Monthly Archives: January 2003

Davos Newbies Home

Words 

I hadn’t encountered the American Dialect Society’s annual Words of the Year list before. Since blog is one of the 2002 finalists, and the “winner” in the most likely to succeed category, it will undoubtedly get huge coverage in the blogosphere. But the phrase on the 2002 that most impressed me was walking pinata, “a person subject to relentless criticism, most recently Trent Lott”. I have to find an occasion to work that one into my conversation.

Change 

I’ve finally taken the plunge and started to change the appearance of Davos Newbies. I feel deeply attached to the old design, a wonderful work of weblog friendship (from before the term weblog existed) by Garret Vreeland. But neither the title of the weblog — Insider’s Guide to Davos — nor the heavy Davos branding (that wonderful night shot of the valley) made sense anymore. I’m no longer an insider and Davos Newbies is no longer just a guide to Davos.

So why do I continue to call it Davos Newbies? Partly because it marks the origin of this weblog. No one questions why a newspaper today is called the Telegraph or the Post-Dispatch. The origins bear only a distant relationship to the current state. Over time, it would be nice to think that Davos Newbies could attain a tiny bit of the same aura. But I continue to call it Davos Newbies because I want the weblog to continue to be Davos-like, in the eclecticism of its interests, in its preoccupation with the ideas that matter to our world today and in its welcoming of dissent and debate. At least, that’s the ideal.

Past it? 

Yesterday I had two lengthy conversations with people who are Davos-bound. Both raised the notion that Davos is past its peak. I’ve heard variations on this theme for some time now.

Whether or not it’s true is harder to assess. Part of my answer, of course, is that Davos has never been the same since I left ;-> More seriously, there is some extent to which Davos had become a phenomenon of the boom years. Each edition had to be bigger and better than the last. But just as corporations have come to learn that you can’t grow earnings at double-digit rates forever, so Davos couldn’t follow the path of bigger and better forever.

This insight is hardly unique to me. Within the Forum, even in my day there, this was a preoccupation for the leadership. What’s far more difficult, however, is figuring out what different trajectory to take. To a minor extent in 2001 and more substantively last year in New York, the Forum tried to become more (in their jargon) process-driven. So sessions were supplanted by workshops, designed to have a concrete outcome. As I wrote last year, I find most of these workshops dissatisfying. The outcomes are either pre-cooked (in which case, so what) or are banal. Most interesting problems can’t really be resolved in a few hours, no matter how grand the assembly of brains in the room. This is particularly true when the assembly is as diverse in background and knowledge as is inevitable in Davos.

I think that is partly understood within the Forum. There are fewer workshops on the programme this year (although they are still there in numbers), but more significant is a quote from Forum president Klaus Schwab in today’s Financial Times. “Seven or eight years ago you could propose solutions. But many fewer are possible today. If we can contribute to better understanding we will already have done a lot,” Schwab says. Phew. I think that’s a far healthier attitude than the hubris that was dominant for a while that the Forum could actually be an engine for real problem solving.

Does that change the nature of Davos? I’ll be very interested to get feedback from old Davos hands that are there this week. What I fear — as someone who still has the best interests of the Forum at heart — is that the easy phrase “Davos has had its day” becomes a meme that is hard to shake off. If that does happen, then perception becomes as important as reality.

Puritans 

According to today’s Financial Times, Davos is adopting a more “puritan” image this year. I wrote yesterday about the elimination of the soirée, but the FT extends that to the overall mood.

“Triumphalism has been replaced by defensive introspection as the cult of the chief executive has been shattered by the bursting of the stock market bubble, collapsing profits and a succession of US corporate scandals.”

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Withdrawal 

Will I suffer withdrawal pangs from not going to Davos this week? It’s the first time in over 10 years that I haven’t headed up the mountain (pace last year, when I trekked to New York) and I’m sure I’ll miss it. What exactly will I miss?

More than great Davos moments (although I’m sure participants will have some of those this year), I’ll miss seeing so many Davos friends. Some of my Davos friends have become real friends over the years, others are friends only for those few days when we assemble for the Forum. But there’s undoubtedly some pain in not getting together with my crowd in Davos — and certainly having the chance to add to my circle of Davos friends.

Two things I won’t miss this year are the Friday evening buffet and the Saturday night soirée. That’s because they aren’t happening. According to the Financial Times, the soirée has been axed because of the more sombre mood of this year’s meeting. That may be, but I think it’s a pity that these purely social events during Davos have been taken off the calendar. It may have been right to trim some of the greater excesses of past years (the Russian mountain of caviar, the high-rollers who flew in supermodels to be their escort on Saturday night, etc), but what’s wrong with having occasions that are purely a chance to chat, drink and eat? In fact, sombre times probably call for more of those.

It would be a pity for Davos if the World Social Forum got a reputation for being more fun.

Reading the programme 

The World Economic Forum’s new approach to openness can be glimpsed on their usually uncommunicative website. The programme, which used to be reserved in a sanctum sanctorum for participants only, can now be read in part by anyone. I say in part, because us ordinary folk are confined to session titles and brief descriptions. There’s no indication of who is speaking on the subject, which is crucial to understanding how a subject is to be approached.

