7.10.10

Brezhnev Calling

One American academic warns that if oil stays around $70/80 a barrel, Russia is headed back to the Brezhnev days.


Scary


Yale Economics Professor, Aleh Tsyvinsky said the stagnation of the 1970s, when a nip of vodka was the common way of getting through the day, is inevitable if Russia does not reform and remove the burdens on innovative small businesses, from corruption to regulation.

Russia is a relatively rich country by world standards but that means growth in the future is much harder than during the catch-up phase of the past. Top-down reform has been tried and has failed, says Tsyvinsky, but it has failed because there is no demand for reform.

Unfortunately, the curse of oil wealth means that Russia's government has little incentive to reform while the oil price brings in enough revenue to grease the wheels of state.

Speaking at the VTB Russia Calling forum in Moscow this week, he says the answer is to sell off the large state corporations which have no genuine interest in reform or innovation and subject them to the rigours of the market.

I tested the idea on my Russian colleagues. Stalin doesn't frighten them but returning to the Brezhnev era scares them witless.

Inflation: Politicians' Final Gamble

House prices are begining to crumble... despite the best efforts of government to prop them up by flooding the banks with money.

Governments are desperate to stop house prices falling. Supporting asset prices is the key reason the central banks have been printing money, expanding the monetary base, turning a credit crunch into a looming crisis of excess liquidity.

If you doubt, here’s the Federal Reserve:
“Nevertheless, balance sheet policy can still lower longer-term borrowing costs for many households and businesses, and it adds to household wealth by keeping asset prices higher than they otherwise would be.” (Brian Sack, New York Federal Reserve Markets Group)

Homeowners have votes but the banks and their property developer clients have clout. So the other purpose of flooding the banks with money is so they won't have to foreclose on developers and knock the price of their vanity projects into a chasm.

PRINT AND BORROW

But asset prices for commercial property and homes are falling. If all that printed money is not able to keep asset prices inflated, what’s going on?

Governments are printing money and lending it, very cheaply to banks. However banks are not lending it on, partly because they don’t want the risk and partly because few companies or individuals are prepared to borrow on the terms available.

So banks are lending the money back to the government by buying treasury bonds. Yes, governments are effectively printing money and borrowing from themselves. Nonetheless, printing on go they!

The US has just committed to a new round of QE and the UK’s Institute of Directors this week called on the Bank of England to keep the printing presses rolling. Japan has cut interest rates to zero.

The west is prescribing different medicine for China. It wants the Great Exporter to revalue its currency upwards - which would inflict carnage on US and European manufacturers who use Chinese parts but that's another story about political boneheads.

NAPALM FOR THE ECONOMY

How will it end, if all this liquidity is not finding its way into the real economy but is, nonetheless, devaluing paper money?

At the IMF meeting this weekend finance ministers will plead with each other to stop the currency wars, the competitive devaluation that threatens to do for free trade what napalm does for vegetation.

If politicians go ahead and bring world trade to its knees, prepare for stagnation. But still, they hope that despite stagnation abroad they can somehow bring about inflation at home.

That combination, of falling national wealth and devalued currency, will at least allow them to pretend to the electorate that their home's still worth a bit.

Flooding the markets with liquidity propped up asset prices for a while but, the longer QE continues, the less effect it has because, all the time, the currency is falling in value. Simples!

Hang on, homeowners. If only the banks keep printing, house prices may fall now, but inflation will appear to push them back up eventually.






17.9.10

Russia is Asia (Get Used To It)

My 15 minute drive to the service centre took two and a half hours today. I sat in the traffic on Moscow’s Third Ring alongside ambulances which, despite sirens blaring, made little more progress than I did.

I was trying to drop off my car, something which can only be done by scheduling a hard-to-get appointment within set hours.

Why, I wondered, don’t more service centres offer out-of-hours support. Moscow’s traffic jams are legendary, among the very worst in the world.

It was the second time in six days that I had been stuck, barely moving, for more than two hours, both because of accidents. I had plenty of time to examine the Russian enigma.

Ahead of me, few of the thousands of drivers made any effort to leave the Moscow ring road. In Europe, drivers would have taken any opportunity to escape and try their luck at a different route. In Moscow they sat in line, breathing the smoke that belched from countless exhausts, awaiting their fate.

On the radio, the prime minister was talking about modernizing the economy. He spoke of innovation but not initiative.

ADAPT OR DIE

Russia’s politicians endlessly tell the population that they’re part of Europe. The message gets through. People move to residential districts, buy cars, drive the kids to school, pick up the shopping but at a cost in stress and time and pollution that Europeans would not bear. Every day the country’s Asian character becomes more evident.

Yet Russia is not Asian enough. In Bangkok or Turkey, you have no problem getting a haircut at six in the morning or ten at night. If the traffic doesn’t move, Thais move the meeting or businessmen get together in a limousine. In Japan, chains of hotels offer sleeping cubicles by the hour for those taking a nap before their second job. If the infrastructure doesn’t function, people change their lifestyle, business adapts. It's a more gentle version of adapt or die.

Protestant Europe, in contrast, purports to live by the rulebook and the clock. Live within the rules and the timetable and you can get pretty much anything done.

FANTASTICAL FOLK TALES

As I was discovering, you cannot live by a European timetable in Russia. The people form a passive mass before you. Drivers try to push their way in front of others, but they all travel in the same direction.

You dare not run an errand on the way to work, drop something off, or get your hair cut. The traffic, or the police, or an unannounced road closure will snare you. You stray from the path at your peril. Take a different turn and consequences begin to unfold. No wonder the Russians have the most fantastical folk tales. There is always the unexpected waiting around the corner.

Many Russians make their journeys at five in the morning or after 10 at night. So many, that jams are now common even when most of the population is in bed.

Just six days before, driving to the dacha northwest of Moscow at 11 pm, another deadly accident had brought traffic to a two-hour standstill.

A FOOL AND THE LAW

The way drivers dealt with the problem was simply terrifying. A few performed U-turns and went home. Some swerved to the other side of the road, put the car in reverse, and drove backwards to their destination. Many more simply swung into the oncoming lane and took their chance.

