Monthly Archives: October 2003

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New words 

Britt Blaser is trying out an alternative to conservative: patriarchist. And he prefers explorer to progressive.

On from Kuznets 

Daily Kos has a wonderful summary of the limitations of GDP as a measure of a nation’s health.

  “The United States ranks No. 1 worldwide in GDP and per capita GDP, and this has been the case for more than half a century. So when it rises 7.2% (or whatever the adjusted figures show in a couple of months), we’re talking a big deal.
  “But America doesn’t rank No. 1 when it comes to infant mortality. We’re 34th.
  “We don’t rank No. 1 in health care, either. We’re 37th.
  “Nor do we rank No. 1 in literacy. We’re No. 6.
  “And we’re not No. 1 in life expectancy. We’re 20th.
  “We are No. 1 when it comes to putting in the hours at work. In 1980, the average American was at work 1,887 hours a year; in 1990, it was 1,942 hours; and in 2000 it was 1,978 hours. And we’re No. 1 in overall productivity, though not in efficiency per hour.
  “(We’ve also got the toughest military machine on the planet, with expenditures at 43% of the worldwide total, more than the combined total of the next 14 nations.)
  “Other gauges exist. But they get little media play. GDP can be explained in a sentence. Nuances required to understand other indexes don’t make for good sound bites.”

We’re still awaiting a Kuznets to come up with a solid alternative to GDP.

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He has a record 

Tom Watson has a wonderful compilation of Michael Howard’s record. Howard looks certain to be the next Tory leader, and the record isn’t pretty. But he is, as they say, a heavyweight politician and I think he’ll allow the Conservatives to lose with something like dignity, as opposed to being a laughing stock.

The famous Newsnight interview with Howard, where Jeremy Paxman asked him the same question 14 times in succession, was the highlight of Newsnight: The Opera. You can watch that wonderful interview here.

On the other hand 

After reading Nick Paton Walsh’s sobering analysis (see below), I was feeling very gloomy about Russia. But there’s been some good news from Moscow today, as well. The constitutional court has ruled the media law, which Walsh discusses, unconstitutional. It’s not perfect, but it’s an improvement: “Opposition politicians said the scrapping of the rules allowed journalists to write what they wished. But media analysts argued that remaining elements of the law were unclear and left leeway for electoral authorities to act selectively against media organisations.”

Independent courts are fundamental to the operation of a free society. So this is a good sign for Russia.


Two non-democrats weigh in today. First, Mahathir retires tomorrow (hurrah!). His last speech to Malaysia’s parliament equates democracy with anarchy. “Anarchy can take place because of an obsession with democratic freedoms. The belief that if democracy is implemented then everything will be well has no basis, especially if democracy is imposed immediately.”

Much further to the north, Vladimir Putin is showing his non-democratic stripes in strikingly similar terms. “I’ve been hearing allegations [about the rollback of democracy] for four years now, since I became president of the Russian Federation. If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy. Why is democracy needed? To make people’s lives better, to make them free. I don’t think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

Nick Paton Walsh’s analysis, from which the Putin quote is taken, is well worth reading for those who worry about the future of Russia. (Incidentally, the paper version of The Guardian shows the poster that Walsh writes about. I haven’t been able to find a digital version of this extraordinary image. Any leads would be welcome.)


The Hewlett Foundation has backed an interesting quiz on American foreign policy priorities. Like all such exercises, it would be easy to quibble with some of the distinctions in the questions, but I thought overall it presented an interesting spectrum of choices.

My priorities came out as global markets primarily, and secondarily diplomacy, human rights and cooperation.

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On Mars 

Thanks to Felix Salmon, MemeFirst is coming up with some answers on the issue of “really important privately owned companies” (see below). Of the answers so far, I think Mars is perhaps the best bet.

The left has better books 

Right Wing News has come up with a completely unscientific list of the books that have most influenced right-wing bloggers. Some of it was fairly predictable (Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Orwell), but I wouldn’t have reckoned on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Thucydides (although I’m aware that Donald Kagan is big in some neocon circles).

I wonder what an equivalent left-wing list would contain (I’m sure it would score higher in the literary stakes). I’d certainly expect Orwell as the only writer in both camps, although the books might be different (perhaps Homage to Catalonia rather than 1984 or Animal Farm). With my old left upbringing, I’d hope to see Zola’s Germinal, some Dickens, Malcolm X and perhaps even some (early) Howard Fast.

There would also be a group of books that have not stood the test of time and are in some cases embarrassing. But they certainly helped form me. Think of Red Star Over China, Ten Days That Shook the World, Wretched of the Earth. I’m unsure, however, what the more contemporary touchstones would be. Suggestions?

