Monday, August 31, 2009

An American in Edinburgh

Twenty years after his father lectured the British media on their failings, James Murdoch flew into Edinburgh at the weekend to do the same. One was Australian at the time, the other is American: both relish their outsider status. Both chafe at what they see as an over-regulated industry indefensibly dominated by a public-service broadcaster. To James Murdoch, the British media is like the Addams family – unhappy in every way.

The unrelenting Murdoch attack on the BBC has echoes of the recent attacks by the American right on the NHS. Both are institutions which, when push comes to shove, the British people use, treasure and trust. They may moan about them and complain about their shortcomings, but in the end they feel grateful to have them and regard them as pretty good value for money. This may seem inexplicable to some on the American right, who regard both organisations with barely concealed contempt, but that's the way it is.

In James Murdoch's analysis, creativity, investment and innovation are being choked off in the UK by the twin evils of the BBC and the media regulator, Ofcom. He would like British TV to be more like the press – opinionated, lightly regulated (if at all) and totally independent. In other words, he would like Britain to be more like America. The problem is that the American newspaper sector – untroubled by either the BBC or very much regulation – is on its knees. The free market can no longer support the work of keeping communities informed. The same is true in the UK, where the job of systematically reporting public authorities and courts is increasingly beyond the ability of desperately struggling local newspapers. Yes, the Times has a Baghdad reporter. But the paper is currently losing tens of millions of pounds a year and is able to do its fine journalism only by virtue of enlightened Murdoch cross-subsidy. Good for the Murdochs, who have, over the years, invested admirably in journalism, but don't pretend this is an example of the free market at work. And remember it was the Murdochs – now arguing for plurality and the customer paying a fair price for quality journalism – who cut the price of the Times to 10p in the predatory hope that weaker papers would go to the wall, an act that affected newspaper pricing in the UK for 15 years.

Sky has done extraordinarily well in Britain, thanks to the Murdochs' vision, tenacity and willingness to take risks – and, in part, to a regulatory regime that has not been unhelpful to their ambitions. It is not obvious that the company has been held back by the presence of the BBC. Any fair analysis of the woes of the media industry in America and Europe today would have questioned the growth and alarming dominance of Google. It is a shame that Mr Murdoch allowed these twin obsessions to distort a speech that made some good points. There are aspects of the BBC's size and purpose that should be scrutinised. Regulation should change with the times. He was right to highlight the way convergence is producing "an all-media market". He is right to talk about the need to trust consumers, even if the underlying purpose of his speech will be seen as one of self-interest.

All countries' media ecosystems are different. The American way is no more desirable in the UK than the Italian way – in which a very powerful media magnate has ended up with a dangerously large slice of the cake. What works rather well in the UK is a mixed economy of private and public. Newspapers are lightly regulated, fiercely opinionated and proudly independent. Public-service broadcasters are more heavily regulated in return for their subsidy. It's not a perfect mix, but its part of the texture of life in the country. The idea of decimating it in order to allow a sort of Fox News UK to flourish is a prospect that should truly chill our souls.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The File

The File

Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash lived in East Berlin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, conducting academic research on the German resistance to Nazism. As a foreigner he inevitably came under the scrutiny of the Stasi. Returning to Berlin in 1992 after the demise of the DDR he gained access to the file that had been kept on him, and on reading through it, discovered a network of informants, divided loyalties and betrayals that forced him to re-examine his memories of the time. During the momentous events of 1989 Garton Ash became one of the leading Western commentators on the unravelling of state communism in Eastern Europe, an experience he describes as ‘like being lashed to the saddlestraps of a racehorse at full gallop: very exciting, but you don’t get the best view of the race.’ The File, first published in 1997 and now reissued to mark the 20th anniversary of die Wende, benefits from years of self-reflection, and is a masterful limning of the moral complexities of life under a totalitarian regime. ‘A chilling portrait of treachery and compromise’, thought John Le Carré, ‘an invaluable document for our time, bravely and beautifully written.’

Japan In Numbers

Japan loves counting things. The precise length of the noodles in rival brands of instant ramen; the average skirt lengths of high-school girls from the north or south; the number of words for “obsessive” — Japan doesn’t wonder, it tallies.

So when general elections come around, and official campaigning for the August 30 vote began yesterday, the armchair Japanologist is immediately squashed by statistics. You want a snapshot, but end up with the whole album. Each data point seems so exact and so significant: the fertility rate, the suicide rate, number of patents filed annually, the number of people over 65, the unemployment rate, the rate of GDP growth and a thousand more beautifully calibrated gauges.

The world’s second-richest nation is on the brink of its most spectacular political upheaval in 54 years but the excitement is lost in a sludge of numeracy. But the reality — the unspeakable truth that would bring down the Japanese statistics industry — is that the whole picture can be painted in just six numbers.

