Monthly Archives: November 2003

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They mean me 

Friends who live elsewhere in Europe can’t understand my distaste for compulsory identity cards. I’m not sure I can articulate it fully, but there’s something that really sticks in my craw about the idea that I can be required to prove my identity for no reason other than some official wants me to.

Well, Britain’s historic innocence in this regard is just about over. Within the next four years, as a resident alien, I will be required to carry a “mandatory biometric identity document”. And it’s pretty clear that soon everyone else will be as well. A small consolation is that it seems that although cards will be required, you will not have to carry them, which is a delightfully odd British compromise.

The language the Home Office uses in outlining its scheme is a poor example of doublespeak. “Identity cards will provide every person in this country with an easy and secure way of demonstrating their right to be here and of asserting their place in the community. With the proper safeguards on our privacy, the scheme will bring benefits to each of us as individuals but also provide mutual benefits to our society as a whole.”

British Spin, on the other hand, reckons ID cards are okay so long as they devise a method so he won’t lose it. “I shall support iD cards when they are magnetically attracted to their true owner, seeking them out through rains and shine like a faithful dog returning to its master.”

Who invited him? 

Jonathan Freedland: “We all know the feeling. You glance at the diary and realise you have guests coming to stay next week, when nothing could be less convenient. They’re coming from abroad, expecting to be entertained for several days and it’s far too late to cancel.”

No one wants to fess up to inviting president Bush to London next week. It’s quite hilarious. Remarkably, this is apparently the first-ever official state visit of a US president to Britain. State visits in London are two a penny, so I find this incredibly odd. It will be a good week not to be in London.

Major story 

Here’s the trail in full for one of the highlighted stories on the evening news last night in Melbourne: “New research shows that wayward shopping trolleys cause more than $1 million in damage to cars each year.” This thrilling news was accompanied by footage of a trolley rolling into, and making a slight dent in, a car. Must see TV.

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Key distinction 

I’ve only just caught up with Jay Rosen’s excellent essay on the false distinction between opinion and news. He poses a more useful distinction: “People who know what they’re talking about (good) vs. people who don’t (bad).”

It’s as bad as you thought 

Brad DeLong characteristically isn’t mincing his words: “Is there any reason to think that this administration has the competence to make any policy a success? The victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were the result of the extraordinary professional skill of the U.S. armed forces — of William Cohen’s army, let’s call it. It’s only when the Bush political appointees touch it, but whenever they touch it they do turn gold into mud.”

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In the way of things, most of my Australia trip so far has been inside jumbo jets and offices. But I did get out briefly at lunchtime today in the beautiful, spring sunshine.

Melbourne’s central business district is very American, on a scale more like Boston or San Francisco than New York or even Chicago. It certainly doesn’t bear much resemblance in look or feel to London. One thing was particularly striking to me today. In Britain at this time of year, a very high percentage of people wear poppies in their lapels to commemorate the Armistice. On the news this morning, I saw that Australian prime minister John Howard was in London to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day services. But I reckon fewer than 1% of the people I saw today were wearing poppies.

There was one elderly veteran of World War Two, with his row of medals displayed across his chest, selling poppies in Collins Place, a big food court and shopping centre. But no one seemed to be paying any attention.

Even though Australia lost too many men in the First World War (think Gallipoli) as well as the second, I guess European wars seem very far away and rather irrelevant for most people here.

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Far away  

My next posts will be from incredibly far away from London. I’m going to be in Australia working on a project for the next three weeks. So it’s Davos Newbies from Oz almost until the end of the month.

Incidentally, London to Melbourne is 16,913km. When I was flinging colleagues and writers around the globe for World Link, we worked out that the two capitals that are furthest apart are Singapore and Quito (19,745km, which is as near as dammit to half the Earth’s circumference, 40,075km). I don’t think it’s possible to find any combination further apart.

Hope so  

Josh Marshall: “If you wanted to write the script for next year’s election to insure the closest possible result, you’d write it pretty much exactly as it’s shaping up.”


Maps and Territories may be the most exciting new weblog I’ve seen in a long time. Each post is about a map or a map fragment. I hope he can keep up the current quality and frequency.

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2 = 0 

I’ve been having an interesting email exchange with a friend about the incidence of violin-cello works before the Brahms double concerto of 1887. David has rather grumpily conceded the point with the following observation: “I am not exactly in full retreat, but Vivaldi did, in fact, write 2 concerti for vn and vc. But 2 = 0 in his case.”

David’s point is about Vivaldi’s near-absurd prolificness. But I think his point may put him in the running for a Fields Medal.

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Cabinet minister weblog  

Gerrit Zalm, finance minister of The Netherlands, has a weblog. To my knowledge, that makes him the first cabinet minister to have a weblog.

Could any Dutch readers tell me whether it’s any good?

