Newsnotes 2005 01

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M Williams

Dumping dollars.

From China With ‘Think’ [Lenovo and IBM]

Advanced Mice & Backward Humans [DNA studies]

Teach Yourself Burglary? [Censorship]

Tobacco Holocaust.

Season to be jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly…

A few good sites

Were you noticing…

Dumping dollars.

The long slow decline of the dollar has not yet made headline news. Anyone who shifted to Euros at the right time has profited. Anyone still holding a lot of dollars would be trying to shift, but shift quietly, without risking a sudden collapse.

“If America keeps on spending and borrowing at its present pace, the dollar will eventually lose its mighty status in international finance. And that would hurt: the privilege of being able to print the world’s reserve currency, a privilege which is now at risk, allows America to borrow cheaply, and thus to spend much more than it earns, on far better terms than are available to others. Imagine you could write cheques that were accepted as payment but never cashed. That is what it amounts to…

“The dollar’s loss of reserve-currency status would lead America’s creditors to start cashing those cheques—and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession.” (The Economist, 2nd December 2004.)

The value of currency can be held up for a while by what the market thinks it is worth, or what they think it can be sold for. But the underpinning has always been the real assets that you get access to. The dollar’s value rests on the immense wealth and productivity of the USA – but this has been reduced as productive industry has moved overseas. The USA concentrates more and more on ownership and speculation. The USA runs trade deficits and kept the budget overstretched. Clinton had actually balanced it, but Bush Junior used that as an excuse for a tax cut that mostly benefited the very rich. Middle-Americans are dopy enough to notice just that they have saved a little tax; they don’t realise that the bulk of the society’s wealth is moving away from them.

And also moving away from the USA as a whole. Russia took a wrong turn in the 1960s and 1970s, and an economy which had been strong and fast-growing under Stalin became increasingly sluggish. Things got much worse in the 1990s, when the took Western advice about wealth-creation and suffered a massive overall decline, along with vast inequality and declining public services. Similar things have happened in the Third World, wherever IMF advice has been accepted. But India and China continue to look after their own national interest very nicely. Eastern Europe is recovering as it joins the European Union, which is doing very nicely once you allow for its population being static, whereas the USA still admits vast numbers of immigrants. The USA is not the economic powerhouse it once was, and the quagmire in Iraq casts doubt on its military effectiveness. Meantime it depends heavily on foreigners choosing to lend it money. Once a net creditor, it is now heavily indebted to the outside world, especially East Asia.

If too much is owed to too many people, there is the risk of default. You can’t call it bankruptcy; bankruptcies are where the creditors take over after the borrower fails to pay, which only happens within a system of enforceable law. Nation-states generally don’t go bankrupt; they default, refuse to pay what they owe. Short of war, there is little that anyone can then do about it.

The US is very unlikely to default. But Bush’s present policies could lead to a sudden and drastic decline in US power, especially if Iraq continues to go wrong for them.

[This proved mistaken.   The 2008 financial crisis weakened the Euro more than the dollar.]

 

From China With ‘Think’ [Lenovo and IBM]

Is it a sign of the times?

“IBM, the pioneer of the personal computer business, has sold its PC hardware division to China’s number one computer maker Lenovo… About 10,000 IBM staff will move to the new enterprise – about 2,300 in design, marketing and sales in the US and the rest in manufacturing in China.” (BBC Online) Also “Lenovo will take ownership of IBM ‘Think’ trademark family, including its ThinkPad notebook brand and its ThinkCenter desktop line… IBM is now the No. 3 PC maker behind Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. IBM’s ThinkPads are the leading brand among corporate notebook PC buyers.” (Reuters)

There was a time when computers meant IBM. Like most US business successes, it was founded on European ideas, including some from European immigrants to the US. But IBM got the trick of making big computers –‘mainframes’ – a marketable product. One of their slogans was ‘Think’, but maybe it should have said ‘Think Twise’. Because IBM failed to adapt when the computer market changed. They viewed ‘microcomputers’ as marginal, but were persuaded to make one, using chips from a little chip-maker called Intel and an operating system from a middling software company called Microsoft. Puzzlingly, they left Microsoft free to sell its operating system to other manufacturers. Maybe they thought that no one could legally produce a microcomputer that would run the same software as IBM’s PC. Or maybe they thought it would not matter, since IBM-compatible mainframes were never very important. Regardless, they were wildly wrong and they lost control of a formal that is so widespread that it’s now just called ‘PC’. IBM were not the pioneers; there were a whole crop of innovators, but Apple is the only important survivor from that era.

