CLOSE
Original image
Thinkstock

10 Contestants for Earth's Next Superpower

Original image
Thinkstock

By Jeff Wilser

These nations have been dismissed as underdogs and weaklings. But like budding superheroes, they’ve been sitting on hidden talents. And now they’re about to fly.

1. FINLAND

SUPERPOWER: INVINCIBLE TEACHERS

If you’re a kid in Finland, you don’t start school until you’re 7 years old. There’s almost no homework until you’re a teenager. You don’t wear a uniform, you can call your teacher by his first name, and you can attend class barefoot if the mood strikes you. It’s always casual Friday, and you spend fewer hours in the classroom than students in the rest of the developed world.

Despite—or because of—this leisurely approach, the Finnish educational system is one of the world’s finest. Finland’s literacy rate is 100 percent. When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers its standardized reading and math exams to students from around the world, Finnish pupils regularly come out at or near the top.

What makes these results more amazing is that just four decades ago, Finland’s academic record was a mess. In the 1970s, though, the government did something extraordinary to combat lax education: It mandated that every teacher earn a master’s degree, even agreeing to foot the bills for the extra schooling. Teaching’s prestige skyrocketed; becoming a teacher in Finland is now as tough as becoming a lawyer. Only one in 10 primary school applicants makes the cut! Today, the rest of the world is scrambling to follow Finland’s example as its hyper-educated population continues to boost the country’s productivity. Maybe we should all kick off our shoes and learn a few things.

2. NIGERIA

SUPERPOWER: VERY LIQUID ASSETS

At first glance, Nigeria doesn’t look like it’s poised to become a world player. More than 80 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, 40 percent of the country has never been to school, and half of Nigerian women are illiterate. Throw in the growing threat of terrorism in Africa, and the situation looks pretty grim.

That is, until you look deeper. Nigeria has two things going for it: a large population (162 million) and lots of oil. Nigeria says it pumps out 2.53 million barrels of crude every day, which is up there with heavyweights like Kuwait and Iraq. All this oil is cycling cash into the Nigerian economy and minting new tycoons, which probably explains why more than 100 Nigerians have purchased private jets since 2007. Analysts from Pricewaterhouse-Coopers say that if Nigeria can beef up its schools and technology, it could balloon into the world’s 13th largest economy by 2050, nestled between Turkey and Italy. As if that’s not reason enough for unbridled optimism, Nigeria’s president also has the sunniest name of any world leader: Goodluck Jonathan.

3. MONGOLIA

SUPERPOWER: THE GOLDEN TOUCH

Mongolia knows a thing or two about being a superpower. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan united Mongolian tribes and conquered parts of China. His grandson Kublai Khan kept the family business humming and finished the job. But the tables turned when the Ming Dynasty struck back a century later. China continued to keep Mongolia under its thumb until Russia began aiding its independence movement in 1921.

Today, however, Mongolia’s prospects are looking up because the country is literally sitting on a gold mine. The deposit, Oyu Tolgoi, will roar to life later this year and is full of enough precious metals to build several Xanadus; estimates peg the reserves at 82 billion pounds of copper and 46 million ounces of gold—that’s a little less than a third of the gold in Fort Knox. But the riches don’t end there: A second new mine, Tavan Tolgoi, may boast the world’s largest untapped supply of coking coal, a key ingredient of steel.

And there’s no shortage of demand. Mongolia’s neighbors are dying for coal and copper. Both Russia to the north and China to the south have big appetites for construction that will gobble up plenty of steel, and the new mines have investors drooling. Citigroup predicts that over the next 20 years Mongolia will have the highest growth rate of any Asian country, including China. Genghis would be proud.

4. VIETNAM

SUPERPOWER: SAFE HARBORS

A funny thing happened while the global economy was sputtering last decade. Vietnam’s GDP soared by 6 percent per year. As rice paddies have given way to factories, unemployment in Vietnam has plunged to around 4.5 percent.

