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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

White Is The New Amber

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Edmund de Waal, a celebrated potter and ceramicist who had one of the literary hits of 2010 with his biographical memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes has now written a study of the remarkable history and nature of porcelain. De Waal has devoted much of his working life to porcelain, and this is not a mere history of the white ceramic that helped shape the wealth of nations from its discovery in China more than two thousand years ago. It is an attempt to capture the inner nature of porcelain, its power to mesmerise and to bankrupt its addicts.

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Is Capitalism a Good Thing?

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Capitalism: Money, Morals & Markets by John Plender

John Plender, a journalist on the Financial Times, has written a book about capitalism and whether it is a good thing – and that is taking ‘good’ in its broadest sense, to include ‘moral’ as well as ‘useful’. Now, there are those who would object that a journalist on the famously pink  paper is the last person who would know anything about capitalism. But let’s not cavil and trade insults like economists: Plender’s book, Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets is a good thing, on balance, all things considered. And that is pretty much Plender’s verdict on capitalism.

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India Needs a Total Reset

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Earlier this year, India’s finance minister used the occasion of his budget to declare a truce. There would be no more multi-billion tax raids on big foreign companies in India. Investors could rest easy: the days of ‘tax terrorism’ were over. One month later, the London-listed Cairn Energy opened a brown envelope to find that the Indian authorities were demanding $3.2 billion in extra tax. Cairn had just joined countless other investors who have learned that India’s economy is schizophrenic. It will extend one hand as a friend, and the other as an enemy. If India is to get anywhere near its massive potential, it needs treatment.

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How to Crack the Knowledge Code

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Why is Switzerland so rich? Why is Portugal so poor? And what exactly is the recipe for going from poor to rich? These are the sorts of questions that development economists and policy folk from a thousand think-tanks spend their days and nights puzzling over. But according to a group of economists and data-crunchers at Harvard’s Center for International Development, the answers may not be as elusive as some fear.

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Calcutta: The City of Questions

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People say a lot of things about Calcutta, but one thing they never say is that Calcutta is a pleasant place. Intense, chaotic, corrupt, and confusing, yes. Unremitting discomfort and infinite inconvenience, yes. Pleasant, no. Calcutta (or Kolkata if you insist on following the endless name-changes inflicted by the government of West Bengal) is never going to be your ideal destination for a quiet relaxing break. But it is unforgettable: addictive, insistent, and amazingly friendly (for a place that is so violent). Calcutta is India in highly concentrated form. Use with caution.

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The Spook In The Machine

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Book Review: Intercept by Gordon Corera

Keeping secrets, sending secrets, stealing secrets: it’s a very ancient trade. The business of intercepting and deciphering communications has been going on for as long as people have had brains enough to profit from knowing more than their enemies. And today, as this bleakly entertaining new book from Gordon Corera reminds us, the branch of intelligence known as signals intelligence is now conducted on an industrial scale. The dream of the East German Stasi – that everyone should be spied on, all of the time – is close to becoming a nightmarish and universal reality.

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Meet the Baboons Who Broke the Banks

Llloyds-1-1400x788Book Review: Black Horse Ride by Ivan Fallon

On the Sunday of the ninth of September 2007 a meeting was called in the Treasury. It was, as they say, fateful – although none of the participants realised it at the time. That afternoon the course of the UK economy and political life was altered for years to come. If things had been decided differently there might have been no collapse of Northern Rock, no bank bailout, the Labour government might have emerged from the financial crisis with its reputation enhanced instead of ruined, and Gordon Brown might still be Prime Minister.

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Egypt’s New Pharoah

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Last week a suicide bomber killed himself in a failed attack at the Temple of Karnak in the Egyptian city of Luxor. A day later the attack was claimed by a group claiming to be part of the Islamic State movement, the same group that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack the previous week in Egyptian-controlled North Sinai. In the same week there was a gun attack at the Pyramids of Giza to the south of Cairo.Is Egypt slipping back to the dark days of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s?

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The Corporate Death Wish

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If all goes according to plan, the next few weeks or months should see many if not most of us made measurably poorer. It’s nothing to do with taxes, crashes, or meltdowns. It’s nothing to do with politics. It’s something that will happen as a result of a well-established routine run by investment banks, financial advisors, and a host of big companies with very familiar names. It’s a kind of capitalist death wish, and something that hasn’t been seen for a while – but now it’s back.

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The Dictator’s Cut

Omar-al-bashir-1400x788 (1)Four years ago the popular uprisings which optimists called the Arab Spring swept through North Africa. One after another dictatorial governments collapsed while populations danced in the public squares. But there was one striking regional exception. In Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan which was and is ruled by a sour-faced soldier  called Omar Al-Bashir, there was rather little sign of revolution. A couple of demonstrations quickly started but equally quickly they were put to an end by Sudan’s uninhibited security services. As Field Marshal Al-Bashir himself grimly put it, ‘Anyone waiting for an Arab Spring in Sudan is going to be waiting a while.’

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Africa Wants To Go School

Africa-schools-2-1400x788Africa is the fastest-growing continental economy in the world today, thanks in large part to the fact that its population is so young. But one consequence of having a lot of young people is that Africa faces a massive practical problem, the problem of how to educate its millions of poor young people in the knowledge and skills that can make them prosperous. As it happens, a very large number of poor Africans have already found a solution to that problem. But some of the best known aid agencies and international organizations don’t like this solution at all, and indeed some are campaigning hard to put a stop to it.

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The Mystery Of Marco Polo

Book Review: The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin, published by the University of Chicago Press

From The Spectator

AS a boy I spent quite a lot of my free time trying to fake up ancient-looking documents. This hopeless enterprise involved things like staining paper with tea or vinegar, together with plenty of burning, and creasing, and copying of random texts with a scratchy old inkwell pen. Typical silly small boy stuff. Reading this book on a collection of maps supposedly derived from Marco Polo suddenly brought it all back – especially the silliness.   

by Richard Walker

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Venice! But Not Now

Venice01IT’S SUMMER, and the northern Italian skies have turned that perfect baby blue. Yes, this is the very worst time of the year to go to Venice. It’s hot, it’s teeming with tourists, it’s fantastically expensive, and the manners of the Venetians are even worse than the rest of the year. But this is exactly the time to plan to go to Venice, when there is still time to book your rooms and do cost-effective battle with the monster that is Ryanair, all ready for your trip at the only time of year when Venice reverts to its true and untrustworthy self, which is November.

by Richard Walker

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