April 04, 2007

French train sets land speed record: now they can run away faster than ever.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 12:13
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December 06, 2006

While tragic for his family, the death of Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has a few silver linings. Firstly it's nice to see good old fashioned spycraft making a comeback. Is it a co-incidence this happened just as the "new" James Bond movie came out, taking 007 back to his first mission? In an age when it's all about the gadgets and satellites, it's good to see the cloak and dagger age hasn't been completely eclipsed. Secondly, Mr Litvinenko's death has finally proved that Peter Parker could not possibly be Spider Man, because radioactive spiders kill just the same as polonium. This confirms earlier research on radioactive spiders. Unless, of course, it was actually kryptonite, not polonium, the Russians sprinkled on his sushi...

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:30
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September 14, 2006
President Al Gore

In today's Standard, Professor Michael DeGolyer is inspired by Al Gore's visit to the Big Lychee into a flight of fantasy:

George W Bush described his war as the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, the calling of our generation. Prospects for peace during the remaining 94 years of this century appear bleak.
That's an incredibly bold assertion. Prospects for a peaceful century were looking pretty high in 1900, and look what happened in that century. Who's to say a century that begins in way need end that way too?
I can't help wondering how different things might be if the Supreme Court had decided since more voters nationally preferred Gore over Bush, the essentially tied, hopelessly confused vote in Florida would be set aside for the clearly expressed will of the majority of Americans. But democracy in the sense of the will of the majority was trumped by something a majority of five justices considered more important than the votes of the majority of voters...If Americans could have directly elected their president by majority vote of all citizens in 2000, things would be different today.

But we may see such a democratic direct election of our chief executive before they will.

America has one of the longest running and most robust democracies in the world. The very same system that the Professor implies "robbed" Al Gore of victory is the same one that's been in place for more than 200 years. The rules are well established and strike a balance between majority rule and preserving states rights. They prevent the smaller states being completely railroaded by a few big, populous states. It may not be perfect, but no system is. It is works and everyone accepts it. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter and it decided in George W's favour after Gore and Bush both hired the best lawyers in the land to argue the toss. While what happened in Florida was a debacle, the aftermath was in fact beautiful to watch - the system working. By way of comparison, take a look at Mexico at the moment. Furthermore, if majority of votes decided elections in the US, then Bill Clinton wouldn't have won the first time round thanks to Ross Perot. Can't have it both ways, Professor.

But wait, there's more:

How might a Gore administration have reacted to September 11? Repeatedly, Bush has spurned principles and policies previous presidents followed only again and again to be forced back to adopting them. Bush denounced the United Nations and spurned the very notion of nation- building. The principle of mutual security, invented by President Woodrow Wilson after one world war and embodied in the UN by President Franklin Roosevelt after a second, was the mainstay of American foreign policy until Bush declared a unilateral right to declare pre-emptive war.

Nation-building - helping poor developing countries to strengthen their governmental and economic institutions and infrastructures and which is one of the UN's key functions - Bush ridiculed as not his thing. He ended up pleading for UN help when his Iraq war ground down US armed forces. He has spent more by far on nation-building than any previous president.

Gore would not have spurned the Kyoto Accords. Only recently has the Bush administration even acknowledged global warming as fact. They still dispute humans are causing it.

Journalist James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine argues that the real strategic threat from al-Qaeda is its ability to provoke us toward actions that hurt us in the long run, such as Iraq.

Gore, who witnessed the Vietnam War as a journalist and knew the lessons of a century of American foreign policy, would never have plunged the world into an open-ended war. He would never have unilaterally invaded Iraq.

Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq has been a mess and incomptent. But how can the Professor speculate what a President Gore would have done in similar circumstances? Has he got a crystal ball (and if so can I borrow it for tonight's Mark 6 draw)? How is Iraqn an open-ended war? All the talk, especially from the left, is about withdrawal from Iraq. Even Bush has a timetable to get out. That doesn't sound very open-ended. As for "unilateral invasion", the good Professor should really do some research: "The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, Italy and Poland supplied the vast majority of the invading forces, in co-operation with Kurdish forces. Many others supplied smaller troop contributions. Other nations also participated in part of a coalition force to help with the operation by providing equipment, services and security as well as Special Forces." Not very unilateral at all, then.

Sorry Professor, but this one gets a fail.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 08:48
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September 01, 2006
Headline of the week

Unfortunately no link, but from a brief newslet in The Standard:

A Shanghai court has rejected a woman's claims for compensation for her sex life, which was ruined when her husband hit his genitals on the corner of some audio equipment at a shopping center [ouch - Ed.]. Wei Suying, 31, whose husband has suffered from erectile dysfunction since the 2003 workplace accident, filed suit in a court asked for 220,000 yuan.
The headline? Woman loses sex appeal

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 08:19
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June 17, 2006
Talking my language

A recent conversation with an American over the vexed topic of immigration:

Yank: "The problem with the Mexicans is they don't integrate. They don't learn the language or the culture and just keep to themselves and then wonder why people resent them."

