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2 july 2020, of mice and, you know

It's a tough time for events people that work in the (jargon alert) meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions space, and isn't going to get easier any time soon. Fueling over 1 in 5 international trips, mice is a serious beast. Every industry has its annual shindig, networking, awards, agm or whatever descriptor for movers and shakers getting together and getting things done on the margins (end of jargon). It's going to be rather smaller now though, indeed positively virus dead at the moment, but trying to restart. Falling into the lethal mass gathering category, this is tail-end stuff for most countries' planning, though some, like switzerland, with its solid tracing scheme and 'clean & safe' labelling (expect versions of the same across the planet), are waking. As in every other walk of life, the virtual has filled the vacuum of the viral-ridden physical. Though utterly unsatisfying (it is now traditional to start work conversations with "if I have to sit through one more webinar..."), virtual meetings are evidently better than nothing. Many major events facilities, like in london and new york have been repurposed into hospitals; all, including oman's splendid icon, risk extreme underutilisation. The calculus of high-risk travel physical-meeting costs versus anytime-anywhere screen interaction benefits have changed seismically. Even when planes are flying again with some regularity, the hangover will be long-lasting, with fewer routes, greater costs and higher unpredictability, even as to whether you will be let in at the border or return home without quarantine. Zoom is worth more than the world's top 7 airlines combined. Events companies will close and accelerate diversification. The contact that is the lifeblood of events is now an inherent risk your spouse doesn't want you to take. The pleasure of the journey, the meeting's add-on bleisure opportunities, the warm body-language of greeting have all evaporated. Drinks at a distance. We are all more transactional, and all very quickly learning to be better at doing it virtually. With headline 2021 events as diverse as the oscars, expo and the geneva motor show already postponed and cancelled, it's clear this is long-term impact, more likely permanent. Virtual eventing will innovate and roar forward. The new normal for in-person events will inevitably be safer and sullen, not so much for the older and more vulnerable, lacking in key people, less worth harder travelling large distances for. For all that, it will always be better, and so while it may take a long time, a new, new normal, and some cheese (pronounced vaccine), the mice will return.

15 may 2020, air travel reboots, but not quite as we know it

Air travel will bounce back from its current 95% global drop, but it will never be the same. The last decades saw relentless growth, from 310 thousand air travellers in 1970 to over 4 billion in 2019. More planes, travelling further and faster, holding more people with less space but cheaper, partly as the industry made its mass market money turning journeys into experiences with ever more touchpoints to be savoured by trading up. At a stroke, air travel has again become about essentials, getting from a to b, with as few touchpoints as possible, less people on planes, each needing more space, with less moments to make money and fearful travellers not in the mood for it. All as new health and safety costs get loaded on. The shape of those are becoming clear: masks and gloves throughout the journey, lots of temperature and other health tests and checks, using airport space instead of friends and family, semi-permanent ad hoc quarantine or tracking (app or bracelet) arrangements on entry, health/travel not nationality-based, so 21st century-equivalent of when you needed an address before getting an entry visa. Airport arrivals may become more burdensome than departures. Current wait time in hong kong is 8 hours. This will no doubt reduce as test tech improves, but like security after 9/11, expect this to be permanent not temporary, like longer queues, the acceleration of contactless airport processes (self-check in, bag drop, face recognition etc) and lots more cleaning and disinfectant, probably by booths and robots. Whilst empty middle seats look unlikely to embed, seats with visors might, as may eating only wrapped food, one of many first-class frills to disappear as an era of minimising contact makes inflated prices harder to sustain. As business and economy cabins converge, after a possible short-term drop as demand outstrips supply, prices will be much higher, making air travel head back towards being a product for the few of the seventies not the many of the noughties. Don't write off the low-cost carriers though, who with much lower operating costs than legacies which can't get subsidies forever are likely to emerge with an even higher market share. Expect savage fleet downsizing, insolvencies and consolidation. We learned to love flying these last years, the journey becoming part of the adventure. Not any longer.

