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 …
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.’
Africa 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.
SO there I was one rainy Sunday doing some admin tasks when my phone rang. The man on the line wanted to know if I would be interested in riding a motorbike through Death Valley in the company of a couple of the people who ran the Italian Ducati motorcycle company. I conceded that I would be interested. “Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow?” he added, as a kind of afterthought. I thought no, but I said yes … yes, I might be able to do that.
THE NAMES roll off the map like scene settings in some classic western: Furnace Creek, and Desolation Canyon; Badwater, Wildrose, and Stove Pipe Wells; Zabriskie Point, and the Funeral Mountains. This is Death Valley: the hottest, highest, lowest, fiercest place in the contiguous United States, the great natural barrier that separates the body of the American southwest from the Pacific Ocean, a national park the size of Connecticut where daytime temperatures can climb above 130 degrees. A century and a half ago when pioneering European emigrants took a wrong turn and stumbled into Death Valley on their way to the California gold fields, they were lucky anyone survived to tell the story. Today you can drive across the national park in the air-conditioned space of an afternoon – if you want. But that’s no way to tour Death Valley. To experience the dimensions and the desolation and awesome grandeur of the Valley – to travel fast and yet to experience the scene physically – for that you need a motorcycle.