Still, that’s better than nothing, which is what the Forum used to defiantly serve to visitors to its website.

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Brink Lindsey on the SAR 

Brink Lindsey has a double-edged post on Hong Kong that rings very true. “I’ve come to believe that, these days, there are only two kinds of people in Hong Kong: the pessimists, and the people who think the pessimists are crazy, goggle-eyed optimists.” On the other hand, “it’s rich, it’s free, it’s dynamic, it’s vibrant. The economy will bounce back when the global economy recovers.”

And he is absolutely right that “to see all those skyscrapers, lit up like Christmas trees, hugging the shoreline and climbing the slopes of that big, barren rock, is one of the great perks of living on Planet Earth in the early 21st century”.

Gates and the dividend tax cut 

MyDD has an excellent post on how Bill Gates Sr is mobilising to take on the Bush plan to cut dividend taxes. But as one comment points out Gates and other billionaires opposed the repeal of the estate tax, to no avail. I think, however, the climate on the dividend tax cut is substantially different.

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Who ya gonna call 

The New York Times rarely lets humour intrude on its grey news pages, but the report from Mexico City on Rudy Giuliani’s crimefighting consultancy is a wonderful exception.

“The causes of crime in Mexico City have been studied to death and are known to one and all: poverty, inequality, judges who should wear masks instead of robes, police officers who make less than garbagemen and have the morals of mobsters. The police make as little as $250 a month; Mr. Giuliani’s fee would pay more than 1,400 of those starting salaries for a year.”

Sacked for blogging 

I disagree with most of what Iain Murray writes, but it seems extraordinarily wrong to me that he has lost his job because of writing a weblog.

End of bananas 

This article from The Guardian made me stop mid-chew over breakfast this morning. “Scientists based in France have warned that, without radical and swift action, in 10 years’ time we really could have no bananas.”

Security in Davos 

The New York Times reports on some of the security measures being taken for next week’s Davos meeting. “In one of the tightest security moves in Switzerland’s history, the government has authorized spending a record $2.3 million to protect the more than 1,000 corporate chiefs, 250 political leaders, 200 media executives and 200 prominent social activists expected to attend the annual meeting in Davos, a fashionable ski village in the Swiss Alps.”

What’s new is not particularly the money or the deployment of forces (the Swiss government admit that they spent $2.1 million in 2001). It’s the tone of the government spokesperson. Livio Zanolari is paraphrased in the Times as saying that, “considering the economic advantages the forum brings to the region and to the country, it is money well spent”. Before the Forum went to New York last year, the Swiss government had to be dragged kicking and screaming (writing figuratively) to spend a single franc and deploy a single soldier.

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Eldred 

Larry Lessig has a heartfelt response to losing the Eldred copyright case in the US Supreme Court 7-2. “I have often wondered whether it would ever be possible to lose a case and yet smell victory in the defeat. I’m not yet convinced it’s possible. But if there is any good that might come from my loss, let it be the anger and passion that now gets to swell against the unchecked power that the Supreme Court has said Congress has.”

End of the two-state solution 

Tom Friedman provides a grim analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The conflict is entering a terrible new phase: the beginning of the end of the two-state solution.”

Technology and magic 

Jim McGee has some fascinating thoughts on the distinctions between technology and magic. “There is a two-cultures divide between those who accept magical explanations and those who want to take the black box apart.”

Another slap at weblogs 

I don’t really understand the point of Brendan O’Neill‘s essay arguing against the significance of weblogs.

It’s easy to argue, as he does, that weblogs are not the most significant innovation in publishing since the printing press. What he doesn’t deal with, however, are the many areas in which weblogs are changing the nature of journalism. He seems ignorant of the well-developed view of Dan Gillmor on We Media, he seems to have missed the significance of weblogs in the Trent Lott affair, he seems to have missed how Dave Winer and other technology webloggers have created a powerful route around conventional media for news.

No, weblogs are not an innovation on the scale of Gutenberg. What is? But they have a power and significance that is steadily being uncovered.

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Gaming 

I’m not much of a gamer (although my seven-year old seems to be welded to his Nintendo GameCube), but I’m fascinated by Greg Costikyan’s new weblog on gaming.

When I was involved in Davos, I pushed hard for a session looking at games as business and as an important part of culture. This was at a time when videogame revenues were just passing Hollywood’s annual box office. I received a pretty dusty hearing from my colleagues. But Costikyan is wrestling with some of the hard questions the gaming world throws up. His essay on why Snood is the ninth most popular game in the world is a model.

UK culture minister Kim Howells should read Costikyan on games and violence before he makes further ill-informed comment.

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Unfair 

Tax distribution: Distribution of benefits under president Bush's stimulus plan

Look at this diagram clipped by Brad DeLong if you want to understand what’s most wrong about president Bush’s “economic stimulus” proposals (and as many have pointed out, there is very little stimulus in the package).

Virtual bones 

I’m rather Nicholson Baker about digitising library records. But digitising archives like the American Museum of Natural History’s — that’s a wonderful idea, that will provide access to information for people world-wide.

