Monthly Archives: November 2000

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There are times when New York Times columnist William Safire makes my blood pressure rise. He first came to a kind of fame as the speechwriter who coined Spiro Agnewisms like “nattering nabobs of negativity” and “effete intellectual snobs” (I still have a button that proudly proclaims, “I’m an effete intellectual snob”). But Safire can also skewer his political friends.

In today’s column he lashes into the Bush team for concealing details about vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney’s health. “Cheney and the Bush staff need a new attitude toward full disclosure in crises lest their boss is made to look like a man too prone to believe what he hopes to be true.”

***Egg on their faces

Voice recognition company Lernout & Hauspie has been a poster child for the European technology industry. But relentless digging by investigative reporters, notably at The Wall Street Journal, turned up huge inconsistencies in the L&H accounts. Now L&H has filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the US bankruptcy code.

It seems clear that L&H were engaged in a dodgy — and probably desperate — accounting scam. Sales in Korea allegedly surged from $1.2 million to $127 million in the first six months of this year. Now it turns out that the $100 million cash on the books in Korea doesn’t exist. Virtually all of L&H’s growth came from Korean and Singaporean business (neither is among the world’s bigger markets for voice-recognition software). The Journal revealed that 25% of L&H’s 1999 revenues came from start-up companies it had created. (The latest Journal article is of course comprehensive, but a subscription is required.)

Can anyone have faith in audited accounts any more? If a company wants to be crooked, auditors don’t seem to be very good in penetrating their concealments and lies.

Davos Newbies Home

You can always count on John Brockman to orchestrate a different response. With the tsunami of commentary on the US election, it would seem there is nothing new to say. But members of Brockman’s Reality Club have pitched in with some truly novel thoughts.

Consider George Dyson: “In the digital universe, every bit makes a difference. In a democracy, every vote counts. Punched card ballots are where these two universes coincide.” Richard Dawkins provides a mathematical view: “Recount all the votes in Florida by MACHINE. Run all the ballot cards through the same machines again. The margin of error on so many votes is such that this will be EXACTLY equivalent to tossing a coin.”

Marvin Minsky argues that contemporary politics tends inevitably towards tied votes. His social solution? “Educate the voters to refuse to cooperate with polls. Point out that it’s in their interest to lie when they are being polled!

“Yes, lying is reprehensible � although in this realm, it’s traditional. The point is that if you’re inclined toward Candidate X � but tell them that you favor Y � this induces your opposition to spend less in your district.”

***Climate change redux
The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf never takes conventional wisdom for granted. His analysis of the climate change debate is typically refreshing. “The Kyoto process is, in essence, a fraud. But could it be made serious?,” he asks.

He concludes that there are huge dangers to economic growth caused by the drastic actions that are really necessary to slow global warming (and he means actions far in excess of what he considers the fraud of Kyoto). The economic growth could conceivably fund solutions decades from now; without that growth, you may still have adverse environmental effects, and you will also have far more poor people and less global capacity to deal with effective solutions.

Davos Newbies Home

The race is over, bar some shouting. Not, perhaps for president of the United States, but for the successor to Jack Welch at General Electric. Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE’s medical systems division, will take over as chairman and CEO at the beginning of 2002.

Welch, of course, is perhaps the most lauded business executive of the last 50 years. The 10-year chart of GE’s stock shows why. Of course there are technology companies that do as well on a 10-year view, but GE didn’t start from scratch: it’s the only company to figure in the top 10 companies in the US at the start of the 20th century and at the end.

But I take a contrary view on Welch. His achievement is undeniable, but I strongly suspect its a bizarre one-off. Despite his talk about GE’s core competencies, today’s GE is highly unlike to be preserved under his successor. Jet engines don’t belong with GE Capital, which doesn’t relate to medical systems, and none of them have anything to do with a television network. So Welch is extraordinary, but a long view will see him as something of an eccentric.

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There are two important global stories today, but in the US, at least, one of them has been swamped. With domestic attention focused on Florida and the result (or not) of the election, little heed will be paid to the failure of the climate change talks in The Hague.

Today’s reporting has focused on who lost the deal. Was it the UK’s John Prescott, who gave too much to the Americans? Or was it France’s Dominique Voynet together with Germany’s Jurgen Trittin, who refused to see the sense of the offered compromise?

Prescott is a bit of a figure of fun in the UK government, since he doesn’t have the smooth presentational skills favoured these days. He tends to mangle most sentences he gets a hold of, and had the poor political sense to be dubbed “Two Jags” Prescott (reference to his chauffered cars), which doesn’t exactly fit with an environmentally minded image.

But in the case of The Hague, Prescott did the right thing. He understood that he was dealing with the art of the possible, rather than ineffective idealism. He delivered important concessions from the US, Canada and Japan, only to find Europe’s Greens more interested in principle than concrete results.

Let’s hope the other Europeans see sense in time for the next round of talks. But they may not find a George W Bush administration willing to make the concessions of Frank Loy’s team from the Clinton administration. The propitious moment may well have passed on one of the crucial issues facing all of humanity.

