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You can find much greater detail for the timeframes 1550-1700 at a new website now almost finished ... THE BUSINESS OF SLAVERY... a website book also designed to bring genealogical studies up-to-date from 1530 to the present-day... as well as questions of merchant lives and activities... Click now to... The Business of Slavery (in English history).

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Merchants and Bankers
From 1700 to 1750


Trade - an international perspective

The Merchant Networks Project
Merchant Networks Project logo by Lou Farina

This Merchants and Bankers Listings website is years old and is now (from 2009) undergoing a marked identity change. Its timeline material on economic history (for 1560-1930) is being moved to a website managed by Ken Cozens and Dan Byrnes, The Merchant Networks Project. This will empty many of this website's pages which have always been in series. In due course, Merchants and Bankers Listings will carry information from the Crusades on the early development of what became “capitalism” in Europe to 1560 or so. As well as a conglomeration of data on modern developments, mostly on modern/technical industry, computing, and for the future, today's climate change problems. The editor's view is that in the context of climate change, the views of Merchants and Bankers (and Economists, politicians), the keepers of matters economic, are due for a considerable shake-up. If this website can encourage the shake-up, and help inform it reliably, well and good. -Ed

What to do about the Internet?

It was Vincent Cerf who invented the TCP/IP computer protocol that allowed development of the Internet. On 1 January 1983, a group of Internet pioneers watched while a network of 400 computers were switched from NCP protocol to TCP/IP. It all worked, though it took a month to "purify" the stability of the use of TCP/IP. A long came Tim Berners-Lee who have us www. and lo, the Internet. Some of Cerf's views in early 2005 were as follows. On The Internet: It's a mirror of our society, and if you don'tlike what you see in the mirror you fix the thing that's reflected.
On Censorship: To introduce mechanisms government could engage that would allow censorship of political speech is worrisome.
(The Australian newspaper, IT pages, 26 April 2005


Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia: Scientists warn of hysteria over state of Barrier Reef. Hysteria surrounding the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef could lead to less bring done to protect it from immediate threats such as pollution and over-fishing, scientists have warned. (For those interested, an Australian named Terry Hughes is director of Coral Reef Research Centre.) (The Australian, 1 February 2007)

Glacier melts: Global warming is causing the world's glaciers to melt at three times the rate they did in the 1980s. A Swiss-based organisation, World Glacier Monitoring Service, has been commissioned by UN Environment Program to monitor many glaciers. Some 30 glaciers lost an average of 60-70cm of ice in 2005, 16 times the melting rate of the 1990s and three times that of the 1980s. Glaciers are an important water source for some of the world's most economically important rivers. (But one wonders if the loss of 65cm of ice was from the length of the glacier, or its depth, didn't anyone ask the researchers. We presume it makes a rather large difference. - Ed) (The Australian, 1 February 2007)

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2007: Glacier may last five years only?: The principal glacier of the world's biggest tropical ice cap is glacier Qori Kalis, of the Quelccay,a 44km square ice cap of the Peruvian Andes, Cordillera Oriental region. The rate of melt of this ice area is increasing, scientists find, and Qori Kalis may be gone in five years. It has already lost 11km of length. Globally, and so far, scientists have mounted about 50 expeditions which find seven glacier-areas shrinking, and snowfall levels are mostly falling. The current rates of glacier retreat are greater than at any time in the past 50 centuries and could affect the water supplies of up to four billion people. (Weekend Australian, 17-18 February 2007)

Antarctic lakes found?: Scientists have detected a network of lakes and rivers of rapidly moving water under Antarctica, leading to revision on ideas of global sea levels as ice sheets change. The faster the water moves in such sub-glacial lakes, the faster any melting ice will reach open sea, causing water levels to rise, is the theory from British Antarctic Survey. But what is not explained is, where is “under”. (Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend of 17-18 February 2007)

2007: Northern winter warmest recorded: US scientists (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have recently announced that the just-ended northern winter was the warmest on record. The previous-highest record was for 2002. The latest December-February period globally was the hottest yet on record for land-surface temperatures, with January conspicuously hot. Such temperatures have been increasing at three times the rate they were before 1976. Temperatures have actually been increasing since the 1800s. Meantime, other US scientists predicted that by 2100, even by 2040, the Northern Polar Ice Cap will be greatly ice-reduced, meaning open sea lanes for shipping. And generally, erratic food production may cause losses worth about US$5 billion annually. (Weekend Australian, 17-18 March 2007)

More 2008-2010 book listings for consideration

Books on technology, science, economics
Good news, bad news
Good news, bad news


Good news, bad news
Good news, bad news

Christopher Booker, The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With Climate Change Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder in History? Continuum, 2010, 369pp.

Brian Fagan, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Bloomsbury Press, 2008, 282pp.

Clive Hamilton, Requiem For A Species: why we resist the truth about climate change. Allen and Unwin, 2010, 240pp.

Al Gore, Our Choice, A Plan to Solve The Climate Crisis. Bloomsbury, 2010, 415pp.

Robert Kunzig and Wallace Broecker, Fixing Climate: The Story of Climate Science and How to Stop Global Warming. Green Profile, 2010, 288pp.

Chris Turney, Ice, Mud and Blood: Lessons From Climates Past. Macmillan, 2008, 248pp.

