Monthly Archives: December 2003

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New Year treat 

I’d missed Daniel Davies’s original post on Globollocks, but his scoring of Johan Norberg is a delight to read.

Honours and dishonours 

The biannual folly of honours (Arise, Sir Tim!) is upon us. One of the elements of seasonal cheer this year has been the exposure of the triviality that reigns in the award of honours, as well as the publication of a true list of honour: those that have over the years refused honours for whatever reason.

One of the arguments that is frequently aired in support of the honours system is that every country has something of the sort. Wrong. Ireland apparently has no honours of any kind. The US is often cited for the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal (as happened on Radio 5 Live this morning). But these strike me as something totally different, not least in that I think any American would be hard pressed to name any recipient of either of these medals. And I don’t think Wes Clark appends PMF to his name as a reminder of his award.

What really is the point of this nonsense?

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Holiday intermission 

I haven’t a clue how often I’ll be switching on the computer over the next week or so. This is a time for family and friends, not (for the most part) retreating to the office to tap away. I hope all my readers have a happy holiday season and continue to fight the good fight in the new year.


The most exciting thing I’ve read today is an article in the Financial Times about Beagle 2, the Mars lander that successfully detached from its mother ship today (inevitably, it’s behind a subscriber firewall). Beagle 2 should land on Mars early on Christmas, if everything goes smoothly.

It describes how the dire financial straits of British space science provoked many of the qualities of Beagle 2. “Mission constraints forced Beagle to be groundbreaking. It had to be as cheap as possible and ended up costing about £50m ($87m), excluding its instruments, which were supplied by the universities involved. It went about £1m over its industrial budget of £40m (set by Astrium) but was still ‘very fast and pretty cost-effective’, says Barrie Kirk, project manager. More significantly, with a total mass of only 33.2kg Beagle is the lightest lander ever built and has the highest ratio of experimentation to mass ever achieved in space.”

I heard professor Colin Pillinger, who leads the Beagle 2 team, on the radio today. He had a good line: “The score’s 1-0 after the first leg. We play the second leg on Christmas day.” (Ask followers of European football for an explanation.)

It all sounds like a triumph for that peculiarly British genius for creating good science and engineering on next to no resources. I’m looking forward to reading Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys which is all about the boffins.

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Oy what a day 

I happily sat down at my computer this morning to finish up the last bits of work before signing off for the holidays. More fool I.

Innocently, I agreed to install the latest Windows service pack and went on working while it installed in the background. But something froze and I got irritated. So I tried to quit out of the installation. To make a long story short, something totally, totally buggered my hard drive.

It’s now 10 hours later and I’ve tried everything. There’s no hope for it. I’ll just have to buy a new hard drive somewhere and consign all the data on my old one to the dustbin (the best price I could find for recovery was around £800 and my data isn’t worth that much to me). Fortunately, most things I care about are either on the Web — Davos Newbies and just about all my writing — or on my iPaq and my iPod.

So other than a wasted day and considerable frustration, it’s not really all that bad, in the grand scale of things.

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Unconfined influence 

Another must-read from Jay Rosen: Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative (which sounds like a Pirandello title). There’s a lot of wisdom in all his points, but perhaps the most important is “the influence of the Net is not confined to the Net anymore”.

An IP Christmas 

The Financial Times reports that London lawyers Lewis Silkin have sent out a rather clever Christmas card: ©H®IS™AS.

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Online target 

The UK government is very fond of targets, something that is often derided. But real numerical targets do set a benchmark for performance that is difficult to fudge.

Yesterday trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt announced a goal of every household in Britain having online access by 2008. Since only 50% are connected now (the majority on dial-up connections), 2008 is a hugely ambitious target. I think it will be hugely difficult to achieve, but it’s a worth aim.

Seasonal greetings  

An email out of the ordinary today: Christmas greetings from a regular reader of Davos Newbies who wishes me “a happy new year of successful blogging”. That’s wonderfully nice and will certainly inspire me to read the Adam Smith Blog more regularly. Thanks Alex.