18 april 2020, xi trumps absent america

Commentators pointing to putin as the trump years' beneficiary don't have their eye on the ball. Since america's unipolar moment in 1999, china is easing its way to becoming the new indispensable nation. In his excellent article, Kishore Mahbubani cites the pandemic as the start of the asian century. Obama's pulling back on active american leadership set the stage for trump's outright america-first isolationism, with its unilateral sanctions (like iran), wholesale vandalism of the post-war international architecture (latest, the who) and its bullying unilateralist trade policy. Until corona, this held his domestic coalition and support, but caused irreparable damage to america's global influence, "the ruination of america's reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner". Trump has "insulted america's friends, undermined multilateral alliances and chosen confrontation over cooperation". Corona moved this from ineptitude and dishonesty to hostile, reckless actions, such as the "hijacking" of protective masks bought by germany and the attempt to buy monopoly rights to a german coronavirus vaccine. America is now an active opponent of multilateralism. As washington has stepped back, so in mirror image has beijing stepped forward. Despite suspect casualty numbers and an initially negligent reaction symptomatic of such a prickly authoritarian regime, the narrative is now of a strong organised state reacting with purpose to eradicate corona. Its advice is being freely shared through a global charm offensive, together with all sorts of masks, ventilators and other protective kit it is keen to be seen gifting globally. This builds on years of projecting china's model of strong economic growth and civic stability, an increasingly attractive counterpoint to increasingly sclerotic and divided western liberal free market capitalism. It has invested heavily in global infrastructure, through belt and road. Corona is strengthening the state and reinforcing nationalism everywhere with mandatory emergency measures that ultimately rely on force for implementation: china's normal modus operandi. China is playing its part in debt forgiveness, but this may have a price. The dollar faces its first serious threat as the global reserve currency since 1945. China is not there yet. When it was a soft power rising, the world was willing to play, such as joining its tilt at american imf-hegemony, the aiib. Today, the eu commission warns against the depressed price of strategic firms risking chinese acquisition. China's domestic policy has a harder nationalistic edge, and its internal troubles, from crass intolerance to outright violent suppression are more on show. As a trade behemoth built on just in time supply lines, china will suffer from post-virus reshoring and a broader reverse in globalisation, as well as from trump's relentless trade war against it. This is though a moment. China is risen, america withdrawn; the stakes are high, the world distracted. China's goal is not global domination but influence enough to stop anyone constraining it. It is succeeding. A fluid multipolar world results, to no-one's advantage. Chatham house's rob niblett sees corona as the straw that may break globalisation, replacing global economic governance with a retreat into overt geopolitical competition. Or worse, protectionist division into new great power blocs with their own supply chains. The 1930s were not a happy place.

16 december 2019, from empire to england

As the dust settles on friday the 13th, a ruthlessly-executed strategy gives boris a strong working majority to 2024. Most likely 2029: he is already showing savvy ability (nhs, education, transport...) to lock in enough of "the north" for another term. Whoever takes over labour, if it gets through transition without too much of a civil war, has a long hard march back, though all things equal there ought to be a strong enough not-boris platform to compete on. The big first of a majority of mps being women is a good foundation. More than likely though, once media interest in the divisions of the leadership contest are done, they will be just noises off. The next years will be the boris show. Policy on the european union will be de-escalation: with brexit "done" at the end of january, it will be in no-one's political interest to get stuck in too much to the details of trade talks, hugely important though they actually are. Pushing back the ludicrous end-of-year deadline won't be much of a big deal. In its place though comes the british union as the big issue of the coming years. It is telling that the government grid led on its very first day with trying to put power-sharing together again in northern ireland. Also little-noticed, is that for the first time ever, the 2019 election returned more nationalists (their goal, a united ireland) than unionists, at exactly the same time as the boris version of brexit draws a stark dividing line across the irish sea. Whilst that avoided destroying the good friday agreement, that dividing line comes at exactly the same time as the demographic alarm clock set in the agreement to allow a referendum once nationalists are a majority starts ticking. The safety valve of the uk and ireland being jointly mediated as fellow eu members has also been removed. The pressure will start now to translate "the consent of a majority of the people of northern ireland" into the poll allowed for. Some years beyond that of course is scotland. The snp will likely use their strengthened mandate to hammer away at the legitimacy of another vote, making the 2021 holyrood elections a straight conservative unionist against snp battle for independence. After that, we may begin to see parliamentary obstructionism and civil disobedience. Both these movements seem on an irrepressible path to secession. Wales may at some point create its own echo. The biggest legacy of brexit is likely to be the transformation of great britain to little england.

7 november 2019, yes wa kan

This longest space ever between blogs is in part due to rather too much activity both at work and, with family now here, at home, but also perhaps because rather too many topics are too hot to write about, several I care about I am rather too remote from, and in the organised chaos of our big move, I may have put my creative mojo somewhat into abeyance. To get going again then, I give you wakan: not the fictional country in black panther, but the very real village in oman, which we visited last weekend. At the cost of sounding like a tourism advert (which is, after all, part of my job), it was delightful. The drive was a fitting hors d'oevres, with shades of brown multiplying as you leave behind muscat, entering clouds with the foothills of the mountains as you start winding your way up through barren but somehow picturesque landscape, which might be described as chocolate box if it wouldn't all melt. Approaching the village, you realise why you were told you need a 4-wheel drive; by the end you think rally-driving may well be a vocation you didn't give enough consideration to. After a not-too-long, not-too-short walk up the 700 steps, you look down on the meandering path you've taken past houses, mosques, pomegranates, vineyards and the famous falaj irrigation system and gaze on a breathtaking valley set against the soaring peaks in the distance and majestic palm trees in the foreground. Wakan is just the right mix of subtle tourist infrastructure and unspoilt environment. Tuck into whatever food and drink you've brought and languish. Beats brexit.

