Monthly Archives: December 2002

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O’Neill gone 

Well knock me over with a feather — Paul O’Neill has resigned as US Treasury secretary and Larry Lindsay has resigned as White House economic adviser. From almost all sides of the political spectrum, O’Neill has clearly been one of the weakest, least qualified heads of the Treasury in a long time. After the smarts of the Rubin and Summers tenures in the ’90s, O’Neill’s two years of bumbling has been a particular let down. Lindsay has inspired as much confidence as O’Neill.

According to the Financial Times, possible replacements for O’Neill include Charles Schwab and Phil Gramm.

On a parochial, web-related matter, Google News is at the moment useless for this information. Even though their page was created 12 minutes ago (16.10GMT), there is no sign of the O’Neill news. I guess it needs to percolate through a large number of their news sources.


There’s an atypically poorly reasoned editorial in today’s Economist that argues for the reinvigoration of selection in Britain’s secondary schools. No evidence is produced to justify the shift from today’s comprehensives, where admission is not based on ability. Instead, The Economist relies on the assertion that selective grammar schools provide opportunity for bright children.

The facts turn out to be quite different, as Polly Toynbee points out in The Guardian. “The education department’s own research last year found that the highest-ability children scored better in comprehensives than in grammar schools. Less surprisingly, areas with grammar schools had worse overall results, since the secondary moderns [non-selective schools] beside them did so much worse for the rest of the children.”

My children are not yet of secondary school age, but I regularly hear horror stories about the agonies parents in London face finding a school for their children. In inner London, where I live, there is insufficient provision of secondary schools, and certainly vastly insufficient provision of good secondary schools. Locally, there are signs that it is changing. But I agree with Toynbee’s belief that if everyone just had to go to their local school — none of this guff about choice — then there would be powerful pressures on the local schools to improve.

What I find sad in London is the number of middle class parents who just assume the state sector won’t be adequate for their children. So they go private without looking at the alternatives. My experience so far with the local state primary suggests they are motivated more by fear and ignorance than by reason.

Different attitudes 

Most analysts seem to think the Louisiana senate run-off election is tipping towards the Republicans. What interests me is the reasons, beyond the vast sums of money that are pouring into the bayou from GOP coffers.

President Bush and his cohorts have been pushing the line that Louisiana should want a senator on the majority side (they already have one Democrat), and that seems to be swaying some voters. This strikes me as characteristically American — let’s side with the winners. One of the oddities of the British character is support for the underdog. That’s why byelections (elections held out of the normal electoral cycle because of death or resignation) are generally seen as a chance for the opposition to spank the governing party.

I’m reasonably confident that if the Louisiana run-off were transported to a British constituency, the voters would vote for the Democrat just to show the majority holders that they can’t have everything their way. (Of course, this analysis only works when the opposition party isn’t seen as totally hopeless, as is the case with the Conservatives in Britain today.)

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End of an excellent weblog 

British Spin, which has been silent for over a week, is closing up shop. The author believes he’d be fired in his new job if he kept up the weblog. It’s sad. I found this anonymous weblog on British politics both interesting and insightful.

Perverse incentives 

“If the chief executive needs a bonus scheme to ensure his 100 per cent commitment to the job, he is the wrong person to hold it. The scheme is unlikely to affect the intensity of his effort but it will affect the intensity of his interest in how numbers that report that effort are compiled. All incentive schemes reward good performance more than they penalise bad performance. The result is undue risk-taking and excessive readiness to claim credit when risky behaviour pays off.” Great good sense from John Kay in the Financial Times.

Now we know 

Mathematicians have determined the optimum way to lace your shoes. In a reassuring boost for mob smarts, it seems the human race arrived at the optimum answers before combinatorial mathematics.


“It is far easier to be a real-world terrorist than a virtual-world one.” Mike Butcher provides an antidote to the wilder claims about cyberterrorism.

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The relentless rise of videogames 

Jenny the librarian has a useful posting summarising the rise and influence of videogames. I particularly liked the quote from Entertainment Weekly about how television displays American football. “Look at the NFL’s running scoreboard, ref-mounted cameras, and even sound effects: They’re all lifted from videogames. ‘When we started Fox Sports in 1994, I went out and got…every videogame I could,’ says Fox Sports Networks chairman David Hill. ‘What fascinated me was how videogames were so rich and multi-layered, while television was two-dimensional’.”

Unbreakable codes 

Ed Felten has a lucid explanation for us non-techies as to why there are unbreakable codes but no unbreakable digital rights management.

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Agriculture in Africa 

There’s quite a radical story on development in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal (subscribers only). It describes the work of Norman Borlaug, who spurred the green revolution in Asia, to bring an agricultural revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

“Now, sub-Saharan Africa is staggering toward its worst food crisis in decades, with as many as 38 million people threatened with starvation in the coming months, according to the U.N. To Dr. Borlaug, the solution is simple: sow the seeds of a second green revolution… To the World Bank and the industrialized governments that control it, giving free rein to free markets is more appropriate for Africa — even though the U.S., for one, is expanding the subsidies it pays to its own farmers. The theory, as it applies to policy toward Africa, is that an unfettered private sector will jump in to serve efficiently where governments once served inefficiently, and people and resources will be channeled to their best purposes.”

