Friday, January 16, 2004

Martian Chronicler gets excited 

I haven't had that much good stuff to say about Team Bush in the past 4-some years. However, there are two recent measures of the administration that definitely deserve applause. First, there was the measure on immigration (which I have not read enough about) and the second was the announcement of the Moon/Mars gig, even assuming that the timing was purely political. Though the Mars spiel wasn't quite in the same league as Kennedy's moon speech, it has earned Team Bush plaudits from some unforeseen quarters -- in this case, Ray Bradbury.

We can't stay on Earth forever. We've got to move on. It's time we went to Mars to build a colony there. The science fiction author says he has been in touch with the White House. "I've called President Bush to offer my help; so let's see if he responds."

I am not entirely sure about the Moon mission. I sure hope it doesn't become a space-station type white elephant that drains resources from the real kahuna -- Mars. I also think the Mars mission would work better as a collaborative international project, especially since there are no more cold war-type enemies to prove a point to.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Nick Kristof has some advice for the Democrats 

Nicholas Kristof, in this excellent op-ed from the NYT has some sage advice for the Democrats vis-a-vis their trade-bashing tripe. He invites all Democrats to a rubbish dump in Phnom Penh to make his point.

One of the most unfortunate trends in the Democratic presidential race has been the way nearly all of the candidates, including Howard Dean, the front-runner, have been flirting with anti-trade positions by putting the emphasis on labor, environmental and human rights standards in international agreements.

While Mr. Gephardt calls for an international minimum wage, Mr. Dean was quoted in USA Today in October as saying, "I believe that trade also requires human rights and labor standards and environmental standards that are concurrent around the world."

Perhaps the candidates are simply pandering to unions, or bashing President Bush. But my guess is that they sincerely believe that such trade policies would help poor people abroad — and that's why they should all traipse through a Cambodian garbage dump to see how economically naïve these schemes would be.

All the complaints about third world sweatshops are true and then some: factories sometimes dump effluent into rivers or otherwise ravage the environment. But they have raised the standard of living in Singapore, South Korea and southern China, and they offer a leg up for people in countries like Cambodia.

"I want to work in a factory, but I'm in poor health and always feel dizzy," said Lay Eng, a 23-year-old woman. And no wonder: she has been picking through the filth, seven days a week, for six years. She has never been to a doctor. Here in Cambodia factory jobs are in such demand that workers usually have to bribe a factory insider with a month's salary just to get hired.

...etc, etc. You get the picture. Good read!

The Lady drops out 

First of all, I apologise for the infrequent blogging. I have been trying to be disciplined about finishing all the reading I need to finish before a self-imposed deadline on the 25th of January. So, I have been staying away from the Internet as much as possible as also from blogging.

So, I was surprised at all the news emerging from the U.S. political scene. First, I read that Carol Moseley Braun has dropped out of the Democratic race. While I feel sorry for her, I was coming around to the POV that the Democrats with not a sliver of hope of winning the nomination should begin to drop out so Dean, Clark and Kerry could along with the business of being serious candidates.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise to hear that Kerry had actually pulled ahead of Dean in Iowa, while Clark moved into a statistical dead heat with Dean in New Hampshire. This *is* very good news indeed. I hope Clark and Kerry can maintain their momentum over the next 10 days or so.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Aussie sporting greats 

The BBC has, on the occasion of Steve Waugh's retirement, put together a ranking of the top 10 Aussie sportsmen who competed in international sports. Needless to say, the incomparable Sir Don Bradman towers over all comers at rank one. Well, to be fair, I don't think any sportsman anywhere in the world (minor sports aside) has dominated his/her game the way Sir Don has dominated cricket. He is so stratospheric that the most you can do as a player is to look to him for inspiration.