5 may 2019, glocal

Like the wonderful 7up, distance gives insight, so even if I don't have geography (being these days as connected in muscat as if still in manchester), the last time I looked at the city's politics was 2011 (3 entries no less, before 11 may, the luck of the draw). Back then, greater manchester was colourful, with 4 labour councils, 2 conservative, 2 libdems and 2 of those local election-night favourites, no overall control (see also 10 june 2012, manchester as europe). With central government blue since, manchester moved steadily red, last night taking the final fortress of tory trafford, with altrincham adding a splash of green, as they won all 3 seats there and notched up several other wins, including in tameside. Remarkably, labour lost bolton, to noc. Independents gained everywhere, no stranger to stockport, where our very own heald green independent ratepayers maintained it's 100% record of decades and holds the balance of power. In the citadel of manchester itself, the libdems scored a significant win and several near misses. Overall, greater manchester seems to have swung more to its own regional rhythm, blunting the national tides more than some other areas. Beneath the surface though, the big battle is for the heart and soul of the dominant labour party, most intensely in its manchester heartland, where throughout the last years it has similarly kept its own counsel amidst the radical sweeps of history transforming the party. How that national battle plays locally in the wake of these elections will now be interesting to see.

26 april 2019, chaos, calamity, catastrophe: things can only get…

It's one of those periods where anyone who thinks they understand what's going on doesn't understand what's going on. Like an itch that must be scratched, brexit is the boil that can't be lanced and british politics remains entrancing as it gets even worse. May's local then european elections are likely to shake foundations further, with the new brexit party of jack-in-the-box nigel farage ("the most successful politician of our era", see 22 december 2017, ever-shrinking england goes back to black) set to win an online election (it's worth watching carole cadwalladr's ted talk), precipitating more splintering of the main parties, probably a new prime minister and probably the general election no-one wants. At some point, the emergency trap door of revoking article 50 will look a tempting option. I fear. Britain's collapse into self-induced self-obsession comes at a terrible time, as a tide of populism swells across europe, egged on by a manical american leadership that normalises aggressive ignorance (see 23 august 2018, little amber man) and the supposed stability of the strongman model, in russia, turkey and china, just to mention a fifth of the world's population, exerts an ever stronger pull in the world's consciousness. Defenders of the post-war international architecture built on a common vision have deserted their posts and nativism is sweeping the world, even as mass media technology opens ever more of it up to ever greater numbers of poor but increasingly ambitious and discontented people. The world is in a funk, entirely complacent about economic progress and global peace. All momentum is with the forces of regression and sentiment; imprudence and exaggeration pay, consensus and reason do not. Global conflict is no longer unthinkable, the hopefulness of the baby boomers weaned on prosperity rapidly becoming history. The future looks an increasingly dark place and incredibly, tragically, rather than playing its part in renewing the global bonds of international consensus, the uk looks to be amongst the first heading into the pit.

15 march 2019, “order, order…”

Excuse starting with football. Order, order, apparently, is what they were chanting from the bayern munich terraces as liverpool beat them to join 3 other english (not uk) teams in the quarter finals of the champion's league, global football's top competition, the first time this has happened in a decade, when my own manchester united went on to win it spectacularly against the very same bayern, the winning goal coming from today's manager, ole gunnar solskjaer. It was a truism for years in british politics that nobody outside obsessive westminster-watchers really cared about europe, which all changed in 2016, since when it has become the issue that ever more blots out absolutely everything else, no more so than this week, with every day bringing a new vote with blanket coverage. Funnily enough, this has brought more understanding of europe to many brits, and more understanding of many things britain to many europeans, hence the odd celebrity of the cerebral speaker in germany. At this point, of course, I do have to have a stab at what it all means, notwithstanding it will be out of date in 24 hours. The main impact of the week seems to be after taking a look at the road ahead, parliament decided it needed more road. Despite the vote to the contrary, no-deal is not impossible, but less likely. Until it changes, the choice is still may's deal or no deal or something else and there's still no solidifying around what something else may be or how it will coalesce. The other big point is that party discipline, the rock of the british political system, is in tatters. Though there are 101 examples, surely a cabinet minister, the brexit secretary no less, moving a motion on behalf of the government and then himself voting against it shows up where we are. Jargon-alert, kyle-wilson is not yet, cliché-alert, off the table. Dr sarah wollaston, the now-independent mp asked the right question: can parliament think of any other circumstance in which a consent form would be valid if it were signed 1,000 days before without the signatories knowing the exact procedure they were giving their consent to ? At some point very soon there needs to a renewal, and we can only hope it is of parliament and of the government and not outside it.

