First Catch Your Lobster

IMG_0466

It is May. The North Sea temperature has just crept over 10 degrees centigrade. The sand on the beach is almost warm. In short the lobster season is here. Time for me to push that boat out and catch some of these ineffably strange and ancient crustaceans (they’ve been around for 360 million years), these creatures of mysterious and fugitive habit (the lobster may have  limitations in the brains department but will never be domesticated – she’s a wild one). Although when I say ‘catch’ I am being optimistic. Your life as a lobster hunter is likely to be marked by expense, frustration, disappointment and blind chance. They are in their element, you are not. At some point – assuming you have not drowned – you will certainly think of giving up the trade.

But no, you won’t give up. The magic is too powerful. And because one day, perhaps today, you will haul up that lobster pot and there it will be, that speckled flash of deep blue-black rising from the sea …

Continue reading

Building The Artificial Future

pingpong-1400x788

Artificial intelligence was the business story of 2018. But here is why I think 2019 is the year the story will unravel. Companies will start to question the cost and effectiveness of their expensive AI programmes. Financial analysts will stop awarding investment ratings based on ‘digital strategy’, and go back to looking at good old-fashioned cash flow.  Journalists will start to lose interest in the machine-driven future. The AI bubble is about to burst.

First published on CapX: read more here

Seeing A Photograph

Strand

The only reason I was at Clarke & Simpson’s country auction in Suffolk was to buy a desk for my office. The Art Deco and Design auction in Campsea Ash is a good place to find handsome furniture that is not Victorian and not brown, and last Monday there was just such a desk in the auction catalogue. True, I also had an eye for one or two other lots that looked like they might go cheap, like the cast iron Christmas tree stand and perhaps the green enamel angle-poise lamp – open an auction catalogue and you are already sliding down a slippery slope with an invoice at the bottom. But the desk was top of my list. I certainly had no intention of buying a print by one of the acknowledged masters of twentieth century American photography.

Continue reading

South Sudan: a lesson to the world in how not to build a nation

SouthSudan-1400x788

There is no standard definition of what makes a country viable as a country. What are the materials, the history, the culture, the institutions that allow a territory to grow into a something more than just a geography of resources? What are the building blocks of an accountable and democratic state?

Whatever these ingredients are, we know what happens when they are not present. And nowhere is this lesson clearer than in the case of South Sudan.

Only five years ago, South Sudan was the newest and most optimistic member of the community of nations, a state-building project backed by the goodwill and expertise and cash of well-intentioned supporters around the world.

Today, the country has imploded into a fireball of violence and suffering, an off-the-radar disaster comparable in its scale to Syria (the number of refugees recently passed the one million mark). In other words, the outcome of the project has been as disastrous as its ambition was great. But why?

First published on CapX: read more here

All The Kremlin’s Men: decoding Putin’s game

all-the-Kremlins-men-1400x788

“Russia is Putin. Russia exists only if there is Putin. There is no Russia without Putin.” These are the words of the Kremlin’s current policy-wizard-in-chief, Vyacheslav Volodin. Many people in Russia happily believe this kind of clap-trap, and even the many who don’t are quite content to live with it. How did it get to this? How did the obscure middle-ranking state functionary of 25 years ago end up as one of the two or three most powerful people in the world?

First published on CapX: read more here

Political Profiles, By A Master Of The Art

cams-1400x788

The political profile is a paradoxical thing, and that is part of its fascination. Power is rarely introspective: at its height it is usually unable to reflect or describe itself, and even at rest the last person you would ask for insight into the politician is the politician. But there comes a phase in political careers when the essential battles are over, when there is no message to stay on, but all is still recent enough to be vivid in the mind and to inform some part of the present day political contest. This is the moment that the eminent historian of government Peter Hennessy chooses to conduct the profiles that are collected in his new book Reflections: Conversations With Politicians …

First published on CapX: read more here

Eat A Crazy Salad In Kathmandu!

Kathmandu-header-1400x788

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

drones-1400x788

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

cape-verde-1400x788

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

Giulio-Regeni-1400x788

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

North-Korea-propaganda-1400x788

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

oscars-1400x788

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

aleppo-1400x788

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

Chinese Money On Sunset Boulevard

Zhang-Ziyi-1400x788

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

big-short-cast-1400x788

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 True Cost Of Surveillance

surveillance-1400x788

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

industrial-revolution-1400x788

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

selassie-1400x788

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