Monthly Archives: May 2003

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Alternative view 

Nick Cater has a different view on Clare Short’s tenure as international development secretary.

Dealing with the horror 

I listened yesterday to a number of horrific reports on the discovery of mass graves in central Iraq. BBC correspondent Stephen Sackur was particularly eloquent and audibly shaken by what he had seen.

What astounds me is there seems little practical response by the occupying powers. Whatever I might think about the war (I was against), I’d like to see a healthy Iraq emerge. The BBC report above notes the concern human rights organisations have that evidence may be lost as desperate relatives comb this and other uncovered sites. Surely the US and Britain should mobilise to send teams of forensic experts immediately.

This would have the advantage of documenting evidence, but also begin the painful task of identifying the thousands of “disappeared”. If we can help grieving Iraqis discover the truth of what happened to their family members, we can demonstrate in a substantive way that the US and Britain have their interests at heart.

Tom Friedman takes up the same points today.

Big pharma 

Richard Gayle provides the most concise and cogent explanation of the dynamics of the pharma industry I’ve read. There’s a wealth of valuable insight in his post, but I particularly enjoyed his characterisation of people who go into the life sciences: “Biology tends to select for optimistic types with healthy egos. Pessimists do not do biology. You fail so much of the time, for no obvious reason, that if your outlook is not generally sunny, you will find another profession. We love problems because they can lead to interesting and novel developments. Decisions allow us to solve problems. A bad decision can easily be fixed.”

That sounds like a template for a healthy field.

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Short resigns 

Just about the least surprising political news imagineable is that Clare Short has resigned her post as international development secretary. After her very public disagreements over the war in Iraq, Short made her intentions clear by missing an important vote on foundation hospitals last week.

But I think it’s worth remembering what an extraordinary job Short has done in raising the importance of development both internationally and within British politics. The Blair government made international development a cabinet post after nearly 20 years as an offshoot of the Foreign Office. Short has certainly bruised some major figures in the international development world, as well as ignoring some diplomatic niceties. She has also presided (in close alliance with chancellor Gordon Brown) over a steady increase in both the amount and the effectiveness of overseas aid. Certainly if you look at her predecessors in the role over the years, she stands out for her achievements.

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Liberal education 

Rogue Semiotics does a good job of capturing one of my constant themes: the value of a liberal arts education. “Thankfully, my woolly, useless liberal education taught me to read, analyse, rethink, speak and write in ways I continue to find professionally useful.” This is in response to the absurd comments by education secretary Charles Clarke about medieval history, which in turn was a follow up to his denegrating of classics.

A departmental spokesperson made things worse, to my mind, with a clarification: “The secretary of state was basically getting at the fact that universities exist to enable the British economy and society to deal with the challenges posed by the increasingly rapid process of global change.” I think that’s a plausible justification for universities (although not the only one), but medieval history and classics fit well into that aim. They teach students to think, which is what our society certainly requires.

Historian Tristram Hunt responds: “With Mr Clarke’s lamentable dirge added to the list, the government is in danger of looking like a philistine cabal for whom there is no life but wealth.” The mystery to me is that I know the government has a a good number of people who are genuinely interested in ideas and would certainly qualify as intellectuals. What I suspect is that some of them think anti-intellectualism plays well with some of the electorate. If that’s the case, it’s an even more depressing reflection on the current course.

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Jonathan Freedland notes that Labour MP Tam Dalyell’s statement that Tony Blair is influenced by a Jewish cabal has not received the condemnation it deserves. Typical is Peter Mandelson’s laughing away of the remarks by calling Dalyell “incorrigible”.

I’ve written a lot about anti-Americanism being an acceptable prejudice in Europe. Antisemitism attracts more criticism, but remarks like Dalyell’s are accepted to a degree that would not be tolerated in the US. Sometimes British antisemitism has more subtlety than Dalyell’s. During the first Thatcher administration, former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan remarked that her cabinet had “more old Estonians than Old Etonians”. That at least had the benefit of being very witty, as well as antisemitic.

Having grown up in comfortable Chicago suburbs and attended a sophisticated university, I had never personally encountered antisemitism until I arrived in England in 1978. At Oxford, it was common to hear casually antisemitic remarks. And I later silenced a dinner following a cricket match I played in by telling the opposing captain we didn’t tolerate racist jokes (as he was about to launch into one of his carefully honed after-dinner quips). I guess it’s the price paid for being a very small — but reasonably visible — minority in a country (there are about 200,000 Jews in Britain).

In my experience, a lot of that unthinking antisemitism has abated, but Dalyell’s comments show it’s still there.

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BBC democracy 

The ideas behind iCan, the BBC’s planned venture into grassroots politics, sound fascinating and potentially hugely influential. “The system will consist of two main components: a public forum to help people research their concerns and find others who share them, both locally and nationally, and a ‘democracy database’, designed to provide a wealth of information on grassroots campaigning and the legislative process.”

