Monthly Archives: June 2002

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Linnaeus of fraud 

Paul Krugman has a preliminary taxonomy of large-scale corporate fraud. There’s the Enron, Dynegy, Adelphia and WorldCom for starters. “I’m not saying that all U.S. corporations are corrupt. But it’s clear that executives who want to be corrupt have faced few obstacles.”

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Whither Europe? 

Two contrasting views on Europe, one from a sceptic, the other from a life-long Euro-enthusiast. But it’s the sceptic who surprises himself with a positive take, and the devotee who is frustrated.

Joe Klein, continuing his jaunt around Europe, fetches up in Brussels, “capital” of Europe. It’s wonderful piece, full of clever, felicitous phrases. There’s a part of Klein that want to be cynical about eurobabble, but he concludes, “Europe has been a halting 50-year road, as easy to ridicule as the aesthetics of the euro banknote — but the euro stands, and last week was gaining strength against the dollar. The EU stands as well, an elitist salon undoubtedly, but a bolder and far more supple example of transnational possibilities than the UN has been, in a world where transnationality is no longer an option, despite what my government says.”

Tim Garton-Ash, however, is troubled about the European Union’s continued grudging progress towards expansion. My heart lies with Klein’s conclusion, but I agree with Garton-Ash’s eloquent final paragraph.

“Had the reunification of Europe happened 10 years ago, a huge positive charge of such idealism and enthusiasm would have flown into the European project from the liberated east. I still hope that a little of it will, from great Europeans like my old friend Bronislaw Geremek. But for the most part the new members, if and when they get in, will have concluded that Europe is really about haggling behind closed doors to pocket a few more million euros for one of your national special interests. That is the lesson we will have taught in 15 years of visionless, mean-spirited wrangling.”

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G8 woes 

If you want to start the day in despair, read The Washington Post’s pre-G8 editorial. It reckons that Nepad (the New Partnership for African Development), the commitment to expanding primary school enrolments in poor countries and the development round of trade talks are all pretty much dead in the water.

The conclusion: “Unfortunately, therefore, the summit in Canada is unlikely to help Africa much, though we’d be delighted to be proven wrong.”

And that’s even assuming that Africa gets its long-overdue attention from the G8 in the light of the expected tussle over president Bush’s Middle East speech the other night.

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So long Mahathir 

Is it really goodbye Dr Mahathir this time? He has apparently announced he will leave the premiership of Malaysia in October next year, but he also announced his resignation over the weekend until his acolytes convinced him to stay.

The most distasteful moment of my Davos career was hearing a stream of anti-Semitic invective from Mahathir in response to a question from Business Week’s Steve Shepard. Mahathir of course denied anti-Semitism but then launched into a diatribe against the international conspiracy of financiers.

In Malaysia itself I suspect the non-Chinese population, the Bumiputra, are so accustomed to Mahathir leadership that anything else in unthinkable. The minority Chinese ethnic population, however, which has been disadvantaged by Mahathir’s policy of positive discrimination in favour of the Bumis, will probably be glad to see the back of him. How much will change in his absence — if he is truly going to withdraw from power as well as position — is much harder to fathom.

I remember lamenting the absence of even a single decent bookshop in Kuala Lumpur on one visit. A prominent Malaysian executive, hearing my plaint, told me the only decent library in the city was held by the security services — courtesy of all the good books they had impounded.

In support of sweatshops 

Nicholas Kristof says the unsayable in The New York Times: “It’s catastrophic for muddle-minded liberals to join in and cudgel impoverished workers for whom a sweatshop job is the first step on life’s escalator.”

I remember the BBC report he cites which led to Nike leaving Cambodia. It did explain that the low-paid factory jobs were far preferable for Cambodian girls to the sex trade or staying in their impoverished villages. But the outcry that followed the accurate report overlooked those realities.

Phil Jones offers an intelligent reply to Kristof’s argument. I agree that the first condition — ensuring adequate health and safety standards, even in “sweatshops” — is fundamental. I know there have been documented cases of global corporations violating these standards, but from what I’ve seen in the developing world, multinationals are generally better upholders of standards than local companies. I don’t think this is altruism on their part. They are worried about reputational damage if they have woefully low standards.

