Thursday, March 31, 2011

Letter Of The Day

A senior American official has suggested Colonel Gaddafi flees to a country that does not recognise the international criminal court (Report, 29 March). That would include America. Tripoli, Iowa, would seem an appropriate refuge.

Roger Wild

Teddington, Middlesex


Align Centre

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pic Of The Day

Align Centre

Crystal Fighters

Thursday, March 24, 2011

THE Poster

Liz Taylor (RIP)

A Kiss

THE Album

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reputation Management

PICTURE yourself as a big shot from an unpopular country—leader of an oil-rich bit of the Middle East, say, or a tycoon from a grungy bit of the former Communist world. You wish your family could shop, invest, socialise and study in the richest and nicest parts of the world (and flee there if needs be). But you don’t deserve it and won’t earn it: you will not stop torture, allow criticism, obey the law, or keep your fingers out of the public purse.

Luckily, respectability is on sale. You just have to know how to buy it. The place to start is London. Among its advantages are strict libel laws, which mean nosy journalists risk long, costly legal battles. And helpful banks, law firms, accountants and public relations people abound.

Laws on money-laundering have irritating requirements about scrutiny of new customers. This used to be merely an exercise in ticking boxes, but has got a bit tougher. Still, a well-connected and unscrupulous banker will be your best friend, for a fee. You cut him in on some lucrative transactions with your country or company. In return he will pilot you through the first stages, arming you with a lawyer (to scare rivals and critics) and an accountant (to keep your books opaque but legal).

Next comes a virtuous circle of socialising and do-gooding. Start with the cash-strapped upper reaches of the cultural world: a big art gallery, an opera house, or something to do with young musicians. Donations there will get you known and liked. Or try funding a prize at UNESCO or some other international do-gooding outfit. Support causes involving war veterans or sick children. Sponsoring sport works too. But don’t overdo it—the public is wiser than the glitterati, and will soon scent a crude attempt to buy popularity.

Send your children to posh English schools. Shower hospitality on their friends: they will be important one day. But invite the parents too: they are influential now. A discreet payment will tempt hard-up celebrities to come to your parties. Minor royals are an even bigger draw: British for choice, but continental will do. Even sensible people go weak at the knees at the thought of meeting a princeling, however charmless or dim-witted.

Many such titled folk like a lavish lifestyle but cannot earn or afford it. So offer a deal: you pay for their helicopters, hookers and hangers-on. In return, they bring you into their social circuit, and shower stardust on yours. You will need patience: the parties are dull and the guests vapid and greedy. Building your reputation as a charming and generous host may take a couple of years. But once people have met you socially they will find it hard to see you as a murderous monster or thieving thug. Useful props in this game are yachts, private jets, racehorses, ski chalets and mansions.

Armed with social and cultural clout, you can approach money-hungry academia and think-tanks. A good combination is a Washington, DC, think-tank and a London-based university (Oxford and Cambridge, being richer, are also choosier about whom they take money from). The package deal should involve a centre (perhaps with a professorial chair) and a suitable title: it should include words like global, sustainable, strategic and ethical.

I stink, you think

On the subject of titles, expect an honorary doctorate for yourself and a PhD for your favourite young relative. This need not be an onerous undertaking. A lobbying firm can help with the research. Think-tanks’ flimsier finances make them easy prey too—and they are more immediately influential than universities. Most of their experts are expected to raise all their own funds. A few million here or there is chicken feed for you but a career-saver for them and their programmes.

Sponsorship does not just make you look brainy and public spirited. It also skews the academic debate. If you are a pious Muslim, let it be known that a focus on uncontroversial subjects such as Islamic architecture, calligraphy and poetry will keep the money coming. Textual criticism of the mutually contradictory early versions of the Koran, by contrast, is a no-no. If you are from Russia, support cheerleaders for the “reset” in relations with America and pay for people to decry former Soviet satellites as irrelevant basket cases. If you are in oil or gas, pay for studies criticising the disruptive exercise of competition law on energy suppliers.

Then move on to the media. Generous advertising in the mainstream print dailies is a good way to make friends. Nobody will read the lavish supplements that trumpet your imaginary virtues and conceal your real flaws. But the newspaper’s managers will be happy. It may be too much to expect them to get the journalists to tweak their coverage (though that can happen) but you will find it easier to put your point across. Sumptuous fact-finding trips are an easy way of making hacks’ heads softer and hearts warmer. You can also hold conferences, with high fees for journalists who moderate sessions or sit on the panels. They will soon get the idea.