I told my Russian passenger that this was surely a sign of popular madness.

“Russians are mad but it is not a genetic madness. They have been ruled by so many different, brutal regimes at different times.When they feel free, they go a bit crazy. Secondly, they have no respect for rules. A fool obeys the law but you are clever if you find a way around it.

If Russians were as creative with business as they are with rules, there would be no need for politicians to talk about modernizing the economy. And we wouldn’t be spending so much time in a line on the Third Ring.

8.7.10

ECB on EU Bank Stress Tests

There's misinformation about the EU's plan to stress test its banks to see how stable they'll be if the economy turns south again.

First of all, the stress tests will be conducted by individual countries through their respective regulators, not by the European Central Bank or any central body.

The ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet made this clear when I interviewed him on June 18th. You can see most of the interview here but his comments about stress tests are published here for the first time.

Q: "Are these new stress tests and will there be a uniform standard applied from a central regulatory body or will this be conducted by national regulators." 

A: “We are working on that. It is coordinated at the level of the body which is responsible for the coordination of the 27. We ourselves at the ECB are in very close connection with the CEBS (Committee of European Banking Supervisors) which is the name of this body. And of course it is at the level of each national supervision authority that it is conducted and so I think it was a very good decision of the Europeans to be public on this test."

Q: "Are we talking about a new stress test?"

A: "This is a test which had been started at the level of CEBS and we will ensure, they will ensure, we will all ensure that it is exactly coordinated at the level of Europe as a whole. I expect we will have appropriately coordinated parameters and working assumptions in order to have this publication of individual stress test."

Q:  "And what will you do if problems are revealed?"

A: "I mean it’s up to each particular country. As I said it is run at the level of each particular nation but on a coordinated basis but the responsibility, you know, in terms of banking surveillance is the responsibility at the level of the nations concerned."

23.6.10

Democracy In Danger, EU Chief Warns

You read it here first. The unravelling of the euro threatens to ignite both radical and authoritarian trends in southern European politics.

None less than the chairman of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso has warned that democracy could be at risk in Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Last month I pointed out the same danger that resentment at the way Germany and other northern European members of the EU are responding to the crisis could undermine purpose for which the EU was invented in the first place: to unite Europe against war.


"As Greece enters a long and painful austerity, the country’s vulnerability to political extremism and ability to resist will be tested. Terrorist groups such as November 17, small but fired by a hatred of capitalism and the United States, could find fertile support. These groups date back to protests against the autocracy of the Greek colonels and have never been convincingly uprooted."

22.6.10

How To Become A Journalist

Coaching is part of my job and I'll be putting my varied thoughts in one place from now, spiced up with a few stories that I can get away with printing. For this article, I've borrowed heavily from a number of articles and industry sites. It's a rare blog (web log) for me.


Work and status

Most journalists work hard for low pay. An investment banker once badgered me to help him get a job in television until I invited him to the newsroom, showed him the work and the schedule and then told him the pay. Yet many people, even in the industry, continue to see journalism as a route to glamour and status. These people are deluded and should be disabused of their feelings of grandeur.

When I was at the BBC it was infuriating to watch the phenomenon of the BBC Producer. These people always carried a large red or blue book, about the size of a folder. They clutched it even when they were chatting in corridors or sitting in the canteen, which is what they did most of the time. Those who did the work were rarely seen clutching these large red or blue books, using a reporter’s notepad or whatever came to hand.  It dawned on me that I was observing two types: those who produced and those who simply wanted to call themselves a BBC Producer.

At Sky News I witnessed another phenomenon. Whenever a news story broke, one of the producers on the news desk would start making whooping noises, imitating an alarm, and shouting “Dive, dive!” as if the newsroom was a submarine. While he was still amusing himself, other colleagues had already picked up the phones and started dialing contacts, checking the story, getting guests, dispatching reporters. Some months later his boss, the saxophone-playing news editor, promoted this whooping producer, obviously confusing noise with action.

Those who talk the most, who make the most noise in a newsroom, are not the busy ones. Just as the best producers are those who have been reporters, so the only good producers and reporters are those who are journalists.

What is a journalist?

“Every good journalist is a reporter.”

“Reporters are neither artists, nor politicians, nor scholars,” wrote Egon Erwin Kisch (1885–1948). “They should be unbiased witnesses and bear unbiased witness.”

They should also be “a fanaticist of facts.”  That is why journalism is a passion, not just a job. The sociologist Max Weber said, “a truly great act of journalism needs just as much esprit as any scholarly achievement.”

The German Journalists’ Association (DJV) defines a journalist’s occupational profile as follows: “By providing comprehensive information via all public media journalists ensure that each citizen can recognize the forces at work in society and participate in the decision-making process. This is the prerequisite for a functioning democratic state.”

Thus the German Journalists’ Association says journalists should…
  • …master media-specific reporting and writing techniques,
  • ...be able to design journalistic products,
  • …master a range of research and investigative methods,
  • …have a basic knowledge of media law,
  • …be aware of the competitive framework and the media landscape.
In Germany, not just anyone can call themselves a hairdresser or a baker. Yet there is no protection for the profession of journalist. Why? Because it is vital that the state does not have the power to decide who is a journalist and who is not. 

Under the Third Reich, a law was passed to define an editor:

“An editor must
  1. be a national of the German Reich,
  2. be in possession of his civil rights and be authorized to assume public office,
  3. be of Aryan descent and not be married to a person of non-Aryan descent,
  4. be at least 21 years of age,
  5. be capable of contracting,
  6. have the required training,
  7. have the qualities required to take influence on public opinion.”
(Article 5 of the Editors’ Law)

Journalism is a craft not a profession

Naturally, journalists do not want or need state approval. Journalism remains a democratic craft, in contrast to the exclusive professions of accountancy, law, medicine or education where participation is strictly controlled by trade associations.

However, the industry has ways to ensure that standards don’t fall as a result of this open door policy.  Many jobs require:
  • Traineeship with a newspaper,
  • A university degree in journalism,
  • A degree gained at a college of journalism.