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress. Text Publishing, 2005. (Very scary. Civilization is now at risk of decline and things may collapse into a dark ages dwarfing anything experienced in the past)

2007: EUROPE: DANUBE RIVER NEAR DEATH: THE river that once inspired Johann Strauss' most famous waltz, The Blue Danube, may soon be doing the Danse Macabre unless restoration efforts go up-tempo, Der Spiegel reported. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, alterations made to the Danube's natural flow to generate power, control floods and improve shipping have taken their toll. Altogether, some 80 per cent of the watershed's wetlands, flood plains and forests have been destroyed, said the German weekly. Pollution, invasive species and climate change were also cited as major threats to the river. The Danube River basin includes all or part of 19 countries in Europe. The WWF named the EU's plan to develop the Trans-European Networks for Transport along the Danube as the river's greatest threat. The project, which will iron out bottlenecks and create a transport link between the North Sea and the Black Sea, would require considerable alteration to more than 1000km of the Danube, including the last remaining, naturally-flowing, dam-free sections. (The Australian, March 2007)

Role of the Sun in global warming?: "The science of how global warming occurs has become crucial to our economy. So why are dissenting explanations of the sun's influence on our fate being pushed aside?" It's noticeable that a great many bloggers around the world are nay-sayers about scientific ally-and-human-derived reasons for global warming, and there are now two dissenting TV documentaries getting a lot of attention. One doco claims that spin - scepticism about climate change - is funded and promoted by oil and coal companies. Then there is the doco, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which blames increased sun-spot activity for global warming and asserts that there is now a multi-billion-dollar global warming industry. What is the truth, etc? Are reputations at stake for the wrong reasons? Who is right to try to discredit whom? Are scientists being gagged? Is science still unable for example to assess the role of clouds? Can climate historians properly assess rises and falls in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels across a suitable number of millions of years? On and on the questions go. (Article by Matthew Warren, environment writer, Weekend Australian, 17-18 March 2007)

Australian government disbelieves?: “A senior Federal Government minister (Finance Minister, Nick Minchin), has expressed serious doubts that global warming has been caused by humans, relying on non-scientific material and discredited sources to back his claim. His remarks come about a month after a UN panel of scientists has delivered its strongest warning yet, that human are causing global warming. Minchin for example, doubts the recently issued economic review of global warming by UK's Sir Nicholas Stern. (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 March 2007)

2007: Rethink on multiculturalism?: Thirty years ago or more, Australia adopted the Canadian model of multiculturalism, but it seems as though Islamic fervour of various kinds has prompted a rethink of what multiculturalism is all about,and can be all about. Canadians are now discussing “reasonable accommodation of minorities,” which an Australian might translate as “You've had a fair go already, mate, so stop asking for special favours.” (In Ontario, a judge had ordered the removal of a Christmas tree from the entrance to a Toronto court to “avoid offending non-Christian sensibilities.) There have been a gaggle of absurd official decisions made in Canada by persons of a variety of religious (non-Christian) viewpoints, a trend stopped in its tracks when Herouxville, a small town in Quebec, had had enough and issued a set of standards so that newcomers to the area could better understand “the social life and customs” of life in an adopted country. It is explained that in Herouxville, women drive cars, vote, sign cheques, speak for themselves, dance in public when they feel like it, dress as they see fit, walk alone in public places, undertake studies of their choice, and work at a job. (Women are not subjected to public beatings or being burned alive.) The people of Herouxville drink alcohol, listen to music of all kinds, decorate Christmas trees, and allow boys and girls to play together in many different settings. The mayor of Herouxville says that the statement reflects what a great many people are thinking but lack the courage to say in public. But Herouxville has now been lambasted in turn by Canada's left-leaning media, where commentators think Herouxville is a racist hicksville. Well, this webmaster thinks that a great many countries could learn much from Herouxville's attitude; Australia, Britain, Denmark, Netherlands, France Spain, Germany. This webmaster recalls being in Melbourne working in newspapers in 1990. In various north-eastern suburbs, social workers were becoming concerned about reports arising of five-six year old children from Muslim families turning up at school unsocialized and unable to speak English. They had not been allowed to mix and play with other children in their streets in mostly multi-cultural suburbs. Various action was taken, but the action was not what this webmaster thought was appropriate – hauling the parents into court on charges of child abuse, for offenses such as bringing a child to an English-speaking country and for years, preventing it from learning English. But there would have been community management problems if such action was taken, there were too many Muslim parents involved. Here, some Muslim parents at least are in a distinct bind. If they live in widely multi-culturalized areas, then children will be exposed to a wider set of cultural ways and outlooks than they would if they lived only in “Anglo” areas. In this sense, multi-culturalism does little for the over-fervent Muslim, so there is no point in wondering about, or doubting, the national policy on multiculturalism just because some Muslims become stroppy. To be naively idealistic, this website also observes that if Muslims arrive in say, post-1945 Britain, and take exception to the way Christmas is observed, the plain rudeness,arrogance and plain stupidity and intolerance of any complaints they make about the matter should be met with stony silence – and extra Christmas decorations, not less This website wonders what about all this from Herouxville is so hard to understand that it gives Muslim folk sets of angsty problems in Western countries. It seems to this website that Westerner-Muslims ought to make a reasonable choice between reasonable accommodation and no accommodation at all – after all, no one has a gun at their head making them stay in Western countries. Do they? When was the last time a confused and resentful Muslim was forced to stay in Australia? (Various from the views of columnist Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian, 21 February 2007)

