One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Monday, October 31, 2005

It's a bad time to be a xenophobe

Today I read the news that Spain's Telefonica is about to swallow up the British mobile phone company O2 for the princely sum of around £18-billion. Fine, it's business, no problem about that, I say to myself, but then I stop and wonder...

I'm sure everyone remembers the "Buy British" campaigns that used to run all the time back in the 70s. We'd be encouraged to seek out our local shops that sold locally-produced goods, buy a British-made car or shop at Mark's & Spencer's (in the days before it sold its soul for a boxload of Chinese bras).

But that was all before the g-word. Globalisation. No more international barriers to trade, the free movement of capital and labour across borders; instead we have GATT and the World Trade Organisation.

What's a xenophobe to do? How many crusty old colonels in the Home Counties are inflating themselves, ready to deliver themselves of a stiff letter to the "Telegraph", complaining that it no longer is possible to buy British because there's no such thing as a British company any more?

As far as I can tell, pretty much everything we buy, borrow or lease is ultimately owned by someone who does not call this country their own. So if I choose to buy my electricity from Company X Ltd of the UK, I can do a little investigation and find that Company X Ltd of the UK is actually 51.6% owned by Société Anonyme Q GmbH of Frankfurt, with the holding account based at a brass plaque in downtown Lichtenstein.

The company I bought my mobile phone from is American. Most people own an American, Finnish, Japanese or French phone. I don't know of any that are made here. My car is clearly French, but a quick perusal of the carmaker's website reveals that it has about 542 agreements, joint ventures and projects going on with other carmakers; a veritable Gordian knot of cooperation. Much of my wardrobe comes from sweatshops somewhere east of here. My bank proudly asserts its local knowledge of all four corners of the earth.

All of which is beginning to persuade me that in the world of business, nationality is dead. The only reason for locating a business in any particular country is that, well, a company has to be based somewhere.

But once you move out of the realm of business, your nationality becomes very important indeed. For a start, coming from certain countries entitles you to fast-track service at airport passport desks. Or it entitles you to a punishing four-hour interrogation, complete with cavity search by a big-boned lady who was never given a teddy bear to play with as a child. Or it entitles you to walk, blissfully free of care, from one hot-spot to another, safe in the knowledge that your particular piece of the globe never gave cause for concern to the rest.

It's reassuring and oddly comforting to know that I can travel up to two thousand miles east from here and not be asked once for my documents, visa, fingerprints or work permit. And equally reassuring to know that every single company that I ever do business with as a customer at home is following me around, eager to relieve me of yet more of my hard-earned.

Money is a commodity that has no need of a passport. Nor will we soon.

Friday, October 21, 2005

An umbilical addiction

I spent part of this week attending a conference on financial markets, milling around with traders, brokers and analysts, all of whom had taken a couple of days out of their business week to network and listen to some presentations about the State of Things.
In between conversations over a cup of coffee, exchanging business cards and meeting clients or contacts, pretty much everyone there was pulling out a Blackberry from time to time for a furtive check of their email. One or two of the people I spoke to there even confessed to being addicted to their Blackberry. "It's the first thing I look at each morning", one broker told me.
I'm guessing that the day someone invents a pair of glasses which can access the internet and show your mail on the inside of the lenses, everyone's going to be wearing glasses and bumping into things as they scroll through their in-box.
What is the point of being in touch with your email 24 hours a day? When you're sitting at home having supper or watching television, do you really need to know that your expenses claim was approved or that you have to attend an in-house training session next week? And if a moderately important email arrives while you're in the shower, are you going to be able to do anything about it? Is there any point in adding yet more stress to our already-stressful lives?
If you're not at your desk, it's probably for a very good reason: you're at home, you're in a meeting, you're somewhere where you cannot handle incoming email. So why do you need to know about it before you get back to your desk?
Yes, I use email. And I also have a mobile phone. When I'm not at my desk and able to respond to an email, there's usually a pretty good reason. If someone needs to contact me, they know how to do it. I'd rather not spend my days staring at a small screen and getting anxious if I'm out of range.
When we are born, the doctor cuts the umbilical cord to separate us from our mother. I don't much fancy the idea of being permanently re-attached to my work.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

