Monthly Archives: May 2003

Davos Newbies Home

Old Nassau 

After 25 years, part of what’s remarkable about returning to Princeton is how little has changed. There are new buildings, but the physical environment is truly as unchanged as it could possibly be. I wonder if it’s a Potemkin village staged for us returning alumni, and the whole campus will revert to some different reality when we leave on Sunday.

But there is plenty of change behind the facade. Some is good: Princeton’s first woman president, Shirley Tilghman, is striving to fan fresh winds around the old place, and she seems to be succeeding. About the student body, I’m not yet sure. My old patch, The Daily Princetonian, reports that Princeton’s students are considerably more conservative than their peers at Columbia and Harvard, at least as far as the war in Iraq is concerned (probably a pretty good proxy for other issues). At Princeton, 60% of students in March supported the war, compared to 47% at Columbia and 35 % at Harvard.

Davos Newbies Home

Big number 

Here’s a big number: $44,200 billion. That’s what the chronic federal budget deficits will total thanks to the Bush administration according to a report from the US Treasury.

But in keeping with the administration’s commitment to honesty and openness, the study was quietly left out of the annual budget report in February.


Four separate people have told me today that I’ve brought the first good weather to New York in weeks. That’s not the usual position for someone from London.

Davos Newbies Home

Better late 

Long after everyone else I know got on the wireless cluetrain, I’ve finally enlisted. As is the contemporary style, I’m writing this from a Starbucks in Manhattan and have become a fully paid-up member of the lovers of Wi-Fi.

I’m enroute to my 25th reunion at Princeton, curiously in the same week that Doonesbury is parodying president Bush’s 35th Yale reunion. I don’t think my class will be quite like the Doonesbury version of a White House garden party, but I do fear that most of the attendees will be the people I pretty much avoided for four years.

But I am fascinated to see what’s become of a slice of the self-described best and brightest after a quarter of a century. Providing I find some Wi-Fi hotspots in Princeton, I’ll try to log some of my thoughts.

Davos Newbies Home

The G7 illusion 

Next weekend, the G7/G8 summit will attract reams of coverage. But Yale’s Jeff Garten unveils the truth about these jamborees.

“It has failed to steer Japan and the European Union towards essential domestic reforms that would unlock much-needed growth. It has had no influence in curbing America’s unrestrained appetite for oil. It has done nothing to avert recurrent financial crises in Latin America. It was a bystander during the Asian financial disaster of 1998. And it has done little to alleviate global poverty.

“Looking ahead, the G7 shows every sign of being impotent in the face of the currency disturbances that could arise if the dollar sank too fast. Its response to looming deflation will be rhetorical bromides. It will be on the sidelines when it comes to the challenge of nation building, or to balancing openness and security in the world economy, post-September 11 2001.”

It’s faster than you think 

I’ve speculated before about how rapidly biotechnologies move from cutting edge, to graduate labs, to something anyone can do in a high school lab. Richard Gayle provides chapter and verse.

“RNAi was Science’s Breakthrough Molecule of the Year for 2002. It has only been around a few years but looks like it will be incredibly important. As Derek remarks, there will be Nobels given for this work.

“But, as a sign of just how fast the world has changed, RNAi is already garnering recognition and prizes… for high school students. Anila Madiraju, a 17-year old student in Montreal, just won the $50,000 first prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her topic was Silencing Cancer with RNA…

“When I was in high school, science fair projects involved experiments such as separating plant proteins via chromotography, mostly using techniques that were 5-10 years old because that is what was available. When I was in graduate school, you could figure that it would take many years before high school students would be replicating your work. I mean, I was getting an advanced degree requiring years of effort. It had better take years for it to trickle down to high school. Now it seems like months. The world sure moves fast these days. I kind of feel sorry for people working on RNAi, when you have a 17-year old breathing down your neck.”

Davos Newbies Home

Pressure on the press 

It looks like some of the US immigration service is cracking down on foreign journalists entering the country. The deportation of six French journalists who wanted to cover E3 would be funny if it wasn’t also worrying.

When I used to travel around emerging market countries for World Link, it was frequently necessary to travel as a plain vanilla businessman rather than a journalist. In the Middle East and parts of east Asia, journalists technically needed special visas, which weren’t always easy to come by. Those of us passing through for a few days or a week entered in mufti to avoid the hassle — and the possible rejection.

The US is the last place on earth that needs to behave like this.