21,066 is the number of companies still operating in Japan founded more than a century ago. This tells you more or less all you need to know about Japanese corporate culture, management style and appetite for change. It tells you what the Japanese think about longevity and why they are less worried about being the fastest ageing society on Earth than everyone else is on their behalf.

When Western companies talk glibly of their “corporate DNA”, it is a management consultant’s metaphor. When Japanese do it, they are talking about actual chromosomes. Broken down further, the figure is even more astounding — it includes an Osaka-based construction company founded when London was still run by the Middle Saxons, and seven others established a century before the invention of the quill pen. Hundreds of the companies were doing business before the United States was founded. There is a reason Japan doesn’t like listening to patronising “how-to” lectures on capitalism and corporate governance, and it opened its doors to customers in AD578.

1 is the number of gifted civil engineering students who died this week in an Osaka river while testing a concrete canoe. Japanese technology has lost some of its lustre over the years, but never let it be said that its best and brightest have lost that mischievous spark of brilliance that makes them such formidable inventors.

49 is the age of Yo Onaga, arrested last week on the sun-kissed southern island of Okinawa after beating his 76-year old mother to death. He turned himself in and explained that he “just snapped” after she hid the TV remote control. It is the sort of vileness that feels almost comically out of place in Japan, where street crime is so low, people are polite and lost property offices receive a constant stream of valuables returned unransacked from train seats and café tables. These are not illusions, but they conceal a simmering anger that any new government will soon have to address. It is a fury that finds its expression in domestic violence, school bullying and a range of social pathologies that Japan is extremely reluctant to diagnose, let alone cure.

15 is the number of police officers of the Hachioji constabulary that it took to issue me with a 20,000 yen speeding fine at the weekend. Four manned the radar trap, two strolled into traffic and waved me to the side of the road. Another two guided me to a coned-off area where I was to park while four women officers processed my driving licence and two hefty bruisers glared menacingly from their Toyota Black Maria. At the end, a senior officer thanked me for my patience and warned me not to do it again. Yukio Hatoyama, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has declared the civil service bloated and vowed to fight waste. I’ve no idea what he means.

1,200 is the number of new cars that, on average, hit the roads of Beijing every day — if only to sit for hours in their maiden traffic jam. The number is inspiring, terrifying and thick with messages about the vigour and ambition of the next great Asian economy. Don’t think for a moment Japan hasn’t picked up on all that.

24 is the number of times that a cotton shibori flannel — the sort that is soaked in water, heated up, sealed in plastic and offered to restaurant diners before they start eating — can be machine-washed before it dies in a heap of tatters and lint. It is a figure that defines both the meticulousness of Japan’s service industry and the consumers it serves. Diners want clean hands, but rather than simply showing them to the sink, Japan contrives a fabulously finicky, enormously wasteful system to make it minutely more convenient.

It is a retail and design attitude that has evolved over decades and is tilted in favour of the customer rather than the purveyor. It is certainly expensive, probably barmy and horribly vulnerable as Japan’s economy declines. When 24 washes seem like economic folly and the shibori goes, sensibility will have finally lost its glorious Japanese war with sense.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Black Swan

Taleb says rich should not pay more tax to help the poor

A US academic billed as David Cameron's new intellectual guru takes a Darwinian approach to economics and says it is wrong for the rich to pay higher taxes to help the less well-off.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk engineering at New York University, attacked Barack Obama for increasing his tax bill as part of a series of anti-recessionary measures.

The remarks by Taleb, the conservative author of the book Black Swan, were made during an appearance with Cameron at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on Tuesday.

Labour attacked Cameron, who says Taleb's work confirms his own prejudices, because the "eccentric" academic says economic crashes are a good thing.

In some of his most provocative remarks at his appearance with Cameron, the Lebanese-American academic criticised Obama for increasing his taxes as he harked back to Darwin's theory of evolution.

"I happen to do OK. I am paying more taxes," Taleb said. "How can you have evolution if those who do the right thing have to finance those who did the wrong thing? If you are making money in 2009 – that means you have a robust business in the cycle – you are paying more taxes. If you are losing money in 2009 you get a bigger tax break. It is the opposite of everything I believe in."

Taleb has become a conservative folk hero following the success of his book, which examines the phenomena of "Black Swans" or "low-probability, high-impact events" that can have a major impact on the world.

Cameron praised Taleb and said his book had confirmed his own prejudices. "I very much enjoyed Black Swan. I am trying to come to terms with Black Swan thinking and what it might mean for politics … The danger with reading somebody's book is that it just confirms some of your prejudices and that is why you like it," the Tory leader said.

