Monthly Archives: January 2005

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Max Cohen would have found significance in the pattern.

For some reason, today was a day the regularly touched on mathematics. When I took my son to his piano lesson, a mathematics professor was working on a paper in the dining room. In the evening, I watched BBC4’s Mind Games, which is hosted by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (his Music of the Primes, about the Riemann hypothesis, is a Davos Newbies recommended book).

I then watched Pi, a resolutely bizarre film which I can highly recommend. It’s about a number theorist, Max Cohen, who is determined to find the mathematical pattern behind stock market movements and — ultimately — the structure of everything in our world.

He does find the crucial number, which has 216 digits, but the problem is understanding the number, not just finding it. Well worth seeking out on DVD.

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Davos or un-Davos 

Dave Winer watched a star-studded Davos session on television last night and was thoroughly unimpressed.

I’m not surprised. If Dave harkens back to some of my rules about getting the most out of Davos, he’d remember that there’s an inverse relationship between number of people on the platform and quality. The session Davos watched had six speakers. I used to think the battle for a good session was lost when number of speakers was greater than three.

A second important rule is that the bigger the room, the worse the session. Year in, year out, plenary sessions are the weakest ones. Partly that’s because of rule one. But it’s also because the people that get to speak at plenaries are invariably old pros on the public platform. No surprises, no real conversation.

I also agree with Dave that 2000 is a long time ago. I’ve also moved to a belief in the value of un-conferences.

A possible middle way (although that’s perhaps the only middle thing about it) is happening in Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum. I spoke last night to a friend who is there and he described the opening “session”: a parade of some 100,000 people through the centre of Porto Alegre, ending in a park with a concert. Today the meat of the WSF starts with typically 30 simultaneous sessions on 11 broad themes happening all over the city. Sounds like a lot of fun, with tons of energy and only a modicum of formal planning.

“It’s the opposite of Swiss organisation,” my friend said, and he meant it as a compliment.

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Setting the pace on climate change 

Tony Blair used his opening speech to the World Economic Forum to talk about the dangers posed to the world by climate change. The UK’s chairmanship of the G8 this year is planned to have two main concerns: climate change and Africa (Blair speaks about Africa in Davos today).

The UK has taken a leading position in speaking out on climate change. Notably, the government’s chief scientist David King said in a speech last year that global warming was a bigger threat than terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the climate change deniers have targeted the UK for their disinformation. Royal Society president Bob May has an excellent piece in today’s Guardian making clear where the overwhelming preponderance of scientific opinion lies:

  So there we have it. On one hand we have the IPCC, the rest of the world’s major scientific organisations, and the government’s chief scientific adviser, all pointing to the need to cut emissions. On the other we have a small band of sceptics, including lobbyists funded by the US oil industry, a sci-fi writer, and the Daily Mail, who deny the scientists are right. It is reminiscent of the tobacco lobby’s attempts to persuade us that smoking does not cause lung cancer. There is no danger this lobby will influence the scientists. But they don’t need to. It is the influence on the media that is so poisonous.

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Calling all Davos bloggers 

Loic Le Meur has put up a helpful page listing all the bloggers in Davos and in Porto Alegre for the World Social Forum. Given the numbers of people involved at both events, I’m sure this must be only a fraction of the bloggers out there.

A lost day on Davos Newbies 

For reasons I can’t yet explain, my posts from yesterday seem to have been lost. In fact, when I logged on this morning, I received a totally blank page from Davos Newbies.

For my own pedantic reasons, I have reposted yesterday’s items below.

Have fun in Davos 

I have a lot of friends who will be arriving in Davos today for this year’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Although I seem to be well outside the club now, I hope they all have a great time.

I’ll be watching the Forum’s own weblog, which has not yet caught any of the spirit of the place or the event. But there are some very good bloggers who will be posting to it, so I’m sure the quality will soon rise.

Certainly the art of blogging has advanced in many ways since I first blogged the Forum five years ago. And the uber-blog pioneer was there, too.

