Monthly Archives: December 2007

The wonders of the free market

The British magazine Prospect asks contributors to name the most under-rated and over-rated cultural events of 2007. I suspect Julian Gough has studied a little economics:

One of the nice things about living in a perfect free market with a perfect free press, where impartial critics guide informed and educated consumers toward the very things that they need, is that no cultural item is ever underrated or overrated.

My heart leaps

Mart Spruijt calendar

About 25 years ago, under the watchful tutelage of a great friend, I became a big fan of avant garde Dutch graphic design. My wife is still somewhat miffed that the most successful present she ever got for me was some free swag from the Dutch post office. One of my favorite items of design from that long-ago time was a calendar from Mart Spruijt, an Amsterdam-based printer. Two designers then at Total Design, Paul Mijksenaar and Esther Verdonk, designed the 1982-83 Spruijt calendar, and the theme they chose is one of my passions – maps.

In all the office and home moves since then, my Mart Spruijt calendar had gone missing. Something, I can’t recall what, dredged the memory up about a month ago. I did a search on Abebooks for the calendar. No luck. I did a Google search and after some sifting, I hit the jackpot at Antiqbook, “Europe’s premier site for antiquarian and out-of-print books”.  Antiquariaat Frans Melk had exactly what I wanted and after a long wait for the trans-Atlantic postal service to deliver, it arrived yesterday.

Some memories disappoint when the reality is confronted. Not this calendar. I like the typography, but what makes it so thrilling is the week-by-week cleverness of the map choices. The 52 weeks are divided into 12 themes, ranging from mapping three dimensions onto two, to bird’s eye views, to floor plans, to cities, etc. Each page is so wonderful that I might take to reproducing a different one every now and then on Davos Newbies just to capture my thrills.

The $500 billion industry

I generally enjoy David Carr’s media columns in The New York Times. But I was puzzled by this in yesterday’s column:

On the phone last Friday, Mr. Cates, 73, sounded confounded and quietly angry that the sparkle, the illusion that holds aloft a $500 billion global industry and drives much of Los Angeles, could all but dissipate as the business of the business grinds along in public view.

What $500 billion global industry? Hollywood’s domestic box office is expected to fall just short of $10 billion this year, a record without adjusting for inflation. PricewaterhouseCooper’s reckon the global media and entertainment industry will be $1.8 trillion by 2010, but filmed entertainment accounts for only slightly more than $100 billion of that. A chunk of that sum doesn’t come from Hollywood in any case. Television networks are another $220 billion or so, and perhaps they need some of that sparkle.

But I can’t figure out how to get to $500 billion by any calculation.

"Just take care of my elephant"

My sister moves to Mexico:

Last night (or, as it turned out because of the snowstorm, early this morning), I left Chicago to come down here and see all my things in situ.  The sun is shining in San Miguel and I just bought an ice cream from my favorite street vendor.  The people in the hotel I’ve stayed at before, welcomed me and told me to feel their casa was my casa, and that they lived right on the premises if I needed anything.

Tomorrow is the big day–when I see my Ganesha standing tall in his new home…and then I have to meet with my attorney to deal with the little issue of the 68 boxes of Turkish towels I ordered when I was in Bursa, that are still sitting in a warehouse in Laredo–because somehow the Mexican government couldn’t fathom why I felt 1200 towels were a necessary part of my household goods…

A good economics lesson

Charles Arthur looks at the paparazzi explosion and finds an economics lesson:

So here’s what digitisation has done to professional photography: driven down the cost of entry; driven down the value you get from the product you produce; increased the number of potential outlets; and created an entirely new field, in this case of “celebrity abuse”, of essentially looking behind the curtain at what’s seen.

Now we get the same process happening with words: the price of entry is really, really low. There’s more product, though the quality.. well, it’s variable: the really good stuff is fantastic, and there’s a lot of simply good stuff. But the range is enormous. Has the median gone up or down? I’d leave others to judge.

