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6 april 2015, and finally, the middle kingdom

Other half and kids in budapest; I'm back from china. An experience. Once through hong kong, spent time first in schenzen and then in chengdu - cities that no-one in europe has heard of, with populations of some 15 and 10 million. The first is probably the more remarkable, as while chengdu has a rich history of 3000 years, schenzen, a fishing village of 30 families in the 1980s, is a growth "unprecedented in human history" poster (only) child of various global "special economic zone" aspirations. I was privileged enough to stand in the city's nasa-style integrated command and control centre, and see a massive bustling metropolis of finance, industry and all means and manner of commerce, plus skyscrapers as long and as far as the eye can see. Its a rather drab version of hong kong cubed, with some fabulous gems interspersed, such as an amazingly designed airport (serving 36m a year) and some curios, like our hotel. It was nothing to our lodgings in chengdu, supposedly the biggest building in asia and a little world in itself. At restaurants, shops and markets we had a small glimpse of the prosperity dipping down ever deeper into the layers of chinese society, not that there aren't those layers below on whose backs, as in every society, wealth is built. We flew back to hong kong on an airline again no-one in europe has heard of (sichuan, with a fleet of around 100 planes, flying to a dozen international destinations, though mainly domestic). Chengdu airport was similarly impressive behind the scenes. This is a country bursting to break out into the world, as the aiib story, which broke while we were there, totemically shows. It was an eye-opening, and mouth-watering, few days. Photos here.

29 march 2015, captain’s log, stardate…

Having skirted around china philosophically for years, and indeed acted on it, I have only actually visited taiwan (see 12 october 2013, of masks and mopeds). Until, yesterday, when after 11 hours aboard the flying hotel that is cathay pacific's direct flight from manchester, I landed in a rather clammy hong kong, a day earlier than business required so I could see the place. It's not as big as china's megacities, and not quite facing quite their mass urbanisation issues and it seems more western, so hard (or maybe it's just me) not to fall into the tourist traps, especially with a warm sun, limited time and a bit of jet lag. Lots of masks, but even more phones clicking and recording away everywhere, at least amongst the touristiati; many have headgear with cameras permanently whirring away. Sat atop the peak, after a great tram ride, it's pretty breathtaking, indeed awesome to look down at what must surely be the biggest concentration of skyscrapers on the planet. The city clearly has a vibrancy, a restlessness and an energy from the mass of people and things so limited in space but clearly so bursting to push out. The markets were teeming, victoria park packed, the streets of causeway really alive and the remnants of the tented city in the administrative district evidence of how that energy can manifest itself politically. I didn't see everything though, as tiredness did eventually catch up on me, though I've an evening still to spend here, so we'll see what the night brings. After that, I'm into china proper, a whole other world.

14 march 2015, mend not make

As manufacturing apparently surges back in the locality (or at least politics surges to make that the narrative despite pesky statistics), to try and perhaps awkwardly bolt together several things: the social economy, the circular economy and the perennial sharing economy (see 23 december 2010, collaborative consumerism). The social is hard to define, but is essentially not for profit companies whose rationale is not to create monetary profit but forms of common good. The circular is the conceptual evolution of recycling, driven by the continual upgrade of consumer products like phones, even as their manufacture drains ever more expensive natural resource. The logic becomes to design products so their parts can be extracted at end of life and reused. As for collaborative consumerism, the great wave towards sharing not owning, despite the internet's ubiquity making it now feasible, seems stubbornly slow. The link between the 3 is trust, communication and common commitment within a community, for mutual benefit. Which perhaps explains why all are still very much minority interests, despite the effective tools for them to be mainstream. We are still in the age of the individual. We like owning things, like cars and houses, and we don't like reliance on others or sharing our needs and desires with communities beyond our family, friends or households. The communities we do like, like facebook friends (or I live on 20th century email lists), are those we selfishly define ourselves and they are rarely big enough or appropriately suited to share cars with or make peer-to-peer loans - so back we go to citroen or citi (my personal automotive and financial sponsors). I still don't need that drill in the garden shed, but I'm not yet ready to make it available to anyone outside my immediate circle of trust, even if it would pay me a morsel to do so, or in return someone a mile away would lend me a cable detector for the once a year I need it, rather than me having to buy one at b&q or call the handyman. Or, perhaps I am ready, and perhaps we are many and we're waiting for that tipping point and the apps and economies that will trigger it, making peer more fulfilling than profit, taking apart and sending back better than throwing away and access better than ownership. A different world, but perhaps not so radical a change as might at first appear.

