Eurozone is ailing but improving; Larry Page on Google’s smart future; UK centenarians up five fold; India’s money-go-round

1 Eurozone is ailing but improving (Floyd Norris in The New York Times) The eurozone’s back-to-back recessions may be over. Most economies are growing, and employment totals have begun to inch upward. New-auto sales, which plunged in 2011 and 2012 as the second recession gathered strength, have risen in Europe in each of the last six months.

But saying things are getting better is not the same as saying they are good. In reporting that new-car registrations across the European Union were up 8 percent in February from the same month in 2013, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association noted this week that “in absolute figures, the total of 861,058 units registered marked the second-lowest result to date for a month of February” since figures began to be compiled for an expanded European Union in 2003.

Even with the fourth-quarter improvement, the number of people working in most eurozone countries is well below the level of late 2007. Many of those countries have suffered from a loss of competitiveness relative to Germany, a loss that cannot be offset by currency depreciation since all use the same currency. Germany, where employment is almost 5 percent higher than it was in 2007, has been helped by the fact that the euro is probably weaker than a stand-alone German currency would be.

In Britain, the number of jobs is nearly 3 percent higher than it was in 2007. In the US, the decline has been almost entirely erased. New-car sales can provide a revealing indicator of economic health. Car purchases can be deferred when the economy is weak, and then surge when conditions improve. But if the weakness persists, customers can avoid new-car purchases altogether, buying used vehicles if a purchase is necessary. Nowhere is that clearer than in Greece. Greek car sales for the last 12 months are nearly 79 percent below the level of 2007.

2 Larry Page on Google’s smart future (Jane Wakefield on BBC) Larry Page wants patients to hand over their data to researchers in order to save “100,000 lives”. It’s just one of the ideas expressed in a wide-ranging interview at the Ted (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Vancouver. Google’s co-founder criticised the US government for its mass surveillance programs. But he added that consumers need to accept that a new era of open data is inevitable.

He said that Google was working on its own machine learning project, using YouTube to “teach” computers. “It has learnt what cats are,” he said. Mr Page was in defiant mood and warned that people were at risk of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” over plans to tighten privacy. “We are not thinking about the tremendous good that can come with sharing information with the right people in the right ways,” he said. He said that anonymised medical records should be made available to researchers. “It could save 100,000 lives this year,” he said.

Mr Page also talked about some of his “crazy ideas”, including Google Loon, a project to use balloons to provide internet access to parts of the world without any. He revealed that he got the idea off the ground with a Google search. “I found that 30 years ago someone had put up a balloon and it had gone round the world multiple times,” he said. He realised that a similar thing was possible to connect the two-thirds of the world that have no net access.

Google plans to launch its automated cars on the roads by 2017. The project has been a personal obsession for 18 years, he said. He believes that automated cars can help save lives – currently 20 million people are injured each ear in car accidents and in the US crashes are the biggest cause of death for the under 35s.

He finished the interview with a call to firms to embrace new technologies. “Most businesses fail because they miss the future,” he said. It is a mistake he has made himself, he added. He said that he “felt guilty for wasting time” working on the Android operating system, which at the time was a side project for Google. “That was stupid, it was the future,” he said.

3 UK centenarians up five fold (James Meikle in The Guardian) The number of people over 100 living in the UK has increased nearly fivefold in 30 years as better medical treatments, housing, nutrition and living standards, together with a decline in smoking, significantly improved the chances of surviving to a very old age, the Office for National Statistics has said.

There were an estimated 13,350 centenarians in 2012 – a 73% increase in a decade – and 660 of them were over 105, according to the figures. Though this still represents a very small proportion of the overall population, it provides another stark indication of the mounting problems facing successive governments as they struggle to finance demands on the welfare state including a rising state pension bill.

The number of very old people is rising faster among men than women as the traditional gender gap in life expectancy narrows. There are now thought to be more than 500,000 people aged 90 or over and the numbers are rising more steeply after a dip in 2008, which reflected the fall in births during the First World War. Interestingly, 1918 saw the lowest number, but this was followed by a postwar baby boom.

The ONS says the UK, with 21 centenarians per 100,000 population, still lags behind countries such as Japan with 40 and France with 30, the highest proportion in Europe. Russia has just over four per 100,000, while China and India have lower figures still.

4 India’s money-go-round (Khaleej Times) It may be the largest democratic exercise in the world, but next month’s general elections in India will also be one of the most expensive. Analysts expect political parties will end up spending $5 billion by the time the elections are over, a mere $2 billion less than the amount spent during the US presidential elections in 2012.

The two major political parties in India, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have already unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg across various platforms. Most regional parties have also pulled out all the stops and are splurging on advertising. And newer political formations such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has been projecting itself as a radically different outfit, have started American-style fund-raising events where affluent business people pay exorbitant sums to attend lunches and dinners where its leaders address them. 

Political advertising also helps the two main parties to project a different image of their prime ministerial candidates. The BJP’s aim is to portray Narendra Modi, the controversial Gujarat chief minister, as a sober and visionary leader who can be expected to steer the nation to ‘great heights’ if voted to power.

Likewise, the advertising blitzkrieg by the Congress focusses on the promises of empowerment of women and youth by Rahul Gandhi, and how he will bring about a transformation in the lives of millions, without even bothering to explain his strange silence over the past few years when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government failed to deliver on its promises and could not tackle corruption.

Indian political parties that are spending billions of rupees in building up their tattered images on the eve of the elections perhaps believe that voters have short memories and would gloss over their past failures. The electorate, however, is not as gullible as politicians believe.


About joesnewspicks

This blog captures interesting news items from around the world for those strained by information overload and yet need to stay updated on global events of significance. The news items displayed are not in order of merit. (The blog takes a weekly off — normally on Sundays — and does not appear when I am on vacation or busy.) I am a journalist for nearly three decades.
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