Monthly Archives: November 2002

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New Google game 

Steven Johnson, author of the excellent Emergence, suggests a new, totally self-absorbed Google game. Of course I played with it at once. The idea is to use Google to determine “mindshare” of a concept. “Steven Johnson” gets 0.3% mindshare of “emergence”, for example.

Well, I’m happy to report that “Lance” gets 2.5% mindshare of “Davos”. This compares to “Schwab” with 1.1%, “Annan” with 2.4%, “Gates” with 7.1% and “Clinton” with 8.5%. Nicely, “ski” level-pegs with “Clinton” on 8.5%. Incidentally, I think Klaus Schwab‘s personally low Google-based mindshare is a tribute to one aspect of the World Economic Forum: on the public stage it prefers discretion to grandstanding.

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We try harder 

Gerard Baker offers a rather surprising view in today’s Financial Times (subscribers only). “US statesmen used to say derisively that Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a role. They do not say that any more. A White House official who knows a bit about these things remarked to me recently that Britain could now plausibly claim to be the second most important country on earth. Politically, diplomatically, economically, the UK exercises an influence over the globe way beyond its geographic insignificance.”

I agree with the final sentence, but I’m less sure about the “second most important” line. Not that it matters much. In my glimpse of these matters, doing work for Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, there is a lot of truth to Baker’s assertions. During Davos in New York, I collared a host of major US and international figures for a couple of projects I was working on. Without exception, they made a point of emphasising to me that British views punched above its weight. Given some of the people I was speaking to, I don’t think it was just diplomatic flattery.

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The case for secession makes the case for the US west coast to secede from the nation. “If you look at a map of the congressional districts that overlaps the map of the US, you’ll see that nearly the entire Pacific coast, stretching from Canada to Mexico, is under Democratic control. The Republicans have just 3 districts in very southern CA, the 48th, 49th & 50th, that break-up the otherwise continuous blue land through the Washington, Oregon, and California waterfront — Republicans out there remember that when you come to visit our beaches.”

Operatic farce 

Larry Lessig points to a particularly egregious example of over-zealousness in pursuit of protection of intellectual property.

You can only see the Met Maniac site now thanks to the Web Archive, because the Metropolitan Opera decided it infringed their rights. As Lessig says, “Can anyone explain what sense it makes that this fan site, which collects historical facts about an important part of our culture, can be banned? I know the lawyers say ‘the law makes us do it’ — that trademark law, etc., requires that they police the way other people use their name. But what possible sense does such a law make. And at a time when opera around the world is struggling for resources to build an audience, what possible sense does it make to begin to attack your fans?”

There’s a further point, I think. The lawyers may say, “The law makes us do it.” But no one forces the client to take action — they are free to accept or reject legal advice. I don’t blame the lawyers, I blame the idiocy of someone in management at the Met.

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Blix’s problems 

Tim Trevan, who worked with Unscom the last time inspectors were allowed in Iraq, has an interesting perspective on the problems Hans Blix and his team will face.

“Even if the inspectors overcome Iraqi countermeasures and get close, Iraq would block the inspectors at gunpoint before they get ‘smoking gun’ evidence. And it is impossible to prove a negative — that Iraq has no weapons capabilities. What Unscom tried to do was to prove a positive — that all Iraq’s capabilities had been accounted for. But this, too, is impossible without the cooperation of Iraq’s suppliers.”

13 days in Minnesota 

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has an authoritative day-by-day account of the crucial Minnesota senate race. On the memorial service: “None of the speeches has been vetted. It hasn’t occurred to anyone that they need to be.”

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In addition to some useful business in Copenhagen last week, I saw two wonderful examples of the Danish accumulation of social capital.

First, I was wandering around the city centre when I passed a bakery. Inside was a woman buying her bread, while outside on the pavement was a baby buggy with a happily sleeping infant. In the United States, this would be grounds for arrest on charges of child abandonment. In Britain, it would certainly elicit meaningful tut-tuts from passers-by. No one I mentioned it to in Copenhagen thought it worth comment.

Second, in the small park across the street from my hotel were a number of bicycles. Nothing unusual in a city where more people cycle than drive. But these were publicly available bikes, for the use of anyone who had 20 kroner to put in the slot. You are trusted to bring the bike back. Very civilised.

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Happy country 

I’m off to Copenhagen on business today and tomorrow, so no more filing to Davos Newbies. Denmark, incidentally, is the happiest country in Europe according to those who measure social capital.

Media bias 

Rhetorica has some interesting observations on the supposed liberal bias of the US media (interestingly, in the UK the media bias is generally to the right).

