Monthly Archives: April 2004

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Vast distances 

Felix Salmon has a very lengthy post about Japan. It defies summary, but it’s well worth reading. And, in what must be a record for most disconnected consecutive weblog posts (assuming someone keeps a record), his sister Rhian writes a truly poetic reflection on immensity from her Antarctic base.

Economically trivial 

I love Martin Wolf’s no-nonsense economic rationalism. His column in the Financial Times today (subscribers only) argues for a relaxation in Britain’s planning regime so that more houses can be built, particularly in the crowded, desireable southeast of England. He is particularly agitated by the uneconomic dominance of farmland in much of southern England.

I can just imagine the Nimby brigade and the rural romanticists spluttering in their morning coffee.

“In 2003, according to the final report on housing supply from Kate Barker of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, land in residential use in the south-east of England was over 300 times more valuable than agricultural land — at £2.76m per hectare against a mere £9,122. This negligible value for agricultural land is not surprising. Even at inflated market prices, farming generates only 1 per cent of gross domestic product. At world prices, its contribution cannot be much more than half that. Yet 68 per cent of the UK’s total land area and even 57 per cent of the south-east’s is devoted to this economically trivial activity.”

Internet rights and classical music 

The BBC announced this summer’s Proms schedule yesterday. For the first time in memory, no US orchestra will be playing at the world’s biggest music festival. It’s partly because of traveling fears by US orchestras, and budgetary problems. The Cleveland Orchestra, however, was booked for the Proms but had to be scratched late in the day.

The problem? The BBC not only broadcasts all the concerts live, it streams them on the Internet. The Cleveland Orchestra apparently could not reach agreement with the BBC on the Internet rights to its concert. So they are out.

I find this very puzzling. Other orchestras with sophisticated marketing operations, like the Berlin Phil, seem to have no problem with the BBC policy. Where’s the rub for Cleveland?

Cleveland were going to be playing Olivier Messiaen’s wonderful Turangalila Symphony. Fortunately, the London Sinfonietta have been booked to fill the gap in the repertoire.

What did you say again?  

I generally don’t approve of sites that offer only partial RSS feeds. But a fun example of what can happen did turn up in my aggregator courtesy of Downing Street Says yesterday.

Here is the RSS feed in its entirety for a post entitled European Constitution: “Asked for a reaction to Valery Giscard D’Estaing’s comment this morning that the UK would not be kicked out of Europe if there was a no vote in the referendum, the PMOS said that M. Giscard D’Estaing was a…”

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Look ma, no hands 

Micah Sifry: “If it’s true that, as the New Yorker cartoon put it, ‘On the Internet, no one knows if you’re a dog,’ it’s also true that on the Internet no one likes it if you don’t come across as a human being.”

He accurately terms this “The Cluetrain Manifesto explained while standing on one foot.”

There are many ways to show bias 

USNWR: The unbelievable spin created by a rigged cover on a supposedly serious news magazine

Daily Kos spotted the cover of US News and World Report with the cover line, The Way They Were. But as Kos points out and Richard Gayle expands, the cover is pure propaganda.

Richard Gayle: “I always knew that US News and World Report was conservative leanng but this is a pretty obvious propaganda cover. Kerry volunteers for Vietnam, gets wounded, receives medals, is highly commended by his superior officers. He is shown in a coat and tie. Bush never came closer to Vietnam than the South, failed to take a flight physical, had superior officiers that had no idea of where he was. He is shown in a uniform. Kerry is looking off to the side, away from the viewer. Bush is looking straight at the viewer. Kerry is in harsh red tint (pinko?). Bush is in cool blue (patriotic?) Many people will see the images and never reas the article.”

As November approaches, expect much, much more of the same and worse.

Of course, the same cover on a different publication (The Onion, say) would be seen as funny and ironic, it’s so far off base.

Plea for Europe 

Marcelo Rinesi has a nice reaction to the latest study showing the virtually irreversible prospect of European demographic decline.

“[Europe] better get back on track now, if they want to still be relevant in the XXIInd century. Which I hope they are, because between the still-only-potemkin-democratic chinese and the schizophrenic great-crazy-MIT-fun-nanotech-weirdness/scary-arrogant-not-that-bright-DC-guidance americans (and I’m talking about both sides of the aisle, mind you), I think it’d be a loss for the world if, say, Sweden doesn’t get to be some sort of world player. I’m just saying.”

At last, a World Economic Forum weblog 

Here’s a nice surprise for the weblog world: the World Economic Forum has started an official blog during its European Economic Summit in Warsaw.

It is being run by Löic Le Meur and Samantha Tonkin.

As the original Davos blogger (thanks to Dave‘s encouragement), I certainly wish it great success. What would be wonderful is if they recognise the value of the blog is heightened outside Forum events. Keep it up all year round and give people insight into what’s happening at the Forum. There’s no better tool for openness and transparency, two things the Forum very much seeks.

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Happy birthday, democratic South Africa 

Ten years isn’t a very long time, but it’s hard to recall that South Africa became a democratic nation only 10 years ago.

Around that time, I traveled to South Africa reasonably regularly, too write about the transition and to attend various World Economic Forum events in Cape Town and Jo’burg. As a hopelessly sentimental person, my visits were always attended by a few occasions when the tears welled up.

Listening to an all-black chorus sing the dual national anthems: the Afrikaans Die Stem and the Xhosa Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is surely the most moving national anthem going). Any occasion seeing Nelson Mandela (I’ve met a lot of famous people, but the only one I wish I had a photo with is Mandela. It would be like having a picture of yourself with Lincoln. One for the children, grandchildren and beyond). Seeing people I first met in grimy offices become major figures in the new South Africa.

I still think the peaceful transition in South Africa is one of the most remarkable stories of my lifetime, more amazing in its way than the largely nonviolent collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today’s South Africa certainly continues to have immense problems: rampant Aids (the greatest blot on Thabo Mbeki’s leadership), high crime levels and continuing flight of many of its best and brightest to Britain, the US and Australia. But the people of South Africa have also achieved something remarkable and worth celebrating: a truly democratic, stable, hopeful nation.

Valuing Google 

John Quiggin has one of the best analyses I’ve seen on the value of Google, which is being touted pre-IPO as $25 billion.

“The general problem is that, in an economy dominated by public goods, like that of the Internet, there’s no reason to expect any relationship between economic value and capacity to raise revenue. Things of immense social value (this blog, for example!) are given away because there’s no point doing anything else.”

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Surfeit of that vacuous grin 

Max Hastings is an old-style Tory, famous as a journalist for strolling into Port Stanley ahead of the British troops during the Falklands War, and later editor of The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. Max likes the military and understands it.

So his article today had particular bite: “So much bad news turned up at Chequers over the weekend that the prime minister might be forgiven if he failed to spot the latest barrage of suicide bombings in Iraq. But Britain’s 8,000 troops on the ground noticed, and are not happy. They are prisoners of an American command whose incompetence is manifest, whose soldiers are unsuited to their task, whose failures of policy have been laid bare.”

He goes on to make an important point about the relationship between Britain and the US, and between all of Europe and the US.

“If we are really fed up with Bush, if we recognise that no future US president is likely be entirely to our taste, we should surely get on with creating credible European armed forces. As it is, no European nation — with the possible exception of France — shows the smallest interest in spending money or displaying spine for this purpose.

“Until we address this, and against the background of a struggle against international terrorism that is likely to grow more alarming rather than less, America remains the indispensable ally and shield. That means George Bush. At the very moment when most of us feel surfeited with the president’s vacuous grin and impregnable moral conceit, we cannot walk away from his follies unless or until Europe makes itself something quite different from the eunuch it is today.”

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Friedman follow-up 

Yesterday I reckoned Daniel Davies would analyse the globollocks in Tom Friedman’s column. I was right (and Davies is once again absolutely on target):

“Apparently the USA isn’t bringing through enough research scientists. What’s the solution? Presumably the rush to global competition of the free market. Nope, sorry, wrong, the solution is massive amounts of government money. In the Airmiles world, agricultural subsidies are terrible, awful anticompetitive, protectionist. But massive subsidies to the science industry are imperative, because of globalisation or something.”

Sticking to the poorly composed notes on the page 

My favourite thinkers take an insight from one field and see how it applies in another. Richard Gayle, A Man with a PhD, seems to do this consistently.

Today he takes an exploration of improvisation and applies it as a yardstick to measure the Bush administration.

Here are the principles of improvisation:

  Acceptance of a new idea or approach from the standpoint of exploring the possibilities it has to offer. The attitude of “Yes, and”.
  Attentive listening to the partners with whom one is co-creating.
  Temporary suspension of critical judgment, while in the option-generating phase.
  An attitude of relaxed, even playful, openness to new ideas. Diverging out from the obvious into the far reaches of imagination. “What if ___?”
  Reframing situations to explore creative possibilities. Shifting perspective, focus, position.
  A willingness to take chances, to risk appearing foolish.
  An understanding that no choice is absolutely right or wrong, though each may turn out to be more or less productive in a given situation – and this can often be discovered only through trial and error.