A craft's essential skills

Not everyone who simply gathers information and disseminates it can be called a journalist. The craft requires skill in finding story ideas and facts, cultivating sources, and then presenting news in a way that serves the public interest. It requires specific talents for research, interviews, and distillation of information; sifting rant from reality; and then presenting it with clarity, accuracy, speed, and relevance. In giving access to a reporter, newsmakers must be mindful of those essential skills.


But how do I show off my personality?

“It’s a story because I think it is”. An error of laziness. Even your boss should be willing and able to defend why he thinks it's a story. You must check facts and context.  I offended one co-worker when I said her suggestion was not a news story. She took it so badly that she started to ignore my stories and to promote only her own and those of her cohorts. This is immature and not the behaviour of a journalist.

One manager always pushed stories from her home region, such as bus crashes, to the top of the running order at an international news station.

There are objective criteria. A good news story depends on the audience and role of your news outlet. It has nothing to do with status, office politics or personality.

“It’s my story. Keep your hands off it.” Jealously guarding a story that you found and keeping your contacts to yourself is characteristic of a journalist. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to take credit for a story that you have found, investigated and written.

“I want my style to shine through”. Some inexperienced journalists try to develop their own style before they have learned the craft of news writing or even how to research and check facts. Experienced journalists know that the only style that matters is the stylebook. The key to news writing is simplicity. A good story writes itself.

“I want my sexuality to shine through”. Even if it helped you get the job, sexuality should have nothing to do with how you report a story. You are not on television to try to pick up dates. Leave that until after work. Do not appear on the television dressed in a bondage jacket like one BBC economics reporter a few years back. Celebrate your sexuality off screen.

How do you define a journalist?

About 125 journalists are in prison around the world according to lobby group the Committee To Protect Journalists. Other organisations such Amnesty International compute different numbers, depending on the definition.


In Mexico, a good journalist is a dead journalist.

Hundreds of reporters and journalists have been killed in the past few years because of the fact that they were telling the truth. That's why today, newspapers, magazines and TV media are using what's called self-censorship. They want to keep their jobs as reporters or journalists, but they also want to stay alive, so they tell the news in a way which will offend no drug cartel or even government official. The problem of drug trafficking in Mexico is horrible. The majority of the police are garbage, they receive bribes from the drug cartels to not arrest them or seize any drugs.


Humour

What is a journalist? A journalist is someone who earned pretty good money telling us what was really going on in the world, until he realized he could earn better money by telling us about the social lives of the people who earn really great money.

A journalist will fly halfway around the world to stand where a tsunami took place, and he’ll stand in freezing rain for two hours to point out that it’s wintertime.

Journalists are more curious than anybody, attacked by everybody, and lent money by nobody.


20.5.10

BBC News Fails To Score

I watch the BBC every couple of weeks when I return from my work abroad and approach the main news programmes with something like fresh eyes, hoping to learn from carefully-observed reports made by people who are lavished with time and money in order to know more about the globe than I do.

I want to see and hear the world. After all the BBC has 44 foreign bureaux and generates 120 hours of radio and television output every day. I want to learn something about my own country that isn’t already staring me in the face.

So what did I see on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010.

The programme managed to spend half an hour, assuring the viewer there was not much going on.

CARTOON CHARACTER

First, constitutional changes proposed by the new government: a straightforward report but one that merited some serious analysis.  What we got was a casual report to camera by political editor Nick Robinson which assumed the viewer either already knew the background or didn’t care.

Most of his effort seemed to be going into his polished and professional delivery – as a cartoon character, eyebrows twitching above ill-fitting glasses, a great performance, no doubt, but one better suited to an episode of Wallace and Gromit. Form over susbstance, cuddly appearance over content. Sugar not salt.

Second story: the battle for the leadership of the Labour party, with more than a minute dedicated to a flattering portrait of Ed Balls. An odd editorial decision in the first week of a new government battling an almighty crisis. You might think BBC reporters would cover the strategy of the winning team rather than the management changes of the team that’s just been defeated.

Yet we had images of the young, determined-looking Balls, the brains behind then Chancellor Gordon Brown; pictured with his wife; video of Balls being  teased by Heseltine.  Flattery, no hard information, questions or answers.

Then the Thailand crisis, in my view, the worst report of the night with no explanation, no context. Opposition leader Thaksin, former PM and controversial telecoms billionaire, was introduced by the BBC as “the poor people’s favourite”. 

You don’t have to know or care much about Thailand to ask why these protestors in red shirts seem willing to die by the dozen to oppose the government. Something must be going on. Did the BBC tell us?

STRAIGHT REPORTING

James Robbins, diplomatic correspondent, lazily described them as mobs and middle-class (presumably, but the BBC did not ask or tell, these include entrepreneurs and business people who can't afford an equally-corrupt government). He was mostly concerned about whether the protesters would leave us tourists to enjoy their country in peace.

Fourth up, the news of the day: the crisis threatening to collapse the euro. There was nothing to learn from this report as the Germany correspondent simply reeled off an account of Chancellor Merkel’s new law against speculators. This report required a knowledgeable reporter able to comment on the tensions between the EU members, how the markets reacted and what’s the outlook for our economies.

Then the jewel of the night.

John Simpson’s report on Uganda’s churches calling for the imprisonment or execution of homosexuals was very straight reporting, albeit on a topic that obsesses the BBC more than the rest of us.

The Ugandan vicar’s diatribe must have struck a cord or truth with many viewers: you British (the former colonial rulers, Simpson might have reminded the viewer) are obsessed with allowing gay marriage, while British society falls apart and the only religion that's thriving is Muslim. Pretty observant, I thought.

SENSE OF WONDER AND MYSTERY

As this was not a news report but another issue-based feature it could not lead to any conclusion so it ended with a whimper as Simpson pondered oh, how different are attitudes in Africa from those in the US or UK.

