Monthly Archives: November 2007

China fact of the day – and more on the India/China comparison

“In the US, there are nine cities with more than 1m inhabitants. In China, there are 49. You can be travelling across China, arrive in a city that is twice the size of Houston, and think: I’ve never even heard of this place.”

That’s from The Silicon Valley of China by Rob Gifford in the latest issue of Prospect. The volume of fascinating reportage from China is enormous, but there seems to be plenty of room to astound and provoke readers (minor example: the very witty article by Peter Hessler on driving in China in the latest issue of The New Yorker – and not available online). I think Gifford’s comparison between India and China was particularly striking. It’s worth reading his lengthy series of comparisons, but I think New Economist was right to single out the following:

In the end though, there is one crucial difference between China and India, and a perfect example of it is coated in black tarmac and runs east and west through Hefei. China is a brutal place to live if you are on the bottom rung, but there is an exit. And, just as important, there is a real possibility of a job at the other end. India’s 1.1bn population is rapidly catching up with China’s 1.3bn. But India has only about 10m manufacturing jobs, compared with about 150m in China. So there are simply more opportunities in China to improve your life. (And I haven’t even mentioned India’s restrictive caste system.) The growing service sector in India—in software development, in call centres and service centres—is great if you are already middle class and speak English. But what about possibilities for the hundreds of millions of illiterate peasants? It seems to me that India is trying to reach modernism without passing through the industrial revolution.

Incidentally, a post on Davos Newbies comparing China and India elicited an unusual number of comments for this blog. The good news is that the two most populous countries in the world are making great strides in bringing hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty and deprivation. Beside that fact – one of the great accomplishments of the modern-day world – the comparisons seem far less important.

The end of the world's nastiest democratic politician

Until a few years ago, I did a reasonable amount of work in Australia. As many visitors find, it’s a country that is very easy to love: staggering natural wonders, easy-going, wonderfully nice people, a very go-ahead business climate, interesting, cosmopolitan cities, great food. But for the last decade there has been one supremely perplexing fact. In John Howard, Australia seemed to have re-elected multiple times the world’s nastiest democratic politician.

President Bush is worse from a global perspective than Howard because he has vastly greater power. The only good thing that could be said about Howard is that he could have a relatively limited impact on the world outside Australia.

This weekend, the lucky nation finally undid its misdeed and chucked out snarling Howard for the likeable, cerebral Kevin Rudd. I met Rudd a few times when he was the shadow foreign secretary for the then-opposition Labour party. His fluent Chinese is mentioned in every profile of Rudd that I’ve seen, but I was also struck by his interest in really digging into difficult policy ideas. He not only had an interest, but he was very quick to absorb complex issues, and he was astoundingly good at thinking and responding in an open, honest way to probing questions. (That, of course, was when he was a second tier politician of an opposition party. I hope he continues to display these qualities as the political leader on a nation.)

I wondered when Gordon Brown became prime minister whether he’d be a good test case for whether true intellectuals can actually succeed in political leadership. In Rudd, we have another clear test. I think it’s certainly a good thing for Australia, and it may even be a good thing for the world.

Special bonus: The race is very close but it looks like Howard will lose his own seat in Sydney’s Bennelong.

The ethics of reviewing

My first real job, nearly 30 years ago, was as an architectural critic. It sounds grand and in some ways it was. I worked at the creaking but lovable Architectural Review (which, IMHO, was a far better looking magazine then than now). The offices of the then-family-owned Architectural Press were in the eccentric, wonderful 9 Queen Anne’s Gate. In its old-fashioned way, there were some rather archaic traditions at the AP. One that has stuck with me, however, was the belief that you shouldn’t review a building before you could see it in use.

Buildings, after all, aren’t just artworks. To be successful they have to work well. I would have thought that was obvious. But it seems as though the exalted Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker has lower standards. I was reading with interest his review of the new Museum of Contemporary Art in New York’s Bowery. And then I came upon this:  “Once the museum opens, next month, the effect may be more welcoming: the ground floor is sheathed entirely in glass, and a gallery and bookstore will be visible from the street. At the moment, the museum is enticing from afar but off-putting up close.”

Not good enough. What I don’t understand is the rush into print. The New Yorker isn’t about scoops in its art coverage (which was a fact of life for architecture magazines in my day, and I suspect still is – everyone wanted to be the first to review the latest Jim Stirling or Stormin’ Norman Foster). Big black mark against Goldberger in my book.

Of course, architecture critics aren’t the only guilty parties. Here’s a review someone pointed me to yesterday, about the new Kindle.  I’ll start my quote from the second paragraph, to prepare you for the third paragraph punchline:

I won’t rehash the basic features of Kindle, but I will try to compare it with the Sony Reader–now in its second generation and Kindle’s primary competition. I will also talk about what I see as the strong and weak points of the Kindle design.

Disclaimer: This is all based on what I’ve seen and read. I haven’t seen a Kindle in person. Yet.

I know the pressure on gadget reviewers is undoubtedly far more severe than that on the relatively esoteric world of architecture critics. But I have to say that reviewing an unopened building is a venial sin compared to reviewing a product you haven’t seen in person.

United States datapoint of the day

The US leads the world by a very wide margin in sentencing children to life in prison without parole.

According to a study from the University of San Francisco’s Center for Law & Global Justice: “At least 2,381 U.S. prisoners are now serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18, accounting for more than 99.9% of such sentences worldwide. In Israel [the only other country which allows life without parole for juveniles], there are seven.”