2007: Global responsibilities: There are now 192 different countries on earth which are ultimately responsible for adding to greenhouse emissions, and for managing them more effectively, whilst still working for economic growth. For insurers around the world, some of the current issues requiring attention, include, improved building construction, stronger building standards, more research, increases in intensity and frequency of adverse weather events, in Australia, a demographic shift as more people choose to live near the coasts, increasing windspeeds, and computer solutions for economy-wide modelling. Geosequestration, carbon trading, recycling and use of wind power all need close attention. Use of “hot rocks” below the surface of Central and Eastern NSW (geo-thermal power) can be considered in terms of power generation. In the US, activist Al Gore asks pension funds and other major institutional investors to consider environmental issues when making long-term investment decisions. Really far out ideas for “climate management tools” include: man-made volcanoes to shoot “nuclear winter” material into the atmosphere to enhance cooling, a “sun-shade” or solar umbrella made of millions of light reflectors to slightly reduce our intake of sunlight, “air capture” by use of “artificial trees” or a filter system of some kind to handle carbon dioxide levels (an idea from professor at Columbia University, Klaus Lackner, from a small-scale idea by his daughter). (Weekend Australian, Special report on Climate Change, 24-25 March 2007)

2007: Vegetable trade insanity: "At last the media are starting to highlight the insanity of air-freighting fresh vegetables around the world, when most countries are perfectly capable of growing their own." And going on to say, governments encourage this with absurd and hidden transport subsidies, Local productions of fresh foods for local consumptions should be re-encouraged. So, we all need to eat more seasonal foods. Writer of Letter-to-Editor, Les McDonald of Balmain, Sydney. (Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 1 April 2007)

2007: Nay-saying on climate change: Maybe just trying to be witty, US writer Greg Easterbrook in The Atlantic Monthly has wondered what will climate change do to the world's distribution of wealth, money and power? He suggests, Greenlanders will cheer since retreating glaciers will make their large island more valuable. Russia (Siberia) will thaw and this will revitalize Russian affairs. There might however be new international tensions as powers struggle for control of Antarctica "and other formerly uninhabitable regions". And bad luck, admittedly, Bangladeshis will have to move. Easterbrook argues, as if the USA has not been producing enough paradoxes lately, that the US ought to be doing everything possible to control greenhouse gases so as to be able to maintain its pre-eminence in the world order, a matter not to be second-guessed. Climate change, not a risk but just an unexpected opportunity for the good ole USA! (31 March-1 April, 2007, Weekend Australian)

2007: Planet in peril, says UN: (Front page story.) Almost a third of the world's plants and animals face extinction, billions of people will suffer water shortages, and countries across Asia and Africa will suffer disease and starvation, according to alarming new global warming forecasts made by up to 2500 leading climate experts. The scientists help form the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At-risk species could be displaying problems as early as 2030. There will be more heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts. Productivity of the world's oceans will fall. Farmers will find that traditional crops can no longer be grown in usual places. The disappearance of glaciers as sources of water will have knock-on effects in a variety of locations. Tourism in various parts of the world will also be affected. The report of four volumes issued by the scientists is entitled Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. It is to be followed by reports on synthesis and options for mitigation. Measures for mitigation tend to include cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, changes to technology infrastructure and  better land use planning. (Sydney Morning Herald and Weekend Australian, 7-8 April 2007)

2007: Dust-bowl anxiety: Scientists tip return of US Depression-era dust bowl: The "dust-bowl", a Depression-era environmental disaster that drove 500,000 people from the southwestern states of the USA, may soon return, scientists have warned as they publish a new study. The area has recently suffered drought, and the study suggests that the area is expected to dry up and become as arid as it was in the 1930s. (See a recent issue of Science magazine.)  (7-8 April 2007, Weekend Australian)

2007: More dire warnings: The Climate Wars: "Experts fear possibility of a total breakdown in society as climate change takes hold." If military resources are stretched a little lately (US, Australia), if the "war on terrorism" might last a long time, what if greater security threats arise from reactions to climate change? The world's top three security threats are terrorism, nuclear attack, climate change. Consequently, the military-intelligence communities in UK, USA and Australia have been looking into matters. Will the Russian fleet move closer to North America? Will climate change pose apocalyptic scenarios? Which nation states might be most prone to fight over resources? Now being taken more seriously is an old speaker on such international issues, Canadian Thomas Homer-Dixon, from University of Toronto. (See his book, The Upside of Down). Homer-Dixon explores scenarios of fertile land becoming unproductive, water shortages, massive displacement of population groups. States may become incapable of discharging their basic duties, giving rise to chaos and conflict, insurgencies, ethnic clashes, terrorism. ... But Homer-Dixon suggests that much civil disruption will be between groups within nations, not between nations. On the other hand, a 2003 report noted that: "Humans fight when they outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment. Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid."  States that are poorly-equipped by current standards will be more easily overwhelmed if problems do start. Some populations (as in Asia) are already vulnerable to rising sea levels, while other populations face risks from either river flooding or drought. Nations enthusiastic about economic growth are also heavily reliant on energy. And in the past century, the energy consumed world-wide in producing and transporting food has risen 80-fold while population has quadrupled to six billion. Suggesting that if energy-supply problems set in, less food is produced or transported. On and on the dire warnings and scenarios go.        (Sydney Morning Herald, 14-15 April 2007, article by Tom Allard)

By 2007: Prediction of October 2003 that more than half of the world's population of 6 billion will live in towns and cities. For the first time, the number of urban-dwellers will exceed the number of rural-dwellers.