20 february 2019, the magnificent 7, 8, 11…

Their approach seems rather light the blue touch paper and see what happens, but the fireworks are quite exciting. It remains to be seen whether the independent group so masterfully gaining the uk media spotlight is white knight or damp squib. They tick boxes like young, female, non-tribal, caring, centrist and, of course, anti-brexit. The steady drip of defections in these first days provides that greatest of political potion, momentum. It already has more mps than the dup, more twitter followers that the actual momentum and some 14% in the polls. Add in the libdem's 7% and they are nipping labour's heels. There is every chance of more leaving, although the "30 or 40" the charismatic heidi allen mooted is ambitious, though possible. The conservatives, well up in the polls, are the stronger of the two holed main party ships, with a rapid leadership change popularity boost up their sleeve, if only they can keep the band together through brexit. Despite the break-the-political-mould, hopey-changey exhilaration, the looming 29 march 2019 day of doom is still the most important thing by a million miles in british politics and everyone is waiting with bated breath (not) for the results of theresa may's latest foray to europe, also brexitcrashing a get-together in egypt to 'ave a word. The latest spat on gibraltar, as other countries have internal politics too, is just one straw in the wind, as if more were needed, that there's nowhere serious to go on this and the running down the clock until parliament is forced to choose between may's deal or no deal, is going to come down to may's deal. What the indy grouping changes, a fraction, is the lesser likelihood of corbyn somehow cobbling together a teflon way to allow the deal through, as there is now that much stronger an alternative pole around which his opponents can gather. However you cut it, bringing more diversity and competition into a dreadfully old-fashioned and patently failing polity is a very good thing. Whilst it's too much to expect old-friends but now-opponents to actively support an alternative political force, it may just be that exclusivity itself comes rather quickly to be seen as rather dated, and it may just be that different politics is the best platform the newbies have to stand on. It's certainly needed.

4 january 2019, get away from it all…

I've been in oman some months now, so having tried it out on the family, here's my make-the-most-of-it, 7-day, modest traveller itinerary. You can of course embellish, depending on budget & time available. My oman air tip is sign up to the emails & book immediately when they announce a sale (other airlines are available). Best time to come is november to april. Start with a highlight: get yourself down to ras al jinz to see the turtles. Don't book a "nearby" hotel, take the eco-tent on the beach. This is a genuinely magical experience, late at night then 5am in the morning. You'll see massive green turtles, who have swum 3000km to india then come back to lay eggs (which you watch a metre away) on the same beach they were born. If you're lucky (we were) you see tiny ones pop out the sand and scurry down to the sea, avoiding the crabs, birds & foxes that get 97% of them. On the way there or back, stop off at qantab beach, the bimmah sinkhole & wadi dayqah dam, walk wadi shabs and take a gazebo & barbecue to the gorgeous, pristine and empty white sands you'll pass for about 50 miles. Once that's organized, book yourself a boat to the dimanyat islands. Splash out & go for the all-day option: fish, barbecue and of course scuba-dive, or (like us) snorkel. Amazing. For another day, many exciting watersports are available, such as jet skis, or we went flyboarding. Just as exciting, turn right out the wave roundabout (you'll know it when you're here), follow the road right at the next roundabout and there's hundreds of quad bikes of all shapes and sizes waiting for you to rip across the sand dunes. If you've time for a second trip out of muscat, head off thursday night to nizwa. The thing to do is the 6am friday morning genuinely-authentic animal market; its worth it. After thousands of years, it probably won't be the same in a few more, so go. As you're in the city, there's a great market, fab fort (you can't come to oman without doing one) and then drive 30 mins to the al hoota cave for the country's only train and a pretty good cavern too. Book in advance, the 2pm tour being best, and eat in nizwa before you leave. Once out the cave, drive another 30 mins to the gorgeous and again-authentic village of misfah al abryeen. Wear respectful clothes and just wander around to your heart's content; it's beautiful. Take the mountain road to muscat (spectacular view) and you'll be back by evening. You don't need a 4x4 for any of this apart from the white sand beach, but roads (or more precisely, drivers) can be dicey, so its probably worth trading up. For traditional food in muscat, go to kargeen or bin atiq. If you want posh hotels, best are kempinski (in the wave) and the al bustan palace, right at the other end of town. Probably the most spectacular lobby in the world and gorgeous pools and palms at the back, which you'll pass if you eat at the beach bar (book ahead, take a cabana if you're feeling generous). You must go to the port and souq (market). If you're a cultural soul and there's something good on, get to the royal opera house. For retail therapy, best mall is city centre. Whatever else, visit the amazing mosque. Drink & carry lots of water. Too much for a week ? Probably, but then you'll just have to go back...

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