Best of the Economist: June 2012

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Order, orderOn the road with John Bercow, the man trying to sell the House of Commons to the public. Nothing in Britain’s constitutional traditions obliges the Speaker of the House of Commons to woo voters. Within the Gothic halls of the Palace of Westminster, the Speaker is a mini-monarch, escorted to the chamber by a mace-bearer, a doorkeeper and a chaplain, while a policeman shouts at people to remove their hats.

Returning officersMore expatriates are electing political representatives at home. Thirty polling stations in Toronto, Montreal and five other cities helped French expatriates in Canada vote in their country’s presidential elections in April and May. But Canadian authorities would prefer their French guests not to cast ballots in the legislative election, which begins, outside France, on June 2nd.

Morals and the machineAs robots grow more autonomous, society needs to develop rules to manage them. In the classic science-fiction film “2001”, the ship’s computer, HAL, faces a dilemma. His instructions require him both to fulfil the ship’s mission (investigating an artefact near Jupiter) and to keep the mission’s true purpose secret from the ship’s crew. To resolve the contradiction, he tries to kill the crew.

Squeezing out the doctorThe role of physicians at the centre of health care is under pressure. In a windowless room on a quiet street in Framingham, outside Boston, Rob Goudswaard and his colleagues are trying to unpick the knottiest problem in health care: how to look after an ageing and thus sickening population efficiently.

Oh, that’s near enoughLetting microchips make a few mistakes here and there could make them much faster and more energy-efficient. Decades “manna from heaven”. That is how Trevor Mudge, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, describes the technological impact of the steady doubling, roughly every two years, of the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a silicon chip. But this steady doubling cannot go on for ever, and nearly five decades later the limits may finally be within sight.

Banyan: The hollow menThe deindustrialisation of Japan may be neither as complete nor as damaging as feared. At a time when the “hollowing out” of Japan’s economy, in train now for three decades, is widely perceived to be accelerating, the country’s industrialists must feel they cannot win. For years they have been accused of being left behind by a fast-changing world.

Ethiopian shoes: On the marchFootwear may be Ethiopia’s commercial future. Going barefoot in Africa often means injuries, worms puncturing the skin and putrefaction of the foot from disease. But in the past few years shoes have been getting a foothold in even the poorest and most remote communities of Ethiopia.

Cyber-warfare: Seek and hideAmerica hunts for the source of leaks about cyber-weapons. Stuxnet. Duqu. And now Flame. The list of malicious programs suspected of being the handiwork of governments is getting longer. A new book by David Sanger of the New York Times says that Stuxnet is part of a broad and secretive effort by America to use cyber-weapons against Iran.

Microsoft and privacy: Change of trackData on people’s online behaviour are worth both paying for and arguing over. An old saw has it that half of all advertising budgets are wasted—the trouble is, no one knows which half. In the internet age, at least in theory, this fraction can be much reduced. By watching what people search for, click on and say online, companies can aim “behavioural” ads at those most likely to buy.

Visas for entrepreneurs: Where creators are welcome, Australia, Canada and even Chile are more open than America. Most governments say they want to encourage entrepreneurs. Yet when foreigners with ideas come knocking, they slam doors in their faces. America, surprisingly, is one of the worst offenders.

ICANN and top level domains, Dot dash Businesses see opportunity in the opening up of internet domain names. “THE internet is about to change for ever” is an assertion often made by tech firms and their gushing flacks. But this week it came from Rod Beckstrom, the boss of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a deeply unsexy non-profit entity that controls the web’s naming system. For better or for worse, he is probably right.

Raising capital online: The new thundering herd Wanted: small sums of money to finance young companies. Click here to invest. Pebble, a watch that displays messages from the wearer’s iPhone, may not be a record-holder for long. The $10.3m raised last month from 68,929 people after Pebble’s inventors posted a pitch on Kickstarter, a “crowdfunding” website, dwarfed the previous high of $3.3m set in March by Double Fine Adventure, a video game (see chart 1). Until February, no project had raised $1m. Now seven have. This “feels like an inflection point”, says Yancey Strickler, a founder of Kickstarter, a site where anyone with an idea can ask the crowd for small sums of money that, added up, can bring it to fruition.

