Monthly Archives: July 2002

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Where oranges grow 

A long time ago, when I was studying at Oxford, the modern history exam opened with, “Revolutions occur where oranges grow. Discuss.” Absurd on first reading, when you think about it there are numerous questions about the relationship between climate and history that it might provoke.

England is hardly the place for oranges, usually. But after weeks of moaning about no summer, we’re having what passes for a heat wave in these parts. That’s great, when you can do things outdoors. If you need to work, however, it’s more difficult, particularly since I (like most people here) don’t have air conditioning. After all, if you need it for only a couple of weeks each year, it makes even less economic than environmental sense.

As someone raised in Chicago, I was taught to believe “you think better in the cold”. Right now, I think that’s undoubtedly true.

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When I was on World Link, we had an in-office game about naming enclaves (that tells you something about the office culture of World Link). Ceuta was an easy one to get, but I doubt any of us knew about Isla del Perejil, a previously meaningless rock that has provoked a ridiculous dispute between Morocco and Spain.

I’m not entirely sure after reading the news reports what inspired Morocco’s “invasion” of Parsley Island. King Mohammed VI, busy with his wedding, didn’t need to distract his subjects further, I wouldn’t think. But the Spanish are certainly riled: in an online survey by El Mundo, 64% of respondents reckoned Spain should reseize the islet by force.

On enclaves, incidentally, our efforts preceded, I’d guess, the web page maintained by Rolf Palmberg. Very strangely, to my mind, Palmberg does not include places like Ceuta because “they are not true enclaves since they are accessible by sea”.

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Artificial life 

John Robb and others have highlighted the terrorism implications of the synthetically created polio virus.

It’s probably true that anyone with a reasonably cheap lab can — or will shortly be able to — create harmful viruses. As yesterday’s Financial Times pointed out, “The experiment that a person conducted to win the Nobel Prize two decades ago can now be conducted by my 11-year-old grandson.” That’s what happens with the advance and dissemination of technology.

But there are three other sensible reactions to the news. First, as John himself points out in a comment, “As with the nuclear terror of the last 50 years, you have trust in the essential goodness of humanity that we are going to survive relatively unscathed.” Second, as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid brilliantly explained in their Social Life of Information, foreseeing a path for how technologies will be used is profoundly difficult. There is no inevitability about extrapolating trends. Third, we should be thrilled at this latest example of scientific ingenuity. The artificial creation of life has long been mooted, but here we have it for real.

Ye shall reap 

“If Osama bin Laden had been taught to sow seeds when he was a nipper, he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing.” Gardening expert Alan Titchmarsh shows his profound faith in the powers of digging in the soil on Desert Island Discs.

Constitutional literacy 

Jamin Raskin argues the case for constitutional literacy.

“The nation is suffering a profound crisis of constitutional literacy. According to a National Constitution Center poll five years ago, ‘only 5 percent of Americans can correctly answer 10 rudimentary questions about the Constitution’, such as naming any of the rights contained in the First Amendment or declaring true or false whether the president is elected directly by the people. Notably, one out of six citizens (this means tens of millions of people) actually believes that “the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation.”

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Press freedom 

In a blow to those who think press freedom is an important part of a democratic society, the House of Lords in the UK refused five media organisations the right to appeal over a judgment ordering them to hand over documents leaked by an anonymous source.

What I find so puzzling about this judgement (and I hasten to add that I’m not a lawyer, so my absence of qualification to comment may be total) is that the media organisations are being put up against the wall on a fairly trivial matter (trivial, that is, in everything but commercial terms). Belgian brewing giant is determined to find out who leaked them documents on a possible takeover bid for South African Breweries.

I may be wrong, but I think the US courts would throw the Interbrew caseout with hardly a second glance. It’s not as though the newspapers are concealing a murderer or terrorist by their refusal to hand over documents. I’ll watch with interest to see what the newspapers do (the five are the FT, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and Reuters).

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Dumb boycotts 

Jonathan Freedland argues the case against the proposed boycott of Israeli academics: “If this tactic is aimed at nudging along the cause of peace in the Middle East and justice for the Palestinians, it can only fail.”

Truffling for Michaelangelo 

How did he recognise it as a Michaelangelo? “It was just as I recognize a friend in the street or my wife across the breakfast table,” said Sir Timothy Clifford.

There’ll always be an England 

There are major famines looming in Angola and Zimbabwe, but BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme has found time for the issue really exercising the people of Britain: the fate of the hedgehogs of South Uist. Earlier reports generated a storm of emails from people desperate to give the hedgehogs a home.

There isn’t equivalent humanity expressed on the fate of people who are threatened and displaced. Why do most people care more about other animals than the human animal?


First there was warchalking, now there’s blogchalking. My blogchalk, for what it’s worth, is: English, United Kingdom, London, Dulwich, Lance, Male, 41-45. Let’s see if it catches on.