2007: Age of fossil fuel is fast running out of steam: If [we can find cheap clean renewable energy sources] ... "The present fossil fuel giants will no longer be raking in the billions from their industries ..." and ... people will look back at the crisis of the early 21st century and wonder with dismay, why, instead of showing leadership and vision, our elected leaders chose instead to pretend it wasn't happening ... "  (Sydney Morning Herald, 28-29 April 2007, letters to editor from Adrian Bain, St Leonards, Sydney, in what seems to be a very widely-shared feeling - Ed)

2007: Japan: Unless the Japanese reproduce more, the nation's population will start falling by 2007, according to Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi as reported by 22 May 2002.

2007: Expansion of nuclear power facilities?: US News:  Washington: "Nuclear power would curb climate change only by expanding worldwide at the rate it grew from 1981 to 1990, its busiest decade, and keeping up that rate for half a century, a new US report says." This would require the addition of an extra 14 plants per year plus 7.4 plants per year to replaced retired plants, the report by environmental leaders, industry executives and academics has said. Implications? To "help curb" rather than curb? Would the US distribute the required plutonium? Where to put the waste material? (Weekend Australian, 16-17 June 2007)

Evidence of climate change is now seen from Everest: Mount Everest now presents a picture different to the one it presented about 1968. Then, the Middle Rongbuk Glacier flowed down from thickly-snowed peaks. Now the peaks are barer of snow and the glacier has near-vanished, or at least receded by about 2km. Greenpeace is concerned on matters as the Rongbuk glacier delivered water to rivers of China and India. As well, the Halong Glacier of the A'nyemaqen Mountains, a source for the Yellow River of China, has shrunk since 1981. The Yellow River is 5464km long and provides water to about 120 million people for agricultural, industrial and electricity-generation purposes. (The Australian, 1 June 2007)

Useful books 2007 on related subjects:

David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. University of California Press, 2007, 285pp. (Historical perspective on problems arising from soil degradation)

Guy Pearse, High and Dry: John Howard, Climate Change and the selling of Australia's future. Viking, 2007, 496pp.

Jeremy Leggett, Half Gone: Oil Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis. Portobello, 2007, 322pp. 

Meredith Hooper, The Ferocious Summer: Palmer's Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica. Profile, 2007, 300pp.

Murray Hogarth, The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia's Climate War. Pluto Press, 2007, 106pp.

David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man. John Murray, 2007, 292pp.

Dave Reay, Climate Change Begins At Home: Life on the Two-Way Street of Global Warming. Macmillan, 203pp, 2006.

2008: Olympic Games held in Beijing, China.
SOME OTHER DATES FOR OLYMPICS: 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in 1972 Munich, Olympics in 1976 Montreal, Olympics in 1980 Moscow, Olympics in 1984 Los Angeles, Olympics in 1988 Seoul. in 1992 Barcelona, Olympics in 1996 Atlanta.

February 2008: The Australian newspaper publishes a special (commercially-oriented) report on Water. Any newspaper in the world could publish a like compilation for its own region. For the record, some of the themes noted were: water price rises to become fact of urban life, attitudes to irrigation will have to change, and farmers are told that unfettered irrigation has had its day. Australians need to rethink loss of water by evaporation. How to stop run-off from urbanized areas contaminating groundwater? How sweet a solution is desalination? Science predicts more heat and less rain. What about the ethics of international trade in water, as with the sale of fashionable bottled water? (The Australian (weekend)), 23-24 Feb 2008)

Idea for world bank tax

From BBC World headlines on 15 June 2010

Bank tax must go ahead, say Merkel and Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel The two leaders are looking to reignite interest in a global bank tax

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have renewed calls for a global bank levy and a financial transaction tax. The two leaders said they would call for the measures in a joint letter to the president of the G20 ahead of a summit later this month.

G20 finance ministers had distanced themselves from bank taxes at a meeting earlier this month. A bank tax would protect taxpayers from having to bail-out banks in the future.

Proceeds from the taxes would go into a fund that could be accessed during any future financial crises. A number of countries have been calling for taxes on banks since governments spent billions of dollars bailing out banks across the world following the financial crisis that began in 2008. However, so far there has been no agreement.

Many governments are concerned that if they unilaterally impose a tax, banks will simply move to countries that have not introduced such measures. Following a meeting of finance ministers earlier this month, many commentators thought the resolve for bank taxes was weakening. The French and German leaders are looking to strengthen this resolve once again ahead of the next G20 meeting in Toronto on 26-27 June.

"We are not yet satisfied with what's been achieved since the first G20 and we think we need to forge ahead on regulation," said Mrs Merkel. According to the Reuters news agency, European Union leaders will agree in principle on Thursday to introduce a levy on financial institutions, after which the details will be worked out by the European Commission. "The European Council agrees that a levy on financial institutions should be introduced to ensure that they contribute to the cost of crises," draft conclusions of a council meeting said, Reuters reported.

(Ends)


The shock of the new, or not?

This is just too good to miss if you are interested in contemporary life, so we stole it quite unashamedly from the website of the ABC (Australia's national radio and TV network) -Ed

Retro revenge,from Ockham's Razor, science show, by 27-6-2010.