Me: "How long have you lived in Hong Kong?"

Yank: "Four years. Why?"

Me: "How much Cantonese can you speak?"

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 21:53
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May 25, 2006
Compromised world leader of the day

The story of a drunken teenager, a tennis coach, Chinese intelligence and a man with his finger on the button.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:03
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May 02, 2006
And the Oscar goes to

If you only see one movie this year, you need to get out more. So to help you, here's Harry Hutton's take on Chicago...but not the musical. Look out for the sock.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 19:02
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April 21, 2006
Equal sex

Sometimes you can learn stuff from the People's Daily. They note a recent sex survey that contains some interesting findings:

Middle-aged and older people in Western countries were the first to take the contraceptive pill, challenge the institution of marriage and campaign for women's rights, and now they are continuing to reap the benefits of the sexual revolution.

A global study has found that people living in countries with high levels of gender equality enjoy the best sex, with the over-40s saying they are most satisfied. Middle-aged and older people who live in Western countries and who enjoy more equality between men and women are most likely to report being satisfied with their sex lives, according to the study....

Nations categorized as having more "gender-equal" relationships are more likely to report having fulfilling sex lives in their later years. People in long-term relationships reported having the best sex but across all countries men are more likely to say they have a good sex life than their partners, who are consistently a little less pleased...

"If you're dating from the age of 40-plus you have relatively better satisfaction than those who are married. People who are divorced or widowed are more likely to be physically active and capable of full sex lives."

The study was sponsored by Pfizer, makers of Viagra.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:37
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November 23, 2005
Dividing digitals

Peter Gordon in The Standard lauds the new US$100 laptop as the latest tool to close the "digital divide". It is an interesting development, especially if it ends up doing most of what a US$1000 laptop can do. But they will do more good on the shelves of Wal Mart than in poor villages.

There are few phrases more meaningless than "digital divide". It is meant to represent the gap between the technological haves and have-nots, under the theory that those with the technology will get richer while those without will be left behind and get poorer. It has been deemed vital, by the patronising elites that be, to close that gap to help the poor help themselves.

Let's start with an experiment. You are going to be sent to run an isolated farm for 6 months, on your own, and you can take one piece of technology with you. What would you choose? You might well say a piece of farming equipment (if you could carry it). You more likely would say I can't live without my iPod. Most likely you would say I need my mobile phone to keep in touch with the outside world. More importantly, if you ask a poor farmer which they prefer, my money's on the mobile phone.

Mobile phones are immensely useful technological tools, and especially for the poor. Typically poor countries have limited infrastructure and communications networks. Roads don't work. Fixed phone connections can take months, cost a fortune and still not work. The post can take ages and still not get through. Mobile phones circumvent all of these problems. Farmers can check on weather forecasts, demand for their crops and market prices. Often villages share mobiles, with airtime being rented out, making useage even cheaper. Pre-paid phone plans eliminate the need for credit checks or bank accounts to get set up. And it is user-friendly technology. A study found a rise of 10 mobiles per 100 people boosts a developing country's GDP by 0.6% (via The Economist (sub req'd)).

Mr Gordon writes:

The US$100 laptop might be just as disruptive to the status quo in the technology world as it promises to be in poor and illiberal societies and for much the same reason: it will challenge accepted truths.
Replace US$100 laptop with US$30 mobile phone, and he's got it right. And such phones are on the way. The Economist article linked above notes Motorola has been contracted to supply 6 million handsets at less than US$40 each, and there are a new set of chips that could allow sub US$20 phones.

Ironically only a few pages away in The Standard is an article by Johan Norberg on globalisation which uses mobile phones as an example of its massive benefits.

In countries where people are surviving, barely, on a dollar a day, it is a complete no-brainer that mobile phones are the way to go. A third of the cost of the cheapest laptop, they are more immediately beneficial to users. A laptop might help school kids learn better, but they will probably do even better again if their parents are doing well enough they can send the kids to school, the teachers are well fed and well paid, the school house has a roof and materials for teaching and so on. That US$100 could be far better spent than on a laptop.

But aren't cheap mobile phones also about closing the "digital divide"? Perhaps. We could also talk about the "nutrition divide", the "environmental divide", the "sport divide" and numerous other meaningless divides. Who cares? The reality of the world is there are haves and have-nots, rich and poor. If you want an example of a place largely without such divides, North Korea awaits. The common fallacy is to confuse absolute and relative wealth. Just because I'm not as rich as Bill Gates does not mean that I am not well off. If our general standard of living is rising, albeit unevenly spread across the population, that is a better outcome than worrying about relative standards of living across that population. I'm all for the rich getting richer if it means the poor get richer as well.

Cheap mobiles are dynamic tools that could rapidly advance the well being of many. There is a demand and so there will be a supply. Mobile phone makers are faced with saturated and mature developed markets. The emerging and developing world presents masses of potential, with smaller profit margins but far greater volume.

