Monthly Archives: July 2004

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We’re all going on a summer holiday 

August: My fortunate month: Aldeburgh, Berkeley, Donner Lake, the Giants, Hayman Island

Unless something very unexpected happens, I’m signing off my computer and Davos Newbies for the entire month of August. You can see above where I’ll be through the month: first during three weeks of family holidays, then off to a conference in Australia. Should be wonderful.

Regular service will resume in September.

Policy-free 

Krugman is completely on target in his analysis of media coverage of politics: “Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates’ policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry’s haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush’s brush-cutting, not his environmental policies.”

Security 101 and the DNC 

Dave Winer passes this titbit on from Daily Kos, about delegates taking passes out of the Fleet Center and coming in with a new crowd of people.

Here’s Channel 4′s John Snow on it in his daily Snowmail:

  Must mention the security here, impressive perimeter stuff, good searching, magnetometers etc. But completely blown by the personal passes that allow you in here. No individual identification whatever. The passes are passed about like confetti. I’ve even seen people trading them for tickets to various events like James Taylor at the Boston Pops. In other words no one in the world knows exactly who everyone in this place is. Easy prey for anyone who wished the event ill. Post 9/11 America could still learn so much from the Brits and their protective methodology against the IRA.

Even 12 years ago, no one got into the conference centre in Davos without a photo pass that was scrutinised by the guards. Get with the programme America.

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How does it feel? 

Dan Bricklin writes about what weblogs can do covering a convention (and other big events) that traditional media generally don’t. The crucial insight for me:

  It seems that the traditional media has turned into distinguishing itself with exclusive stories and reports that are pasteurized with the emotion taken out. Politics is about hope. Hope for a better world through government and its members or despite government or despite big business, or whatever. In any case, it’s about conveying (or selling) hope for the future. Hope is emotional, and as Jerome Groopman writes, a very important thing to being human. The press has moved to reporting facts about what happened around the event, on what it “means” (to whom?), and a “delta” difference from expectations (whose?). For many events, you really want to know how it feels. Political conventions today are about transmitting a feeling and the press tries to filter that out, leaving something strange and unnatural. You wonder how the traditional press would cover the Grand Canyon. You know what it’s like before you get there, it hasn’t changed much, but, oh my, is it emotional when you look out at it. They’d say “the temperature is running 2 degrees lower than normal this year”: Factual, unbiased, unhelpful in many cases, helpful in others. They serve a purpose here with the convention, of course, though I find C-SPAN with it’s simple gavel-to-gavel coverage just as “unbiased” and helpful as the more sophisticated productions. There’s no way bloggers could cover this all. But something is missing without them. Bloggers are allowed (and encouraged) to give you the feelings, too, so they add an important element.

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Kerry’s foreign policy  

Wow. If you want to see the value of having bloggers at the convention, read Laura Rozen’s lengthy review of the potential shape of Kerry’s foreign policy. I doubt any NY Times or WaPo analysis will be as thorough.

Poisoned chalice?  

Kevin Drum wonders whether the next presidency — whoever wins — will be a poisoned chalice. The economy will be hampered by huge deficits, and it’s hard to see an optimistic path out of the mire in Iraq.

My feeling, however, is, “So what?” A good president will always need to tackle difficult problems. If Mark Schmitt is right, maybe this is just the kind of inheritance Kerry needs to show his stuff. I certainly wouldn’t be swayed for an instance by the idea that it’s Bush’s mess and he should have to clean it up.

On Obama 

As predicted a few weeks back on Davos Newbies, Barack Obama is clearly the coming thing in Democratic politics. Excellent reviews of his keynote to the DNC here, here and here.

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Economic crossword clue 

A rare appearance of economics in a crossword. From today’s Guardian: “The deficit say between Dixieland and a piano (5,3)”.

Answer at bottom of today’s postings, with an explanation for those not used to cryptic crosswords.

Acton’s top 100 

A friend has pointed me to a listing of Lord Acton’s hundred best books.

I reckon there are only six books on it that would make a contemporary list. What is interesting, however, is the heavy representation of German political and religious theorists and nearly as many French writers (both in the original, of course). It would be hard to think of any modern Anglo-Saxon politician who had such a thorough grounding in continental thought.

Just rub your hands with glee 

While good things are happening in Boston, here in the UK the Conservative party is once again tearing itself apart.

My trusty guide to UK politics, British Spin, is uncharacteristically tongue-tied: “I wanted to produce a sophisticated, nuanced analysis of the malaise affecting the Conservative party, but after I came up with the mental image of headless turkeys voting for Christmas I couldn’t think of anything else to say.”