Bravery and humour 

Stuart Hughes, a BBC journalist who lost his leg in land mine explosion in northern Iraq, has a weblog. I just heard him on the radio talking about his injury with both bravery and humour, which must be an extraordinarily rare combination in the circumstances.

Davos Newbies Home


I wish I could see a way forward for Congo, but reports from a country as big as all of western Europe are getting grimmer by the day. Mass graves are being uncovered, massacres are reported in the east of the country, and an inadequate UN peacekeeping force is caged in its own compound for safety.

As Simon Tisdall writes in The Guardian, the US has no appetite to get involved in Africa at the moment, and Europe’s record of engagement is mixed at best.

“What Congo demonstrates for all to see is that some crises, and some suffering populations, are more equal than others. Afghanistan was briefly the 2002 league leader in terms of western hand-ringing, but has been easily eclipsed by Baghdad. Likewise, the victims of famine in southern Africa and Ethiopia.

“Even compassion, it appears, is subject to an international pecking order presided over and directed by the richest and most powerful states. After all the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s, and notwithstanding the British and French interventions in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, it seems there is no changing that entirely arbitrary, brute reality.”

Davos Newbies Home

Snow falling  

Brad DeLong has already pointed out how grumpy the Financial Times is about US economic policy. Now The New York Times weighs in with a comment that is incredibly snarky compared to its usual greyness: “Out went Paul O’Neill, the gaffe-prone Treasury secretary who lacked credibility because he made it known that he did not fully believe in the policies he was being asked to sell. In came John Snow, whose credibility is impaired by the fact that he may actually believe in those policies.”

Weblogging politicians 

I’m not sure how I missed it, but I’ve just come across Labour MP Tom Watson’s weblog. It provides an excellent insight into the life of a backbench MP and it has the personal tone of voice that the best weblogs need. The content may be of limited interest to non-Britons, but I think it’s an excellent example of how an elected politician can make his work and thoughts far more transparent to the electorate. (And he has an RSS feed!)

More on PowerPointPhluff 

A teacher of longstanding finds PowerPoint is destroying the university experience: “No matter what the inherent potential of the material to be covered, once that computer came into play, it invariably became a process of tutor with remote handset talking to the screen and flicking through the sequences of pages. Not talking to us. Not making eye contact and engaging in genuine exchanges with the electronically illuminated faces staring screenwards. Just talking to the screen, pressing the button and talking until all the slides were complete.”

Davos Newbies Home

Not easy 

Richard Gayle gets better and better at describing the challenges of biology to laypeople like me. “Mice with exactly the same genetic makeup respond in wildly different fashions to exactly the same amount of drugs, even when kept in environments as similar as possible. If we can not get identical mice, housed under identical conditions to react to a drug identically, how will we be able to arrive at a world of truly personalized medicine? Greater minds than mine will have to figure this out.”

Change of perspective  

Giles Foden discusses asymmetric morality with regard to Africa. “How to fix Africa? This is the weightiest moral problem of the world. Weapons of mass destruction (phantom or otherwise), Bin Laden, Palestine, all these are feather-burdens by comparison. Thus the rage felt by many about claims to virtue made by western governments concerning Iraq and the “war on terror”. The problem is not asymmetric warfare, it’s asymmetric morality.”

One of the important points Foden makes is how, whatever we may think, we are inextricably tied to Africa. “For ecological, political and social reasons, we are in coalition with Africa whether we like it or not,” he writes. In my World Economic Forum days, we were determined to get Africa on the agenda for Davos. But for all our efforts, it proved incredibly difficult to attract the non-South African CEOs to participate. More of them should read Foden.


According to Newsday, there could be two Supreme Court retirements in the near future. I’m hoping to see the end of the Bush administration and its extraordinary incompetence in 2004. I can sometimes convince myself that even 2008 isn’t that far away. But adding two Bush appointees to the Supreme Court means the frightening attitudes of this administration will persist for years and years to come.

They’ve seen the future 

More and more interesting information is coming out about South Korea, the country with the world’s highest penetration of broadband networks.

Dan Gillmor writes about Ohmynews: “OhmyNews is transforming the 20th century’s journalism-as-lecture model, where organizations tell the audience what the news is and the audience either buys it or doesn’t, into something vastly more bottom-up, interactive and democratic.” I’d already noted the reports that the Internet — and Ohmynews in particular — had been a significant influence in the Korean presidential elections. There’s clearly a lot more to come.

