Monthly Archives: November 2001

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Go west, young man  

Tom Friedman get back to the point with a tardy analysis of the Bush-Putin summit. He argues that Putin has “gone west”, but both his generals and his public are still reluctant to follow him. Tom’s conclusion: “more testing buys us nothing, but less Putin really hurts us”.

Balfour and Bush  

The distinguished Yale historian Paul Kennedy compares today’s situation in Afghanistan with the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-18. Lord Balfour was wary of taking on distant territorial obligations, writes Kennedy, perhaps in ways similar to Bush administration sceptics about a long-term role in central Asia.

With appropriate caveats about the dangers of historical analogy, Kennedy concludes: “This leaves America with the third option: to stay in Afghanistan for a much longer period of time and, in conjunction with other countries and the United Nations, to undertake a nation-building task that could make the reconstruction of Angola, Cambodia and Bosnia seem easy. There would be a US military presence, in protected air bases and camps. There would be American advisers, civilian and military, to advise the restoration government.”

Kennedy reckons the Bush team understands this is part of the long haul of achieving a lasting, peaceful political settlement. I hope he’s right.

Mouse trapping 

The Financial Times reports that about 5% of online retailers engage in “mouse-trapping”, the heinous web design fault (or so I thought before) that renders your back button inoperable. According to the report, this is to “trap” naive users into the site.

What the article doesn’t say is that this is unquestionably a harmful practice for the e-tailer as much as the user. I’d have thought it was well established by now that users will not return to sites that treat them like sheep.

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Requiescat in pace 

“At the other extreme, a small and dwindling band of ideologues – technically known as sado-monetarists – claim there was nothing wrong with the expansion and that its death was iatrogenic.” A well-penned, extended riff by Gerald Baker commenting on the end of America’s extraordinary period of economic growth in the style of an obituary.

Think again  

Apparently Zagat’s Guides reckon London is the worst city for dining in Europe. But it also concludes, somewhat confusingly, that London is also the second best in Europe. As a long-time Londoner, and a fresser or some repute, I can say assuredly that London has emerged in the last decade as a wonderful (if expensive) place to eat. Of course, there are some terrible meals to be had, but that’s equally true in Paris.

I like Michael Ellison’s remark that Manhattan, where the survey was launched, is “a place where pretzels are consumed voluntarily”.

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Second bubble 

The lessons of history don’t even seem to have time to become history these days. Since mid-September, technology stocks in the US have risen 40%. According to an analysis done by the Financial Times, this is despite US companies cutting technology budgets by 5-10%, with further cuts expected next year.

I liked the quote from Deutsche Banc Alex Brown’s Ed Yardeni (who seems to have lived down his previous obsession with the Millennium Bug): “I think that we’ve got another technology bubble going on – not that the last one ever really burst.”

Up to a point  

Astrophysicists at Warwick University have analysed English and overseas football games to see which is more exciting. Using the same techniques applied to x-ray emissions from black holes, they have determined that English league games are 30 times less likely than foreign games to have “extremal distribution” – in other words, high scores.

This has been reported as revealing that English games are 30 times more boring. Nonsense. Any real fan of sport knows that high scores are a poor indicator of a good game. I’d far rather see a no-hit or one-hit pitching duel than a 15-2 laugher in baseball. Similarly, a good 2-1 football game is always better than one in which more than 10 goals (the Warwick definition of an extreme event) is scored.

“Worldwide, football is more like turbulence at black holes in terms of statistics,” says Sandra Chapman, who led the research. I hope the scientists’ diversion into football was not because of a lack of funding for important astrophysical research in the UK.

Let my people go 

“Free migration is economically logical but politically impossible. The struggle of advanced countries to balance these conflicting pressures will be among the most intractable challenges of this century. But it may also, with luck, encourage a more positive attitude to the promotion of economic development in potential source countries.” Martin Wolf provides a typically cogent analysis of the dilemma facing developed countries with shrinking populations.

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Ha Li Bo Te  

It may be a fake but it is a blockbuster fake.” The Financial Times reports that pirate Harry Potter video CDs and DVDs have hit the streets of Beijing within a week of the film’s launch in the US and Britain. Pirates have even managed to subtitle the film.

If it were my intellectual property being stolen, I’d be very upset. But I think it’s also true that the vigour and enterprise of Chinese pirates is an excellent testimony to the vitality of the market economy in China.

In the ’90s, when I spent a fair amount of time in central and eastern Europe, many locals argued that the widespread corruption and generally lax attitudes towards commercial law (as well as other laws) was merely a wild west phase, not far different from the US in the late nineteenth century, for example.

When you consider the capitalist chaos tolerated in the growth of today’s advanced economies, it is a bit rich that the west insists that developing countries be purer than pure. We had plenty of slack in an era before international institutions created global rules. There is little doubt that a rule-based international system is preferable to chaos and lawlessness, but the different stages of development also need recognising.

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Each year, Brent Simmons runs a fascinating list of some of the things for which he is thankful. I find it a wonderful insight into someone I know only through his weblog and an occasional exchange of emails about technical problems.

