Monthly Archives: June 2003

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Differences  

Patrick Nielsen Hayden, in a comment on a Calpundit post, completely understands why Tony Blair and other British politicians seem so fluent and articulate compared to their American counterparts.

“The British system requires ministers, including the Prime Minister, to regularly and publicly face hostile questioning from the opposition. As a result, the ability to handle one’s self under such a barrage isn’t just desirable; it’s something that ambitious politicians go out of their way to flaunt. When Tony Blair goes on TV to be grilled by a Dimbleby, he isn’t saying ‘I recognize that I owe a debt of accountability to the citizenry.’ (Indeed, accountability isn’t really one of Blair’s strong suits.) Rather, what he’s saying is ‘I am now going to remind all of you that I am one tough son of a bitch.”

Waiting for the perfect tool  

James McGee: “The tools I use all have warts. I don’t have the time or talent to build them myself. I’m old enough now that I no longer believe in the perfect tool, especially one that is coming Real Soon Now. But I will invest time in learning how to use tools that do exist. And I am willing to cope with the inevitable breakage.”

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From high to low 

Hugh Greenway has a balanced report on last week’s World Economic Forum extraordinary annual meeting by the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth: “I also heard in the corridors a recognition that there was in fact a new groundswell in Arab lands for economic and political reform that might really lead to something new if only the Americans would really nudge and encourage rather than trying to impose.”

Taking the Times to task 

Felix Salmon conducts a forensic examination of the post-Howell Raines New York Times’s contorsions to be politically even-handed.

“But obviously, the New York Times is no longer the place to look for campaigning journalism, if it ever was. Its grand old franchise has been damaged, and it’ll probably be a while before it once again allows itself to speak out on the news pages when it sees injustice. The idea that journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable has no place on 43rd Street right now.”

And Felix explains why this is so important right now. “The Republican party has made a whole strategy out of spouting complete garbage with such volume and conviction that the news media feel compelled to report it as though it makes sense. Let us hope that the New York Times doesn’t lose its respect for the facts along with its appetite for controversy.”

Columnists  

Hugo Young, one of the best political columnists in the UK, reflects on his art in today’s Guardian. “Reporting is the bedrock of journalism, while columns seem more like the shifting sands of tide and fashion: undisciplined, unreliable and possibly, in the basic scheme of things, unnecessary.”

GM genes 

The reporting of science shouldn’t always be like other reporting: one side says this, the other side says that. As the UK science advisor once told me, there are some certainties in science about which there can be no dispute: the date of the next solar eclipse is a certainty, not a theory.

But even in areas where there is controversy, few writers have the strength or knowledge to really report the science, rather than what people are saying about the science. So kudos to Ian Sample who actually read the single scientific paper that led former environment minister Michael Meacher to proclaim that genes from GM food could get into our gut bacteria.

Sample: “[The] study found that while fragments of genes from genetically modified food might be taken up by gut bacteria, whole functioning genes were not. The finding led the authors to conclude that the effect was unlikely to pose any health risk.” That’s not what Meacher implied in his discussion of the same paper.

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Simenon 

My friend and ex-colleague David Derrick is a man of enthusiasms. Right now, enthusiasm number one is for Georges Simenon, the Belgian writer who was probably the most prolific of all time and is best known for his Inspector Maigret novels. I’m intrigued. Here’s what David has to say:

“The taint — not exactly, we’re past that — of ‘crime writer’ has given ‘critics’ a welcome excuse to be lazy. Who will sort the wheat from the chaff? not that there is that much chaff. But Simenon was never just a crime writer.

“One would expect the ‘style’ (a bad word) of one with such a small vocabulary to be cropped, macho, terse, like Hemingway’s. But it isn’t.

“Or one would expect the ‘style’ of one who published 440 books to be, if not facile, then airy, vapid, explosive, like Joyce’s. That would have been how he did it. But the energy with Simenon is all in the other direction. His novels are like planets forming in fast motion.

“Mystery.”

I’ve long felt David is a natural weblogger, but in four years of trying I’ve had no success in persuading him to jump in.

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Yippee 

No more blogging today. I’m heading to Wimbledon. Those who know me realise I’d rather be playing or watching tennis than just about any other activity.

Tom Watson, blogging MP 

I spent an enjoyable hour with Tom Watson yesterday. I’ve posted a story about his involvement with weblogs on the BloggerCon site. It’s worth a read if you’re interested in the intersection of weblogs and politics.

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No RSS, no comment 

James McGee on RSS: “I get annoyed with sites that don’t provide a full RSS feed and insist on offering snippets or headlines only. Sites that provide no RSS feed essentially don’t exist for me. Selfish? Certainly. Shortsighted and apt to miss something of importance to me? Possibly, although I expect I’ll hear about it from one of my sources that does provide an RSS feed.

“95% of my online information comes to me by way of my aggregator. For much of what I am interested in — business uses of information technology and knowledge management related topics — important stories hit my aggregator two to three weeks before they show up in conventional online sources.”

A very accurate statement of my experience as well.

Blogging hits Today 

Weblogging finally made it onto the British national agenda this morning, thanks to a piece on Radio 4′s Today Programme (the clip should be available here). Cory Doctorow was interviewed along with a slightly clueless woman from Handbag.com, who was determined to assert the importance of professional editing to ensure accuracy and trustworthiness.

The item was unremarkable, except for Cory’s attempt to explain Trackback in a few words. I’ll hazard a guess that it marked the first time the word “ping” appeared on Today.