Nasty, brutish and short 

If there was any doubt about the likely nature of the coming British election, the last couple of days would have dispelled it. The Conservatives, with their war cry of controlled immigration, have ensured that the nastiest, most brutish instincts will crawl from the dark recesses of the British polity.

I’m hoping it will backfire badly, although polling data does suggest that people are concerned about immigration and asylum seekers (two very different things which too many people muddle up). We’re certain to be treated to more spectacles like last night’s Newsnight which featured a ludicrous racist alongside the head of a refugee NGO and a near-comical Tory frontbencher.

The Guardian, of course, exposes the facts behind the Conservative bluster:

  In 2003 the largest single group of the 519,000 EU citizens who were working in Britain were the 185,000 from Ireland, followed by France, Italy and Portugal.
  OECD figures for the rest of the world show that Americans top the list for countries of origin followed by India, Australia, South Africa, the Philippines and New Zealand.
  Data from the International Passenger Survey sh<ows that the overwhelming majority of Britain’s migrants — 80,000 of 118,000 net new arrivals in 2001 — are in professional and managerial occupations, and they outnumber those who come to do manual and clerical jobs.

There are two consolations to be had. The first is that I am still utterly confident that Tony Blair will win a third significant majority in the election, and the Conservatives will be as humiliated as ever (but remember I thought Kerry would win). The second is that, whatever happens, by American standards the campaign will come and go in a flash.

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The most diverse city ever 

The Guardian has a wonderful feature today detailing its claim that today’s London is the world’s most diverse city ever.

  New York and Toronto would contest the cosmopolitan crown, but London’s case is strong. According to the last census, in 2001, 30% of London residents had been born outside England — that’s 2.2 million people, to which we can add the unknown tens of thousands who didn’t complete a census form. And even this total takes no account of the contribution of the city’s second- and third-generation immigrants, many of whom have inherited the traditions of their parents and grandparents. Throughout the 1990s, Greater London was the fastest growing part of the UK — and yet the white population in that time actually fell.
  Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners.

The maps repay close scrutiny (overall map, ethnicity maps, religion maps). It’s easier in print than on the web.

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Waste of money 

The Blair government faces a very difficult battle to win a referendum next year on the EU constitution. Tim Garton-Ash puts the odds at 4:1 against (see below), which may be generous.

One thing that isn’t going to help very much is paying a PR firm £40,000 to promote the good things about the new constitution, as today’s Financial Times reports. There’s predictable outrage from anti-Europe lobby groups, but they should be chortling. As long as the government subcontracts this kind of work, the anti-Europeans are going to continue to gain support and momentum (and someone should have noted that £40k doesn’t get you very much in the way of PR services). Pro-Europeans like me are still waiting for the day when Blair and other government heavyweights wade into the fray on the constitution and the role Britain must play in Europe.

This isn’t, incidentally, the same kind of thing as the slowly growing Ketchum scandal in the US. Jay Rosen has an excellent summary of this sordid “pay for play” deal between the US Department of Education and a major PR group.

Two cheers for Tony Blair 

Tim Garton-Ash interviews Tony Blair on foreign policy, the G8 agenda and a second Bush administration in today’s Guardian. There are no major surprises, but Garton-Ash ends on a modestly hopeful note.

  Stepping out of the famous front door of No 10, on to a red carpet that has appeared for the president of Serbia, I reckon that the chances of Blair realising his strategic vision of a Britain standing firmly on those twin pillars [of relationships with the US and Europe] are now about 4:1 against. Too many cards are now stacked against him, starting with the glowering resentment of his chancellor of the exchequer just a few yards away at No 11. Then there are the massed armies of the Eurosceptic press, the damage Iraq has done to his credibility in much of continental Europe, and the stubborn militarism of the vice-president’s office in Washington DC. If he fails, as most politicians ultimately do, then we will find engraved on his heart the word “Iraq”.
  Yet listening to the new — and sometimes rather Blairite — rhetoric of President Bush and his nominee for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and listening to the strength of the pro-European arguments that Blair could deploy directly to the British people (especially if the rest of the EU votes yes to the constitutional treaty), I sense there is still just a chance that he can pull it off. Who will seriously argue that it would be a bad thing for Britain, Europe or America if he did?

