Monthly Archives: February 2003

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Look in amazement 

London at night: Photo of London at night, taken by the International Space Station

Surely not 

According to The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire (subscribers only), Michael Drosnin, author of the ludicrous hoax The Bible Code, “gets meetings with Pentagon’s top intelligence officer and CIA’s No. 3, on his theory that bin Laden’s hideaway is revealed in the Old Testament’s ancient Hebrew”.

Ain’t nobody here but us chickens  

I’m glad I continue to subscribe to the Google News Davos RSS feed. Otherwise I wouldn’t have learned that the composer of the chicken dance, Werner Thomas, was from Davos (from a valuable two-part story on chickens in decorating, collectibles and artwork).

No cheer 

Krugman: “Why is the administration so uninterested in helping the economy? Here’s my theory: The depressed state of the economy provides a convenient if bogus rationale for the huge, extremely irresponsible long-run tax cuts that, after Iraq, constitute this administration’s principal obsession. To do anything else to help the economy would suggest that it’s possible to create jobs now without putting the country’s future solvency at risk — and that’s not a message this administration wants to convey.”

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A man, a plan… 

The Bush “plan” on climate change “lacks most of the basic elements of a strategic plan: a guiding vision, executable goals, clear timetables and criteria for measuring progress”. That’s according to the scientists assembled at Bush’s request by the National Academy of Sciences.

Getting it wrong 

Like many people in Britain, I rely on Radio 4′s Today Programme to give me a feisty injection of information and analysis to start the day. Steve Bowbrick rightly raps the programme for its unbelievably biased report on the proposal to extend European copyright protection for music recordings from 50 to 95 years.

No war map 

A very clever map. A comment on one weblog I read, however, points out that the result in Iraq itself (assuming you couuld do an honest opinion poll) might put it in the blue camp.

Literacy 

I hadn’t encountered the term technacy before. I generally deplore neologisms, and I can’t say this is one that I’ll warm to. But the concept of technical literacy replacing more traditional literacy is an interesting one. I’m unsure, however, how much it withstands careful scrutiny.

I remain a passionate believer in the values of a liberal arts education. To my mind, the essential purpose of that education is to enable us to know how to think, how to approach problems, how to comprehend new information. Technacy, such as the skill of getting the most out of a Google search, is an important tool for us today. Anyone who has been trained in thinking should be able to acquire that skill, just as many new skills arise with changing information and knowledge.

The definition of what it means to be literate has changed regularly over the centuries. I think the proud old word (the OED dates literate back to the fifteenth century) can continue to do yeoman service for some time to come.

It was easier 2,000 years ago  

Bloggus Caesari: “Connection problems have been plaguing me. Regular updates should resume by tomorrow.”

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Horrendously erudite  

Kieran Healy describes Robert Merton’s wonderful and idiosyncratic book On the Shoulders of Giants as “horrendously erudite”. A nice phrase. Merton, a pioneering sociologist (and incidentally the father of Nobel prize winning economist Robert C Merton), died the other day, aged 92.

Blair on climate change  

Tony Blair gave a significant speech yesterday on sustainable development. May analysts have pointed out that his fine words have not been adequately reinforced by the energy white paper that was also released yesterday. There’s truth in that criticism, but on the world stage I think there are few leaders that would stick their neck out as far as Blair on the environment.

“It is clear Kyoto is not radical enough. But it is at the moment the most that is politically achievable. And even the Kyoto targets have proved controversial with some countries, notably America. Many see it as a threat to the pursuit of economic growth. I believe this needn’t be the case. If we harness new technology the evidence is mounting that we can achieve a target of 60% — and at reasonable cost.”

And his conclusion? “Interdependence is the defining characteristic of the modern world. What we lack at present is the common agenda that is broad and just and global institutions to execute it. That is the real task of statesmanship today. And the time-scale is urgent.”

Last huzzah? 

Alan Little reckons we are witnessing the last huzzah of the transatlantic partnership that shaped the last sixty years. “The transatlantic dialogue — a dialogue of mutual disdain and despair — is going to change our world. These are the dog days of the Atlantic partnership.”

The article contains a lot of interesting detail, but I’m sceptical about the conclusion. There have been bad times in the Atlantic relationship in the past and they have been weathered. It’s true that there is no longer a unifying threat as in the days of the cold war, but I think the dynamic that will restore the ties is that — for the foreseeable future — the US has no alternative.

At some point in this century, the Pacific relationship will probably become of greater importance to the US than the Atlantic one, as China develops into a true economic superpower. But even at China’s heady current growth rates, that point is many decades away. When a more internationalist president enters the White House, however pre-eminent the US military, I’m certain the transatlantic relationship will reassume its central role in geopolitics.

