Monthly Archives: December 2000

Davos Newbies Home

One of the features I was happiest to start in World Link was Future Industries, where we looked at what might emerge as businesses from work at the edge of technology.

MIT’s Technology Review has prepared a feast of future industries in its January issue. The editors have chosen ten areas of technology “that will soon have a profound impact on the economy and on how we live and work”. Some of the areas already have lots of corporate activity; others are less trammelled. But the list makes fascinating reading.

The ten, in no particular order, are brain-machine interfaces, flexible transistors, data mining, digital rights management, biometrics, natural language processing, microphotonics, untangling code, robot design and microfluidics. Essential reading.

Davos Newbies Home

“Most of Washington’s so-called think tanks don’t have to ponder the issues — they already know the answers.” Economist Paul Krugman once again hits on a crucial aspect of the Bush transition.

The well-funded conservative “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute have, as Krugman explains, “become waiting rooms for the conservative nomenklatura — a class of intellectuals among whom talent is much less important than political reliability”.

Krugman’s acid test for assessing Bush’s outlook? “If Mr. Bush becomes president, the thing to watch is whom he appoints — not so much to the glamorous cabinet positions as the less visible but crucial second and third tiers. If those slots are filled by people from Wall Street and Stanford, people who have made their reputations independent of their politics, good. If they are filled from Heritage and Cato and A.E.I., forget the rhetoric — he’s a divider, not a uniter.”
***Prudes of the world unite
A treat is in store for admirers of balancing acts in The New York Times‘s special e-commerce section. An article on Philip Kaplan’s FuckedCompany website twists itself into knots to avoid using the offending word.

I consider myself quite a prude on language use, but this is ridiculous.

Davos Newbies Home

Most political leaders have shied away from confronting the anti-globalisation movement. So it’s heartening to see the white paper issued by Clare Short, international development minister in Tony Blair’s government.

Eliminating world poverty: making globalisation work for the poor makes the fundamental point that “if the poorest people and countries can be included in the global economy on more beneficial terms, it could lead to a rapid reduction in global poverty”. On top of the welcome rhetoric, there are some concrete announcements, including an extra £35 million to eliminate polio and an extra £15 million to help African countries trade more effectively.

Sadly, the agenda of most of the anti-globalisation adherents means active engagement with the ideas and thought behind Short’s white paper is unlikely.

***India’s unfinished agenda
Meanwhile, in the world’s largest democracy, the prime minister may be forced to resign because of “statements widely interpreted as pandering to Hindu fundamentalists”. Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last week described building a Hindu temple on the ruins of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya as “an expression of national yearning” and part of “the unfinished agenda” of his government.

In an India still riven by religious divides, these were explosive statements. Vajpayee’s party, the Hindu rivalist BJP, had held together its 25-party ruling coalition (and American politicians think they have difficult interests to square) by not mentioning Ayodhya in its administration programme. That may all crumble now. The halting progress Vaypayee’s government has made in deepening economic and labour reform could all be at risk. Fostering improved economic growth in India should be the real unfinished agenda of the government.

Yet these dramatic developments in India get scant mention in the western media. Sunday’s New York Times had a good summary article of events to that point, but there’s only a one-paragraph follow up today. I couldn’t find anything in The Washington Post. Why does the world’s second most populous nation get so little attention outside Asia and former colonial master Britain?

Davos Newbies Home

It has become well nigh impossible to read non-partisan analysis of the twists and turns in the US election count. Everything now seems to split on party lines: courts, columnists and popular opinion. A possible exception is Anthony Lewis‘s column in today’s New York Times. Lewis is one of the few people who has made a career out of understanding the Supreme Court and explaining it to the lay public.