Mobiles have ancilliary benefits too - often poor countries are those that are mismanged and repressive. The communication networks that mobiles form also allow for the rapid flow of information. As even China is discovering, controlling the internet is possible but controlling far more numerous mobiles and text messages is a monumental challenge. Once people can talk and talk widely, controlling what they say becomes impossible.

Let's close the mobile/globalisation divide. We will all be better off.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:18
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November 09, 2005
Globalisation and war

In a sea of blogs, finding good ones is a challenge. Amongst the diamonds in the rough is Zen Pundit by Mark Safranski. If you ever need brain food, Mark's the goto guy. He has organised a roundtable on the topic of Globalisation and War, and has asked myself and some esteemed company from academia, think tanks and beyond for their thoughts on the issue.

The first three posts on the topic are up, with additional posts to come from Austin Bay, Dr. Sam Crane, Adventures of Chester, Paul D. Kretkowski and Professor RJ Rummel. It should prove good reading in the days ahead, and I'll update this entry as new posts are made. I've taken the liberty of reposting my contribution below the jump. Yes, I'm incredibly flattered to be included in such august company. I'll let you judge if my piece holds up against the others.

Day 1: Myself, Bruce Kesler and Doug Macdonald
Day 2: Austin Bay, Sam Crane, Josh Manchester.

Any thoughts or comments most welcome.

The upcoming WTO conference in Hong Kong has everyone on edge. Hong Kong’s security forces are preparing for the inevitable anti-trade protests. The governments’ participating are inching towards an agreement, but it is by no means certain. Hong Kong’s government frets it will play host to a giant farce, with nothing agreed and everyone’s time wasted. Yet the WTO represents one of the greatest economic achievements of the modern era: trade liberalization. And Hong Kong embodies the free trade spirit better than almost any place on Earth.

Can an economically integrated and trading world go to war? It certainly managed to in 1914. China’s ongoing stirring of nationalism, especially against the Japanese and Taiwan, serves a political purpose that is at odds with the economic benefits trade and investment between these places. On the other hand, China has become in the naughties what Japan was in the eighties to America – the trade and economic bogey-man. There are plenty on both sides of that fence that can envisage war between two of the world’s biggest trading partners. It might not be good for Wal-Mart but a confrontation over Taiwan is a possibility.

And yet globalization could well act as a mitigating circumstance. Will China’s rulers, for all their bluster, squander the value of their massive holdings of US government debt, the massive benefits that export-led growth has brought to China’s economy? Certainly one consequence of globalization is it has made war more costly. Not just first order costs, but broader economic costs as well. Upping the costs and reducing the benfits of going to war makes globalization a force for moderation and peace.

But wait, there’s more. The flipside of this is the globalization of war and especially the global market for military weapons and technology. Pakistan made a business of exporting nuclear technology. It is widely thought China has exported military technology to unsavory regimes, and North Korea is famous for its missile exports. So in that regard globalization has become a force for war.

There’s more again. China’s opening up to the world through globalization has seen it create a vigorous appetite for commodities and energy. With its leadership primarily focused on economic growth at almost any cost, combined with a “flexible” ideology and foreign policy, has meant China has formed alliances and invested in far flung corners of the world that are inherently unstable or alien to liberal democracies. There are examples from the Middle East, Central Europe and Africa that all fit into this category. Whereas it could be argued that America’s foreign policy is not solely or even primarily driven by economic concerns, China’s is and that leads to allies you wouldn’t want to take home to your Mum. Chalk it up as another minus for globalization.

But I’m not here to finish on a pessimistic note. I am a firm believer in free trade and globalization for both its economic benefits, especially to the poor, and as a driver of a more peaceful and safer world. The globalization of culture is often characterized as the “Disneyfication” (or McDonaldisation, or Hollywodisation, whichever American cultural icon you choose) of the world and is derided as a “bad thing”. But these companies and groups provide products that are popular with consumers the world over. No-one is forced to visit Disneyland, or eat a Big Mac, or watch a movie. But people want to. Moreover America remains the favoured destination for immigrants and would-be immigrants the world over, including in China. The American dream is a global one. This success sometimes drives envy, but America’s prosperity is widely admired. The foundations of that success? Liberal capitalist democracy. If globalization can bring images and ideas of liberal capitalist democracy to those who live without it, it can only serve to drive people to aspire to such a society. America’s model is not the only one. But it is the biggest and most successful (and note that I’m an Australian). As people grow richer in countries like China, they will start demanding more secure property rights, rule of law, less tolerance of corruption, more say in how they are governed. Globalization makes countries richer while at the same time constantly exposing populations to the most successful economic and political model the world has devised.

As globalization brings economic growth, it will bring political growth. Countries that are economically successful and growing do not, as a rule, go to war. In a world where there are numerous flashpoints and delicate balances to be maintained, globalization is a key force pushing towards peace. It is that complicated. And that simple.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 15:51
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