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Ross on Palestine 

No diplomat has deeper experience of the Israel-Palestine conflict than Dennis Ross. So it pays to heed what he says: “The Palestinian public not only favors reform but is insisting on it. That is the good news. Now the bad: reform is still a longshot for several reasons.”

Like Ross himself, the long-serving US envoy to the Middle East, there are no verbal fireworks in this analysis, or posturing for particular interest groups. On the Middle East, that’s a rare virtue.

Ross was a regular in Davos during the ’90s. Given the regular frustrations of his brief — every time there seemed to be a step forward, there was soon an equivalent step backward — I have long wondered how he stuck to his punishing task for more than a dozen years. It’s good that there are some people with such a deep commitment to achieving peace through steady, painstaking diplomatic efforts.

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Life expectancy 

Botswana is generally held up as one of the success stories of sub-Saharan Africa. It has good, democratic government and is economically reasonably successful (although geographically vast, it has a small population and the advantage of lucrative diamond mines).

But coinciding with the 14th International Aids Conference in Barcelona, grim statistics have emerged from Botswana. For the first time since 1950, average life expectancy has fallen below 40, and by 2010 — if current trends persist — it will be down to 27. Before the onset of the Aids epidemic, Botswana had developed world standards of life expectancy.

Enormous efforts are being made to shift the tide of misery in Botswana, thanks to highly targeted aid programmes. But the scale of the disaster in this low population, comparatively middle income southern African nation is staggeringly daunting.

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Adding up 

The Financial Times makes the link between standards in company accounting and national accounting. “The wheezes with figures employed by politicians and government would make even some of the boldest executives blush.”

Since president Bush declared himself shocked, just shocked at the accounting scandals emerging in the US, the FT directs some of its attention to his accounts. “Last year the International Monetary Fund gently suggested that [Bush’s] $1,350bn tax cuts underestimated the true cost by $490bn because the administration had failed to account for additional debt interest. The necessary restatement of the US accounts would be 129 times that of WorldCom.”

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July 4 

Today’s Mirror, a left-of-centre tabloid in the UK with a circulation over 2 million, has a front page headline “Mourn on the 4th of July”. Writer John Pilger, a campaigning firebrand on progressive causes for years, lets vent his anti-Americanism.

It’s extraordinary to me how rampant anti-Americanism has become in the last few months. I disagree with a lot the Bush administration does, but that doesn’t turn me against the US (after all, look around the world at the alternatives).

Fortunately, there are some intelligent voices making the opposite case. Joe Klein has recently finished his peregrination through Europe for The Guardian. He reckons anti-American sentiment arises because of the deep-rooted confidence of US society and culture. “America doesn’t have an identity problem. It has a powerful national religion: Americanness. It has a national ideology, too: informality. It is threatened neither from above nor below; it is threatened for the moment from the outside, by terrorists, but that has only served to strengthen the national sense of community… The true power of Americanness is that it beggars ethnicity: we luxuriate in the mongrelisation of our bloodlines — at least, a constant majority of us do; we believe that the things we have in common are far more important than those which divide us.”

And he accurately slaps down those who argue that Britain must choose between Europe and the US. “Why not mix and match? Why not take the freedom of the American labour market and combine it with an aggressive re-employment programme for those who are sacked, for example?”

Good reflections for the 4th.

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Start worrying 

Tom Friedman zeroes in on the UNDP’s incisive report on the Arab world. “The three main reasons the Arab world is falling off the globe [are]… a shortage of freedom to speak, innovate and affect political life, a shortage of women’s rights and a shortage of quality education.”

I spent a lot of the last decade involved in World Economic Forum discussions about key issues for the world. When it came to geopolitics, the Middle East (meaning the Israel-Palestine conflict) came up, together with the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t recall anyone focusing for long, however, on the instability of Saudi Arabia.

The prospect of an Iran-like collapse of the Saudi regime is increasingly something people I respect talk about. Few people would mourn the passing of the current regime (just as few lamented the end of the shah), but the prospect of something far worse is really worrying for global stability.


There’s no doubt that Joe Stiglitz has increased the volume of his attacks on the IMF with the publication of his latest book, Globalization and Its Discontents. But the response of IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff is astounding for the level of personal vitriol.

“You seem to believe that when investors are no longer willing to hold a government’s debt, all that needs to be done is to increase the supply and it will sell like hot cakes. We at the IMF — no, make that we on the Planet Earth — have considerable experience suggesting otherwise. We earthlings have found that when a country in fiscal distress tries to escape by printing more money, inflation rises, often uncontrollably. Uncontrolled inflation strangles growth, hurting the entire populace but, especially the indigent. The laws of economics may be different in your part of the gamma quadrant, but around here we find that when an almost bankrupt government fails to credibly constrain the time profile of its fiscal deficits, things generally get worse instead of better.”

Stiglitz has a dignified reply in today’s Financial Times: “This was nothing to do with what I said, nothing to do with the substantive issues. It was 90% a personal diatribe.”