I Didn't Ask to be Born in the First World

Watching the images of destruction and despair from Pakistan and India this last week, I was struck by the blindingly obvious realisation that these natural disasters tend to happen only in less developed countries. India and Pakistan have suffered over 20 major earthquakes since 1850, parts of eastern Europe have been laid low by Mother Nature's anger, numerous islands have been covered in lava, and only recently a tsunami struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka and surrounding areas. There's a pattern here.... none of these nations are OECD members.

Maybe it's because these countries have the misfortune to be located near major fault lines in the earth's crust, that they are less developed economically and socially. Could that be? If you think about it, an economy would need stability and security in which to grow powerful. It would need a steady climate to make the transition into an agrarian economy and then the leap into industrialisation.

I realise there are exceptions to the rule: the Gulf Coast of the US is shaking off the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, California has been lucky enough to avoid a major quake for a number of years now, and Japan lives through typhoons and minor quakes on a regular basis. But Mother Nature has largely dictated that the countries of the northern hemisphere have the great good luck not to be at the mercy of the elements and so they have prospered, free from the periodic setbacks that a natural calamity provides.

All of which makes the phrase "accident of birth" seem bigger and more ... global. I've not experienced any of nature's wrath (the odd storm at sea excepted) in the life-altering, huge sense that our friends in India and Pakistan are at the moment. I've not lost family members, relatives, possessions and memories in a few short minutes of unimaginable power and destruction. My fortune in this respect is no more than an accident of time, place and consciousness.

So when the appeals go out for help and assistance for the victims of a tragedy such as last week's earthquake, it really is a case of "there but for the grace of God go I." And when I think of my comfortable bed in a warm and dry house that wasn't built to withstand earthquakes because it doesn't need to (touch wood), I will also think of it as my duty as a human and as an inhabitant of one of the luckier spots on the planet to say a prayer for the victims, and to tug out my wallet.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Trains, post, buses and.....planes?

A few days ago, sitting on a comfortable, punctual and cheap Italian train heading for Rome and comparing it to the shabby, slow, privately-owned and operated and ruinously expensive British network, I asked myself why the Italian state-run train system manages to do things that we in Britain can't seem to manage.

Don't start with the "At least Mussolini made the trains run on time" jokes, either, because he's been dead sixty years. It happens in France, too. For some reason, a state-owned and operated railway system works to time, provides a service that's well within everyone's budget (a 200-kilometre journey cost me the equivalent of a fiver), and doesn't break down or stop every ten minutes. On British trains, you can't depend on arriving at your destination within twenty minutes of schedule.

Sure, the Italian system is subsidised: the cost of my ticket was so laughably small that there's no way that passenger revenues could maintain the system. But isn't the whole idea of the private sector to get providers to compete with each other to providew the best service at the lowest cost?

Actually, forget the original question. What's more interesting as a thought is "what services should the state provide for"? What things do we, as humans and as citizens, need? And what services should the state guarantee to us?

Clearly, access to food, shelter and health should figure high on the list. The ability to get to our place of work and to communicate should also be there. In other words, those things that are essential to our existence. And for its part, the state should probably own or control those services which are essential to its continued existence.

So I'm thinking about transport again. What kinds of transport, though? Road transport seems a bit excessive. I mean, a vast majority of us own cars, that is, our own means of getting around. But we don't and can't own the roads, the infrastructure on which our cars operate. So the state should be responsible for roads.

Buses are a public service, that allow us - if we don't drive - to get to our places of work, to shop, relax, visit, etcetera. Likewise, railways and underground: we can't own the trains or the thousands of miles of track they require. But we need them as well just as we need buses.

What about air travel? Probably not, I think: people who travel by air aren't doing it out of necessity, but out of luxury, the ability to do so. Business and holidays went on long before there were airplanes, too.

