Back on air

I’m back on air now, after my longest time in some years out of Internet contact, in upstate New York, where I’ve been visiting my friend and colleague Bob Chambers by the shores of beautiful Lake Skaneateles. We spent a few days tossing ideas for new papers around, and generally getting away from day-to-day pressures. I’m now back in DC (Maryland actually) and glad to be turning homeward, though, as usual, I’ve had a very pleasant stay here.

I can see that I’ve missed more news than usual over such a period, and it will take me a bit of time to absorb it all. I’ll start by expressing my best wishes to the people of New Orleans and other areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. I lived in cyclone-prone areas for quite a few years, but never experienced anything worse than a category 3, which was scary enough for me.

I’ll try to post soon on the economic consequences of all this. Most notable is the fact that a local disruption like this could push the price of oil over $US70/barrel. The guys who predicted $100/barrel not long ago must be feeling pleased with themselves.

As for the Australian political news, it’s startling, but I’ll wait until I’m better-informed before I say anything about it. Feel free to jump in with your own interpretations.

The London Tube shooting again

The news about the shooting of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, on the London Underground just gets worse. We’ll have to wait for the results of the current inquiry, and possibly longer before any firm conclusions can be reached (many recent inquiries in Britain have been politicised to the point of whitewash, so there are no guarantees here). Still, it’s hard to conceive of any explanation that doesn’t involve serious stuffups and multiple layers of coverup, going up as far as Metropolitan Police Chief Ian Blair.

One point that hasn’t been mentioned or not much is the implications of this tragedy for any assessment of the anti-terrorism effort. In a case as public as this one, and with a victim as obviously innocent as Mr de Menezes, it was impossible to keep the truth from coming out sooner or later, but it still took nearly a month. Suppose that the victim had been a Muslim – it seems certain that he would have been labelled a terrorist, at least by the method of undenied leaks used to accuse de Menezes of being responsible for his own death.

And for those prone to argue that we shouldn’t be so concerned about a single death in a situation where terrorists have killed dozens, what about failures in the opposite direction? Suppose that in the course of recent operations, mistakes were made that allowed accomplices or masterminds of the bomb plots to escape. How likely is that such things would ever come to light, given the culture of coverup that has been revealed here? And if failures don’t come to light, they won’t be corrected.

The great illusion

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, now apparently complete, and the IRA’s announcement that it has ended its armed campaign are notable events in themselves, and bring a little closer the end of two of the longest-running conflicts in the world today, though in both cases there are still plenty of problems

They’re also interesting in the bigger question of whether, and when, the strategy of pursuing political objectives by the use of force (terrorism, guerilla warfare, or conventional) makes sense. In Northern Ireland, and in Israel/Palestine we’ve seen this strategy pursued with vigour by different groups, and it’s reasonable to ask whether any of these groups is better off than if they had stuck to purely peaceful, or at least strictly defensive, methods.

Israel’s settlements in Gaza and the West Bank were set up partly in the hope of securing Israel proper against attack, and partly in pursuit of territorial expansion. Now, after the loss of many lives and the expenditure of vast amounts of money, the Gaza settlements have been abandoned, and it seems clear that the same will eventually happen to most of the settlements on the West Bank. Compare the actual outcome to an alternatives of either unilateral or negotiated withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Can anyone argue that Israel is better off with the approach it has taken.

On the Palestinian side, it seems most unlikely that the final settlement will be on better terms than those on offer at the Clinton-Barak-Arafat summit, and no obviosu reason to suppose that similar terms could not have been obtained years earlier if the PLO had been willing to offer them. Has the pursuit of the armed struggle yielded anything positive?

All the same points apply in relation to Ireland. The position the IRA is accepting now is essentially the same as that of the Sunningdale agreement in 1973. Extremists on both sides rejected this agreement and it collapsed. Thirty years later, neither side has achieved anything beyond entrenching violence and gangsterism (now effectively apolitical)/.

Gate Gourmet appeal

One of the striking features of industrial relations reform is that as strikes have declined, lockouts have increased. According to a recent ACCIRT study (PDF), most working days lost in long disputes (more than a month) are due to lockouts. The extreme case of the lockout, mass sackings with replacement by new workers on worse conditions is, I think, not covered in these statistics, but is increasingly important[1]. Nothing could give a clearer indication of the inherent bias of the reform process than the resurgence of forms of industrial action that had virtually disappeared for most of the 20th century.

The Gourmet Gate dispute in the UK is a particularly nasty example of the process, and one where international action can make a difference. Gourmet Gate is a subcontractor spun off from British Airways, a company with lots of customers around the world . To support the workers in this dispute, go to Labourstart. There’s more on the dispute from Polly Toynbee, who is pretty pessimistic, but I think underestimates the chance that BA can be shamed into some kind of settlement.

fn1. The classic case was the waterfront dispute, where the new employees were, unsurprisingly left in the lurch when their backers decided to settle with the union.

Google growing

Google is about to issue 14 159 265 more shares (the number chosen is derived from the decimal expansion of pi) aiming to raise about $4 billion at an average price of about $250 a share. Given that I argued that Google was overvalued at the initial offer price of around $80, it might be time to take another look, both at Google as an investment and at the issues raised by its position in the Internet. In this post, I’ll stick to the first issue.
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What I’ve been reading

The Da Vinci code by Dan Brown. Long after everyone else, I’ve finally got around to this publishing phenomenon. It kept me turning the pages reasonably steadily, which I suppose is the crucial test for a best-seller. But I found the code and the hero’s efforts to solve it pretty annoying. At one moment, he’s performing incredible feats of reasoning, worthy of a Harvard professor and world-leading symbologist. The next he’s stumped by the most simple-minded of anagrams[1] and unable to recognise mirror-writing. And when the readers need information, we either get presented with slabs of facts directly from the author or, even worse, one character lecturing another about things both should know. Couldn’t we just have links to Wikipedia inserted at appropriate points.

fn1. The contorted plot machinery required to justify the whole thing being in English, despite the setter and intended solver being French, are also fairly annoying.