Easter Egg Vlogging: statistics and swords

Well, sort of. But don’t be scared, gentle readers, I’m not torturing you with a video of myself watching Edward Hugh watching Alex Harrowell watching me watching Edward, thus entirely disregarding the possible value of such a video for media theorists and social psychologists as well as the fact that all the cool kids are apparently engaging in such technically mediated low level chain-voyeurism these days

Last December, I saw the Swedish demographer Hans Rosling’s presentation about his project gapminder at the LeWeb3 conference in Paris. Professor Rosling and his team have developed the “Gapminder Trendalyzer”, recently purchased by Google (and now available on http://tools.google.com/gapminder/), a truly stunning tool to flexibly visualize and break down statistical time series, currently particularly relating to UN world development data.

Rosling’s presentation, in which he demonstrated beyond doubt that top Swedish students statistically know far less about the developing world than chimpanzees (who are on par with Nobel laureates), was one of the most interesting parts of the conference, and, as Loic LeMeur mentioned then, eye opening. Professor Rosling’s statistically derived world view is very different from the gloomy preconceptions most people are often mistaking for reality when talking about the state of the world’s development and demographic situation, particularly with respect to Africa, as Bruno Guissani remarks on Lunch Over IP -

My experience in Africa, he says, is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Even bad governments have gone in the last 50 years from pre-medieval situation to sometimes decent infrastructure and conditions. … “You can believe statistics when you can relate them to your grandmother”, he says. By which he means that he has mapped his family history comparing the situation of Sweden in the different years in which his family members lived to that of different nations of the world today. His great-great mother born in the early 1800 lived in a country similar to today’s Sierra Leone; his g-g-mother in one that looked like Mozambique; his g-mother’s living conditions were close to that of Ghana today; his mother lived in the equivalent of Egypt. “And I am a Mexican”, he says, while his kids were born when Sweden was similar to today’s Chile and, in the case of the youngest one, like Singapore.

Luckily, for your Easter Vlogging pleasure, the TED blog has a video of Professor Rosling’s speech at the TED conference 2006, which is basically the one I saw in Paris. Unfortunately, there seems to be no video of his appearance at the TED conference 2007, where he demonstrated that demography and sword swallowing are two rather compatible activities. But there is a picture

French Candidates: What is this EU thing anyway?

Why do the leading candidates in the French presidential election seem to have utterly strange European policies?

Take Nicolas Sarkozy. He supposedly believes in “rupture” with old ways and a dash for a new free-market, hard-nosed, toughness cult future. And Euroscepticism is at the heart of this. But at the same time, he has promised to restore le productivisme – that is to say, the maximisation of volume – as the guiding principle of the Common Agricultural Policy.

That’s not free-market, tough, eurosceptic, hard-nosed, liberal, or anything else, except for pure clientele politics. Better yet, it’s the kind of clientele politics that uses other people’s money. Yawn. Not that the peasants’ representatives believes in it – one of them recently said that “there are no cloned Chiracs available”.

Fascinatingly, he’s also now blaming the European Central Bank for its exchange rate policy – as is Ségoléne Royal. Sarko thinks the trouble at Airbus is all down to the bank’s “policy of over-valuation against the dollar.” Sego apparently asked for Angela Merkel to help change the ECB’s charter so that “its sole objective would not be the exchange rate.”

One problem – the exchange rate is not the objective of the ECB. The ECB does not target the exchange rate. This is, of course, all part of the game with the straining “Bretton Woods II” arrangement between the US and China pushing the adjustment burden our way. But – the ECB does not stock and does not sell exchange rate targets.

Italy’s Economic Problems Under The Spotlight

As Manuel points out in the accompanying post, Romano Prodi’s resignation as Italy’s Prime Minister is a rather sudden and dramatic, but scarcely unexpected, development. The immediate political crisis may be resolved as rapidly as it appeared, but again as Manuel indicates it may only serve as a prelude for further things to come, and the fragility of any government coalition which may be put together only underlines the difficulties Italy will almost certainly have in addressing what are important ongoing economic problems. The present post will simply attempt to outline some of the main economic problems Italy faces, in order to contextualize the political problem a little.
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The Economics of the German VAT Hike

I am very happy to be back here at AFOE, if not only, for a brief one-stop guest post about the economics of the German VAT hike and more specifically how market commentators and analists might just be reading the German economy somewhat falsely at the moment in the sense that they are not taking into account the implications of the sustained and evolving process of ageing in the German society. Indeed as Edward noted just a few days ago here at AFOE we might actually be talking about a clash of paradigms or at least a clash between two ways of looking at and interpreting the economic data coming out of Germany and indeed of the entire Eurozone. There are consequently many venues on which this diagreement is fielded and an important one of these is the German economy and more specifically the significance of the VAT hike and below the fold I will give my view on this topic.
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Eurozone Economy: When Paradigms Collide

When scientific paradigms collide everyone should duck, at least that is the best advice I can offer at the present moment. The provisional German retail sales for January are now in, and they don’t make especially pleasant reading:

European retail sales dropped for the first time in 10 months in January as spending in Germany slumped, adding to signs economic growth is slowing, the Bloomberg purchasing managers index showed…..German retail sales had the biggest drop in two-and-a-half years, with its index declining to 43.9 from 55.2 in December

Now for those who have been following the German economy in recent months none of this should be particularly surprising, since as is reasonably well known Angela Merkel’s government has just upped VAT from 16% to 19% in an attempt to address the ongoing federal deficit problems. And of course, one months data never offer a complete picture. But this decline in retail consumption in Germany forms part of a much longer ongoing weakness in domestic consumption (and here), one which many were arguing had finally come to an end in 2006. Some of us, however, seriously doubted that this was the case, and hence the initial significance of today’s reading. In particular what we may be faced with are changing structural characteristics of economies as median population ages rise. In particular – and following the well-known life cycle pattern of saving and consumption – more elderly economies may have a higher rate of saving and a lower rate of consumption increase than their younger counterparts.

Some more evidence to back this point of view comes from Japan, where today we learn that household spending in December declined for a 12th straight month, dropping 1.9 percent from a year ago. Yet the Japanese economy is not in recession, and output is actually rising. As Bloomberg say:

Japan’s factory production rose to a record and household spending fell, underscoring the central bank’s concern that growth has bypassed consumers and left the economy dependent on exports.

So please note: growth appears to have by-passed consumers, and the economy is ever more dependent on exports. The same goes for Germany, and this is why I talk about paradigm collision, since the neo-classical theory of economic growth – with its core conception of ‘steady state’ growth – was never built to handle median age related changes in economic performance and structural characteristics. Something new is clearly needed.

Over the coming weeks I will undoubtedly have more to say about all this, as we get to see more of the 2007 Eurozone data, but for now let me point you in the direction of Claus Vistesen, who has been patiently toiling away trying to work through a hypothesis which, in terms of the data we are now seeing, certainly seems more in keeping with current economic realities than the view we currently see emanating from the ECB. His arguments on Japan can be found in depth here, and his latest piece on the eurozone is reproduced below the fold.
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It says something about AFOE charter member and – to use a NASA title – principal investigator Edward Hugh that, when Nosemonkey recently did a roundup of new European blogs, the top one on the list had already been roped in to EdWorld, as a contributor to Demography Matters and Global Economy Matters.

You will be assimilated.

Brio and Open-Source Hardware

Intellectual property rights in technology. Great, aren’t they? Consider Brio, the middle-class fave range of wooden toys, whose manufacturers have neatly locked out competitors who want to make toys that will go with theirs by using couplings and fasteners that are proprietary and non-standard.

Elsewhere, on the NANOG (North American Network Operators’ Group) list, they discussed the thorny problem of cooling increasingly powerful servers and routers, and arrived at some consensus around using much more water cooling. Paul Vixie argued that in the future, rackmount equipment would have standard connectors for cool water in and warm water out, as it already has standard power connectors, USB ports, and RJ-45 Ethernet ports.

Cool idea! Naturally, there are already racks with water connectors, but inevitably they are proprietary and incompatible. Amusingly, someone pointed out that standard connectors and flexible pipes exist in the beer trade, which is a start. But what does intellectual property actually bring society? I know the standard arguments about the necessity of rewarding invention, but it’s very noticeable that a lot of innovation happens in the open-source world and in what you might call the non-patent space, among academic researchers and the like.

When Bell Labs invented the transistor, they didn’t try to enforce patents on it. Instead they published all their results in peer-reviewed journals and organised technical conferences to spread the knowledge. Perhaps the optimal solution isn’t to look for a total solution, but just to start pushing back the limits of the IP-sphere and see what happens, tolerating any anomalies? Again, seeing that the EU’s misbegotten software patents directive is now dead, this is something we could get started..

This is not how to deal with demography

Demography matters, as Ed constantly points out. It matters so much they’re even talking about it up at Davos, where they’ve invited “the world’s most important bloggers” into the bargain. So, from the AFOE (Europe’s No.1, according to E-Sharp magazine) forward bureau in the Hotel Derby, we’d like to point out that this probably won’t solve Japan’s demographic problems:

“The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can ask for is for them to do their best per head, although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Ya think? So says Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa.

BTW, if this is Davos it looks a lot like my front room…you see, we at AFOE have a deployable blog-unit in a standard shipping container that contains everything we need to support our mission of pan-European opinion in remote locations. Or something. Ho hum.

Serbia: That Incredible Shrinking Country

This weekend’s election results in Serbia, and in particular the gridlock state of the political process and the resilience of the vote for the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (as ably explained by Doug in the previous post), pose new, and arguably reasonably urgent questions for all those who are concerned about the future of those European countries who currently find themselves locked outside the frontiers of the European Union. What follows below the fold is a cross-post of an entry I put up earlier this afternoon on the new global economy blog: Global Economy Matters. I don’t normally like cross-posting, since I would prefer to put up original Afoe content, but my time is a bit pressed at the moment, and I feel the issues raised are important enough to merit a separate airing on this site.
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