I’m just enjoying myself.

Technique v politics 

Jay Rosen, in a long pre-convention omnibus post, makes a telling point about what passes for political discussion in the media:

  I was watching Washington Week Friday night, which this week was broadcast from the Institute of Politics at Harvard. Gwen Ifill, the host; Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Richard Berke of the New York Times and Susan Feeney of NPR, were giving a “convention preview.” Mostly what they meant by this is taking turns at answering the question: what does Kerry have to do at this convention to come out with a win?
  I listened to each of them make their points, which basically meant naming some areas where polls showed soft support, and then turning that into something Kerry “has to do” at the convention. “He’s has to show that…” “He’s got to appeal to…” “He has to get over the hump with…” It’s a discourse anyone who follows politics will recognize.
  Now if four political consultants were sitting around having a conversation about the upcoming convention, they would ask the same kind of question and give the same kind of answers, and cite the same kind of polls, and strike the same tone. To me there is something strange–and very screwed up– about that. And it was accompanied by a strange emotion: I was embarrassed for Harvard that it would host such a discussion, bring students to it, and call it “talking politics.” It isn’t politics. It is just technique.

Crossword answer: trade gap. Dixieland is trad jazz, eg (exempli gratia) is “say”, and a piano is ap.

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Game theory: applied to both the Tour de France and the EU 

It’s an interesting day for game theorists. Two Polish academics, Karol Zyczkowski and Wojciech Slomczynski, reckon the EU voting systems disadvantage mid-sized countries (via Mahalanobis). And Marginal Revolution reports on Lance Armstrong’s use of game theory in winning the Tour de France.

(Personal note: Lance Armstrong’s well-deserved fame keeps knocking me on to the second page of Google searches for “lance”. I’ll have to put up with that for some years to come, I reckon.)

Weblogs at the DNC 

Jim Moore has a cogent critique of The New York Times’s angle on bloggers at the Democratic convention.

“Here is a story she missed: The convention bloggers include a number of really thoughful people, from political analyst and blog activist Matt Gross, to grassroots genius Zephyr Teachout, to techno-social-visionaries like Dave Winer and Dave Weinberger. These people will be reflecting on politics and political culture in ways never heard beforeĀ…

“Another story she missed: Any person who is attending the convention can also be a blogger. Thus there may be hundreds and hundreds of non-official bloggers who will be blogging the convention, and who will be heard because they are in a shared RSS-based electronic community that incorporates in real time the unofficial bloggers, the official bloggers, and a wide world of political bloggers who are not physically at the convention but will be reading feeds and commenting on what those at the site are writing.

“She doesn’t understand that the blogosphere is a densely linked ecosystem of conversationalists–not a few freaks with web sites. Feeds and aggregators and specialized search sites like Feedster, plus intense human relationships and an ethos of discourse (electronic Talmud?) enable this diverse, fast-moving ecosystem.”

Far more useful to me, in any case, was The Wall Street Journal’s roundup of some of the DNC bloggers. It introduced me to a number of interesting sites I hadn’t encountered before.

Understanding Darfur 

The best explanation I’ve read of events in Darfur, and a possible solution, was by Alex de Waal, director of Justice Africa, in yesterday’s Observer. Like all the best analyses, it defies simplification. Read it if you want to understand what’s going on.

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John Kerry and Davos man  

From Dave Winer today: “If a substantial number of Americans had a vision for this country, we would have a Roosevelt, a Truman or even an Eisenhower or Johnson to choose from. Could Kerry be that? I really don’t think so. I got the idea when I saw him at Davos in Y2K, standing around schmoozing. Everything he says is so World Economic Forum. We’re voting for Klaus Schwab when we vote for Kerry.”

Would that be so bad? I agree with Dave that there doesn’t seem to be a Roosevelt, Truman or Johnson around (I wouldn’t place Eisenhower in that kind of company). But what my observations of Kerry in the unusual milieu of Davos indicate is that he is a man with his heart in the right place (like Klaus Schwab). There are issues I could argue with him, he doesn’t make my heart leap, but I think both America and the world would be far better for having a Davos man in the White House.

What does that imply? First, an understanding of the complexity of the world. Second, an intellectual engagement with the difficult issues that confront leaders. Third, an interest in listening to other viewpoints. Three qualifications that president Bush lacks, and three qualifications that Kerry has.

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Late train in Switzerland shock 

Harry Lime: Orson Welles as the sinister and utterly compelling Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man

I was working in Switzerland over the last two days. Everything went predictably smoothly until it came time to get the train back to Geneva Airport.

Switzerland has overcome Harry Lime‘s jibe that “In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what did that produce — the cuckoo clock!” To his list you can also add an extremely efficient train network that always runs on time.

Or so I thought. In the taxi to the station in Vevey, I thought I’d missed the direct train at 15.46 and would have to settle for the 16.07 with a change at Lausanne. I arrived at the station at 15.55, looked at the departure board and thought, “What luck! The 15.46 hasn’t left.”

Running to the platform, the indicator board had a notice saying the train was running 10 minutes late. Phew. I was slightly surprised, I have to say, that they had an existing message to that effect.

Ten minutes later, the board still insisted the train would be 10 minutes late, even though it was now more than 20 minutes late. Finally, an announcement informed passengers that the train would be 30 minutes late. No apology, no explanation. I heard a few grumbles on the platform, but nothing more.

The half hour marked passed. Still no train (and no others trains — I never found out what became of the 16.07). And no further announcement. A bit later, the board switched to saying the train would be 45 minutes late, but no announcement was made. Finally, 56 minutes late, the train arrived. No apologetic announcement was made on the platform or in the train.

Worse was to come. Shortly before the train arrived in Lausanne, an announcement was made that the train would terminate there and passengers for Geneva and the airport would need to change. Again no apology or explanation.

Fortunately, I arrived in plenty of time for my flight. Some other passengers were not so lucky. What was interesting to me wasn’t only the surprise of a completely messed up train journey in Switzerland. It was the railway’s utter incomprehension of how to deal with it. The much-criticised British railways have gained vastly more experience in dealing with late-running and cancelled trains. Station announcers and train drivers know that nothing infuriates people more than a lack of information. So, even when the information is what you don’t want to hear (“The 17.40 train for Beckenham Junction has been cancelled because the driver didn’t show up”), they let you know.

The Swiss railways are the only ones in the world that sell watches and clocks in their characteristic design. They should look to their laurels.

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Days away 

I’m out on assignment for the next couple of days, so I will not be posting to Davos Newbies.

The next six weeks or so will be very sparse, in fact, as family holidays are looming, with travel to places hither and yon.

Weekend political reading 

The most interesting political reading this weekend was in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph (I buy it for the features, honest). Fogey Charles Moore offered an opinion piece on how another term as PM is Blair’s for the taking, and the paper’s main leader was on how hopeless the Tories are.

From the Torygraph this was stern stuff. And completely accurate.

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Contrasts 

A friend alerted me to an op-ed piece in today’s Washington Post by my former congressman, Abner Mikva. It’s a characteristically lucid indictment about the Bush administration’s abuse of executive power.

But before I found the article I was brooding over my friend’s message, which referred only to “your former congressman”. “Oh no,” I thought, “what idiocy has Donald Rumsfeld come up with now?”

Because along with other natives of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs, I have the distinction of having had both the egregious Rumsfeld (with whom I also share an alma mater, sadly) and the wonderful Mikva as a congressman. At the time, the shift seemed the natural order of things to me, but now I’m puzzled at what demographic shift (or was there a redistricting?) could have occurred to move us from Don to Ab.

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Vote Obama 

I cast my absentee ballot in Illinois, which generally means there isn’t much suspense about what might vote could do. But in addition to voting for Kerry/Edwards this year, I couldn’t be happier than casting a vote for Barack Obama.

His life story is inspiring, he seems to be in the right place on just about every policy I can think of, and he has bags of charisma. Certainly the coming thing in Democratic politics.

And, as his weblog says, he has the honour of giving a keynote at the Democratic National Convention.

Imagining the future of the college 

Timothy Burke has a lengthy, fascinating plan for a 21st Century College. I’d have enjoyed four years of the kind of education he describes. Highly recommended to anyone interested in higher education. Via Crooked Timber.

The unprepared military 

It’s been amply reported that the US military is short of Arabic speakers, but Mark Liberman notes that the problem is deeper than that.

From Language Log: “I’ve heard that DLI [Defense Language Institute] used to teach a number of modern Arabic languages (often called ‘colloquials’ or ‘dialects’), but stopped some time ago because the military’s personnel system couldn’t deal with the distinctions. As far as the personnel system was concerned, Arabic is Arabic; but sending someone trained in Moroccan Arabic to (say) Kuwait is like sending a Portuguese speaker to Romania.So DLI decided to stick with MSA [Modern Standard Arabic], which is the language of formal discourse throughout the Arab world, though it’s no one’s native language. I don’t know whether this is the reason, but it’s certainly true right now that DLI teaches MSA rather than the local languages.”