Monthly Archives: July 2004

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Kerry’s economic team 

There is an increasing amount being written about the people advising John Kerry on economics. Slate has a pop piece on who could be Kerry’s Bob Rubin, but for the deeper analysis turn to (who else?) Brad DeLong analysing a good piece of reporting by Jonathan Weisman in The Washington Post.

The top line summary from DeLong: “On the economic policy side, Sarah Bianchi and Jason Furman ride herd on a large group eager to elect Kerry including George Akerlof and Lael Brainerd, Harry Holzer and David Cutler, Alan Auerbach and Ceci Rice and Larry Katz. At the top of the economic policy tree are a Magnificent Seven: Bianchi, Roger Altman, Gene Sperling, Alan Blinder, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Bob Rubin, and Jason Furman (in the Yul Brynner role).

“This is a list of names that has to give anyone who knows anything great confidence that Kerry policy will be highly competent.”

Butler report 

I’m listening to the press conference on the Butler report. Butler is pretty tough on the shortcomings of the intelligence, but he is also adamant that the government sincerely believed the intelligence it presented.

Although the journalists in the press conference want him to blame Tony Blair or other Downing Street figures for applying pressure to distort intelligence, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

One comment that was interesting in the global context was Butler’s assertion that British intelligence did not rely on Iraqi exiles (Chalabi and crew) because of the general belief that such sources were unreliable.

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Three theories 

Brad DeLong provides three theories about the Bush administration.

In brief, theory one is that Bush is Head of State and Cheney is Head of Government, and that’s the way presidencies work best (see Ronald Reagan passim). Theory two is the same, but they are both useless at their jobs. Theory three is that the plan was to implement theory one, but Bush really wants to be Head of Government as well.

Brad’s conclusion: “I don’t believe Theory 1 — I don’t believe that the American government has been honestly and competently led over the past 3 1/2 years, whether by Cheney or by somebody else. I don’t have enough information to decide between theories 2 and 3.

“The frustrating thing is that the elite White House press corps does, in all probability, have the information to decide between theories 2 and 3. Yet with a few exceptions (Ron Suskind, I believe, plumps for theory 3), they aren’t saying what they think. They need to find a way to do so.”

Even better views of Saturn 

Saturn rings: Photos of Saturn's rings taken by the Cassini orbiter's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph

The pictures from the Cassini-Huygens mission get more and more startling. The latest series shows Saturn’s rings in ultraviolet. “The red areas in both images indicates sparser ringlets likely made of ‘dirty’, and possibly smaller, particles than in the denser, icier turquoise ringlets.”

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The lure of the slide rule 

The good folks at design group Pentagram have just published a little pamphlet I wrote, The Slide Rule Vanishes. It consists on my reflections on the slide rule, which I learned to use in high school, just as this amazing tool was on the verge of extinction.

Since then, in a rather loose way, I’ve built up a small but reasonably high quality collection of slide rules. So the pamphlet is a personal catalogue, a look at an interesting technology and a meditation on what has been lost.

Here’s my conclusion: “Those of us who love slide rules are by definition not Luddites. It’s the tactile nature of the technology that excites, rather than a revulsion against the technologies that replaced it. There were gains provided by electronic calculators. Our work, lives and society are being dramatically transformed – and I believe generally improved – through near-ubiquitous computing. But there are losses from the slide rule age that are more than nostalgia. It’s better to be a tool user than a tool manager.”

It’s only available in hard copy, partly because it is very beautifully produced. If you’re truly interested in seeing it, drop me a message and availability permitting I’ll send you a copy.

The gift economy is thriving  

If you’re not in the right circles to have a Gmail invite, some clever soul has created Gmail swap. The idea is that you offer something — perhaps some particular skill or just a warm thought — in return for a Gmail invite.

The one thing I thought I could offer is a mention on Davos Newbies. Jeff Greenfield (can it possibly be the journalist Jeff Greenfield?) asked me to have a look at his daughter’s website and discussion board. It’s introduced me to a phenomenon I didn’t know existed: age-appropriate rap/pop music. Ten-year olds are pretty talented these days.

I’ll have to ask my five- and eight-year olds to offer a judgment on Dahv, since I’m clearly not the target market.

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On the other hand 

Steve Bell:

In contrast to Jonathan Glancey (see below), the usually puerile Steve Bell hits the mark for me today. Fortunately, Kerry/Edwards is a lot better than Somebody/Anybody, but it’s true that it would be hard to imagine any combination not being better than Bush/Cheney.