It seems that China was already the main manufacturer of PCs with an IBM label. Now they’ve got the ownership as well, spending a lot of dollars whose value may be in decline. Nor is it exactly a triumph for ‘Chinese Capitalism’. “Although virtually unknown in the United States, Lenovo… is China’s largest PC maker and the world’s fastest-growing one… The Lenovo Group, partly owned by the Chinese government, had sales of over $3 billion last year and is currently ranked eighth globally among PC makers. It is the overall leader in Asia outside Japan…” (New York Times Online, 4th December, in an article correctly predicting the take-over.) That means the Chinese government must have given it the OK, and there are long-term advantages.

Lenovo had recently seen its share-price decline, following successful competition within China from overseas brands:

“Moreover, with China’s economy growing rapidly, increasingly affluent and brand-conscious people are turning to Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard computers. Executives at Lenovo are intent on competing with those better-known brands, saying Lenovo is not interested in simply being known as the lower-cost supplier. IBM’s product line would automatically push Lenovo up the cachet curve.” (Ibid.) As one commentator put it, “This is their steppingstone to a global market… a story about a Chinese company adopting an American brand.” (Ibid.)

Protecting the productive national economy is the sort of thing the USA once did very well, and now does less and less. As with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they may look monstrously strong but their best days are past.

 

Advanced Mice & Backward Humans [DNA studies]

“It is not quite Jurassic Park, but it could prove just as interesting. This week, researchers announced they have reconstructed a million-letter-long DNA sequence from a mammal that lived 75 million years ago and was the ancestor to almost all the mammals now roaming the Earth, including people. The ultimate aim is to reconstruct the entire genome of this long-extinct species.… They worked back from a stretch of DNA that has been extensively mapped in 19 mammal species, as it includes the gene CFTR, which is implicated in cystic fibrosis in people… Delving into our genetic past also promises the tangible benefit of new perspectives on genetic diseases. At least one of the genetic variants that cause cystic fibrosis in humans turns out to be the normal form of the gene in our 75-million-year-old ancestor, which suggests the problem is not the gene itself but the context in which it functions today.” (New Scientist, 04 December 2004)

No one knows what the ancestor looked like, but the general view is that it was a small voracious insect-eater, not unlike a modern shrew, and lived obscurely in a world where dinosaurs dominated. New Scientist says that actual shrews are members of an older offshoot, one which also includes elephants and anteaters. Other sources disagree and class the true shrews as insectivores, related to hedgehogs—only the similar-looking ‘elephant-shrews’ are genuine elephant relatives. Only when they do more DNA sequences will anyone be sure.

What I found much more interesting is the degree of change to the DNA since the ancient ancestor. Humans are the final product of evolution, so we must have changed the most, right? No, not right at all. The small chunk of genome that’s been sequenced shows 8 to 9 per cent changes for monkeys, apes and humans, with humans getting the lowest score. Cats, dogs and horses are in a range of 11 to 12 per cent, with 13.5 for dogs. The mouse comes top, with an astonishing 17.5% change, more than double the human score.

There was probably more evolutionary pressure on mice, typical small mammals, than there was on primates living a specialist life up trees. To make an analogy from the commercial world, if you are a shop that sell groceries, you’ll face a lot of rivals and must be very competitive. If you sell pet fish and aquarium equipment, you may be the only outlet for miles and have an easier life.

That’s also why the results of Natural Selection are mostly tedious and repetitive. Naturalists show you the high spots; there is a lot more dross. It looks like pure chance that one line chanced to develop from primate to ape to semi-human to modern human. Nature rambles and the moon don’t care.

