Monthly Archives: July 2003

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Honourable friends 

To get to the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons, you walk through Westminster Hall, parts of which date back to 1097.

A considerably younger crowd milled around Westminster Hall before seven yesterday evening, waiting for the VoxPolitics discussion on weblogs and politics to start. According to blogging MP Tom Watson, most discussions in the Grand Committee Room — on weighty matters of state — get an audience of three men and a dog. Last night, well over 100 people crammed into the seats and standing room.

For the first time in the House, a Wi-Fi network had been organised for eager bloggers. Maybe it’s my lack of nous, but I found the signal to be too weak to do anything with. Others had more luck.

Truth to tell, the fact of the event was far more significant than anything actually said on the evening. An important discussion was started, and for Britain at least weblogs emerged from a slightly weird, fringe activity into a kind of political limelight.

I’ve already written extensively about Tom Watson, but he announced his plan to use 26 July as a 24-hour political brainstorming through weblogs. He is certain that it will produce more valuable ideas than the gathering of 300 of the great and good with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schroeder over the weekend. I suspect he’s right. (Incidentally, as discussion organiser James Crabtree pointed out, type labour MP into Google and Tom now comes out number one. He’s only the 68th Tom, however.)

Richard Allan, the other blogging MP, was also there. One important comment from him: “What I think is good is that weblogs will replace ordinary MP websites. On those, we’re all supermen and superwomen, with pictures of us saving the universe. On a weblog, you see a real person.”

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Whoops — there is WiFi 

Scratch that comment below. According to The Guardian, a wireless network is going to be set up in the House of Commons just for tonight’s meeting. I’ll give live blogging a go if the network is up and running.

I do feel a bit miffed, however, that my age — 46 — is seen as a negative compared to the majority of under-25s expected tonight.

Talking politics 

I’m going to the VoxPolitics session on weblogs and politics at the House of Commons tonight.

Even though the meeting was first announced a week ago, the interest has been so great that they have had to move it to the largest committee room in the Palace of Westminster.

As reported in my interview with Tom Watson MP, there isn’t wireless connectivity in the House — yet. So there will be no live blogging from me or anyone else. I’ll try to post a detailed report tomorrow.

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Not to worry 

Ed Felten worried about the prospect of home-brew biological virus attacks, until he chatted with a molecular biology colleague who was more worried about computer viruses.

“It seems to me that both of us, having spent many days in the lab, understood how hard it really is to make a novel, sophisticated technology work as planned. Since nightmare attacks are, by definition, novel and sophisticated and thus not fully testable in advance, the odds are pretty high that something would go ‘wrong’ for the attacker. With a better understanding of how software can go wrong, I fully appreciated the cyber-attacker’s problem; and with a better understanding of how bio-experiments can go wrong, my colleague fully appreciated the bio-attacker’s problem. If there is any reassurance here, it is in the likelihood that any would-be attacker will miss some detail and his attack will fizzle.”

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The reverse of exclusive 

I wrote yesterday about the call for popular progressivism on the British Politics weblog. The anonymous author behind it sent me an interesting email. He (maybe I’m wrong in assuming the author is male) reckons e-communications are beginning to provide an important alternative to conventional political networks.

“I’ve never met you, or Harry, or Chris Bertram — and I doubt we’d ever meet — yet to use a ridiculous phrase, we’re now a network — and an inclusive one too, because anyone can come along and join us.

“It’s the reverse of the exclusive network. Sure, the price we have to pay is right-wing nutcases, but even that can be useful, because it’s a constant reminder that everything isn’t for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Pretty feeble 

I don’t understand the excitement in some places about Howard Dean’s weblog. Political Wire points today to a rare post by governor Dean himself (the content of which is so thin, I wonder why he bothered), as well as a post about the post.

This is not how political weblogs will progress.

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Populist progressivism 

British Politics on the proper path for progressive politics.

“I’m proud to be a populist progressive. I think the power of progressivism doesn’t come from commissions investigating ‘which policies are capable of maintaining normative commitments to social justice while aspiring to be a truly competitive force in the evolving knowledge based economy’.