You are now in a position to approach politics. Most rich countries make it hard (or illegal) for foreigners to give money to politicians or parties. But you can oil the wheels. A non-executive directorship can be a mind-changing experience. Invite retired politicians and officials for lucrative speaking engagements and consultancy work: word will soon get around and the soon-to-retire will bear your interests in mind. Even better, set up an advisory council stuffed with influential foreigners. You need tell them nothing about what you do. Nor do you have to heed their advice.

Foreign respectability also makes you look good in the eyes of your own people. And it demoralises your critics, crushing their belief that Western media, politics, academia and public life are to be admired.

Your progress from villain to hero will not always go smoothly, especially if you have to start killing your opponents. But when the alarm is raised, your allies will rally to your defence. A tame academic can write an opinion piece; a newspaper grateful for your advertising will publish it. Your fans can always say that someone else is much worse and that you are at least a reforming, if not fully reformed, character. A few references to American robber-barons such as John Pierpont Morgan will bolster the case. So too will a gibe at less-than-perfect Western leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi. After all, nobody likes hypocrisy.

The King Is Naked!

Spain must compensate the radical Basque separatist leader Arnaldo Otegi after wrongly sentencing him to jail for insulting King Juan Carlos, the European court of human rights has decided.

The court in Strasbourg ruled on Tuesday that Spain must pay €23,000 (nearly £20,000) in compensation to Otegi for breaching his right to freedom of expression after he accused the Spanish monarch of protecting police torturers.

Otegi made his comments after police raided and closed down the Basque-language Egunkaria newspaper in February 2003. The editor, Martxelo Otamendi, and other executives, claimed they were tortured. When Juan Carlos visited the Basque country soon afterwards, Otegi said that as "supreme head of the civil guard police force", the monarch was effectively in command of those who had tortured Egunkaria staff.

Otegi claimed the king "protects torture and imposes his monarchical regime on our people through torture and violence". Three years later a Spanish court found him guilty of insulting the king, handing down a one-year suspended jail sentence and imposing costs.

But the Strasbourg court has decided Otegi was within his rights as a politician to air his grievances against the king, though the torture allegations were never proved.

Otegi's remarks were "made in his capacity as elected member of and spokesperson for a parliamentary group …in the context of the recent closure of the Egunkaria newspaper and the complaint alleging ill-treatment", the Strasbourg judges ruled.

They accepted that his words "could be understood as contributing to a wider public debate on the possible responsibility of the state security forces in cases of ill treatment".

Spanish judges last year threw out a case alleging that Otamendi and other Egunkaria executives had collaborated with Eta. The decision came too late to save Egunkaria.

Four civil guard police officers were found guilty last December of torturing members of an Eta unit that killed two people with a bomb at Madrid's Barajas airport in 2006.

Otegi is one of a group of separatist leaders now trying to persuade Eta to end four decades of terrorism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Mazinger Z

Liberation Heroes

Miguel Hidalgo, an unconventional priest inspired by the Enlightenment, led peasants in revolt, sparking what became Mexico's independence war, and was shot by firing squad in 1811.

José Martí, a precocious intellectual and rebel, resisted US meddling and symbolised Cuba's fight against Spain's domination. He died in battle in 1895.

José De San Martin, a professional soldier, is Argentina's national hero for building an army that engaged Spanish forces in northern Argentina, Peru and Chile. Died in exile in France in 1850.

José Artigas, an expert rider and marksman, helped Spain to resist British incursions before taking charge of anti-Spanish forces in what is today Uruguay. Died in exile in Paraguay in 1850.

Bernardo O'Higgins, of Basque and Irish lineage, ousted royalists from Chile and became the country's founding father. Died in 1842 en route home after exile in Peru.

Símon Boliívar, a Creole aristocrat, mobilised Venezuela and Colombia against Spain and became the most celebrated liberator. Died in 1830, apparently from tuberculosis.

Joaquim José da Silva Xavier led a Brazilian revolution against Portuguese rule and pillage of mineral wealth. Was betrayed and executed in 1792 in Rio de Janeiro.

Túpac Amaru, the descendant of Inca royalty, led a doomed campaign against Spanish conquest and was executed in 1572. Today several leftwing political groups are named after him.