How about postal services (and this in an age when postal services are dwindling fast)? A state-owned postal service can guarantee services to the entire community, not just those parts of it that are more profitable. If you live on an island in the Hebrides, you want to know that your post is going to get to you. Anything better than the normal post - couriers, delivery companies - is a luxury, but the basic delivery of communcations sould be guaranteed.

And this raises another interesting point. Having a state-run service, be it trains or post or health, guarantees that the service will be delivered to all citizens, regardless of distance or circumstance. It means that the state assumes responsibility for that service. How many times can you remember a private-owned company ceasing to provide a service because it just wasn't profitable any more? Or because they went bust? The state can't just cease operations; it has to deliver.

Some of these services are also things that help guarantee a state's security. A health service, for example, ensures a healthier population, which can work more effectively and therefore sustain the state through paying its taxes. A state-owned rail network ensures that in the event of emergency or war, that resources can be directed to the right place at the right time. A state-run postal service ensures that the government can contact individuals when necessary.

I can give you an example of what could happen otherwise: in World War Two, when the Germans invaded the north of France, there was no quick way to get French troops to defend the area. One of the generals in charge of the defence had to resort to commandeering every taxi cab in Paris to transport troops to the front. Not only did that cost more than trains, but it was a lot slower too.

I wonder if the UK government, back in the days of Thatcher's privatisations, thought to include provisions in the sell-off agreements that ensured it could re-assume control of essential services in time of national emergency. Otherwise, are we going to see mobile phone companies humming and hawing when the government tells them it needs to commandeer the networks to deploy emergency services throughout the country? "Well, we'd like to help, but we've got this huge promotion going on at the moment for free ringtone downloads....."

Come back to basics again: water, rubbish collection, street cleaning. These things should not be farmed out to private sector companies that work for profit. As soon as the bottom line is threatened, services get cut back and people get laid off. How many times do you read about a new chairman taking over the running of a company and announcing that to boost profits, he's going to slash the workforce?

Let's face it, some things shouldn't be subject to the rules of the market. And that includes the very things that sustain our lives.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


My life is ruled by electricity. The availability of it, the need for it, the fear of running out of it, the sheer dependency.

When I travel, I carry more power cords and plugs than anything else. Cords for this laptop, for my mobile phone, for my iPod, even for my electric toothbrush. I'm weighed down by copper and plastic coating, by adaptor plugs and by transformers. If I only have one adaptor plug, then I need to work out a complicated schedule whereby my phone gets charged overnight, the iPod between breakfast and lunch, the laptop whenever I'm using it, and the toothbrush, thank God, only needs a charge once every so often.

If I'm travelling on business, the first twenty minutes in a hotel room are spent on hands and knees looking for all the power outlets and plugging in the various cords. I feel like a plate-spinner, juggling electrical items and their constant need for juice. If I don't make sure everything is topped up, I'm confronted with rising panic as the "battery low" icon starts flashing on my laptop as I'm composing urgent emails, or the beeping of my phone as I'm on line to my office making sure things are ship-shape.

What's happening to us? We're all becoming tied to these black umbilicals, these snaking octopus arms that draw us back towards a source of power, that comfort us and reassure us that no, we're not going to be incommunicado because our machinery is happily suckling at the breast of Mother Electricity. I heard somewhere that in China, every five days a new power station starts up. What's going to happen when those billions start owning laptops and mobiles?

This is why I'm hoping and praying fervently that fuel cells come to the rescue. Imagine: a small ink-cartridge affair filled with methanol or hydrogen, that you just slip into your phone or iPod, that'll run it for who-knows how long. No more scrabbling around the dusty corners of hotel rooms looking for an outlet, no more sinking feeling as the phone cuts out in mid-conversation.

They'll advertise fuel cells as liberty, freedom from those black snakes and copper wires. They'll make it look as easy and glamorous as popping a stick of chewing gum after a meal. And I, for one, will be buying that.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Blair blows cold on hot air

Tony Blair has always painted himself as a crusader against the growing threat of climate change. Time and time again he's spoken out in favour of decisive action on the environment, championed the Kyoto Protocol despite his favourite uncle George Bush rejecting it, and this year, putting climate change at the top of his agenda for the UK's presidency of the EU and the G8.