Significant and private  

Steve Bowbrick makes a provocative point: “Homework: make a list of very large privately owned companies (Bertelsmann?). Now make a list of really important privately owned companies – ones that can move cultures and economies over the long term (clue: there aren’t any).”

I have to confess I’m scratching my head to think of a counter example.

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No more contributions 

Here’s a wonderful example of the reputation/gift culture that Richard Gayle refers to below.

Welcome Nick 

Nick de Souza, a former colleague of mine, has started a weblog. It’s early days, but I’m sure there will be plenty of interest to come.

The community will find a way 

Richard Gayle has a must-read post on the future of scientific journals. “Well, a new process is developing, one which has the potential to disperse scientific information much more widely and rapidly then ever before, adding new aspects that enrich the procedure. These new enhancements are so powerful that I believe that this IS the way things will go. There will be a business model that succeeds because the benefits to the scientific community are so tremendous. The community will find a way. And, I expect the not-for-profit institutions will lead because their constituencies are the scientists themselves, not the shareholders of a corporation. A reputation/gift culture will find a way to make it work. The bazaar will succeed as the cathedral grows cobwebs.”

Scant posting 

My children are on their half-term holiday this week, so postings will be rarer than usual.

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Via Larry Lessig, I’ve started to play around with’s Search inside the book. As they get more and more of their content into this database, it will be a truly remarkable resource.


I told you Clinton was looking good.

China trade  

Some handy statistics from Marginal Revolution:

  Top categories of US imports from China, by billions of dollars:
  $8.6 Shoes
  $6.1 Toys
  $5.6 Input-output units
  $5.1 Data processing machine parts
  $3.2 VCRs
  $2.6 Wood furniture
  $2.0 Transmission equipment
  $1.7 Data storage units
  Now, consider top imports from China, as a percentage of the overall imports in the stated category:
  88% Radios
  87% Christmas and festive items
  83% Toys
  70% Leather goods
  67% Shoes
  67% Handbags
  65% Lamps and lights


There’s a wonderful front and back contrast in today’s print edition of the Financial Times. The front page lead is about the potential $15 billion IPO of Google. The back page is about today’s last-ever flight of Concorde (subscribers only, for inexplicable reasons).

That’s two great engineering achievements. One seemingly early in its ascendency, the other long since an odd heritage object. Unsurprisingly, I use Google countless times a day. It would be hard to imagine work without it, although if Google didn’t exist, I suspect we’d be getting along reasonably well with one of the alternatives. How enduring Google’s dominance will prove is far harder to judge. I’ve long been a big fan of Eric Schmidt, one of the few technology CEOs in my experience who has a broad world persepective and a healthy intellectual curiousity about matters outside Silicon Valley.

But it’s exceedingly rare for even the smartest companies to successfully handle successive waves of technological change. When I interviewed Bill Gates years ago, he noted, “To think that the same companies will be the biggest 25 years from now is mind-boggling. For [Microsoft to do that] it will take two or three miracles. One or two by me, one or two by my successors. We’ve managed three in a row [so far in our history], and three in a row is the best anyone has done. I’ve always said that technology companies should sell at lower multiples than conventional companies. Coke deserves a higher multiple than Microsoft: Coke will be the world’s most popular drink 25 years from now; nothing I sell will be around.” (Note: Microsoft’s current P/E is 31, Coca Cola’s is 25.)

Concorde, of course, was never the world’s biggest or most successful anything. But it is still, 34 years after its first flight, the most beautiful thing in the sky. It’s a clear, lovely autumn day in London today. So around 4pm, probably when I’m walking the children home from school, we’ll look up to a very familiar roar in the sky and watch Concorde for the last time.

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Disdain, disarray and dishonesty 

Gerald Baker in the Financial Times (subscribers only) reaches some sobering conclusions on US Treasury secretary John Snow:

“Mr Snow himself has been larking about with US currency policy for some time. Over breakfast, the US favours a strong dollar; at lunchtime it wants to leave it to the market; by suppertime it wants other countries to do something to get their currencies to rise. Once it was easy to blame the verbal nonsense on Paul O’Neill, Mr Snow’s predecessor. It is now impossible to resist the conclusion that this is not just an unfortunate sort of economic dyslexia.

“The infelicitous outbursts are, rather, a reflection of an economic approach on all fronts that is characterised by disdain for serious policy decision-making, disarray among the people responsible for it and dishonesty with the voters and the markets that have to live with its consequences.”

Lessons in hatred 

How to Hate Microsoft. Robert Scoble on what may well be a new attitude up in Redmond.

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The Rumsfeld memo 

Read Donald Rumsfeld’s memo on whether the US is winning or losing the war on terror. It’s a great scoop for the often-derided USA Today.