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Revisiting Battle of Algiers 

Alan Stone provides a fascinating re-reading of the great Pontecorvo film Battle of Algiers, in the light of Islamic fundamentalism.

Think tank blog  

Demos, one of the most interesting policy think tanks in the UK, has created a weblog for its staff to note ideas and developments, called the Greenhouse. The motivation for the weblog is notable.

“First and foremost the Greenhouse is our ‘outboard brain’. We find it’s a simple and accessible way to capture useful data, knowledge, informed opinion, cuttings and other weblinks — the raw stuff which our ideas are based upon.

“It’s also a bit of an experiment in ‘open policy’ creation. We’re very keen to follow a more open approach to policy research and formulation — to build public policy in public, as it were. Occasionally we’ll try out new ideas on the blog before they’re published, in order to get input directly via comments from readers.”

More organisations need to do this.

Internet president  

Before the presidential elections in South Korea, I’d read a few pieces about how important the Internet had been in the campaign. But The Guardian makes clear that this was more than a passing electoral fancy. “When he takes office tomorrow, 56-year-old Roh Moo-hyun will become the youngest president in South Korea’s history, the first never to have graduated from university and probably the only national leader to have won power through the internet.”

An accompanying article on what 70% broadband penetration means in Korea is also important reading. “The younger generation get all their information from the web. Some don’t even bother with TVs. They just download the programmes.”

Emailer beware  

I didn’t realise that the Laurie Garrett roundup of Davos I pointed to before I went skiing was a source of controversy and considerable comment. Bruce Sterling has an enjoyable exegesis of the Garrett email and Yale Law School’s Law Meme has an extensive discussion of the privacy issues the dissemination of the email raises.

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On the slopes 

We’re off to the mountains tomorrow morning for a week of skiing (flying from Heathrow, needless to say — should I worry?). There will be a strictly observed posting hiatus on Davos Newbies until Monday 24 February.

Jackhammer to ivory towers  

The irrepressible Dave Winer is spreading the weblog gospel at Harvard. Donna Wentworth’s live notes on Dave’s evening session on weblogging sound great. Dan Bricklin has pictures.

Seeking the truth  

“The public is already too cynical and doesn’t know what to believe. We’re becoming Sovietized. We have to read gossip on the Net to have a hint at what might be going on. This is not right.” John Dvorak is upset that reality TV may not be all it seems. But I think he’s haring off in the wrong direction by lamenting the Internet’s role as a truth seeker. I wish major media would do the digging (and in many cases it does), but I’m delighted there are now vast numbers of other diggers for the truth.

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No clever cabal 

Laurie Garrett, who wrote the nonpareil Coming Plague, was apparently covering Davos for Newsday. I’m not sure if this was a printed dispatch or whether it was just an email to friends, but it’s an interesting perspective on Davos.

“The world isn’t run by a clever cabal. It’s run by about 5,000 bickering, sometimes charming, usually arrogant, mostly male people who are accustomed to living in either phenomenal wealth, or great personal power. A few have both. Many of them turn out to be remarkably naive — especially about science and technology. All of them are financially wise, though their ranks have thinned due to unwise tech-stock investing. They pay close heed to politics, though most would be happy if the global political system behaved far more rationally — better for the bottom line.”

Perspective over IQ 

Richard Gayle points to Nicholas Negroponte’s thoughts on innovation in Technology Review. “Our biggest challenge in stimulating a creative culture is finding ways to encourage multiple points of views. Many engineering deadlocks have been broken by people who are not engineers at all. This is simply because perspective is more important than IQ. The irony is that perspective will not get kids into college, nor does it help them thrive there. Academia rewards depth. Expertise is bred by experts who work with their own kind.”

Gayle comments that “a growing culture welcomes these things. As soon as we turn our back on these, we will become a culture in decline.” I couldn’t agree more.

Blog tourism 

I had breakfast this morning with Boston-based weblogger Halley Suitt. Halley may well be pioneering a new form of travel, blog tourism. Although she’s here partly for business, she’s also cramming in visits to a bunch of UK webloggers and also hopped over to the Netherlands on Sunday to meet a blogger there. I’m sure she’ll write more about it on her site, but it’s clear that the connection formed through a weblog can be powerful in person as well. You meet all the nicest people through a weblog.

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Advice to candidates 

Al From and Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council have written a memo to presidential candidates on what it will take to win. It’s sobering reading: “The conventional wisdom is that there is no front-runner in the Democratic race. That’s not quite true. The real front-runner, fresh off its triumph in the midterms, is the Democratic Party’s losing image.”

Involving  

I’ve written before that the BBC can claim to understand the power of the Internet more than any other big media organisation I can think of (aided, without doubt, by the fact that it doesn’t need to justify its Internet investment through any commercial criteria). Their call for users to submit photos of anti-war protest is an important straw in the wind of opening up to allow the two-way web to become reality.

