Monthly Archives: September 2009

Unemployment — yikes

I’ve been listening and reading a lot about what might constitute the “new normal” — the nature of our economy and society as we climb out of the economic crisis. But the new report from two economists at Rutgers makes graphic how far we have to climb:

Even if the nation could add 2.15 million private-sector jobs per year starting in January 2010, it would need to maintain this pace for more than 7 straight years (7.63 years), or until August 2017, to eliminate the jobs deficit!

I don’t usually approve of exclamation marks in serious reports (or just about anywhere, in fact), but that statement deserves the extra emphasis.

My town's foreign policy

I love living in Berkeley, but sometimes I can understand why it’s the object of Fox News outrage. Take tonight’s city council meeting. One of the agenda items is a proposal from the city’s Peace and Justice Commission (what, your city doesn’t have a Peace and Justice Commission?) to have Berkeley comply with UN treaties on torture, racial discrimination and human rights.

I’ve written about this absurdity on InBerkeley, but I thought it deserved a non-Berkeley audience as well. It’s astounding to me that in hard economic times, when there are plenty of real city problems to deal with, there is still a constituency for gesture politics.

Out of touch?

I was in the midst of a business conversation today, speaking to someone about the clever technology their company has developed, when he tried to give me an example. “It’s like the video of the skateboarding dog.” I said I’ve never seen the video of the skateboarding dog.

If you want a definition of stunned silence, that’s what confronted me. It was like that scene in David Lodge’s Small World when Philip Swallow admits he has never read Hamlet.

I don’t think being ignorant about the skateboarding dog puts me in the category of fuddy-duddy high court judges — “What is this Beatles of which you speak?” — or the first president Bush who was amazed by a supermarket bar code scanner. But perhaps I’m wrong. Am I now disqualified from being in touch with the technology zeitgeist?

By the way, after our conversation I was sent a link to the skateboarding dog. I haven’t watched it, hoping my ignorance gives me a certain cachet.

The real-time web

My Reuters column on the real-time web was posted today. If you want to leap to the conclusion:

If the real-time web is more than a fad, there are two likely developments. First, it can’t remain largely the property of Twitter. The success of the Internet has been fueled by its openness. Twitter is more like the closed gardens — think AOL — of the web’s early history. I love the real-time web, but I don’t want to be locked into Twitter. There are also major questions as to whether Twitter, a centralized system, can truly scale globally. Users are already accustomed to seeing the fail whale. Alternatives will emerge, and they will be open, not closed. Second, Google will need to find a way to respond to the real-time web, beyond its largely unheralded, rather timid steps with PubSubHubbub. Google founder Larry Page acknowledged earlier this year that Twitter had stolen a march on the search giant. If Google doesn’t provide real-time search, it can’t be the world’s best search engine. And if it loses that crown, the lock it has on advertising dollars will fade away as well.

Everything I write for Reuters will also appear on my own Reuters page, which has its own RSS feed. You’ll find a bewildering variety of views on the main Commentaries page.

The Wolf at the door


The New Republic has a very good profile of the world’s best economics commentator, Martin Wolf. Wolf is also, I’ll hazard, the most quoted person over ten years of Davos Newbies, for what that’s worth.

There are two important little details that I’d add to Julia Ioffe’s article. First, she notes that Wolf studied economics at Oxford. His graduate work was in economics, but before he turned to the social sciences, Wolf completed his degree in Literae Humaniores, known as classics to the barbarians among my readers. I think the lucidity and logic of Wolf’s writing owes an enormous debt to his years studying Greek and Latin.

The other aspect to Wolf that Ioffe misses is the columnist he supplanted. Sir Samuel Brittan still clogs up the Financial Times’ op-ed page from time to time. But before Wolf, Brittan (brother of Mrs Thatcher’s Home Secretary, Leon Brittan) was the stentorian voice of economic analysis at the FT. I always found him unreadable, however brilliant his analysis was meant to be. Part of Wolf’s success was the contrast between his clear prose and Brittan’s sludge.

Update See Martin Wolf’s comment below. He spent the first half of his undergraduate years at Oxford doing Greats, and then switched to Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

50 best things to eat


I love food, although I’m more of an Alice Let’s Eat type than a gourmet. So The Guardian’s list of the 50 best things to eat in the world had me salivating. I’ve only been to four of the 50, so there’s clearly room for improvement in my life. Still it was nice to see that one of the 50 is in my own town:

Chez Panisse doesn’t just do the world’s best Californian food: it is quite simply the best restaurant in the world. Superb.

Photo by Emptyhighway from Flickr

The cleantech bust

My debut column for Reuters just went up. Here’s the kernel:

If the world is counting on innovative companies to solve global warming, we may be in trouble. Venture investment in cleantech is slumping. Venture capitalists in the US poured $2 billion into 139 cleantech start-ups in the first half of 2008, according todata from PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the first half of this year, venture investments in the sector plummeted to $513 million in 89 companies…

At the root of the cleantech bust is that there are fundamental science problems that need to be solved before many of the current ideas are investable. For all the strides in solar power, photovoltaic cells are still too inefficient to be cost-effective. No one has cracked the problem of energy storage for solar, wind and tidal energy. Carbon sequestration is a regular mantra in political speeches — particularly for legislators from coal-producing states — but it’s still a largely theoretical exercise.

Venture capitalists, for all their rhetoric about pushing ground-breaking innovation, are bad at science projects. In fact, one of the most damning verdicts a VC can offer is to tell someone that their start-up idea is a “science experiment”.

But there’s more, much more, if you go to the Reuters Commentaries site — the clever tagline is “raising intellectual capital”.  Reuters is putting significant effort into beefing up its commentary. Richard Edelman posted an interesting summary of their strategy just last week.