Eat A Crazy Salad In Kathmandu!

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You drop down through pewter clouds, down into a valley of green and brown with rivers like veins of mercury. Kathmandu! Even the name is powerfully magnetic, drawing in dreamers and crooks from every corner of the earth. Up until the 1950s the Kingdom of Nepal remained closed, a Himalayan mystery; today fifty dollars cash will buy anyone a visa at the airport, and you are off, down into the city that is a prodigy of every kind of pollution and intrigue and incense-wreathed enchantment.

First published on CapX: read more here

Drone Drama Comes Of Age

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Now the terrorists are on the screen in front of you, live, just as it happens. Their bombs are primed and ready for use, today. Their automatic weapons are loaded. Yet all the while above the jihadi house a Reaper drone circles at 20,000 feet, its missiles locked on to the very room where the suicide attack is being assembled. Out in the street civilians pass. Just feet from the bomb factory a young girl sells bread from a stall. Do you fire the missile?

First published on CapX: read more here

A Picture Of Cape Verde

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In the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa there is an institution called the aluguer. Perhaps ‘institution’ is too weak a word. The aluguer – from the Portuguese verb ‘to rent’ – may at first sight seem nothing more than a shared taxi in the form of a Toyota van or a flatbed pickup truck. In reality the aluguer is the backbone of society and economy: not just a bus but also an informal courier and messaging service, a small-scale cash-banking network, an ambulance, a limousine, and a theatre on wheels. Take an aluguer through the cobbled streets of Mindelo or the mountain roads of Santo Antao and you will see more than the view.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Descent Of Egypt

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In January this year an Italian graduate student from Cambridge University disappeared in Cairo. Giulio Regeni had been researching independent trade unions in Egypt; on the evening of January 25 he was on his way to meet an academic colleague from the British University in Cairo. According to the Associated Press news agency Regeni got as far as a security check in a metro station close to his apartment. Then he disappeared.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Propaganda Game: Inside North Korea’s Dreamworld

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The Propaganda Game is a documentary film made inside North Korea that attempts to take that mysterious country’s version of reality at face value. Set mostly in the capital Pyongyang it shows North Koreans eating ice cream in the street, skateboarding in the park, and generally larking about during what seems to be a perpetual sunny Sunday afternoon. And strangely enough this approach ends up telling us more than any number of hard-edged news reports. Invited to tell their own story on their own terms the North Koreans reveal more than they intended.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Oscars: A Gambler’s Guide

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Heads up: the Oscars ceremony is on the last Sunday in February. By the end of the evening you can expect some serious surprises and some cruelly overlooked losers, accompanied by public emotions that will certainly be profuse and may even be real. By far the biggest deal of the night is the award for ‘Best Picture’. This is the only award that all the 6,000 or so Academy members can vote on, and it is also the award that has the biggest impact on current box office and future productions. Here’s the CapX guide to who might win Best Picture and why.

First published on CapX: read more here

City, Vanishing

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According to an account by Leonard Rauwolff, a German doctor and botanist who visited Aleppo around 1575, the following story was told (by a palace gardener) of Suleiman The Magnificent, the Ottoman emperor. Suleiman was being solicited by his advisors in Aleppo to drive the Jews from the empire. The emperor heard them out. And then ‘he bade them look upon a flower-pot, that held a quantity of fine flowers of divers colours, that was then in the room, and bid them consider whether each of them in their colour, did not set out the other the better and that if any of them should decay, or be taken away, whether it would not somewhat spoil the beauty of the rest.’

First published on CapX: read more here

Spotlight Deserves Several Oscars

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So far it is shaping up to be a big year for Oscar-nominated ‘true life’ stories in the cinema. This weekend following hard behind The Big Short comes Spotlight, a film about two great American institutions – the big city newspaper and the Catholic church. Spotlight is the name of the investigative desk at The Boston Globe, and the story is the almost incredible one of the highly organized involvement of the church hierarchy in concealing, even facilitating, the sexual abuse of hundreds of children over many years, and the work of the Globe’s team in uncovering the story. Almost incredible, except that it is now known to be true.

First published on CapX: read more here

Chinese Money On Sunset Boulevard

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Wang Jianlin is China’s richest man. With a personal fortune of over $30 billion, he owns businesses that range from department stores to commercial property, from e-commerce to media to tourism. But that is not enough for Wang Jianlin: in the past he has made no secret of the fact he also wants to be a Hollywood film mogul. And this year his dream has been fulfilled.