Promises  

“Viewed from the outside, Mr. Bush’s America does not look like a regime whose promises you can trust.” Paul Krugman accurately diagnoses one of the factors in the current Atlantic rift.

Better late 

Out of inertia as much as anything, I have maintained my subscription to the Google News feed on Davos. It’s of diminishing interest to me (I get a lot of stories about snowfalls and avalanches, rather than summits), but there are occasional items that are more pertinent. Dennis Kneale from Forbes has perhaps the most flavourful roundup of the Davos summit that I’ve read this year. He has a particularly nice way of finessing information from “off the record” sessions.

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Big science  

“The modus operandi for most big science projects is to play down the sheer fascination of intellectual investigation and emphasize supposed economic benefits.” George Johnson explains some of the politics behind big science. What interests me is that you encounter the same strategy in so many other fields. Take education. I’ve been on conference panels where educationalists were frantic to prove the economic benefit of higher education. Why can’t they have the confidence to argue that education is good for the individual and good for the society, even if no economic benefit whatsoever accrues? Why does the economic argument have primacy?

Exposure  

Responding to the sad tale of the plagiarised Iraq dossier, The Observer makes an important point on how the rules have changed for governments and other powerful institutions. “It is not only the Government which has access to the internet. Every claim made will be scrutinised more closely, and by more people, than ever before.”

You’d think The Observer’s usually estimable John Naughton would have the same understanding. He makes the valuable point that equating intellectual property with physical property is dishonest, but he fails to credit the many people who have been discussing this in weblogs and other media for weeks. His column seems to me a direct crib from Doc Searls’s analysis of the Eldred case. Credit where credit is due.

C – 7 

The Guardian has a revealing analysis of the congestion charge and the politics and thinking behind it. “The congestion charge may be the sort of unpalatable but essential social reform — backed by the experts but deeply divisive — that modern politicians are increasingly reluctant to initiate. Or it may turn out to be a very public folly: the Millennium Dome of transport policies.”

Roll on C Day. I can’t see anything else even remotely tackling one of London’s biggest problems.

Circle of friends 

By way of explaining why he is interested in the history of economic thought, Brad DeLong makes some wonderful points about long-dead authors. “It is very nice to add some highly intelligent, extremely witty, and very thoughtful people living far away — for the past is indeed far away, and in its strangeness provides an important element of perspective — to our circle of friends.”

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Whistler?  

The delightfully named Whistler Question reports that Klaus Schwab is skiing in the Canadian resort this week. But it’s apparently an innocent skiing holiday, and no prefiguring of the Forum holding its Annual Meeting in Whistler, or so they say.

More incomprehension  

Brad DeLong emphasises he really doesn’t understand why the Bush administration is pushing its budget proposals. “Nobody enters politics seeking to make their country poorer, weaker, and more miserable. Only patriots enter American politics. And trying to mold America’s mid-twenty-first century politics into a pattern like that of present-day Argentina is not a patriotic thing to do.”

Not 1789  

The European constitutional convention has published the first draft of the proposed constitution (pdf, aargh). It has produced predictably apoplectic responses from parts of the British press. I don’t think a calm reading of the draft justifies the eurosceptic rants.

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, values which are common to the Member States. Its aim is a society at peace, through the practice of tolerance, justice and solidarity.” That, like much of the document, is pretty hard to argue with.

But in the current climate, article 14, reads like a particularly wild pipe dream: “Member States shall actively and unreservedly support the Union’s common foreign and security policy in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity. They shall refrain from action contrary to the Union’s interests or likely to undermine its effectiveness.”

What’s sad to me is the style of the document, which is clearly written by a committee of bureaucrats and lawyers. If you read the US constitution 214 years after its completion, it remains a resonant document. And I certainly haven’t encountered any parallel to the still-vibrant debates of the Federalist Papers. Unless major redrafting happens, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to refer to the European constitution, other than for legal reasons, even five years from now.

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Anti-Europeanism 

Gerard Baker has an interesting piece on anti-Europeanism in today’s Financial Times (subscribers only). He reckons that, contrary to what some European observers are reporting, there is remarkably little resentment against “old Europe” outside tight Washington circles. “Mostly, it is because Americans do not really care very much what Europeans think. America’s pre-eminence and Europe’s irrelevance have numbed US citizens to anything Europeans say about them.”

And Felix Salmon points me to a piece in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs on anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism by former FT editor Richard Lambert. “American views of Europe are informed by stereotypes — only in this case, they frequently reflect a Europe that has passed.”

You do the math 

“What does it take to produce a military victory?” Princeton economist Alan Krueger looks at some topical work by economists to use the production function to determine what produces battlefield success.