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Dean advisors  

The latest advisors to the Dean campaign, announced today, are an eclectic, attractive bunch to my eyes. There are a lot of Clinton folks — Tony Lake, Ivo Daalder, Morton Halperin — but also some people harder to pigeonhole, like Jeff Sachs and Clyde Prestowitz. A list of advisors doesn’t necessarily mean much, but in general this is a list of people with the right stuff.

I know two of them quite well. Jeff Sachs, now at Columbia University, often takes a lot of stick for his “shock therapy” economics plans for Bolivia, Poland and Russia. They worked well in Bolivia in Poland, less well in Russia. Jeff believes the problem in Russia was “too much therapy, not enough shock”. We’ll never know. But since those high-profile assignments, he has been galvanised by a different set of problems. Jeff has done as much as anyone to look into the economic cost of Aids, malaria and tuberculosis and he has been highly influential in developing plans to deal with these health catastrophes in the developing world. Jeff has also done some innovative work on economics and the environment. He’s hugely bright (of course), but he’s also generally on side with the good guys.

Clyde Prestowitz, who runs the Economic Strategy Institute, is a fascinating story. Clyde’s background is thoroughly conservative, including a stint in the Commerce department during the Reagan administration. He made his name particularly on trade issues with Japan. But read Clyde’s latest book Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions. It’s the most powerful indictment I’ve seen of the Bush foreign policy. What makes it particularly potent for me is that it comes from someone who should, on past form, be a friend of the administration.

Europe flop 

Before the capture of Saddam, the big news of the weekend was the collapse of negotiations over Europe’s new constitution. When I happened to look at The New York Times’s front page on Saturday evening, it was the lead story, which is a pretty rare occurence for European political news.

Eventually, some kind of deal will be done, but getting there in an unreformed Europe of 25 nations is going to be excruciatingly hard. The early signs from Ireland, which assumes the presidency from the woeful Berlusconi government in January, is they won’t even try to complete a deal in their six months.

The Observer had two excellent commentaries on the problem. First, Robert McCrum, literary editor, compares the draft European constitution with the US constitution (but he oddly cites Jefferson above Madison as a drafter). As I’ve written before, the European language is bureaucratic rather than anything for the ages. McCrum also offers a startling comparison: “There’s another, more fundamental, difference between these two documents. The EU Constitution is expressed in 69,196 words and runs to 263 pages (depending on what language you read it in). The original US Constitution, by contrast, is just 4,608 words long on four pages. One has been the product of 26 plenary sessions, 11 working groups and three so-called ‘discussion circles’; the other was cooked up by half a dozen remarkable young Americans.”

Consistent pro-European Will Hutton reckons the weekend failure may prove terminal for Europe. “We are drowning in a sea of mutual spite and the legalistic legacy of successive treaties. Until more put their head over the parapet and fight for what I regard as a necessary and inspiring idea, we might as well — to follow William Pitt — roll up that map of Europe. It will stagnate and decline in the shadows of our mutual recriminations.”

Personal light cone 

Matt Webb has provided an RSS feed for your personal light cone, the stars close enough to earth for the light reaching us to have been emanated in your lifetime. I’ve just enveloped 72 Herculis and Nu-2 Lupi is approaching.

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WSIS reporting  

Slashdot has noted the restrictions on access at the World Summit on the Information Society. But there are a number of bloggers doing their best to get the message out.

One of my favourite observers of things connected, Nico Macdonald, has at long last jumped into the weblog world at WSIS. Posts can be found here, here, here and here, with more to come. Crooked Timber seems to have two reporters in Geneva, although this usually reliable site seems to have nothing to say so far.

There’s also a semi-official weblog, The Daily Summit, supported by the British Council.