Melbourne author Andrew Herrick talks about the fact that most of us are obsessed with anything new on the market, can't wait to buy the latest gizmo and are only too ready to discard anything that's old.

Robyn Williams: Would you like to see my microphone? The one I've been using for the ABC is at least 50 years old. It's pictured actually in David Attenborough's book Life on Air, a great big bakelite cross between a shaver and a club. I must have saved the ABC a fortune. Do you keep old faithfuls as well? Writer Andrew Herrick does.

Andrew Herrick: As long ago as the 16th century, Francis Bacon predicted the future would be more like the present than we think. Was he right? Perhaps you prefer it that way. How many things in your house are over 50 years old? Are you appreciating the past and its artefacts, or just depreciating with them? Are you one of those dotty, 2% of Australians who don't have a mobile phone? Or a site on facebook yet? Do you wonder with dismay why they stopped making your favourite toothbrush? Or if you soon won't be able to find one without tongue scrubber? On the other hand, are you that other human type, the techno-utopian believer-in-progress. Do you hope for a genetic cure for parking inspectors? Do you look forward to the advent of the pong-free fart? Well, don't hold your breath. But don't despair either. The future is not just around the bend, it's even closer.

It's hard-rubbish week in our suburb, and local nature strips have become treasure troves for the budding archaeologist. But you'll have to be quick. Where a culture's detritus once accreted over decades and centuries, the redundancy cycle is now much faster. There's lots of orange 1970s furniture, brown 1980s kitchen appliances and late 20th century electronic gear. The most common items are CRT computer monitors and TVs, tossed out for flat screens, along with sway-backed office chairs and those devices incessantly flogged on TV that clearly never gave anyone rippling abs.

There's always this year's model, if you're interested. But not me. I'm on the lookout for old technology: old bicycles, that is. There's just a chance I'll spot another Italian beauty, like the one I found some years ago, a vintage Casati racer. Call it nostalgia, call it retro, call me a Luddite. I don't mind, I'm not the only one.

Steel bikes are enjoying a resurgence of popularity, despite being superseded by carbon fibre at least a decade ago. Italy's famous Colnago factory has even begun making steel bikes again. Some Italian bicycle workshops never stopped. The reasons for this endurance of old technology are worth pondering, in an age obsessed with the next best thing, and out with the old. Of course when it comes to sheer efficiency, weight, stiffness and comfort, carbon has steel beat, literally. In today's Tour de France the ability range among athletes is so narrow that any technological advantage can mean the difference between the pack and the podium. Humans are being pushed to the limits of endurance, and so are the materials assisting them. It's an obsession that has driven our species for centuries.

In Japan they have a term for it: kaizen, which translates as "continuous improvement": the simple belief that everything can be made better with an apparent ultimate result. But it's not so simple. If you believe this concept you must also accept that everything made in the past is not as good as something made after it with the same purpose. And yet, anyone who's had the privilege of inspecting a Chippendale commode, an Edo sword, or a Citroen DS can only disagree. From just these examples it's apparent that as civilisations rise and fall, so does the quality of their technology and cultural assets. Collectors of just about anything know a particular model or design reaches the apogee of its kind, and is never equalled. In nature, the silverfish long ago found its ultimate form, and so the work of humans can find definitive and enduring expression. This can be due to environmental conditions, like a now-vanished supply of Cuban mahogany, particular personalities, an individual genius, or a one-off combination of cultural factors, including economic ones. We live at an odd time, when people are only rushing out to buy the new model if they're paid to do so. Manufacturers thus have a problem. Their advertisers have spent decades educating - some might say brainwashing - consumers into wanting the eternal "new". But when the new five-blade razor's efficiency is indiscernible from that of your old three-blade model, or that new car is only marginally faster, and uglier than the old, why would you update, unless the interest rate is zero, or less?

We all have something -- as basic as a kitchen knife, as complex as a car, as mundane as a pair of trousers -- that remains our favourite, if only in memory. Perhaps you recall a car you once owned with affection. Is this emotional bond to a mass of nuts and bolts only nostalgia? A frisson associated with the memories of what went on in its back seat at the drive-in all those years ago? Why does the model you own now, despite its prowess, somehow lack the emotional pull of that old favourite? Is it just the bland functionality of a modern vehicle? Or perhaps that the days when cars could be thought of fondly were also a time when our roads were pleasant places to be?

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that technological improvement isn't necessarily a good thing. If our roads must be crammed with vehicles, I'd prefer they were small, safe, efficient things from Japan or France, and not gross and greedy American-style four-wheel-drive-o-saurs, with 1960s-quality exhaust emissions. I hope for a cystic-fibrosis cure as much as anyone. But believing our problems can be solved by technology becomes moot when so many of those problems are caused by it. The other rub in seeking techno-paradise, but not quite finding it, is that you're bound never to be satisfied with what you have, and by implication, even by what you are about to get. And sorry, I am increasingly satisfied. Indeed, I recently went a step further. That is, I took a step backwards: I bought a car that's slower than its predecessor.

To understand this betrayal of technophilic culture, consider the absurdity of producing ever more powerful cars. You can walk into a showroom today, borrow about a year's average salary (with a generous tax break), and drive away in a locally made vehicle with an engine boasting 317 kilowatts of power. (I say "boasting" because that very pertinent, or impertinent, number is displayed on the car's rump). Putting your foot down on the way to work in this thing releases the heat equivalent of 317 one-bar electric radiators. Quite a lot, considering you can do the same trip in a small efficient diesel, or even on a bicycle using a handful of rolled oats, the caloric equivalent of a thousand miles a gallon.