Much to the surprise of many of my friends, I remain on the whole a strong Blair supporter. I think he made a terrible error on Iraq, but the overall impact of his premiership since 1997 has been good for Britain and the world. So I share Garton-Ash’s cautious optimism.

(One minor, inside baseball point. In the print edition of The Guardian, you’d be lucky to notice the Blair interview even happened unless you read Garton-Ash’s column. No front page trailer, no mention even in the standfirst of the column. Very, very odd. Personal interviews with the prime minister aren’t that common. On the web, it does get a banner of its own. Can’t understand the editorial decision making in Farringdon Road on this one.)

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Culture trumps military might 

Max Hastings: “Having begun the campaign convinced of the justice of their cause and their ability to secure victory, many members of the US military and their families now suspect that the cause may be invalid and the battle unwinnable.”

Although his most recent book has come in for some criticism in US blogs, Hastings is a well-connected and experienced observer of the military. What I found interesting was his conclusion:

  I do not think the US armed forces will achieve their military purposes in Iraq. The American soldiers who have become pessimistic about the campaign they are waging are probably right. But in a long historic view, Microsoft and DreamWorks could achieve a dominance of Baghdad and a power over Iraqi society that eludes George Bush and his armoured legions.

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How do you top a president Bush?  

Bull Moose: “The Moose offers the words that will send shivers up the spines of the Mooseketeers — President Ralph Reed.”

Not my idea of travel 

Dave Winer has a fascinating cutaway diagram of what the new Airbus 380, unveiled in Toulouse in front of Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, looks like. I have no doubt it’s an amazing engineering achievement, but it doesn’t look like it would be fun to fly in it. When it comes to enjoying a trip, smaller is definitely better and emptier is better still.

What I really meant was… 

The new-to-me weblog Expatica has a wonderful chart explaining what some common British expressions mean, compared to how a Dutch person would interpret them (via Charles Arthur).

Consider: “I hear what you say.” When an Englishman says that, he means, “l disagree and do not want to discuss it any further.” The Dutch interpretation, unsurprisingly, is, “He accepts my point of view.” Similarly “You’ll get there eventually” really means “You don’t stand a chance in hell.” The unsuspecting foreign listener believes it means “Keep on trying for they agree I’m heading in the right direction.”

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Candidate for most useful species 

In a day of fascinating conversations, one of the most interesting was a discussion with George Church about the prochlorococcus cyanobacteria.

It turns out that prochlorococcus is the major photosynthesising organism on earth, responsible for extracting 17% of global CO2 each year. This was only figured out in 1999, even though we’ve known about photosynthesis for a few hundred years.

Our ability to live on earth depends greatly on prochlorococcus, but we have no idea whether the environmental changes we are wreaking may reduce the population (which outnumbers the earth’s human population by 14 logs) and thus make life unliveable here. George accurately calls prochlorococcus our “new hero” species.

The escalator test 

I have very few data points, I have to admit, but I’m wondering whether there’s an inverse relationship between escalator speed and economic dynamism.

In New York yesterday I was struck by how painfully slow escalators from the depths of the subway move (this is exacerbated by the fact that everyone stands on both sides of the escalator, so there isn’t even a “fast lane” for walking up, as in London). I suspect there’s a spurious safety reason. (And this isn’t confined to New York. If memory serves, the Bay Area’s Bart system has the same slow plague.)

In London and most of the rest of Europe, escalators move at a fair clip. But the fastest escalators I’ve ever been on were in the Moscow metro during both the Soviet era and in the democratic years since. If you aren’t alert on these occasionally massively long escalators, you could be in seriously trouble when you get off.

So the dynamism of New York is accompanied by glacially slow escalators; European economic muddling through has ones that muddle through; and problematic Russia rushes along. Hmmm.