If people at an event like Davos were asked to compile similar lists I’d hope it would be as revealing and eclectic. In fact, I think such an exercise would be a fairly strong way of screening applicants for the kinds of jobs that require agile thinkers.

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As an occasionally aspirant pundit, I follow the form of existing scribes quite closely. A friend who I consider an excellent newspaper columnist and I were recently discussing another, highly acclaimed columnist. “He’s brilliant and you have to read him,” my friend said, “but I’m surprised that he writes about such a narrow range of issues.”

According to my friend, a good columnist wakes up every day and thinks, “What’s the most important thing in the world that I could write about today?” A bit like some webloggers, perhaps?

Bill Safire is certainly an unmissable pundit (even if I disagree with 90% of what he says). Today he reveals some of his secrets: “Let me break all the rules of punditry and reveal the single source for this stunning report of musical chairs: It’s my thumb, on which I suck while I stare at the wall and dream up this stuff… Here is the trick in the political prognostication dodge: Take what you know to be true and then play fast and loose with the possible.”

That final injunction – “take what you know to be true and then play fast and loose with the possible” – strikes me as a useful touchstone for a wide range of thinking about the future.

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Cultivate your garden 

“A working man who tended his flowers and vegetables the way millions do in Britain would be regarded as downright eccentric, if not effeminate. US males may mow the lawn, shoot a few basketballs with their sons, barbecue steaks on a summer evening and then get out with the leafblower. Other than that, they stay indoors.” Matthew Engel has some interesting thoughts on the US aversion to nature.

The weather helps England have such magnificent gardens, but there’s clearly something deeper in the society about the obsession with gardens and gardening. A not untypical evening will see three or four gardening programmes on primetime network television here. As obsessions go, it’s a healthy one that does the commonweal considerable good.

Incidentally, a smaller group of English obsessives – plane spotters – which I wrote lightly about the other day is running into big trouble. It looks as though the Greek magistrates will charge them with spying, which could result in lengthy jail sentences. Bizarre.

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A partial mea culpa on my carpe diem rant yesterday. Colin Powell did use the crucial phrase “viable” about a Palestinian state. And he was more forceful than the US has been recently on condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

So the tone was good. What’s crucial now is that the administration is seen to deliver on its commitment to “push and prod” both sides to a lasting peace settlement.

Quiz question  

I turned to Tom Friedman today expecting an analysis of Colin Powell’s speech. Instead, he asked an unexpectedly difficult quiz question: name the second largest Muslim community in the world.

Not only is Tom’s answer surprising, I suspect, for most people, but his conclusions are bang on target.

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Carpe diem. That should be the watch word on international affairs, as today’s difficult times give leaders the will to do something about the many intractable problems we face.

Unfortunately, Colin Powell – perhaps held back by hawks in the White House – seems to have intoned business as usual in a much-heralded speech today in Louisville. Of course he’s right to chastise both Israelis and Palestinians, but unless the US is truly willing to get deeply engaged, putting one’s faith in the Mitchell report is not going to swing matters in the Middle East.

I thought at a minimum, the US would move to the crucial phrase of supporting a “viable” Palestinian state. That means one that can’t be shut down as soon as the Israeli government determines there’s a security crisis. I’m relying on reports of the speech, so maybe I have missed something. I hope so.

What about economics?  

When I was at a brainstorming meeting for Davos 2002 at the end of September, I said something that jolted quite a few of the participants: “Economics doesn’t matter.” When you are the World Economic Forum, and when many of the brainstormers are economists, that might not make much sense.

What I meant, however, was that in the context of the 2002 programme, economics would not be very interesting. It’s not that the economic side of things is a done deal. As I’ve written here, I think the world economy is in absolutely terrible shape. It’s just that most people seem to agree what to do about it. And agreement does not make for an interesting programme.

There was some support for my view this weekend at the abbreviated and postponed meetings of the IMF and World Bank. As the Financial Times reports, “Apart from disagreements about individual forecasts, the recent actions of central banks in slashing interest rates meant there were few immediate actions that they could recommend.”

Those disagreements, incidentally, matter. According to the IMF, the US is poised for 0.7% growth next year; Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill insists it will be more like the earlier 2.2% estimate. I’m on the side of the pessimists on this and the other forecasts.

The hard game of politics 

“If you’re in the game long enough, you’re going to be the toast of the town one day, and the next day you’ll be toast.” So says Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, in an interesting summary of who’s up and who’s down in US politics.

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Changed minds  

As far as I can tell, Americans have been largely immune from a debate that has raged outside its borders, between those supporting the military campaign in Afghanistan and those opposed. I’ve been a supporter from the outset, and I would have expected some contrition from the antis in the light of recent events. Of course, there has been no change.

Polly Toynbee has been flaying the opposers particularly hard, from her position as a life-long, progressive journalist. She has this to say about those whose minds remain unchanged: “Does anyone ever admit to changing their mind? Are we all doomed for eternity to minds set in concrete� Keynes said that when the facts changed, he changed his mind, a better maxim. But the inclination to deny ever being politically wrong is extraordinarily strong.”

Vital issues  

This is the first time when people from all over the world are meeting for a toilet summit.” I’m not surprised. News of the WTO (that’s World Toilet Organisation to you) is coming in fast.