“Whether Al Gore or George W. Bush becomes president will make a difference, but it has never been a cosmic question. Whoever wins, the country will survive. But now a truly profound interest is at stake in the election controversy. That is the public’s acceptance of the great power exercised by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

As a politically aware American (although one resident in Europe for 22 years), I’ve followed the election aftermath closely. Until this weekend, I was confident that the very essence of the US polity would be preserved: no country is more profoundly a nation built from laws than the US. The clearly partisan vote of the US Supreme Court makes that assumption very rocky. Today’s hearing will either confirm the dangerous, shifting sands or reinstate a more important solid foundation for the nation.

***Nice wasn’t so nice
Not that anyone outside Europe noticed, but the EU’s 15 governments met over the weekend in Nice to decide a raft of constitutional and strategic issues. On a dispassionate analysis, the prospect of expanding the EU to embrace another dozen or so states to the east should surely have ranked first in priorities. But in the national interest-obsessed world of the EU, hard political trading came first. In the end, success was achieved, but it did nothing to encourage faith in Europe’s political institutions

***Eddie or not
I recently lamented that Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, wanted to be called Sir Edward. He told Sir David Frost (now do you see how nonsensical these titles are) yesterday, “Call me Eddie.” There are more sensible people around. My former cricket teammate, Howard Davies, was knighted at the same time as Eddie. But the Financial Services Authority chairman apparently charges his staff £1 a go if they use his title.

***Where did I put that walrus skull?
Nathan Myhrvold, one-time CTO of Microsoft, is a journalist’s godsend. He’s also immense fun, with a completely infectious laugh. Forbes captures well part of Nathan’s exuberance: “‘This is a helluva walrus,’ says Myhrvold jauntily, trying unsuccessfully to lift the large skull out of its box. ‘I looked at a bunch of them and, trust me, this is the pick of the litter.’”

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***Be your own broadcaster
I spent a fascinating part of today with Adam Curry in Amsterdam. His United Resources of Jamby is working on bringing broadcast power to every desktop. Watch his space in January for a beta test download. In a lovely demonstration of syncronicity, I read an article by Hal Varian on the flight back to London. “In the near future, tools for creating, editing, manipulating and sharing video over the Internet will become a hot commodity. When the vid-kids become screen-agers, the market for these products will mature and personalized video will be integrated into our lives, as has desktop publishing.”

***Bush and the world
Tony Judt raises an important concern in the latest issue of New York Review of Books. Bush supporters dismiss suggestions of Dubya�s naivety on foreign policy by pointing to the experienced counselors with which he surrounds himself. Judt refers to some of the more frightening pronouncements of Condoleezza Rice, who is likely to be national security adviser in a Bush administration. What is novel, however, is Judt�s demolition of Colin Powell as a potential secretary of state.

�General Powell has the bureaucratic, action-adverse outlook of many deskbound senior staff officers� In an all-powerful secretary of state, exercising unimpeded influence over an uncertain newcomer whose instincts are to do the minimum, Powell�s dislike of all foreign ventures could be a disaster.� Judt�s comment is datelined, significantly, Zagreb.

***Europe�s capital

Brussels fashions itself as Europe�s capital city, as the home of the European Commission. But I spent yesterday in the city that bids fair to be the true capital of the continent, particularly if the EU summit in Nice reaches agreement on expansion to embrace the countries of central and eastern Europe.

The last time I was in Berlin, it was a divided city. As someone acutely interested in architecture, I walked up the Unter den Linden to its culminating point of the Brandenburg Gate. But in those days, this great urban axis was obscenely frustrated by the Wall, just beyond the gate. The ruins of the Reichstag were just the other side.

Now Unter den Linden, and all of Berlin Mitte (the old, historic centre which was largely falling apart when it was part of divided East Berlin), is well on its way to being restored to the glories of its Prussian heyday. The Brandenburg Gate, rather sadly to my mind, has traffic funnelled through its arches. The Reichstag has been brilliantly restored into the home of the German legislature by British architect Norman Foster. Its dome, with spiralling ramps climbing to wonderful views over the city and down into the debating chamber, is one of the great urban architectural experiences anywhere in the world.