Sympathetic souls 

Tim Lambert has done the extremely useful exercise of plotting webloggers results on the Political Compass Test. I’m very happy with the company I seem to keep.

Uncle is drinking again 

Esther Dyson provides her reaction to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Esther has long, personal experience of doing business in Russia, in addition to her well-known tech world credentials.

“Now that I’m back in the US and thinking slightly longer-term, I can’t ignore the topic of Khodorkovski. (note to tech readers; this is about Russian politics, not the Internet….but remember when we thought politics in the US didn’t matter to us either??) It gives me the feeling of familiar despair: “Uncle is drinking again!” We thought maybe he was cured, but he’s not.

“The Russian government is showing its worst side, going after one man (Khodorkovski) and his company for the (alleged) kind of crimes that virtually every non-software Russian business has been involved in. (Software companies created things out of their heads, and did not generally ‘buy’ assets from the state for amazing prices.) That means, long run, that most Russian businesses are vulnerable. WHen you create a situation where almost everyone is guilty (viz. our drug laws), you create disrespect for the law and a climate where everyone is vulnerable to misuse of government power masquerading as the force of law.

“One American I encountered during the past week said to the Russians (paraphrase): ‘You have Yukos; we have Enron.’ but that is precisely wrong. Enron broke specific laws (that most but certainly not all other companies did not break), and was not singled out for political reasons.

“The Russian business community is upset but vulnerable; the US business community and government should be taking a stand in favor of the things we believe in: transparency, rule of law, etc., instead of turning a blind eye.”

Martin Wolf in the Financial Times (subscription only) takes a cooler, economist’s view of what he describes as a “clash between arbitrary power and illegitimate wealth”:

“The question is whether Mr Putin’s authoritarian state will improve the economy further. This is possible, but doubtful. The Khodorkovsky affair can only underline the insecurity of property and the discretion available to the state. Those who support Mr Putin understandably resent the wealth of the new tycoons. That is a recipe for ongoing capital flight and corruption. Finally, the basis of wealth in Russia remains natural resource rents. As long as this is the case, the pursuit of wealth will be seen as a zero-sum game, with victory to the powerful.

“We know that Russia is not going to be a bigger version of Poland. What we do not know is whether it will deliver greater prosperity. For that, Russia needs secure property rights. This was never going to be easy to achieve. The grotesque maldistribution of wealth of the 1990s has only made it harder. We must hope that Mr Putin understands the necessity. Even if authoritarian, a prosperous Russia would be a better neighbour than one mired in poverty.”

The blogging of the president 2004 

Chris Lydon reckons we need a new Theodore White: “In my own humble observation, what’s happening out there is the start of a fundamental reordering of democratic energy and political influences, a drastic subversion of a discredited game, an inversion of the old pyramids of control, or perhaps a shape shift, as Stirling Newberry argues, from pyramid to sphere. The Internet represents a rewiring of the body politic, but it’s not the technology that’s interesting, it’s the individual engagement and social model implied in it.”

He promises to start a new weblog devoted to chronicling this shift. I’ll certainly point to it when it’s up.

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Elgin marbles  

I had an appointment in Bloomsbury yesterday. Arriving a bit early, I went into the British Museum.

For the first time in years, I went to look at the Parthenon sculptures, famously known as the Elgin marbles. Having learned quite a bit about ancient Greece since the last time I visited these rooms, I was completely overwhelmed by their impact.

But I was also surprised at another feeling: the Greeks are right to want these survivals of Attic Greece back in Athens, in the museum that is being built for them at the foot of the Acropolis. There is something terribly sad about seeing these great sculptures torn away from their origins.

Of course I understand that if they hadn’t been taken away by Lord Elgin, they would almost certainly not be in anything like their current excellent state. But that’s ages ago. Give them back.

In a minor aside, it’s a sad reflection of how the generally wonderful British Museum is using the Internet that a Google search for Elgin marbles finds you everything except the British Museum.

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Here’s a real weblog scoop.

Surely not 

I don’t usually write so much about UK politics, but Tom Watson has come across the extraordinary vanity of Michael Portillo’s official website. Beyond parody.

Cupboard love 

More essential reading from British Politics: “So my take on the current wave of good coverage of Mr Howard is that it is driven by a) The strange sight of Tory unity, b) The desperate desire of the media for an opposition, c) Cupboard love for the new alpha male in town. The policy differences still remain the same.”

Hitler and the blog 

Simon Waldman writes a fascinating account of what happened to him when he posted his discovery of an article on Hitler’s Haus Wachenfeld in a 1938 Homes and Gardens on his weblog.

“As a result of this casual browse through an old magazine, I have struck up a friendship with an amateur historian in Louisiana, been involved in a copyright tussle with the UK’s biggest magazine publisher, been branded a Nazi sympathiser, been written about in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and the Jerusalem Post, and become the subject of a petition from 60 Holocaust scholars as well as protests from David Irving.”