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The Year UnPacked: 30 to 21

Credit: xinhua/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Credit: xinhua/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

December 26, 2018   6 mins

UnHerd is a place to look at the world without the headlines getting in the way. But we don’t claim to be the only such vantage point. Beyond the froth of the 24 hour news cycle – and the 24 second social media cycle – you can find a wealth of writing that doesn’t follow the herd. The aim of my daily UnPacked column is to feature, and comment on, the best of what’s out there.

I’ve counted down the top 50 UnPacked highlights from 2018 – the facts, figures, ideas and events that may not have made the headlines, but which provide a more reliable insight into the forces shaping the future.

Today, numbers 30 to 21:



Scandalous link to Russia exposed

With America under Trump, Britain mired in Brexit and France having a riot, Germany looks like the responsible adult of international politics.

But is it? Consider the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a link between Germany and Russia that undermines the security of the countries in between. A Bloomberg editorial explains:

“Due to be completed in 2019, the pipeline will double the amount of gas Russia transports directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Nord Stream 1, completed in 2011, supplies 55 billion cubic meters a year to Germany; the second pipeline would allow Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, to funnel an additional 55 billion cubic meters over the same route.”

This is bad news for Russia’s immediate neighbours:

“Gas that gets to Western Europe [via land-based pipelines] from Russia also passes through countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, all NATO members. They… are at risk of being denied supplies and transit revenues once Nord Stream 2 comes online. Poland’s government has called the pipeline a ‘hybrid weapon’ created by Moscow to divide the EU and NATO.”


German irresponsibility threatens Europe

Global Affairs



Where are the clones? There are no clones

2018 began with a very special delivery at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai: the birth of two crab-eating macaques called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. What made these little monkeys special is that they are the first cloned primates to make it beyond the Petri dish and the womb.

People are also primates, but no human clone has ever been born (we think). In a fascinating, if somewhat horrifying, report for MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado explains why. Basically, it’s hugely impractical – most attempts fail and each attempt is costly:

“…[Yi Zhang, a leading stem cell biologist] notes that Chinese teams used 63 surrogate mothers and 417 eggs to make two monkey clones. Just imagine arranging for dozens of human surrogates and egg donors.

“‘No society could accept this,’ says Zhang.”

Well, one would hope so.


Whatever happened to the human clones?




China is electrifying

“If you want to know the future, look at the past”, said Albert Einstein. Alternatively, look at China.

For instance, the scale of the country’s environmental problems may shock you, but so might the effort going into solving them.

In April, Jeremy Hodges took a look at China’s electric bus revolution for Bloomberg:

“The numbers are staggering. China had about 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the roads worldwide in 2017, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s entire fleet. Every five weeks, Chinese cities add 9,500 of the zero-emissions transporters—the equivalent of London’s entire working fleet, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance.”

If we want to stop catastrophic climate change then we will have to electrify our transport system within a generation. China shows it can be done.


You wait ages for an electric bus, and then three hundred thousand turn up

Global Affairs



America: Not divided, just disappointed

America appears to be a deeply polarised nation. And it is – but not for the reasons you might think, argues George Hawley in the American Conservative:

“The Bible-thumping, pro-war, free-market purist is a rare creature. So is the gun-grabbing, abortion-loving, socialist atheist. Perfect conservative and liberal stereotypes are hard to find in the real world.

“Especially on economic issues, Americans exhibit a remarkable consensus…”

As shared institutions decline, we become more loyal to unshared institutions like political ideologies and cultural identities. This allows emotionally manipulative, but otherwise incompetent, politicians to rise to the top. In power, they let their supporters down – creating psychological stress that needs a release:

“…we can resolve the tension between our party identifications and our frustration with our parties by increasing our antipathy toward our parties’ opponents. In other words, we can justify our vote choice if we believe the opposing party is worse…”

Utter madness, but it explains a lot.


The worse our politicians get, the more we indulge them




Whatever happened to Web 3.0?

Ethan Zuckerman is a key figure in the development of the internet. Interviewed by Noah Kulwin for New York magazine, he believes that ‘Web 2.0’ – the internet as dominated by the giants of search and social media – is stagnating:

“I really feel like we’ve lost about ten years of innovation. I feel like this last decade has been pretty boring for the web.”