Mazinger Z!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Poor Economics

Why would a man in Morocco who doesn’t have enough to eat buy a television?
Why is it so hard for children in poor areas to learn even when they attend school?
Why do the poorest people in the Indian state of Maharashtra spend 7 percent of their food budget on sugar?
Does having lots of children actually make you poorer?

For more than fifteen years Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo have worked with the poor in dozens of countries spanning five continents, trying to understand the specific problems that come with poverty and to find proven solutions. Their book is radical in its rethinking of the economics of poverty, but also entirely practical in the suggestions it offers. Through a careful analysis of a very rich body of evidence, including the hundreds of randomized control trials that Banerjee and Duflo’s lab has pioneered, they show why the poor, despite having the same desires and abilities as anyone else, end up with entirely different lives.

Through their work, Banerjee and Duflo look at some of the most surprising facets of poverty: why the poor need to borrow in order to save, why they miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need, why they start many businesses but do not grow any of them, and many other puzzling facts about living with less than 99 cents per day.

POOR ECONOMICS argues that so much of anti-poverty policy has failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. The battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence. Banerjee and Duflo are practical visionaries whose meticulous workoffers transformative potential for poor people anywhere, and is a vital guide to policy makers, philanthropists, activists and anyone else who cares about building a world without poverty.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reagan & Public Healthcare

Book Of The Day

Companies and Information

IN EARLY February Hewlett-Packard showed off its new tablet computer, which it hopes will be a rival to Apple’s iPad. The event was less exciting than it might have been, thanks to the leaking of the design in mid-January. Other technology companies have suffered similar embarrassments lately. Dell’s timetable for bringing tablets to market appeared on a tech-news website. A schedule for new products from NVIDIA, which makes graphics chips, also seeped out.

Geeks aren’t the only ones who can’t keep a secret. In January it emerged that Renault had suspended three senior executives, allegedly for passing on blueprints for electric cars (which the executives deny). An American radio show has claimed to have found the recipe for Coca-Cola’s secret ingredient in an old newspaper photograph. Facebook’s corporate privacy settings went awry when some of the social network’s finances were published. A strategy document from AOL came to light, revealing that the internet and media firm’s journalists were expected to write five to ten articles a day.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange has been doing his best to make bankers sweat. In November the founder of WikiLeaks promised a “megaleak” early in 2011. He was said to be in possession of a hard drive from the laptop of a former executive of an unnamed American bank, containing documents even more toxic than the copiously leaked diplomatic cables from the State Department. They would reveal an “ecosystem of corruption” and “take down a bank or two”.

“I think it’s great,” Mr Assange said in a television interview in January. “We have all these banks squirming, thinking maybe it’s them.” At Bank of America (BofA), widely thought to be the bank in question, an internal investigation began. Had any laptop gone missing? What could be on its hard drive? And how should BofA react if, say, compromising e-mails were leaked?

The bank’s bosses and investigators can relax a bit. Recent reports say that Mr Assange has acknowledged in private that the material may be less revealing than he had suggested. Financial experts would be needed to determine whether any of it was at all newsworthy.

Even so, the WikiLeaks threat and the persistent leaking of other supposedly confidential corporate information have brought an important issue to the fore. Companies are creating an ever-growing pile of digital information, from product designs to employees’ e-mails. Keeping tabs on it all is increasingly hard, not only because there is so much of it but also because of the ease of storing and sending it. Much of this information would do little damage if it seeped into the outside world; some of it, indeed, might well do some good. But some could also be valuable to competitors—or simply embarrassing—and needs to be protected. Companies therefore have to decide what they should try to keep to themselves and how best to secure it.

Trying to prevent leaks by employees or to fight off hackers only helps so much. Powerful forces are pushing companies to become more transparent. Technology is turning the firm, long a safe box for information, into something more like a sieve, unable to contain all its data. Furthermore, transparency can bring huge benefits. “The end result will be more openness,” predicts Bruce Schneier, a data-security guru.

From safe to sieve

When corporate information lived only on paper, which was complemented by microfilm about 50 years ago, it was much easier to manage and protect than it is today. Accountants and archivists classified it; the most secret documents were put in a safe. Copying was difficult: it would have taken Bradley Manning, the soldier who is alleged to have sent the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, years to photograph or smuggle out all the 250,000 documents he is said to have downloaded—assuming that he was not detected.

