Commentary

[SCMP Column] Digital reality check

December 01, 2018
Some may repost that the new AI- and robot-driven technologies will reduce the need for human labour, and so eliminate this danger. But that is not what labour economists at the World Bank and elsewhere have learned. Their data shows clearly that while some jobs will without doubt disappear, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in net terms creating more new jobs than it is destroying. The challenge is to make sure tomorrow’s workers have the skills needed to capture and use the new technologies. [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] Marshall School SMEs going global

November 26, 2018
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Marshall School’s economy comparisons put Hong Kong and Singapore – traditional homes to thousands of “mini-multinationals” – far out in front in providing supportive environments to SMEs. Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand do well. Japan and Korea would do better if they provided a better environment for women-led SMEs. As for Papua New Guinea, Russia, Indonesia and Vietnam, perhaps the less said the better.

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[SCMP Column] Reinventing toilets

November 12, 2018
As Bill Gates noted, keeping his poop-jar firmly at arm’s length: “This small amount of feces could contain as many as 200 trillion rotavirus cells, 20 billion shigella bacteria and 100,000 parasitic worm eggs." And then some.

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[SCMP Column] Mid-Term inequality

November 05, 2018
I find it fascinating that in the current fiercely fought US Mid-Term elections, almost no air time is being devoted to such issues, but rather to Honduran migrants, being tough on trade, and the big China threat. Better Trump’s preference for “entertaining diversion” on international issues than any focus on the difficult challenges at home.

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[SCMP Column] Climate threat local and personal

October 29, 2018
Up close and personal in the US, means seeing 1.7m people evacuated in North and South Carolina as Hurricane Florence swept in, and over 500,000 people losing electricity. It means 375,000 people being evacuated in Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Michael, with pecan and cotton farmers losing their entire crops, 2m chickens killed, vegetables with US$480m lost, and 3m acres of commercial timber destroyed. It means devastating forest fires across California.

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[SCMP Column] Global warming indifference

October 22, 2018
The earth is 45m centuries old, but this century is the first in which one species – ours – can determine the biosphere’s fate. We can be technological optimists about our ability to navigate the challenges, but we need to offer politicians something more relevant and easier to appreciate than a mean global warming. It’s hard not to be a political pessimist.

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[SCMP Column] Khashoggi, trade and trust

October 20, 2018
With the full facts of the final hours of Mr Khashoggi still ghoulishly unclear, the grisly snippets suggest a barbaric and unforgivable disregard by Saudi’s autocratic leader-in-waiting for the niceties of diplomatic civility. They also reveal the embarrassing haste of Trump and the White House to concoct alibis on Bin Salman’s behalf that might whitewash such brazen uncivilized murderousness.

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[SCMP Column] Longevity

October 01, 2018
So at the heart of our longevity challenge is employers unfocused and unwilling to abandon employment practices that are no longer fit for purpose, educators unwilling to adjust to the life-time learning needs that are associated with a 60-year working life, and government officials who are complacent, ignorant, and reluctant to bang heads together.

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[SCMP Column] Jobs disruption

September 29, 2018
The WEF report, and the SCMP Workshop leave me with a sense of angst. If you are lucky to work for big and successful companies like Cisco, Ernst & Young, DHL or Microsoft, then the chances of “futureproofing” your working life seem good, whatever the disruption raging around us. But for that 80 per cent outside this lucky circle, taking personal responsibility for one’s own lifelong learning seems a mountain to climb.

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[SCMP Column] Parcel Post

September 15, 2018
Satisfying though it may be to demonise China’s exporters for exploiting the UPU’s quirky rule book, and tag the issue onto his general China trade war, Trump has decided to attack the root of the problem: he last week delivered a Memorandum to the 192 members of the UPU who were holding an Extraordinary Conference in Addis Ababa. This demanded radical overhaul of the unfair Terminal Dues system, and threatening to adopt “self-declared rates” if the meeting “fail(s) to yield reforms that satisfy the criteria set forth”. The UPU has until November 1 to satisfy the Trump administration. [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] Conghua horses

September 08, 2018
After short debate, the idea was shot down. The most potent objection was not the massive cross border challenge of protecting Hong Kong’s pampered and expensive horses from a wide range of equine diseases lurking on the Mainland. Rather it was a richly flippant debate over whether the horses would be allowed right of abode in Hong Kong - a very controversial issue for Hong Kong’s human population at the time.

