys and video game play makes children less creative, by certain measures
- Children in traditional societies are generally more emotionally secure, self-confident, curious, and autonomous based in some part on greater freedom (and certainly some forms of greater constraint, e.g., living with little privacy)
- There is wisdom in older people (story of a harrowing boat ride and talk with someone who avoided that boat and the captain as they looked young, foolish, and with a powerful motor)
- Minority languages are not harmful but helpful in terms of bilingualism, and could and should be supported by governments and in schools
- Salt, sugar, fat, and sloth are killers and are increasingly so

View all my reviews

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Power Law & Second Languages

The original formulation of Zipf's law was based on naturally occurring word frequencies and their rank order in a given English language corpus. For one example, merely 135 words accounted for 50% of the total word frequencies. This could be extended to phrases as well. For foreign language learners, this means that there is some limited set of words and phrases which account for a large percentage of word and phrase occurrences. (Unfortunately these frequency lists are usually based on corpuses which have little to do with the task of learning, that is actually useful/usable words based on frequency of practical, everyday use -- that is, a verbal corpus.) Nevertheless, provided with an effective list, if we leverage the mnemonic tools previously discussed, we can spend time to create a set of entry level learning tools which will be extremely relevant (and therefore worth the time in creating).

Suggested Techniques for Second Language Acquisition

For given words and phrases identified - Phonemic imagery - Iconic images (simple drawings) - Canonical script, including for alphabet - Town language Roman room mnemonic, extended as a metaphor via the Pattern Language of Christopher Alexander (at the level of vocabulary, and eventually as grammar)

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Mnemonic Devices and Learning

On January 1, 2009 CNN published an article on memory. Now would be a good time to review and expand on that article, in the hopes of improving our own memory. It may be useful to conceive of the Art of Memory as having four broad application areas, a set of techniques (often called mnemonic devices), and the underlying cognitive architecture which indicate how and why such techniques work in the first place. Ultimately mnemonic devices promise a significant return on cognitive and temporal investment -- spend time learning these techniques and save a lot more time and effort over the application area.

Background on Mnemonics

According to Aristotle, the art of memory was considered a part of rhetoric as much as dialectic in classical antiquity. Apparently, many mnemonic devices such as the Method of Loci and the Major System were taught in schools until at least the 19th century. It appears we have forgotten these memory systems. Now may be a good time to recall them to mind.

Underlying Cognitive Architecture

The underlying cognitive mechanism which are the basis for much of the mnemonic devices include the following elements, among others. - The Von Restorff Effect seems to be the basis for many other phenomena. The main point is that things that stand out are more likely to be remembered. This has many implications - The serial order effect includes two features: primacy (things first in a list are more likely to be remembered) and recency (things last in a series are more likely to be remembered). - The Picture Superiority Effect indicates that according to dual-coding theory, memories can exist as verbal and/or visual, and therefore pictorially represented ideas have the advantage of being coded twice, enhancing memorability. Use pictures and words when possible. - The Levels of Processing Effect is a complex phenomena. It proposes that depth of processing increases memorability. Semantic learning (meaning) is deeper than phonemic (sound) and orthographic (writing) learning alone. - In addition, specificity (the same medium of recall and production, such as auditory learning and recollection) increases depth. Self-reference indicates a connection between the object of learning and the subject doing the learning. Self-reference increases depth as well. Make learning specific in terms of medium, meaning (semantics), and learner self-reference (meaningfulness to the subject). This could be termed the three Ms of Memory: medium, meaning, and meaningfulness. - Implicit recollection is easier than explicit recollection. Implicit recollection effectively has context and other scaffolding features rather than requiring recollection without any related stimulus. However this effect does not have clear-cut support. - There is a hierarchy of sensory inputs for recall. Vision and touch are strongest with sound and smell less powerful sensory inputs. Incorporate vision and touch into sound-based memory inputs and outputs when possible.