Things did not change much when computers first made an appearance in firms. They were used mostly for accounting or other transactions, known as “structured information”. And they were self-contained systems to which few people had access. Even the introduction in the 1980s of more decentralised information-technology (IT) systems and personal computers (PCs) did not make much of a difference. PCs served at first as glorified typewriters.

It was only with the advent of the internet and its corporate counterpart, the intranet, that information began to flow more quickly. Employees had access to lots more data and could exchange electronic messages with the outer world. PCs became a receptacle for huge amounts of “unstructured information”, such as text files and presentations. The banker’s hard drive in Mr Assange’s possession is rumoured to contain several years’ worth of e-mails and attachments.

Now an even more important change is taking place. So far firms have spent their IT budgets mostly on what Geoffrey Moore of TCG Advisors, a firm of consultants, calls “systems of record”, which track the flow of money, products and people within a company and, more recently, its network of suppliers. Now, he says, firms are increasingly investing in “systems of engagement”. By this he means all kinds of technologies that digitise, speed up and automate a firm’s interaction with the outer world.

Mobile devices, video conferencing and online chat are the most obvious examples of these technologies: they allow instant communication. But they are only part of the picture, says Mr Moore. Equally important are a growing number of tools that enable new forms of collaboration: employees collectively edit online documents, called wikis; web-conferencing services help firms and their customers to design products together; and smartphone applications let companies collect information about people’s likes and dislikes and hence about market trends.

It is easy to see how such services will produce ever more data. They are one reason why IDC, a market-research firm, predicts that the “digital universe”, the amount of digital information created and replicated in a year, will increase to 35 zettabytes by 2020, from less than 1 zettabyte in 2009 (see chart); 1 zettabyte is 1 trillion gigabytes, or the equivalent of 250 billion DVDs. But these tools will also make a firm’s borders ever more porous. “WikiLeaks is just a reflection of the problem that more and more data are produced and can leak out,” says John Mancini, president of AIIM, an organisation dedicated to improving information management.

Two other developments are also poking holes in companies’ digital firewalls. One is outsourcing: contractors often need to be connected to their clients’ computer systems. The other is employees’ own gadgets. Younger staff, especially, who are attuned to easy-to-use consumer technology, want to bring their own gear to work. “They don’t like to use a boring corporate BlackBerry,” explains Mr Mancini.

The data drain

As a result, more and more data are seeping out of companies, even of the sort that should be well protected. When Eric Johnson of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and his fellow researchers went through popular file-sharing services last year, they found files that contained health-related information as well as names, addresses and dates of birth. In many cases, explains Mr Johnson, the reason for such leaks is not malice or even recklessness, but that corporate applications are often difficult to use, in particular in health care. To be able to work better with data, employees often transfer them into spreadsheets and other types of files that are easier to manipulate—but also easier to lose control of.

Although most leaks are not deliberate, many are. Renault, for example, claims to be a victim of industrial espionage. In a prominent insider-trading case in the United States, some hedge-fund managers are accused of having benefited from data leaked from Taiwanese semiconductor foundries, including spreadsheets showing the orders and thus the sales expectations of their customers.

Not surprisingly, therefore, companies feel a growing urge to prevent leaks. The pressure is regulatory as well as commercial. Stricter data-protection and other rules are also pushing firms to keep a closer watch on information. In America, for instance, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) introduced security standards for personal health data. In lawsuits companies must be able to produce all relevant digital information in court. No wonder that some executives have taken to using e-mail sparingly or not at all. Whole companies, however, cannot dodge the digital flow.

To help them plug the holes, companies are being offered special types of software. One is called “content management”. Programs sold by Alfresco, EMC Documentum and others let firms keep tabs on their digital content, classify it and define who has access to it. A junior salesman, for instance, will not be able to see the latest financial results before publication—and thus cannot send them to a friend.

Another type, in which Symantec and Websense are the market leaders, is “data loss prevention” (DLP). This is software that sits at the edge of a firm’s network and inspects the outgoing data traffic. If it detects sensitive information, it sounds the alarm and can block the incriminating bits. The software is often used to prevent social-security and credit-card numbers from leaving a company—and thus make it comply with HIPAA and similar regulations.