At this point a declaration of interest: I am a former BBC producer.  Far from ill-feelings towards my former employer I still hanker after the radio reports of the much-diminished BBC World Service and the great work I witnessed at first hand in BBC radio during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What is produced now is a consumer product, designed to be easily digestible to the broadest swathe of the population. Like all news output that’s driven by marketing people it assumes that people have no interest in the lives of others, no sense of wonder or mystery.

A good journalist can make any story interesting to his or her audience. The key is to know your audience, to know how to ask questions and, above all, to be interested.  The BBC fails on every count.

5.5.10

Euro Crisis Terror Risk

Is the EU’s response to the Greek crisis about helping the country to put its spending and income back into balance and pay off its debts, or is it about halting a crisis of confidence in the eurozone?

Despite what the politicians imply, these are not the same thing.

Greek politicians and commentators admit the country has lived beyond its means, paying similar salaries to those available in Brussels or Paris while producing less than 3% of eurozone output.

Protestors are on the streets of Athens because they fear even more dramatic cuts to pay and services. Greece is grappling with uncomfortable truths: work harder or earn less.

EU DITHERS


Athens isn’t burning yet, but European policymakers are fiddling, preferring European mood music to answering difficult questions: Can northern and southern Europe afford a similar lifestyle?

The uncomfortable truth is that northern Europe can afford to borrow more to enhance its lifestyle for objective reasons such as wealth-creating industries as well as subjective ones like reputation for competence and the long history of its financial centres.

The euro project famously was intended to promote the convergence of debt levels between governments. Instead, governments fiddled the fiscal numbers while wages and house prices converged.

There are huge differences in wages and the price of property and other assets across the United States. In the eurozone, a decade of low interest rates encouraged prices to converge upwards.

As the Greek protests show, Europe’s voters now believe this apparent wealth is theirs by right.

SAVING THE EURO

By dropping $146 billion into the Greek government’s bank account, the EU is more likely to support the lifestyle of Europe’s bankers but is it enough to satisfy them?

Looking at the possible outcomes: Let’s assume the 110 billion euro currently on offer stabilizes Greek finances. It would still require banks to respect caveat emptor in the case of Italy or Spain and hold the risky bonds which they willingly bought, rather than seek taxpayer bailouts. It may still require eurozone governments to print the money to bail out Greece.

As the crisis rolls on, politicians seek to rebrand the crisis as further integration of the euro, around a central treasury which they should have created at the start of the euro project. Unfortunately, half the eurozone countries now have black holes rather than gold to contribute to the central treasury so, in effect, Germany would play treasurer to the eurozone. This is precisely what it seeks to avoid.

A Greek default could leave European banks with 30 cents for every euro they’re owed. The consensus in Europe’s press is to exclude the possibility of such losses. That assumes the hurricane doesn’t move on to Italy and Spain. The amount of money required to settle their debts would require massive printing of money, creating inflation, undermining one of the core premises of the euro, the German-inspired commitment to long term stable prices.

The wealthiest nations face a choice of quitting the euro, allowing poorer nations to devalue the single currency to reflect their wage prospects. Alternatively they create a two-speed eurozone, forcing austerity upon southern Europe, cutting wages and services and requiring them to pay reparations, over decades to repay the bailout.

Germany and the other eurozone leaders will demand somebody pays and the choice will be seen as laying waste to Greece or to Europe's banks.

FROM TRAGEDY TO TERROR

As Greece enters a long and painful austerity, the country’s vulnerability to political extremism and ability to resist will be tested. Terrorist groups such as November 17, small but fired by a hatred of capitalism and the United States, could find fertile support. These groups date back to protests against the autocracy of the Greek colonels and have never been convincingly uprooted.

At stake in this crisis is not just Greek membership of a currency union. David, Lord Hannay, the UK’s permanent representative at the European Economic Community until 1990, once told me in an interview to remember the EEC, now EU, is not primarily about trade or even currencies. It is an alliance intended to ensure that Europe’s leading nations never again go to war with on another.

The euro project raised the expectations of citizens in countries like Greece and Portugal that they’d rejoined the first world. Failing to hold the eurozone together risks splitting Europe and undermining its fundamental purpose.

In launching the single currency without fully understanding what they were doing, Europe’s politicians find themselves in the same camp as the Goldman Sachs trader ‘Fabulous Fab’ Tourre, who created and sold investment products based on sub-prime mortgages.

The hapless Fab admitted in emails that are now subject of multiple legal cases, that he was “...standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstrosities!"

The European economic community was an undoubted success. The single currency may have been a step too far.

16.4.10

The Euro Circus

"Investors benefit from the subsidy of the euro countries, pocketing the profits they make on Greek bonds. The most active players, in addition to the hedge funds, are European banks which are the biggest creditors to Greece.   And they are being saved again at taxpayers’ expense. The euro group is being led by the nose ring by market speculators around the capital market arena, either due to a fear of Greece or a lack of market understanding." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Greek Crisis Could Trash Euro

The eurozone’s secret is that its pockets are a little dusty. It could print the cash to bail out Greece and but it knows that wouldn’t be the end of it. Far cleaner for Germany to turn its back on the project.

This became apparent when the EU searched its undergarments for a financial girdle big enough to support the bloated, indebted Greek government. But the Greek crisis is bursting out all over. No sooner had the Athens government promised to control its spending than savers fled Greek banks.

Last weekend’s €45bn loan support was supposed to stop this. I won’t call the support an offer since the EU announced in advance that it was confident Greece would not need the loan.

“The Greeks won’t need the money. We’re just offering a loan of staggering proportions to calm the markets by showing our support for Athens.” That was the line trotted out by the financial press this week.

Well, far from not needing the money, your correspondent pondered, Greeks will want it, probably before the end of the month.

BRING THE SUITCASE TO ATHENS

The Greeks asked for the money by the end of the same week. On Friday, April 16th, 2010, the Greek government called for “discussions” with the European Central Bank on how to draw down the loan. Strictly they haven’t asked for the credit to be activated but I presume they would just like to know if, err, the money is, you know, ready.

Problem is, the ECB may not have decided. On Sunday, April 11th, European finance ministers, in Eurospeak, gave the ECB a mandate to offer Greece a loan. The ECB’s job was to work out the price, time span and conditions (sorry, conditionality in Eurospeak).