Mnemonic Devices and Techniques

  • The Mnemonic Link System can be considered the basis of the Loci, Major, and Dominic systems. The main idea is to create connections between two unrelated things, thereby forging a memorable connection.
  • Peg systems are a memorization of visual associations with numbers, such that the numbers can be recalled by recalling the visual associations in a given order.
  • The Major System is a handy and flexible way of encoding numbers in sounds that can be memorized in words, and then decoded later to reproduce the original number. Created around 300 years ago, this is the most flexible system, though as it relies on sound it has a greater cognitive load rather than a straightforward peg system. However, it can be supplemented with software to help generate the most appropriate words to link to the target numbers. See also this article and this free software that can help with numbers-to-words association to help with major system.
  • The Dominic system is a shorter version of the Major system and associates numbers with letters, and pairs of letters with people. Then the idea is to memorize a set of people performing interactions, which can then be reversed back into the original number. (See also this phonetic mnemonic system.)
  • The Method of Loci is ascribed to the classical orator Simonides, who was speaking at a banquet, was called outside, when the roof collapsed. The bodies were so damaged they could not be identified, but he was able to identify the victims of the disaster based on where the people had been sitting. Loci (locations) are a well-known visual space which can be recalled readily to mind. The idea is then to picture objects in these places. The strengths of visual imagery and self-reference are combined to construct a powerful mnemonic.

Additional Practical Aspects

  • In the book Aspects of Memory: The Practical Aspects, there is an interesting article "Memory Aids, known how, knowing when, and knowing when not" introduces and discusses various memory aids (mnemonic devices) and their effectiveness compared with rote learning.
  • Another article in the same book, "The Facilitation of Memory Performance", discusses various memory and non-memory issues. Memory issues include using warm up, presentation rate, effective instructions, repetition, distributed study trials, use of external memory aids, and physical presence of objects.
  • Non-memory issues include physical, emotional, motivational, environmental, and social conditions. All of these non-memory issues are meant to increase both arousal and selective attention. Physically we are faced with the obvious importance of enough, but not too much, sleep, food, and water. Environmental issues include bathroom facilities, heat and cold, seating or standing, lighting, auditory and visual elements, and other comfort issues. Emotional state regards stress and relaxation training including yoga, meditation, and exercise. Motivation is a complex component best dealt elsewhere. Social environment has to do with interaction with others to reduce shyness and provide positive feedback and support.

Mnemonic Application Areas

  • Remembering Faces and Names are particularly important for rather obvious reasons. There are a few related systems, which usually rely on unique visual combinations, related to names, as well as previous memories and experiences, using the notion of self-reference.
  • A reviewer of "Remember Every Name Every Time" appears to provide most of the content of a given book, namely the two methods for remembering, the observational and associational systems.
  • There are several resources available as technique variations. The useful Nutt's How to Remember Names and Faces is now in the public domain. There is a video on how to remember names. A blog entry on ThinkSimpleNow has seven hacks to remember any name. And an additional site has more hints for name memory.
  • The Major and Dominic systems are designed for numbers, as well as reversing any peg system.
  • The linkword system is perfect for learning foreign language vocabulary. There has been useful research (constrained to case study) which indicates significant difference in using the linkword system. It is important that the linkwords, usually a visual combination based in L1 (first language) be focused on for a specific amount of time. Some studies indicate a 10 second time interval is useful and there is anecdotal evidence for great gains. Unfortunately, if native-speaker-level pronunciation is desired (which it usually is) then the linkwords must be created by bilingual teams who can work out the correct pronunciation. As we know languages have different sound sets, so even there a trained native speaker must conduct the listening and production aspects. For more thoughts on this topic, see this and this.
  • Textbook and Course Content is an obvious application area, though there is a sense that cramming is good enough for the majority of students, who don't want to commit to memory much of their higher educational experience. There is a useful resource on mnemonics for textbook memorization.
  • Another site provides some techniques for Listening in the article "How to listen for memory".

Final Note

To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn't have much time, so I wrote a long article. A shorter one will be forthcoming once I boil this down into a few simple techniques and guidelines.

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Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History

Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs have similar insights when it comes to hiring the best. This is equally relevant when one is building a school. Hire the best teachers possible, if you want a high-performing school.

Three Questions When Making a Hiring Decision

From the 1998 Amazon Shareholder Letter: It would be impossible to produce results in an environment as dynamic as the Internet without extraordinary people. Working to create a little bit of history isn't supposed to be easy, and, well, we're finding that things are as they're supposed to be! We now have a team of 2,100 smart, hard-working, passionate folks who put customers first. Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com's success. During our hiring meetings, we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision: - Will you admire this person? If you think about the people you've admired in your life, they are probably people you've been able to learn from or take an example from. For myself, I've always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise. - Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they're entering? We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask people to visualize the company 5 years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, The standards are so high now -- boy, I'm glad I got in when I did! - Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It's often something that’s not even related to their jobs.

