We’ll start our story of the Universe like any good movie director; as close to the end of the story as possible.
So without further ado, let’s find some creative ways to look at what’s been going on in the last six months in the…
Population: 7.26-7.33 billion.
Population growth since December 2014: 70 million.
Average life expectancy as of July 2015: 70 years
Top causes of death:
- Heart disease (~7.4 million per year)
- Stroke (~6.7 million per year),
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (~3.1 million per year)
- Following the advent of antibiotics, vaccines, the industrial revolution, and the advent of genetically modified food crops, the world population is now over 16 times what it was in the Middle Ages (~450 million).
- In the past 6 months, the world population has grown by over 15% of the total world population in the Middle Ages.
- Average life expectancy is now roughly twice what it has been in previous historical eras. This is partially due to progress in treating age-related diseases, but mostly due to a huge reduction of deaths in childhood and young adulthood, from causes such as disease, starvation, accidental injury, and war.
- We are now mostly killed by diseases of old age and excess. Heart disease and stroke occur mainly as functions of old age, or diets high in saturated fat without corresponding labor to metabolize said fat. COPD is associated with pollution of the lungs, most often caused by habitual smoking or environmental air pollution.These have rather remarkably unseated the biggest historical killers such as bacterial pneumonia, diarrheal illnesses such as cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis.
Three Largest Empires
(As measured by size of economy, because in the modern era, money is power.)
- The United States of America:
Annual Gross Domestic Product: $18.1 trillion.
Population: 320 million
Land area: 9.15 million square kilometers
Annual military spending: $610 billion.
Average life expectancy: 79 years
Infant mortality rate: ~0.0075%; 5-10 deaths per 1,000 live births.
In the United States, Barack Obama is serving out the last year of his 8-year presidency. Having been initially elected with 53.8% of the popular vote in 2008 and re-elected with 51.9% of the popular vote in 2012, he is forbidden by law from running for a third term.
His presidency has focused on efforts to expand access to healthcare for Americans, recover from the American-caused Great Recession of the mid-2000s, and manage the two wars started in the early 2000s. Opponents have criticized him over concerns for government overreach into private industry, increasing national debt, and what some have characterized as a weak and accommodating attitude towards foreign policy.
Annual Gross Domestic Product: $11.2 trillion.
Population: 1.36 billion
Land area: 9.60 million square kilometers
Annual military spending: $216 billion.
Average life expectancy: 75
Infant mortality rate: ~0.0125%; 10-15 deaths per 1,000 live births.
In China, Xi Jinping is president. He is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.
His presidency has focused on efforts to improve the justice system and crack down on corruption within it; to present a more assertive and nationalistic China on the world stage; and to continuing his predecessors’ advocacy for China’s one-party system of governance, stating that single-party governance is the only way to create effective economic change.
Opponents have criticized him for making promises of a “Chinese Dream” of opportunity without outlining clear policies to make this happen; for human rights concerns over his handling of political dissenters; and for increasing censorship of the Internet in China, often mandating the removal of content critical of the government posted by Chinese people to social media outlets.
Annual Gross Domestic Product: $4.2 trillion
Population: 127 million
Land area: 378,000 square kilometers.
Annual military spending: $45.8 billion
Average life expectancy: 84 years
Infant mortality rate: ~0.0025%; 0-5 deaths per 1,000 live births.
The Prime Minister of Japan is Shinzo Abe. He is the president of the country’s Liberal Democratic Party. His presidency has focused on efforts to improve the economy through government spending, collaborating with right-wing politicians to propose a bill to encourage the teaching of love of country to Japanese students in school, and pursuit of stronger relations with China and India.
He has been criticized by opponents over concerns for promoting right-wing nationalism, questioning the reality of past Japanese war crimes, and censoring discussion of these war crimes on Japanese air waves. Abe has admitted to preventing broadcasts that he did not feel “came from a neutral point of view.”
In 2015, Africa continued to be ravaged by misfortune. Major developments included:
- The largest outbreak of the Ebola virus in recorded history, killing over 11,000 people and spreading in a small number of cases to the United States and Europe through travelers returning from visits to Africa.The Ebola virus, thought to have originated in nonhuman animals and spread through eating their meat, is a highly contagious hemorrhagic with mortality rate varying from 90%-10%, depending on the availability of medical care. In the 2015 outbreak, about 41% of all those who became infected died.