Athens, Monday: ECB representatives will meet the Greek government and they’d better come with a suitcase.

The eurozone finance ministers made efforts to disguise the urgency of this latest crisis. Last Sunday, ministers made frantic telephone calls, agreeing to cobble together a €45bn loan option for Greece with the help of the International Monetary Fund.

The was no explanation of why they interrupted the first sunny weekend of spring and no mention in the financial press that it might have been due to the Greek banking crisis that had snowballed the previous week. Savers withdrew €10bn from deposits in just a few days.

THE EU HAS FORM

Now it emerges that the EU may not have the money anyway. Toby Nangle, director of asset-allocation research at Baring Investment Securities in London, told Bloomberg that market players were betting their own money on the latest EU package not going through.

The EU has form. In 2009 it waded into the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine, making an offer to upgrade Ukraine’s pipeline network without consulting Russia, whose gas flows through those pipes.

If it was an attempt by the EU to snub Russia, it backfired. The EU’s promise to help finance a new gas transit network for Ukraine turned out to be a list of banks that Ukraine might like to call. Money there was none.

Now Morgan Stanley’s head of research Joachim Fels has criticized the European Central Bank’s decision to accept lower-grade collateral from Greek banks in return for ECB loans to help them through the crisis.

This, says Fels in a note to clients, could lead to the eurozone abandoning its commitment to good household management and result in a spiral of high spending and high inflation. Greece could not afford to exit the euro because that would mean even higher borrowing costs. Germany, on the other hand, would only benefit by exiting the euro as its credit rating would ensure much lower interest rates.

The ECB executive board are not fools. They know the risks. Board member Juergen Stark this week said the sovereign debt impasse that has Greece is suffering may be the second phase of the global financial crisis.

Of the 16 eurozone countries, 13 are in breach of EU rules to limit the gap between government income and spending.

Germany could afford to bail out Greece, which represents only three per cent of eurozone GDP. But then Portugal, Italy or several Baltic countries could be next. And it would draw protests from Ireland, which has shown the political will to tackle its funding crisis alone.

When I, along with dozens of reporters covered the launch of the single currency back in 2000, there never was a plan B. Like communism, the launch of the euro was intended to be a once-and-for-all transition to a new world.

We have discovered, in the past century, what the Gods have in store for man-made Utopias.

6.3.10

Great Terror, Leica X1

One can only wonder how many had been waiting, fatalistic, for the knock at the door.

Who thought there had been a terrible error and that Stalin would sort it out. A quick goodbye to their families before they were escorted away by the faceless agents of the security services. 

Dom Na Naberejnoi or the House on the Embankment, stands next to the former Red October chocolate factory on Serafimovicha Street, in Moscow. 

It used to be Europe's biggest apartment complex back in 1932, comprising of 10 or so buildings, including a theater, cinema, kindergarten and grocery. It housed the Soviet elite: military leaders, administrators, journalists and artists.

The house went on to acquire a terrible notoriety. Of the 2,400 people living there, during 1936-1937 just over 700 were arrested in Stalin's purges as enemies of the people.


Usually arrested at night, many were shot within days. Mostly men, their wives were usually sent to labour camps and children to orphanages.

There's a touching photograph of a boy of about 13 hosting a party for his friends captioned, First Birthday Without The Parents. Shed a tear for the children if you will. Many of the adults were part of the regime and some had played a role in repressing others. 

The complex now houses a small museum, headed by the widow of
Yuri Trifonov, who grew up in the house, and whose parents were liquidated. He wrote a book, published in 1978 which gave the building its current name (and he's the birthday boy in the photograph).

I took the Leica X1 along for a spot of historical documentary. As you can see it is a very modern-looking building, considering that it was built in 1928-1932. The architect was from Odessa, via Italy, B.M. Iofan.

It was supposed to face, across the River Moskva, the Palace of the Soviets. Preparations began with the demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, seen here

The design for the Palace of the Soviets was not like the impressive, if squat Stalin skyscrapers completed in the 1950s. It looks more like Pieter Breugel's paintings of the Tower of Babel, crossed with a bad dream of Benito Mussolini. 

Anyway, it turned out the foundations of the Cathedral had been built on a marsh and even the most extensive pile driving would not have supported the Palace.

So the authorities turned the site of the Cathedral into the Lenin Swimming Baths. 
The Cathedral was rebuilt in the 1990s, as you can see here, looking from the steps of the theatre of the House on the Embankment.

Looking from the steps of the theatre which still forms part of the House on the Embankment you get a strange sense that history is out of kilter. Not repeating itself, not a time warp, but that two periods of history have collided.

The small security office at entrance No.1 is now a museum. I spoke to a wonderful, multilingual lady who was born in this house in 1930. She devotes here time to chronicling the names of those who, one way or another, ended up as enemies of the people.




5.3.10

The Black and White of it

From Ariane Sherine, The Guardian:
Looking a bit brown still means being asked where you're from. So here's a ready-made answer for the overly curious. 
Last weekend, I had The Conversation for the 3,897th time – and this time, it took place in central London just two roads away from the hospital where I was born. As usual, it went like this:
Stranger: Where are you from? [Translation: You look a bit brown. Why are you brown?]
Me: London.
Stranger: No, where are you really from? [Translation: You are clearly telling me untruths. Brown people do not come from London.]

Good Article.

Puts in a less controversial manner the reality that Brits do have people pigeonholed (Yes, yes, I'm a Brit).

"Me, I'm not a racist. Nah, not me"
"So do you actually know any black or brown people?"
"Well, there's the guy I buy the paper and milk from".
"That doesn't count, really, does it? Do you have any black or brown friends?"
"Errm, are you accusing me of being racist?"

You see, multy culty Britain and the de rigueur political correctness means everyone has to say the right things to fit in, but their actions can tell a very different story?