Steve Jobs on Hiring Truly Gifted People

> In Software, and it used to be the case in Hardware, the difference between the average and the best is 50 to 1, maybe 100 to one.... > > I've built a lot of my success off finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for B and C players, but really going for the A players. And I found that when you get these A players together, when you go through this incredible work to find these A players, they really like working with each other becuase they've never had a chance to do that before. And they don't want to work with B and C players, and so it becomes self-policing, and they only want to hire more A players. And so you build up these pockets of A players and it propagates.

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Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence

Recent Items on ML

  • IBM's Ginny Rommety gave a compelling keynote at CES on AI, as well as answering a great set of questions on Bloomberg Technology.
  • Harari's book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century has some interesting discussion of AI. One thing is that he has a tendency to push the case harder than it needs be, and reliance on trends which later are seen as less pronouced, or are better understood as a longer-term trend (that is, not quite new), tend to undercut the writing. Nevertheless he is asking the important questions. It seems to me that the discussion of AI (as per Rommety) should not be using the term AI but rather cognitive computing, or simply machine learning.

General AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) was always a joke in the 1990s and 2000s. The main point is that the entire project was a failure. To continue to get grant money, researchers rebranded what they were doing cognitive sciences and learning sciences. The problem at the time was that they could not produce anything resembling intelligence. In the 2010s that has significantly changed. The main reason for the resurgence of AI is the dramatic increase in computing power and in data availability (largely due to the dramatic increase in sensors and data-creating devices). Also, a more focused aspect of AI is now in vogue, deep learning, which is about learning data representations rather than task performance. In a sense this is much easier to do, with the learning happening at a higher cognitive level, and which can include directed, semi-directed, or non-directed machine learning. A general purpose learning machine, even one constrained to things like a voice-enabled assistant, has a long way to go for any kind of measure of success. However, certain focused forms of deep learning, namely pattern discovery and anticipation, have had enough successes to generate continued investment. Finance and transportation are two systems which while productive using humans -- the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor)1 -- can be improved dramatically using AI applications (neural networks, and computer vision and cybernetics, respectively).


  1. 1965 NASA report on spaceflight computing. It seems that now is the time to integrate AI, where and when possible, into projects of various kinds. Some basic principles and current state of the art is needed to get one's bearings in AI, and provide a foundation for experimentation with AI in new products and services, or simply useful utilities.

    AI Training and Courses

    Here are some resources: - Class Central - Free AI Courses - KDNuggets - Five free AI Courses - Coursera - Artificial Intelligence Courses - EdX Artificial Intelligence Intro Course at Columbia - Google 3 Month course on Deep Learning (Free) - The Verge - 13 Free Courses on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence - Artificial Intelligence - Free Online Course at MIT - Udacity courses - Deep Learning - Udacity - Intro to AI - CS271 - Coursera - Machine Learning - Andrew Ng

    AI on AWS

    As Amazon says More AI Is Built on AWS Than Anywhere Else. - Two courses currently available on machine learning and deep learning. - AWS AI Blog

    Tools (AWS and Other)

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Maria Montessori Education

I am a great fan of Maria Montessori and her ideas about education. This page are some thoughts and links. First we have the core pedagogy. Then we have the actual learning environment, tools, tasks, etc. Third, we have montessori training of teachers. Fourth, we have the actual 6-12 grades (which Montessori herself did not produce). Finally what would this look like in terms of higher education, both academic and professional. And Ultimately what does this look like in terms of ongoing professional development. - Montessori Teacher Training Thailand - Online Montessori Training Note that Montessori has the same problem as TEFL where there are many online courses that have a wide variety of prices, and obviously some of them are simply inadequate, and others are rapaciously priced and overkill. - Research shows benefits of Montessori education - The Guardian 29-Sep-2006

Bloggers and Montessori-Inspired Sites

Montessori Materials

Montessori Training

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2016 Postmortem

Instead of a post about 2017, I want to postmortem 2016. It has been an enormous year of reckoning, being faced with previous decisions and facing them anew. Client chaos, a move into the suburbs, my son's development from months 2 to 14, and several injuries have made this a stressful year. In any case, some nooks and crannies to explore.

Santa Claus - Classics

Development, Devops, Netadmin

Documenting software is an area that has improved in 2016, but is nowhere near fully-formed. However, some new project management tools have aided in this, especially Trello. Progress was made in becoming proficient in several tools, including GIMP, Inkscape, as well as Fish Shell, and Bash, and various shell utilities as well as CentOS, and a deeper familiarity with Apache HTTPD. Going into 2016 there was strong interest in Ubuntu, especially the new long term support version 16.04, and some interest in NginX. However, in the end, it turned out better to stick with what you know (in my case, CentOS and Apache), and that paid off in terms of deepening knowledge and building on years of experience, rather than starting anew. Also gained good experience in deploying Opcache and LetsEncrypt (and not-so-good experience deploying Memcached and PageSpeed).

