Monthly Archives: October 2003

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What’s radical  

Jay Rosen’s Ten Things Radical about the Weblog Form in Journalism is an instant classic that pithily pulls together the many disparate things that have been said in the last year or so about weblogs, as well as adding some original thoughts of his own.

One of the points I particularly appreciate is number six: “A weblog can ‘work’ journalistically — it can be sustainable, enjoyable, meaningful, valuable, worth doing, and worth it to other people — if it reaches 50 or 100 or 160 souls who like it, use it, and communicate through it. Whereas in journalism the traditional way, such a small response would be seen as a failure, in journalism the weblog way the intensity of a small response can spell success.”

My high school‘s motto, by the way, was “not the biggest, but the best” (although I see it’s now been changed to the worthy but ludicrous “To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of mankind”).

On weblogs, Russell Beattie has found his prediction that potential employers will read your weblog before they hire you has come true. “Even though I just showed up today, the interview definitely had a second-stage type feel to it. A lot about me was already known.”

Believe 

Even after all these years, I can’t believe what happened to the Cubs.

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More travel 

Tomorrow’s another travel day as I work my way back to London. Unless I encounter a wireless connection during one of my transfers, there will be no posts until I reach London on Thursday.

New maths, Foreign Affairs style 

Felix Salmon has alerted me to a post of his on MemeFirst, which he correctly reckons is up my alley.

“Carole Adelman has an innovative take on foreign aid in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. Never mind that the US ranks dead last in terms of the percentage of GDP it spends on official development assistance, she says. Look at all the private help that the US is giving to foreign countries! Look how much it costs to go to college in the US – if a foreign student gets a scholarship, that’s probably $40,000 a year in foreign aid right there! What about all those drugs that pharmaceutical companies give away in Africa? Let’s add them in to the mix, at full US retail price, of course. And then there are all those remittances from Ecuadorean busboys in New York back home to their families – billions and billions in private foreign assistance. The upshot? ‘All in all, the United States is most generous.’ I’m counting the milliseconds before this article starts getting cited in Congress as a reason to cut the foreign aid budget.”

What’s particularly sad about Adelman’s argument is that it appeared in Foreign Affairs, which was once a voice of reason — very centrist reason, but reason nonetheless. The foreign policy establishment should switch its allegiance to Moises Naim’s far livelier Foreign Policy.

Diaspora 

One of the many interesting aspects of Mexico is the extent to which it is a melting pot country, something generally ignored in US views of the country. This was powerfully brought home at the summit soirée which was held in Veracruz’s Lebanese cultural centre. It seems both Veracruz and Mexico City have a significant Lebanese-Mexican population. It’s certainly large enough to support a quite magnificent building here.

Needless to say, the evening was filled with wonderful Mexican music and dancing (danzón again!), and something new to me: modern Mexican cuisine. A very good thing.

The general and the literary critic 

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an extraordinary op-ed by literary critic Harold Bloom on Wesley Clark. Because the Journal is subscribers only, I think it’s worth quoting at length.

“I have been rereading Edmund Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ which I recommend to anyone in search of wisdom relevant at this moment. Gibbon attributes decline and fall to many varied factors, but the characters of specific Roman emperors — good, bad and indifferent — are viewed by him as crucial in the self-destructiveness of Rome. It is not at all clear whether we are already in decline: Bread is still available for most and circuses for all. Still, there are troubling omens, economic and diplomatic, and a hint or two from Gibbon may be of considerable use. I trust it is clear that I am not deploring our deposing of Saddam Hussein, though its motivations remain obscure. Our decimation of the Taliban, and continued pursuit of bin Laden, are inevitable responses to Islamic terrorism. But our wars with fundamentalist Islam will continue, and will broaden; others will be attacked. We have no option except imposing a Roman peace. The question I bring forward is: What is the proper training for our imperial presidents?

“We need, at just this time, a military personage as president, one who is more in the mode of Dwight Eisenhower than of Ulysses Grant. In Wesley Clark, we have a four-star general and former NATO commander who is a diplomatic unifier, an authentic hero, wise and compassionate. That Gen. Clark saved tens of thousands of Muslim lives in Bosnia and Kosovo is irrefutable, despite current deprecations by worried supporters of the president. They are accurate only in their anxieties. Gen. Clark is highly electable for 2004; the other Democratic candidates are not.”

The same issue of the Journal has the most extensive article I’ve yet seen on how the Dean campaign is using the Internet. The page one headline: “Behind Dean Surge: A Gang of Bloggers And Webmasters”. “Jesse Ventura was the hop. John McCain was the skip. And Howard Dean is the quantum leap,” is the great quote from Michael Cornfield of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

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Clinton redux 

Bill Clinton looks good. Fit, rested, relaxed, certainly better than he looked at any time in his presidency. He received a rousing reception here in Veracruz, partly just for his presence, but I think largely because Mexicans of all political persuasions remember him as a great friend of their country. He used enormous political capital to ensure the passage of Nafta and he coordinated the rescue following the peso crisis in 1995.