But Taleb has beliefs which are outside the political mainstream in Britain. These include:

• Economic crashes are a good thing. "I like crashes. I just like the world to be robust with them. The world is not robust. In 2000 Silicon Valley was very robust."

Debt is nearly always dangerous. "Christianity early on did not like debt. Islam banned debt. It is not without reason. The Romans had problems with debt. A lot of wars were caused by debt. So debt was not necessarily a good thing. You say in moderation. But we don't know what moderation is."

Climate change may not be man-made. "I'm a hyper-conservative ecologically. I don't want to mess with Mother Nature, OK. Even I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic [man made], right. I just don't want to mess with Mother Nature. I don't understand Mother Nature. It is much more intelligent than us. It has been around for longer than anything else." Cameron made clear he disagrees with Taleb on this.

Taleb yesterday criticised the British press for the reporting of his remarks, saying they may have become "lost in translation". His views on economic crashes had been distorted, he said. "I said that free markets generate fads, crashes, massive movements. Attempts to control the cycle proved futile – what we need is citizens to become robust to them, to be immune to their impact. My point is that we cannot predict Black Swans, but we know their impact and can be prepared for them. Again taken backwards: 'Taleb loves crashes'. This is incompetent journalism in its most insidious form."

Climate experts and bank risk managers have both failed us

I'm not a denier. We just do not know the consequences of our actions

I am honoured to see my conversation with David Cameron at the RSA covered in your paper (Cameron's guru says rich should not pay more tax to help the poor, 20 August). However, your reporting was in complete reverse to my positions on three subjects.

First, you say I believe that "Climate change may not be man-made"; and Lucy Mangan describes me as a "climate-change denier" (This week, 22 August). In fact, ecologically I am hyper-conservative (meaning super-Green), and I am one of the authors of the King of Sweden's recent Bönhamn declaration on attitudes to climate change. My position on the climate is to avoid releasing pollutants into the atmosphere, regardless of current expert opinion. Climate experts, like banking risk managers, have failed us in the past in foreseeing long-term damage. This is an extension of my general belief: "Do not disturb a complex system." We do not know the consequences of our actions (this idea also makes me anti-war), and I have explicitly stated the need to leave the planet the way we got it.

Second, I was portrayed as someone who "loves crashes". By coincidence I spoke at the same venue, the RSA, two and a half years earlier – well before the current crash – as part of my crusade against the risk of financial collapse. I find it depressing that the British public could have saved a trillion pounds and hundreds of thousands of jobs had these hidden systemic risks been addressed.

My position is that a robust system needs to produce frequent crashes, with citizens immune to them, rather than infrequent total collapses which we cannot cope with. By constraining cycles and assuming "no more boom and bust" (as your current government did) you end up with a very large bust – and I am sure that I do not need more events like the recent crisis to prove the point.

Thirdly, I was quoted as saying "How can you have evolution if those who do the right thing have to finance those who did the wrong thing?" But this is not the same as saying "[the] rich should not pay more tax to help the poor", as your headline stated. I spent 13 years fighting bankers' bonuses (when no one else did) and am currently crusading for past payments to be clawed back. I have also shown how regular taxpayers have been financing millionaire bankers' bonuses: "socialism for the losses, capitalism for the profits". We are still financing those who got us here, with tax hikes on those who do the right thing, and larger tax breaks for those who blew us up. Companies who made mistakes and weakened the system are being subsidised by the countercyclical ones who make it more robust.

Nowhere do your articles discuss my central idea, that the risks that were in the system two years ago are still with us now, and that unless we lower debt to "definancialise" the economy (instead of increasing deficits through stimulus) we face more risks of blow-ups. With the same distortion of views one could easily make Karl Marx an apologist of capitalism and Adam Smith a promoter of communism.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Very Polished Photo

Align Centre


Align Centre

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joke Of The Day

"We took the old man to Australia for his 75th birthday.
We were in this nice restaurant in Sydney. Suddenly he shouts: 'I hate aborigines!'
We said: 'Dad, you can't say that here.' But he wouldn't shut up. '
I can't stand aborigines!' '
Dad, you just can't say that in a restaurant. And in any case, it's pronounced aubergines.' "

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sleeping Giant

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Align Centre

Monday, August 03, 2009

Oh My God...!

Praying man let his daughter die

A US jury has found a man guilty of killing his sick 11-year-old daughter by praying for her recovery rather than seeking medical care.

The man, Dale Neumann, told a court in the state of Wisconsin he believed God could heal his daughter.

She died of a treatable disease - undiagnosed diabetes - at home in rural Wisconsin in March last year, as people surrounded her and prayed.

Neumann's wife, Leilani Neumann, was convicted earlier this year.