Eight years of Davos Newbies

Birthday cake

How time flies when you’re having fun.

I’ve thanked Dave Winer many times for starting me on the blogging journey but once more can’t hurt.  Thinking back, it’s also remarkable that Klaus Schwab, the founder and head of the World Economic Forum, not only tolerated my blogging back then but actively encouraged it. An unregulated voice from within the walls of an important institution may now be a commonplace, but in 1999-2000 it was unheard of.

What the accountancy world lost…

The Financial Times’ Ludovic Hunter-Tilney raves about the Led Zeppelin concert in London and recalls most reviewers didn’t think much of the band back in the early ’70s. The FT apparently was an exception:

When the Financial Times, far-sighted as ever, published a rave review, Robert Plant was delighted: it meant that his father, a regular reader, would forgive him for not becoming a chartered accountant.

The Internet and democracy: a challenge

The New York Times’ Matt Bai had a mildly interesting piece in yesterday’s magazine section about how the dynamism of the Internet takes political campaigning out of the hands of the usual Washington pols. If you’ve been following discussions about the Internet and politics at any time over the last four years, everything in it would have been familiar. (The piece was also a not-so-thinly-disguised plug for Bai’s book on the same.) Yadda, yadda, yadda, as they say.

Much more interesting for me was a discussion I had in the rain last Thursday with Tom Steinberg, the head of  In that wonderfully English way, Tom and his various associates have, with chewing gum, spare balls of string (translation: virtually no money) and not a little programming intelligence created a truly pioneering set of sites that use new communication technologies to advance democracy. Ethan Zuckerman met Tom at an O’Reilly meeting over the weekend and produced an intelligent summary of how MySociety fits in the open democracy constellation.

In our soaking wet walk along Crissy Field, Tom raised a fascinating thought. An enormous amount of effort, he said, went into online campaigning. Comparatively little attention is being paid to how we can effectively use the Web and other media to create a more responsive democracy. Here’s the challenge Tom gave me: it’s November 5, 2008. Hillary/Obama/Edwards is the president-elect. She/he calls you and (à la Robert Redford in The Candidate) asks, “Now what do we do?” Not about policy, but about using the Internet for better democracy. There’s the most powerful office in the world backing you, resources are just about unconstrained. What do you ask for?

It’s worth a lot of thought. Check out the MySociety projects and the 10 Downing Street petition site (run by MySociety) for some ideas. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a good answer for Tom. I intend to spend some time thinking of the right response for that call next November. Ideas?

The Russian inflation problem

Who knew? A fascinating, lengthy analysis from economic demographer Edward Hugh at Fistful of Euros:

The argument I will present is that the sudden acceleration in inflation which we are now witnessing across a whole swathe of emerging economies in Eastern and Central Europe is not simply accidental, or coincidental. Nor is it a simple by-product of collective poor institutional quality, bad government and/or endemic corruption. Of course there is no shortage of all of these, and in varying measure, but there are larger, and in historical terms grander, “big picture” processes at work here, and what is so striking about these countries is that no matter the differences in their policy and institutional mix, under the right circumstances they all go shooting off in the same direction. So what is happening?

Well it seems to be the case that this sudden acceleration in growth and inflation is intimately related to the very specific and unusual demographic profile which most of Eastern Europe has inherited from its recent past. So one of my central arguments is that what we have here is certain a kind of mis-match. A mis-match between a basically third world. “developing-country-type” income level (for this reason they tend to be called “emerging economies”) and a very-first-world-type age structure – in the sense that many of these societies have had below replacement fertility for several decades now, and that the key 25 to 49 age group is now peaking nearly everywhere as a proportion of the total population. Before going further, perhaps I should make one thing clear. The cryptic reference to the standard Econ 101 definition of inflation that I make in the title to this post has nothing directly to do with the concentration of wealth and power which is to be found in today’s Russia. It is rather a reference to Russia’s ongoing population decline, and the way in which the Russian workforce is steadily contracting.