Client Chaos

Clients are of course a necessary evil, if one is in the consulting business. A necessary good, as well. And there is the rub. I enjoy working for clients as it is the aspect of my work which has me as advocate. Consulting for other's organizations can be more effective than one's own because of well-known blind spots and assumptions. It also provides a team setting, which can be energizing and an excellent learning and knowledge-building and validation experience. When that is not the case, then things turn sour. Team cohesion is really the core of a professional relationship, not the exigency of money. When that suffers, the money better be damned good. If both suffer, the relationship is terminal.

Man in a Hostile World

Obliquely, if not cryptically, it is important to put 2016 in perspective. There are monsters.

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Micro Course Content

I read a provocative article on Micro Course Content which was linked from an article on the (potential) rise of mobile learning. Note the word potential as we only really see smartphone adoption rate information, not actually micro course content adoption or success rates. > Side note: unclear why a learning company couldn't use the word how instead of why other than clickbait laziness.

Micro Course vs. Full Course

The problem with micro course content is that it while there are some small, stand-alone learning elements, such as things like vocabulary lists, historical events, or perhaps some refresher content, many things that make a long course necessary, including extended attention drawn to a particular subject, over time, makes this "micro" stuff not very useful.

A Week's Worth of Dinner or 400 Bites

Dividing a course into 400 bites is a bit like dividing a week's worth of dinner into 400 bites. There is a reason we don't do it that way, and it doesn't make sense. A well-designed multi-course meal (not necessarily a large meal, but one with complexity and integrity) alternates between different palatial experiences. Time spent on each course, and time between courses, as well as the order of those courses and the differences in taste are all required to have a complete experience, and also to form memories of that experience.

Thinking Takes Time

The more educated people become, the longer it takes them to accomplish tasks which become ever more complex. 5-7 minutes is enough to read an email and come up with a response one already knows and understands. But actual thinking takes longer than that. Simply because more people have smartphones (and thankfully their screens are getting a little bigger), doesn't mean that everything can, or should, be put on small screens and divided up into small attention span segments that can be accessed on-demand. Sure, some things work for that, but most learning, I would argue, does not, nor should it, nor could it.

Doing Takes Time

These days, while I certainly have some tasks that are fairly quick, or might take an hour or so, much of what I write on my task list takes 4 hours or more. Originally that was shorter, but these are the kinds of time divisions needed to accomplish something. Either it will take 4 hours of focus (basically, half a day), or multiple 4 hour blocks, or it can be squeezed into a half-day when other small tasks are being done.

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Sakichi Toyoda and the Five Whys Root Cause Analysis

Sakichi Toyoda and the Five Whys

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motor Company, is considered one of the greatest if not the greatest inventor of Japan and the father of Japanese Industrialization. His impact on the world should not be underestimated. As with most historical figures, our tasks are different because we live in a different world. However we can learn from the thinking of this great man. Toyoda invented the Five Whys question asking method for discovering the root cause of events, particularly failure. The idea is to get at root causes rather than symptoms so that improvements rather than merely temporary fixes can be made to a system.

Root Cause Discovery is Difficult

Getting at root causes is not easy, and the method is not foolproof, but it is a profound and useful tool. Root cause analysis is a fundamental feature of innovative systems otherwise the changes to the system will be cosmetic, or worse will cause the system to further degrade.

Example of Root Cause 5 Whys Analysis

My car will not start. (the problem) - Why? - The battery is dead. (first why) - Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (second why) - Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (third why) - Why? - The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why) - Why? - I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

The Five Whys at Lanna Innovation

At Lanna Innovation, we also ask the five whys, but not only in events of failure in terms of production, but failure in terms of a clash of understandings and in disagreements. Why do we disagree? What is the failure of perception or the failure of conception taking place? Understanding root causes is key to communication and product development processes as well as engineering quality control.

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The Next 40 Years

This is the sort of post that generally makes me laugh out loud. No one can predict anything like 40 years out. I myself routinely mock anyone who tries to do such a thing. However... However, it is possible to draw out trend lines, even though we can be certain they will shift. And in these trend lines, like so many fate lines creased within our palms, like so many tea leaves, we can see a vision of a changed future. It is this act of imagination, along certain known trajectories, which can bring insight.