A third field, newer than the first two, is “network forensics”. The idea is to keep an eye on everything that is happening in a corporate network, and thus to detect a leaker. NetWitness, a start-up company, says that its software records all the digital goings-on and then looks for suspicious patterns, creating “real-time situation awareness”, in the words of Edward Schwartz, its chief security officer.

There are also any number of more exotic approaches. Autonomy, a British software firm, offers “bells in the dark”. False records—made-up pieces of e-mail, say—are spread around the network. Because they are false, no one should gain access to them. If somebody does, an alarm is triggered, as a burglar might set off an alarm breaking into a house at night.

These programs deter some leakers and keep employees from doing stupid things. But reality rarely matches the marketing. Content-management programs are hard to use and rarely fully implemented. Role-based access control sounds fine in theory but is difficult in practice. Firms often do not know exactly what access should be assigned to whom. Even if they do, jobs tend to change quickly. A field study of an investment bank by Mr Johnson and his colleagues found that one department of 3,000 employees saw 1,000 organisational changes within only a few months.

This leads to what Mr Johnson calls “over-entitlement”. So that workers can get their jobs done, they are given access to more information than they really need. At the investment bank, more than 50% were over-entitled. Because access is rarely revoked, over time employees gain the right to see more and more. In some companies, Mr Johnson was able to predict a worker’s length of employment from how much access he had. But he adds that if role-based access control is enforced too strictly, employees have too little data to do their jobs.

Similarly, DLP is no guarantee against leaks: because it cannot tell what is in encrypted files, data can be wrapped up and smuggled out. Network forensics can certainly show what is happening in a small group of people working on a top-secret product. But it is hard to see how it can keep track of the ever-growing traffic that passes through or leaves big corporate IT systems, for instance through a simple memory stick (which plugs into a PC and can hold the equivalent of dozens of feature-length films). “Technology can’t solve the problem, just lower the probability of accidents,” explains John Stewart, the chief security officer of Cisco, a maker of networking equipment.

Other experts point out that companies face a fundamental difficulty. There is a tension in handling large amounts of data that can be seen by many people, argues Ross Anderson, of Cambridge University. If a system lets a few people do only very simple things—such as checking whether a product is available—the risks can be managed; but if it lets a lot of people do general inquiries it becomes insecure. SIPRNet, where the American diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks had been stored, is a case in point: it provided generous access to several hundred thousand people.

In the corporate world, to limit the channels through which data can escape, some companies do not allow employees to bring their own gear to work or to use memory sticks or certain online services. Although firms have probably become more permissive since, a survey by Robert Half Technology, a recruitment agency, found in 2009 that more than half of chief information officers in America blocked the use of sites such as Facebook at work.

Yet this approach comes at a price, and not only because it makes a firm less attractive to Facebook-using, iPhone-toting youngsters. “More openness also creates trust,” argues Jeff Jarvis, a new-media sage who is writing a book about the virtues of transparency, entitled “Public Parts”. Dell, he says, gained a lot of goodwill when it started talking openly about its products’ technical problems, such as exploding laptop batteries. “If you open the kimono, a lot of good things happen,” says Don Tapscott, a management consultant and author: it keeps the company honest, creates more loyalty among employees and lowers transaction costs with suppliers.

More important still, if the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of a consulting firm, has its numbers right, limiting the adoption of systems of engagement can hurt profits. In a recent survey it found that firms that made extensive use of social networks, wikis and so forth reaped important benefits, including faster decision-making and increased innovation.

How then to strike the right balance between secrecy and transparency? It may be useful to think of a computer network as being like a system of roads. Just like accidents, leaks are bound to happen and attempts to stop the traffic will fail, says Mr Schneier, the security expert. The best way to start reducing accidents may not be employing more technology but making sure that staff understand the rules of the road—and its dangers. Transferring files onto a home PC, for instance, can be a recipe for disaster. It may explain how health data have found their way onto file-sharing networks. If a member of the employee’s family has joined such a network, the data can be replicated on many other computers.

Don’t do that again

Companies also have to set the right incentives. To avoid the problems of role-based access control, Mr Johnson proposes a system akin to a speed trap: it allows users to gain access to more data easily, but records what they do and hands out penalties if they abuse the privilege. He reports that Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker, issues “speeding tickets” to employees who break its rules.