Efficiency, pollution and health are not the only reasons I chose to go the slower route. I bought a slow car because, strange as it may seem, I got sick of the pressure to go fast. Believe me, this is not something easy to cure. Every technology, from the first hand-held club, changes the person who wields it. When we climb into a very fast car we change into a person who expects to go very fast. Our roads are crammed with people in such vehicles. Owning one offers only two choices: you either drive as the law and sensibility demand, using a fraction of the capability of your vehicle (and exasperate yourself) or drive it to its potential and become a hoon -- a menace to yourself and to others. Perhaps you think your Maserati is worth the money just for the envious looks it attracts at the yacht club. Then again, you may have valid medical reasons for your choice of a red sports car. Regardless, let me regale you with some insights from the slow lane.

I may just be getting old, but driving a slow car is actually less exasperating than driving a fast one. This is because in a slow car I am less constrained, because my vehicle can't easily exceed either the speed limit, or my expectations. To be sure, my relatively slow car may increase the exasperation of other drivers, but sorry, there's nothing I can do about that. Expecting ever-increasing rates of acceleration from cars is one of the symptoms of our current epidemic of advanced technophilia. Anyone who thinks increased acceleration reduces travel time is suffering one of the major unrecognised mental disorders of our age: techno-inflation.

The effect of techno-inflation is so incremental that we don't realise we're afflicted until it's too late. By then our life-support systems have become so complex and interdependent, and we so blasé about their presence, that we hardly appreciate their ubiquity or importance. Then one day, something goes wrong. One tiny glitch provokes intense frustration. We whine when our flight is late, complain that the microwave won't heat our food faster (and then that it has no flavour); we grind our teeth when the new phone misses a stockmarket update, we stew when our computer takes a few seconds longer to load. It's the technological equivalent of supermarket syndrome: that odd shift in the space/time continuum that makes seconds spent waiting in the express queue feel like minutes. You'll happily wait longer at the regular checkout, but waiting in express feels longer, because you expect it to be express, dammit! Even the term "supermarket" inflates our expectations, and thus routinely dashes them with its garish, deliberately frustrating parody of hunter-gatherer utopia. (Perhaps there should be a disclaimer at every supermarket entry: Warning: the contents of this cornucopia may settle in transit.)

Techno-inflation is most likely in cultures on the cutting edge of technology (itself a telling term, as if the future can only be met with a manly sword). A good example of techno-inflation occurred when the first anti-lock brakes appeared, in Germany, in 1972. As part of a trial, half of Munich's taxi fleet was fitted with ABS brakes, while the other half was left standard as control. Six months of data later revealed that the ABS-equipped taxis had a much higher accident rate than the standard cars. How could this be? The ABS was supposed to be a safety device. Detailed investigation revealed two crucial facts. Because the ABS cars stopped more efficiently, they were often hit from behind by standard cars that couldn't stop as well. The second was the discovery of the phenomenon of "safety consumption". Drivers of ABS cars were found to have driven at higher average speeds and braked later than other drivers. Because they thought their cars were safer, techno-inflation made them take more risks. This consumed the supposed safety margin offered by the new technology.

This doesn't mean ABS brakes are bad. It's natural for us to want things to be better. But we need to be careful not to think that everything can be improved, or that every supposed improvement will lead to a better outcome. Though most of today's cars have ABS brakes, it's hard not to think this apparent advance is there to balance the hazard of more powerful engines. Someone once said we're drawn to the decade preceding our birth, and thus seek our future in the past, as much as what we think is to come. It's comforting to keep what we know, instead of stressing to meet the new. We make that decision every day, when tantalised by the next best thing, or when having it forced down our throats. We compare the pixel count and the refresh rate on the latest plasma screen. It claims to offer the nearest thing to reality yet. But then, some of us still remember reality, and haven't found anything in the pixelated, digitised world that compares favourably to it.

There is a saying among cyclists that 'steel is real'. This may seem trite. But after riding a $12,000 carbon bike and then mounting my old restored steel throwout, I know what it means. Some things just can't be improved, or if 'improved', are not as good as they were. Like the chopstick, the bicycle is a technology close to its ultimate form, thanks to its basic elements of triangulation and the wheel. You can hone the details and tweak the components for minute gains in efficiency and weight, but you're constrained, along with so much in our age, by the law of diminishing returns. Like it or not, it's a law that also enforces diminished expectations. But this is no tragedy. Many of us find more pleasure being satisfied with what we have, than by getting what we want.

There's also the pleasure gained at seeing the look on the face of the chap with the latest carbon marvel, as you pass him uphill on your old crate. He is a man who believes in redundancy, but fails to recognise that his machine was obsolete the moment he wheeled it from the store. He didn't know that everything is retro, no longer cutting-edge, from the moment it's created. And yes, he and I share so much. We both cleave the same air as we ride, and hear the wheels sing under us. We each relish the highs and lows of testing our hunter-gatherer biology to its limit, as nature intended, on bicycles.

Eventually the technophile may realise what we contrarians already know: that time doesn't have a direction. Or direction posts. That's why we don't peer ahead, pining for the next best thing. We already have it. We found our little piece of the future on a nearby nature strip, saved it from the crusher, and restored it, fit to ride another day.

