Ominous rattle from Russia
Iran and North Korea are minor players. Ultimately, it is in the interests of Russia and China, as much as the US, to keep these rogue states in check. However, we must take more account of Russia's decision to deploy a new generation of rockets designed specifically to bypass western anti-missile defences. President Vladimir Putin is giving Russia a potential first-strike capacity at a time when the US has actually scrapped its most advanced ballistic missile, the MX Peacemaker. The obvious question is why?
The optimist would say that the new Russian missile system is largely symbolic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia found that 75 per cent of its missile construction industry was now in foreign countries such as the Ukraine. So it was inevitable that President Putin would want to create a domestic Russian missile. Also, Russia remains a poor country so the new missiles are few and carry only one nuclear warhead.
The pessimist would point out that in 2002, George Bush and Mr Putin effectively agreed to abandon all the carefully negotiated arms treaties of the Reagan-Gorbachev era which limited strategic missile deployment and the number of nuclear warheads each side could deploy. America interpreted this as agreement to switch emphasis to developing new defensive systems. But Russia - lacking the technology and the finances - concentrated on new offensive systems, risking a new arms race. Ominously, Russian sources have implied that later Topol-Ms will be equipped with multiple nuclear warheads - a clear breach of the old SART-II Treaty.
This interest in offensive systems comes at a time when Mr Putin is systematically undermining Russia's infant democratic institutions. No-one thinks he wants a new Cold War. But Mr Putin does want to send a message that a more authoritarian Moscow intends to be master in its own house and to recover its old sphere of interest in the former Soviet territories. This is not good news for the West. The new missiles are an early alarm bell. But the real test will be if Mr Putin ignores the constitutional bar on a running for a third presidential terms. If he does, the Russian Bear may be on the prowl again.
Tsunami's effects ripple on
A year ago today, a vast tidal wave swept over the tourist beaches and quiet fishing villages of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia. The tsunami took the lives of 220,000 people. As the first commemorations of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami are held, have any lessons been learned?
Unlike the Pacific, the Indian Ocean did not have a tsunami detection system. The first of a new network of special monitoring buoys are now in place that can spot a tsunami far out to sea and so give enough warning to countries in the region. As a result, the death toll from the next big tsunami will be dramatically smaller.
The 2004 tsunami produced one of the most generous outpourings of charitable aid ever seen, 8 billion. Unlike other disasters, this money has actually been handed over to the UN and the countries affected, and rebuilding is underway. But the pace of reconstruction has been very slow and refugee camps remain full. The problem was chaotic planning, excessive government bureaucracy and too many agencies getting in each other's way. The world has developed mechanisms for delivering swift disaster relief. It now needs to create a more effective machinery for post-disaster redevelopment.
Mother Nature will certainly send another tsunami. The next time, we must be prepared.
MP3 music to over-50s' ears
Yesterday, the Christmas stockings of mums and dads throughout the land were bulging with music CDs of a certain vintage. Rod Stewart may be getting craggy and Abba a joke to pre-teen fans of the Pussycat Dolls, but they still sell albums in huge volume.
This is down to the fact that ageing but affluent baby boomers are increasingly willing to fork out large amounts of cash for the albums of their favourite performers. More importantly, the over-50s remain technophobes who, until now, have ignored the craze for downloading music from the internet that grips their grandchildren. A new report shows that only 4 per cent of people in Britain over 50 even own an MP3 player. As a result, the old rock bands go on selling hard copies by the bucketful.
Is this split between the generations set to grow, with CD stores full of the over-50s and Radio 2 the king of the airwaves? Maybe not: the report also notes that the baby boomers are beginning to realise they are missing out on the first big musical revolution of the century. A quarter of them are planning to take the plunge and join the digital music brigade. So you know what to buy mum or dad for next Christmas.