8 march 2015, everything except a beach

Someone - alright the guardian - has picked up my idea of moving parliament up to manchester. In fairness, I only mooted the house of lords (see 1 november 2014, in scotland's wake), anyway ripe for transformation into a regional assembly like the german bundesrat, whereas mr jenkins would move the whole shooting match. Hats off to him. The minor wave of agreement to this that has swept the airwaves since the speaker announced the houses of parliament were no longer fit for purpose can be summarised as: you know what, if we were going to move the political capital anywhere it would be manchester - but that's not really going to happen, is it. Oh well. The narrative rides another, much bigger and more substantive wave, that has seen the praises of project manchester sung to extraordinary heights in the hallowed establishment pages of the quality press, with the likes of the sunday times, the economist and - excellent article alert - the financial times giving the devo manc (see 8 november, and so it came to pass) proposals legs, at least until the election. I am kvelling, with whatever the opposite is of chickens coming home to roost. Albeit from a different perch, I am rather proud to still be a part of it all.

Attached File: FT on mcr.pdf

28 february 2015, murder of moscow

The brazen murder of boris nemtsov, opposition stalwart, on the eve of a rally that might just have opened up popular criticism of the war in ukraine, does feel a little like an end of the world as we know it moment. Not a sudden drop into the abyss, more like the lobster being boiled alive in slowly heating water. There is a definitive moment when it dies, and historians may look back on today as the end of the collectively-willed pretence of russia as democratic, rationalist and not totalitarian. From that other consequences also come. To alexei devotchenko, natalia estemirova, alexander litvinenko, sergei magnitsky and anna politkovskaya then, we can add boris yefimovich nemtsov, former deputy prime minister, scientist, statesman and outspoken critic of vladimir putin. Just days ago a strident anti-maidan movement was formed in russia; it may already have its first victim. That such a thing was even conjured into being does underline the basic rationale for the whole ukrainian war being about not allowing such a protest movement (in kiev last year) with a pro-european/nato stance, to sweep to power and see success. That message to russia would be far too close to home and so must be stopped at all costs, and indeed stop it, is exactly what putin has very successfully done. An engaging election across the whole country, a strong new government, rapprochment with the west, opening borders and economic success are not exactly the image we have today of poor wretched ukraine. Stopping the lifeblood of hope from outside and cutting down the agents of change from within (putin called nemtsov part of a fifth column) are part of the same strategy. Slowly the rest of the world needs to realise the consequences of the lengths (see 17 april 2014, and the beast goes on) to which the russian leader will go.

21 february 2015, le demos nouveaux et arrivé !

Greece has folded this hand, but the poker game continues into next week, the summer and beyond. Behind the "who stands to lose more" gamble though, the bigger prize of democracy looks like it is being utterly eroded. Long after matters are somehow settled and greece gets enough help from its european partners to avoid collapse, the inability of its electorate to change anything, despite an overwhelming desire to do so, will be the salient outcome of this crisis. The basis of the last weeks' drama turns on the age old dilemma of a creditor insisting a debtor stick to the deal it made to get money in the first place. Whilst some blame and risk for making the loan rests with those that made it, the most part rests with an inept, unbalanced and corrupt economy that chose to lock itself into a bigger one and then needed the loan. Unlike the irish, portuguese and spanish, which were essentially problems of liquidity, greece was insolvent. There was no way around the many years of fat leading now to many of lean. An alternative eurozone strategy of keynesian stimulus would have helped greece, but at a price, given its governance, of avoiding necessary economic restructuring and, more potently, with no way of stopping the floodgates of equal treatment opening to portugal, spain, italy, france et al, which very quickly moves from an affordable stimulus, germany's great, and justifiable, fear. Where though does that leave the greek, and by implication other eu, electorates. Actually in the same place as most electorates: in the thrall of the majority. Just like the strong anti-austerity of scotland's electorate cannot at all change the policy of the overall uk government, which is supported by a majority of its parliament, so the electors of the greek corner of europe cannot change the contrary policy espoused by the european majority. It is rather vicious to see unfold, and not at all understood, but the great european democratic deficit question of our age is actually being answered before our eyes. Here is the european demos, laid bare, fittingly enough, by the greeks.

