Monthly Archives: June 2001

Davos Newbies Home

2.6% capacity

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an astounding statistic (unfortunately only available to subscribers). 39 million miles of fiber-optic cables have been laid in the US, at a cost of approximately $90 billion. According to Merrill Lynch, this amazing skein of cables typically runs at 2.6% capacity.


The hijacking of the anti-globalisation movement by anarchists just out for bashing the police was amply demonstrated in the usually calm streets of Gothenburg this weekend. The violence attending the European Union summit in Sweden’s second city really makes no sense.

The dominant mood of the EU leaders is towards extending the social contract between workers and managers. Peter Norman in the Financial Times quotes one EU official as saying, “It’s not as if the EU is pursuing a neo-liberalist capitalist agenda.” On another hot button issue, the environment, the EU in Gothenburg made a further commitment to sustainable development, thumbing its collective nose at the entrenched old energy position of the US administration.


Despite the protests, the EU summit made an unequivocal statement in favour of enlargement of the union, calling the process “irreversible”. One of the sources of discontent with the EU, it has always seemed to me, is the preoccupation its institutions have with matters to which most people are either indifferent or actually hostile.

I’m generally pro-euro, for example, but for most people the currency was not a key issue. The energy spent on monetary integration would have been far better devoted to enlargement, democratisation and (my bugbear) massive reform of the outrageous system of wholly uneconomic subsidies to agriculture (which close off one of the few industries in which developing countries should be globally competitive).

So I feel like issuing a real cheer for the results of the Gothenburg summit, which should help make enlargement a reality.

Let’s play

I only know Doc Searls through his weblog and other writing, but much of what he writes resonates strongly for me. I particularly liked his story about his son Jeffrey.

In a similar vein, I was interested to see the latest comments from an old friend, Mitch Resnick: in Toy Story, he says, it’s the evil Sid who is creative, not the neat Andy. The work Mitch has done at MIT’s Media Lab led to Lego MindStorms. He’s long been an advocate for play that requires creativity and thought. As he said in Davos this year, “Would you rather have your child learn to play the stereo, or learn to play the piano?”

Davos Newbies Home


A good day for Europe. First, the Europeans collectively stood up to president Bush on the Kyoto protocol (in fact, they stood up as much as Realpolitik allow them). Second, the European Commission looks likely to scupper Jack Welch’s grand plan to takeover Honeywell.

The flipside on the Europe/US scuffle on climate change is that without US action, not much is going to be achieved on reducing greenhouse gases. Kyoto, of course, was far from perfect in this regard, but it was an important first step.

On Jack Welch’s showdown with Mario Monti, I must confess my pleasure is the very European one of Schadenfreude. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the extraordinary results Welch has achieved at GE. Welch is justly lauded, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a model for anything. Okay, one totally irrational conglomerate can succeed. The exception that proves the rule.

Last one out, please turn off the lights

Salon claims to be the only original online magazine still alive and not owned by a big media corporation. According to David Talbot, founder and chairman, “The Salons of the world are saying the things that nobody else is saying. So if the Salons of the world disappear, woe to American democracy.”

Now I’m hugely in favour of diversity and independence in the media, and I like Salon. But I think Talbot is absurdly overstating the case. First, I don’t think “the Salons of the world” are lone voices in the wilderness. And I think it is increasingly difficult to draw a simple line as to what constitutes valuable media. The most prominent, and I think important, counter example is the continuing growth of weblogs.

I also think it’s easy to overrate just how important complete independence is in media. Slate is owned by Microsoft, but to my mind that doesn’t stop it being every bit as good as Salon (I find it far better, in truth). And Salon’s distinction as the “only original online magazine” also seems a bit stretched. There are hundreds of conventional media titles that have successfully extended themselves to the online world and offer viewpoints as diverse as anyone could wish.

So good luck to Salon, but don’t queer your pitch by claiming a fictional societal imperative.

Davos Newbies Home

What does well educated mean?

Last night I watched the usually impeccable news on the BBC. As a one-time aspiring astrophysicist (really), I was intrigued that they trailed a report on Mars in opposition. But my heart sank when newscaster Michael Buerk declared, “And observers should even be able to see the planet with the naked eye.”