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[SCMP Column] Into Africa

July 28, 2018
For those puzzling why Beijing remains so quiet on a strategic response to the tariff war launched on China by the US, this Import Expo deserves attention. As China continues to reassure the world that it is opening up, this massive import promotion event is being built up as a significant “coming out” party, and a formal attempt to give substance to recent rhetoric over opening the economy.

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[SCMP Column] Migrating manufacturing

July 23, 2018
As the spending power of China’s middle classes rises, so more and more export manufacturers are turning to China’s domestic market for growth – giving them few reasons to move any manufacturing offshore. More likely, they are adding new manufacturing plants in Chinese interior provinces, where the consumer population is growing, and low-cost activity can still be sustained.

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[SCMP Column] America's opioid crisis

June 30, 2018
I find it hard to get my head around America’s opioid crisis. It is hard not to be alarmed by reports of more than 300,000 Americans dying since 2000 from abuse of prescription opioids – more than deaths in car accidents, or from gun violence.

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[SCMP Column] Vanilla and the commodity curse

June 09, 2018
It would be nice to share their optimism, and it is just possible that this time it is different. But for those Madagascan vanilla farmers at the grindingly poor end of the US$57bn global ice cream market, the likely reality is not so rose-tinted.

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[SCMP Column] Quality Japan

June 08, 2018
The US might have been Japan’s primary economic driver from the end of World War 2, but that is changing. China can for sure deliver “scale”, but it will for some time still be Japan that delivers “quality”. Consciously capturing and capitalising on this could provide strong and long term foundations for future competitiveness. I don’t think it is just the cherry blossom season that is bringing a new sense of optimism.

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[SCMP Column] Sporting asylum

June 02, 2018
It seems Australia is quite a magnet for such extra-curricular ambitions. In the Sydney Olympics in 2000 it was reported that dozens tried to remain in Australia, while at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, a total of 19 athletes sought asylum. One for the more famous was Omari Kimweri, a Tanzanian boxer who hid for nine months on a tobacco farm outside Melbourne before turning himself in for asylum. Ten years later, he won the World Boxing Council silver flyweight title – fighting as an Australian.

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[SCMP Column] Pillaging the planet

May 26, 2018
A fascinating piece of research by a team at Leeds University in the UK, examining the performance of around 150 countries worldwide in terms of their social progress, and the unsustainable damage they are inflicting on the environment, shows a dreadful link. We simply don’t seem to be able to improve people’s livelihoods without at the same time using more resources than the planet can afford.

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[SCMP Column] Rosling and Factfulness

April 28, 2018
Shockingly – because answers are readily available in frequently-used public sources, and used commonly in discussions about global economic and social trends - not a single one of Rosling’s respondents got all the answers right. Fifteen per cent of respondents scored zero. The average score was two. How did you fare?

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[SCMP Column] Discriminating against women

April 14, 2018
Many difficult and controversial things still need to be done to make sure we capture the full potential of women in the workplace. Many are being discussed, and some are even being acted upon as I write, but some have not even begun to register in the public mind. For me, the most obvious and pressing of these is the need to revamp our education systems to enable women in their 40s, after children have risen into their teens, to reskill systematically for what in future is likely to be a further 30-year career.

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[SCMP Column] Airlines and the long haul

April 02, 2018
Airline marketing people and advertising agencies do us all a gross disservice by concocting a story of bliss and transcendent relaxation on that flight from Singapore to London, or to New York via Los Angeles. The sooner they acknowledge the pain and stress linked with almost every stage of air travel, the sooner the credibility of the world’s favourite airlines will recover.

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[SCMP Column] Over the Moon

March 12, 2018
While North-South diplomatic exchanges have surged unnoted, the imaginative decision to invite the North’s athletes to the Winter Olympics as part of a united Korean team, and to invite along Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader, as head of delegation to the Olympics, seemed to have an electrifying effect. Ms Kim was the first member of the immediate Kim family to come into South Korea since the fighting ended on the peninsula in 1951. [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] PNG's digital challenge

March 05, 2018
It is true that regional studies show quite alarmingly how our digital leader economies are seeing growth rates significantly stronger than all laggards, resulting in widening inequality across our region, but that is at present not something that should be allowed to distract hard-pressed PNG officials and businesses from capturing what they can. At these levels of poverty and exclusion, it is the absolute progress that counts, however modest – not the progress relative to Korea or Japan or Singapore.