The couple, who were both convicted of second-degree reckless homicide, face up to 25 years in prison when they are sentenced in October.

A lawyer representing Dale Neumann said he would appeal.

'Faith healing'

During the trial, medical experts told the court that Neumann's daughter could have survived if she had received treatment, including insulin and fluids, before she stopped breathing.

On Thursday Neumann, who is 47 and studied in the past to be a Pentecostal minister, said he thought God would heal his daughter.

"If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God," he said. "I am not believing what he said he would do."

He also said he thought his daughter had had flu or a fever, and that he had not realised how ill she was.

Neumann's lawyer said he had been convinced that his "faith healing" was working, and that he had committed no crime.

The prosecution argued that Neumann had minimised his daughter's illness and that he had allowed her to die as a selfish act of faith.

They said the girl should have been taken to hospital because she was unable to walk, talk, eat or drink.

Instead, an ambulance was only called once the girl had stopped breathing.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Big Question, Wrong Answer?

The green movement's fixation with technology reveals that we are asking the wrong questions

How would you imagine an environmentalist would react when presented with the following proposition? A power company plans to build a new development on a stretch of wild moorland. It will be nearly seven miles long, and consist of 150 structures, each made of steel and mounted on hundreds of tons of concrete. They will be almost 500 feet high, and will be accompanied by 73 miles of road. The development will require the quarrying of 1.5m cubic metres of rock and the cutting out and dumping of up to a million cubic metres of peat.

The answer is that if you are like many modern environmentalists you will support this project without question. You will dismiss anyone who opposes it as a nimby who is probably in the pay of the coal or nuclear lobby, and you will campaign for thousands more like it to be built all over the country.

The project is, of course, a wind farm – or, if we want to be less Orwellian in our terminology, a wind power station. This particular project is planned for Shetland, but there are many like it in the pipeline. The government wants to see 10,000 new turbines across Britain by 2020 (though it is apparently not prepared to support the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight). The climate and energy secretary, Ed Miliband, says there is a need to "grow the market" for industrial wind energy, and to aid this growth he is offering £1bn in new loans to developers and the reworking of the "antiquated" (ie democratic) planning system, to allow local views on such developments to be overridden.

Does this sound very "green" to you? To me it sounds like a society fixated on growth and material progress going about its destructive business in much the same way as ever, only without the carbon. It sounds like a society whose answer to everything is more and bigger technology; a society so cut off from nature that it believes industrialising a mountain is a "sustainable" thing to do.

It also sounds like an environmental movement in danger of losing its way. The support for industrial wind developments in wild places seems to me a symbol of a lack of connectedness to an actual, physical environment. A development like that of Shetland is not an example of sustainable energy: it is the next phase in the endless human advance upon the non-human world – the very thing that the environmental movement came into being to resist.

Campaigners in Cumbria are fighting a proposed wind development near the mountain known as Saddleback, a great, brown hulk of a peak which Wordsworth preferred to call by its Celtic name, Blencathra. Wordsworth thought the wild uplands a place of epiphany. Other early environmentalists, from Thoreau to Emerson, knew too of the power of mountain and moor to provide a clear-eyed and humbling view of humanity.

Many of today's environmentalists will scoff if you speak to them of such things. Their concerns are couched in the language of business and technology – gigawatt hours, parts per million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers and "sustainable development". The green movement has become fixated on a single activity: reducing carbon emissions. It's understandable, what the science tells us about the coming impacts of climate change is terrifying. But if climate change poses a huge question, we are responding with the wrong answers.

The question we should be asking is what kind of society we should live in. The question we are actually asking is how we can power this one without producing carbon. This is not to say that renewable energy technologies are bad. We need to stop burning fossil fuels fast, and wind power can make a contribution if the turbines are sensitively sited and on an appropriate scale.

But the challenge posed by climate change is not really about technology. It is not even about carbon. It is about a society that has systematically hewed its inhabitants away from the natural world, and turned that world into a resource. It is about a society that imagines it operates in a bubble; that it can keep growing in a finite world, forever.

When we clamour for more wind-power stations in the wilderness, we perhaps think we are helping to slow this machine, but we are actually helping to power it. We are still promoting, perhaps unintentionally, the familiar mantras of industrial civilisation: growth can continue forever; technological gigantism will save us; our lives can go on much as they always have.

In the end, climate change presents us with a simple question: are we going to live within our means, or are we, like so many civilisations before us, going to collapse? In that question lies a radical challenge to the direction and mythologies of industrial society. All the technology in the world will not answer it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

My Life

I just bought today a bio about

called My Life and it´s the English translation of the original "Fidel Castro: Biografia a dos voces" by

Corazon Aquino (RIP)