Monthly Archives: April 2001

Davos Newbies Home

French exceptionalism

Intellectuals in France like to talk about their country’s exceptionalism, by which they mean it doesn’t adhere to Anglo-Saxon notions of the economy or Hollywood-generated ideas on culture.

But another exceptionalism is becoming evident and that is France’s tolerance of high-level corruption. A French judge yesterday dropped a case despite finding “serious and consistent evidence” that president Jacques Chirac was involved in a massive kickback scandal during his tenure as mayor of Paris.

Anywhere else I can think of (at least among western democracies), Chirac’s position would be under threat and certainly any prospect of a future political career would be terminally blighted. But most accounts reckon that Chirac is at least level-pegging for next year’s presidential election with current prime minister Lionel Jospin.

The French are justly celebrated for being a last bastion of philosophical understanding (schoolchildren have to cover Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, etc in high school), but the lessons on ethical philosophy have clearly been forgotten.

Human activity and climate over history

Once again from Nasa: Rise of Agriculture May Have Cooled Climate. A cooling of up to 2-degree Fahrenheit over land between 1000 and 1900 AD may have been caused by changes from natural vegetation to agriculture. Previous studies had attributed cooling to natural climate variations, but new research published in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that much of this cooling could have been the result of human activity. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory release) [NASA's Earth Observatory]

After the to and fro on climate change yesterday, here’s confirmation that understanding the atmosphere and the impact humans have on it is very much a moving science.

Climate model results

From Nasa’s Earth Observatory:News: Greenhouse Gases Cause Northern Winter Warming. Greenhouse gases are the main reason why the Northern Hemisphere is warming quicker during wintertime months than the rest of the world. New climate model results published by NASA scientists in the Journal of Geophysical Research show that greenhouse gases increase the strength of the polar winds that regulate northern hemisphere climate in winter. [NASA's Earth Observatory]

It’s remarkable that, despite the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, people who question global warming still get a hearing in respectable circles (the latest offender is the UK’s Sunday Times, which not long ago also gave credence to the dangerous myth that the HIV virus was not the cause of Aids).

Return of the amateur

From Dan Gillmor’s weblog: In a recent book proposal, I said that one of the main implications of the growing global network will be the return of the “gifted amateur — the person who creates art for the sheer love of it.” Actually, the gifted amateurs do more than create art in our world. They are also the true believers in politics and other fields. They do things because they care. We need them, and the Net gives them a megaphone the likes of which they haven’t had had before. [Dan Gillmor's eJournal]

There’s a remarkable number of commentators coalescing around the importance of what Dan term’s “gifted” amateurs. Maybe there’s hope in the war against dry professionalism.

Amateur (non-pejorative)

Another word that’s lost a lot of meaning is amateur. I use the word to distinguish between those who practice an art professionally (it’s how they make their living) and people who do it without compensation. Olympic athletes used to be amateurs. College basketball players are amateurs (although this is a much-discussed topic). [Scripting News]

When I was deeply involved with the Forum and Davos, I tried to encourage what might be termed amateur thinking. For me, one of the great things about the Forum is its amateur approach. I mean that in the sense of love of the task, not hopeless inadequacy. There were always forces within the Forum determined to professionalise and institutionalise what we did. There had to be an algorithm, some thought, for creating the Davos programme.

Guess what? Except in the most meaningless sense, there isn’t. Teams of management consultants (a periodic Forum sin is to bring in the consultants) add precisely nothing. Someone who grew up arguing about Vietnam/Watergate/apartheid/fill-in-your-cause does.

The best things are resolutely amateur, but done with what we now call professionalism. Wayne Booth, a rhetoritician at the University of Chicago, wrote an eloquent paean to this approach in his For the Love of It. As a former, immensely serious amateur trumpet player (strictly classical, I’m afraid), it struck a particular chord for me.

Davos Newbies: Insider's Guide to Davos

Perpetual PDA Power? Possibly. [Slashdot: News for nerds, stuff that matters]

My only frustration with my iPAQ (I was converted from my Palm through my Davos experience) is the restricted battery life. If this Slashdot posting is ever realised, we’ll never have to recharge PDAs or mobile phones again.

How long does paper last?

That isn’t an abstract question, as this important new book makes clear. [Dan Gillmor's eJournal]

Dan has spotted the latest from Nicholson Baker, which is always worth reading.

Davos Newbies Home

Twice a year, the Forum gets together its grandly named Davos Global Issues Group (DGIG). Its a brainstorming group of 20-odd, the core of which has been together for nearly five years now. DGIG has become a key staging point in putting together the programme for Davos. The spring meeting, nearly nine months before Davos, is broadranging and unscripted. The autumn meeting, when the Davos programme needs to firm up, is far more focused and practical.

Like most members of DGIG, I look forward to our biannual colloquies with real eagerness. Its rare to spend 24 hours with a diverse band of intelligent folk who feel thoroughly comfortable in open and honest discussion of the key issues in the world today.

It’s impossible to summarise the dozen hours of discussion, but here are a number of points to mull over. First, Japan. For the last few years, to the frustration of DGIG member Hiro Takeuchi, there has been relatively little interest in DGIG or Davos at large on Japan. This year, Japan excited some of the most vigorous debate around the table. Some of the interest is economic (do Japan’s decade-long woes prefigure what the west will experience), but it’s more an urge to get to grips with Japan in all its aspects. One well-travelled Asian DGIG member reckons Japan is the most foreign society on earth.

Second, anti-Americanism. I’ve referred to this before, rather eliptically (not everyone wants to be Silicon Valley). Some of my DGIG confreres are rather more forthright. “After the American century, the anti-American century,” suggested one. One of the fascinating aspects of anti-American sentiment is that it is virtually unperceived by Americans themselves. Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto climate change treaty may come to symbolise a new wave of anti-Yankee feeling.

Third, intellectual property rights. This emerged in numerous guises, perhaps most compellingly in one remark: “IPR has become the defining divide between north and south in trade policy and in the globalisation backlash.”

Needless to say, the direction of the US economy, the course of the Bush administration and a host of wholly evident issues also emerged. But it is always the less obvious subjects, the ones that appear at the interstices of disciplines and concerns, that make for the most interesting debates.