Davos Newbies Home

It’s the middle of the Thanksgiving break in the US, while here in Europe everyone (including transplanted Americans) slaves away. As a result, it is an apposite moment to consider one of the most puzzling cultural chasms between the US and Europe: attitudes towards holidays.

In Europe, five or six weeks of vacation is a corporate norm. More is not that unusual in some countries. Four weeks is considered decidedly stingy, and would not be contemplated anywhere other than Britain. In the US, however, four weeks is the height of luxury; two weeks is common.

Here’s the puzzle. The US is in the midst of an extraordinary economic boom (although there are signs of slowing). Skilled workers, in particular, can name their package. No one, it seems, wants more holiday. In Europe, however, just about every person I have ever interviewed for a job makes a pitch for more holiday time.

Some conclude that in Europe, people work to live; in the US they live to work. What’s certain is that if Europe does truly move to a more US-like enterprise culture, it may give up some of the qualities its citizens most value.

Davos Newbies Home

Matt Welch does a fine bit of investigative journalism in Online Journalism Review. A friend of his sent what seemed an obvious email hoax, about an interview US presidential candidates George W Bush and Al Gore gave to the official programme for baseball’s World Series.

Before you click on that second link, read all of Welch. As he says, the interview seems to confirm the common wisdom that Gore is an obsessive, tone-deaf geek, while Bush is an idiot savant.

Incidentally, OJR does a more complete job than any other site I know in peppering its stories with hyperlinks. There are almost too many, but this is far superior to the incomprehensible attitude most sites have of excluding so-called inline links (links within the text, as opposed to appended at the end, or in a column at the side).

I suspect some sites don’t do inline links because it takes more time than just straight text, but most avoid it because of a misplaced fear that readers will leave their site for somewhere else. Guess what? They’ll leave anyway. If you provide them with connections to useful material, they’ll keep coming back.

Davos Newbies Home

One of the things Davos tries hard to do, and sometimes succeeds at, is raise issues that are deeper than those on an immediate agenda. As Klaus Schwab likes to say, “It’s more crucial to deal with the important than the urgent.”

An issue that is both important and urgent, but which rarely makes the news, is biodiversity. In Britain this week, the Millennium Seedbank, a project of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, opened. Over the next 10 years, 20% of world’s seed-bearing plants will be stored, and the seedbank will eventually hold 260 million seeds from 24,000 species.

Is this of more than scientific interest (and it certainly is that)? The seedbank will be a defence against the tide of species extinction: 30% of the world’s estimated 300,000 plant species are endangered or threatened in the wild. As Peter Crane, head of Kew Gardens, explains, “What we are doing is developing a programme that gives a helping hand to the plant kingdom — keeping open our global options for the future. This project takes the long view in a world increasingly preoccupied with the short term.”

It’s encouraging that the seedbank could raise the nearly $120 million it needed (from the Millennium Commission, Wellcome Trust and Orange). An equally vital project that labours virtually without funding is the attempt to maintain part of our own species’ diversity: language.

A quarter of the world�s 6,000-odd languages are spoken by less than 1,000 people, while 96% of the world�s population speaks 4% of the world�s languages. A language dies when there is no one left to speak it. Although hard statistics are difficult to come by, at least 3,000 languages will die in this century. That means at least one language must die, on average, every two weeks or so.

Some believe, of course, that the world would benefit from a return to a pre-Babel state, with the ease of communication and understanding created by a single, shared language. In a recent book, David Crystal provides five answers as to why we should care about language death: the need for diversity (by analogy to ecology, Crystal promotes a green linguistics), the connection between language and identity, the importance of language as a repository of history, languages� contribution to the sum of human knowledge, and the intrinsic interest of languages themselves.

So what can be done? First, there is the need to create awareness of the issue. Then there can be major mobilisation to support the kind of revitalisation schemes that have proved successful in a number of cases. As one fieldworker quoted by Crystal puts it, “To fight to preserve the smaller cultures and languages may turn out to be the struggle to preserve the most precious things that make us human before we end up in the landfill of history.”

Take a look at The Foundation for Endangered Languages, which seems to be fighting this depressing tide. In an activity as vital as the seedbank, the annual budget for the foundation is slightly over $8,000. I’m all in favour of resources for maintaining species diversity on our planet, but we have to maintain the richness of our own species as well.

***A mathematician speaks
John Allen Paulos brings great good sense to the Florida election mess. “Not to be too cryptic, let me simply state that the vote in Florida is essentially a tie. The totals for Al Gore and George W. Bush, out of nearly six million votes, are so close that the results are statistically indistinguishable from what one would get by flipping a coin six million times.”

Neither the courts nor the two contestants will ever admit this, however. Paulos proposes flipping a coin. In New Mexico, one tied race was settled by a game of five-card stud. Take your choice.