If it does help to lessen growing political apathy, it will be a tremendous contribution to Britain’s polis.

Geneva troubles 

Even though next month’s G8 summit is in Evian, France, Geneva is quaking at the prospect. As the nearest city to the summit, most of the planned protests will be in Geneva. When I was there last week, expected troubles were topic A for bankers, taxi drivers and hoteliers. As a country, Switzerland is already feeling battered: the collapse of Swissair, the continuing problems of ABB, Swiss Re and other corporate icons, and the external pressures on Swiss banking secrecy all add up to a nation that has lost a lot of confidence. The Alinghi America’s Cup victory may have only been a brief respite in a pretty sorry sequence.

Bagels and knowledge management 

I’ve long been suspicious of the phrase knowledge management. But I’m convinced that Curiouser and curiouser is on the right track in citing an explanation of baking bagels as a perfect example of KM.

“Mike describes the process of learning how to bake: Taking notes. The failed experiments. Perseverence. Collecting from sources. Weighing & distilling the information. Revelations. Progress. Results. He has probably accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about baking in general and baking bakels in this instance. And he won’t share it 🙂 Sounds like KM to me!”

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Understanding our world 

David Appell correctly is astonished that educated people should not worry if they don’t understand basic scientific concepts. I’m not surprised, however, that his example cites a British writer, Brenda Maddox. There’s still an insidious belief in Britain that science and math are a sort of grubby, get-your-hands-dirty trade, unlike the far superior, more dignified knowledge that comes from the humanities.

As Chris Bertram noted, the consistently wrong Simon Jenkins recently decided “maths is on the way out”. I can hardly imagine any statement that could display greater misunderstanding of our world.


I suspect most of us never think about our bank, other than for what’s in our account. But I have to say I’m feeling particularly pleased today that the Co-operative Bank has reported that it turned away £4 million in business from companies that didn’t meet its ethical standards. I bank with Smile, the Co-op Bank’s Internet arm.

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Sounds right  

Now this sounds exciting. It is a truth universally acknowledged that London, for all its riches, lacks a truly good bookshop. The only great physical bookshop in England is Blackwell’s in Oxford. London doesn’t have any equivalent (the giant Waterstones in Piccadilly is big, but it has all the wrong books). So the London Review of Books may be on to something: “It does not sell How to Succeed manuals, has no truck with discounting, and refuses to dally with two-for-the-price-of-one offers. There are no feng shui books either. Instead its shelves are packed with one copy — in some cases two — of some of the finest titles in print, selected by a formidable team of critics.”

Now Cody’s in Berkeley and Keplers in Menlo Park have the feng shui but all the right books as well. So the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I can’t wait to check out the LRB shop soon.

They still don’t get it 

The continued arrogance of investment banks like Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch after the $1.4 billion settlement is jaw-dropping. So plaudits go to SEC chairman William Donaldson for telling Morgan Stanley CEO Phil Purcell he had a “disturbing and misguided perspective” on the settlement. And New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer was on the money telling Merrill’s Stan O’Neal, “If I were you, I would reflect as to what your company did and what we have alleged about your company. It committed fraud. That is not risk.”

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Extraordinary AM  

Companies have extraordinary annual general meetings when major events like mergers dictate. But is the World Economic Forum right to be calling an Extraordinary Annual Meeting in Jordan in June? There is certainly no lack of material to discuss, but what are the prospects that the right group of people can be assembled not that many months after Davos?

I understand King Abdullah, who has long been a good friend of Davos, is working hard to encourage major public figures to come. Still, it won’t be easy. And I shudder to think of how difficult the meeting will be logistically. Apparently a huge tent is going to be purpose-built for the event.

I admire the ambition behind the event and I wish it well (unlike this kind of wild speculation). But I’m feeling rather Cassandra-like about its prospects.

And the moving finger writes 

The World as a Blog is fascinating. Lovely idea.

Il Turco in Italia  

I’ve just come back from three fairly incognito days in Geneva, chairing a few sessions at an investment conference. The undoubted highlight, however, was going to the opening performance of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia last night at the Grand Théâtre.

The production, which was originally staged at Brussel’s La Monnaie opera house, was one of the cleverest, funniest stagings I have ever seen. The cast was excellent, particularly Dale Duesing as the poet. His role required him to play the continuo parts for the recitatives, as well as sing and be the comic architect of the whole evening. Extraordinary. And I’ve never seen a curtain call where the producers, Karl-Ernst and Ursel Hermann, insisted on the entire technical crew coming out from behind stage.

In the unlikely case that any Davos Newbies reader is also an opera buff and can get to Geneva in the next couple of weeks, I’d suggest begging, borrowing or stealing for a ticket.