But, I digress. Second on the list is Rod Laver, the last man to win the tennis grand slam and swimming great Dawn Fraser comes in at three. Steve Waugh figures at rank five. The interesting omission from this top ten list is Allan Border. I can't imagine why the most prolific run-getter in test cricket does not find a place in this list. For that matter, Allan Border was also responsible for laying the foundation (after the disastrous captaincy of Kim Hughes) for an almost unbeatable Aussie cricket team. Strange omission indeed.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

When it rains, it pours 

Sachin Tendulkar had been having the worst form of his career pretty much until the day before yesterday. I figured he would be back, but could not have imagined the manner in which he got back among the runs. 241 not out, contributing to India's largest ever total in test cricket (only the second team to score 700 runs in Australia). And heck, it could have gone on for a lot longer if it weren't for Sourav Ganguly's overly kind declaration. Now, as I blog this, the Aussies are 6 wickets down facing an attack that is missing almost all of its main strike bowlers.

This is very interesting. When the Indian team left for this tour, noone including fans like me gave them the slightest chance of putting up a real fight against the best team in the world, especially on their home turf. Now, we have a situation when the Indian batsmen have been so fantastic the famed Aussie attack can't even bowl them out. It's a strange, strange, strange world. And I am not complaining :)

Friday, January 02, 2004

The smell of napalm tops poll 

Robert Duvall's lines from Apocalypse Now -- I love the smell of napalm in the morning -- has beenvoted the best speech in the movies in a movie fans poll.

Duvall's memorable speech was made as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic co-starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. It begins: "You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning."

Other film fans' favourites included Samuel L Jackson's "God's fury" speech in Pulp Fiction, Michael Douglas' "Greed is good" line from Wall Street, and the "Choose life" monologue by Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting.

I am amazed that the wisdom of Gunnery Sergeant "Do you maggots understand that" Hartman has been left out of the top 10. Sure, some of the others are utterly brilliant lines, but surely that amazing boot-camp speech from Full Metal Jacket belongs in there too?

Barbara of Arabia signs off 

Barbara Smith, the middle-east correspondent reflects on her 50-year career with the Economist in this lovely piece from the year-end double issue. There is enough in there to warm the cockles of anyone who has an interest in the supposed romance of journalism :)

A couple of months after I joined The Economist, Britain, France and Israel conspired to do down Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's dictator, in the traumatic Suez Canal affair. The foreign editor, the same beloved man who allowed me my head in Latin America, let me write an angry paragraph of his angry leader. The Economist's Middle East editor, the great Elizabeth Monroe, generously encouraged me to try to get myself quickly to Nasser's Egypt. Once in Cairo, warm with spices and jokes, I was hooked.

Our correspondent in Beirut, whom we shared with the Observer, was Kim Philby, who was spying for the Soviet Union. His work for The Economist was excellent but there was not enough of it. My embarrassing job was to be sent out, on at least two occasions, to urge Kim to file more regularly.

Kim, who was under rather different pressures at the time, would sensibly go to ground. He was contactable only through the barman at the Normandie Hotel, and that considerate fellow always told me that Mr Philby had flu. I would hang around, feeling silly, and eventually Kim would emerge and we would drink and talk. I don't think I ever got around to scolding him for his inadequate copy.

If shame for Britain's part in the Suez affair set off my exasperated affection for the Arab world, a far deeper, European, shame fed my passionate advocacy of Israel's existence, a passion that survived, just, my first visit to the Middle East. My way to Israel led through the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and the gross injustice of evicted Palestinians paying for Europe's guilt.

Believe it or not, there are folks within the Economist family who disagree with editorial policy, especially the rightward slanting bit.

Inevitably, I have often disagreed with the paper's policies: for instance, when, from time to time, we veered sharply to the right, when we supported anti-communist third-world monsters—in cold-war terms, bastards but our bastards—or when, as at present, we seem to me to be much too closely identified with official America. During two crises the paper was painfully split. The first was the Vietnam war, which we supported, and the second was this year's Iraqi war, which we also supported. Neither occasion, I would submit, was our finest hour.

etc, etc. Lovely read.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Asia welcomes low-cost flying 

The New York Times has an interesting story on the profusion of low-cost carriers in south-east Asia, with a special focus on Malaysian low-cost carrier, Air Asia.