Turn the argument on its head. The country is still firmly wedded to a class system where, at the top, they quiz you to establish whether you are "one of us". At the bottom, they quiz you to be sure you don't rise above your station. Can you really imagine such a social structure easily accommodates friends (no not colleagues or shopkeepers but friends) of a different colour.

Sure there are loads of people who love their friends, first of all for the person, and then for their otherness (colour blindness is as racist as colour sensitivity, the real test of a non-racist is someone who embraces difference, not someone who ignores it).

Ariane may find the person asking about her origins is very much interested and open, and not at all racist.

However, her point is that she does not see herself as an "other culture" and so gets more than a bit weary of people checkin' out the skin.

I write as a white boy who grew up in Nigeria, Brazil and Trinidad so unlike 99.99% of white Brits, I've experienced racism the other way. So I think about it another way.

Of course I'm not talking about stupid statistics telling us X per cent should be integrated.. (which seems to be the way the current social services/bureaucracy and wannabe social planners in the government see it).

Anyone is free to choose their own friends. But then, if, as one commenter wrote, "Given that the country is 94% white, it stands to reason many white people would not have any black friends" (and I agree, given the geographic distribution of minorities in the UK) then I'm correct in simply pointing out that for vast numbers of white Britons, the only black or brown person they're likely to come across is someone working in the service sector or, perhaps a colleague, and not someone they've chosen to meet.

Result: Nothing to blame people for but an unavoidable ignorance of other cultures.

I'm not saying it should be otherwise - or making any moral judgement. Just observing.

And what I see is a different nation to the Britain that the BBC and the government claim to reflect.

20.2.10

Irish Winter 2010 Leica X1

James Joyce's birthplace in Brighton Square, Dublin.

And the corner baker, where I pick up a dozen bagels every Sunday.

Russian Winter 2010 Leica X1

Just seconds to take this shot with the Leica X1. There, in heavy snowfall, central Moscow, like a beached whale.. a huge American roadster of the 1950s, stretching out its fins, belching vapour and blocking the path of a trolleybus.


The unsteadicam series - 1/30th at f/2.8, ISO 1600, automatic white balance.

11.2.10

Leica X1 at Usachevsky Market

As a follow up to my earlier review of the X1, I took it out for some documentary work in Usachevsky market in south west Moscow. I have photographed this market before, using the M8 to capture its diverse traders from, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tatarstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan among others.

These markets are under threat from the Moscow municipality or for reasons varying “jobs-for-Russians” nationalism, the valuable real estate the markets occupy and the perception that somehow these glorious markets are a sign of Russia’s backwardness, a view shared somewhat surprisingly by the BBC’s correspondents in Moscow.

Ikra from the salmon family. Caviar from Sturgeon is regulated.

Actually, food lovers know that these markets offer a range and quality of produce you will not find in even the most expensive supermarkets. You need to know a bit about Russia's logistical problems. The reason is that Russia imports much of its food and the best cheese, fruit, fish and caviar is more readily available from countries outside Russia proper, from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

SILENT, STEALTHY

These high quality goods stay in the street markets because the distribution of these products is handled by the same nationals who grow and make them, and who struggle to get their products into supermarkets controlled by French, Russian and (formerly) Turkish grocers – despite the evident superiority of these products.

Purses and Passport Wallets

On to the X1: Stealthy, near silent, pocketable. Perfect for the market, where corrupt policemen exact bribes and the traders are naturally suspicious.

The camera shines in this regard. I have average sized hands and the X1 sits perfectly. The body covering is grippy and I felt no need of the optional hand grip similar to the one I use with the M8.
While not invisible, most of the people I photographed did not notice it. Where I felt it was appropriate, for example where a woman was working alongside her daughter, I asked permission.

Vobla: An acquired taste.

Often I am using the camera without raising it to my eye. So having automatic focus should give me an advantage over the manual focus M8.  What I found was that, despite AF, the X1 was no faster in practice.

FACE DETECTION

Using the 1-point, high-speed AF setting was hit and miss and, of course, I should have tried the 11-point AF. I was still becoming familiar with the camera and I blame myself for missing focus. I used manual focus on occasion and found that much slower than working with the M8, which you can adjust in a split second by looking straight down at the focus markings on the lens.  Even with the fastest autofocus, and the X1 is not fast, you have no way of knowing where an AF camera has focused. With the M8, you do in terms of scale focus.

I will go back to the market and try face detection for the next round of shots. If it does seize faces and lock on to them, as I suspect it will, then face detection will raise the X1’s game. A couple of reviewers have dismissed face detection as something for kids’ parties. I suspect it could prove far more useful for stealth shooting.

Beekeeper from Altai

SHUDDER

However, auto focus was not the reason for most of my poor shots. I chose to use auto ISO and the X1 has a problem. The menu offers a choice for the slowest shutter speed: 1/8 th, 1/15th, 1/30th.  This is great. Instead of turning up the volume, it slows the shutter speed, extracting every ounce of quality from the sensor.  But it works too well, with no option to avoid subject movement in many situations. Most shots I lost were due to shudder – either camera shake or subject movement.

Another issue I will blame myself for is a tendency among my market shots to over exposure. I had not dialled in exposure compensation when clearly I should have.

Pickle Champions

Automatic white balance was exceptional under mixed lighting conditions, predominantly fluorescent, followed by strongly angled daylight and then tungsten. A better performance than the M8.

THE LENS

Sharp

Evaluation of image is subjective. However, when you achieve focus, spot-on, the 24mm f/2.8 really snaps. The lens is excellent. Leica was right not to go for an f/2 lens stuffed into a small package, requiring an additional file of distortion and abberation correction alongside the digital negative.

Why did Leica not go for a faster lens? The same reason it didn't go for a zoom: image quality. Even full sized fast lenses have trade-offs  (though you don't see this until f/1.4 in a full sized lens) between chromatic aberration, various types of distortion, flare etc. Only some of these can be corrected by software.

CONCLUSION

Now that I feel I’ve identified the way the X1 handled the Usachevsky market sequence, I’ve set everything under user profile. This is brilliant! The profiles (three available) remember absolutely everything, from the flash (forced on, then you just pop it up when you need it) to auto or manual focus, basically anything you set on any of the buttons or menu options.