What’s Vietnam’s trick? It’s ready to work. China’s laborers aren’t as cheap as they used to be, which makes Vietnam a relative bargain for companies that need new factories abroad. Up until now, though, there’s been a tiny problem: roads. Or the lack thereof. While Vietnam has a terrific labor force, its transportation infrastructure is nearly nonexistent. The country has almost no railroads, its highways are clogged, and its largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, boasts just one airport, which was built before the Vietnam War. Motorcycles and bicycles are popular, and some of its 91 million citizens still travel by rickshaw. What’s the use of cranking out export-ready goods if there’s no convenient way to ship them?

To address the problem, the Vietnamese government is doubling down on investment in infrastructure’s three R’s: railroads, roads, and rivers. Officials are widening highways and building a new airport. There’s a new deep-water port at Cai Mep-Thi Vai with ship-to-shore cranes that will enable companies to haul more inventory out of the country. The investments don’t sound sexy, but they should start bearing fruit. According to consulting firm A.T. Kearney, “Logistics is the only barrier keeping Vietnam from becoming the next China.”

5. SWITZERLAND

SUPERPOWER: NEXT-LEVEL NETWORKING

Switzerland used to be mocked for its lack of innovation. Peaceful, yes. Creative, no. As Orson Welles put it in The Third Man, “In Italy, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Welles wouldn’t recognize today’s Zurich. The UN’s Global Innovation Index ranks Switzerland as the most innovative country on the planet. What stirs these creative juices? The Swiss government has perfected a system that allows academic research to flow from the ivory tower into private companies. The Swissnex network—with offices from Boston to Singapore to San Francisco—is a system of idea hubs, conferences, and networking events that connect lab coats with investors. The program helps academics, artists, and inventors with promising research hook up with private companies that can turn those visions into reality.

Introducing the brainy to the wealthy is paying dividends. Consider what’s happening with the Solar Impulse project, a company that’s designing a solar-powered plane that can fly around the world without using fuel. Think that sounds farfetched? The amazing aircraft has already completed an all-night journey!

6. BANGLADESH

SUPERPOWER: DEMOGRAPHIC SORCERY

Bangladesh is about the size of Iowa and has a larger population than Russia. It’s the most crowded country on the planet; as a result, containable problems often become huge disasters. Floods kill thousands. Infectious diseases can sweep through the close quarters.

There also aren’t enough jobs. The country’s main export is knitted clothes, and its GDP is just $743 per capita, less than 2 percent of the United States’. For years, Bangladesh has simply been too crammed to support a viable economy. But thanks to some clever policies implemented by the government in the 1970s, Bangladesh is about to make a major leap.

In 1975, the average Bangladeshi woman was bearing 6.3 children. Only 8 percent of women used contraception, and the population was exploding. All these new babies were cutting an already tiny economic pie into too many slices. So the government got proactive. To combat the baby boom, officials trudged from village to village handing out free birth control to rein in the growth.

The plan worked. The birth rate plummeted to 3.4 children per woman in 1993, and now it sits at a sustainable 2.3. And here’s where the economy comes in. Bangladesh is about to enjoy what analysts call a “demographic dividend.” All those babies born in the 1970s and ’80s are entering their prime working years, but because this generation is supporting only two kids instead of six, the demographic math is finally tilting in Bangladesh’s favor. That spells good news for the economy, and investors have taken notice. No wonder Goldman Sachs named Bangladesh a “Next 11” nation, predicting the country’s ascendance as an economic tiger.

7. NEW ZEALAND

SUPERPOWER: VANISHING RED TAPE

Let’s say you’re starting a new company. In the United States, you’ll need to conquer a punishing stack of forms for the IRS, labor boards, and state and federal agencies. By the time you’re finished with your 1040, Schedule C, and Form 720, you’ll feel like you’re choking on red tape.

