Monthly Archives: December 2003

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Unusually for me, I had to do quite a bit of driving around London today (I’m usually a walker, cyclist or bus user). So I listened to a lot of radio, where topic one was unquestionably the call in The Lancet for an outright ban on smoking.

I’d love it if such a ban could be realistic (those online political tests mark me as a left libertarian, but there are certain areas where I am very dirigiste). But as Jeremy Vine estimated on BBC Radio 2, enforcement would probably require enlisting 30% of the population into the police force.

Still, as a person from The Lancet said on Radio 4 this morning, there have been 20 deaths in the last five years attributable to people driving and talking on their mobile phone. As of last Monday, such behaviour is now against the law. This year in Britain, 110,000 people will die from smoking (1,000 from the effects of second-hand smoke). You do the maths.

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Moises Naim fears that Russia may already be a petrostate: “Petrostates are oil-rich countries plagued by weak institutions, a poorly functioning public sector, and a high concentration of power and wealth. The gulf between a petrostate’s rich natural resources and the chronic poverty of its citizens often leads to political unrest and frustration.”

Moises is originally from Venezuela, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Iranian vice-president 

My Farsi isn’t up to much, but it does look like Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi is writing a real weblog.

I like his tagline: “Let me be myself — Mohammad Ali Abtahi — in this website; regardless of my official and governmental status.” If anyone can tell me what he’s actually writing about, I’d be interested to know.

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Kyoto blues  

I don’t think there were many realists who thought the Kyoto pact was ever a sure thing, but now that it looks likely that Russia will not ratify the treaty, it’s clearly a dead duck. But that begs the question of what countries are to do about global warming.

I was startled to see how badly much of Europe was doing on Kyoto requirements. Only Britain and Sweden look likely to exceed their commitment of reducing 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions 8% by 2010. Denmark, extraordinarily, is bottom of the pack at nearly 40% off target.

If enthusiasts like Denmark are doing this badly, what hope is there for concerted action worldwide? I hope technology optimists are right that answers will be found, but what worries me is that even if emission levels stay where they are, we are already stuck with the consequences of our last century of polluting for many decades to come. Just part of the cheery outlook you get from reading the essential Something New Under the Sun by John McNeill (when I met Kieran Healy in Canberra the other week, he told me that he’d stopped reading it because it was too depressing).

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Joel Spolsky explains the work necessary to go from 99% good to 100% good. In his case, it’s about software, but his logic could equally apply to all sorts of human endeavours.

Good minds  

Marginal Revolution reports that Howard Dean has sought economic advice from Joseph Stiglitz, Alan Blinder and Jeffrey Sachs. I’m slightly wary about the authority for the report, since the link in the story is clearly not relevant (unless there’s something about the number of the beast I don’t know).

Update Felix Salmon points me to the right article.

Libraries and divine powers 

Umberto Eco: “A library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.”

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Another for the book pile 

I listened to a compelling edition of Start the Week this morning. Jamie Whyte eviscerated Stephen Bayley on the topic of opinions and clear thinking. Whyte’s new book, Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking, looks like a must read.

So that’s what happened to Alexander  

Via Living Code, it seems researchers in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases have examined the death of Alexander the Great and reached a surprising conclusion.

“Previous considerations omitted an event that was carefully recorded by Plutarch and which, before 1999, might have been considered irrelevant: the erratic behavior and observable deaths of numerous ravens outside the walls of Babylon. This observation might now be construed as an important clue. If this observation is included as part of the description of Alexander’s illness, West Nile virus encephalitis complicated by flaccid paralysis becomes an alternative diagnosis. It is possible that, in the 3rd century BC, disease caused by West Nile virus arrived in Mesopotamia for the first time in recorded history, killing indigenous birds and an occasional human and causing only incidental febrile illnesses in many others.”

No harm in dreaming  

British Politics has uncovered a memo to the prime minister advocating a novel strategy to restore his public position: dump Bush in ’04.

“It’s tempting. I know. Iraq’s over. Bush is a millstone round your neck. Dump him and with one bound you’ll be free. Popular with the party again, embraced across Europe. I can give you glad confident morning again. For just one speech.”