Monthly Archives: March 2003

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Better late than… 

Reuters reports on Colin Powell’s planned visit to Ankara and Brussels. “It will be Powell’s first trip to Europe since a short visit to the Swiss mountain resort of Davos in January.”

Pump price 

Trust the Financial Times to get stuck into the numbers. “The fuel cost numbers are startling. A gallon of modified jet fuel, which is used in tanks as well as aircraft, costs only 84 cents when bought wholesale from multinational oil companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil. By the time the cost of transporting the fuel to the battlefield is added, that sum can rise to hundreds of dollars per gallon… The US army estimates it costs about $150 per gallon for fuel used in Iraq. The fuel comes from 23 US military dumps scattered across the Middle East, a number that was doubled in preparation for the current conflict.”


Christopher Lydon lists writers who anticipated the current crisis, from Tolstoy to Graham Greene.

Age of impatience  

Yale historian Paul Kennedy reflects on the roots of American impatience in The Guardian (not on the website, presumably because of syndication restrictions). “There is the impatient character of the American sports culture, which is so ingrained and taken for granted that few citizens appreciate how it looks from the outside — the quasi-military language, the impatience with low scoring, the stress upon offensive play, the sheer overwhelming size and power of most basketball and football players, the commerically driven system of frequent ‘time-outs’ which heightens the atmosphere of urgency and racing against the clock.”

Cultural differences  

Felix Salmon has a lengthy post on the differences between British Airways and American Airlines, but he extends it to a broader cultural point. “The Americans seem to be good at blowing things up, but very bad at getting any kind of dialogue going with the Iraqis, let alone any goodwill. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to understand that Iraqis aren’t simply going to welcome them with flowers and open arms: that they have to do something to earn the locals’ trust, and that hiding behind a tank turret is a bad way of going about that. The Brits are just as good at killing the enemy as the Americans are, but they’re much better at relating with the vast majority of the population that isn’t the enemy.”

Along with other thinking webloggers, I’m steering clear of being an armchair general (leaving that to those who actually know something), but to my untutored eye, it seems the British army’s long experience in Northern Ireland is proving extraordinarily relevant in Iraq. I wonder whether this telling — and at times amusing — account of the Phrasealator could be written about the British troops as well.

Knowledge reversal 

Michael Wolff at the coalition media centre in Qatar: “It takes about 48 hours to understand that information is probably more freely available at any other place in the world than it is here. Eventually you realise that you know significantly less than when you arrived, and that you are losing more sense of the larger picture by the hour. At some point you will know nothing.”

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Science woes 

Via Universal Rule I came across physics professor Jonathan Katz’s lucid account of why you shouldn’t become a scientist. “The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven’t yet, then join them. Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.”

What struck me was how much Katz’s analysis varies from the view from Britain. Over here, the US is seen as a land of plenty to which Britain’s science community can only dream of aspiring.

The bloggers song  

I’ll guess this is the first time Dave Winer has ever been in a lyric. A very funny and rather professional song about blogging: “Blank page, nothin’ to say, just pictures of my cats today. Thought about the war a bunch, now let me tell you what I had for lunch.”

And jingo was his name-o 

“It’s not that easy to be a jingoist in the era of globalization.” Floyd Norris makes some nice points out of the ridiculous story of French’s Mustard protesting that it isn’t French (it’s actually British).

The real enemy 

Richard Gayle: “I believe the real enemy is not someone who disagrees with me. It is anyone who tries to hamper the path I feel that civilization is now traveling. Diversity of opinions and viewpoints. Open communication. Speedy transmission of information. Rapid creation of social networks. Adaptive communities. Bottom-up rather than top-down approaches to problem solving. Emergent behaviors. These are tools that will hurry us along the path we are heading. I believe that just as these principles cut across political lines and economic principles, civilization’s enemies will be found on both sides of the political spectrum and in different economic strata.”

PowerPoint corrupts absolutely  

The non pareil Edward Tufte dissects a Boeing PowerPoint slide on the Columbia disaster. “Some tables are difficult to read because of the grid prisons surrounding the entries in the spreadsheet, and it is difficult to make comparisons of numbers across the table. Bullets lists are used throughout, with up to 5 levels of hierarchy on a single page of 10 or 12 lines. Consequently the reasoning is broken up into stupefying fragments both within and between the many slides.”

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Not keeping up 

Gerald Baker in the Financial Times (subscribers only) puts his finger on why following 24-hour rolling news can be so dissatisfying. “It is an unfortunate fact of modern journalism that the technology-enhanced pace of battlefield reporting has not been matched by an increased capacity or, indeed, incentive to make reasoned editorial judgments about the progress of war.”

1918 redux 

“If you think it’s a little academic to ponder the fate of stateless nations while the war still rages around Baghdad, think again. The Kurdish question is the largest unexploded bomb in all Iraq. And its future will also be determined in the heat of battle over the next few days and weeks.” More essential thinking from Tim Garton Ash.