What made the reception particularly strong was the contrast this posed to the current situation. Mexican political and business leaders feel they have fallen off the map for the United States since 9-11. They’re probably right.

Clinton had the generosity to say that he thought then-governor Bush’s position on Mexico and Latin America in the 2000 election had been very good. But Bush and the administration had been “understandably” distracted by the war on terrorism. Now, he said, it was probably time to rebalance the situation.

The main part of Clinton’s speech was about the nature of our interdependent world. I suspect it’s what passes for his stump speech these days, and it was certainly fluent, interesting and engaging. His basic point was that interdependence can be both positive and negative, and we have to find ways to stay on the path of positive interdependence. In the Middle East, he said, “Young people are dying because old people decided they prefer negative interdependence to positive interdependence.”

In the question and answer session, Clinton roamed widely and I think honestly. Asked what he’d do if he could have a third term in the presidency, he said, “I made a lot of mistakes in my first term because I didn’t understand Washington’s culture. When I did understand it, I thought it was crazy. But I did fine then.” When many in the hall laughed, he replied, “No one forces us to take on these jobs. If you don’t want the pressures the job brings, you can stay at home.”

He’s a firm believer in politics as the art of compromise. “You know people think you have no principles if you compromise. But for politics to work, you have to sit down with people you disagree with and reach decisions. You have to make principled compromises.”

Returning to the question of what he’d do in a third term, Clinton said he would concentrate on energy policy. “We need to drastically reduce our reliance on foreign oil.” He’d focus on conservation and alternative energy sources. Then a thought occured to him: “You should be doing this, too. Mexico could become a leader in alternative energy. Veracruz could become the world’s first energy self-sustaining city and people would come from all over the world to see it. Mexico could create so many jobs with this it would make your head spin.”

Technical thanks 

The generosity of the Internet continues to amaze and hearten me. Following my technical problem yesterday I received a detailed, helpful reply from Hussein Kanji. I haven’t yet had the time to try his various suggestions, but I’ll do it when I get a chance.

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Dancing in Veracruz 

No, of course it wasn’t me dancing in Veracruz. But in my one possible foray from the conference centre here, I went into the historic centre of Veracruz last night.

The central square is one of those colonial wonders that fill Mexico, with elegant 18th century buildings overlooked by the towering cathedral. There was a stage in the centre with a band (youngest member 60 years old, at a guess) and a dozen couples all in white (women with flowers in their hair, men wearing natty sombreros) doing rather formal dances. Others were dancing away in the square.

We sat in one of the cafes on the plaza. The band continued its playing on the stage, but we were also assaulted by a band serenading the table next to our and a marimba player on the pavement. The band next to our table was very good, but it was really transformed when one of the men at the table began singing. He was superb. Amazing, quasi-cinematic experience.

It was topped off by getting some of the local ice cream at a place called Las Nieves del Malecón. Men stand on the pavement shouting, “Güera, güera, güera!” It apparently means, “Hey, blondie!”, but they shout it at everyone, from blonde to dark to bald (and also male or female — men should properly be güero). They have big tubs with each flavour — coconut, strawberry, peanut, guava, melon, etc, etc — made by mixing vast quantities of real fruit with ice. I’m not sure there’s anything else in it, but it was wonderful. I was the only person to go for this, which might be a reflection of my gluttony, but I think it was more a reflection of undue caution about ice (Montezuma’s revenge) in the others.

Technical hitch 

I’ve discovered the annoying 0x800ccc79 error. Apparently many ISPs, including mine, won’t let you use their smtp server unless you are connected through them. Since I’m connected here by a LAN, I can only send email to other people on the BTInternet servers (I’m receiving email without problems). If anyone knows a workaround on this, do let me know. Otherwise, if you are expecting to hear from me by email this week, you’ll have to wait until my return to London.

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Down Veracruz way 

Today is a travel day for me. I’m heading to Veracruz for the Mexican Business Summit, where I’m writing the report of the conference.

I know next to nothing about Veracruz, but do recall a wonderful Mexican film, Danzón, set there. Sadly, I’ll mostly be seeing the inside of a conference centre.

Posts may well be scarce over the next week because of the conference’s demands. I’ll see.

Out of control

The template for successful presidential campaigns was established by James (“it’s the economy, stupid”) Carville and Karl (Boy Genius) Rove. Stay relentlessly on message, control the agenda. But Howard Dean thinks there is another way.