World Bank loans for agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa will total $416 million this year, half the 1990 total, according to the article. The developed world’s annual subsidies for their own, comparatively vastly rich, farmers was $311 billion last year.

The Bush policy process 

Brad DeLong has the complete text of John DiIulio’s memo on the Bush policy process. I certainly haven’t seen it in unexpurgated form over here and it is fascinating reading, top to bottom. The Mayberry Machiavelli quote is good, but what’s important is the overall impression of a White House uninterested in policy at almost any level. An essential text for our times.

Internet in China 

Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman’s report on Internet filtering in China is now available. “The blocking systems are becoming more refined even as they are likely more labor- and technology-intensive to maintain than cruder predecessors.”

Dear Leader 

“Impressed with the brown bread at a Khabarovsk restaurant, North Korea’s leader had an aide fly 20 loaves to Pyongyang so that it would be fresh on his arrival.” Rare insight into the bizarre world of Kim Jung Il, who is quite a gourmet while much of his population is starving.

Mob maps 

As a lover of both maps and technology, I adore the RealTime map of Amsterdam. Volunteers are given GPS devices that signal their position in real time. Over days and weeks, as they journey through the city, the map is built up. After 40 days, something traditional cartographers would be proud of is already emerging.

China’s rise 

Nicholas Kristof’s latest dispatch from China emphasises one of my convictions: “When historians look back on our time, I think they’ll focus on the resurgence of China after 500 years of weakness — and the way America was oblivious as this happened.” He doesn’t get carried away in his perspective of China’s rise. No sensible person says this is going to happen quickly. But it will be one of the key events of this century.

Charles Kupchan doesn’t disagree, but he believes Americans need to focus first on the rise of Europe. Salon’s interesting interview with Kupchan treads the ground laid 13 years ago by Paul Kennedy in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. I’m less convinced than Kupchan about Europe’s ability to speak and act with a single voice, but it’s important that an American is saying these things.

On China, Kupchan reckons you need to look beyond 2025. “Ten years from now China will be an Italy with nuclear weapons. Once you get into the second quarter of the century, 2025 and beyond, then China starts to begin to take its place as one of the top-ranking countries.” Even if that’s the timescale, policy makers need to start thinking about it now.

On a completely unrelated point, I don’t understand how Salon can be so poorly edited. There’s one major error in the interview, where Nigerian is substituted for Algerian (since it’s about what happened to the French in north Africa, the mistake matters a lot) and a few other annoying typos. Is no one reading these things?

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Matthew Yglesias pithily makes an important point about the difference between the public and private sectors: “The idea that you could run a city (or a state or the country) like a business is dangerously wrong.”

War war, not jaw jaw 

“Let us fight it out face to face. We have fought thrice, let there be a fourth war.” It’s not very reassuring that India’s depty prime minister, LK Advani, is egging on a war with Pakistan. I know that his incendiary rhetoric is partly an electoral gambit, but it’s exactly what a precarious situation needs least.

One of the many reasons India continues to lag behind China‘s development is the distraction of issues like Kashmir, which consumes a disproportionate amount of political time and capital. As far as I can tell, Advani has never devoted the same passion to India’s economic progress as to lashing out at his hated neighbour. As the world’s largest democracy, India’s path provides a powerful exemplar for many other countries. I’m turning into a pessimist about its future, however.

Expo 2010 

In the last few days, full page ads have been appearing in the Financial Times (and I’d guess in other elite media) pushing various cities bids for the 2010 International Exposition. Moscow, Shanghai, Queretaro, Yeosu and Wroclaw are vying for the honour, which will be awarded at this week’s meeting of the Bureau International des Expositions. These odd ads are aimed at the tiny number of BIE members — the cost per thousand must make even my old magazine, World Link, seem an absolute bargain.

It’s extraordinary that the nineteenth century invention of expositions to display wares and wonders to a curious public has survived into our new century. I live within sight of Crystal Palace (where the great 1851 Paxton construction was moved in 1852), and even though only the foundations remain (the building burned down in 1936) it always evokes for me a powerful sense of what must have been miraculous in its day. When I was a boy, I happily wandered around Expo ’67 in Montreal and (the unofficial in BIE’s eyes) New York World’s Fair in 1964. But I had not even the faintest interest in going to Seville in 1992, Lisbon in 1998 or Hanover in 2000, even though the journeys would have been very easy.

What’s the point now, beyond a boost to tourism? And as Hanover, host of the 2000 Expo, learned to its cost, even that can be doubtful. The survival of the international expo relies on the continuing supply of cities desperate for international recognition (Queretaro, Yeosu and Wroclaw) and those that still have a bureaucracy that hankers after grand projects that seem to offer bread and circuses for their inhabitants (Moscow and Shanghai). With so many city egos to gratify, the BIE will roll on for decades, perpetuating this odd, historical anomaly.