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Posts Tagged ‘decline’

The 1990s was Last Great Decade for People Living in USA and West: 1

January 26, 2020 15 comments

Here is a series I first contemplated writing about five years ago, though the core idea occurred to me a bit before that and in an unexpected place. See.. spending too much time looking at the less frequented parts of the internet often results in me noticing unusual correlations, trends and patterns which escape the attention of most people. About seven years ago, I was going through a newsgroup about new large architectural projects all over the world and noticed an odd trend. Increasingly the most interesting and large building projects in the world were in Asia, not North America or Europe. Some of you might attribute this to Asia finally catching up to the West, and initially considered that possibility. Then I noticed something else.. most of the few large building projects in the West were increasingly way over budget and took far longer than expected. More interestingly, the results were usually of poor quality and full of poor design choices.

And then I started noticing this same basic trend in many other areas, from drug discovery and computer technology to video games, movies and music. It was as if the past 15-20 years have been one continuous blur of stagnation if you were living in USA or any other western country. Some of you might say that smartphones, “machine learning” and other assorted bullshit is a sign of progress. But is it really? Think about it.. Pocket PCs running Windows Mobile could be used to browse the web, check email, play games, watch movie clips, take photos, utilize GPS and many more things almost 20 years ago. The biggest “advance” smartphones represent is that they are permanently connected to high-speed cellular networks because data rates are now very low. Has all that hype about “machine learning”, “deep learning” and “AI” translated into any worthwhile improvement in your quality of life? Can you think of a counter example?

While I would like to start this series by talking about how technology has stagnated, a better (more popular) place to start would be how cultural products has either stagnated gotten worse. While trends in music and video games will be addressed in subsequent posts, we will focus on trends in films and TV in this post. But before we go there, let us first define the 1990s. In my opinion, the 1990s began on December 26, 1991 and ended on September 11, 2001 though it kinda dragged on until August 31, 2005. The period between those dates was the last time the west (especially USA) was dominant and relatively prosperous. As you will see, these dates define that decade in many fields. It is as if this time-span was the last hurrah for the western socio-economic model including neo-liberalism (and neo-conservatism).

Now let us get back to the main focus of this post, namely the almost complete stagnation of creativity in western films and TV shows (including online offerings). Here is a question- Do you remember any film or TV show released within the past 15 years that was not a direct derivative of something released earlier? Do you remember anything financially successful or unsuccesful that was not a direct derivative of something from before 2006? But why does this matter? Well.. because almost decade in the century before 2006 witnessed multiple major new trends that were not a direct derivative of something from the past one. To be fair, some of it was due to technological advances and changes in social mores. But much of it was driven by people experimenting with new ways to present novel material. Confused? Let me explain..

Consider the 1920s, with german expressionist cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Pre-Code Hollywood movies, Russian Cinema (Battleship Potemkin, October). Can anybody deny that these represented new ways of making and editing films, not to mention the fact that they tackle hitherto untackled subject matter- at least in cinema. Or take the 1930s with its classic monster movies, Hollywood musicals, Disney Cartoons, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries etc. The 1940s had Film Noir and other memorable movies such as Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca etc. To be clear, I am not suggesting that previous decades were full of good, let alone original, movies. But it is clear that every decade in the century prior to 2006 saw the emergence of new and influential trends in cinema. However, we haven’t really seen anything similar occurring in the past 15 years.

The 1960s had tons of new trends, as did the 1970s. Even the 1980s had their new trends from low-budget horror movies to summer action blockbusters. There was much innovation in western cinema for a century before 2006. But the something, or more than one thing, happened western cinema became boring, repetitive and (most importantly) forgettable. I have briefly touched on some of these issues in my post about the current rash of film remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels and I sort of started talking about this topic in a post a few months ago– but never got around to building on it. And yes, I am aware that there are broader sociological trends at work. But whichever way you try to explain, it is hard to argue that the past fifteen years saw the alsmot total stagnation of creativity in western cinema and TV shows.