And games developer Greg Costikyan has some astounding data on massively multiplayer games in Korea. According to Costikyan, total annualised dollar gross of Korean MMGs is probably larger than the US market. And he notes, “One Korean game, Legend of Mir III, claims 700,000 simultaneously online users in China. (It’s rare for [EverQuest] to have more than 100,000 online simultaneously).”

Now with pictures 

Bloggus Caesari now has pictures. Great stuff.

Opening up 

Doc Searls provides the definitive argument for opening up newspaper archives to the freely accessible Internet. The conclusion: “In the age of the Web, the practice of charging for access to digital archives is a colossal anachronism. It’s time for The New York Times and the other papers to step forward, join the real world and correct the problem. Expose the archives. Give them permanent URLs. Let in the bots. Let their writers, and their reputations, accept the credit they are constantly given and truly deserve.”

I’d go further and advocate opening up the papers who are hiding behind subscription firewalls, like The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. See, for example, Brad DeLong’s lament that he doesn’t read Martin Wolf enough now that his column is hiding behind the (badly designed) firewall. If it makes commercial sense for them to require subscription, allow open access after one day. Then the commercially valuable information (timeliness is all) can be protected, but the wider reputational ripples can also reverberate.

Davos Newbies Home

Not alone 

In the latest issue of American Scholar, Noel Perrin has a persuasive article about wonderful books that are wholly neglected. He names four: James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth, George Stewart’s Earth Abides and Judith Moffett’s Pennterra.

I eagerly lap up suggestions like this. And I find I’m not alone. Go to the Amazon page for any of these books and under “customers who bought this book also bought” are the other three. I don’t think I’ll go the whole hog just yet, but I’ve put Perrin’s recommendations on my book list and I’ll see whether my tastes agree with him.

Davos Newbies Home

London 2012 

As everyone expected, London is going to bid for the 2012 Olympics. I think this is a great idea, and I very much want the Olympics to come to London.

Not everyone agrees. It’s characteristic of Britain that on the day the bid is announced, the naysayers are out in force. I’ll hazard a guess that Paris, Madrid, New York and Toronto do not have the same volume of doubters questioning every penny spent on bringing the Olympics to their city.

As economist John Kay points out in the posting below, economics is of limited use in deciding these issues. Either you are pro Olympics and the excitement they will bring, or you are anti Olympics and focus on transport chaos and costly stadiums. No one really needs a slide rule to make up their mind.

Limits of economics 

You’d think the people of Britain would be agog waiting for the Treasury’s pronouncement on the euro, scheduled for 9 June. As John Kay points out in the Financial Times, you would be wrong (since it’s behind a subscriber’s only wall, I’ll spare you the link). He writes, “I have not met a single person who is genuinely waiting to read the assessment before deciding.”

As he points out, that’s not because people are rushing to judgment before knowing crucial facts (although some are undoubtedly doing so). Kay says it’s wholly right that people don’t look to economics for the answers on the euro or many other decisions.

“There is nothing shameful about emotions of liking and disliking, nothing inappropriate about basing judgments on instincts about who can be trusted. Business people as well as politicians use the language of economics to make exaggerated predictions about matters of which they can have very little knowledge. We should resist the pressure to cloak these judgments in the language of economic costs and benefits. Such analyses may be helpful in framing our thoughts and revealing inconsistencies in our arguments but they should not be the basis of our decisions. And, in reality, they never are.”

Latin America on the Hudson 

Felix Salmon provides an interesting perspective on politics in New York. He reckons its very much like a dysfunctional Latin American republic: “What this means in practice is political paralysis, lots of presidential decrees, lots of pork and backroom dealings, lots of (often corrupt) judges handing down bizarre opinions, and lots of loud fights between politicians which generate much more heat than light. Oh, one other thing: so long as anybody, anywhere, will lend them money, these countries run huge and ultimately unsustainable budget deficits. In other words, far from becoming similar to the USA, these emerging democracies seem to be doing their utmost to emulate… New York.”

News management 

The Guardian has a revealing report on one of the most dramatic episodes of the war in Iraq: the rescue of Jessica Lynch.

According to a doctor in the hospital from which Lynch was “rescued”, “We heard the noise of helicopters,” says Dr Anmar Uday. He says that they must have known there would be no resistance. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital. It was like a Hollywood film. They cried, ‘Go, go, go’, with guns and blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show — an action movie like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking down doors.”

Centcom reported that Lynch had bullet and stab wounds from her capture. According to the Iraqi doctors, “There was no [sign of] shooting, no bullet inside her body, no stab wound — only RTA, road traffic accident.”