Monthly Archives: March 2006

The problem with France

I’ve only loosely been following the French protests over the proposed new employment law. Given my generally jaundiced view of the French system, I’ve seen the students as forces of reaction against a too-timid reform of labor law.

An impassioned letter in the Financial Times, however, gives me pause. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, from Swiss management school IMD, has reached boiling point on the issue:

There is no valid case to be made in support of French Prime Minister de Villepin’s first employment contract. I am totally in favour of far more flexible labour conditions and contracts and also of longer working hours, but I am definitely against picking on youth, among the most vulnerable and traumatised segments of French society. What de Villepin is doing is trying to show his machismo by bullying the weak. France is full, full, full of subsidised, molly-coddled, highly protected sectors throughout the labour force. This is what is responsible for the 24% youth unemployment in France and this is what needs to be addressed. The farmers, the huge government sector, the civil servants, who in France more often than not are highly uncivil, the transport “workers”, plumbers, pensioners, these are the people who need to be confronted. If de Villepin were to give the clarion call to dimantle these bastions of privilege, which are doing so much damage to France in general and French youth in particular, in order to open France to youth and to the future, then he would deserve indeed to be supported. As it is, by picking on youth, de Villepin is just a big repulsive snivelling bully; he deserves neither support, nor sympathy, but should be condemned for what he is: a cowardly bully.

I’m sure Lehmann is right. The kind of liberalization de Villepin intends might be right in the abstract, but by choosing what he saw (I’d guess) as a soft target, he neglected the far more important reforms. The puzzle is how, in the French context, the debate can move onto the terrain Lehmann suggests: liberalization that threatens so many overly protected interest groups. It’s hard to see any government figure having the courage, and no one even seems to be forcing the debate in the right direction.

"Football park" and other mis-steps

It doesn’t sound like Condi Rice’s visit to Blackburn, Lancashire is going very well.

But the thing that puzzled me about The New York Times report was this sentence: “Ms. Rice used the occasion of the cancelled match to stand with Mr. Straw as they took turns giving foreign policy speeches — in a room-size skybox at the football park, as the British call their soccer stadiums.”

Now, perhaps I’ve been out of Britain for too long, but I don’t think anyone calls a football stadium a football park. Teams can be “played off the park”, but that refers to the pitch or field, not the stadium. C’mon Times, get it right.

Don't use Yahoo

Rebecca MacKinnon: “Jerry Yang, and other Yahoo! executives, please stop claiming that your critics are advocating disengagement. Most of us aren’t. Stop treating the public and your (increasingly former) users like morons. It’s really bad for business. You’ve certainly lost my trust.”

I’m certainly avoiding Yahoo! and its various properties at the moment. I don’t think it will take a lot for this to catch on among young web users. All those people who were motivated into the streets of Seattle during the WTO a few years ago should understand this is a better battle to fight.

A different worldview

Via Marginal Revolution, I found Worldmapper, a fascinating site from Sheffield University. It provides world maps where territories are resized according to the subject of the map. Here, for example, is the map of world population in 2050 (You may have difficulty in finding Europe):

World population 2050

Worldmapper also provides Excel files with the data that generates the maps. A very creative resource to understand the world.

Concordance poetry

I’d be surprised if someone else hasn’t thought of it, but’s concordance feature can create some unexpected poetry.

David Derrick sent me the following list:

again always another asked aunt away better bit
boy call called came colonel come course day
devil door down enough even ever far father
felt first found friends get give go good got
help knew know last left letter little long
look lot love man mean might money mr must
myself name need news nothing now oh old once
own paper perhaps plane question quite read
really remember room say school see seemed
small something still suppose sure take tell
things think though thought time told two want
went without word years yes yet

I think that could well serve as a slice of modernist poetry. David asked me to identify the novelist. I’m rather pleased that I came up with the right answer. Hint: “colonel” sent the alarm bells ringing for me.

Pet peeve

The hyperlink is one of the core elements of good blogging. But I think writers need to be careful how they use this wonderful tool. I encounter a lot of blog posts that make reference to other sites by writing something like, “for example this“. No context or explanation of the link. Not even a mouse-over text (which I have provided in my example). That’s annoying and a waste of time for me as a reader. I know it has become something of a convention, but it should stop.

I fear I may have been guilty of this error in the past, but I vow never to do it again.

The island of California

Pieter Goos nautical chart of New Granada and the island of California
I had about an hour between appointments in midtown Manhattan yesterday morning so I went to the New York Public Library to see their magnificent exhibition of treasures from their map collection.

As a new Californian, I particularly liked the Pieter Goos nautical chart of New Granada and “the island of California”, published in 1668. Some wry curator at the library had this to say: “Perhaps a prediction of things to come, this is a most dramatic portrayal of California as an island.”

I suspect the author had recently seen the Superman movie where evil genius Lex Luthor, played by Gene Hackman, plots to explode a nuclear bomb along the San Andreas fault, thereby giving his vast range of desert property a new, oceanfront location. Or maybe it’s just the view of an island-dwelling Manhattanite that only islands can be significant centers.

Take the train from the plane

I’m in New York City for a few days for work. I’ve never particularly enjoyed the uncomfortable, often jam-plagued taxi ride from JFK into Manhattan so this time I thought I’d take the train.

New York only built the Airtrain to JFK a few years ago, but even that development was half-hearted. The Airtrain is really a glorified shuttle to a rail junction in Jamaica, Queens, where passengers can transfer to either the Long Island Railroad or the subway. It all works well enough, and I reached my midtown Manhattan destination in about 50 minutes.

But woe betide new visitors to New York who venture onto the Airtrain. I can’t recall a public transport experience in the developed world that did less to help newcomers figure out what to do.

Getting from the terminal to the Airtrain isn’t bad, but there the problems start. There are two tracks, but there’s no clear signage to explain that one track is purely for a shuttle between JFK’s many terminals. The other track connects to the subway system. I expected big signs saying something like: “For Midtown Manhattan, take the Airtrain to Jamaica, Queens, and transfer to the E train.” You must be joking. No help whatsoever. Not even any obvious system maps that I could see.

If you get to Jamaica without trouble, further information cluelessness continues. You need to pay before you leave the Airtrain, even though there were no signs at the JFK end explaining the need for a ticket. I think a lot of visitors will expect the relatively short journey to be a free service.

I knew I had to pay, so I walked up to one of the ticket machines. “Single ticket or Metrocard?” What’s a Metrocard? “Ordinary Metrocard or Airtrain Metrocard?” Explain the difference, please. Of course, I figured it out, but didn’t someone consider that public transport from a major international airport will attract all sorts of people, many unfamiliar with New York.

All that said, I think I’ll probably use the Airtrain as a first choice in NY in the future. It’s inexpensive, reasonably fast and comfortable compared to most NY taxis.

At dinner this evening, I told some friends about my unsatisfactory experiences. They declared that it was consistent with New York. If you don’t know, why should we tell you? I concluded that there’s an Augustinian impulse to the culture: the difficulty of attaining the knowledge is part of the reward.