For all the dissembling that characterises the Bush administration, there’s still an intellect at work in the Pentagon (however malevolent that intellect may be). He certainly asks a lot of the right questions: “Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists’ costs of millions. Do we need a new organization? How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools? Is our current situation such that ‘the harder we work, the behinder we get’?”

Not for worriers 

Bill McGuire has the knowledge to scare people.

“A collision with an asteroid large enough to cause global mayhem happens only once every hundred millennia, while a gigantic volcanic blast occurs perhaps every 50,000 years. They are, however, certain to happen. Both trigger rapid and severe global cooling that, apart from the absence of radiation, is in every way comparable to the nuclear winter that would follow an all-out exchange of atomic hardware.”

Adoption v use 

James Crabtree makes a valuable distinction between adoption and use.

“I have just written a report on broadband which heavily criticises the broadband industry for seeing adoption as its primary measure of success. It isn’t. Use is. And there is, I think, a high possibility that people will have 3G phones, but will not use much of the 3G functionality. This could happen much in the same way that everyone has a WAP phone now. But does everyone use WAP? I’m talking about a world in which everyone has a 3G phone, and they use it mostly to call other people. 3G could be like an oven: everyone has one; but while a few people make cordon-bleu, most people make chicken tonight.”

Never-reads-newspapers Achilles 

Nicholas Kristof hits many of my hot buttons today. A wonderful column.

“The Iliad is the greatest war story ever told, but it’s not fundamentally about war — after all, it never mentions the Trojan horse and covers only a few weeks in a war that lasted 10 years. No, The Iliad is ultimately not about war but rather about how great men confront tragedy, learn moderation and become wise.

“In case The Iliad isn’t lying around the Oval Office, let me recap for our warriors in Washington. Achilles is both the mightiest warrior and a petulant, self-righteous, arrogant figure. A unilateralist, he refuses to consult with allies; he dismisses intelligence about his own vulnerability; he never reads the newspapers.

“So the Greeks are nearly defeated, and while Achilles sulks in his tent, his dearest friend, Patroclus, is killed. Then the impulsive Achilles careers into action and overdoes it in the other direction, desecrating Hector’s body, but in the end he returns to his tent, calms down and shows a new sense of his own limits, a new compassion, a new moderation and a new wisdom.

“That is a constant theme in the classics: ancient heroes like Achilles and Odysseus do not avoid mistakes, but they learn from them. Through their errors, they come to understand moral nuance as well as moral clarity, and to appreciate moderation. Indeed, the subtitle for The Iliad could be Achilles Grows Up.

“Unfortunately, until recently this administration hasn’t shown much signs of growing. Yet over the last few weeks, there have been a few hints of a rosy-fingered dawn, signs that President Bush may be learning from his mistakes and moderating his impulsiveness. I’m hoping that’s the case, and it’s reassuring to remember what happened in the last electoral cycle: Mr. Bush turned his campaign upside-down after his loss to John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000.

“It helps that Mr. Bush has made plenty of mistakes to learn from.”

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Ill-mannered bumpkin 

Russell Baker reviews Paul Krugman’s latest collection in The New York Review of Books. Baker doesn’t particularly reveal anything new about Krugman, but I liked his characterisations of typical political columnists.

“From the White House viewpoint criticism itself was bad enough — Bush people are famous for thin skin — but the really troublesome problem was that Krugman seemed to know what he was talking about. This is not entirely unheard of among political columnists, but the typical Washington pundit is stupefyingly uninformed about economics, a field in which Krugman is exceedingly well informed. He had the professional skills needed to tell when the political rhetoric was nonsense and he took a short-tempered professor’s sadistic delight in holding oafs up to ridicule.

“The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as ‘dishonesty,’ ‘lying,’ ‘mendacity,’ and ‘fraud.’ Among political pundits such language verges on the taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the ill-mannered bumpkin.”

The conclusion: “Krugman has been strident. He has been shrill. He has lowered the dignity of the commentariat. How refreshing.”

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Exercise in democracy  

I don’t know how politicians do it. Putting yourself in front of an electorate is an odd thing to do.

I’ve just written my “campaign” statement for election as a parent governor of my child’s school. It’s something I want to do, I think I can make a difference, I want to add whatever weight I can to the state education system against the scourge of private education, etc. But it’s very odd blowing my own trumpet in public.

We’ll see how it goes.

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Weblogs del sur  

My week in Veracruz was spent running the writing team at the Mexico Business Summit, a grand confab of political and business leaders. But what interested me more was my team of young writers. They were all in something like their final year of university studying economics and international relations. And they were a bright, clued-up group who handled writing summaries in English with aplomb.

None of them had ever encountered a weblog before. I searched for good Mexican examples without much luck (do point me to some if you know any). Naturally, I encouraged all of them to start their own. We’ll see what fruit that bears. Maybe the start of a new Mexican movement?