Mr Johnson is the first to admit that this approach is too risky for data that are very valuable or the release of which could cause a lot of damage. But most companies do not even realise what kind of information they have and how valuable or sensitive it is. “They are often trying to protect everything instead of concentrating on the important stuff,” reports John Newton, the chief technology officer of Alfresco.

The “WikiLeaks incident is an opportunity to improve information governance,” wrote Debra Logan, an analyst at Gartner, a research firm, and her colleagues in a recent note. A first step is to decide which data should be kept and for how long; many firms store too much, making leaks more likely. In a second round, says Ms Logan, companies must classify information according to how sensitive it is. “Only then can you have an intelligent discussion about what to protect and what to do when something gets leaked.”

Such an exercise could also be an occasion to develop what Mr Tapscott calls a “transparency strategy”: how closed or open an organisation wants to be. The answer depends on the business it is in. For companies such as Accenture, an IT consultancy and outsourcing firm, security is a priority from the top down because it is dealing with a lot of customer data, says Alastair MacWillson, who runs its security business. Employees must undergo security training regularly. As far as possible, software should control what leaves the company’s network. “If you try to do something with your BlackBerry or your laptop that you should not do,” explains Mr MacWillson, “the system will ask you: ‘Should you really be doing this?’”

At the other end of the scale is the Mozilla Foundation, which leads the development of Firefox, an open-source browser. Transparency is not just a natural inclination but a necessity, says Mitchell Baker, who chairs the foundation. If Mozilla kept its cards close to the chest, its global community of developers would not and could not help write the program. So it keeps secrets to a minimum: employees’ personal information, data that business partners do not want made public and security issues in its software. Everything else can be found somewhere on Mozilla’s many websites. And anyone can take part in its weekly conference calls.

Few companies will go that far. But many will move in this direction. The transparency strategy of Best Buy, an electronics retailer, is that its customers should know as much as its employees. Twitter tells its employees that they can tweet about anything, but that they should not do “stupid things”. In the digital era of exploding quantities of data that are increasingly hard to contain within companies’ systems, more companies are likely to become more transparent. Mr Tapscott and Richard Hunter, another technology savant, may not have been exaggerating much a decade ago, when they wrote books foreseeing “The Naked Corporation” and a “World Without Secrets”.

Jane Russell (RIP)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Waste Of Food

MANCUR OLSON, an American economist, talked about $100 bills lying on the sidewalk to express the idea of easy gains. The amount of food that is wasted represents a gigantic stack of $100 bills. Both in rich countries and poor, a staggering 30-50% of all food produced rots away uneaten. According to Josef Schmidhuber of the FAO, in Africa the post-harvest waste largely explains why many smallholders are net purchasers of food even though they grow enough for their families to eat.

In poor countries most food is wasted on or near the farm. Rats, mice and locusts eat the crops in the field or in storage. Milk and vegetables spoil in transit. These might be considered losses rather than waste. Kanayo Nwanze, the head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, reckons that such losses could be reduced by half. That would be the equivalent of a rise in output of 15-25%, which would go a long way to providing the extra food needed by 2050.

Unlike in rich countries, much of the waste in poor ones is a matter of money, not behaviour. Grain is often heaped on the ground and covered with a sheet: no wonder the rats get at it. Losses could be reduced by building new silos and better roads and providing more refrigeration, but those things are expensive. The African Development Bank is financing a seven-year programme to reduce waste by 3% a year. Given the scale of the losses, says Divine Njie of the FAO, who worked on the scheme, “we were surprised at how modest the targets were.” But 3% a year adds up to a 20% reduction in waste over seven years, a good start.

There is likely to be more of this sort of investment in future. To meet demand in the emerging megacities, more processed food is being sold in supermarkets and less raw food in markets. Nutritionists worry about the resulting loss of quality, but there are big gains in quantity. Food processors and retailers use modern silos, proper trucks and refrigeration—the very things the rural poor lack.

Rich pickings

Rich countries waste about the same amount of food as poor ones, up to half of what is produced, but in quite different ways. Studies in America and Britain find that a quarter of food from shops goes straight into the rubbish bin or is thrown away by shops and restaurants. Top of the list come salads, about half of which are chucked away. A third of all bread, a quarter of fruit and a fifth of vegetables—all are thrown out uneaten. In America this amounted to 43m tonnes of food in 1997; in Britain to 4m tonnes in 2006.