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Fads and fashions 

Brad DeLong provides a useful summary of recent fads in financial organisation and corporate control. It should be essential reading every time someone tells you there’s a unique path to virtue in corporate structure.

“The Japanese Model: Remember the Japanese model? The days when Japan’s version of the German ‘universal bank’ system — the keiretsu — was the clearly superior mode of financial organization and mechanism of corporate control? When it allowed for effective corporate supervision and patient capital? How the short-termism of Wall Street was destroying American industry?

“The Eclipse of the Public Corporation: Remember Michael Jensen and the eclipse of the public corporation? The claim that the public corporation with diversified shareholding was an outmoded, obsolete, disfunctional form of corporate organization?

“Takeovers as Salvation: Takeovers to keep boards and managers on their toes…

“The Venture Capital-Fed Entrepreneurial Genius of Silicon Valley: In which we talk about how big companies can’t innovate, and how American venture capitalists are the key intermediaries in promoting worldwide economic growth.

“Triumphalist Anglo-Saxon Equity Diversification and Transparency: In which we talk about how countries that do not adopt Anglo-American-style financial markets are doomed to high costs of capital and to being shunned by worldwide investors.

“The Post-Bubble Economy: In which we talk about how the insane gyrations of Wall Street and its overvaluation of telecom stocks forced us to waste $80 billion dollars digging holes in which to place still-unlit fiber-optic cables.”

Protocol 

“What’s the difference between terrorists and protocol? You can always negotiate with terrorists.” Jordan’s King Abdullah quoted in The New York Times.

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Middelhoff and the Forum  

Today’s New York Times, in reporting the move of Thomas Middelhoff to Investcorp, notes that he almost moved to the World Economic Forum.

“Perhaps Mr. Middelhoff’s strangest near miss came last winter, when he was offered a senior position at the World Economic Forum, the Swiss foundation that holds a rarefied conference of political and corporate celebrities each year in the Alpine ski resort of Davos. The idea, people close to Mr. Middelhoff said, was for him to be a successor to Klaus Schwab, the one-time professor who turned Davos into a global event. It became clear, however, that Mr. Schwab did not really want to relinquish his control, and Mr. Middelhoff pulled back.”

There’s a long history of near-misses like this one, and anyone who knew the Forum would have told Middelhoff that succession was not on the agenda. Incidentally, a large part of Middelhoff’s success at Bertelsmann is thanks to Davos. It was there that he was persuaded to invest in AOL Europe, which ended up being a multi-billion bonus for Bertelsmann, which got out when the going was good.

Seizing the ground 

PolitX makes an important point: “I’m not prepared to let the right hijack any democratic uprising in IranÂ… The issue at stake here is not about the pedagogy of Western politics; it is about people’s lives. It is about bettering lives now and saving lives in the future. Stake your claim to support legitimate democracy now, before they take it away from you.”

Pull the other one 

Adam Fox reckons the UK’s university system is following an American path, with eventually fully privatised institutions coexisting with public ones.

I’m sceptical, not least because of the difficulty of changing a society where people believe it is the government’s responsibility to provide higher education.

On one point, however, I am completely confident of Fox’s wrongheadedness: “Sports scholarships, for example, may improve access statistics, bring in huge revenue to universities and raise our sporting and athletic standards across the board.” For most US universities, sports are a cost, not a revenue-generator. I can see no scenario whatsoever where sports could bring anything approaching “huge” revenues to UK universities.

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In his own words 

According to Larry Lessig, Dennis Kucinich’s campaign blog is written by the man himself. If that’s so, he certainly has failed to find any kind of personal voice yet. I can’t recall a weblog entry that read so much like processed oatmeal.

“Last week, while speaking at a meeting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I listened to people’s concerns. Wherever I go in America, people express alarm at the growing concentration of power in the media. As President, I intend to use our justice department to file suits to break up the media monopolies. Also, I will issue an executive order requiring all FCC license holders in Radio and Television to provide free time for all candidates for federal office. These actions will promote free speech and return power to the people.”

I find it really hard to believe a single person could write that. Twenty years ago, when I used to write about architecture and design, I recall someone criticising a chair that had been designed by a Danish duo. “No one person could come up with something so awful. There had to be at least two of them.”

Worth remembering 

“The plural of anecdote is not data.” From The Guardian’s unmissable Bad Science column.

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Slightly more equal 

I’ve had a decided loathing for Silvio Berlusconi ever since I lived in a Milan dominated by him and his cronies in 1989-90. As an Italophile, watching the strutting of this dangerous buffoon as prime minister has been a painful experience in recent years.

But even I have to laugh at his court appearance in Milan yesterday. The Italian parliament is about to pass a law granting Berlusconi immunity while in office, so this is likely to be his last court appearance for a while (or, The Guardian suggests, forever).

The Financial Times has the most wonderful passage (behind its subscriber-only firewall): “He emphasised his political legitimacy as Italy’s democratically elected head of government by invoking and adapting an aphorism from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. ‘One citizen is equal to another [under the law], but perhaps this one is slightly more equal than the rest, given that 50 per cent of Italians have given him the responsibility of governing the country,’ he said.”

I would have thought that at least Berlusconi’s army of advisers should tell him that Orwell was parodying the animals, not celebrating them. A lot that is wrong with Berlusconi and, I’m sorry to say, Italy is captured in that one quote.