Monthly Archives: October 2002

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Continuing the peace theme, The New Yorker has a fascinating little interview with the 98-year old George Kennan, who coined the phrase containment over 50 years ago.

“Wherever, in this modern age, one has to choose between war and no war, such is the fearfulness of modern armaments that one should give every conceivable preference to the possibilities and arguments for peace before resorting to the sword.”

And his description of Stalin, with whom he dealt personally, is vivid: Stalin had the “pocked face and yellow eyes of an old battle-scarred tiger”.

Carter redux 

The award of the Nobel peace prize to Jimmy Carter is a good decision in a difficult year.

Carter wasn’t much of a president, but he has become a model of how to be an ex-president. He does little, if any, touring on the high-priced lecture circuit (look at this if you want to see what an ex-president can earn out there). He devotes himself to the difficult and unglamorous work of building democratic institutions and peace, and fighting disease and hunger. How many presidential institutes would take this on as part of their mission statement: “The Center addresses difficult problems and recognizes the possibilities of failure as an acceptable risk”?

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Drumroll please 

Northwestern University Press had better get its presses rolling. The Nobel prize for literature has been awarded to Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz, published in English only by a minor university press. (Northwestern, which I grew up in the shadow of, is not minor, but its press is decidedly so.)

It is often commented upon that English-speaking nations tend to be parochial in their literature. The French, Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians all seem to read far more translated fiction than we do. But looking through Kertesz’s bibliography, it seems equally small publishers are responsible for his work in France and Germany.

The uncluttered life 

Today’s New York Times has a typically thin but enjoyable profile of techie people who have pared down the technology in their lives. I found it resonated well with me.

Anu Garg of AT&T Labs, and the progenitor of A Word A Day, is one of the people quoted. “I felt one should make only as many appointments as you can keep in your head. That’s how I see myself with technology. I make a living with it but I don’t have to let it take over my whole life.”

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Kahneman and Smith 

Daniel Kahneman has just won the Nobel prize for economics, “for having integrated insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty”, together with Vernon Smith.

Kahneman led what is increasingly looking like my Davos swansong — a lunch I moderated during Davos in New York on behavioural finance. It’s a curious that what was a well-attended lunch last February would now become a packed session in a main room, such is the lure of the Nobel.

Corporate weaklings 

Former World Link editor Philippe Legrain writes an anti anti-globalisation article in today’s Guardian. I agree with the main thrust of his argument, but he is over-egging it to say that brands are a sign of corporate weakness.

“Competition can constrain even the biggest companies — one reason why globalisation is such a good thing. Closed domestic markets, where national champions can cosy up to government, are much more likely to be monopolised than open global ones. So even though global companies are bigger than before, they are not necessarily more powerful.”

Ethics matters 

Historian Reinhard Wettmann had some interesting things to say at the launch of the report on Bertelsmann’s activities during the Nazi era in Germany. Wettmann was one of the co-authors of the report, which makes clear that the company profited enormously during the Third Reich, eagerly publishing anti-semitic and militaristic propaganda.

The Financial Times reports that “Wettmann thinks that the history of then-Bertelsmann chairman Heinrich Mohn, who was no anti-Semite but who believed that companies could publish whatever appealed to the widest audience and leave ethical considerations to their rulers, should act as a warning against moral relativism in business, and particularly in the media. Such management philosophy, Mr Wettmann says, would be as misguided today as it was then.” How many present day companies does that remind you of?

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Open science 

Earlier this year, I did a lot of work on the role of science in society, particularly in Britain. So (even as an American) it was great to see two British scientists — and an American — share the Nobel prize in medicine yesterday. Sydney Brenner, John Sulston and Robert Horvitz won for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

One of the most gratifying aspects of this win was Sulston’s opportunity to spread the gospel about the importance of open scientific research. Sulston led the British side of the Human Genome Project, and he believes the Nobel-winning work on the nematode worm benefited as well from a culture of shared results.

“The worm worked so well because the community held an ethos of sharing…. We gave all our results to others as soon as we had them. Research is hastened when people share results freely.”

And this just in: the physics prize has been shared by Raymond Davis, Masatoshi Koshiba and Riccardo Giacconi. Davis and Koshiba won “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, in particular for the detection of cosmic neutrinos”, and Giacconi for “pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources”.

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Footnotes please

I’m reading a wonderful book, The Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan. It’s about the Paris peace conference that followed the First World War and just about every page jolts the reader with some insight or pithy aside. Great stuff, and eerily relevant to today’s world situation.

