Road to heaven

▪️ Road to heaven ▪️ Barefoot pony ▪️ Single Market wobbles

“The road to heaven is paved with good intentions.”  It’s a phrase that is very appropriate when one talks of the traffic situation in Malta.

The stock of passenger vehicles in the country keeps growing, as more and more people want to have their own car to be able to move every more slowly from one place to another.  Anger and frustration among motorists and their travelling companions are reaching unprecedented levels.

It is easy to see why.  The chart shows the stock of cars in various countries per one thousand persons per square kilometre.  In terms of cars per 1,000 persons, in 2021 we were in sixth place among 22 EU countries for which statistics are available.  But if one then takes into account the area of each country, we beat all of them into the dust with a whopping 2.44 cars per 1,000 persons per sq km.  The next highest figure is Luxembourg’s 0.683, though Luxembourg being always sui generis, it might be well to look at the third highest   ̶   Cyprus’s 0.07   ̶   if not at the bottom-placed Netherlands at 0.001.

Transport Malta’s preferred solution is widening roads, building more of them, and the latest craze for fly-overs.  Several hundred million euros down the road we are no better off than we were before.  Of course, TM had been warned repeatedly by experts that this would be money down the drain, but the clueless policy-makers persist in throwing good money after bad.

Recently, the tech entrepreneur Prof. Alexei Dingli successfully pitched for a €1.3 million deal on Shark Tank to use AI to optimise Malta’s worsening traffic flows.  He is proposing to analyse the island’s traffic cams so that eventually traffic lights can be adjusted to produce better traffic flow. He believes that AI is the answer.

But one Richard Muscat, a veteran of tech marketing, was reported by the Times of Malta to be highly sceptical: making traffic in Malta more efficient will only increase its use – ergo, more traffic.  Haven’t we heard that before!  As Muscat sees Malta’s unfolding traffic problems, he prescribes perhaps the simplest of solutions – less cars.

Muscat argues that, as technological progress increases the efficiency of private transportation, it just encourages greater demand for that resource.  It’s called the ‘rebound paradox’.  Putting it more simply, he illustrates it by comparing it to when you buy a block of 500g of cheese: “it will be cheaper on the whole than the smaller 200g block. But we know through experience that you will eat the larger block in a shorter period of time: because when it feels there’s a surplus, we’re more likely to take more.”

The tech expert claims that reducing cars on roads, besides tackling the immediate issues of pollution and stress, will result in reducing the burden on the health system, increasing happiness and wellbeing, creating more fulfilling work environments and school experiences, and giving people back the ability to spend quality time with children, elders, and community.

It’s the road to heaven.  When will we start the journey?

Barefoot pony

On the evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. I doubt that there would have been a single person who anticipated that Luther’s theses would change Christianity in such a big way.

In Luther’s days, a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue.  Today a doctoral thesis is not just a collection of arguments but involves original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on tertiary studies.  The Library of the US Congress adds around 13,000 theses to its collection every year.

Many people, including academics themselves, describe a lot of the research done as “useless” and unlikely to better the lot of humanity and of our world. Others claim that many of the theses and research papers produced are read by no one except the authors themselves.  Some economists argue that a cost-benefit analysis would show that a lot of the academic output would be worthless.

However, this judgment appears too hard. One can only refer to Katalin Karikó, the scientist who had been beavering away for years on what appeared to be an arcane bit of biomedical research. Then, along came 2020 and Covid-19. Suddenly, she and her work on messenger RNA were thrust to the forefront of combatting a pandemic through development of vaccines. Now a Nobel laureate, Karikó achieved her goal despite being discouraged and ultimately “kicked out” of the Ivy League university where she worked.

The point is that what may appear in the immediate term “academic”, without apparent practical application, can – at some future point – turn out to be groundbreaking, of great practical benefit and breach barriers through paradigm shift. In 1939, Abraham Flexner, director of the American Institute for Advanced Study, authored an essay called ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. In it, he strongly argued that the “unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past”.