He’s right. Think about the development of internet in decade-long chunks. In 1988, most of us hadn’t even heard of the internet, but by 1998, email was widespread and websites commonplace. Fast forward another ten years to 2008 and broadband had become the norm. Google and Facebook were also achieving default status – indeed pretty much everything that dominates digital in 2018 was in place ten years ago.

Thanks to the smartphone, the internet has gone fully mobile over the last decade – but it’s still basically the same internet, only on a smaller screen.


Alexa, how do we disrupt the tech lords?




Stop fiddling with the gene machine

The first ‘gene edited’ babies were born in China this year. But as Veronique Greenwood reminds us in a piece for Quanta Magazine, an individual’s genome is not so much a list of instructions as a complex machine whose different parts interact in complicated ways that we’re nowhere near to fully understanding:

“Joel Bader, a systems biologist at Johns Hopkins University, says… that ‘[The] closer we are able to look, the more we are able to see that perturbing one gene or pathway has effects that propagate throughout the entire system,’…”

Thanks to techniques like CRISPR, we can knock-out and splice-in genes with ever greater precision. But though we know how to perform these manipulations, to a very large extent we don’t know what we’re doing. That’s worth bearing in mind before we genetically re-engineer our descendants.


Why much of genetic engineering remains a mystery




Sheffield A and Sheffield B

The great geographical divides that define the politics of our time – for instance between ‘red state’ America and the coastal cities, or between the Eurozone’s core and periphery – don’t always involve great distances. Sometimes, the same applies to a single city. In an eye-opening piece for CityMetric, Sam Gregory provides a guided tour of what he calls “Sheffield A” and “Sheffield B”:

“Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?”

Gregory describes a bus route across the city where, between the neighbourhoods at each end, “average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women”.

There’s no physical barrier between the two Sheffields, but that doesn’t stop them from being worlds apart.


What do Sheffield and Paris have in common?

Flyover Country



The birth of two nations

In the New York Times Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller describe another great divide, this time among American women:

“First-time mothers are older in big cities and on the coasts, and younger in rural areas and in the Great Plains and the South. In New York and San Francisco, their average age is 31 and 32. In Todd County, S.D., and Zapata County, Tex., it’s half a generation earlier, at 20 and 21…”

Across the nation as a whole, the average age of first birth is now 30.3 for college educated women but 23.8 for those without a college degree.

When Benjamin Disraeli wrote about the two nations of Victorian England – “the rich and the poor” – he said that they were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners…”

In a different time and place, it’s still true.


America: the birth of two nations

Flyover Country



The great GDP con

Over the last few decades, there’s been a marked slow down in economic growth across the West. However, things could be even worse than the official GDP figures would lead us to believe.

In an article for the Global Poverty and Inequality Dynamic Research Network, Jacob Assa and Ingrid Harold Kvangraven show that some dubious tweaks to the way the figures are calculated mean that we’re not as rich as we think we are.

Not only does GDP include the rent paid by tenants to landlords, it also includes the imaginary or ‘imputed’ rent that “homeowners would have paid to a landlord had they [the landlord] owned their home…”

This means that escalating rents and runaway house prices – which contribute nothing to productivity and make a lot of people poorer – shows up as a boost to GDP.

No wonder governments are so reluctant to solve the housing crisis.



Families need fathers and so do entire neighbourhoods

The inequality in life outcomes of black boys and white boys in America is well known. But a new study featured in the New York Times shows just how pervasive the effect is – it doesn’t matter how rich the household or how ‘good’ the neighbourhood, black boys are more likely to end up in a lower income band as adults than are white boys (and correspondingly less likely to end up in a higher band).

And yet the fine-grained geographical detail of the study did pick out certain neighbourhoods where the effect was much weaker. What was it that made these areas different? Crunching the data revealed various factors, but the most significant had to do with fatherhood:

“…these pockets… were the places where many lower-income black children had fathers at home. Poor black boys did well in such places, whether their own fathers were present or not.

“‘That is a pathbreaking finding,’ said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist whose books have chronicled the economic struggles of black men.”

Fathers aren’t just good for their own families, they can also provide boys in other families with “role models and mentors”.

Now read The Year UnPacked 20-11


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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