The Gaza Strip, Will normality ever return? The Islamists of Hamas are being squeezed towards pragmatism. Overcoming five years of punishing siege, bombardment and war should be a cause for celebration. But Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the coastal enclave of Gaza, was not cheering the anniversary of its military takeover on June 14th. Its initial pride at imposing internal security, constructing an effective administration and rebuilding Gaza by burrowing tunnels into Egypt is turning to embarrassment. Hamas officials have grown fat on the proceeds. The movement seems increasingly confused and evasive about its political direction.

The Arctic: The melting north The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, says James Astill. The retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers. Standing on the Greenland ice cap, it is obvious why restless modern man so reveres wild places. Everywhere you look, ice draws the eye, squeezed and chiselled by a unique coincidence of forces. Gormenghastian ice ridges, silver and lapis blue, ice mounds and other frozen contortions are minutely observable in the clear Arctic air. The great glaciers impose order on the icy sprawl, flowing down to a semi-frozen sea.

Urban research The laws of the cityA deluge of data makes cities laboratories for those seeking to run them better. No face looks alike, but human bodies and their genetic make-up are almost identical. Cities too have distinctive charms—but are surprisingly alike behind their façades. Regardless of size, their populations grow at the same average rate everywhere in the world. A city twice as large as its neighbour is likely to be 15% richer. The mix of green space and built-up areas tends to be equal everywhere.

Hotel hygiene Mind the remoteThe next time you check in… No one likes to think about who was in their hotel room before them, let alone what they got up to. The best to hope for is that your lodgings are clean and hygienic. But are they? Researchers from the University of Houston have probed the cleanliness of rooms, exposing the most—and least—filthy surfaces.

Economics: An ordinary JoeThe American dream is that any child can make it from the bottom to the top. That may still be true in politics; the son of a Kenyan immigrant, raised partly by his grandparents, is now president of the United States. But it is much less true, in economic terms, than most Americans think. Social mobility is less easy in America than in other countries. For example, three-quarters of Danes born in the lowest-earning 20% of the population escape their plight in adulthood. Seven out of ten poor children in supposedly class-ridden Britain achieve the same feat. But fewer than six in ten Americans do so.

How the internet works: Mapping the tubes, Contrary to expectations, the internet has a heart of cable and stee. “GOVERNMENTS of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So begins John Perry Barlow, once a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now a cyber-libertarian, in a tract he penned in 1996, entitled, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. It is a poetic summation of the common image of the internet as an ethereal, non-physical thing—an immanent Cloud that is at once everywhere and for ever on the far side of a screen.

Germans and the flag: Swathed in black, red and goldGermans are waving their flag again. The consensus is that Germans first stopped being uptight about their flag in 2006, when the country hosted the football World Cup. Until then, even during sporting competitions, the post-war Germans had felt too much shame or guilt about their Nazi past to do anything that might suggest patriotism. But in 2006 they discovered what others always knew: that sometimes, dressing or painting yourself in bright colours is innocent fun, especially when accompanied by mates and beer.

Online fraud: Blatancy and latencyWhy internet scams seem so obvious. In faulty English, the e-mail describes vast riches in search of an owner. Your new pen pal just needs your bank account to park the money—and will pay richly for the favour. In fact, the fraudsters will empty your account, or sucker you into paying fees for cash that never materialises.

Canada’s housing market: Time for a bigger needleThe latest attempt to prick a bubble. Canada’s reputation for financial regulation is starry. Its banks got through the crisis unscathed. According to Moody’s, a ratings agency, Royal Bank of Canada sits alongside HSBC and JPMorgan Chase in the top tier of global banks. And Canadian policymakers are old hands at pulling “macroprudential” levers of the sort now in vogue among rich-world central banks.

Moon tourism: Fly me to the moonTwo private firms are offering moon jaunts to the rich and dedicated. The space race between America and the Soviet Union was as much about ideological one-upmanship as extraterrestrial exploration. A new space race to the moon has an even less lofty goal: sightseeing. Two space-tourism companies are planning rival lunar missions that could see private individuals paying to fly to Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour.


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