If all rich countries waste food at the same rate as Britain and America, very roughly 100kg per person per year, the total waste adds up to 100m tonnes of food a year, equivalent to one-third of the entire world’s supply of meat—an astonishing quantity. If Western waste could be halved and the food distributed to those who need it, the problem of feeding 9 billion people would vanish.

But it can’t. Western spoilage is a result of personal habit and law. Education or exhortation might make a difference, but the extent of waste is partly a reflection of prices: food is cheap enough for consumers not to worry about chucking it out, and prices seem unlikely to rise by enough to change that attitude.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Picture of the Day

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Santi Santamaria (RIP)

THE best restaurant in the world, according to many of those who passionately rate these things, sits on the Costa Brava at Roses, 160km north of Barcelona. There, at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (three Michelin stars), you will find mosaics of sea anemones, and parmesan-infused air; spherified olives, with their concentrated essence minutely encased in gelatin; a tortilla española deconstructed into tiny layers of egg-white sabayon, onion purée and potato foam, served in a sherry glass; and a dessert called “Autumn”, where sweet and spicy powders make up a forest floor that is strewn with chocolate leaves.

An hour’s drive south, at a restaurant called Can Fabes (also three Michelin stars), Santi Santamaría knew just what he thought of such tinkerings. Mr Adrià and his followers, he announced in 2007, were a gang of frauds. By footling round with centrifuges and liquid nitrogen they were reducing food to a set of mental hurdles, as though there weren’t already enough traffic lights and zebra crossings in life. These were meals they would never dream of eating themselves, full of methyl cellulose and emulsifiers that might well poison their customers. No wonder Mr Adrià was stylishly slim where Mr Santamaría, white chef’s jacket stretched to bursting point as he rose monumentally from his chair to berate his rival in public, was not.

At his restaurant, he was quick to point out, the food was pure, unadulterated, and looked like what it was. Roast kid done so perfectly, lacquered and stuffed, with a simple jus, that it had stayed on the menu for years. Bean soup with black pudding and bacon, beignets oozing warm chocolate truffle across the plate. “Autumn” at Mr Santamaría’s establishment meant the earth-smell of mushrooms fresh-picked in the woods, damp-feathered game pulled from the huntsman’s pouch, and lentil stew so rich, so redolent of the season, that as the lid of the tureen was lifted Mr Santamaría’s hands would start to rotate sedately, wafting the aroma upwards, and his eyes to close with sheer rapture.

He knew about science. He’d had his fill of it as a young man, trying to be a technical draughtsman and then a quantity surveyor, when all he had wanted to do was stay in his mother’s kitchen cooking, and then eating, macaroni with sofrito and sausages, or her special filled pancakes. The day in 1981 when he put down the set square and put on the apron, having decided to turn that ancient, tumbledown family kitchen into a restaurant, was the happiest of his life—not forgetting the day of his marriage to his teenage sweetheart Àngels, who tied on her apron beside him.

Science, he admitted, was good for some things: to keep fish stream-fresh, to clarify a consommé. But he was on the craftsman’s side. An artist was what he had really wanted to be, and he had simply transferred his painterly feelings to stroking the rich glaze on a shank of lamb, or dashing his signature in a passion-fruit coulis. The menu changed with his moods as much as the season: red peppers because they had shone at the morning market, sardines for their feel in his plump fingers, the first wild asparagus simply because it was there, and had to be celebrated with his customers. His life was loudly dedicated to taste, real taste, and lingering pleasure for all the senses, not simply some brief, show-off spectacle achieved with stabilisers and steam.

As a young chef, self-taught, he had devoured cookery books of every kind: medieval, Japanese, Italian, all the French masters. Nouvelle cuisine especially impressed him. But he kept returning to the flavours and products of his beloved Catalonia, and even to the small, rocky stretch of it outside his kitchen door. His baby lamb came from his own Montseny mountains, and was flavoured with herbs that grew there. Fish came from Blanes, the first spring peas from Llavaneres, artichokes from El Prat de Llobregat. His enthusiastic immersion as a boy in Catalan culture—speaking, reading and writing a language that was officially banished under Franco to the hearth and home, wandering in the rugged, piny Catalan landscape—reached its natural apogee in preserving, lovingly, what Catalunya tasted like. It was fitting that the last meal he made, before he died of a heart attack at his new restaurant in distant Singapore, was a pa amb tomàquet, fresh tomato pulp and olive oil pressed onto bread, the purest taste of home.