Similarly, one could mention Christopher Merrett (who?). It was Merrett, a founding fellow of the Royal Society, who first described the distinctive méthode champenoise, years before the French monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments. In 1662, Merrett presented a paper in which he described how to make sparkling wine. Don’t tell me that is “useless”.  Who doesn’t look forward to slowly and steadily pouring Champagne into a glass and watch as a fountain of bubbles rises from the bottom of the glass? Holding the glass by the stem, you have a sniff and the freshness of the aromas are sheer pleasure.  The steady stream of bubbles in the glass create a textural effect on the tongue that’s uniquely satisfying.

By now, somebody might ask what all this has to do with the barefoot pony I mentioned in the heading.  Well, it is because the other day on Linkedin I came across an announcement that a group of researchers had concluded a study on ‘Hoof Capability Of Barefoot-Kept Horses And Ponies Walking Over Artificial Environments: An Anatomical And Radiological Study’.

What could be more useless than a study about barefoot-kept horses and ponies walking on the road, you might ask.  But Sarah Albanozzoof the University of Malta and her colleagues Louis Borg, Liberato Camilleri, and Robert M. Bowker, would beg to differ.  The hoof capability of domesticated, barefoot-kept horses and ponies traversing artificial environments had not previously been documented.

What the researchers concluded, after making four equines walk for 16 days, covering a distance of 50km over three solid surfaces, was that the sensory system of the equines enabled barefoot-kept hooves to adapt to a particular terrain through receptive feedback, simultaneously accelerating sole growth and protecting against injury.

Now this is hardly going to change the future of humanity, but it is useful knowledge for all horse lovers: it tells them that short cycles of hoove-trimming may be necessary for barefoot-kept horses in order to prevent misalignment, minimise hoof-wall loading, and maintain a load-sharing system.  Animal lovers must be delighted to learn how they can now take better care of their ponies and horses.

Single Market wobbles

Malta has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of its accession to the European Union. On entry we joined the European Single Market (ESM), which coincidentally celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.  The combination of the two has contributed significantly to Malta’s improved living standards and yielded many other benefits, though not everything has been a bed of roses.

We, like the other member states   ̶   some would say, even more than them   ̶   have discovered that the promise of the Single Market hasn’t always been realised.  The ESM is essential not only for the Union’s internal cohesion but also for its global competitiveness. Yet, none of the four traditional dimensions of the ESM  ̶   the free flow of services, goods, capital, and people within the EU/EEA Single Market   ̶   have been fully achieved, be it in the physical world or in the digital online world.

For the last few years, a growing body of people have been asking why the EU has not made more progress.  It has under-performed vis-à-vis the USA and China with tepid economic growth, poor productivity, and low competitiveness.  This led the EU institutions to ask former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta to conduct a new study in an attempt to reinvigorate public interest in the ESM.

Former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta presenting his report on the future of the EU’s single market.

Letta travelled to all the EU capitals to listen to what the various governments had to say about the matter.  Here he met Prime Minister Abela and his economic team, including former Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech who knows a thing or two about the ESM, having been involved in previous attempts to rejuvenate it when he was an MEP.  Grech had worked closely with other people, like Prof. Mario Monti, on proposing changes that would exploit the potential of the ESM.  Malta submitted a paper to Letta about the changes it would like to see.

Since then, the growing importance of the digital world has made attempts to strengthen the ESM even more urgent.  Between 2014 and 2019, dozens of new laws were enacted in an attempt to overcome a wide range of long-standing and well-known impediments to cross-border e-commerce.  Regrettably, it does not appear that they have had a significant positive effect. 

In the subsequent five years, even more laws were enacted in the hope of meeting ever more complex needs – addressing threats to competition and to human rights posed by large online platforms, facilitating the sharing and use of non-personal data, and strengthening the use of data in specific sectors such as health and financial services. Though this second wave of laws is promising, it remains to be seen whether they will prove effective.

The consensus is that the ESM has lost momentum over the years and urgently needs re-invigoration.  The commissioning of the Letta Report was in itself recognition of the collective failure of dozens of laws to strengthen the Market.  It is a systemic problem, rather than reflecting individual minor defects in individual laws.  The expectations generated when Prof. Mario Monti presented his report on the relaunch of the Single Market in 2012 have not materialised.

The EU absolutely has its work cut out.  High debt, high inflation, low job creation, and social inequalities are making people question whether the EU has the answers to their  questions about an uncertain future.  Will the member states and the institutions rise to the challenge this time round?   

Main photo: Chris Sant Fournier / Times of Malta

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