“I believe in high quality education and healthcare for all free at the point of use. I don’t particularly care how these are achieved. I believe that trade rules should be written to the advantage of developing countries, I believe that every citizen has a right to be supported when sick, old or unemployed and a duty not to abuse that support. I believe in the responsible management of the economy so that people do not live in poverty, or are trapped in communities with no hope of change. I believe in state intervention, not to support dying industries, but to transform struggling communities.

“I fundamentally believe that the majority of my fellow citizens agree with me. My duty therefore is not to talk to other progressives about social capital, but to them about education and healthcare.”

(Intellectual) property is theft 

Larry Lessig passes on a great post by Eric Hughes on how Disney continues to profit from the public domain. Every character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which Disney is about to release, is in the public domain.

Blair and Bush 

Nicholas Kristof provides some interesting perspective on Tony Blair and George Bush. “Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair took very similar positions over the last couple of years, and both exaggerated the Iraqi threat — and yet Mr. Blair is perhaps the leading statesman in the world today and Mr. Bush is regarded by much of the globe as a dimwitted cowboy.”

Don’t, however, believe Kristof that Blair is in any real electoral difficulty. Maybe I’m not looking at things clearly, but I can see no scenario where the Labour party will dump Blair before the next election. And the electoral arithmetic — and more importantly the continued incompetence of the Conservatives — makes it overwhelmingly likely that Blair will win the next election with at least a good majority. After that, who knows?

Crooked Timber 

I know some people who are sceptical about group weblogs, but Crooked Timber, launched today, holds tremendous promise. “Crooked Timber is a cabal of philosophers, politicians manque, would-be journalists, sociologues, financial gurus, dilletantes and flaneurs who have assembled to bring you the benefit of their practical and theoretical wisdom on matters historical, literary, political, philosophical, economic, sociological, cultural, sporting, artistic, cinematic, musical, operatic, comedic, tragic, poetic, televisual &c &c, all from perspectives somewhere between Guy Debord, Henry George and Dr Stephen Maturin.”

I’m not thrilled by the cod Victorian introduction, but the past weblogging records of Chris Bertram, Kieran Healy, Henry and Maria Farrell and Brian Weatherson are excellent.

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Perfect headlines 

Rogue Semiotics has some delightful reflections on the perfect tabloid headline, occasioned by The Sun’s “Swan Bake: asylum seekers steal Queen’s birds for barbecue”.

Lanchester on Blair 

John Lanchester, as good a writer as there is in English at the moment, has an essential piece on Tony Blair in, of all places, The London Review of Books. Unusually for the LRB, Lanchester writes as someone who is essentially pro-Blair.

“The key issue for Blair seems to be his own sincerity. He is desperate to convince us that he believes in the rightness of his actions. This has been a faultline in his personality from the very beginning. It’s instructive, in this context, to consider the ways in which he differs from Thatcher. Her psychological and political make-up was based on the proposition ‘I am right.’ She relished disagreement and opposition, and the feeling that she was saying things that people did not want to hear but secretly knew were true. When she slipped into madness, or if not madness then something close to it, she did so with the wattage of her blazing-eyed rectitude higher than ever. But Thatcher never claimed to be Good, just Right. Blair’s political personality has always been predicated on the proposition ‘I am good.’ His dewy-eyed, slightly fumbling sincerity – his brilliantly articulate impersonation of earnest inarticulacy – has all along been tied to this self-projection as a Good Man. He is careful about not touting his religion in public, but he doesn’t need to, since the conviction of his own goodness is imprinted in everything he says and does. It is one of the things he has in common with the party he leads, and one of the reasons people are wrong when they say that Blair is a natural Tory. Thatcher’s sense of being right fits into the Tory Party’s self-image as the home of unpopular and uncomfortable truths. Blair’s sense of being good fits the Labour self-image as the party of virtue: the party we would all vote for if we were less selfish and greedy.”