Two Phenomena

Today we can discuss two phenomena, and connect them in a tenuous relationship known as cause-and-effect. But it is not the clear-cut cause-and-effect which we are used to. Rather it is ground of the possibility cause and potentia effect we are dealing with. Two phenomena: - The aging institution and the seemingly contradictory role of education and research - The seemingly contradictory role that asymmetric development has introduced to the old canard of East vs. West

Education vs. Research

Recently Mark Taylor, one of the foremost Moral philosophers of the United States, took on US Higher Education calling graduate programs the "Detroit of higher learning". His incisive diagnosis of the problem was unfortunately not matched by a suggested course of treatment which was yet again a "reorganization" of the faculty. Don Tapscott also noted the demise of the University, for different reasons, pedagogical. Interestingly the very institution which legitimates itself through the unholy science can be easily demolished scientifically by that very science, namely that learning is not taking place and more importantly, need not.

Unaccountability

The fact of the matter is that the faculty themselves, if the meaning of the word can be used in such a distorted and perverse way, do their own "reorganization", which is yet again a gridlocked, politically charged, interminable process where the education mission is largely subverted by the desires for research and the powerless scholarly, non-research mission is sacrificed yet again. This of course is likely the fated outcome in any case, with one of the founding twins murdering the other again and again. Batur Volcano and Lake

Seven Years within the Beast

There once was a professor who learned how to get grants, and to publish papers. And this is what that professor did. Of course it was graduate students, paid at below living wage rates who did the work. But at the end of all those tax dollars, all those papers, all those frequent flyer miles, what was accomplished? A resounding nothing. Certainly some activity was undertaken, calories burned, but approximately 99% of the resources were truly wasted. This professor is celebrated as a success because of the ability to publish papers and to divert public tax dollars into the coffers of the university. This is how the university defines success. Did education take place? Well yes, to some degree which the professors' students learned how to do the same thing, divert public monies and produce nothing.

21st Century Dialectics

As we know from Rüdiger Bittner's critique (much less global warming), the lovely progression of the Hegelian spirit never quite makes it to self-understanding as there is a defect along the pathways of thought. Arguably this is good for the species in terms of survival, and bad for the planet and many other species (not including the ones who have and can adapt to modern human "civilization" such as domesticated animals and cockroaches). With the Aufhebung a quizzical and remote improbability, what we are really faced with is entrenched rebellion or "mere" revolution. Perhaps it is really a triumphant revolution which best sows the seeds of its own dissolution, though of course the time involved would have to be considered inhumane in many cases.

Research, the Enemy Within

In any case, what we can see is that Research has overturned Education and is indeed perceived as the engine (expensive though it may be) for a given segment of economic growth. Impoverished education is trotted out as an important need for funding, while those funds are funneled quickly enough to the research enterprise. Who can argue with these new inventions that crop up every so often? After all, don't the students get an education, get a degree, and then become qualified for work of some sort? Plus, there is the need to keep these people at the annoying ages of 18-22 somewhere, if not the military, is there not? Hatley Castle

Western Education in the East

The East has not missed the point that these trappings of civilization need to be adopted, if only to deprive the predatory West of a cultural rationale for invasion and colonization. As well, the population is led to believe that education as derived in the rarefied walls of such institutions has advantages both moral and economic. Cultural philistines are simply few and far between in a credulous culture which sees imitation as the means for reaching economic parity.

The Point

If this discussion appears a bit abstruse, allow me to slip into uncharacteristic clarity. It is the internal corruption of higher education, of research and its vampiric relationship to the educational enterprise itself, which provides the exact pathways to the overthrow of the West by the East and the return, after a brief (though spectacular) interlude preceded by the same dominance of East over West. The East understands the ceremonial necessities, and higher education is one of them. Let us hope they don't grow to actually believe it, and thereby sow the seeds of their own, future overthrow, sometime in the 22nd century.

2025 and 2050

Five years ago I plotted out the differential growth rates of the US and China and determined that with those rates that the Chinese economy would reach the size of the US economy around 2025. Hans Rosling has done a projection based on convergence of average income and health indicators and sees 2048 as the date at which both India and China will have reached parity and the shift in dominance will then be back with the East over the West in terms of wealth (and therefore power). Hans is unfortunately under the illusion that it is education which is the saving grace of civilization, rather than the slingshot to get us off the ground and begin to learn beyond the confines of the medieval institution which has long become corrupted and is now a leading cause of the downfall of whatever civilization might mean.