But there’s one thing that annoys me profoundly, and I fear it’s a straw in the wind of the future of book publishing. For the paperback edition, publishers John Murray decided to dispense with the 46 pages of notes. In the book, they claim they agreed this with the author to “make the paperback a manageable and readable size”.

I don’t believe this. I think it was to save money on production. Would 50 additional pages on a 500-page book really make it suddenly unwieldy? When I’m reading a book as involving as The Peacemakers, I want to follow some of the references.

As a sop, John Murray direct the reader to their website for the references. Of course, nothing is signposted from the home page. The user has to guess that The Peacemakers will be under “general books”. They are there, in a pdf file, but printing out 46 pages at my expense and carrying it around with the book would be truly unmangeable. (And will it be available and signposted if I want to find the references in five, 10 or 20 years?) Publishers should stop this nonsense before it gets out of hand.

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Richard Tomkins writes a singularly ignorant column in today’s Financial Times about the failures of science (subscription only, so I’ll spare you a link).

“By the mid-20th century we were so bedazzled by the wonders of technological progress that we began imagining a future in which machines would relieve us of the drudgery of work, leaving us free to live a life of aesthetic contemplation. Meals would be replaced with food pills, moving pavements would transport us along the streets and people would live in space colonies on Mars. Instead, what happened? We got the internet. Well, thanks, but we are singularly unimpressed.”

Leave aside for a moment his dismissal of the Internet, which is common fare these days. He also ignores the real advances science has provided in medicine, which has far greater consequences than food pills, moving pavements and space colonies; in agriculture, which means, for example, that India no longer has regular famines; in the sheer beauty of understanding the world and universe in which we live.

Bill in Blackpool 

Bill Clinton had an extraordinary impact in Blackpool. It wasn’t just star power, although that is certainly part of it. He truly has the ability to express a humane, integrated view of the world that most people miss on the world stage these days.

Read Simon Hoggart’s take if you want to have some fun.

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Neologism alert 

I was involved in a discussion the other day where someone introduced a useful new coinage. We used to have nimby (not in my backyard), to characterise those opposed to development, whether it was a new power plant, airport or asylum centre. But nimbyism is running so high that we now have banana: build absolutely nothing anywhere near me.


“There is too much criticism-with-contempt oozing from the Pentagon, which, unfortunately, has become the voice of America lately.” Tom Friedman rightly reckons that “good will and popularity are underrated strategic assets”.

Blackpool illumination 

“Did a burger bar here ever expect to have an hour of Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey and Alastair Campbell?” The BBC’s non pareil Jim Naughtie delivers a wonderful report on Bill Clinton in Blackpool, where the Labour party conference is taking place.

Here’s Ben MacIntyre of The Times: “This was really The Beatles. There was a moment when I really thought there was going to be an embarrassing knicker-throwing moment, but thankfully we got through it.” Great listening.

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Solow on globalisation 

Brad DeLong points to an interview with economist Bob Solow and an interesting range of topics, and offers his own commentary. Worth a read for those interested in globalisation and its effects.

Cold and colder 

Robert Gagosian, head of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has some more bad news on climate change.

“Average winter temperatures could drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the northeastern United States and in Europe. ThatÂ’s enough to send mountain glaciers advancing down from the Alps. To freeze rivers and harbors and bind North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice. To disrupt the operation of ground and air transportation. To cause energy needs to soar exponentially. To force wholesale changes in agricultural practices and fisheries. To change the way we feed our populations.”

There has been some discussion of this scenario in Britain over the last few years. Look where London is: at latitude 51.5 degrees north, we’re as far north as Edmonton, which has famously brutal winters. The only thing that makes most of Britain and northern Europe habitable is the Gulf Stream current, which brings warmer waters to the seas around us, producing a general atmospheric warming. Divert the Gulf Stream and we’ll need more than a few woolly jumpers.

Different risks 

Geopolitical risks used to be easy to judge. They came from conventional sources of instability — shaky governments, rogue states, reckless militaries. We still face all of these, but there are new elements in the equation.

According to the CIA, the rise of Aids in five major countries presents a major security threat in the future. China, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Russia have 40% of the world’s population, and the CIA reckons by 2010 they will between 50 million and 75 million HIV-positive people.

The increasing incidence of HIV “could harm the economic, social, political and military structure in each of the five countries”.

The CIA’s record of spotting what’s important is pretty poor (it missed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the capabilities of Osama bin Laden, for example), but there are clearly some people within the agency thinking intelligently. The CIA report was given to the governments of the five countries two weeks ago, apparently. Whether they do anything about it in time to stave off the worst is very much in doubt.