As to the disparity between advocating openness for western manufacturers while slamming the door shut on the south’s agricultural exports, I couldn’t agree more. See Davos Newbies passim.

On Phil’s other points, there are no easy answers and he’s right to say there is need for more research. What I object to in less intelligent viewpoints is the arrogance that we need to save the world’s poor from exploitation by neo-colonialist corporations. That smacks of the “white man’s burden” fallacy.

New balls, please 

I’d like to spend more time than I do hitting a tennis ball. But I have to confess that I’ve never given much thought to its manufacture. Fortunately, Fran Abrams has looked into how tennis balls are made, appropriately for the start of Wimbledon. It’s a fascinating story, marred only by her assertion that “tennis balls are big business” — what’s remarkable is that such global efforts are worthwhile for a product that generates such trivial revenues.

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Whaling and Japan 

Jared Diamond, who wrote the thrilling Guns, Germs and Steel, has an immaculately argued case against whaling in The Los Angeles Times. “Japanese opposition to sensible international management of biological resources will ultimately prove more disastrous to import-dependent Japan than to any other country.”

Get your kicks 

“Here we are, the locomotive of the world economy, the unipolar bear, a hyperbolic hyperpower bestriding the earth like a Colossus — do we have to win every hand, rake in every pot, block every competitor’s goal? Let some other nation’s screaming populace get a kick out of the kicking game.” I’m surprised but pleased that Bill Safire was rooting for someone other than the US.

Welcome back 

Dave Winer is back in harness after bypass surgery. Keep fighting the good fight, Dave.

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Keeping London alive 

I’ve lived in England for nearly 24 years, so I am often asked whether I’m an anglophile. I’m not, but I am a Londonphile (if such a word exists). In fact, I’m generally an urban person, rather than a country one.

One of my frustrations and fears about London, however, has been the prevailing climate in the UK of preservation at all costs, and fear of the new. In the last decade this has moderated somewhat — London has some good new buildings and a few extraordinary urban interventions (London Eye and Millennium Bridge) — but the conservation instinct remains high.

So I’m immensely cheered by the announcement today of mayor Ken Livingstone’s draft London Plan. The plan recognises that London both needs to and will continue to grow in coming years (to 8.1 million people by 2016). More people mean a need for more jobs and far better infrastructure, notably in housing, transport and education. The mayor’s plan accounts for all of this. It will undoubtedly provoke a storm of outrage from those who hate tall buildings and want to preserve a city in aspic. I’m reasonably confident that the plan, or something a lot like it, will win through and keep London a living, vital place.

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Ama’s story 

My friend Michael Smolens, who is labouring to bring print-on-demand to the world, has passed me an interesting email from Ghanaian author Manu Herbstein.

Herbstein has written a novel about the slave trade, Ama, told from the perspective of a young African woman captured in 1775. Ama has been critically acclaimed, winning this year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book. It is available as an e-book, but Herbstein has been unable to find a conventional publisher.

Here’s Herbstein’s problem: “People stop me to congratulate me and ask me where they can buy a copy of the book. I have to direct them to an online vendor abroad. Freight charges can double the list price. Few readers in this country [Ghana] can afford to shell out some $30 for a paperback. Our local bookshops have such cash flow problems that they are reluctant to order the book from abroad.” So he wants a print-on-demand machine in Accra to supply demand.

Roll on the day.

Olympic truce 

I haven’t consciously sought a classical theme in the last few days, but that’s what has happened. Nelson Mandela was in Athens yesterday supporting a campaign to revive the ancient Greek idea of an Olympic truce. According to The Guardian, “The idea has been widely derided as both silly and unworkable.”

It’s true that the chances of combatants today laying down arms because of a sporting event are low, but I still think the idea deserves support. In 1994 apparently, a one-day truce was observed in Bosnia during the Winter Olympics; Unicef vaccinated 10,000 children in that window of peace.

There’s a lot of guff spread about the wonderfully civilised world of classical Greece (perhaps a subject for a longer disquisition one day), but for 12 centuries the usually warring, disputatious ancients did observe a truce during the sporting and religious observation of the Olympics. It’s a noble aspiration for us to do the same.