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[SCMP Column] Pew picture of the US

March 03, 2018
According to Pew: “In the eyes of most people surveyed around the world, the White House’s new occupant is arrogant (75 per cent), intolerant (65 per cent) and even dangerous (62 per cent).” Just 26 per cent see him as well qualified. Can he get comfort from the fact that survey respondents in the Philippines see him as charismatic and well qualified? But then, here is a country well-used to “show-man”, celebrity leaders.

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[SCMP Column] Future job crisis

February 24, 2018
My hunch is that the future will be filled with more jobs, rather than less; that skills mismatches will be a core problem; and that old-fashioned attitudes to ageing and retirement are blocking our older adults from ensuring we meet the challenges.

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[SCMP Column] Planetary plastics crisis

February 22, 2018
So clear is the challenge that governments and even the world’s main plastics producers and users, have long passed the “denial” phase. They admit the problem needs to be fixed. James Quincey, CEO of Coca Cola, which uses 110bn of the 480bn plastic bottles every year, is under no illusions: “The world has a packaging problem.” But still his best commitment is to ensure recyclability by 2040. McDonalds has gone a little better by saying last month that all packaging will be from sustainable sources by 2025.
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[SCMP Column] Universal basic incomes and post-work utopias

February 19, 2018
The movement, driven mainly in the UK, the US and some European countries, clearly has roots back in Karl Marx’s vision of the freedoms in a communist society where workers could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. One also sees roots in socialist William Morris’s 1880s vision of future factories surrounded by gardens in which employees work just four hours a day, and in John Maynard Keynes’ “age of leisure and abundance” that would arise as technology advances.
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[SCMP Column] Surveillance

February 17, 2018
China is doing nothing that other governments worldwide are not also doing, but this loss of privacy is surely unnerving. Before we are confronted with a fait accompli, should we not be asking whether it is acceptable or desirable for all of us to go around legitimately filming each other, just in case someone commits a wrong against us? Are we better off in a world under watch? I know what George Orwell would have said.
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[SCMP Column] Megacities and urbanization

January 27, 2018
The risk and challenge is not over-reliance on one metropolis or another, but over the massive challenge of urbanization. Over the past 35 years, China has managed the movement of at least 500m rural people into cites, many of which – like Shenzhen – did not exist when Deng Xiaoping aroused the country from its Maoist introversion. It was only five years ago that for the first time in China’s history, more Chinese people were living in cities than living in the countryside.
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[SCMP Column] Crazy Art

January 11, 2018
The formal trigger for this explosion of angst is of course the November 15 sale at Christie’s of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for US$400 million. For me, the ridiculous price is less bemusing than the backstory: is there not delicious irony in a Muslim Saudi Arabian prince buying a picture of Christ with a title meaning “saviour of the world” for a new museum in Abu Dhabi? [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] Predictions and wishful thinking

December 31, 2017

Hong Kong and China. Wishful thinking, that Hong Kong people will acknowledge the reality of our economy’s gradual integration with the mainland; we will champion for adoption across the Greater Bay Area those legal, institutional and business strengths that have made Hong Kong so competitive, and so aided China in building access to world markets; our graduates will seek opportunities across the mainland just as Londoners compete across Europe, or New Yorkers across the cities of the US

Likely reality: ongoing political gridlock on issues linked with integration; continuing resentment at elite mainland graduates and business leaders growing roots in Hong Kong; official reluctance to take a lead in building the institutions that will define the Greater Bay Area.

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[SCMP Column] McDonald's revisit

December 22, 2017
In the words of Larry Light, McDonald’s former chief marketing officer: “Instead of trying to come up with new kale and bean salads, (Steve Easterbrook decided to) fix the familiar. Fast food is not in decline.” [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] The Christmas Gift of Time

December 18, 2017
Back in Hong Kong and in China, without the excuse of the Christmas season and not satisfied with the consumer stimulus that comes with the Lunar New Year festivities, we only need to turn to the success of Alibaba’s November 11 Singles’ Day to see that the urge to consume is not only pathological, but universal. In the nine years from the “invention” of Singles’ Day, China’s 24-hour, stuff-focused online shopping frenzy has grown 3,000-fold to amount to around US$26 billion – almost 10 times the total of the US’ equivalent over the Thanksgiving weekend. [ Read More ]

[SCMP Column] Superbugs Unplucked

November 18, 2017

This explains the recent angst-attack here in Hong Kong over the love affair local people – and their doctors – have with antibiotics, and the announcement of a five-year plan to contain the threat from bugs that can shrug off all the antibiotics we throw at them. As Maryn McKenna notes: “These are the unintended consequences of the post-World War II drive to feed the world inexpensively by producing meat as quickly as possible – and how those good intentions created a worldwide epidemic of drug-resistant infections that have defeated almost every antibiotic we have.”