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Preemptive strike  

Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times offers a caution for management readers (subscribers only). “As soon as the Iraqi war is over, business school professors will start touting their books on the implications for corporate strategy.” Don’t rush to read them.

“This is the third difference between war and business: customers. Battles are fought directly, armed force against armed force. The civilian population need to be won over; handled badly, they can greatly impede an army’s progress. As friends and allies, they can be of huge assistance. But they are not the principal object of war: the enemy is. Companies, however, are not engaged in direct combat, although they often talk as if they are. They do not, unless criminally inclined, destroy each other’s head offices or blow up each other’s loading bays. Their sole business is to persuade third parties — customers — that their offerings are better than the competition’s.”

On song 

The revived British Politics gets better and better. Today he takes on Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel and the others who decry the BBC’s attempts to be balanced in its reporting.

“Once you abandon objectivity everything that is produced is suspect. The problem is that if you want to convince, you cannot just tell people one side of the story. You have to show that of both sides, one is more in accordance with reality. To do that, you need to give both sides a fair hearing, no matter how unpleasant they are. Those who interview his spokespeople and counterpose that with reality better make the point that Saddam’s regime is evil than those who throw accusations at him.

“The second reason that this would have been a bad idea is that objectivity is like virginity. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. If you didn’t give Stalin objective reporting, then why give independence leaders objective reporting? or the Viet Cong? or indeed any movement editors or producers dislike? The justification of partiality is that these people don’t deserve fair treatment. But who decides the virtuous and the unclean? Can they be trusted?

“That way Pravda lies.”

Awkward squad  

The Guardian has a good feature on the division of journalists into the “awkward squad” and the more compliant. “The apparent divide across the Atlantic may signal the greater support for the war in Iraq among the American public and the often more deferential nature of their journalists.”

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Lying bastards 

A quick Google search seems to indicate that Jeremy Paxman originated the question, “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Purportedly, it’s at the forefront of his thinking whenever he grills a politician. It’s also the thoroughly right attitude for any responsible journalist.*

So I was tremendously heartened to see British Politics lay into critics of the BBC‘s supposedly anti-war bias. “If good reporting is the kind of questioning that US reporters seem to give Bush, I’m a banana. The purpose of reporters is not to lob up soft ones for the masterful politicians to knock out of the ground. It’s to ask tough questions, to challenge presumptions, to probe, to push boundaries. What the Warbloggers seem to dislike is good journalism, rather than the breathless repeating of lines to take.”

*It’s not that all sources are lying bastards, but good journalism requires the sceptical distancing of assuming that they are.

A different Rubicon 

The New York Times has important detail on the kind of administration that will be put in place after the war in Iraq. Although the British government is pressing for quick UN involvement, that will not be possible without specific Security Council authorisation.

The Times quotes UNDP director Mark Malloch Brown: “On the humanitarian side, we want to save lives no matter what. When it comes to reconstruction, that’s crossing a different Rubicon. We can’t be authorized by a subcontract of the US government. We have to be authorized by the Security Council.”

What’s in a name? 

James McGee tackles the debate about the term blog, and whether its ugliness will restrict the tool’s spread. “Given the match between weblogs and this broader trend toward decentralized and distributed solutions, the lameness of ‘blog’ as a term might actually be one of its primary strengths. It reflects that weblogs are tools coming into organizations from the grassroots, not something imposed from a central source.”

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Edward Hugh and Stephen Roach lend heft to my continuing gloom about the world economy. Hugh: “The outbreak of war has released a tension that had been building up for months. Now it has finally arrived, and the market response is a reflection of this feeling. What happens tomorrow, when it is all over, this is anyone’s guess. My own feeling is that the hangover of discovering that the problem was something more than geopolitical uncertainty may have negative consequences.”

Dear Raed 

Many weblogs have pointed to Dear Raed, a blog written by an Iraqi in Baghdad. Paul Boutin decided to determine whether the blog was really from Baghdad or a hoax. His conclusion: it’s probably the real thing. I wish the kind of scepticism that motivated Boutin weren’t necessary, but that’s the kind of intelligence that will increasingly be necessary for those of us who get our information from weblogs and other personal sources.

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Market failure  

There are things happening other than the war, although they may seem momentarily unimportant. The other night I went to a debate on science and the economy, organised by Prospect magazine. The debate wasn’t up to the standards of the magazine, but Tim Hubbard from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre was right on target.

He talked about market failure in medical research, where existing drugs for so-called neglected diseases (those that affect the world’s poorest people) can’t or won’t be manufactured at reasonable cost. I recall a tussle I had in Davos with Jeff Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, about the phrase market failure. To Jeff, at the time, it was a contradiction in terms.