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Lions v Christians 

Further to yesterday’s Bloggus Caesari, today’s Guardian reports that “exotic beasts from Africa and Asia were captured ready for slaughter in the Colosseum in Rome by army units and civilian hunters virtually unknown to history”. Given that the study of classical society is probably the longest running academic discipline, it’s wonderfully reassuring that there is still plenty to discover.

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Ave atque vale 

Bloggus Caesari must be the most unusual blog out there. It’s done incredibly well, however. I hope the author keeps it up.

Korea wins 

Korea beats Italy, 2-1, on a golden goal. As the BBC’s Gary Lineker said just now, when asked whether Korea can win the World Cup, “They’ve just won the World Cup.” The scenes in Seoul are remarkable, and I remember Corso Buenos Aires in Milan in 1982 when Italy did win the Cup.

Football and culture 

Sadly, Japan are now out of the World Cup, beaten 1-0 by Turkey. It’s easy to get carried away in the emotion of sport, but I think there’s something to the view that national team character does reflect national character. In the case of Japan and South Korea, that may well mean that things are changing.

As several commentators have noted, the current Japan team isn’t very, well, Japanese. There’s little respect for elders, it’s led by a foreigner, and it is dominated by strong, idiosyncratic personalities. French coach Philippe Troussier banished the system where the older players ruled the roost (and Japan never won any games against serious opposition). I’m happy to believe this is emblematic of a new Japan, but I’m sure these admirable characteristics will take a long time to percolate into the general, national character.

I’m also unconcerned about the vibrant nationalism that seems to accompany the Japanese team. In the aftermath of the Second World War, nationalist displays were rightly anathema in Japan. But the football fans are a new generation, completely immersed in a modern, democratic society. There’s nothing wrong with their passion for their country.

The other host nation, South Korea, plays Italy for a quarterfinal place in about three hours. Today’s Financial Times reports that in Korea as well, the team is signalling cultural change. It, too, is led by a foreigner, Dutch coach Gus Hiddink. Samsung, among others, has launched a “learn from Hiddink” campaign. Hiddink, like Troussier, “disregarded player popularity or personal relations in favour of merit”, and “introduced more flair” into Korea’s organised, but uncreative play.

For his efforts, there is a campaign to grant Hiddink honorary citizenship. There are even some who are clamouring for him to be made a full citizen, so he can run for Korea’s presidency in December. I don’t think so.

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Democracy from the people 

Doc Searls came in to give a talk at the PIU during lunchtime today. Unfortunately, the combination of the hottest day of the year so far and the Brazil-Belgium match meant there were too many no-shows for my liking, but Doc gave a provoking discourse on the Internet, the creative commons and government.

What I found most useful was Doc’s description of how metaphors direct so much of our thinking. I’ve read some George Lakoff, but Doc was far more accessible.

More on libraries 

Michael Smolens has told me about the Online Computer Library Center, which has the largest metadata repository of book objects in the world. There are over 52 million objects and one is added every 15 seconds. I’m particularly interested in the 18,000 in classical Greek.

Think good thoughts 

Dave Winer, who both inspired me to start this weblog and provided the tools, is in hospital. Think good thoughts.

Opening up 

I’m unsurprised that book publishers look like making many of the same mistakes as the music industry. According to The New York Times, publishers are battling with what they should recognise as their greatest friends — librarians — in their misguided attempt to deny users easy access to content.

They quote Miriam Nisbet, legislative council for the American Library Association. “What we are really excited about is the potential of the technology to allow greater dissemination of information because getting information into the hands of everybody we can is what we are all about. What we are concerned about is the dark side, which is trying to lock everything up.” But the article continues, “locking everything up is exactly the response from the largest publishers”.

Reform in Europe 

Brad DeLong poses an interesting point on whether significant reform is possible in most European countries. “Europe’s governments have always seemed to me to have overwhelming continuity-of-personnel with the past (as opposed to the circulation-of-elites pattern of American governments), and this seems to me to make major reforms of any kind relatively unlikely.”