Of course, the problem does not sit exclusively with chickens. It is just that chickens is where the scale is – accounting today for almost a third of all meat production, second only to pork. And while back in 1980 most chickens were bought and roasted whole – as so many will be gobbled up with turkeys on Thanksgiving night – by today, almost all chicken meat is served up in one processed form or another – from chicken breasts and chicken thighs to infamous chicken nuggets.

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[SCMP Column] Playing the Golf Game

October 23, 2017

The huge golfing industry (worth over US$70bn in the US alone, where it accounts for almost 2m jobs) will be quick to counter the error of my thoughts. With over 60m golfers worldwide (and 37m of them in the US), there are doubtless hundreds of readers who are also appalled by my myopic prejudice.

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[SCMP Column] Beauty of PowerPoints

October 07, 2017

When Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin at the Silicon Valley tech consultancy Forethought sold PowerPoint to Microsoft in 1987 for US$14m, I am sure they had no idea what a wonder they had created – and what a fortune they had signed away. Today, it is estimated that there are almost 350 PowerPoint presentations launched every second somewhere in the world – that’s about 30m a day. The software is installed on about 1.2bn computers worldwide.

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[SCMP Column] Whoof, Howl and A Miaow for Pet Lovers

September 30, 2017

One of the biggest contributors to this surge has inevitably been China, even though only 5.6 per cent of households currently own a dog, and just 1.5 per cent a cat. Gone are the days when the country’s cities were purged of all dogs, and Mao was offering rewards to villagers who exterminated sparrows that were devouring the country’s rice reserves. China today boasts over 27m pet dogs and 53m pet cats. It is of course one of the world leaders in keeping pet birds and fish. Their petfood market has in the past decade jumped 40 per cent to US$3.5bn.

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[SCMP Column] Halt, Proceed with Care

September 11, 2017

Needlesstosay, there is a worldwide scramble going on at present to locate, and begin extracting both minerals. And behind this is a burgeoning battery-making industry, in which Chinese companies seem headed to overtake global leaders like Panasonic from Japan, and LG and Samsung from Korea. Lots of hype has been beamed on Tesla’s “gigafactory”, but the two global leaders in making lithium-ion batteries are CATL in Ningde in China, and Lishen in Tianjin. By 2020, it is predicted that 9 of the 14 leading lithium-ion battery makers will be in China (many foreign joint ventures), with China accounting for over 80 per cent of production.

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[SCMP Column] Disaster Management

September 04, 2017

The truth is that the Macau Government and the casino barons that run Macau – and of course the US administration bending to lobbying for a “light hand” by the oil industry concentrated around Houston and the Gulf Coast – have  only the flimsiest excuses for failing adequately to fund the cost of protecting lives and livelihoods during typhoons, hurricanes, and other entirely predictable natural disasters. For the world’s leading economy, with a GDP of US$19 trillion, investment in appropriate infrastructure for storm defences was necessary and affordable.

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[SCMP Column] Liveablility Challenge

August 26, 2017

Like Monocle, the EIU includes in its “Culture and Environment” category a “Humidity/temperature rating” – which always punishes hot and humid places like Hong Kong. But what about those of us that hate to our shivering core the long cold dark winters of northern Europe or Canada? Why do Toronto (ranked a giddy 4th), Calgary (an astonishing 5th) and Helsinki (at 9th) not get punished for those interminable lightless months of miserable cold, and the dreadful monochrome of leafless trees, flowerless streets and grey slushy snow. Why do they not get punished for the awful lumpy layers of clothing you have to put on and peel off whenever you leave or arrive home?