But lately it seems as though he's not so sure of his convictions any more. A few weeks back, he took part in a debate in New York and said things that sounded remarkably Bush-like.

There are two distinct camps in the Great Environmental Debate: on the one hand, the entire world, apart from the US and Australia, believes that it would be a good idea if we all found ways to limit our output of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, fluorocarbons and methane). The whole world -- apart from the US and Australia -- signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, which forces industrialised nations to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other side, the US wants no part of any mandatory limits on greenhouse gas output, because it fears such limits would affect its economic competitiveness and place too much cost at the bottom line of its industry. Instead, the US proposes that we find ways to harness technology to limit harmful emissions.

So, to put it another way, imagine the world is an alcoholic. One doctor says "You have to stop drinking. I'm going to put you on a plan that reduces your alcohol intake as much as possible. Eventually, you'll stop." The other doctor says "Don't worry about it. Just water down your beer and keep on drinking."

Bush's solution to global warming is to keep on polluting, but to strip out the nasty stuff and find a way to deal with it, even though nobody's really found a way to do that. Some people talk of burying carbon dioxide underground or under the sea in depleted oil wells, but nobody's really proved it can work.

The first solution, the one the rest of the world signed up to, is simple: just stop. Polluters have to cut back, or find ways to limit their pollution or they'll get hit where it hurts: in their bank balance. Sure, we're not going to go from 100 to zero overnight, but it's tackling the problem in a pro-active way.

What's sneakily clever about Bush's solution is that it a) allows industry to go on polluting as if nothing's wrong, and b) to find a way to make even more money out of the problem. It allows him to ignore the problem, in fact to deny a problem even exists, while whipping corporate America into another bout of research and development; "Look, fellas! I got another boondoggle for you to work on!"

Tony Blair is now beginning to lean alarmingly towards Bush's position. A few weeks ago he said he wasn't sure the world should sign another Kyoto Protocol (the current one runs out in 2012). In fact, he said, what we might be better off doing is investing in technology to reduce pollution at source, rather than set a limit on emissions in the first place. It's almost if he was channeling Bush!

What's behind this flip-flop? Why has Blair decided the Kyoto Protocol isn't worth following up? All his fine words up in a puff of (environmentally-sound) smoke, it seems.

How to Win Friends, Influence People and Screw New Orleans

This made me really angry. President Bush has signed an executive order that suspends the Davis-Bacon Act for the duration of the efforts to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding area. The Davis-Bacon Act protects the minimum wage for workers on federal contracts by requiring employers to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region.

Let's think about that for a moment. By suspending this Act, Bush is telling companies who are working on federal contracts that they don't have to pay their workers proper wages. Isn't the Federal government supposed to set an example?

Never mind the fact that workers everywhere deserve a living wage, but the people who are going to be doing the majority of the rebuilding of coastal Louisiana are local people - the ones who've lost homes, whose jobs have floated away, who are faced with dangerously unsanitary conditions, unsafe structures and who have to rebuild their own lives as well as their hometowns. And now they're going to be paid even less than they should while doing it.

Never mind that it's a tough, unpleasant and probably emotionally scarring job to do. These are the same people who probably couldn't afford federal flood insurance - who need to save money in order to set up home again, replace lost or ruined possessions. And so their government is doing its bit to help them by chopping their wages.

In short, first Louisianans got screwed by Mother Nature and now they're getting screwed by their own president. Nice going, Dubya.

But wait! It gets better! Who do you think got the lion's share of the big federal projects in and around New Orleans? Of course! Halliburton, that's who (well, Kellogg, Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton). So not only is Dick Cheney's firm going to make a bazillion dollars out of the whole sad affair, but the government has just said it's OK for Halliburton to pay its workers next to nothing as well.