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The worst 

Henry Farrell has the best round-up on the disgusting remarks by Silvio Berlusconi that I’ve found. “Berlusconi has not only managed to reinvigorate European debates about whether he’s fit for office; he’s insulted Germany, the most powerful state in the European Union, in the most offensive manner possible.”

Need before greed 

“According to [Médecins sans Frontières], more money is invested in treatments to increase sex drive and beauty than in drugs for tropical diseases.” Such reports make one despair about the next 60 years (see below). Of course, organisations like MSF are trying to hold back the tide.

2,000 people 

Spencer Wells: “Around 20,000 years ago there are no people in America; 40,000 years ago you notice a change in Europe — the Neanderthals are in charge. At 50,000 years ago Australia is part of an uninhabited continent. Before that (apart from the Neanderthals) you only find people living in Africa. Interesting. You head back to 100,000 years ago just to make sure. There seem to be more people – but still limited to Africa — and finally settle on 60,000 years ago as the low point. Then there were as few as 2,000 humans in existence. The worst time in the history of our species; one we nearly didn’t survive.”

Having listened this morning to a radio programme about vulcanology (ah, the joys of Radio 4), 60,000 years really does seem a blink of an eye ago. I am struck speechless by this statistic. In only 60,000 years, to go from near extinction to our current civilisation and 6 billion people. It’s humbling to think of the uncertainty of the next 60, 600, 6,000 and certainly 60,000 years.

Weblogs and politics 

Fresh from seeing Dave at Harvard, Neil McIntosh has a balanced report on the movement to ensure weblogs transform electoral politics for the better.

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Keeping the grey green 

The Financial Times raises the frightening prospect of a future despoiling of the moon. California-based TransOrbital plans to deliver (in fact, crash land) payloads to the moon for bored American millionaires.

Fortunately, some people have spotted the problem. Richard Steiner from the University of Alaska notes, “The moon is owned by everyone. A farmer in Zimbabwe should also have a say. This has huge historic importance.” And the FT quotes Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon in Apollo 14. “It’s just an ego thing and we’ve got enough ego things going on here. We are messing up the Earth fairly rapidly; I would not like to carry our insanity further.”

Basra blood money  

Salam Pax in The Guardian: “I am not discussing the moral correctness of blood money. This is the way things are done here and if this money will stop any sort of revenge killings then it is worth it. No, I only have one comment: being foreigners, they paid too much. Habibi, everything is bargainable here, and paying 15 million in blood money will ruin the blood money market – it is way too much. You should improve your tribal connections and get someone to bargain for you.”

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Seek and ye shall find 

Johannes Ernst has posted a personal account of the Amman extraordinary annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

If you’ve never been to a Forum meeting, it’s worth reading the whole thing, as Johannes captures the atmosphere very well. As someone who wasn’t in Amman, what I enjoyed was the sense that the Forum largely succeeded in transmitting its special character to a difficult meeting organised at very short notice. And Johannes’ conclusion is well worth reading.

“The first time I heard the WEF’s subtitle — To Improve The State Of The World — I took it as a (silly) platitude. It sounded like so many useless corporate mission statements that sound grandiose but end up as a farce because the gap is too large between the corporate mission statement and everyday reality.

“But as unlikely as it is on the face of it, the WEF’s subtitle is probably fairly close to the truth. If not there, where else would you expect to find the people who are in a position to, and do, improve the state of the world, on a ‘world’ (as opposed to project, or community, or country) level? There are lots of people out there who — mostly without ever having attended a meeting — demonize the WEF as that secret capitalism-run-amok club of old, cigar-smoking big business types who plot to take over the world, ruin the environment and hurt society as much as they can. If that description is correct, the WEF must be really good at hiding this part of the meetings from me. Mind you, this was not the first WEF meeting I have attended.

“Instead, the people I have met are generally very good people. The type of people that one would want to trust with one’s money. The type of people who get things done, and typically have a personal mission in life that very far from ‘let’s ruin the world some more’.”