Don’t believe me? Well.. here are some facts. Most of the LOTR trilogy was filmed in New Zealand between October 11, 1999 and December 22, 2000, and the first movie in that series came out on November 20, 2001. The first X-men movie was released on July 14, 2000. The first film in the highly successful Spider Man franchise came out on May 3, 2002. The Matrix was released in 1999, as were the following important movies: Star Wars: Episode I, Office Space, Election, The Mummy, American Pie, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, Fight Club, American Beauty, Sleepy Hollow and many more. 1998 saw the release of important movies such as The Truman Show, Armageddon, Deep Impact, 1998 version of Godzilla, The Big Lebowski, Wild Things, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and many more.

The first Austin Powers movie came out in 1997, the first Jurassic Park in 1993. The first Scream movie came out in 1996 and the first I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997. The first Toy Story came out in 1995 and the first Shrek movie in 2001. Can you think any equivalents in post 2005-era? Oh, and even the 40-year-old virgin came out in 2005. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy came out in 2004. Superbad was filmed in 2006 and had been under development since 2000. Once again, I could keep going on and on- but you get my point. Pretty much every single major movie released in past 15 years can with very few exceptions directly trace its roots to the pre-2005 era. In the next part of this series, I will show how that the same is true for TV shows including their streaming variants. We will also start going into why this major socio-cultural-economic shift (aka stagnation) began in earnest around the mid-2000s.

What do you think? Comments?

Interesting Recent Articles on the Ongoing Global Demographic Decline

November 18, 2019 18 comments

Recently, I came across a number of articles about the ongoing demographic decline in developed countries all over the world. FYI- I plan to write a short series about this topic soon.

Link # 1: The End of Babies

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land. It’s not just Danes. Fertility rates have been dropping precipitously around the world for decades — in middle-income countries, in some low-income countries, but perhaps most markedly, in rich ones. Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

Link # 2: The Global Fertility Crash

While the global average fertility rate was still above the rate of replacement—technically 2.1 children per woman—in 2017, about half of all countries had already fallen below it, up from 1 in 20 just half a century ago. For places such as the U.S. and parts of Western Europe, which historically are attractive to migrants, loosening immigration policies could make up for low birthrates. In other places, more drastic policy interventions may be called for. Most of the available options place a high burden on women, who’ll be relied upon not only to bear children but also to help fill widening gaps in the workforce. Each of the following indicators tells a part of the global fertility story: not just how many babies women have on average, but also how well women are integrated into the workforce, what slice of the income pie they receive, and level of educational attainment.

Link # 3: Armenia’s Looming Demographic Crisis

The sharp drop in births seen in 2001 has continued for another decade. In addition, the births are heavily weighted toward male children (15% more males than females). One can easily understand the additional strain this will cause by 2030 in family formations. Diasporan communities being formed today, who are prospering in their host nations, offers no guarantees of repatriation to Armenia, or even of having close ties with a country their parents chose to leave. The first 30 years of independence set in motion a demographic crisis so deep and lasting that it is unclear whether anything can be done today to rectify it. The resulting national security issues for Armenia are so serious as to jeopardize the viability of the country for the next 30 years.

Link # 4: How to Overcome Losing 600,000 People a Year

A banner at a traffic roundabout urges onlookers to marry North Koreans. Another, with a photo of a pregnant woman, reminds passersby that freelancers and self-employed female workers can benefit from government stipends for expecting mothers. A church hall contains a busy office, staffed by government social workers, that supports brides from Southeast Asia who wed lonely farmers unable to find a local mate. Uiseong’s efforts are laudable, but government programs like these have done little to address the commonly cited barriers to having children. The cost of living, particularly in urban areas, is astronomical; meanwhile the brutal competitiveness of the education system and a work culture that has traditionally placed a premium on long hours leaves little time for family-rearing. Last year, President Moon Jae-in reduced the maximum work week to 52 hours from 68, though not all firms are covered by these restrictions.

What do you think? Comments?

Historically Significant Clip: Kanye West on TV After Hurricane Katrina

September 6, 2019 2 comments

Over the past two years, Kanye West has become increasingly infamous for wearing a MAGA hat and supporting Trump. However, in my opinion, he has a unique place in the history of american empire- specifically, as an unintentional commentator on its public decline. See.. after seemingly “winning” the cold war in 1991, USA appeared to be the only and uncontested global hyperpower for almost ten years. However three events in the first decade of this century showed the rest of world that USA was neither a hyperpower nor especially competent. Somewhat fortuitously, all three events occurred in the month of September, albeit in different years.