First published on CapX: read more here

Review: The Big Short

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Successful investors are lucky. With the kind of timing that most PR people can only ever dream of, Paramount Pictures has chosen a week when stock markets around the world have been in freefall for the UK release of The Big Short, which is a film about the last time that stock markets around the world were in freefall. Film-making itself is a form of high risk financial gambling, and to get that kind of result from your bet you need luck in abnormal quantities. The schedulers at Paramount have been so lucky that if you made a film about it, no one would believe your story.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Franchise Awakens

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The astonishing global success of Star Wars is a partly inexplicable phenomenon. Why is this sometimes entertaining but always derivative space opera the most valuable piece of intellectual property the world has ever seen? That mystery is now part of its success. Decade in and decade out audiences queue and queue again, as if to repeat the question. Too often they come away miserably traduced by yet another cynical marketing manoeuvre – and of course the mystery of Star Wars only deepens. Now with The Force Awakens we have the latest instalment of the ‘franchise’. Fans and anti-fans the world over are in their different ways braced for disaster. Just how bad can it get?

First published on CapX: read more here

The True Cost Of Surveillance

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The Conservative government recently published proposals for new legislation to regulate spying in the UK. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill seeks to do many things, particularly gathering up powers already contained in a lot of different existing laws and subjecting them all to a coherent oversight procedure. Most of the discussion generated by these proposals has been about the implications for liberty. But there is another and related dimension that should be considered, and that is the potential for the Bill to harm the economy.

First published on CapX: read more here

We Are The New Georgians

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Sometimes it seems as if Britain is surrounded by existential threat. Armed extremism, financial  upheaval, cultural confusion – all can feel like they could break a brittle, uncertain society. But these are only the headline concerns of the day. Deep beneath the headlines there is another country where real change happens, sometimes slowly, and sometimes not. At this level Britain really is in a state of transformation. It is nothing to do with terrorism, or politics, or religion. It is a lot to do with new machines, new materials, new algorithms, and new patterns of behaviour. These are things that are changing the shape of minds as well as environment, and what is really striking is just how relaxed Britain is about it. To find a historical parallel for this era of peaceful redrafting of the fundamentals one has to go back at least two and a half centuries. It is Georgian Britain that offers the best guide to what is happening today, and some clues to what might happen next.

First published on CapX: read more here

The Mystery Of Haile Selassie

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In late January 1941 a party of soldiers and civilians crossed the border from Sudan into Italian-occupied Ethiopia. The men in uniform included British political advisors, some peculiar soldiers of fortune, and the shambling, eccentric and driven figure of Major Orde Wingate. There were priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in their robes, and a group of aloof Ethiopians who looked very far from home as they assembled for a ceremony in the dried-up riverbed. Among them there was a very small, black-bearded man of bearing, a man who the British had been referring to as ‘Mr Smith.’ This was Haile Selassie the First, The King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia. A few months earlier he had been living in straitened circumstances in a cold villa just outside Bath. Now, thanks to the machinations of war, he was on his way to Addis Ababa to reclaim the throne of the 225th monarch in the House of David, in one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

First published on CapX: read more here

The World’s Most Pointless War

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Africa has had a good press this last few years. It deserves it. In most countries life is getting better, and people have more power to work, to spend, to choose. But not everywhere. And particularly not in one country that few know, that fewer have visited, and that today is on fire.

First published on CapX: read more here

Junk Bond

james-bond-1400x788You approach a new James Bond film with finely blended expectations of excitement and concern and dread. Excitement at the prospect of the second most expensive action film ever produced, concern at the health of a venerated British institution, and dread at the prospect of yet another prime turkey in the turkey-infested realm of the Bond franchise. So before we go any further let us address the turkey in the room: Spectre, the twenty-fourth film in the sequence, is a turkey. It is not an enormous great clucking monster turkey. It is just an ordinary medium turkey, the kind of turkey a middle-aged couple might order for a quiet Christmas at home without the children. How it managed to cost $300 million is anyone’s guess, but at that price it is certainly the most disappointing dinner for two in history.

First published on CapX: read more here

Here It Comes: The Next Meltdown

emerging-markets-crash-1400x788The average cycle time between financial crashes is ten years. A decade is about as long as it takes for bad debts to be purged, for financial risk-taking to swing from appetite to aversion and back to appetite again. In other words, the world is about due for some trouble. The only question – usually – is where the epicentre will be. But that’s easy: it will be in the emerging economies.

First published on CapX: read more here.

 

Russia’s World of Digital Control

red-web-1400x788In the English language the words ‘spy’ and ‘Russia’ are fellow travellers. The Russian state is secretive by nature and the methods of the secret state are the methods of the spy services: surveillance, interception, and information control. All of these techniques are part of the political management system of Putin’s Russia, and they have all been greatly enhanced in the last fifteen years. Thanks to two outstanding Russian journalists, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, we now know much more about how Russia uses and co-opts the worlds of digital communication and information flow to monitor its citizens at home, and shape their world view. On a recent visit to London, Borogan and Soldatov joined CapX for a conversation about their recent book The Red Web on Russia’s domestic programme of surveillance and censorship.

First published on CapX: read more here.