- Despite being one of Africa’s most developed nations and its largest economy, Nigeria fought to put down an insurgency of the radical Muslim group “Boko Haram,” which in 2014-2015 controlled a large swath of northeastern Nigeria, killed many who stood in their way, and kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolchildren for use as soldiers and sex slaves.The name “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden,” and the terrorists of Boko Haram claimed to be “rescuing” children from blasphemous and destructive education at the hands of schools influenced by the United States and Europe.
The apparent failure of the Nigerian government to deal with Boko Haram in a timely fashion is projected to be a major issue in Nigeria’s next election.
- Activists inside and outside of Africa continued to work to improve the human rights situation on this continent, which currently has the world’s shortest average life expectancy, lowest GDP per capita, highest infant mortality, and highest income inequality in the world.
The Middle East
- The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continued to wreak havoc, manifesting their apocalyptic theology by systematically killing all those who do not share it, and destroying books and historical artifacts which may contradict it. They continue to hold control over a large swath of territory within the borders of Iraq and Syria.They executed citizens of several other nations who fell into their hands while traveling, often videotaping the executions and releasing them on the Internet and to mass media sources. Victims hailed from countries including Japan, Egypt, Jordan, and Ethiopia. ISIL continued to execute civilians, often hundreds at a time, focusing on perceived non-Muslims such as Middle Eastern Christians, Western nationals, and sub-branches of Muslims that ISIL leadership considers heretical.
ISIL also burned up to 100,000 books and manuscripts when storming various historical sites and libraries in Syria and Iraq, and bulldozed the 3,300 year-old ancient city of Nimrud.
- The Israel-Palestine conflict continues to boil at a low level, with Palestinians and Israelis near the edge of Gaza killing each other on a regular basis. As ever, the conflict has been characterized by citizens of both nations feeling a right to live on the same land and refusing to vacate it, despite facing a high risk of death from violence while occupying the area.
Most recently, a Palestinian teenager was shot and killed after throwing rocks at Israeli military vehicles, allegedly shattering the windshield of one. Israeli police backed the actions of the Israeli military officer who shot the teen, saying he acted in self-defense.Palestine continued to try to divorce the image of its government, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, from that of the terrorist group Hamas, which wields a great deal of power and influence over the Palestinian people and has been responsible for organizing Palestinian attacks against Israel.
Most recently, Palestinian Authority police arrested dozens of Hamas members, publicly condemning the group’s intent to “sow chaos” by attacking Israel which would inevitably result in more Palestinian deaths.
- Iran faced mounting pressure from the international community regarding its nuclear program. While the Iranian government has long stated that the program was for purposes of providing nuclear energy to the Iranian people, the international community has felt great concern at the potential for nuclear weapons development in a nation whose leadership has denied Israel’s right to exist.
Most recently, several Western nations offered to lift long-standing economic sanctions against Iran in return for a curtailing of its nuclear program.The negotiations have been complicated by Republican politicians in America, the largest economic player involved in the sanctions, declaring that they disagree with the arrangement and will not honor it if they are elected to America’s presidency in 2016.
- Greece’s government debt crisis continued to be a focal point for Europe, and for the world. The crisis, whereby the Greek government owes more money to other nations than it seems able to pay, has played out over the course of years.At times the Greek government has put a moratorium on further government spending and banking transactions in an attempt to stem its losses, triggering mass protests and occasional riots as Greek citizens have found themselves without public services and unable to withdraw money from banks.Several causes have been blamed for the Greek debt crisis, including over-spending by the Greek government; tax dodging on the part of Greek citizens to the tune of $20 billion per year – that’s nearly $2,000 per Greek citizen per year; and the global Great Recession, particularly the sale of billions of dollars in assets which were later found to be worthless to Greek buyers by American banks.
- 30 British citizens were killed in a terrorist attack while vacationing in Tunisia. The terrorist, who also killed 8 non-British citizens with grenades and gunfire, claimed affiliation with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.The death toll of 30 British citizens makes this the worst terrorist attack on the British people since the bombings of 7/7/2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured 770 in London.
Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant did not exist at the time of the 2005 attacks, responsibility for the bombings was claimed by Al Qaida in Iraq, which gave birth to ISIL after joining Islamist anti-government rebels in Syria.
- Despite concerns that Greece may miss a 1.6 billion euro repayment to the International Monetary Fund, business activity in the Eurozone grew faster in 2015 than in the preceding 4 years.Business activity was helped by a 1 trillion euro bond-buying program instituted by the European Central Bank, announced in March of 2015, and price-cutting by companies to boost a larger number of sales.The “Eurozone” is made up of a union of European states including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and most of Scandinavia and northern and eastern Europe.
- China began probes into possible manipulation of its stock market, after sharp drops wiped out most of 2015’s growth in just a few weeks. The Shanghai exchange, one of the best-performing markets in the world in recent years, more than doubled its value between June of 2014 and June of 2015; but recent losses wiped out trillions of dollars in value.While some parties in China have blamed the crash on short-selling by overseas investors (a practice in which one buys and sells stocks in an intentional pattern so that one reaps profits from their losing value), analysts say that the plunge may in fact simply be a correction, representing the end of value inflation that helped to make the 2014-2015 fiscal year look more productive than it really was.These analysts point out that foreign investors have limited access to the Chinese market.The falling values have prompted investors to sell off stocks in Chinese commodities such as iron ore and steel; the loss of support could hurt those manufacturing markets.
- Concerns were raised over why India’s government has not yet released the results of a massive survey of women’s and children’s health, conducted with the aid of Unicef last year. No large-scale health survey has been conducted by India’s government since 2007, and this massive survey endeavor involved weighing and measuring 100,000 children, and interviewing almost 200,000 people around India.
The report was due for publication in October of 2014, but the results still remain secret. This has prompted criticism of the Indian government, particularly because all neighboring countries have released recent up-to-date nutritional surveys. Concerns have been raised that the Indian government may be hiding data which reflects poorly on itself, such as findings of a poor state of health within the populace.India is the world’s second-most populous country, with 1.25 billion of the world’s 7.33 billion people living within its borders.
That means that nearly 1 in every 5 humans currently alive lives in India. Although India has some of the largest cities in the world and is among the world’s 4 largest economies, malnutrition and poor sanitation leading to death and disease remain major concerns in many parts of the country.
- North Korea’s national government continued to be widely condemned as the most oppressive in the world, with foreign sources attempting to determine whether North Korean citizens were being properly fed in the wake of a drought which may be hurting crops, without a corresponding increase in grain imports.
The current government of North Korea has been criticized for possibly the worst intentional human rights abuses in the modern world, with its single-party system and cult of personality surrounding members of the Kim family brutally punishing any perceived lack of support for the state.
Horror stories which have emerged from the country in recent decades include stories of entire families being jailed on charges of political dissent, female prisoners delivering babies only to have them killed in front of them, and starvation possibly to the point of promoting cannibalism when environmental calamities have resulted in failing crops and these have not been supplemented with food imports.
- With the next American presidential election looming in November of 2016, would-be presidents have already begun entering the race. Candidates will first go through “primary elections,” in which American citizens vote to select which candidate each political party will run for president; the winning candidates for each party then compete in a general election, which decides who will be the next U.S. president.Although the United States is one of the world’s oldest democracies, it has recently been criticized for not being among its most truly democratic countries.Concerns include the two-party system, which essentially forces American voters to choose between just two candidates who typically have extremely similar platforms; and the role played by money in American elections, where the campaign spending is strongly correlated with a campaign’s success, and corporations and individuals can contribute an unlimited amount of money to candidates of their choice.
- The American Supreme Court made several important landmark rulings which both indicate and strongly influence the course of the American nation’s future. Among them, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare,” was constitutional; and that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were not.
The Affordable Care Act was implemented in 2010 with the goal of expanding access to healthcare for Americans in the wake of skyrocketing costs to consumers which were associated with poor health outcomes.Among its provisions, it forbids private health insurance companies, which insure most Americans, from denying people healthcare due to pre-existing medical conditions; it also requires them to cover more medical goods and services, and set up a system of government subsidies to help consumers pay the costs to the insurance companies.