Davos Newbies Home

At Davos 2000, there was a solitary session on patents, where Dave Winer was apparently the only person to understand the iniquity of patents for simple web and programming ideas. In the preliminary programme for Davos 2001, there are a couple of patent sessions.

Guess what? My friends in Geneva responsible for the programme are having great difficulty finding anyone who will speak up for patents. On this issue, as so many, the Forum is impartial. But in the interests of a good session, there is a need to present both sides of the debate. So far, Carl Shapiro, Mike Dertouzos and Didier Lombard are on the side of reason, with no one against.

Now it may be that the argument is being won. I fear, however, that the pro-patent people are lying low and staying greedy, happy to let the theorists spout until the cows come home. The good news is if the pro-patent crowd stays out of the argument, well-meaning folk may be able to force through action to stave off the patent scourge stifling the Internet.

***Free speech and the Internet
I’ve never been an absolutist on free speech, like the American Civil Liberties Union. Hate literature, for example, has no place in a sound society. But drawing the lines is never easy.

So reaching a conclusion about the specific French court case against Yahoo! poses problems for me. I approve of the French anti-racist laws, which led the court to require Yahoo! to bar French access to Nazi memorabilia on its auction site. But I see the absurdity of enforcing these laws on the Internet, and I worry profoundly about extrapolating the judgement to other situations.

In brief, the court has given Yahoo! three months to block French nationals from accessing the relevant parts of its site (the material has already been taken off Yahoo! France, so it’s just the main Yahoo! site that is at issue). Court-appointed experts decided that Yahoo! could institute a system of registration and password checks to enforce the system.

Today’s Financial Times has an excellent analysis on the chilling effect the ruling could have. Does it mean that all sites need to obey the laws of all of the world’s 200-odd countries? Will people shop through different jurisdictions to waylay sites engaging in activities most of us find admirable: highlighting human rights abuses, for example, or exposing corruption (there are plenty of countries where such assertions might be libellous or prohibited).

Yahoo! is being a bit ingenuous, as the French judge pointed out: it already prohibits the sale, for example, of drugs, human organs and live animals; it could do the same with Nazi memorabilia. But the issue of who has what jurisdiction over the Internet will be with us for a long time to come.

***Minor rant
I start every day by reading the print edition of the Financial Times, and I often link to its website. But someone there should wake up about the profound navigational inadequacies of its website. I defy anyone going to to find Jean Eaglesham’s analysis of the French ruling, linked above. The news story is on the home page. Fine. But neither the home page nor the story page contains any reference to Lost Connection. It isn’t even available when you go to “Comment and Analysis”, even though the piece is clearly categorised there in the newspaper.

Davos Newbies Home

The climate change conference trundling along in The Hague looks likely, as many had forecast, to result in depressing inaction. According to The New York Times, US negotiators are opening the door to agreement. But the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

The Guardian reports huge distance between the US and other countries on global warming. Everyone agrees that the US is overwhelmingly the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. US negotiators want a market-led approach: by planting trees, for example, the US would earn carbon credits to set against their many debits. The numbers, however, are punishing: without real cuts in emissions, things will not get better, and are likely to get worse.

In Davos last January, the assembled great and good picked climate change as the number one issue for the future. Unfortunately, too few of those who matter seem willing to make the hard choices necessary for change (Germany and the UK are salutary exceptions). George W Bush, the likely next US president, is — as one would expect from an old oil man — a climate change sceptic. The Republican-majority US Congress is as bad.

As editors used to say, this one will run and run. Sadly, without significant action now, the chances of solution get harder and harder to implement. A tremendous web-based summary of the issues has been prepared by The Guardian.

***Liberate the world from PowerPoint

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a good summary of the usability issues raised by the Palm Beach County ballot (subscription required). Better still is the link it provides to Peter Norvig’s translation of the Gettysburg Address to a PowerPoint presentation. If you are intending to use PowerPoint in Davos, look at this first. In fact, if you are intending to use PowerPoint anywhere, look at this first.

The best speakers, in my experience, rely on the strength of their ideas and insights, and have no need for presentational crutches.

***37 killed in AP, HP

The admirable sends me a daily email with headlines involving companies I am interested in. Hewlett-Packard is one of those. So the headline 37 killed in three incidents in AP, HP might have been interesting. Except HP stands for Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state. There are some things that intelligent people remain better at discerning than any computer program.

Davos Newbies Home

In the current issue of Fortune, venture capitalist Roger McNamee warns, “The number of charlatans masquerading as CEOs just boggles the mind.” In supposedly well-ordered Japan, the statement can have more frightening meaning.

According to today’s Financial Times, yakuza, Japan’s gangsters, are infiltrating new economy companies. Masafumi Okanda, who was president of online music retailer Liquid Audio Japan, was recently arrested on suspicion of kidnapping a former colleague who planned to start a rival business.

The yakuza used to plague Japan’s blue chip companies, particularly at AGMs, where they would disrupt meetings if a protection money payoff had not been given. Since the law has cracked down on the abuse, they have turned to the easier, less visible prey of start-up companies. Don’t technology companies have enough problems these days?