The End Of Confidence

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The Covid-19 crisis is approaching its economic peak. Most Western economies are largely closed. Stock markets have been in freefall for several weeks, and despite recent rallies may yet test deeper lows. Companies are in shell-shocked reaction mode, scrambling to protect what remains by cutting commitments across the board. Yet that instinctive reaction – to conserve by reducing risk and locking away cash – might well be the worst possible thing they could do …

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The Melting Of The Markets

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In the world of financial markets and global economies the really big things rarely change rapidly. The last few weeks have proved to be an exception to the rule. In the space of days large economies have all but closed down, and financial markets have bounced up, down and side-to-side like a pinball. When change is this rapid there is a natural tendency to think that a return to the status quo ante will be just as rapid. That may prove a rash assumption …

 

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Those Dirty Electric Cars

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Last month the UK government sprang a surprise by announcing a ban on the sale of all internal combustion engine cars and vans from 2035 – five years earlier than previously planned. No petrol, no diesels, and (depending on consultations) most likely no hybrids either. It sounds like a progressive, even daring, pro-environment policy. There is just one flaw: electric vehicles alone will do little to meet carbon emissions targets and restrain global warming. In a worst-case scenario, they could even increase emissions …

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The Chatbot’s Tale

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I’ve spent much of the last year in my day job investigating the applicability of artificial intelligence. The question I’m always being asked is, ‘but does it work? The answer is…‘sort of’. It really depends on who you are …

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The End Of The Gig Economy?

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The ‘gig economy’ may be a horrible phrase but it manages to capture a lot of what is good and bad about the way the economy works now. Whether the world of ‘portfolio’ careers, ‘contingent’ employment and mobile working is a blissful liberation from the toils of nine-to-five or a trap designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer is certainly a question many like to ask, but it may be yesterday’s question. The gig economy might not be where we are headed after all.

Read more on CapX here.

Who Owns The Sky?

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Who owns the sky?

It’s not such a crazy question. For the last hundred years or so – as long as aircraft have been an important part of economies – governments have claimed ownership of the airspace above our heads. Individuals or corporations may own land and use it as they see fit, but the sky belongs to the state. You may travel the airways but you do so at the government’s pleasure, on terms the government decides, and at a price the government sets.

That has been the way of things ever since aviation began. But it may not be the way of the future. Coming changes in demand and new technologies that already exist are picking away at the old order.

Read more here.

First Catch Your Lobster

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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 …

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Building The Artificial Future

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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

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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.

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

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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

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“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

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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 …

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Eat A Crazy Salad In Kathmandu!

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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 …

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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?

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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.

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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