AirAsia today handles 11,000 passengers a day with a fleet of 18 planes, offering fares as low as $2.60. (Ryanair has fares between European cities for under one euro, about $1.25.) This month AirAsia started its first international flights, to neighboring Thailand. It will start flying next year to Indonesia, with its 235 million potential passengers, and possibly will begin service to India and China, with a combined market of 2.3 billion.

Lured by AirAsia's success and the rapid growth of Asia's consumer class, discount airlines are popping up all over: Indonesia has Lion Air and Air Paradise International, the Philippines has Cebu Pacific Air, Thailand has One-Two-Go and former executives from Singapore Airlines plan to set up a budget airline called ValuAir next year. The incumbents are striking back. Singapore Airlines is starting a discount carrier next year to be called Tiger Airways, and Thai Airways International is looking for partners to help it start a discount carrier of its own.

Views on whether low-cost airlines will flourish in Asia vary, however, depending on whom you ask. Those who sell airplanes, airports or advice tend to be of the opinion that low-cost carriers will redraw Asia's socioeconomic map, offering affordable international travel to millions and thereby fostering the integration of a region divided by water, politics and poor infrastructure.

But analysts who follow established carriers say it is the other way around - the success of low-cost airlines depends on that map being redrawn. There are too few bilateral agreements that allow new, low-cost carriers to fly between countries, they say, and too few of the satellite airports that the airlines need to keep costs low. Moreover, in a region where most people still earn less than $7 a day, not enough people are well enough off to support a budget airline industry, they contend.

But many analysts contend that it was lack of competition that enabled big carriers like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong to chase higher margins by wooing first-class passengers. Low-cost carriers, they predict, will tap pent-up demand among less affluent Asians who typically travel by bus and hardly expect attentive service. AirAsia has already assumed a proletarian flavor - its slogan is "Now everyone can fly."

To keep costs down, AirAsia operates only one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737-300. It has no business class, no frequent-flier program and no in-flight meals, and it uses no air bridges into the terminals. Upon arrival, passengers descend stairs to the tarmac. It sells tickets directly over the Internet and even lets passengers book using their mobile phones. Flight attendants help clean the planes after landing, then board the next group of passengers. The result: In the year ended June 30, AirAsia earned 30 million ringgit ($7.9 million) on sales of 324 million ringgit ($85.5 million).

I will be flying India's first low-cost carrier, Air Deccan sometime next week. Though it doesnt offer fares anywhere as cheap as Ryan or Air Asia ($40-$70 is the range), it will be still be an interesting experience, methinks.

Tiny Island for sale. Buy now! 

When economists and statisticians are jobless, they really get profoundly useful. A bunch of them wasted someone's hard-earned money and figured out that the United Kingdom was worth a lot of money -- $8.8 trillion to be precise. And I thought even the British empire at its peak wasn't worth that kind of money.

The United Kingdom — that is, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland — is officially valued at $8.8 trillion, a sum that includes all of its property and buildings, machinery, roads, bridges, planes, trains and automobiles. It also includes all the money deposited in its banks and other financial institutions. Plus everything on the shelves at Harrods.

According to their numbers, if Britain's 58.8 million people decided to cash in on their country's estimated worth, they would each receive the comfortable sum of more than $150,000. (Although they then might be asked to bail out the government, which, the statisticians determined, has a negative net worth of $222 billion, after the national debt and other obligations have been deducted.)

More than half of the $8.8 trillion figure comes from the value of people's homes, a total that has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Commercial and public property accounted for about $1 trillion, and the country's roads, bridges, pipelines and other infrastructure were valued at $961 billion.

Why, you ask, does all this matter?

The agency said that devising a price tag for the United Kingdom would help economists develop economic models and use the data to make financial predictions. "It includes everything that is tangible," said John Hallmark, a spokesman for the Office for National Statistics. "Things in factories, airplanes, private cars, houses, etc. We do surveys and get the value."

*Cough, Cough* Since this is the U.K. though, all of this good news has to have some dark clouds hovering over.

The journalist Max Hastings, writing a two-page column in The Daily Mail on Wednesday, said he could picture Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown sitting "with their pocket calculators" trying to work out exactly how much of that £5 trillion they could tax and squander.