The Dean campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has enthusiastically surrendered control to the Internet. The success of the insurgent Dean, who now leads the polls in the two early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, means that other aspirant candidates are following his lead.

Nowhere is Dean’s surrender more obvious than on the official Dean campaign weblog, grandly named Blog for America. Blog for America is the creation of Mathew Gross, who in March flew to Dean’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont from his home in Utah with the idea of creating a candidate blog. With no appointment, he wandered into campaign manager Joe Trippi’s office and explained his idea. Trippi told Gross that if he could get a blog up and running within 24 hours, he had a job.

Blog for America now has 35,000 readers and several thousand comments each day. “Wherever you are you can participate in the campaign,” says Gross. “Supporters feel as if they are in the room in Burlington HQ, and in a way they are.” One of the most successful Dean slogans – “people-powered Howard” – came straight from a comment on the blog.

“Our belief was you have to let control go,” says Gross. “We truly are a grassroots campaign and if you build a command structure on top you kill it. You have to have trust in the American people and so far it’s worked.”

One of the fears for the lively debate in Dean’s comments is that it may be ruined by abusive or obscene posters, known as trolls. So the Dean supporters have started a “troll fund”: when a troll posts a comment, supporters thank him for reminding them to send $10 to the Dean campaign. “They don’t usually post again,” Gross says.

Disagreements don’t count as troll posts. “We don’t delete if a Kerry supporter comes over and argues in our threads,” Gross says. “That’s fine. That’s democracy.” The open approach is also reflected in the Blog for America “blogroll” – a list of other blogs to read. There are 80-odd political weblogs listed, across the ideological spectrum. And there are 200 or so unofficial Dean weblogs, ranging from Mormons for Dean to Dykes for Dean.

One of the advantages of blogs for candidates is that they seem to overcome cynicism from potential supporters. “Blogs are held to a higher standard in terms of authenticity,” explains Gross. “When Howard Dean blogs, he blogs [Dean posts occasionally on the blog]. Most people know when they get a fundraising letter from Bill Clinton, that Clinton didn’t write it. That clearly doesn’t work on a blog.”

Most of the candidates now have weblogs in one form or another. When General Wesley Clark announced his candidacy in mid-September, his staff proudly announced that a weblog would be launched quickly. On September 27 Generally Speaking launched, run by veteran blogger Cameron Barrett.

Barrett says that the blog has already proved its value. When Clark spoke to the Democratic National Committee last week, Barrett compiled the comments as they rolled in. When the general finished his speech, Barrett handed the speechwriters the comments immediately.

The determination of Clark to gain credibility in the blogging world was best demonstrated by the lengthy interview he gave at the end of September to Washington-based political blogger Joshua Marshall, which ran on his Talking Points Memo blog. Clark gave Marshall the time and access that he hasn’t yet granted to The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The campaign blogs face enormous challenges as the election cycle develops. “When we win the nomination,” says a confident Gross, “I could see us having 1 million reads a day. It presents a massive technical and editorial challenge. But if the US is discussing the election on your site, that’s an advantage.”

While the Democratic candidates seem to have all the web savvy, part of the energy is a result of the 2000 election debacle. “The Bush campaign pumped 30,000 emails into Florida at 4 pm on election day and we didn’t,” recalls Eric Folley, director of Internet operations at the Democratic National Committee. “500 votes determined the presidency.”

“The only way to defeat George Bush in 2004 is for everyone to become involved and to get engaged,” says Gross. “Our entire web presence is moving out towards that. When you get to the point where you’re fighting Karl Rove and $200 million of advertising, that’s what you’re going to need.”

This is the complete version of an article published in The Guardian, 9 October 2003

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Story behind the story 

The Scientist provides some interesting background to this year’s Nobel for physiology or medicine. The prize went to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield. Some people think Raymond Damadian should also have shared the prize. “What all this illustrates… is the difficulty of pinpointing the eureka moment in scientific endeavor.”

Sui generis  

Jay Rosen has an extraordinary tribute to Neil Postman, who has died aged 72.

Even if you never knew Postman or his many books on education, culture and media, you should read Rosen. A brief extract (which could stand as a clarion call for a whole way of living): “He was expert in nothing. Therefore nothing was off limits. Therefore one’s mind was always at risk, from a joke, a headline, an idea, a person walking through the door. The only way to respond to such strange conditions was with ready humor. And humor would bring you more ideas. Now what discipline, what department is that?”

Out of control 

Fresh from BloggerCon, I filed an article for The Guardian on presidential candidate weblogs. In the way of newspapers, it was greatly chopped down (they lost a page from the section), but I’m working on a much bigger exploration of the same theme.