In New Zealand, things are different. The government created a one-stop shopping approach for new businesses. Every form, application, and license an entrepreneur needs is part of a unified online portal. The info feeds into a single shared database, which further slices down processing time. Even for the offline hassles of starting a business, all the relevant agencies are physically clustered together, trimming even more bureaucratic fat. So far, 83 countries have similarly streamlined, but New Zealand is still the king, which is why Forbes placed it at the top of its Best Countries for Business rankings. With so little paperwork, what’s to stop you from starting your own Hobbit-themed diner that serves only second lunch?

8. TAIWAN

SUPERPOWER: OMNISCIENT DOCTORS

Back in 1995, Taiwan’s health care system was broken. Nearly half the country was uninsured, and citizens weren’t as healthy as they should have been. So the government turned to Harvard economics professor William Hsiao to gut the system and start fresh. Hsiao adopted a universal coverage model similar to Canada’s, but his more revolutionary innovation was small enough to fit in patients’ wallets.

If you lived in Taiwan, you would carry a digital card that keeps track of your medication, test results, medical history, and relevant records. Anytime you went to the doctor, you would just pop the card into a computer without cobbling together paperwork from all your hospitals and specialists. Not only is the system blissfully convenient for patients, but it helps doctors and hospitals get paid faster with less waste while reducing their billing and clerical expenses.

In 2009, Taiwan’s administrative costs for health care were just 2 percent of overall expenditures. To put that in perspective, slashing American health care’s administrative costs to 2 percent would save more than $100 billion over 10 years. The Taiwanese system saves even more money by helping regulators pinpoint fraud more readily. National health care may be a contentious debate in the U.S., but if there’s one thing the left and right can agree on, it’s that less paperwork is better.

9. LATVIA

SUPERPOWER: ENCHANTED FORESTS

In Latvia, every day is Arbor Day. As possibly the greenest country on Earth, more than 40 percent of Latvia is covered in forests, and all this thick vegetation makes it a net reducer of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not just woodlands either. Latvians have nearly stopped importing coal. They’re heavy recyclers who create Europe’s smallest amount of waste per person. And the capital, Riga, is one of the continent’s cleanest cities.

Even with such impeccable credentials, Latvia decided to up the environmental ante. In 2010, the state forest department launched a sprawling media campaign that called on all citizens to plant even more trees. To help boost volunteerism, the ad campaign targeted students, teachers, families, companies, and Latvian musicians. The government distributed free packets of seed and launched an interactive website where citizens could post videos of their plantings. It also held tree-sowing events throughout the year to sustain the buzz.

By the end of the campaign, Latvians had planted 2,278,234 firs, pines, and oaks, just over one tree for every Latvian. Best of all, the cleanliness hasn’t held back Latvia’s business. After having a hard time during the recent global collapse, the country enjoyed strong growth in 2011 and 2012. As countries around the world scramble to kick-start their economies while remaining green, they’ll be looking at Latvia to lead the way.

10. CHILE

SUPERPOWER: A THRIVING METAL SCENE

Pipes, computers, motors, and your microwave all have one thing in common: They’re made with copper. Gold and diamonds may get all the publicity, but copper makes the world go round. And lucky for Chile, it’s got about a third of the planet’s copper supply. It just needs a way to dig it up.

The Chilean government knows that leveraging this copper could transform its economy into a juggernaut. So President Sebastián Piñera’s administration is pouring investments into the country’s mines. The first big project: converting the world’s largest copper mine, Chuquicamata, from an open pit into a safer, more efficient underground mine. (Open-pit mines become unprofitable once miners dig too deep, as trucks have to drive miles up and down for each load of metal and are prone to collapse.)

Converting the mine should extend its life by 50 years, while helping to improve safety and profitability. Che Guevara may be rolling in his grave—Chuquicamata is the very mine he criticized in 1952, sparking his activism—but that same tantalizing copper reserve led Bloomberg analysts to rank Chile as the world’s number eight emerging market. Once Chile taps that copper, they’ll be making a lot more than pennies with it.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
arrow
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
Original image
iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES