Monthly Archives: March 2004

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What could they be thinking? 

Ed Felten has a funny summary of how badly the Bush-Cheney re-elect campaign understands Internet campaigning.

Crackpot index 

Via Panda’s Thumb, I’ve been led to John Baez’s indispensible Crackpot Index. It’s been written to judge crackpot ideas in physics, but much of it can apply to other fields.

Consider, for example, how the opponents of the MMR jab would rank with rule 32: “40 points for claiming that the ‘scientific establishment’ is engaged in a ‘conspiracy’ to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.”

Frivolous claim 

Gavin Sheridan posts his definitive retort to John Gray’s lawyers. The lawyers made an outrageous claim that Sheridan had libelled Gray when exposing his dubious educational qualifications.

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The phew factor 

When I was running World Link, we used to talk about something we called “the phew factor”. For us, it meant giving our advertisers something simple and direct, so they didn’t face the anxiety of too much choice. “Phew,” they would say.

Well, the phew factor seems to be making inroads into policy circles. Martin Kettle describes how The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz, is the new must-read for Blairites. “Schwartz’s fundamental point is that greater choice does not make people happier. In some circumstances, indeed, it can cause them stress and even clinical depression.”


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Adam Smith and weblogs 

Harry’s Place: “On the plus side bloggers know their readership very well indeed — we get instant feedback in comments and more considered reflections in emails from readers. I’m not sure all the people writing for papers have such a clear idea of who they are writing for. One of the things that I reckon weakens some newspaper journalism is writing for the editor not the reader, that doesn’t exist in blogging.

“At the risk of sounding like a libertarian the ‘invisible hand’ really does seem to work for blogs, at least in the British political weblog scene. There is good writing and bad. There is left-wing and there is right-wing. There are niche blogs on specific topics and there are blogs that take a wider brief. The readers make their choice at the click of a mouse without any cost.”

Eloquent testimony 

Scott Rosenberg: “Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a single instance when a leading Bush official — someone on the order of a cabinet secretary or above — looked the American people in the eye and either apologized or admitted error. They don’t know how to do it. Admitting mistakes is not in their playbook. Apologies are for wimps and Democrats.

“Now Clarke, neither wimp nor Democrat, has done both these things, in simple, direct words — words that, I think, the 9/11 family members and their wider network of friends, relations and sympathizers, a circle that ripples out to include just about all of us, have wanted and needed to hear from someone in a position of responsibility for so long.”

What Condi would say 

Brad DeLong has penned a tour de force: his version of what Condoleeza Rice’s opening statement to the September 11 commission might sound like.

An absolutely essential read to understand the bureaucratic mind. I think such a statement would be a very plausible line for Rice to take in a rational way. Of course, politics isn’t rational and she’d be drawn and quartered for the admission of a failure to see the significance of al-Qaeda, whatever the benefits of a rigorous process and comprehensive plan might have seemed.

William Saletan makes some of the same points in Slate. His conclusion is worth re-airing: “Life is complex and surprising. You can’t anticipate everything in a big plan. You have to accept that, and you have to organize yourself to catch the things your plans will miss. For failing to understand this lesson before 9/11, perhaps Bush and his national security team can be forgiven. For refusing to accept the same lesson now, after all the deaths and all the hearings, they cannot.”

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From a Guardian reader 

I am a Guardian reader with all that implies for followers of political and socioeconomic indicators in Britain (but I’m also an FT reader, which I suspect is a relatively uncommon phenomenon).

So it was particularly disheartening for me to read an article in The Guardian last week about syndication. I’m not a techie, although I might be described as a techie manquée. Even for me, however, there seemed a lot wrong about the article’s portrayal of the tussle between RSS and Atom. Fortunately, Rogers Cadenhead has catalogued the errors.

What is equally serious for me is the apparent conflict of interest undisclosed by the author, Ben Hammersley. As Cadenhead notes, Hammersley was deeply involved in the development of RSS 1.0, the “faction” that seems to have led to the development of Atom. The article in The Guardian, which paints Atom as the solution and RSS 2.0 as the problem, does not indicate that Hammersley is parti pris.

The Guardian’s own newspaper code plainly declares:

“It is always necessary to declare an interest when the journalist is writing about something with which he or she has a significant connection. This applies to both staff journalists and freelances writing for the Guardian. The declaration should be to a head of department or editor during preparation. Full transparency may mean that the declaration should appear in the paper or website as well.

“A connection does not have to be a formal one before it is necessary to declare it. Acting in an advisory capacity in the preparation of a report for an organisation, for example, would require a declaration every time the journalist wrote an article referring to it.”

The article could have run as an opinion piece, advocating one side of the story. To innocent readers of the newspaper, however, it posed as an objective account.

Many of my US friends assume that journalistic standards in Britain are lower than in the US. I don’t think that’s the case for the better British papers, a category in which I’d certainly include The Guardian. But here’s an instance where my dear Guardian seems to have fallen badly short of its declared standards.

Another ally against unreason 

The Panda’s Thumb is becoming a regular read for me. It’s a weblog on evolution (and passionately against the pernicious “intelligent design” advocates). Panda’s Thumb is a good ally to have against the forces of unreason.

Revel in this refutation of an ID article.

Sign of the times 

Even Noam Chomsky has a blog (and an RSS feed).

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Inside story on Dean 

Karl Frisch posts an advance copy of Paul Maslin’s article on the Dean implosion, which will be published in the May Atlantic Monthly. Maslin was Dean’s pollster, so this is the first of what will presumably be many inside stories.

What the fat lady is singing 

Physics Today explains why it’s so hard understanding what sopranos are singing in the opera house (via Language Log).

“A recent study at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, lays most of the blame on an inescapable tradeoff dictated by the physical acoustics of vowel differentiation and singing very high notes. Acoustical physicists John Smith and Joe Wolfe, working with physics undergraduate Elodie Joliveau, have carried out an experiment that demonstrates why different vowel sounds are almost impossible to distinguish when sopranos are singing in the highest octave of their range.”

No licence = 10 years 

Further to Monday’s post on community radio in India, Evan Henshaw writes to Davos Newbies:

“The big problem I found with advocating community radio in India is that it’s treated as a terrorism issue. So instead of the rest of the world where you lose your equipment when you run an unlicensed radio station, in India you get 10 years in jail. This has meant nobody has gone about and setup community radio stations without licenses unless they are located in very rural areas. In France, the USA, Brazil, and other places people have used unlicensed radio as a political tool to open up the airwaves. But in India there is no conception of how radio could be really be used. This means nobody wants to risk 10 years in jail to make a community radio licensing an issue of public debate.”

Evan recommends a mailing list and points to a recent conference on Rediscovering Radio.

More voices 

Another new UK political weblog has recently launched, Mindhenge. Martin Whitlock, who writes Mindhenge, has a very disciplined approach to writing one post a week. I hope he goes with the flow and writes when the muse is present, rather than to any particular schedule.

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The radio revolution 

Bonobo Land hits on an important idea: “780,000 channels. That is the total number of ‘community radio stations’ possible in India. Rural India’s best ICT tool till date is The Radio: rural India’s window to the world. It is by far the best and cheapest way to deliver e-content over a large population and a large geographical area.”

Unfortunately, the licence Raj still rules in communications in India. The government rigidly controls the airwaves.

George Soros has funded influential use of old technologies like radio through his Media Program. Truly vital work.

The new rules 

Josh Marshall: “Miller hasn’t been publishing as much of late. And someone needs to clue her into the revised rules. It’s been at least a few months since reporters have willingly published demonstrably false statements from administration officials and spokespersons.”

Quantum politics 

British Spin: “Always remember that politics is quantum. Becoming popular itself makes you more popular. Being seen as strong makes you stronger.”

Weighed down by work 

I’m going through a period of light posting because I’m incredibly busy with work. I’ll try to shift into a higher gear sometime soon.

By the by, John Robb has started a weblog just to track thoughts about next generation terrorism, Global Guerrillas. Not for the fainthearted.

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Up the chain 

The Financial Times has a fascinating story about the long-anticipated shift up the value chain of Chinese factories. China is still the titan of low-cost production, but a few pioneering firms are signalling a shift.

“Factories in China traditionally have provided dormitories and canteens for their workers. But now, one US-financed stationery plant is piping music on to the production floor. Another factory has built a gym and a three-lane bowling alley. Libraries and karaoke machines have also become standard.”

And there’s a caveat: “While the improvement in conditions is a positive step, observers say that adding recreational facilities costs factory owners far less than raising wages, and impresses visiting executives.”

Holbrooke’s comeback  

I love Richard Holbrooke’s riposte to Wolf Blitzer (via Atrios) regarding John Kerry’s supposed remarks about foreign leaders.

“John Kerry committed an unpardonable crime in Washington: he spoketh the truth. What he said is self-evidently true. There’s a new poll out today by the Pew Institute, a worldwide pool, which shows massive and growing anti-Americanism around the world. Now American voters need to make up their own mind who they prefer, George W. Bush or John Kerry. But they also ought to know this administration is isolating us in the world, weakening us. Recent events in Spain, this election are another example.

“John Kerry said something everybody knows is true. And, Wolf, you know it’s true. And why don’t I say just one other thing. Why don’t you, instead of staging a silly he said/he said between the White House, which is throwing all this mud at John Kerry after he said something true. Why don’t you poll your foreign correspondents on CNN. And ask them who the population and leaderships in the world would prefer to see elected? Very simple.”

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A different kind of candidate 

Ed Cone, who is thinking about running for Congress: “I would not purge my archives, and I think Google caching makes that point moot, anyway. I will not clear my blogroll. I have opinions. I guess I would be a different type of candidate.”

From Fleet Street 

For the media obsessed, I can recommend the new Fleet Street Blogger, even though there’s no RSS feed yet.

Not appeasement 

My reading of Spanish events (see below) is far closer to Stuart Hughes, who takes both Tom Friedman and David Brooks to task. (Incidentally, criticising Brooks is hardly worth the effort given how terrible he’s been from the get go, but what on earth has happened to Tom in the last year or so? I can’t remember his last good column.)

“Zapatero is withdrawing his country’s soldiers because his ousted predecesor, Jose Maria Aznar, committed troops to a war opposed by up to 90% of Spanish people, lied to the public about who was behind the Madrid bombings — and subsequently paid the price at the polls.

“That’s not appeasement — it’s democracy in action. Friedman, Brooks, et al would do well to scrutinise the validity of their president’s war in Iraq, instead of condemning the European fallout.

“Kofi Annan realises this. He understands that José María Aznar paid for backing the Iraq war and blaming the terrorist attacks on ETA.

“Zapatero does, however, need a crash course in diplomacy. He’s stirred things up still further by suggesting American voters should kick out Bush and vote for John Kerry.”

Those that can’t, consult 

I had the misfortune the other day to hear a talk by a leading risk consultant. This person, and his company, advises major corporations on a range of security issues, from the mundane to the major. The talk provided no information that even a casual newspaper reader wouldn’t know.

Contrast that to John Robb, who for free is educating me about new generation terrorism in his weblog. He points me to William Lind: “Using the simplest of technologies, al Qaeda or whatever Fourth Generation organization did [the Madrid bombings], undertook a strategic bombing campaign of unprecedented effectiveness. Their backpacks outperformed our B-2 bombers.”

I don’t buy the simple equation that last week’s terrorism alone provoked the political shift in Madrid. But I know where I look for informed argument.

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Distributional problems 

I gave a talk today to a group of senior civil servants on the difficulty of forecasting future events. It’s a key topic for me.

One of the other speakers, Richard Reeves, had a quote I hadn’t heard before. JG Ballard said, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

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How to vote 

Chris Bertram: “If there were a terrorist attack which killed 200 of my compatriots, and the government, suspecting al-Qaida, chose nevertheless to spin a story that the Real IRA were to blame, I might, just might, change my mind. But I’d still probably vote Labour. I certainly wouldn’t take kindly to commentators from other countries — themselves basically ignorant of my country’s politics and history — telling me that my task, in casting my vote, is to ‘send a message’ to Osama bin Laden or anyone else. I’d be upset if such pundits told me that voting other than they way they recommended amounted to dishonouring the dead . And if a Spanish person, encountering such a commentator were to punch them on the nose, I’m not saying they’d be right, but I’d understand.”

Back in harness 

I’m back from a week in Courchevel, which for mysterious reasons seems to have become the ski resort of choice for super-rich Russians.

According to a reliable source, Roman Abramovich (who was recently described as the wealthiest man in Britain) tried to buy one of the multi-million euro chalets in Courchevel 1850 last year and no one would sell to him.

I find everything other than the reluctance to sell believable. I had a great week, but the Courchevelois (if that’s the right term) certainly have no compunction about selling their wares for top euro, dollar or rouble.