The first one, is especially well known, occurred on September 11, 2001. Enough said. The third one, also known as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008, came into its own on September 15, 2008. While the last one marked the official end of american empire, the second or middle one is often overlooked or not seen as such. I am talking about the completely inadequate response and public debacle in aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In my opinion, Kanye West’s famous remarks on September 2, 2005 at A Concert for Hurricane Relief about the clusterfuck which occurred after Hurricane Katrina are historically significant because they are the most concise and best record for the second act in terminal decline of the american empire.

Enjoy the clip in all of its 240p glory!

What do you think? Comments?

On the Poor Career Prospects for People with Postgraduate Degrees : 2

August 21, 2019 7 comments

In the previous part of this series, I went into some detail about the careers of those who studied or worked alongside me during my MSc. To make a long story short, the majority are either no longer involved in scientific research or have menial unstable jobs with some vague connection to what they studied or used to do for a living. Some of you might say that this is to be expected since the biomedical sciences produce many times more graduates than the number of available jobs. While that may be true now, it wasn’t always the case. Indeed, until the early 1990s, those who studied or worked in that sector could either find decent to acceptable jobs or simply move into related areas with considerable ease.

Now let us now talk about another sector which, for over 50 years, provided highly stable, well compensated and intellectually engaging employment. I am talking about pharma. From the end of WW2 in 1945 to mid-1990s, pharmaceutical corporations (large and medium) provided some of the best and most interesting jobs and careers in western countries. And it worked both ways, since those who worked in them came up with the most important advances in medicine we have ever seen. There is a very good reason why this period is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of drug discovery. And then it started going wrong and is now a mere shadow of its former self. Years ago, I linked to a spoof by somebody else about how things went to shit in pharma.

To be fair, this fall was not instantaneous and it was only after 2008 that the whole sector was irreparably damaged. But ya.. things had been on a downward slope since the mid-1990s. In retrospect, the true beginning of end started in late 1980s, when certain large corporations (Pfizer, Merck etc) decided to recruit ivy-league MBAs. The first signs of this rot manifested as gradual consolidation within that sector. While I could write multiple books on why consolidation in the pharma sector was so disastrous, here is the very brief version. Monopolization and oligopolization always results in counterproductive centralization, destruction of real innovation, greatly increased rent-seeking and is bad for everyone other than the upper management of those corporations in addition to their lawyers and bankers.

It should be noted that corporate monopolization has been much more disastrous in the West than Asian countries because corporations in the later are answerable to their governments to an extent unimaginable in the former. But why are we talking about how the pharma sector used to be about 20 years. Well.. because it is relevant to my choice of career. One of the main reasons for me taking the educational path I took was that working in pharma was an excellent career option with long-term stability and a pretty decent work environment. Sure.. nothing is perfect, but for someone with my interest and talents, it was as good a match as realistically possible.

Also, the pharma sector used to be fairly conservative in both hiring and firing people. Until early 2000s, mass layoffs and multiple site closures for the purpose of “corporate reorganization” were unknown in pharma. Many larger corporations even had defined benefit pensions until mid-2000s. Yes.. you heard that right. To make a long story short, those who stayed out of corporate politics and had generally satisfactory job performance could reasonably expect lifetime employment, and this was widely expected by employers and employees right upto early 2000s. You were not expected to work beyond normal work hours unless necessary due to nature of experiments and there was tons of autonomy at the site and group level. And in spite of all this, vast majority of pharma corporations were profitable businesses and remained so over multiple decades.

But how is any of this linked to my story? As it turns out, I ended up working in pharma for a few years and through direct experience and observing the career trajectories of acquaintances had a ringside seat to the beginning of final collapse of employment in pharma sector. Here is a post from 2011 in which they document that almost 300k jobs in that sector were lost between 2001 and 2011. And those layoffs did not stop in 2011, though they have sorta run out of people to fire- especially in past 4 years. The total is now closer to 400-450 k jobs and even if we assume that 60-70% were in sales and administration, it is fair to say that ivy-league MBAs have finally killed the goose which used to lay golden eggs. Far more problematically, it has altered the career course for many who would have otherwise gone into pharma.