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[SCMP Column] What a Load of Rubbish

August 19, 2017

For waste paper, China accounts for 52 per cent of world exports, most of it from the US or Europe. The business has made many people very rich. Zhang Yin, known inside China as the country’s “waste queen” is said to be one of China’s richest private sector entrepreneurs. Her company Nine Dragons is valued over US$2bn. According to the Economist magazine, California-based Chung Nam last year exported 333,900 containers of waste – most of them to China – and making waste paper the US’s biggest export by volume.

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[SCMP Column] Guardian of the Galaxy

August 12, 2017

We humans have performed quite well on this count, but set against most of our invasive species, we have much to learn – and perhaps much to fear. The Smithsonian Museum’s “BugInfo” site says there are around 900,000 insect species known to man, and a further 30m or so we have yet to discover. They estimate there are around 200m insects to every human, and around 40m ants per human – which is about 50,000 trillion for anyone with the patience to count all the noughts.

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[SCMP Column] Honey Bee Crisis

July 08, 2017

While New Zealand’s exporters make extraordinary claims for their manuka honey, none of them have been scientifically verified. But that cannot be said for Mauri’s “mad honey”, which until recently sold for six or more times the price of normal honey in the markets of Kathmandu. Apparently the Himalayan giant honey bees make different kinds of honey depending on the flowers in season – and the “mad honey” for which Mauri so endangers his life is only made when the bees are feasting every March and April on the pink, red and white blossoms of the rhododendron trees that grow on the north-facing hillsides of the nearby Hongu valley.

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[SCMP Column] The Value of Science

May 15, 2017

Already over the decades conservative figures in US politics have constrained and skewed federally-funded science. David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, last month pointed an awkward spotlight on research awards by the Centres for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health (NIH): over the past 40 years, the US has seen 2,000 deaths from cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies, and these diseases have attracted 486 NIH research awards. Over the same time frame, the US has suffered 4 million gun deaths, but received just three research awards on guns and gun-related issues.

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[SCMP Column] Grave Challenge

April 22, 2017

And credit to them. The World Health Organisation has just released a report that claims over 320m people worldwide are suffering depression, with a similar number crippled by anxiety disorders. This amounts to around 40 per cent of all illness (by contrast, strokes, cancer, heart disease and diabetes together account for 20 per cent). Almost half of these are in Asia, and India and China alone account for 100 million cases – but most of them are either never recognized, or hidden as guilty family secrets.

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[SCMP Column]Scooping up the Mess

April 10, 2017

In New York, which apparently deals with 100,000 tonnes of dog-poo a year along its 12,750 miles of sidewalk from its population of 600,000 dogs, former-mayor Ed Koch introduced the Canine Waste Law almost 40 years ago. That was when the “pooper-scooper” was first invented, and pooper bags first started to be distributed, often for free.

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[SCMP Column] Equation for Happiness

March 27, 2017

But then the challenges begin to appear. Generosity in society seems to be in short supply, and trust across the community has been sabotaged by increasingly extreme inequality and severe demoralization over soaring property prices as family incomes have stagnated. Most obviously, anxieties over the embrace of Beijing since 1997 have seriously undermined the population’s sense of freedom. These anxieties seem unlikely to have fallen over the course of the election campaign for our future Chief Executive.

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[SCMP Column] Eat, Drink and be Merry

March 06, 2017

Now, 2000 years later, Europeans undisputedly consume more alcohol that any other community in the world. Against a worldwide average of 6.5 litres of alcoholic content (pick your poison – beer, wine, spirits) consumed per year, Europeans on average consume 12.11 litres, with Russians, Moldovans and Lithuanians far in the lead with up to 17.5 litres a year.

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[SCMP Column] Absolute measurement

February 18, 2017

I feel sort of sentimental about those innocent early days when an inch was the width of a man’s thumb, which was 1/12th of a man’s foot (reduced by 20% when Britons converted from large Anglo-Saxon feet to daintier Roman feet). A yard was what King Henry I decided was the distance from his nose to the thumb of his outstretched arm. And an acre was the area of land an ox-drawn plough could cover in a day.

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[SCMP Column] Health Matters

January 02, 2017

Meticulous dental care ought to make sense anyway, given that dental ill-health is the most widespread source of ill-health on the planet, and that one third of the people my age around the world no longer have their own teeth. Untreated tooth decay affects one third of the world’s population – 2.4bn people, with a further 740m suffering severe periodontal disease. According to the World Health Organisation and other expert bodies, the worldwide cost of dental disease is around US$300 a year, and costs over 160 million work hours due to absenteeism in the US alone.

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