“The template for successful presidential campaigns was established by James (‘It’s the economy, stupid’) Carville and Karl (Boy Genius) Rove. Stay relentlessly on message, control the agenda. But Howard Dean thinks there is another way. The Dean campaign for the Democrats has enthusiastically surrendered control to the internet.”

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There you go 

Proving that nobody knows anything, the Nobel prize for economics is awarded this year to Robert Engle and Clive Granger.

Surprise  

I didn’t think they had it in them. The New York Times editorialises in favour of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series, consigning their home team Yankees to the dust. Keep those fingers crossed.

Economics Nobel 

Two reasonably informed commentators reckon Paul Krugman has a decent shot at this year’s Nobel prize in economics, perhaps together with Jagdish Bhagwati.

The truth, of course, is that the Nobel committees remain the last bastion of leak-proof deliberations. So, to steal a line from William Goldman, nobody knows anything. That being the case, I’ll add my tuppence worth. By all accounts, Krugman’s work in international trade is Nobel-worthy.

But the Nobel committees (peace prize excepted) have a general history of avoiding political controversy, and staying safely academic. On that reading, Krugman’s high public profile since he took on his New York Times gig might come close to disqualifying him from consideration.

So intense, however, is the European distaste for the Bush administration that I could envision the Nobel being awarded to Krugman precisely because it would — indirectly — be a slap in the face of the adminstration. It would be a neat way to recognise clearly sterling academic work and to make a timely political point.

Anyway, we should know the answer in the next hour or so.

Oy 

How could a magazine as clued up as MIT’s Technology Review start a weblog without permalinks or RSS? I can only hope that they remedy the faults quickly, as writers like Rodney Brooks are always worth reading.

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Consorting with criminals  

Philip Greenspun is closing any accounts he holds with firms that do investment banking and IPOs. He admits you can’t always stay away from the criminal classes:

“Sometimes there is no alternative but to deal with an organization that has been convicted of violating federal law and cheating its customers. For example, if you want to send your kid to an Ivy League college you will become a customer of an organization that was prosecuted for tuition and financial aid price-fixing in violation of antitrust laws. If you want to listen to your favorite musician and don’t have time to waste on Kazaa you’ll be buying a CD from a record company that was very likely guilty of violating those same antitrust laws. If you want to run the same software as everyone else you’ll be a customer of Microsoft, no stranger to the Federal court system.”

He also offers sobering investment advice: “if you’re someone whose performance is evaluated by a clueless MBA and whose job could conceivably be done by a guy sitting at a computer in a low-wage country, plan for early retirement by investing in assets that won’t wither in the face of inflation”.

No comment 

The Bush-Cheney re-election campaign has a weblog. It’s a pretty sorry affair, with only an anonymous voice (GeorgeWBush.com is the “signature”). And, no surprise, no comments allowed.

Joe Rospars on the Dean weblog has the best response: “Mr. President, I’m a blogger. I know blogs. Bloggers are friends of mine. And your site, sir, is not a blog.”

Blogrolls  

Doc Searls recently wondered whether blogrolls need fixing in an era of RSS feeds.

Even though I rely on RSS (if a blog doesn’t syndicate, it pretty much drops off the map for me), I also am a big fan of blogrolls. When I find a new weblog that appeals to me, it’s the blogroll that leads me to more, serendipitous discoveries.

Since Doc got me thinking about it, I’ve made sure to update my blogroll to include new discoveries like Jay Rosen’s PressThink.

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Rounding up BloggerCon 

There are a number of important summaries of BloggerCon written by some of the participants.

Esther Dyson, who is slowly feeling her personal way into the weblog world, captures the crucial point: “The first magic of blogging, of course, is that everyone can self-publish. Everyone has a voice. The tools makes that possible. But the next magic, much harder to achieve, is that everyone wants to be listened to.”

Jay Rosen from NYU made many of the most telling interventions in the discussions on Saturday. He has posted a fascinating reflection on the significance of nytimes.com’s Len Apcar’s involvement at BloggerCon.

“Apcar had asked himself a disciplined question; in fact, the type of question outsiders to the Times rarely know how to ask. Not, ‘what would be a cool weblog to see in the New York Times?’ which is fun but too easy. Rather: which version of the emergent thing might actually work, even flourish, within the relatively cautious editorial environment and weighty decision machinery that Apcar contends with at the Times? Factor in all the talent one could tap…. but to do what? Plus all the competition that could be unleashed…but competition at what? Plus the subtle politics of moving into it. Plus the fact that the Times will take risks, but only up to a point. Have any ideas about that, head bloggers in heady times?”

Jenny Levine, who was on my education panel, provides the full details of the points she was making on Saturday. Her six points are essential reading for people interested in the role of weblogs and education.