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Marking time  

Via McGee’s Musings I came across Jay Cross’s voluminous posting on time. There’s a bewildering variety of material, but I particularly liked the perpetual headline news:

  Election in Doubt
  Congress Defies Prez
  Flood Waters Rising
  Moore’s Law Upheld
  Politicians Found Corrupt
  Conflict in Middle East
  Industries Consolidate
  Markets Fluctuate
  Perception is Reality
  Shit Happens
  Taxes Rise
  Time Flies
  Entropy Increases
  “No Free Lunch,” Study Finds
  “What’s in it for me?” ask consumers

Things can only get better 

Jonathan Steele has an insightful and contrary analysis of the Russian parliamentary elections in The Guardian.

Steele was one of the few western writers who decried Boris Yeltsin’s 1993 suspension of parliament and drafting of a new constitution, increasing the Kremlin’s powers. “The disputes between president and parliament in the first post-Soviet years were not a recipe for paralysis, as was claimed. They were the inevitable discomforts inherent in developing democratic compromises and a system of checks and balances that Russia had never had in its history.”

Now, although this month’s election looks like a complete triumph for an authoritarian approach, Steele believes it could be the harbinger of constructive change. “A realignment of Russia’s political scene is long overdue. It will not happen overnight, but after this week’s poll the chances that it could develop over the next few wilderness years are marginally better than at any time since the Yeltsin coup of 1993.”

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Not a free press 

The Financial Times has a good analysis of Putin’s position following the Russian parliamentary elections. But the most interesting part is a bar chart not available on the FT website (surely the world’s worst major news website).

It shows media mentions on primetime television news in Russia over the last month. Putin had something like 225 positive mentions, his United Russia party 160 positive mentions and the federal government around 90 positive mentions. All the other political parties notched under 25 mentions, except for the KPRF, the communists, which recorded 90 negative mentions.

Gore and Dean  

The best analysis I’ve read of Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean is Josh Marshall’s. “The first serious impression that a lot of Democrats will get of Dean will be that Al Gore is supporting him. And that seems like an awfully big deal, especially since it plays favorably to Dean’s chief perceived weaknesses — namely, that he’s a weak general election candidate.”

Dan Gillmor also has some important observations on the Gore-Dean connection. Here’s the critical point for me about the Dean campaign: “They’ve tapped — but crucially not tried to control — the growing ability of people at the edges of things to express themselves, collaborate and ultimately help drive a larger movement.”

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Weblogs in Davos  

During Davos 2000, Dave Winer and I were two lonely voices (but we had a lot of fun). Now it looks like weblogs are being welcomed into the big tent. With Jay Rosen, Joi Ito and Loic Le Meur (who is new to me), I’m confident interesting voices will be heard. But Dave is certainly right that the session title is backwards. But with Jay in the chair, that should be sorted out pretty swiftly.

Airbrushing history  

Larry Lessig finds a revealing elision on the White House website.

“On May 1, 2003, the Whitehouse’s Office of the Press Secretary released this press release, announcing ‘President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended.’ But then, with airbrush magic, now the same press release has been changed to this, which reports ‘President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended.’ No update on the page, no indication of when the change occurred, indeed, no indication that any change occurred at all. Instead, there is robots.txt file disallowing all sorts of activities that might verify the government. (Why does any government agency believe it has the power to post a robots.txt file?)”

Vive la difference  

Jay Rosen has an intriguing interview with Rodney Benson on the differences between French and US journalism. What strikes me is how similar UK and French journalism seems, at least seen through the prism of US commentators.

The Guardian provides an important insight into a different journalistic culture. It’s the norm, apparently, for interviews in German papers to be approved by the subject.

“In a way, the authorised Q&A interview, a popular format among German journalists, reflects the country’s penchant for consensus. It is a format that makes for far less confrontation and that seems to have satisfied both sides. Call them deferential, polite or excessively consensual, German journalists tend to deal differently with those in power.”

Given the terrifying history with which Germany has to cope, the overwhelming desire for consensus is perhaps understandable. But it’s high time the German journalistic culture moved on to a less deferential stance.