Robyn Williams: Well done. Andrew Herrick in Melbourne.

Trevor McAllister would approve. He's on next week, talking about electric lamps. I'm Robyn Williams. Etc etc

(Ends)


By 16-12-2009: Boeing's 787 jetliner makes first test flight (according to one of this website's special correspndents n the USA)

"India confesses it helped derail Copenhagen deal". India has lauded the lack of carbon cuts in the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, boosting claims by rich countries that developing nations derailed the deal. Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has revealed that his brief was to protect India's right to fast economic growth and so a kill-off of binding targets assisted his aim. China Brazil, South Africa, and China felt similarly. Meanwhile, Australia itself will confine itself to a self-imposed 60 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 as based on 2000-measured levels. (By 23-24 December 2009, reported Sydney Morning Herald)

Christmas 2009: This website recalls reading during the holiday season that one of the great sources of emissions in India are the small, primitive (and inefficient) cooking stoves used across India by the poor. This seems to be a serious dilemma. If India's poor were elevated in socio-economic status, presumably they would desire a variety of consumer goods including electricity-using cooking stoves. Production of the electricity would be emissions-producing. It seems that making the old cooking stoves obsolete would produce as much emissions as their continued use would institutionalise in the atmosphere.

13 February 2010. In an article on obscenely high CEO salaries, a note: from investment guru John C. Bogle,in his book The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism - traditional "owner's capitalism" (ie, ownership by shareholders who shoulder the risks and the rewards, both) has been hijacked by "manager's capitlism", where managers hijack the system for their own enrichment. Why have managers done this? Because they can. A trend to widely-diffused share ownership re public companies is just one factor assisting managers in such hijack tactics, shareholders find it difficult to conduct co-ordinated action to police greedy CEOs. So in some ways, the problem of overpaid CEOs is an evolutionary one regarding the governance of publicly-listed companies.

Have the world's investors simply gone weak at the knees?

This website has been getting annoyed by reading in newspaper finance pages about how nervous "investors" are staying since the 2008 GFC. Nervous nellies all of them, it seems. So are finance journalists and politicians, nervous. Real men don't go into capitalism any more, is about the only message this website is getting from the finance pages lately.

If it isn't fear of inflation, it's fear of deflation, or fear about government debt levels, or fear of taxpayers being asked to bail out banks that ought to be big and old enough to look after themselves by now. Or fear of a general shortage of credit. There are warnings about debt (or, "leverage" in respect of private debt, not government debt). And no one is safe.

Firstly, we have an article on human health here dated 10 July 2010 which suggests that new research indicates that having money is not the key to happiness, so we're glad we've got that out of the way at this point. (Hmm, is that a macro or a micro-economic point?) Though we doubt that the USA is going to give up its equation of liberty being for the pursuit of happiness, while culturally, chasing money remains such a VERY big USA preoccupation, anytime soon.

A finance expert in Weekend Australian 8-9 May 2010 is subheaded, "the global financial crisis is not yet history and risk remains real". Really? We thought that on balance, risk is often around permanently, it's just that like butterflies in the garden, risk comes and goes, sometimes unpredictably, like encountering a huge freak wave at sea. Or a black swan just when you glanced into your shaving mirror after taking a leak.

A different world finance expert says that in recent decades, financial downturns come every ten years - but it seems to this website that they lately arrive about every seven-and-a-half years. Could it be that use of computers has sped things up somewhat while politicians just don't get it?

Here's a rough list anyway. 1973, the world oil shock (oil suppliers upped their price, economists seemed to react as if they couldn't understand the ramifications). In the 1970s we had stagflation. 1987, widespread sharemarket collapse. 1994, bondmarket crash. Mexico tanked in 1994. (When did the Argentinian economy fall over, in the early 1990s?) East Asia went bad in 1997. Long term capital management got sick in 1998, and so did Russia. The US-led dot-com boom burst in 2000. In 2007 and later ... we are still shuddering, so we are told. (And we are told, stagflation was so unexpected, so amazingly new to humanity, the very word had to be invented by Norman Macrae (died 2010), a deputy-editor of The Economist, a rather well-known UK pro-free-market magazine.) In 2010 the US dreamed up the Dodd-Frank Act, designed to see the end of banks becoming "too big to fail", to see that Wall Street doesn't become a victim of itself again, at least, not as in 2008. (In 2002 the USA had dreamed up the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which tried to reform after the excesses of the Enron and WorldCom debacles.)

On and on it goes, and then, there's the question of how all those computer systems used in the world's financial world (sorry, we're again running out of useful metaphors here) are linked up. We know why they are linked up, but we defy anybody to be able to tell us HOW they are linked up, what maths and risk-avoidance strategies the various computer systems have written into them - and what it all actually means in any sense of the word global at all. So that by 8-9 May, 2010, Australia's weekend newspapers (or some rehash of Wall Street Journal) told us how a "systems glitch smashes stocks". "The US stockmarket plunged yesterday in a harrowing five-minute sell-off apparently caused by a trading systems breakdown." The market dropped nearly 1000 points, then rebounded, then closed down 3.2 per cent, rather like an extremely quick dead-cat bounce, except that it wasn't called that, this time around. (Gee, the cat had been quite ok on the window sill up there on the 75th floor, but then it just fell! At 2.42pm on Thursday, New York time.)