And Gayle’s analysis:

“In an increasingly complex and ever-changing world, the ability to improvise is crucial. What worked 6 months ago will not work today. Why not and how do we fix it? Yet, by every bullet point in the above, the current administration is a failure. Every single one of them. It does not listen to other views. It does not listen attentively since it seldom listens at all. We have yet to hear of them suspending any critical judgment. In fact, many incidents indicate that it follows a rush to judgment rather than the opposite. I have yet to hear of any openness to new ideas viewed with playfulness. Nothing is reframed for creative possibilities. Appearing foolish seems to be the exact opposite of this administration’s approach. It has to always be perfectly in control. The last one is actually laughable. To its way of thinking, every choice is either absolutely right or it is wrong. They talk in the manner of moral certitude for everything they do, even when it is the opposite of what they said a few weeks earlier.”

273 days and counting 

I somehow missed Mark Schmitt’s launch of his 1/21 project — an intelligent, progressive blogger’s attempt to concentrate on making a Kerry administration effective from the day it steps into office (January 21, 2005, with a bit of luck).

All of Mark’s post is worth reading to concentrate left-wing minds on the business of power, not just the enjoyable pasttime of commenting from the sidelines.

Photogate 

Kevin Drum reckons the Bush administration’s political judgment is off target in its attempt to prevent pictures of coffins appearing in the US media.

“The Bush administration’s political judgment is obvious: pictures of dead soldiers on the front pages of newspapers will turn people against the war. And maybe they’re right. But my guess is different: seeing these pictures would make most Americans feel pride in their country and determined that these lives not be lost in vain. On the other hand, hiding the pictures just makes it look like the administration is ashamed of its war.”

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Misplaced pedantry 

The funniest example of misplaced pedantry I’ve seen for a long time appears in a comment thread about what Google’s spiders are up to.

Photo Matt used the phrase, “Et tu, Googlebot.” François Briatte, thinking himself clever, responds, “Correct French words would be : ‘et toi, GoogleBot?’” I thought “Et tu, Brute” was one of two Latin phrases (“veni, vedi, vici” the other) everyone could recognise.

No policy 

I’ve almost stopped reading Tom Friedman, but today’s column did pull me in. There’s a lot of globollocks which I’ll leave to Daniel Davies to deconstruct. There’s also a lot of special pleading from Silicon Valley executives about how no one understands their problems.

But Tom’s penultimate paragraph does resonate, and it reminded me that he was once a must-read columnist.

“And what is the Bush strategy [for science and technology]? Let’s go to Mars. Hello? Right now we should have a Manhattan Project to develop a hydrogen-based energy economy – it’s within reach and would serve our economy, our environment and our foreign policy by diminishing our dependence on foreign oil. Instead, the Bush team says let’s go to Mars. Where is Congress? Out to lunch – or, worse, obsessed with trying to keep Susie Smith’s job at the local pillow factory that is moving to the Caribbean – without thinking about a national competitiveness strategy. And where is Wall Street? So many of the plutocrats there know that the Bush fiscal policy is a long-term disaster. They know it – but they won’t say a word because they are too greedy or too gutless.”

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Those pesky bagel thieves 

Wonderful honesty from University of Chicago economist Stephen Levitt: “Look, if I thought I was skilled enough to answer bigger questions, I would. I may just be good at catching bagel thieves.”

Arguments for un-conferences 

Dave Winer has written the first of a series on how to BloggerCon. In other words, how do you run a meeting as good as BloggerCon II apparently was (and I thought BloggerCon I was an excellent event).

The first instalment is on format, and Dave has concluded, “At BloggerCon, there is no audience, there are no speakers. There is a discussion leader, a person responsible for the flow of the discussion.”

Having been responsible in Davos for more sessions than I’d care to remember that absolutely violate Dave’s rules, I’ve independently come to the same conclusion as he did. When you have an excellent group of participants (and perhaps even if you don’t), something with a loose agenda and discussion leaders who can do the right amount of cajoling and prodding will produce something far more valuable for all involved.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a classical conference format. As I’ve recounted in Davos Newbies, there have been some utterly wonderful Davos sessions over the years. But for all the great people gathered at that uber-conference, there are still more misses than hits. I think people are ready and eager for a totally new model.