The law has been viciously criticized by American conservatives as a case of government overreach into the private sector, with some claiming that the law’s provisions were so poorly planned as to result in a net increase in health insurance costs and a net loss of health insurance coverage. Most figures, however, show that millions more Americans now have health insurance than they did prior to the passage of the act.
The gay marriage ruling elated the roughly 60% of Americans who believe that same-sex couples should be given equal legitimacy and legal rights in the eyes of the law; it caused outrage among the roughly 40% of Americans who believe that same-sex unions are unhealthy and morally unacceptable. Many American conservatives have expressed fear that this denial by the government of their values would lead to wide-spread persecution of Christians who hold to Biblical ideas of sexual morality.
- Mexico has continued to suffer from rampant violence related to drug cartels which, in some cases, control entire towns along narcotics shipping routes and have been known to execute dozens of people at a time over often-incorrect suspicions that they were members of rival gangs. Most recently, 22 Mexican civilians were killed, not by gangs, but by Mexican soldiers who had been ordered to execute “criminals…at night, since that is when most crimes are committed.”
What is now being called the Tlatlaya Massacre was initially described by the Mexican Army as a gun fight between armed forces and an armed crime gang; but subsequent evidence and testimonies revealed that at least a dozen of those killed had been executed in cold blood, not as a matter of self-defense.The military order encouraging the execution of criminals has subsequently come under fire from the National Human Rights Commission. The offending order also conflicts with the Mexican Army’s official policy of forbidding use of firearms by soldiers except in self-defense.
Seven soldiers are currently facing homicide charges over the event, and seven police investigators are facing charges of torturing three women in an attempt to cover up the truth of the events. Several families of the victims say they have not yet received compensation from the government for the killings.
- The United Nations has reported that Colombian coca farmers appear to have upped their production by 44% in the last year. Coca, a plant with psychoactive properties traditionally used by indigenous South Americans in religious ceremonies, to give them energy, and to help them adjust to the high altitudes of the Andes mountains, can be refined using chemical processing techniques into extremely addictive forms such as crack cocaine.Cocaine has become a major source of income for many South American criminal organizations, and a major source of crime in the United States, where the substance is illegal but still used frequently by those with the money to buy it.Fighting cocaine trafficking has become a major criminal problem for South America, where anti-government rebels and crime gangs can generate lucrative income by selling cocaine in the U.S., where it is illegal yet highly sought-after by some of the world’s wealthiest people. This flow of drugs-for-money has spawned a great deal of crime in the United States and South America alike, sometimes threatening to destabilize entire national governments as drug cartels grow in wealth and influence.
- Puerto Rico faces a public debt crisis of its own, much like the one in Greece. While business owners complain about increasing sales taxes in an effort to produce more government revenue, Puerto Rico is struggling to pay off $72 billion in debt – that’s over $20,000 of debt for every Puerto Rican citizen. The island’s 14% unemployment rate isn’t helping.
The government has arguably made measures worse by suggesting that Puerto Rico may default on its debts (meaning simply fail to pay them back). This has spooked Puerto Rican markets, who now believe that lenders may be unwilling to lend further money to the island and are not sure where further money will come from.
With unemployment high, no seeming solution to the country’s infrastructure problems in sight, and continual arguing over whether government efforts to generate revenue from private business transactions are helping or hurting the situation – Puerto Rico has been losing about 1% of its population to immigration each year. Most of those who leave Puerto Rico, often bright young students and professionals, go to the mainland United States.
- Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of the roughly 16.4% of the world’s population who are Catholic, is preparing to visit Paraguay and Bolivia. Francis’ papacy has already had an emphasis on social justice and economic equality, and his tour in two of South America’s historically poorest countries is expected to focus heavily on the necessity of alleviating poverty.
Pope Francis himself hails from South America – Argentina to be precise, making him the first Pope ever in the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church not to be born in Europe (unless one counts St. Peter himself who hailed from Israel). This shift of the seat of Catholic power to a South American is logical, since over 90% of the population of South American is Catholic, making it home to about 41% of the world’s Catholics.