In other words, their short-termism not only destroyed decades of institutional knowledge but also their ability to rebuild in future. And it shows! And before I explain you how, it is important to quickly explain the process of drug discovery and approval. It all starts with either the discovery of a new drug target (usually protein) or some effect of a chemical compound in cell-based or animal assays. From there it enters the pre-clinical development phase where chemists make hundreds and thousands of chemical cousins of the initial lead compounds and test them in a number of assays, animal models of some disease and extensive toxicity testing in multiple animal species. Only after it has cleared that phase can it be even considered for human trials. Small phase I trials are usually the first (dozens of people), followed by larger Phase II trials (hundreds) culminating in Phase III (hundreds to thousands and often) over a few years.

To make another long story short, the system was designed such that drugs which entered Phase III trials were unlikely to fail, and this was the case for most of modern history. Sure.. you did encounter situations where testing in larger populations (P III) revealed some rare but nasty side effects or the drug was not as efficacious as previously expected. But outright failures of efficacy in Phase III trials was really rare. Then something changed and nowadays the majority of drugs which enter Phase III trials fail, and they usually do so for lack of efficacy. Curiously, this often occurs when Phase I and Phase II data was either very good or pretty promising. So.. what is going on? While many industry insiders have tried to explain this deeply troubling trend by invoking all sorts of clever sounding bullshit, there is a simpler and more rational explanation.

A large percentage, likely overwhelming majority, of drug development in past two decades has been based in two types of fraud. The first involves manipulating metrics to make something look far better than it is in real life. Examples of such frauds involve cherry-picking patients, burying negative data, changing criteria for success, playing around with data and statistics and other stuff which is not technically illegal. The second type involves falsification of data, deliberately deleting data, kicking non-responders out of trials to improve responses rates etc. But what does any of this have to do with the downward career trajectory of people working in that sector?

Well.. since we have already exceeded 1200 words in this post, I will leave that discussion for the next part of this series. In it, I hope to go into some more detail about how neoliberalization and financialization of pharma destroyed its older and much more successful business model and institutional structure- all to make a handful of people on wall street and upper management far richer than they otherwise would have been. You will also see how stuff such as pushing opioids, antidepressants, antipsychotics etc to doctors and constantly jacking up prices of old and new drugs replaced developing newer ones as the main source of corporate growth. And ya.. I will also go into what happened to all those middle-aged and older people who lost their jobs and, in many cases their entire, careers after decades of relative stability.

What do you think? Comments?

On the Poor Career Prospects for People with Postgraduate Degrees : 1

August 17, 2019 33 comments

A few years ago, I wrote a post about how the defined and stable career trajectory is now dead in west and west-aping countries such as Japan and South Korea. Some months after that, I wrote about how the hiring practices of corporations in west have shortened the length of semi-stable career for most people to about 15 years. Then, about a year ago, I wrote a series on the long term social, economic and cultural effects of career insecurity. While they don’t make cheerful reading, it is interesting to note that these and my other older posts (pre-2016) on this general area (link 1, link 2, link 3) anticipated the rise of pseudo-populists such as Trump, the alt-right and popularity of socialism among “Millennials”. Also, have a look at my post on why rich and well-off (even in USA) are barely having any kids.

But let us get back to the topic of this post, and talk about something which I have often hinted to in previous posts on this topic. Ever wonder about the real career prospects for those with proper postgraduate education in the sciences and other related areas such as engineering. And yes.. this is relevant to issues other than the immediate future of western countries. What I am now going to describe, based on personal observations, is going to vindicate many of your darkest suspicions but also make you feel depressed. But before we talk about my observations, you should know a couple of facts about me. Longtime readers are probably aware that I came here and started my MSc when I was 20 years old in the later half of 1990s. After finishing it, I worked a couple of jobs in my field and then started my PhD in a proper STEM subject in mid-2000s and finished at the beginning of this decade. The point is, I have seen a lot more change than many others have seen.

To be more precise, I had a ringside seat to the demise of career security for smart people with postgraduate education in western countries. And don’t worry about me, I am still doing OK and will (knock on wood) continue to do so. But back to the topic at hand- What do my personal observations about the career trajectories of others who graduated a few years before myself, or alongside me, say about the overall situation. The very short answer is that it is already very bad and getting worse- if that is possible. While there are many ways to describe what I have witnessed, a chronological account of the careers of people who graduated a few years before me provides the best (if somewhat disturbing) insight into how things have gone to to shit.

While biomedical sciences have notorious for overproduction of graduates, until the mid-1990s most of them could get some half-decent jobs or at least transition into careers where their skills were useful. Somewhere between mid-1990s and 2000, that became much harder or no longer possible. To make a long story short, only those who went into to medical or dental school now have anything approaching “normal” careers. And even for them, things are pretty dismal. For starters, most are single, divorced or unhappily married with a single child. Out of the ten or so guys I know who took that route, only one has more than 2 children- and half have none. Almost every woman who went to medical school (around my age or younger) has either zero kids or just managed to squeeze one out in their late-30s. And they all look older than they should.

But at least they have some semblance of a career trajectory, because most of the rest (aka the majority) who did not get into medical school have none. Sure.. there are a few who have done OK in either academia or industry (usually the later) but most of them just seem to disappear. Confused? Let me explain. Over the years I have followed the careers of many PhD students who were smart, liked by their supervisors and generally expected to do OK in later life. But things did not work that way and many of them after promising starts and careers lasting for a decade or so, just disappear. To be clear, I am not suggesting they are dead or have commited suicide (though the later cannot be ruled out). It is just that their career in science seem to end and they stop updating their LinkedIn profiles. In almost every case, detailed internet searches failed to reveal much more than their current addresses and some more recent photos.

While I am sure that most are still alive, it is clear that they do not have well-paid or marginally prestigious jobs. Maybe they are bagging groceries at the supermarket, driving for Uber, delivering Pizza, tutoring kids or in one of those mediocre administrative positions which have proliferated in past 15 years. My point is that most of them are now doing jobs that require nothing more than an undergraduate degree. Isn’t that a terrible and cruel waste of human potential and hope? But wait.. it gets worse. Let me talk about the fate of a few people I used to know well in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And it gets depressing real fast..

When I was just finishing my MSc, there was a new postdoc from UK in the adjacent lab who had come here with his then-GF (also a postdoc). The guy was bright and competent, because within a couple of years he got a decent academic position back in UK. So far so good. Based on mutual acquaintances and PubMed, it seemed he was doing well for a decade or so. Sure.. his GF dumped him after a few years, but he seemed set for an OK career. Somewhere in 2012, his research output just stopped. My guess is that his job loss might have something to with post-2008 austerity politics in UK. Anyway.. he reemerged a few years later as proprietor of a small businesses selling dietary supplements. So a guy with a PhD, over 30 papers in decent journals and an academic career lasting almost a decade ended up hawking supplements like one of those scummy Instagram and FakeBook influencers.

Another person who did his MSc in an adjacent lab ended up running cell-phone kiosks in malls and is now selling insurance. Yet another PhD student who was considered to be very smart ended up moving to his home-city for a postdoc. He then regressed to working as a lab tech and eventually as a freelancer, the last I heard. At least, he lives in a place where his parents own a house. Another ambitious PhD student, after a couple of stints at prestigious labs as a postdoc, seems to have ended as a part-time freelancer at some research institute in another large city. The women seemed to have done a bit better, and more than a few ended up as scientific writers or mediocre administrative positions in corporations with varying degrees of stability. But in almost every case, there had no defined career with the degree of stability expended by their parents generation. Also, many of them either have no kids or one token child squeezed out in their late-30s.

To be clear, all of this occurred to people who studied, or worked, at prestigious research groups in one of the top two universities in that state. But wait.. it get worse. In the next part, I will tell you what happened to the careers of people who worked in the pharma sector between 2001 and 2008-2009. It is really bad.. to put it mildly. In future posts, I will also go in some detail about the dismal career prospects of people with postgraduate degree from well-regarded universities in subject such as Chemistry and Physics. Also degrees in engineering (various disciplines) from well regarded universities are no longer the ticket to a stable career. I hope to show you how all of this ties with rise of neoliberalism, de-industrialization and increased financialization of economy in western countries- and the death of hope.

I have a feeling that some of you might say something the lines of these people being lucky since they are still employed in jobs which pay more than median wage. Funny thing.. that is not the way things work in countries which harbor any hope for a better future. What I have described is how things typically unfold in countries that are in a steep and likely irreversible decline.

What do you think? Comments?