Like all the best ideas, there’s nothing particularly novel in this. Harrison Owen with his notion of open space technology has been following this path, and certainly extending it even beyond what happened at BloggerCon. I like Owen’s four rules:

  1. Whoever comes is the right people
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
  3. Whenever it starts is the right time
  4. When it’s over it’s over

Owen supplements this with one law. “The Law is the so called Law of Two Feet, which states simply, if at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing – use you two feet and move to some place more to you liking. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable.”

The logic behind this is more than procedural. Think what establishing a typical conference panel involves. However open the organisers, the panelists and the participants, by making the choices of subject, framing the question, choosing the panelists, you’ve already predetermined much of the argument (which for a polemical organisation may be a good thing). You may want your participants to make an intellectual journey from A to Z, but you’re starting them on K. Why not let everyone start at A?

Last autumn I became deeply involved in an attempt to plan a major event on something approaching these lines. Sadly, the backer got cold feet and reverted to what he said he didn’t want — another conference. I’m no longer involved, but I’m sure it will be a very good conference. But it will be another conference.

I don’t turn down the right kind of work to do another conference, but I’m much more excited about the potential of an un-conference. I’m sure potential participants are, too.

Shell and the children’s disco 

John Kay in the Financial Times (subscribers only) has some important reflections on the crisis at Shell.

“Caught in the crossfire between those who see business as a purely instrumental, financial activity and those who demand that business be judged on its contribution to the public good, Shell has satisfied no one. And for a common reason. The introverted, intellectual belief that, if you go on doing a good job, people will eventually give you credit for it is no longer justified. Today, politics are governed by spin and tabloid headlines and business is accountable to investment managers judged on quarterly figures. And when rewards are based on individual performance, the mutual trust necessary for collegiate management breaks down. In accommodating itself to current fashion, Shell looks like parents at their children’s disco, courting popularity but only losing dignity.”

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Au contraire 

A Fistful of Euros provides a dose of perspective to stories about John Kerry concealing his fluency in French.

“In Kerry’s defence, this is neither unique to him nor to American politics. Jacques Chirac speaks quite good English. Apparently he was a soda-jerker [sic] somewhere on the East Coast in his youth. However, I have not found any reference to him speaking English in public in over a decade. It was even worse with de Gaulle, who spent much of WWII in London and had little difficulty speaking the language, but who would publicly admit to speaking only one foreign language: German.”

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Hang your head in despair 

Language Log on John Kerry’s desperation to hide his fluency in French: “Geoff Nunberg pointed out to me that in Nebraska they once passed a law making it illegal to teach foreign languages in the schools, period. Foreign language learning is now, like sodomy, legal in all states; but these are not freedoms that a politician should brag about taking advantage of. Such is the determined linguistic isolationism of the USA. I would have thought that to have a US president (for once) who could argue fluently and convincingly in the native language of some other head of state would be a fantastic asset. But instead it is perceived as a kind of disloyalty, evidence of being an untrustworthy egghead, and you would lose millions of votes over it. It’s both depressing and amazing.”

For the birds 

During my break last week, among other things I went with my family to the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird’s reserve at Minsmere.

We’re certainly not twitchers, and couldn’t even qualify as minor birdwatchers. Until last Wednesday, I didn’t know you should call binoculars “bins” or the difficulty (near impossibility more like) of actually seeing a bittern.

But I now can understand the appeal of birdwatching. My children were of course delighted to have bins swinging around their necks, but in the hides they were genuinely interested in spotting birds. They were encouraged by the RSPB’s excellent children’s booklet which gave them points (and points mean prizes) for seeing certain birds or other wildlife. We never got the 30 points for a bittern, much less the 50 points for an otter, but we did score 20 for the marsh harrier.

What a thoroughly cleansing tonic after weeks of looking at a computer screen.

The best guidebook ever 

My friend Dave Winer is going to travel around Europe by train. There are many, many recommendations to make, but I told him the one must is to buy the best single-city guidebook I’ve ever encountered.

It’s hard to pin down what makes Andras Torok’s Budapest, A Critical Guide, so completely wonderful. First, I think it’s his intimate, personal tone of voice. Second, it’s his evident love for his city. Third, it’s his opinions. Finally, it’s his subject — one of the world’s great, complex, difficult cities.

Sure, Prague is more beautiful, perhaps Vienna is as well. But I like the strangeness and grittiness of Budapest.

I recommended Torok to my sceptical nieces a few years ago. They ended up spending a whole week in Budapest following Torok’s unerring nose.