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1 november 2013, elegance as the enemy of efficiency

Meaning that pragmatism in governance structures (like much else) is often messy. Though no doubt she heard it from someone else, I have to credit this nice turn of phrase to alex jones, who manfully chaired an excellent session today with the major thought-leader that is bruce katz. You can download the excellent app here that will tell his story much better than I can, or see his presentation here. The basic idea of the metropolitan revolution is that the era of the all-conquering nation state is receding and if anything is to get done in the world then cities need to step up. He gives some excellent examples of how american cities are doing just that, and his urging on to the rest of us is borderline inspirational. Its not just strong narrative and slick presentation, but the premise is utterly compelling, and the more you think about it, the more right it seems and the more ideas you start having about its application. I'm off to read the book.

18 october 2013, an odd alliance

It's not often I'm tempted to agree with the saudi government - it's up there with the one occasion in my life I think I agreed with berlusconi (4 february 2010, silvio and me), but here goes. I can only applaud their extraordinary stand of turning down their seat on the security council. Granted it's a buggin's turn seat, but still it's their first time ever and in diplomatic united nations parlance, it's like a nuclear bomb. Granted too it could be said to be a somewhat hypocritical stance given their own record at moments in their history and their pique mainly comes from their side in the whole fight losing to their arch rivals (iran). However, sit back and enjoy the show, or rather grimace at their critique of the security council's utter powerlessness: "allowing the ruling regime in syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the un security council's inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities." Despite the fact that as most commentators immediately saw it probably is indeed all about iran, I can't help but cast an admiring glance riyadh's way at this ineffectual but crusading gesture worthy of amnesty international.

12 october 2013, of masks and mopeds

I've been back over a week since my first ever few days in asia, but can recall some impressions of a brisk, tiring but highly stimulating trip. I was on a small mission to sell sustainable city services, which was very well endowed with ukti people, and then architects and designers, like fosters, trying to sell things like passivhaus regulation, and, rather less likely, personal trains. I was the only city and felt a bit like the star turn, speaking after the minister and getting sat next to his deputy at a formal dinner. We may yet even get some business from it. Meanwhile taipei was a whirlwind and my very brief impressions were of lots of tall buildings and small people, many in masks and on mopeds, which are stacked at traffic lights waiting to go. It was quite futuristic and has seen impressive and managed growth these last decades, including an extensive subway system not yet a decade old. We also spent a day on kinmen island, which is snug alongside the chinese mainland coast, has a potent liquor and is some way through a transformative economic programme designed to attract millions of chinese day trippers, in which it may yet succeed and so play a role in the bigger economic integration era that taiwan and the mainland are currently going through. A worthwhile use of a few days.

28 september 2013, going east

Later today I am off to taiwan, which is a first trip to asia if you don't count kyrgystan and kazakstan. I'm not sure what my copy of the path of the communist party of china that I picked up earlier this week at a reception at the consul-general's would say about taiwan, but I read from their own site that it still styles itself the republic of china, and I am humble enough to say that despite being a relatively serious student of history over many years, I have never quite got to that part of the world or that conflict, so I don't really know how things have come to pass there. No doubt I'll get at least one side of the story. I am going to boost manchester (of course) on the ukti eco-cities mission, us being one. The bit of britain that's great in this context, apparently, is green. I need to sing for my supper, but have a deep well to draw on, and should gain from the people we meet and the things we'll see and do. That's the (great) idea anyway.

21 september 2013, europe is not (too) right

Hungary's youth, it seems, are even more inclined than their parents to support the extreme right jobbik party, with 29% approving, against 40% for the (quite) right of centre fidesz. In the real-life elections (12 april 2010) they got 16%, which they may yet improve on next year, and which already has the jewish world in such a spin that the annual world jewish congress decamped to budapest to protest against the party. Unfortunately, the rise of the far right (26 march 2011) in hungary is far from an isolated incident, and astounding results, like the french national front getting 46% of a second-round vote, just keep on coming. In that same poll of hungarian youth, many more thought the country joining the eu to be more disadvantageous than a plus, which is a consistent driver of people across the continent towards a group of parties outside mainstream acceptance of europe, though few these days elicit enthusiasm. Other significant factors are an increasing hard anti-establishment mood, with politicians everywhere taking the rap for economic underperformance and seen as not representing the increasing numbers of radical hopeless and dispossessed, and anti- immigration feeling, usually islamic. Prolonged recession continues to press ever-heavier weights of inequality on the eu edifice of open borders and labour market freedoms. As it is the best hope of europe surviving and thriving in this globalised world, work is needed to support that edifice, including through reforming it to be better able to bear those weights that are likely to be with us for some time. Opportunists such as jobbik will always thrive in such times, as they did in the 1930s, but economic prosperity and stability can drive them back.

15 september 2013, been a while

A fortnight on, and I am still shaking the branches of my family tree, with ripe and interesting fruits falling out left, right and centre. There are family schisms over raincoat factories, penniless litvaks turning up in dundee thinking they're in "amerika", great uncles getting shot down in the battle of britain, rather too many kids disappearing between birth and adulthood, a dramatic deathbed scene, and offshoots springing up in america, south africa and australia, as well as much dead wood I know I'll never find in the old world of der heim. A common thread is the amazing march across the generations, uncannily similar in the endless different branches I am delving into, of poverty-stricken immigrants seeing their children embed themselves in their adopted homelands, and the next generation succeed to parent the pillars of the community that form the often-accurate stereotype of today. So much of my own history is in manchester, and I'm working on a map with a pin (electronic of course) of everywhere we've laid our hats, and will one day make a tour, at least of the properties still standing, which I don't think are many. And my kids are now being sucked in too, as we start to set it all out on a big wall in my study, with photgraphs where we have them. I think that some thirty years after I gave up stamps, I may have myself a hobby !