I’d love to be able to name the profiles via a link to a computer and I don’t see why Leica shouldn’t offer a little more control via computer – for example to override the lowest shutter speed in auto ISO settings. Why does everything have to wait for a firmware update!

Lotions and potions

I can say I am much happier with the X1 than at first. This camera allows me to get into places that I could not, even when palming an M camera. It is that small and even more silent.

The tension comes in the dynamic between the auto and manual settings. Auto is auto. It often has no idea what you want and I’m not talking about the X1. I mean auto in general, even on a D700. However, coming from an M, there is an obstacle to overcome.

The digital M is a triumph of mechanical interface with technology. The X1 is still a compact camera, and the trade off is you still have to fight with things that answer first to the technology and only second to the user.

2.2.10

Leica X1

I've been out and about with the Leica X1.  What does it do?

It lets me take high quality images with a 35mm-equivalent lens in a body that's like a solid, compact film camera. Part of the new breed of bigger-than-compact cameras with much bigger sensors, the X1 gives the best image quality you can get in a small body.

However, it's expensive and despite its good looks, I believe it's not most people's idea of a dream camera.

It may offer the same image quality as  bigger cameras but it is much slower to use. Because its made by the last commercial German camera manufacturer, it is a high-quality product with a lot of quirks.

CLICK ON THE IMAGES FOR THE FULL FRAME AND MORE ACCURATE COLOUR

It's winter in Russia. All these photos were taken in poor light or at night. They are posted in low resolution, in which low-light images suffer. However, my feeling is they are very close to the M8 in terms of what you get in these conditions. The only image that's had any adjustment is The Third Man, to balance for the bright television picture. The others are straight from the camera, mostly on auto settings, to show what you get.

Image: Moscow Street Dog

I'm an amateur photographer and a television news journalist, not a camera reviewer. I mostly use a Leica M8, but also use cameras from Panasonic, Nikon and Ricoh. A few thoughts on my first two days with the X1.

It looks like a miniature M camera, in fact, it's looks hark back to the earliest 35mm camera by Oskar Barnack. Unlike the M8 or M9, however, the new camera will work in full automatic mode. But it's too slow for moving targets for which you need to pre-focus and switch to manual focus. To take full advantage of the DSLR-sized, APS-C sensor in the X1, you'll need to use manual controls to get around the camera's quirks.

Image: The Third Man

FINGER TROUBLE

AF/MF – Leica should move the AF-Macro setting somewhere else. The AF/MF button could then become a toggle button, with a single push switching between AF and MF. One could then quickly refine automatic focus using the thumb wheel. (To explain – the AF/MF button currently offers three options. So you need to press it three times to get from AF to MF, and two times to get from MF to AF. Not intuitive)

Auto Review – There is no way to magnify the image to check focus as part of Auto Review, unlike the M8 and M9. The menu system is familiar to M8, M9 users but I was surprised to see the selection ring (not the thumb wheel but the one that surrounds the five buttons) work differently. It doesn't magnify an image during Auto Review.  It’s second nature to M8, M9 users so why not carry it over.

Likewise the magnified view for focus confirmation as a part of Auto Review, a very useful attribute of the D-lux series is also missing. (Focus Assist magnifies the central portion of the screen as you are using the thumbwheel. The same magnified view should be an option under Auto Review.)

Image: Novodevichiy Convent

Live View – Working in low light, in manual, the Live View shows an estimated version of the exposure, depending on the settings the user has chosen. Only half a second before the shutter release does it show you what the lens and sensor are actually recording. This may be something to do with reports that the lens stops down uncontrollably during focusing instead of remaining at the selected aperture.

Whatever the reason, it makes Live View useless for manual photography in low light. You are essentially using a film camera and making your own estimates.

Waking from Auto Power Off 
(sleep) – takes three seconds. If you press the shutter during this time you get a message Auto Power Off Cancel. That’s a Microsoft touch: I know I want to cancel Auto Power Off. That’s why I pressed the shutter!

There is no way to cancel Auto Power Off. The maximum time before your camera locks up is 10 minutes.

Image: Metro

Ultra Slow Operating Speed
- Accessing Menu after switching on the camera – Even though the camera is fairly quick to extend the lens, you cannot enter the menu for three or four seconds.  As the camera does not remember manual lens settings, autofocus will require another second. In practice, it took me six seconds from switch on to take a photograph of my wall clock.

The X1 shuts down so slowly it is possible to switch it off and take the battery out, leaving the lens still extended.

The Battery and Base
- Who designed this? While the contacts are on only one side, the battery can fit in the slot either way. Back to front, it gets caught on a small spring.

Perhaps Leica kept this spring as a memento of the film M loading mechanism and it’s just as fragile. The battery compartment door does not click shut. You need to push a lever. Another hangover from the M design.

Nor is the tripod mount centred. Yes, Leica has managed to make the base plate of the X1 as fiddly as the Leica M's traditional removeable base plate.

Image: Snow Man

Comparison with GF1 - There's loads to say but what does an amateur photographer need to know?

I’m also using the Panasonic GF1 and 20mm f/1.7 alongside the M8 with selection of lenses.

In the hand, the GF1 feels solid and Leica should learn from the main dial on top of the camera: it is wonderfully firm, you can feel it through gloves, and it won’t move accidentally.

Speed, speed, speed. If you  want to capture facial expressions, a momentary glance, children or trains, planes and automobiles, the GF1 is fast enough. The X1 is not, unless you pre-focus manually and take your chances. But then the slow shutter actuation of more than a second, even in manual focus, can let you down.

Low light lens. Theoretically the X1 with its higher ISO capability is equal to the GFI with a faster lens. Those who know the difference don’t need preaching to.

The 20mm f/1.7 has a focus ring which, combined with a higher resolution LCD screen, makes manual focusing much easier and more accurate than on the X1.

Of course, both cameras can be used in auto mode, and in this the X1 feels slightly quicker in operation than the D-lux 3 (I haven’t used the 4).