There are more major construction sites in Berlin than any city I�ve seen, China�s metropolises possibly excepted. When the work is completed, Berlin will be even more extraordinary than it is today. Part of the impact is the historical resonance of Berlin: the locus classicus of the darkest memories of the 20th century. Now it is a city filled with young people and spectacular democratic institutions. Truly uplifting.

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***Privacy and the Internet
The level-headed Louise Kehoe has a perceptive column in today’s Financial Times about Amazon.com’s privacy policy. The leading e-tailer has created a storm by announcing that it could conceivably sell its customer information in the event of the sale of the company or parts of it. Why, she asks, should online companies have to uphold a higher standard on privacy than offline ones? After all, credit card companies, banks, retailers who have their own charge cards, etc hold all sorts of information on their users that is clearly seen as a prime asset of the business.

Kehoe argues that online companies must have higher standards. “This has less to do with today’s Internet than it does with the potential for greater intrusion into personal privacy with the emergence of new Internet technologies.”

***Small earthquake, not many hurt
In the catalogue of unremarkable headlines, yesterday’s Financial Times may take some beating. “Japanese economy struggles for growth”. Today there is graphic illustration of the stagnation in the world’s second largest economy. Scrutinise the list of the new Japanese cabinet. The youngest member is in his mid-50s. The vast majority are in their mid- to upper-60s, and one member is in his 80s. I’m not an ageist, but I wouldn’t have much confidence that there will be many fresh ideas around the cabinet table in Tokyo.

***Sir What?
There’s good and bad in the news today for republicans (note the small “r”) like me. Bank of England Governor Eddie George (a poor man’s Alan Greenspan) was knighted by the queen yesterday. Although he has always been known as Eddie, he know has told the press that his wife “prefers” Sir Edward. What century is he living in?

Fortunately there is intelligence out there. The Guardian took the occasion of the state opening of parliament to launch a comprehensive attack on the monarchy. More than 60% of Britons want to be citizens rather than royal subjects. As part of its campaign, The Guardian will back a legal action to show that the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bans non-Protestants (and the divorced and those born “out of wedlock”) from the throne, violates the Human Rights Act. Sounds open and shut to me.

Davos Newbies Home

Some fascinating arithmetic in today’s Financial Times. From 1995 through 1999, venture capitalists in the US invested $26.5 billion in Internet-related companies. IPOs over the same period for Internet-related companies raised $75.2 billion and follow-on offerings a further $51.6 billion. That’s a total of $153.3 billion (roughly equivalent to Norway’s GDP, according to the FT). Where did all that money go?

Richard Tomkins does the sums. Investment banks collared $5.3 billion in fees. $22.6 billion of the money raised in secondary offerings went to investors selling shares. A significant percentage of the money that actually reached the companies was spent on advertising. The article cites “up to 80%” in some cases. In the year to last June alone, dotcom spending on sales and marketing was $8.4 billion. The good news is that customers were also winners: “The main beneficiaries from this activity [the widespread practice of selling goods below costs to ramp up revenues] were the people who found themselves buying $1 bills for 50 cents apiece — in other words, the customers.”

Apparently most e-tailers have been losing money on every transaction, even if you ignore marketing costs, according to a McKinsey study. Etoys lost $4.04 on every order; Webvan $12.90; Drugstore.com $16.42. (Webvan, of course, is run by former Andersen Consulting chieftain George Shaheen. His former clients must be wondering about the advice he gave them.)

The losers in this spending and cashing-out splurge were “anyone who acquired shares in the now ailing dotcoms and failed to sell them before the crunch came”. This isn’t a modern morality tale, but it does display that greed can be just as senseless in our time as in any other. But as Tomkins points out, this wasn’t quite tulipmania or a South Sea Bubble. A real industry has emerged and a real economic and social transformation has taken place.

Davos Newbies Home

***How communities work
Central to the Davos ethos is the notion of community. I’ve had a fascinating glimpse of how a community can function in a truly vital, energising way thanks to the Internet.