The poetry of scraper sites

The Run of Play, which is rapidly rising to the top of my list of favorite blogs, has a comical investigation into how bizarrely mangled language seems to find its way into some soccer (football) blogs:

A bit of snooping confirmed my suspicions. Worldwide Sports News was flagrantly stealing content from other sites and putting it through a Roget’s filter that made it sound like a customer-service call gone horribly awry. (“Perusal”, incidentally, meant “Reading”.) If I were the anonymous syndication service that provides the content for TeamTalk and Yahoo! Sports, I thought, this would really hurt my feelings, and for a while I burned with a righteous anger to report these plagiarists and tear down their little kingdom. I was too tired to figure out how, though, and after a while, as I sifted through more and more of their mangled interactions with English, the whole enterprise began to take on an unexpected beauty.

So much of the language that’s used in football coverage today is so predictable that you can almost remember an article before you’ve read it. It’s hard to say whose love of cliche is more desperate, the players’ or the journalists’. So why not use different words? Why not call Man City “the bludgeon”? When Cesc Fabregas says Arsenal is “a very, very good side”, I have to pick my head up off the desk with a back hoe. When fake thesaurus-Cesc says Arsenal is “a very, very advantageous edge”, I stop to think about what he means, and frankly I think it’s a better description of Arsenal.

Iraqi politics

Ilan Goldenberg writes the most cogent analysis of paths out of the Iraq debacle you’ll find. Read the whole thing, but the concluding nugget is here:

Bottom line: I have yet to find an expert on Middle East politics who thinks that the “bottom up” strategy has any real chance of success. The only people who think this might make sense are the military experts and the grand strategists. Since the strategy is ultimately based on political reconciliation, I find it disturbing that none of the experts on the politics think that it could work.

The new Manhattan Project

Andrew Leonard on Al Gore joining Kleiner Perkins:

So Al Gore is now a partner at Kleiner-Perkins, the legendary venture-capital firm. And according to Fortune Magazine, he’s thinking big!

“What we are going to have to put in place is a combination of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo project, and the Marshall Plan, and scale it globally.”

But at another point in the same article, Gore says “We all believe that markets must play a central role.”

O.K. What do the Manhattan Project, Apollo project and the Marshall Plan all have in common?

The “market” was not the prime mover in their success. The federal government of the United States conceived these projects, funded them, and changed the world by executing them successfully.

Incidentally, in my work people fling about the Manhattan Project with considerable abandon. I’m increasingly of the view that it is one of those extraordinary occurrences that is unique. There was only one Manhattan Project and all attempts to recreate that scale and achievement in such a compressed period of time are doomed to failure. I’m not against all grand projects, but the work of Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer and others is sui generis.

Journamalism in the UK

I love this example from New Economist:

The Saturday Telegraph front page carries a rather alarmist lead story by Graeme Paton and Toby Helm: Middle classes abandon state schools Here are the first two paragraphs:

A growing proportion of middle-class parents are giving up on state education after 10 years of Labour rule by paying to educate their children in the independent sector, official figures have disclosed.

The scale of the exodus is shown for the first time in statistics indicating that many families outside the traditional fee-paying heartland of the South East are shunning comprehensives in favour of private schools.

So just how fast is this “exodus” from public schools?

Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families showed that on average, 7.1 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds were taught in independent schools in 2004. But by this year the proportion had risen to 7.3 per cent – a total of 232,620 pupils.

There was also a rise in the number of primary-school age children in private education over the three-year period, from 5.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent – a total of 199,030 pupils.

Yep, that’s an increase of just 0.2 or 0.1 percentage points over three years. So for 11-15 year olds that’s around a 1 percentage point increase in private school’s share every 15 years, and for primary-school aged every 30 years.

At that pace it would take 109 years for private school’s share of high school students to double (to 14.6% by 2116), and 167 years for the primary-school age share to double (to 11.2% by 2174). Even Methuselah would not have considered that an “exodus”.

The most innumerate piece of UK journalism I’ve read for quite some time.
Because a relatively high percentage of the professional class in London, where media is concentrated, go private, a lot of UK papers assume that everyone abandons the state sector in education (London private schools capture about twice the percentage of students as nationally – a small minority still). When I lived in London, my veins would pop out when I read this sort of stuff. Now – true confession – my children go to a private school which is proving wonderful. It does leave me with some residual guilt.

Shakespeare and those damn monkeys again

I thought we were past tired polemics about bloggers being a waste of time, but Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times pulls out all the hoary cliches:

Like anyone who spends much of his waking time on the internet, I know it is divided into two parts: the handful of sites that help you run your life, catch up on the news and listen to your favourite tunes – and the remainder, which is mostly inconsequential rubbish.

Ms Delahaye Paine said: “A new blog is created about once every two seconds.” That was in April. By now it is no doubt one every second. How many are read by anyone other than the blogger? How many are worth reading?

A few weeks ago, I heard the genome pioneer Craig Venter ask whether we remembered the story about how monkeys, given keyboards and endless time, would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Well, he said, the internet shows it is not true.

As far as I’m aware, tens of thousands of professional journalists over the last 150 years have also failed to produce anything approaching Shakespeare as well. That’s neither here nor there. Fortunately, however imperfectly, the FT recognizes the value of blogs, with more springing up on its site all the time. And people with eyes to see at One Southwark Bridge (and I know there are some there) can see that there are many blogs that outrun business newspapers on particular topics: think Brad DeLong, Tyler Cowen, Calculated Risk, etc, etc.

The return of the blogroll

Like many veteran bloggers, I abandoned my blogroll ages ago. It was too time-consuming to maintain, particularly as the number of blogs I followed increased. But now my trusty Google Reader has come up with a way for me to automate my blogroll in a completely painless way. It even makes it useful in a novel way: if you click on the “read more” link at the bottom of the blogroll, you’ll see the same river of news that I see in my Google Reader.

I didn’t include every feed I follow in the blogroll: that would be overkill. I made what I thought was a judicious selection of the best.