Monthly Archives: October 2007

Lessons for start-ups

I truly wanted some information this morning on doing business with a young, ambitious company. The website has a handy contact form, but it also suggests you can call the main telephone number. I’m always wary of how long it will take to get a response from a contact form, so I called the number.

I reached an automated message that suggested I could:

  1. Enter the extension of the party I wanted to speak to
  2. Speak to customer service by pressing 0693
  3. Speak directly to someone by pressing 4

I pressed “4″. That automated voice answered: “Invalid extension. Please enter the extension you wish to reach.” I pressed “0693″. That voice again: “This mailbox is not initialized.” I pressed “0″, which often works. Reached a general answer machine, which didn’t interest me.

So this company scored a point for me by providing a phone number (too many don’t). But they lost enormously by then directing me down blind alleys. Their product may be great, but I’m very skeptical about their ability to implement anything.

Round numbers

Euro Intelligence:

We are heading for three nice round numbers – the euro at $1.50, gold at $1000 and oil at $100. Yesterday, the financial markets took a giant step in that direction, with the euro going above $1.44, gold just under $800, and oil at $93.

For all their supposed sophistication, I think it’s a sign of the widespread adolescent personalities in the financial markets that round numbers assume such false significance. Although it can be pleasing. It isn’t that many years ago that we almost had a lovely convergence of  €1 = $1 = ¥100.

Can the whole world be crazy and not you?

For the right effect, you need to hear that headline with an old-fashioned Jewish grandmother intonation. It’s what my grandmother Jenny used to say to her daughter, my mother, who was known in her youth as the terror of Eastburn Avenue.1 My mother’s answer to Jenny was, “Of course they can!” The story was one of the mantras of my childhood.

I still believe that the whole world can be crazy and not me, although wonders like blogs enable me to discover fellow travelers on just about any subject. What I certainly find is that most of my favorite people are ones who zig when everyone else is zagging, and have no discomfort in the fact. It may well be one of the preconditions for being a happy Berkeleyite.

So I felt a considerable empathetic glow when I read Nouriel Roubini’s angry and proud look back on his economic predictions from a year ago:

So those – this author and a few other bears in academia and markets – who were accused a year ago of being on the moon have been proven to be fully grounded on planet Earth in their bearish views about housing, credit, financial markets and the economy. While those who lived in a Goldilocks bubble ended up looking now like the true lunatics. Luckily the housing bubble and the credit bubble and the delusional bubble has now burst and such folks living in moon dream-land will soon get a reality check and crash back to planet Earth.

I’m glad there are people like Roubini who have the courage of their convictions even when it’s unfashionable. Now if only someone could tell me when Berkeley’s sky-high house prices are going to fall. It certainly hasn’t happened yet.

1 “Eastburn Avenue” is a so-called key phrase according to Amazon.com in EL Doctorow’s World’s Fair. Supposedly my uncle Harold in the model for one of the characters in the book, since he grew up in that Bronx neighborhood with Doctorow.

Another senior minister blogging

I wrote the other day about David Miliband being the first bona fide senior minister to really blog. It looks like Mike Leavitt, the US secretary for health and human services, beat him by about a month. His posts aren’t that “bloggy”, but they’re pretty good. He was interviewed yesterday on All Things Considered and confirmed that he wrote his posts himself, which I think does come across.

I’d be the last to want to credit the Bush administration with anything, but I think the Leavitt blog is a good thing.

Update Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff also “blogs”. I put it in quotation marks because his blog unquestionably reads like it’s written by the communications department. Maybe that’s the real voice of Chertoff, but I doubt it.

Getting to grips with the magnitude of the SoCal fires

Here in northern California, we’re a long way from the wildfires down south, but it rightly dominates all the news. I’m still trying to get my head around 660 square miles, which is how much has been devastated in this series of fires so far. That’s more than all of London. There have been nearly 900,000 people evacuated, which is more than the population of San Francisco and Berkeley combined.

By the way, The New York Times is making up for its amazingly poor news judgment yesterday by covering every angle of the fires now.

Beware the FT's US political analysis

Here’s a headline from today’s Financial Times: Iraq fades as hot political issue.

I think this is terrible political judgment from their Washington bureau chief, Edward Luce. He’s swallowed the Bush administration’s spin that Iraq is now under control thanks to general Petraeus and the surge, and that the crucial new frontline of foreign trouble is Iran.

NYT front page October 23, 2007

I think that’s way off the mark. Consider yesterday’s front page of The New York Times. Three stories across the front page: the Blackwater mess, potential disaster between Turkey and the Kurdish region of Iraq and the mistrial in the Dallas terrorism financing case. Not much sign of Iraq fading there. (Of course, the Times has its own bizarre misjudgments. Huffington Post pointed out the glaring absence of anything other than the most minor play for the wildfires in southern California from that front page.)

David Miliband: the inside truth of an EU summit

If anyone else has been waiting for the first really senior politician to come out as an excellent blogger, I think we can declare a winner with UK foreign secretary David Miliband:

Here’s what I didn’t know before attending my first European Council for Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers last night.

People smoke.  Three on cigarettes, one cigar and one pipe.  Everyone thanks everyone else for their excellent contribution even when they disagree.  It seems to be ok to do a lot of texting and even to read a book.  And a bit like a basketball match all the excitement is in the last five minutes when huddles of tired people stick to their guns or make compromises to get a solution.

There’s even a full-text RSS feed.

The innovation challenge in the Arab world

Eye-opening statistic in today’s Financial Times:

In 2005, the 17 countries of the Arab world together produced 13,444 scientific publications, fewer than the 15,455 achieved by Harvard University alone.

But James Wilsdon argues that change is visible. A number of Arab countries are now pouring vast sums into research facilities. That’s all to the good, but without a deep-rooted culture of open, inquiring minds there is a danger that these countries will end up with magnificent complexes of buildings, a number of highly paid imported minds, and little else to show.

One cheer, one raspberry for FT.com

I’ll let Felix Salmon deal with the serious matters on the Financial Times (in my years as a magazine editor, I had more than enough dealings with libel lawyers, and it’s something I’d like to remain far, far away from now). Let me focus on the trivia.

First, the good news is that Tim Harford is blogging for the FT, in addition to his wonderful “Dear Economist” columns. Now, the raspberry, which is really more of a mystery. When I followed the news that Harford had started a blog, I was curious to catch up with the other blogs that might be within the FT.com site. You’d think I’d find them at blogs.ft.com, wouldn’t you? No such luck. If you follow that link you’ll find the very good Economists’ Forum, where a few dozen of the world’s best economists discuss Martin Wolf’s latest columns.

Clearly, some bright spark at FT.com decided that the only blog the FT would ever have would be Economists’ Forum. Even though there are now at least nine blogs at the FT, they haven’t changed that first address. How do I know there are at least nine? You can find www.ft.com/comment/blogs if you are persistent. But you’ll find no reference to Tim Harford there. Who knows how many other blogs are hiding in the virtual world of One Southwark Bridge?