Hubbard also spoke eloquently about the benefits of scrapping the current intellectual property regime. “Data is more valuable to you if lots of people can see it and work on it.”

“Half right and therefore all wrong” 

Tim Garton Ash has an excellent analysis in The Guardian (update: I see the piece is running simultaneously in The New York Times in a demonstration of op-ed clout). He outlines three ideas competing for the “succession to the cold war west”: the Rumsfeldian, the Chiraco-Putinesque (which sounds like a chess opening to me) and the Blairite.

The Rumsfeldian, which is in the ascendent at the moment, is that American might is right. The Chiraco-Putinesque is that American might is by definition dangerous. Both, Garton Ash reckons, are “half right and therefore all wrong”.

The third idea is Blairite: “Blair’s idea is that we should re-create a larger version of the cold war, transatlantic west, in response to the new threats we face. What he calls the ‘coming together’ of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism should frighten us as much as the Red Army used to. Europe and America must stick together to defeat it.”

There’s no doubt which vision presents the best hope for the coming years. But Garton Ash’s has a tough verdict on the Blairite vision as well. “Blair’s idea is completely right. The trouble is the execution.”

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Conflicted dove  

I wish I had something original to say about the war, but Chris Bertram almost exactly reflects my feelings here and here, and his reference to the excellent Michael Walzer essay in The New York Review of Books is essential. In sum, I’d like to have seen an alternative to war, but that would have meant an international commitment to intrusive inspections, backed by the threat of force. In the light of French and Russian vacillation, it’s very unclear whether that could have worked.

But we need to set the bar for going to war very high, given its costs. I know very few people who have been convinced that the bar has been exceeded in this case. And of course the thoroughgoing incompetence of the Bush administration in everything they touch makes my heart sink even further.

With war about to start, however, let’s hope it’s swift, and the process of creating a better Iraq can start soon.

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Slugging Libération 

Jason Burke’s Iraq diary is proving a must-read. “Fearing that some random freelancer was about to irredeemably anger a man who could send us all back to Ankara I told him to shut up. When he didn’t I hit him quite hard. He turned out to be the foreign editor of Libération, the great leftist Paris-based newspaper that I have always admired and enjoyed. This did not make me feel any better about the episode.”

Turkish worries  

The Financial Times has a remarkable angle on Turkey’s role in the Iraq crisis that I haven’t seen anyone else covering.

“A senior official said Washington was worried about plans by members of the Turkish general staff to send tanks and infantry deep into Iraq. This would be an effort, on the face of it, to forestall a grab by Kurdish forces for Iraqi oil assets in the north of the country — an ambition all the main Kurdish parties have denied. But it would have a strategic objective too. The official said that two generals, whom he would not name, saw ‘a chance for Turkey to end its Kurdish problem for once and for all’. This would potentially leave US troops standing in between tens of thousands of Kurdish forces and the tanks of the Turkish army. In that situation, the lightly armed forces of the US would be helpless.”

Could it really come to that? I know how important the military remains in Turkey, but I find it implausible that a Nato member and a democracy could seriously end up in a military standoff with the US.

Knowledge management  

I’ve always had a problem with the notion of knowledge management, and James McGee has finally helped me understand why.

“Knowledge management efforts… have largely been a disappointment because they have tried to force knowledge into a product metaphor; trying to force what is fundamentally a product of craft into an industrial model of reusable parts.”

This is by way of his discussion on why weblogs will be important tools in the right kind of knowledge management.

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Damning with faint praise  

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on the UK-French divisions over Iraq. There’s nothing particularly new (and it’s subscribers only, so I haven’t linked), but I was amused by this characterisation: “The most important UN debate in years has turned into a dogfight between two middling European powers, France and Britain” (emphasis added). And the large European powers are…?


British Spin has some valuable observations on what he calls the futures market in politics.

“This story [will Robin Cook and Clare Short resign] is a massive example of political discounting. A few months ago the resignation of 2 cabinet ministers would have been a devastating shock. Then it became a general expectation, and by Monday the news story will be any difference to the expected (and hence discounted 2 resignations). For this story to be explosive now, there need to be more than 2 resignations, or less than 2 (hence my theory above). Right now we all know (we being political freaks) that 2 cabinet ministers will likely go and can pretty much live with that. It’ll still be a big story of course, just not a thermonuclear 24 hour news special graphics CRISIS FOR BLAIR. To get that we need a change versus peoples expectations.”


What’s up with The Guardian? They’ve given space to a truly vile piece on assassinated Serbian leader Zoran Djindjic. Harry Steele provides valuable background.

Magical misery tour 

Jason Burke provides a refreshingly honest look at war reporting in The Guardian. “Of course telling the world what’s happening is important, but the harsh truth is that wars combine, for journalists, deep intellectual interest and adrenaline rushes of the sort usually more associated with extreme sports.”