Flat Earth

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Food for thought

THE other day I found myself discussing famine over lunch at Terence Conran's Pont de la Tour restaurant (like Bill Clinton when Tony Blair took him there, I wasn't paying), and it provoked the thought that there is no clearer distinction between the First and Third Worlds than hunger.

The recent experience of famine affects cultures in many ways we find difficult to understand: it explains, for example, why the Chinese relish duck's feet and sea slugs, and boast that they will eat "anything on four legs that is not a table, anything that swims without a propeller".

In many countries, people die all the time from hunger, which is why nobody can decide whether or not there is a famine in Sudan. Where farming is so marginal, it is not unusual to get by for a time on roots, leaves and bark if crops fail or are late, but the balance is very fine. Anything else that goes wrong - war in Sudan, a blockade of the Shia people of Afghanistan by theTaliban, a lunatic government in North Korea - can be catastrophic.

And, despite the evidence of Ethiopia in the 1980s, a famine can be very hard to spot. They take place in remote regions away from cities, often in areas closed off by the authorities. Nobody knows how bad things are in North Korea, but it would be as well to worry. China, after all, lost 30 million people during the Great Leap Forward without anyone being the wiser.

Capital offence

POOR old Nursultan Nazarbayev. The President of Kazakhstan, a barely- reconstructed communist who retains a robust attitude to dissent, still can't persuade his subjects to stop calling his new capital "white tomb". Nazarbayev has moved the government and parliament from Almaty, the main city, to Akmola, a Soviet-style dump whose name is ambiguous: it can mean "white plenty" inKazakh, but the President's critics prefer "white tomb".

Nazarbayev renamed the town Astana, meaning "capital",but he may not have won the battle. After the TV news programme that reported the change of name, the weather forecast referred to the town as Akmola.