I’ll also risk a prediction. If someone manages to do the same trick for animals in general or for life in general, I’m sure they will find the same effect, more actual change in the DNA of creatures we view as primitive. They might even find that plants are the most evolved creatures of all, in terms of DNA. Land-plants emerged after animals—we find animals as complex as most modern creatures in the Cambrian oceans, but the first plants with leaves and roots come much later. The first flowering plants developed in the Cretaceous, the final Age of Dinosaurs, and they have changed a lot since then.

 

Teach Yourself Burglary? [Censorship]

“A coroner is asking the online retailer Amazon to stop selling a book about suicide after the death of a 19-year-old Lancashire woman. Preston coroner Howard McCann made the appeal after the death of Sarah Cherry, from Penwortham, who killed herself after reading it, an inquest was told… But Amazon said removing the book because its message was “repugnant” amounted to censorship. A spokesman for the company said: “Our goal is to support freedom of expression and to provide customers with the broadest selection possible so they can find, discover, and buy any title they might be seeking.” (BBC Online.)

The principle is very laudable, especially since books about suicide pose a risk to repeat-business. But would they sell Teach Yourself Burglary? Handy Tips For Muggers? You Too Can Be A Suicide Bomber? The Plain Man’s Guild To Committing Rape? I’d be against such books even as jokes, because the crimes are not at all funny. Treating a crime as a kind of prank is a very ancient method of making it more acceptable. But suppressing them is also censorship, and does not cease to be so just because we happen to agree in such a case.

The complication over suicide is that a lot of people do favour a ‘right to die’, an easy way out for someone who’s life will definitely end soon and who seeks to avoid pain and helplessness, often pain and helplessness of an extreme sort. Set against that are the many cases where healthy people and especially young people will attempt suicide for reasons that would seem absurd in a few years. If we thwart someone’s immediate will, they might later agree that we did them a favour.

Having ‘right to die’ illegal but well-publicised is a bad solution, but maybe better than a total ban. The recent hysteria over modest ‘living will’ legislation indicates that the English will hang on to old ideas for a very long time and that ‘right to die’ will not be legal soon in this country.  Still, suicide books should be defended on that basis, rather than claiming that censorship as such is not acceptable.

 

Tobacco Holocaust.

The evidence on smoking is considered inconclusive by the tobacco companies. In a similar spirit, members of the Sicilian Mafia always denied that they existed, and probably still do so. But on both subjects, the views of independent experts are unanimous.

There is news also that a beer company is putting health warnings on its beer, advising of ‘units’ and safe drinking. Not a bad idea, but no one mentions that it covers them for future legal actions of the sort the tobacco companies are facing.

A big difference is that alcohol only becomes physically addictive after a great deal of excessive drinking. Whereas every regular smoker is an addict, with ex-smokers being ex-addicts and always at risk.

“Deaths from tobacco-related diseases have fallen during the past decade but smoking still kills about 106,000 people each year, according to a report.

“Despite efforts to get people to kick the habit, about 28 percent of men in England and 26 percent of women smoke.

“‘We are in the grip of a smoking epidemic: an estimated 106,000 people in the UK are dying needlessly each year from smoking,’ said Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer.” (Reuters, November 12th.)

Cigarettes are the major addiction in Britain, in all Western cultures. Alcohol’s not addictive for normal drinkers, and anyone who goes beyond that has probably got reasons. But cigarettes do hook you, and they also feed into an overstressed lifestyle. It has also been suggested recently that “Staff working hard to get a task completed on time were six times more likely to have an attack in the next 24 hours than co-workers”. (BBC Online, Tight deadlines ‘bad for hearts’.)

When more controls are suggested on overwork, drunkenness, tobacco etc., the right-wing start saying ‘Nanny State’. A phrase that’s used repeatedly, with no known meaning. It appears to reject the idea of state regulation for positive ends–except I don’t know of a single elected politician who actually believes this.