A table as a poem

By then a truce had been reached with Mr Adrià, though it was fidgety. The slimmer man dismissed Mr Santamaría’s barbs as total nonsense, and their originator as a staid old conservative. But Mr Santamaría did not greatly mind that, if it meant that he was honouring the best traditions of cooking and thereby contributing, as he saw it, to the beauty of life.

A table at Can Fabes—or any of his six other restaurants—was, in his words, “a poem”. It stirred memories of his mother spreading out the special white cloth she used for feasts. In this calm, unhurried setting Mr Santamaría, using only fire, would perform the “magic” of turning raw food into meals. The result could be shrimp “that makes you lose your senses”, or a fish and potato soup that would “put the moon on your plate”. And nothing could taste better, surely, for all those gizmos, at the best restaurant in the world.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Godzilla in Mexico

Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You'd just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
I was reading in the bedroom next door
when I realized we were going to die.
Despite the dizziness and nausea I dragged myself
to the kitchen and found you on the floor.
We hugged. You asked what was happening
and I didn't tell you we were on death's program
but instead that we were going on a journey,
one more, together, and that you shouldn't be afraid.
When it left, death didn't even
close our eyes.
What are we? you asked a week or year later,
ants, bees, wrong numbers
in the big rotten soup of chance?
We're human beings, my son, almost birds,
public heroes and secrets.

by Roberto Bolaño

For God´s Sake...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Arabs & Europe

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Economist Edito & Article

IN PHILOSOPHY there is a paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. If, over time, all the ship’s planks are replaced, does it remain the same ship? The judges on Spain’s Supreme Court will soon face a mirror image of this question. Sortu, a new political group that seeks independence for the Basque country, is the brainchild of senior figures from Batasuna, a party banned in 2003 for its links to the terrorists of ETA. Sortu says it is not the same as Batasuna, and should be allowed to register as a party (see article). On this, if little else, it is right.

Many Spanish people disagree. Sortu, says one opposition politician, is still the “claw” of ETA, only with “painted nails”. Such scepticism is understandable. The creators of Sortu belonged to a party that took orders from gunmen and bombers responsible for hundreds of deaths. Batasuna probably channelled the public funds it received into ETA’s pockets. Many thought the distinction between Batasuna and ETA illusory.

Unlike Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Batasuna did not appear to provide a useful “bridge” between violent separatism and constitutional politics. Rather than aggravate Basque-nationalist grievances, as some, including this newspaper, feared, the ban on the party seemed to help marginalise the militants. In June 2009 the Spanish court’s decision was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.

So what has changed? ETA is still not to be trusted; a “permanent” ceasefire in 2006 lasted just nine months. But the group is far weaker today. A string of successful police operations has sapped its manpower and morale. Since 2000 it has killed 58 people; three decades ago it often took more lives than that in a year. Unlike the 2006 truce, which was a tactical move ETA made when it thought it was still strong, its latest ceasefire, declared in September and made “permanent” in January, was partly the result of pressure by former Batasuna leaders, including some of those standing behind Sortu, who have lost faith in the armed struggle.

More importantly, Sortu says it rejects ETA’s violence. Seeking to satisfy the judges, the party has even written its denunciations into its statutes. This is a significant shift. Batasuna never condemned ETA’s terrorism, and often glorified the gunmen. The new party has left itself little room to operate in the same way. Its stance could act as a brake on violence; ETA may not want to drive a public wedge between itself and the politicians by forcing Sortu to condemn it. It is the party’s decisive rejection of violence, above all, that means Spain’s judges ought to turn down prosecutors’ calls to ban it.

Legalise it, do criticise it

Granting a party the right to take part in elections does not bestow on it the seal of legitimacy. The desperadoes of Sortu have done little to earn this. The whole history of their movement is one of intransigence and truculence. Their ideological allies in ETA have repeatedly shown themselves to be untrustworthy negotiating partners. Even now they show no sign of making moves to decommission their arms stocks.

But bringing the political representatives of Basque militancy into the democratic light would be the best way to show up these flaws. Indeed, perhaps the best outcome would be for those who favour Basque independence to vote for Aralar, a separatist party that split from Batasuna in 2000 over its continued backing of terrorism. That would be the ultimate rejection of ETA. And it has to happen at the ballot box.