“Journalism has a bias for official information. Rosenfeld demonstrates exactly how that bias occurs. Now, it doesn’t matter what party is in power. If the fortunes were switched, then I might have begun this item with a plea for a little conservative bias. The point is that actual ideological bias–perhaps a contrarian bias — might help deepen the political reporting by providing the kind of skepticism that mediates rather than transcribes the ‘first impression’.”

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Well that’s a depressing election for you. As Joshua Marshall writes, “That could have gone better.” And his quick analysis is worth reading as well: “The Democrats have lots of long-term political and demographic trends in their favor. But they don’t really have a politics, a vision, or a message — or perhaps, better to say, the courage and imagination to get behind one. And I suspect that that is the underlying issue.”

MyDD’s late night summary tries to summon some cheer: “The Democrats are not in a huge minority. It’s a 3 seat deficit in the Senate, and a 13 seat deficit in the House. Republicans are going to act like they won 100-0, and they are going to govern like they won 100-0. The only question is, will the Democrats put up more than half a fight? Good night all, waking up to the Trifecta Regime.”

In contrast (helpful when I need cheering up on the political side of things), the continuing disintegration of the Conservative party over here fills both weblogs and newspapers. The excellent British Politics weblog captures yesterday very well.

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Paul Krugman explains why it’s vital to vote in today’s mid-term elections (assuming you are an American with a vote).

“Of course, some pundits tell you that not much is at stake in this particular election, that the parties aren’t really very different on the issues. I don’t know what planet they are living on: in reality, the parties are further apart than they have been since the 1930’s. The fact that anyone imagines otherwise is a tribute to the timidity of the Democrats, who are afraid to say what they really think, and the subterfuge of the Republicans, who show a disciplined willingness to pretend to hold positions they actually abhor.”

Off with their heads 

The Financial Times has not been traditionally known for the stridency of its editorial voice. It has long abandoned the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand approach to opinion, but it does tend to be moderate in its views. So you know something is particularly wrong when it editorialises for president Bush to have a wholesale cleanout of his economic policy team.

“Changes are sorely needed. First, Mr Bush should seek a replacement for Harvey Pitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. All his credibility has gone after yet more damaging revelations over the appointment of the head of the new accountancy regulatory body. Second, the president should think long and hard about the other members of his economic team, including Paul O’Neill, the treasury secretary, and Larry Lindsey, chief economic adviser. Neither the markets nor Congress hold much faith in their abilities.”

Unpleasant reading 

Jonathan Freedland has what he admits is unpleasant reading for critics of president Bush. “It will break liberal hearts to admit it, but he’s good.”

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Vote early, vote often 

I can’t remember a mid-term election that fascinated and worried me as much as tomorrow’s.

I shudder at the awful legislation and frightening judges likely to emerge if the Republicans end up with control of both houses of Congress. Fortunately, I take comfort in what seems to be the punditry’s general sense that the Democrats can hang on to the Senate (the Political Wire weblog has a useful round-up of predictions). But it may well be that I only pay attention to pundits who agree with me.

Let’s just hope that good left-leaning people don’t delude themselves, as many did in the Gore-Bush contest, that there’s no difference between the parties. On most issues of note (pace Iraq), there’s a world of difference.

My fingers are crossed.

You wait for ages 

As a former classical musician, I read with interest Anthony Holden’s account of the musical chairs for the world’s top conducting posts. I wish, however, that he’d injected some critical perspective into the article. How can one pass up the opportunity to recall Franz Welser-Most’s nickname when he was in London a number of years ago — Frankly Worse Than Most. And can anyone explain to me how Seiji Ozawa, after some unremarkable decades at the Boston Symphony, can still be regarded as being in the top flight of maestri?

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Gillmor on Slashdot 

Dan Gillmor from the San Jose Mercury News has long been one of the most valuable technology journalists. Even at the height of hype, Dan kept a sober watch on developments. If you want to get a picture of what’s going on today, his interview on Slashdot is an excellent starting point.


If you want a bad advertisement for democracy, look at who is leading the current top ten in the BBC’s quest to find the greatest Briton of all time. It makes my blood boil.

Bad news from Africa 

Chris McGreal, who has been The Guardian’s correspondent in South Africa since 1990, provides his final dispatch today. It makes very sobering reading.

“One problem remains a fundamental lack of foreign confidence in South Africa. The cause of some of it, such as crime, is hardly the government’s fault. But Mbeki has contributed to the doubts through his equivocation on Zimbabwe, and Aids. Those who defend him because of his ‘sound’ economic policies ignore the impact that his views on Aids have probably played in undermining the South African economy and in compounding poverty. The World Bank estimates that by the end of this decade, Aids and its consequences will consume 19% of South Africa’s GDP.”