What planet is Buerk or whoever wrote that bulletin on? Surely anyone with a modicum of schooling — or just general awareness — knows that Mars, like Venus, Saturn and Jupiter, is among the brightest objects in the sky. My five-year old son knows this.

I’ve generally been opposed to notions like scientific literacy (or cultural literacy), which have come up in discussions of future Davos programmes. A checklist of facts to memorise is no substitute for understanding, or for knowing how to learn.

Ages ago, the BBC had a wonderful documentary on the physicist Richard Feynman. He recalled that when he was a boy, his father would go for walks with him. “Do you know what that bird is called?” his father would ask. Before the young Feynman could reply, his father would give him the name in four or five different languages. “It doesn’t matter what it’s called. Learn to observe it instead.”

In the same documentary, Feynman said, “Not many people understand how rare it is to really, really know something.”

Still, if we can’t expect the evening news to understand that Mars is very visible to the naked eye even at its dimmest, there may be something to the campaign for scientific literacy.

Davos Newbies Home

On the lookout

One of the best advances in Web use for me was the introduction of the Google toolbar. I reckon I probably use Google at least a dozen times a day. But I’m always on the lookout for other ways to find pertinent information on the Web.

About six months ago I was introduced to’s Visual Net technology. Now a similar approach has been developed by WebMap, with what seems to me an improved interface. I’m just beginning to explore it, but a visual approach to results has undoubted advantages over a purely textual one (although everyone is limited by the sites in their database — Google scores over everyone else in this regard).

The admirable Computists’ Weekly has also directed me to some work at Xerox Parc: “Xerox Parc researchers say that searching for information can be modeled after animals sniffing out food. Foraging theories focus on the ‘scent’ of information, the clues that lead us to it. Annotated Web links provide scent to direct our search, but an overabundance of links dilute the scent and confuse us. Parc scientists are working on a word and link analyzer called Bloodhound.”

Davos Newbies Home

The flip side of amateurism

In some of the discussions about weblogs, I’ve been an advocate for passionate amateurs. But an important distinction needs to be made. There’s nothing great about an amateur who is ignorant.

That seems to be the pattern in the British system of government. Yesterday, Tony Blair announced a host of new ministerial appointments. The one of most interest to the world I run around in for business, was Douglas Alexander as the new e-minister.

Alexander is unquestionably a bright, young politician, of whom great things are expected. But he has shown little to no interest in the past in the Internet or new technology. The likelihood is that he will be beholden to the so-called experts in the department of trade and industry and elsewhere as he climbs his learning curve. When he begins to sort things out for himself, he will almost certainly be moved on to another post.

Incidentally, The Register reckons Douglas’ sister Wendy is the Alexander Blair really wanted.

Bush’s Baedecker

Salon offers president Bush some help with his first trip to Europe. “Brussels is world-renowned for its Brussels sprouts, known locally as ‘sprouts’. They are considered a delicacy and are served at every meal, often as a topping on waffles.”

Davos Newbies Home

How many wars?

I reckon I’m very attuned to events even in obscure corners of the world. But it came as a surprise to me this weekend, in the wake of the bizarre, fatal family feud in Nepal’s monarchy, that the country had a serious Maoist insurgency.

I haven’t yet found a website that tracks all the world’s conflicts, but I’m sure one exists somewhere. I do know that the bloodiest continuing conflict is in Sudan, and it receives virtually no media attention in the developed world. If you know what you’re looking for and know where to look, you can of course find information on any of these running tragedies. But that isn’t enough. How many other wars are out there that never trouble the world’s news editors?

The stinger and not the stung

A well-connected technology and computer games friend made a claim to me this weekend so bizarre that it just might be true. I was asking him what he thought the chances of Microsoft’s X-Box were against Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s GameCube. Despite the hundreds of millions that Microsoft are plowing into it, he thought it would struggle. “It’s all a smokescreen,” he said casually, “for Stinger.”

His assertion was that the really giant business that Microsoft wanted a major piece of wasn’t computer games (although that would be nice), but mobile phones. I personally don’t think Microsoft has made any secret of its ambitions in wireless, pouring scorn in particular on Symbian every chance it gets. So I’m not sure about the smokescreen theory, but it was fun to speculate.