At the time, the world was getting jittery anyway about the possibilities of the looming Greek debt crisis. Trading sell-offs were then regarded as "erroneous trades". (Several US corporations had their share price reduced to almost zero at breathtakingly irrational speed!) Some fingers of blame pointed to "high-frequency trading firms", but no specific accusations were made. When some high-frequency traders stopped trading, the numbers of potential share-buyers possibly fell off, contributing to the plunge. The computer programs used by such firms assume normal trading patterns, but the firms anyway turned off their programs, which evidently had no built-in chaos-control factors. And as we all know, a huge freak wave at sea can sink a ship. Still, this was the American economy, not just one ship at sea encountering bad luck. And the US economy has to date told us little about how this happened and how it will be avoided in the future. It does appear as though the computers are in charge of the sellers and buyers of shares. So who polices the computers? Alan Greenspan from his retirement village? or was it all due to a "fat finger" problem, where some unnamed trader hit a wrong button or two - entered a few wrong numbers, and so the cat fell off the window sill.

It all seems quite unreal. But moving along, by 8-9 May 2010 we have been warned that Germany has warned that "the future of Europe" is at stake unless Greece is rescued (some suggest, from strange deals arranged by Goldman Sachs in New York). Greek contagion goes global and "tax jitters hit banking sector". Things improve so much that by 12-13 June 2010, Wall Street Journal is telling us that "nervous US companies" are hoarding cash, more so than they have done the past 58 years. This is in response to fear that the post-2008 GFC recovery is not sustainable. But even this tactic has its risks, since interests rates are now very low in the US and shareholders, always rational, will be nervous about holding cash that will not benefit from usury, etc. Good cash money it appears, is simply not good enough any more. One wonders, then, what is good enough?

By 19-20 June 2010, we are told that "Europe" is going to gamble by way of conducting bank stress tests to see if banks are suffering or will suffer from "troubled loans". Seems there's no way out of gambling these days, even trying to make things safer is a risk, or, a new kind of bet in its own right. Europe has been jittery all week anyway, worried that Spain will need a friendly bail-out. Newspapers have already presented weird mud-maps of how much which European country owes to any other European country. All we can recall is that when fraudsters do this, it's called, running a round-robin. So is the Euro based on one unimaginably giant game of round-robin? And this website thinks the quick response times of world financial computer systems will catch out the world's best financial thinkers, anyway.

By 26-27 June 2010, more sovereign debt crisis anxiety, Britain is getting as nervous as Spain has been, and its odd new coalition government brings in draconian budget cuts. Meantime, America is rethinking its dependence on oil, we are told. Which we'll believe when we see it. And depressed by all these reports of nervous nellies running the world economy, at the bottom of the pile of our press clipping we come to a helpfully-meant article in Sydney Morning Herald (17-18 June 2010) by Ross Gittins, on "Why economists didn't see the big crunch coming". (It's because they weren't looking at what causes the problems, basically.) We are just so agog.

But sigh. Reference is quickly made to the usual scapegoat, the influence of J. M. Keynes "and his followers". For individual businesses it's got to do with stocks and flows, it's all a bit like the difference between still photographs versus moving images, as with a movie. Despite the fact that movies are made of large collections of still photographs which are made to travel at high speed to provide the illusion of movement (we knew this from high school physics classes, didn't we). Nor does Gittins give us a clue about the resolution of the pictures being discussed, which zoom-in, zoom-out, seems to be a relevant point. Still, there is a difference between the "real economy" and "the financial economy" -- which we feel is a problem, what's with the disconnect here? This website thinks, the problems start right where this disconnect starts, which is also where the conflict arises between liberty and the need for discipline. As any parent knows!

Though it still has to do with stocks and flows. Mr Gittins might be more helpful if he told us it is useful or not to view stocks as water held in dams/weirs on flowing rivers, that sounds to us as though it might be a useful metaphor. And remember, the ancient Greek philosopher who told us that reality is such, you can never step into the same river twice -- whether you take a still photo of it or make a movie of it, or not. It's a problem though, that politicians keep giving extra services to voters who want extra services but not extra taxes. We are pleased about this, at least, as we thought much the same, taxes in the modern world obviously have to rise.

In any case, most economic observers pay too little attention to "the financial economy". Which is a great pity, as this website thinks that with the history of booms and busts, it's mostly the boys running "the financial economy" that usher in the busts. Who think that the level of the river (and the water levels in its dams/weirs) can keep rising without a flood or some disaster eventually occurring.

So, while all those rather nineteenth century-type, real-capitalist-men with nerves of iron, great will power, great industrial determination, political savvy, vast and reliable business knowledge, honesty, integrity, philanthropy, friendly with cautious bankers who were men of awesome probity, and all that used-to-be-manly-stuff (if you believe any of that), start avoiding capitalism, pathetically abandoning "real-economy capitalism", and leave it all to wimps, fraudsters, wankers, wannabe prankster-banksters, greed-is-good boys and nervous nellies (some of them running entire national economies), all we can do in our current despair, apparently, is recommend that people read ...

Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. 2010. A history of financial misadventures, etc. And develop a memory, if not some wisdom. And &c.


- Dan Byrnes (otherwise indicated in these pages as -Editor) Merchants logo gif - 9347 Bytes

Note: You will find even greater detail than is given here, for specific periods in American - English - Australian history, with regard to merchants, traders, bankers and financiers, as part of the website, The Blackheath Connection... Blackheath Connection website logo gif - 8235 Bytes

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