The Great Debate UK

from The Great Debate:

Putin’s anti-Olympic creed

The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.

President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine -- where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.

The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear.  Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.

Suddenly, the winter games that Putin hosted have given way to his penchant for using armed force in what is beginning to look like a 21st-century version of the Great Game. This is the second time in six years that Putin has exerted Russian hard power to intimidate a neighboring country. In August 2008, Putin punished and weakened the pro-Western government in Tbilisi by sending Russian armored columns into Georgia, ostensibly to protect and ultimately to “liberate” the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia.

from Felix Salmon:

Can bitcoin capitalize on the death of Mt Gox?

In November, I said that I was waiting for bitcoin to get boring -- and it certainly isn’t boring yet. The death of Mt Gox has created headlines saying things like “Bitcoin future in doubt” and “Mt. Gox Meltdown Spells Doom for Bitcoin”; those, in turn, have sparked their own backlash of people saying that in fact this development is one of the best things that could have happened to the cryptocurrency.

The truth of the matter is that it’s too early to tell. Mt Gox was a unique institution in the bitcoin universe: it was there from the beginning, and people have been moaning about it from the beginning. It was always a badly-run and far too opaque institution; if bitcoin is ever going to really take off -- if Ben Horowitz is going to win his socks -- then the death of Mt Gox was surely necessary sooner or later. At the same time, however, Mt Gox was for many years the cleanest dirty shirt in the bitcoinverse, and historically accounted for the lion’s share of trading in the currency. That’s one of the reasons why it somehow managed to be sitting on such an enormous lode of bitcoins at the time it went belly-up.

from The Great Debate:

Obama’s options for Syria

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council demanded that Syria’s government and its armed opponents end attacks on civilians, allow the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and battle lines, and protect minorities. The Security Council also called for the lifting of sieges against civilians and said that it would take additional measures if the two parties did not comply.

Even if fully implemented, this welcome push on humanitarian issues will not end the violence in Syria, or resolve a conflict that has left over 120,000 people dead and one-third of the population displaced. More action is needed if a political solution is to be found and a serious peace process initiated. The American people won't support deployment of U.S. troops. Russia will veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution with teeth. But Washington should consider other diplomatic, assistance, financial and military options.

Britain’s floods: How do we pay the £14 billion bill?

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Nikolas Scherer is researcher at the Hertie School of Governance and Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS. The opinions expressed are his own.–

In some parts of the United Kingdom, the recent floods are the worst on record. Since December 2013, over 5,800 homes have been flooded in England alone. The cost to the UK economy had been estimated at as much as £14 billion, from damage, lost business and general economic slowdown. Whatever the exact figures, the bill will be immense.

Should We Ban Autonomous Weapons?

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–Charles Blanchard is a partner at Arnold & Porter LLP, and a panelist at the Chatham House conference on autonomous weapons. He was formerly general counsel of the US Air Force. The opinions expressed are his own.–

It sounds like something right out of a blockbuster science fiction movie: killer robots that make decisions on who to kill without any human involvement. Not surprisingly, several human rights groups have argued that now is the time for a ban on the development and deployment of these weapons. While there are very real ethical and legal concerns with these potential weapon systems, such a ban is both unnecessary and likely counterproductive.

HFT: Separating fact from fiction

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–Hugh Cumberland is solution manager, financial services at Colt Technology Services. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Over the last few years, every time a stock, sector or index takes a sudden, sharp and unexpected dip, almost every commentator with a passing knowledge of capital markets declares it a high frequency trading (HFT) inspired flash crash. But this judgement has more to do with the negative connotations associated with HFT than the reality, as very few such corrections have definitively been ascribed to HFT.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Where is Ukraine’s Lech Walesa?

The popular pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that has deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich is part of a far wider and longer historical tug-of-love between the West and Russia.

Who is chosen to succeed Yanukovich will decide whether it is possible to forge a permanent Ukrainian settlement that will satisfy both the European Union and Russia. The prospect right now looks bleak.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

The case against a Chinese financial crisis

A severe slowdown in China is viewed as among the greatest risks facing the world economy this year, and Thursday’s dismal news on Chinese manufacturing output exacerbated these fears. But the really important news from Beijing pointed in the opposite direction: Bank lending in China, instead of slowing dramatically as many economists had expected, accelerated in January to its fastest growth in four years.

This means China is unlikely to act as a brake on the global economy in the months ahead -- despite the recent weak manufacturing figures. It also suggests that predictions of a credit crunch or financial crisis in China will likely prove wrong -- or at least premature.

Keep calm – you are middle aged but could still become a genius

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A fascinating study from the U.S.’s National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) entitled “How does Age Affect Scientific Genius” was a breath of fresh air for those of us hurtling towards middle age. Images of precocious youngsters going to university at age six and making their first million in their early teens are, thankfully, few and far between. It is mid-career when your genius peaks, according to the paper written by Benjamin Jones, EJ Ready and Bruce Weinberg.

While it gave this author a boost to know that her best work may not be behind her, age, demographics and your chosen field of study can all impact when you reach your peak performance. For example, creativity peaks earlier in abstract fields, while it peaks later in fields with context, for example history. Hence why Sergey Brin and Larry Page could co-found Google when they were both PhD students at Stanford. The internet itself was a young and relatively unexplored field that lent itself to “discoveries” and breakthroughs in the garages of young geeks.

from The Great Debate:

Ukraine after the Maidan

Writing the first draft of history is always difficult, especially when the opening act curtain has not officially fallen. Yet developments in Ukraine have now reached a critical turning point, with certain consequences likely to follow.

Historians will long debate the chain of events that provoked the February 18, 2014 confrontation. What we know is that the simmering demands of the opposition -- over Ukraine’s thwarted path to Europe, the failure to re-instate the 2004 Constitution and President Victor Yanukovich’s insincere negotiations – all boiled over in a violent clash with the Ukrainian security services. The fight for Ukraine’s future was being resolved in the streets of Kiev – in live pictures transmitting around the globe.

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