"A proper nation is not a place but an idea, compounded of an amalgam of past, present and future," Mr. Hastings wrote. "The secret of happiness for any society is to cherish its identity rather than seek to suppress it, or worse still reduce us to the mere cash value we all represent at the bank."

And more importantly.....

The $8.8 trillion price tag does not include data from 2003, which, with the departure of the soccer superstar David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, to Madrid — along with their vast net worth — could be expected to alter considerably any future calculations.

Clark spouts nonsense 

So, the political silly season has begun in right ernest and Wes Clark has joined in the outsourcing-bashing bandwagon, a real shift from his opinions not so long ago. This transcript I picked up off Wes Clark's blog and it's such priceless garbage mostly.

You know- the issue is globalism - H1-B visas are the visas that are given to these very smart, computer literate experts from the Indian Institute of Technology who come into the country. They often work at reduced wages to the native... to American citizens, and then they leave and they take back their skills, and they take back what they've learned here and start businesses at home.

H-1B visas are given to IIT-ians?? Hmm, that's rich. I suppose no non-Indian works in the U.S., General?

So here's what I will do. In the first place, I believe in 'Buy American'- not only hardware, but software. Everything that's associated with national security we will procure in the United States. (APPLAUSE) Our financial industry, our utility industries, virtually every aspect of American life is controlled in some way by information technology. And we simply can't afford to have that developed abroad in other countries, because you can't tell what's in it. It works but you don't know whether it's got these so called trap doors and other things that could sabotage it at some point. So the essential stuff is, buy American hardware and software. We need to relook the H1-B visa. I'm all in favor of bringing people into this country, but only at fully competitive wage rates. (APPLAUSE) Not bringing people in to take jobs from Americans. (APPLAUSE continuing) And when they come here, I'd like them to stay and become American citizens... I met a man in Manchester the other day from India, he's a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, he came here, started a software company, married an American woman, they're running a serires of Nursing Homes - I congratulate him. It's the American dream. It's a success story. And we're glad to have him. So we want 'em to come but we want them to stay and be with us and put that creativity to work here and keep it in our economy.

I promise you as president of the United States, we'll put America back to work and we will produce - we won't just service, we will produce- and we'll make the finest products in the world in everything from energy technology, to environmental technology, to new automobiles, to battery chips, generators, software, hardware, jet planes and whatever else there is, and we'll be proud to see on our products, Made in the USA.

Great rhetoric. What about cost, General? Sure, you'll have everything made in the U.S., but how will you respond when costs start to climb and Wal-Mart isn't that cheap anymore? Price-controls perhaps? And how are you going to convince big financial corporations to develop software at higher cost? And maybe someone should tell him that the 6-year cap on the H1-B visa was imposed not by the Indian govt, but the U.S. govt?

Regular readers of this blog know I am a big fan of Wes Clark, but that doesn't mean I have to put up with his nonsense as well. I can only hope that this is nothing but the political claptrap he thinks will win him the nomination and the presidency. For a guy who has taught Economics, he should know better.

Rise, Sir Tim! 

Assuming one does give a damn about KBE's (hello Mr. Richards), I can't think of a person more richly deserving of the honour, or any other honour for that matter, than Tim Berners-Lee. Buckingham Palace announced that Sir Tim had made it to the Queen's New Year honours list.

For those who came in late....

Berners-Lee came up with the idea of what he called "global hypertext space" while working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory at CERN in 1989. Until then, hypertext was used to mark up documents but contained no notion of linking to documents on other computers. Berners-Lee's innovation was to develop a Universal Document Identifier (UDI), later to become known as a Universal Resource Locator (URL). URLs are now commonly referred to as Web addresses and appear in a browser's address bar.

The closest thing at the time to what was to become HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) was Apple's Hypercard program--what former Apple CEO John Sculley recently said was one of Apple's biggest missed opportunities.

While Apple fumbled, over at CERN, Berners-Lee wrote a program called WorlDwidEweb, a point-and-click hypertext editor that ran on the NeXT machine--which, ironically, was developed by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Interestingly, Berners-Lee got news of his becoming a knight commander of the british empire on the phone, not via e-mail :)