Davos Newbies is now written using an innovative piece of software called Radio UserLand. To help me and other users, there is a discussion group on egroups, where I was assured any problems would be dealt with sympathetically and reasonably swiftly.

When I came into the office this morning, I found nearly 200 email messages from the Radio UserLand discussion group. At one level, that was annoying. I get enough email that I didn’t need another 200. But because RU (as users tend to call it) is important to me, I went reasonably systematically through my inbox. What I discovered demonstrates what makes communities (and online communities in particular) so valuable.

There were two principal reasons for the heavy traffic. The first was a bug that had appeared in RU (this is beta software, so bugs are part of the bargain — the software is free for the moment). A lot of the traffic came from users crying, “Help!” And their cries were answered. First with a simple procedure to work around the bug. Then with a fix for the bug itself. So a first lesson in the importance of community: appeals for help are answered because everyone wants the community to continue functioning.

The second reason is more important. The bug arose because the developers of RU have been cracking through a bewildering range of new features. What I got from the community was not only a steady account of new features but also a flow of feedback on ideas almost as they happened. And this emerged into a bigger discussion about what RU is and how users feel about it. The answers were overwhelmingly positive, even if there was some kvetching about elements of the user interface. So the community provided ideas, feedback and enthusiasm in ways that would never have happened (or at best happened at a glacial pace) in the days of shipping a shrinkwrapped product through an impersonal retail network.

So this community is clearly valuable for both users and the developers (and the developers, not incidentally, love to see the users develop new ideas and tools for the software). It is truly vigorous. I think one could begin to define the quality of almost any product, process or institution by how it successfully it supports and fosters a community with these characteristics.

***Davos A to Z
I’m in the process of creating a Davos A to Z. I’m up to the Gs, but I’d welcome suggestions of further items to add.

***Explaining mathematicians
As someone who was once very good at mathematics (that was before I met people who were amazingly good), I’ve maintained an amateur’s interest in the field. In Davos last January, we even had a session on math, “Delights of the mind”, that was a great success. So I was interested to read Jim Holt’s diary of life at Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

There’s one joke I enjoyed: “Why did Fermat write his proof in the butter? Because there wasn’t enough room in the margarine.”

Holt also writes about the affinity mathematicians have for music. When I was at university (and having discovered there were people far matter at math than I was), I did get a chance to collaborate with some of the world’s best mathematicians. A group of them were serious amateur musicians and decided that they would devote a Sunday to playing through Bach’s six Brandenburg concertos. The one thing they were missing was someone who could play the trumpet part in the second Brandenburg. So I sat in for the day and was fine until someone happily suggested we run through the piece again (see the fourth story on this page).

Davos Newbies Home

One of the many refreshing things about Dave Winer is he holds no truck with conventional wisdom. As a Silicon Valley stalwart for decades, Dave has seen many waves of hype and vapour come and go. So he focuses a sceptical eye on any current certainties. The latest contrary view from Dave is that incubators are OK.

His logic? “The incubators have been about brands and markets, product concepts, applications. Instead they should have been about technology.” Then, “let’s find a way to start lots of standalone companies, fund lots of independent-thinking developers with a twinkle in the eye, it’s so cheap, but let’s give them standards to work with. Let’s make it so that when the companies merge, the services plug together, and work. Based on many years in this industry, I think this feature would please the VC mind.”

Such a scenario would mean that successful capital providers would need to understand and maybe even use the technology they were funding. Quite a radical idea. (Full disclosure, as American journalists would write: in my new job at Vesta, part of what I’m trying to do is realise some of the vision that Dave has now helped — unbeknownst to him — clarify for me.)

***Day without weblogs

A lot of the weblogs I follow are observing A Day Without Weblogs. I don’t want to drop this weblog for the day, but Nadine Gordimer’s essay on Aids is vital reading for anyone who cares about the future of our species.