I myself would favour decriminalising prostitution and relaxing pornography laws in line with those prevailing in Holland. I’d allowing marihuana at members-only clubs which are invisible to outsiders. And our laws should enshrine both a ‘right to die’ and a ‘right to a dignified exit’; the first is for those who are dying and the second extending it to those whose quality of life is hopelessly bad and unlikely to get better. Those who say ‘Nanny State’ would not agree, of course—but why?

There are also libertarians who do take their own rhetoric seriously. They’d legalise all drugs including heroin, remove the age of consent etc. Which is bloody stupid, but only those people are honest ‘libertarians’. For the rest, the underlying attitude is ‘people like you are not entitled to restrict my freedom. Whereas I am entitled to restrict your freedom, and also to say that something you want to do is not freedom at all’. This was originally the view of the ruling class. Nowadays all sorts of characters have picked it up, and say ‘Nanny State’ all the time.

At the deepest level, a word is just a noise to which some meaning is attached. It need not be a very sensible link In the case of ‘Nanny State’, it is a noise uttered by discontented Tories. It reflects their feeling that someone else is to blame for Thatcherism not working out as they’d hoped.

The alternative to ‘Nanny State’ is the ‘ratty system’. Where there are no fixed rules but endless scope for harassment and ‘creative’ interpretation of laws.

Incidentally, I believe that no one said ‘Nanny State’ in relation to poor Mr Blunket’s misfortunes.

 

Season to be jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly, jolly…

Christmas is starting earlier and earlier, outgrowing December and now consuming a big chunk of November as well. And all of the media attention does induce a ‘shopping frenzy’, with people buying stuff they may not need and probably can’t afford.

If it was up to me, I’d ban all commercial use of Christmas before December 18th. Let the season be short and sweet. And avoid all of the actual misery that happens when people actually get to Christmas and maybe find it’s not so merry after all.

 

A few good sites

The internet is the modern medium; cheap and decentralised delivery of facts. Because an opportunity was missed in the 1970s and because the 1980s saw the rise of ‘Cool Capitalism’ – actually a very different thing from all of the stuff called capitalism before that – the internet has got dominated by private corporations.

The actual technology for message-sending was developed within the USA’s military-industrial complex, with a view to having a network that could survive nuclear attack. The idea of ‘computer broadcasting’ was developed back in the 1970s with the Prestel Viewdata system, which developed in France as ‘Mintel’. The idea of the World Wide Web was developed at CERN, another government-funded project. Private corporations jumped on a bandwagon that started without them.

As for specific uses: if you want the text of out-of-copyright books, try Project Guttenberg (http://www.gutenberg.net/catalog/) and The Literature Network (http://www.online-literature.com/). Google plans a massive scan of out-of-copyright books, but this is only just beginning. For general information, the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page) is convenient and free. Items of left-wing interest are nicely laid out at Spartacus Education (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/).

Free advice on a lot of areas of computing can be found at Tek Tips (http://www.tek-tips.com/index.cfm ). Aljazeera is now available at http://english.aljazeera.net/HomePage, while a Russian site continues to give interesting details of the Iraq war (http://iraqwar.mirror-world.ru/tiki-index.php).

As well as BBC Online, it’s worth looking at CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/) and Yahoo News, http://news.yahoo.com/, with many topics including comics. And for deadpan humour try The Onion (http://www.theonion.com/index.php?pre=1). Beyond politics and news, you can find train times for almost any rail journey at National Rail Enquiries (http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/) and the latest weather at Yahoo (http://weather.yahoo.com/, and adjustable to your own town or city.) To look up a film or get its details, try http://www.imdb.com/news/. And there are beautiful astronomical pictures free from NASA (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/calendar/allyears.html) – a lot of them make lovely ‘wallpaper’ for your machine.

 

Were you noticing…

In the article about China and IBM, I suggested the slogan ‘Think Twise’. I hoped and assumed that a lot of people would read it as ‘Think Twice’. The point being that you ought to constantly question your assumptions and not be too ready to fit the new into a familiar pattern.

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