It's at times like this that the monumentally audacious cronyism and sheer greed of the Republican leadership (and who's to say the Democrats would be that much better?) just takes the breath away. Nothing is scared. Invade a sovereign nation? No problem. Ride roughshod over the collective will of the rest of the world? You got it. Screw the very people who elected us? Hell, yes!

If anyone ever read the Asterix cartoons as a kid, there's a panel in "Asterix in Switzerland" where the Roman governor of Geneva is dividing up the proceeds of the latest tax collection. "This is for you [he gives a handful of coins to his assistant]; this is for me [pours the entire collection into his private chest]; and this is for Rome [puts three coins into a piggy-bank]."

When his assistant asks him if he doesn't think he's overdoing things a little, he replies: "I was elected governor for one year. I have a year to enrich myself! In twelve months I'll be far away from here; far away and rich!"

Substitute eight years for the twelve months and you see how little things have changed over the two millenia that have elapsed.

I'm reassured to see that Bush and Cheney have such a strong regard for history.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Destination Oblivion

I'm in Rome after a couple of days attending a trade show and conference, using up half of my weekend for the greater good of my work. This sort of thing doesn't happen often, but when it does I make damn sure I try and derive some benefit. And in Italy, that benefit usually comes on a plate, with a glass or two of wine.

After a somewhat truncated meal -- the food was excellent, the service truly awful -- I wandered to the bar for a nightcap and a spot of people-watching. I was staying in the sort of hotel that the locals will also visit for a good meal, and last night being Friday, there were a fair few Italians enjoying their start to the weekend with a fine meal. And I compared the experiences -- theirs and mine -- with what I tend to see back in the UK.

Firstly, alcohol. In the UK, the rule tends to be that alcohol is an end in itself. Where else would you see people lining up drinks in order to drain them before closing time? What's the purpose of that? It can only be to get as drunk as possible in as short a period of time.

In Italy, drunkenness is a big no-no. It's almost worse than being seen in scruffy clothes (unless they were designed to be scruffy by some lacquered Milanese designer). You just don't drink to excess here.

That said, your average Italian can put away as much alcohol as anyone else, but it's how they do it that makes the difference. Your Italian consumes his wine interspersed with sips of water, makes sure the bottle lasts until the main course is finished, lolls over the last centimetre in his glass while consuming a hideously calorific dessert, and finishes it only when it's time for coffee. Then he might linger over a grappa as a digestif.

And when he gets up from the table, he's suffused in the warm glow of content, good will and general bonhomie that comes from a long, relaxed meal. And he won't be lurching from side to side, clutching at tables to keep his balance.

Compare this to your average closing-time jungle in the UK. Technicolour yawns round the side of the wine bar or pub, the shouts of anaesthetised beer-monsters as they seek out a curry house... which reminds me: why do British people drink first and eat later?

Another thing: children. In the Mediterranean countries, children are full participants in the soap-opera of eating out. They get stuck in right alongside the adults, they are respected, encouraged and accepted as part of adult life. They sit at the same table, their voices rise and fall amid the general hubbub, they get up and run around, they chat to neighbouring tables, the waiters indulge them.

Why does restaurant life in the UK look like the famous "American Gothic" painting by comparison? Kids are seen but ignored, their efforts to converse and interact are shushed, and they resort to slumping mutinously at the table, picking at their food. The result? They don't learn to enjoy the experience, because they don't learn how to. For them, dinner at home is more pleasurable than eating out.

When I first arrived in the UK over thirty years ago, there wasn't much of a restaurant culture. Sure, the curry house had already been around for a while, but when you compare dining today with dining back then, it's like night and day. And while it's a pleasure to see how far the UK has come in terms of gastronomy and experimentation, to see people now positively enjoying their evening meal in a nice restaurant, I don't think the concept has properly percolated down through the ages.

The pub culture is still so strong, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxon pursuit of oblivion at the bottom of a glass is merely shifting location from the old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust pub to the glossy, glassy wine bar.

When was the last time you made a glass of wine last half an hour?