“So far, the museum has just scratched the surface of digitization, as the process is called, but the hope is to one day create a searchable online catalog of the whole museum, with images and text.” Roll on the day.

Mugabe 

If there are really concrete plans to end the Mugabe era in Zimbabwe that really cheers my day. Good news out of southern Africa has been in short supply lately, but getting Zimbabwe back on a properly democratic path would be a major step.

Incidentally, there is good news in southern Africa, but it doesn’t get much media play. I’ve been astounded over the last four or five years by the progress of Mozambique, which suffered one of the most brutal civil wars for 25 years. It’s still a desperately poor country, but many indicators are improving, despite floods and drought in recent years.

Cilla and Charybdis 

Karlin Lillington appropriately highlights a world-beating headline in today’s Guardian. If I ever wonder why I live in London, a strong reason is that it hosts a culture where a major newspaper can make a pun about Scylla and Charybdis and expect everyone to get it (or not worry if they don’t).

Incidentally, the G2 cover story that provoked Ian Mayes’s analysis was to my mind utterly reprehensible. I’ve been buying The Guardian daily for nearly 25 years and that cover made me think about switching papers.

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Berkman 

The original weblogger, Dave Winer, is going to be a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. There should be lively times on the Charles.

With no design in mind, I actually brought Dave and Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center, together on a panel during Davos 2000. Truth be told, it wasn’t the world’s most successful session (we totally screwed up the technology), but I expect great things from their collaboration in future.

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Congestion 

Jackie Ashley in The Guardian makes an important point about the introduction of congestion charging in London. “Progressive politics is all about asserting the general good against the private good; something that as a country we have come close to believing is impossible. This looming battle, which will be fought through headlines about traffic chaos and political hypocrisy, is not just about London, or Ken, or even cars. It is about political leadership asserting itself, at last, and taking some real risks. We should all know whose side we are on.”

As with so many landmark events in London, I will be away on C-Day. I’ve been on holiday for Black Wednesday and the deaths of Diana and the Queen Mother. I’m sorry I’ll be missing the advent of congestion charging, but I’m all in favour of it. Weather aside, traffic is the big, big problem with living in London today. Charging is the only way to go, whatever the associated problems with the system. If it works, I’m certain many cities around the world will follow London’s lead.

Clintonus Maximus 

Under editor Andrew Gowers, the Financial Times is discovering a sense of humour. “Ergo Cancellarius Universitatis Oxoniensi! Mentor feminae juvenaliae britannicae! Clintonus Maximus! Ave! Genuflexamus! Qui officum donari salutant!”

Chinese classics 

I don’t usually write about my current reading, but I’m having such a rollicking good time with The Marshes of Mount Liang that I have to say something.

I can’t remember what inspired me a couple of years ago to buy the first volumes of this 600-year old classic. Like other impulse buys, it had been gathering dust on my shelves until an Amazon.com recommendation jogged my memory (I’d bought the Romance of the Three Kingdoms from Amazon, provoking the recommendation). I suspect I bought The Marshes of Mount Liang out of a sense of duty — shouldn’t my library contain Chinese classics, as well as western ones?

But now that I’m reading it, duty has been pushed far into the background. These are gripping stories that easily stand comparison with any of the great tales of the west (think The Odyssey, Decameron or Don Quixote). And the Perils of Pauline style makes it particularly difficult to put down at the end of a chapter. I desperately want to know what happens next. But what makes Marshes great is more than action and storytelling. The characters are rounded and complete. I care about the fate of these rebels.

There’s no substitute for rushing out and getting a copy of this great work, but David Keffer has provided a wonderful introduction and guide to the epic. And there’s a wonderful French site with illustrations of all 108 heroes.

Welcome newcomer 

I’ve just come across John Kaye’s Political Relations, thanks to my referer logs. It looks like yet another interesting politically oriented UK weblog, a growing genre. Thankfully, the UK political weblog crowd doesn’t yet seem plagued by the sniping and bitchiness that I find infests many US sites.

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Lomborg’s comeupance 

It will be interesting to see if the finding that Bjorn Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist displayed “scientific dishonesty” is as widely covered as his original “research”. I’ll be scanning in particular the pages of The Economist this week, since the newsweekly has been prominent in trumpeting Lomborg’s work. The Economist also has a good tradition of debunking sloppy use of statistics.

Dickensian return 

In Dickensian London, winters seemed to always be snowy. I’ve lived here now for over 24 years, and I can only recall a handful of times when there was anything approaching real snow on the ground. Well today is one of them. Yesterday morning we woke up to a nice dusting of snow, but this morning the real thing began coming down with a steadiness that recalls my Chicago childhood.

Unlike Chicago, no one here is prepared for snow and ice. My son Ben was the only kid in his class yesterday that had boots. There is no sign whatsoever that the roads are going to be sanded or salted. I’m not sniffy about it. In fact if my borough were senseless enough to stockpile sand and salt and the necessary vehicles to distribute it, I’d be lamenting the drain on the local budget for an event that comes once every decade.