1 february, tw3

I do try to avoid laundry lists, but it was an interesting week. Tuesday was holocaust memorial day, and my youngest was home from school with a virus. We listened together to my other half singing live on national radio (27th) with her choir. It went very well indeed, and gave an appropriately wide meaning to the day, which I ended at a private dinner with the chinese consul-general. My brother's wife's grandma is a wonderful woman, and holocaust survivor, who last week was given the freedom of the city of london, and featured in several newspapers. Wednesday, I was down in london, and friday night my other half and I were invited out to listen to the manchester camerata play at the cathedral. I had the honour and great pleasure of a private coffee in the morning with the conductor, gabor takacs-nagy. He is driven, philosophical, obsessive and generally all-round artist. The performance was literally (being in a cathedral) heavenly and took both of us to places music hasn't for quite some time, reminding me of the power of place and live performance that is too easily forgotten. We are now instant fans and will be seeing much more of this exceptional chamber orchestra. It also spurred us to do rather more to introduce the kids to the classics, which we have perhaps neglected a little. I finished the week booking us all into several performances, though I'm not sure any will live up to the soaring heights of the takacs tchaikovsky. The week was rounded off by the valedictory of my constant companion, the economist's editor of nine years, a great condensed read with which I agree wholly, though perhaps am a paranoid pessimist rather than his optimist; but that's for another week.

Attached File: City of London.pdf

24 january 2015, n-n-n-n-nineteen

Apart from a set of estonians and the larger san marinos, I did have a full set of euros coins - yes I even have two sets of vatican ones. My greeks may yet become collector's items, though I don't think so. The greeks indeed could do worse than look to lithuania for some lessons, as they became the 19th country to join monetary union, meaning there's a whole new set I'm after. I visited lithuania several times in earlier days, not least to try and retrace some of the steps very many of my ancestors will have trodden, though even had I known what they were, there is very little of it left. For all its battering, the euro remains strikingly popular in lithuania, with 63% favouring it, up a quarter from last year. This in part will be due to the established way the currency is now introduced, I say with a slight twinge having helped design that but never applied it to my own country. No doubt russia's not too distant rumblings have also had a psychological effect in making any further westward integration more welcome, but another country's embrace of the euro, in a robust and stringent manner (I recall well when they failed the tests in 2007), is also a vote of confidence in the currency, which though small should not go unoticed.

Attached File: vilna shuell.pdf

15 january 2015, greece is the word, again

Many are the doom mongers scenario-planning various outcomes of the imminent greek election, spreading that worst of ailments, uncertainty and panic, around the markets at the possibility of a grexit from the euro. We have been here before (14 may 2012, the unthinkable exit; 16 june 2012, the greek election) and got through, but past performance, as every investor will tell you, is no guarantee of the future. The general relaxed attitude, given that the new greek government seems likely to push for debt forgiveness, seems borderline complacent. My ex-boss lbs provides a very cogent analysis in the ft about why greek debt isn't, or shouldn't really be, a worry, but little market or especially political behaviour has much to do with grounded reality. Its national debt of 175% gdp, he points out, is hardly unprecedented and anyway sovereigns never pay back their debt, they just refinance it and actually greece doesn't need to issue any new debt for quite a while, largely because they've stocked up through the bailout on 30-year maturity. The debt, he concludes, is more sustainable than many other eurozone countries. As was the case at the other end of the crisis (see 7 feb 2010, bring in the imf), greece's central problem remains its economy's competitiveness. The euro is neither the problem's creator nor its solution: that lies, still, in greek hands.

2 january 2015, disaster of the year

2014 was, sadly, another year with many contenders. Close to home, fellow-city glasgow seemed specially cursed, suffering three tragic incidents, of a bin-van and helicopter killing several and its treasured art school, which I never saw, burning down. Of a bigger order, perhaps three thousand would-be immigrants drowned in the mediterranean trying to get to europe. Further afield, dozens of students were abducted and murdered in mexico and hundreds of girls in nigeria were kidnapped from school, still months later missing. Trouble is rising from lawless belts across the world, the middle east probably the worst, with isis crossing several lines of barbarity in syria and iraq, a vicious crackdown in egypt, itself provoking a backlash and libya descending into warlordism. That pretty much describes parts of pakistan too, which had its own even more horrific school murder incident in peshawar. Ebola of course deserves special mention, although the death toll of around 8000 pales beside the 300000 killed by malaria, and double that by tuberculosis. Runner-up for me is the summer's gaza conflict (see 12 july 2014, so many wrongs) and the needless lives lost through the inability to sit down and make something function, in which we the rest of the world have a vital role to play. This particular war may yet come to be seen as the moment the wax set and a two-state solution finally became impossible. Another war though took not just more lives, perhaps 5000, but had more global significance in its slow pace shattering of the post-war world order, which once broken cannot easily be reassembled. Russia invaded crimea with impunity, and the world accepted it. Its military and political succour to manufactured rebels in eastern ukraine destroyed both the ukrainian economy and any chance of a modern, peaceful state growing from a young population wanting to build, and stay in, its own country. For europe, it was a startling break from the post-war norm of diplomacy and international systems settling territorial disputes rather than violent military action - an utter disaster that will have consequences for years to come.

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