The X1 offers higher image quality than the GF1 from both lens and sensor. In auto mode, the X1 is a slow point and shoot but one which offers ultra high image quality and low noise.

However, to get the best from this no-frills you need knowledge of how to use a manual camera.

Image: Mixed Light

THE LOW DOWN

The camera handles all kinds of light conditions but two tendencies quickly emerge: multiple light sources are handled exceptionally well by Automatic White Balance. However, there is a tendency to overexposure, even when compensation is dialed in. This may be related to the problem highlighted earlier (excuse pun!) that Live View and Histogram do not show the image according to the exposure settings.

Many reviews focus on the slow auto focus. This would not be a problem (it might actually be a bonus) if one could switch, at the press of a button, into manual focus for final tweaking. Unfortunately, the AF-Macro option is in the way.

This is a slow camera. Almost everything takes time: Switch on-to-first image, wake up from Auto Power Off, pressing Play to review images.

On the other hand, it is very easy to use, if you know what you are doing. This last bit is important, because often the camera will not tell you what it is doing! (In Auto ISO, the selected ISO is not displayed. Live View, as I said, shows you something quite different to what your selected settings are going to give you.

The use of single function buttons really helps, which is why Leica really should remove the final obstacles to fluid use. The buttons truly are excellent. You only need one press, and no confirmation. For example, to select MF, just select MF, no need to press Set.

Image: Charm Locks

IS IT A BUY?

If you have read this far and you still need to ask, then it is almost certainly not for you. I'm not being flippant.  This camera has quirks, obstacles to fluid use. You need to know what those are and to be ready and willing to overcome them.

As to the price, I can honestly say if you need to ask, you can't afford it.

25.1.10

Climate Crooks

The fraudulent researcher who claimed the Himalayan glaciers could disappear in three decades is on the payroll of the Chairman of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The invented research even helped the global warmers' favourite maharishi, Dr Pachauri, win $4 million in research grants for his own private company.

So a lucrative job with the UN was not enough!

Even though the Himalayas are not melting, not even the rocks, it looks like we have a corruption scandal here.

To recap, the IPCC’s 2007 report claiming the world is going to hell contained supposed research showing the Himalayan glaciers, supplying water to 40% of the world’s population, could disappear by 2035.

GREENPIECE THE PIONEER

It was the work of one Dr Hasnain, criticized by  at the time by his colleagues as "so wrong that it is not even worth dismissing". Yet it still went into the IPCC’s 2007 report.

Now even the IPCC admits it was codswallop. Will Dr Pachauri repay the $4 million in research grants that he’s managed to raise for his own private business?

The environmental movement had more than its fair share of crooks long before people started spelling its most famous institution, Greenpiece, after the US dollar.

The founding father of EU environmentalism Sir Maurice Strong is a crook and it looks very much like the railway engineer-cum-chairman of the IPCC is, too. Don’t mention Al Gore.

ANYTHING WHICH IS DELIBERATELY OPAQUE IS LIKELY TO BE FRAUDULENT


Few people tend to be against the concept of cutting pollution.  The far most effective way is to control what you burn, not what you emit!



Even carbon traders admit, "If you want to keep a donkey healthy, you don't regulate what comes out of it: you regulate what goes in."

Yet look what we have. A system of carbon trading so opaque, that the biggest polluting companies are enthusiastic supporters!

As one poster to the FT wrote: “Monetising by political and administrative fiat something intrinsically worthless - ie CO2 - could only make sense to people accustomed to a financial system based upon monetising intrinsically worthless bank IOUs. IMHO for a carbon market that actually works, we must look at ways in which we may monetise the intrinsic energy value of carbon.”

Carbon trading is so complicated it makes derivatives easy.  It's also a very risky basis for saving the planet, as the FT reports:

"According to the newspaper, banks and investors are already pulling out of planned clean-energy projects in the developing world on a large scale because of the lack of certainty over international carbon trading rules after 2012, when the Kyoto protocol expires, while the recession is blamed for dampening demand for credits under the current regime. Staffing levels on carbon trading desks, meanwhile, are reportedly also beginning to be cut."

2.1.10

Working For Seagulls

Charity, like work, has less to do with achieving anything, but lots to do with feeling good. This article in the Guardian gets to the heart of Big Numbers and the Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

"What's going on here, some psychologists argue, is the "purchase of moral satisfaction": instead of trying to picture the scale of the problem and donate accordingly, people just name the price required to achieve the fuzzy feeling of having done their bit. "The level of spending needed to purchase a warm glow depends on personality and financial situation," writes Eliezer Yudkowsky, at the blog Less Wrong. "But it certainly has nothing to do with the number of birds."

Work, also, is about gaining "moral satisfaction". The feel of having done something, rather than achieving measurable output.

Thus, managers feel they have done their job if they have got everyone busy on little tasks, even if those tasks are poaintless and produce nothing of value.

ЧАЙКА MANAGEMENT


The Seagull Manager is a typical example: flies in, dumps on everyone, flies out again. I suppose the less numerate managers are, the less they can visualise big numbers, so the more they are going to be wasting their employees' time.

More excerpts from the Guardian:

"Humans are terrible with big numbers. The financial meltdown has reminded us that even highly numerate people can't really feel, in their bones, the vast difference between a million, a billion and a trillion... Trying to be helpful, commentators will explain that, say, the £850bn spent to bail out Britain's banks would, in the form of £1 coins, stretch several times "to the moon and back". But this is worse than useless, because the distance from Earth to the moon is exactly the kind of big number we struggle to visualise."

"As any charity fundraising expert will tell you, one consequence of this is the phenomenon known as "scope insensitivity": we're troubled by the thought of a starving child, but we're definitely not 1,000 times more troubled by the thought of 1,000 starving children. One famous study asked people how much they'd be willing to pay to save 2,000 birds from dying in oil ponds; the average answer was about £49. And 20,000 or 200,000? The answers were £48 and £53, respectively."

"Come to think of it, isn't the whole world of work designed to encourage us in the mistaken idea that a 12-hour day is more effective than a three-hour day?"