Although Bolivia has experienced strong gains in recent years, reducing poverty by 25% and extreme poverty by 43% under President Evo Morales, economic and humanitarian concerns for the country remain strong. Morales, like Pope Francis, is another first – the first President of Bolivia to be of mostly indigenous Bolivian descent. His native heritage and corresponding attitudes and connection to the people are sometimes credited for the extreme success of his cultural and economic reforms.
- Fears were raised in Australia after an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Fairfax Media found that members of an Italian crime family appeared to be involved at a high level in Australian politics.The report, which bases its findings on the contents of confidential police reports, alleges that members of the Italian mafia have met with leading members of Australia’s Liberal party at fundraising events. Key Australian political figures also appear to have supported and lobbied against the deportation of a mob boss.
Although there is no evidence that the politicians in question knew of the criminal connections of the mafiosos, there is still concern that these mob connections could be using their Australian political connections to their advantage, potentially laundering money or raising funds within the country.
- A new species of lizard has been discovered in Australia, which develops its sex based upon the temperature at which it incubates in the egg. This trait – where embryos will develop as one sex under high temperatures and a different sex under lower temperatures – is found in many other species of reptiles, including alligators and crocodiles, and some fish.
Scientists have raised concerns about how these species might be effected by climate change, whose predicted global effects by the year 2100 could significantly effect the gender ratios of these species if they do not adapt to the new climate. This may subsequently cause problems for their reproduction.
The complexity of the weather system makes it impossible to predict exactly how temperatures will change in any given area with the data we currently have; but several regions of the world have experienced significant changes in temperature over the past few decades.
- Three schools in Papua New Guinea will make history in the coming months, as they become the first rural primary schools in the country to teach computer classes. Papua New Guinea, which maintains some regions so un-touched by modernity that they remain home to some of the world’s last remaining cannibal tribes, plays host to big cities but also to rural villages with no road access to centers of commerce.
The Kama Scholars Foundation has donated a total of 18 computers to schools in three of these villages, assuring them that training their young people in computer skills will improve the village’s economic prospects and eventually its standard of living. The Kama Scholars Foundation’s deputy Chairman, Robert Kama, traveled over 8 hours to deliver the computers, along with books for the school’s libraries and sporting equipment.
The subject of modernization in Papua New Guinea has been a sensitive one, with many of its citizens, mostly young people, craving increased connectivity with the modern world and the career and lifestyle prospects it presents. However, development toward modernity is not uniformly seen as a good thing in a place with some of the last untouched jungles and neolithic lifestyles surviving on Earth today.
- America has struggled to regain its ability to launch astronauts from American soil, following the decommissioning of the space shuttle, which has not yet been replaced by a vehicle capable of bringing astronauts to the International Space Station.After decommissioning the shuttle, NASA contracted a private company, SpaceX, to create a new launch vehicle for U.S. astronauts. However, three unmanned SpaceX vehicles carrying supplies to the International Space Station have exploded while leaving Earth’s atmosphere so far. As such, no manned vehicle has yet been approved for American use.
Until the Americans have a new manned space vehicle of their own, they will continue sending American astronauts to the International Space Station using Russian vessels.
- The U.S. announced plans for its 10th commercial spaceport, slated to be located near Houston, Texas. Houston has been a traditional location for the U.S. government’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration mission control, due to its favorable proximity to the equator making launches into orbit slightly easier.
The spaceport is expected to host operations such as the launch of commercial microsatellites and the manufacture of commercial spacecraft. It is also expected to be a proving ground for horizontal launch vehicles – that is, space vehicles that take off using runways like an aircraft rather than using vertical rocket propulsion.
Crafts which could use the new spaceport’s horizontal runway setup include Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane, which takes off vertically but lands horizontally; a horizontal takeoff and landing vehicle under development by Intuitive Systems, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The former two vehicles have been proposed as couriers for supplies to and from the International Space Station, while the last is planned to be used primarily for space tourism.
- The U.S.-made probe New Horizons will become the first human-made probe to fly by Pluto on July 14th. The flyby is expected to yield new data about Pluto, once considered the oddball among planets and more recently discovered to be one of many non-planet objects orbiting the Sun as part of the Oort cloud.
Pluto could tell us much about what exists at the fringes of our solar system – and beyond its limits.