8 september 2013, looking up

I have spent much of these new year days with my family, some living, but most dead, as I have been putting my hands into the magic box of family history I've been accumulating for at least a decade, and the magic box of the internet, which knows considerably more about my family than I do. My current investigative bout was sparked by relatives from australia and rediscovered memories of that big chunk of family that moved literally half way around the world after the war; though I've learnt most about my dad's family, and my namesake, my grandpa baron morris frankal, on the far left of the picture. Next to him is my dad and his cheeky grin, and then my (great) uncle joe, whom I remember very well. Then comes an older lady I don't know, then ivor, my dad's brother, my great uncle jack (see 17 november 2011) and harry, the also-remembered husband of pearl, who is sat in the middle of the front row, flanked I think by two sisters (dolly) and hetty, and there's my grandma eva on the left wing and my aunts olga and irene on the right. I've found that grandpa baron's father was leon haiman frankal (leon is my middle name), and his mother dora louise schneider, who I now know had two sisters (may and harritte). Her parents, and so my sons' great, great, great grandparents, were neimann schneider (born in preussen, germany in 1839) and rosetta lazarus. I'm also pretty sure, but seeking to verify, that rosetta's parents were joshua lazarus (born 1814) and rachel (1816) and she had four siblings: lewis, charles, mary and kate. Fascinating stuff, I've hardly started with, but am determined to continue.

30 august 2013, shrink to fit ?

Crispin blunt was unusually erudite in his commentary after the british prime minister's defeat in the house of commons, ending the prospect at this time of the uk joining any military action against assad's syria. His point was that it was high time london lost its imperial hangover of thinking it was a country of a size that deserved to have a hand on the world's tiller. We should stop, he said, pretensions of "punching above our weight" and act in a way that is sustainable for a country of our means. It has been a while since such (to use the derogatory term) little englander views had any traction, anathema as they are both to the internationalist left that seeks concerted global action and the patriotic right that likes britain standing tall in the world and pretends a seat on the un security council is more than just an accident of history. Both wings though reject the obvious consequence of the retreat from power that the vote is a significant crystallisation of: europe. Though the last decade of construction has been economic, the 3rd pillar of the union created in 1992 was foreign and defence policy. Although progress has been slow, it has not been absent. Though the eu's new foreign minister and ministry have been low-profile, they have been clearly established and not without the odd success. The foundation is laid for a serious figure to take over when the time is right. More than that, this is the last big area run on inter-governmental, as opposed to community, lines, and so has seen development throughout the period, just as member state control may be coming back into vogue in other areas too. For britain, american power and diplomacy will for a long time yet be the wing under which we're most comfortable sheltering, and happily the last years have seen strong european movement to manage its growth within that broader nato structure. However, in the long-term, the only platform where real integration, cost reduction and sustained projection of british power can ever take place, is in a european setting. When you think about it, there are relatively obvious answers to the utterly unaffordable replacement generation of unilateral nuclear deterents that both britain and france are separately grappling with, and to untying the un security council knot that makes it deeply unrepresentative of today's world and so unable to act as the real forum in which war and peace is decided within an agreed global framework.

27 august 2013, a piece still in germany

I have always been fascinated by politics; our latest stay up until 2am binge series is house of cards; and I remember the original. I have always had an interesting relationship with germany, my earlier institutionalised boycott replaced by deep fascination through living there longer than I have anywhere else but the uk. My first article when I started writing my column was on the country that is too big for europe and too small for the world, and I've never really stopped, so it's no surprise I am watching the 22 september election in the euro area's hegemon closely. Angela merkel, europe's calm captain, looks a strong probability to remain chancellor; yet there are more open questions than most suggest. As in most western economies, the main parties, both merkel's centre-right (cdu-csu, black) and the centre-left (spd, red) have bled support over the last decades, giving ever more power to the greens, the liberals (yellow) and the hard left (purple), which together won nearly half the vote in the last election. Hence the talk about whether merkel will keep her black-yellow coalition or there may again be a grand (black-red) coalition, probably the most likely outcome. There is though the possibility of a red-green-yellow (traffic light) coalition freezing out angie, or even an unprecented red-green-purple that brings the left into government for the first time; highly unlikely. The last grand coalition though, led by the current two main leaders, speeded the decline of their parties, making this logical and internationally-sought outcome of a balanced election a tall order, especially for the spd, whose leader has said he won't agree to serve under merkel under any conditions. That probably won't be enough to stop it though, and no bad thing either. In germany even more than most places, stability and consensus wins out in politics over radical and sexy every time.

19 august 2013, the knee bone’s connected to the...

I have for a long time tried to think about not just schools and education, but also - what is now well-used jargon - the early years. Though there has been some commentary about its use, the photo on the cover of graham allen's excellent report sums up well the importance of that period. By age 3, whereas most of the body is 18% its full adult size, the brain is 90%. Babies are born with about 75% more brain cells than they need, and do not use them until they are connected via synapses, the connections between neurons. As they are biologicaly finite, if these synapses connections that come through parental and other stimulation are not made by this age, use of those brain cells is lost for life. There is a mirroring when children are in a stressful state, when they produce cortisol, which causes brain cells to die and reduces the connections. These early emotional attributes are shown to have strong correlations to many things in later life, including violence, employment and academic achievement. The window of opportunity then is a narrow one and the case for public policy to seize it very strong, which is what the early intervention foundation is about (where manchester is a "pioneering place"), and I am wholly supportive of it. Modern science and methods though only illuminate and heighten our awareness, as hundreds of years ago we were already saying give me the child at seven and I'll show you the man.

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