Many, many years ago I shared an office with Jonathan Glancey, and I continue to read his architectural criticism with interest.

But when he strays onto political turf, as The Guardian seems to give him license to do, it makes for very disheartening reading. Today he riffs that the planned Freedom Tower in New York should be renamed.

“Whose freedom? Not, presumably, that of the 11,000 Iraqi citizens killed in the war. Certainly not that of Iraqis abused in Abu Ghraib. Nor that of the two million Americans jailed in a cruel and unusual prison system run as a rapidly growing business enterprise.”

Instead he suggests the Free Enterprise Tower. This kind of cleverness is what gives the left a bad name. I think the idea of a 1,776-ft high tower named freedom is a bit hokey, but I definitely don’t think that building something on the Twin Towers site should be a cue for mindless anti-Americanism.

You do the math 

John Robb: “Another way to look at the effectiveness of our defense spending. Let’s assume that there are only 5,000 hard core terrorists in the world (not a bad assumption). We spend, all in, $700 billion a year on defense/security. That’s $140,000,000 per terrorist. This is a gross simplification, but you get the idea.”

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Grim reading 

UNAids has issued its latest annual report, and it makes for grim reading. “The number of people living with HIV… has risen in every region of the world and last year five million people became newly infected with HIV — more people than any previous year.”

The worst news is the growth of the epidemic in Asia. “This is most evident with sharp increases in HIV infections in China, Indonesia and Viet Nam. An estimated 7.4 million people are living with HIV in the region and 1.1 million people became newly infected last year alone — more than any year before.”

The best design  

Saturn: Composite image of Saturn, Cassini-Huygens mission, June 29, 2004

The excellent Design Observer has an awestruck piece by Michael Bierut about the images of Saturn sent from the Cassini-Huygens mission.

“In an era of beautifully designed simulations, it’s gratifying to be reminded that, every once in a while, reality can still surpass artifice.”

Looks like Edwards 

The New York Times is reporting that Edwards looks like Kerry’s choice today as vice-presidential candidate. Phew! I was getting worried that he would pick Gephardt.

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What future for BBC Online?  

Dave Winer is worried about the future of BBC websites because he read this story on the Graf report: “The BBC has just under four months to redefine the remit for its online services, the government has said.”

Here’s my take on what this means for the future of the BBC sites. There’s no chance the things most people value from the BBC, principally the news sites, will face any changes. The issue is whether a public service like the BBC should be putting resources into sites (and radio stations and TV channels) that would sit perfectly happily in the commercial sphere. Look at the BBC home page and you’ll get a sense of how much they do. Does there really need to be a games site? Gardening help?

I personally think the BBC’s efforts in these areas as well as news have a great public benefit. And I suspect the charter review will reach the same conclusion, with some possible tinkering at the margins to satisfy the hounds of Rupert Murdoch.

Common Sense 

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Brad DeLong provides a timely reminder of Tom Paine’s Common Sense as a July 4th offering. Anyone interested in Paine (and how could you not be) should read John Keane’s wonderful biography of an extraordinary man.

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The Greeks had a word for it 

Andrew Wilson offers a wonderful account of his work on translating Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into ancient Greek. It’s apparently the longest work to be translated into ancient Greek since 400 CE.

“Before getting down to the translation I had to find a style — J K Rowling would not lend herself to the style of Thucydides or Plato or Demosthenes (who had been our main models for prose composition). But there are Greek novels (Charitons’s Callirhoe, Achilles Tatius’ Cleitophon and Leucippe, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Heliodorus’ African Story) all of whom I read, along with the entire works of Lucian — a most entertaining task. Lucian’s humorous tongue-in-cheek approach, together with his fantastical notions such as The True History (which is guaranteed to contain not a single word of truth) soon convinced me that he was the closest writer in ancient Greek to J K R. So Lucian became my model — his Greek, despite his date (3rd century AD) is (almost) pure 5th century BC Attic, which was being recycled the time. But this also gave me an excuse for using vocabulary from post-classical sources, without which it would have been impossible to proceed.”

Thanks to Rogue Semiotics for spotting this.

Great temptation 

I missed this wonderful report from Stuart Hughes earlier this week:

  “This afternoon I attended a news conference by President Bush and Tony Blair — arguably the two most powerful people in the world.
  After passing through the tight security cordon, and waiting for a couple of hours in a holding room at the Hilton hotel Istanbul, I found myself face to face with the two main architects of the war in Iraq.
  The world’s media was watching as President Bush and Mr Blair hailed their success in the war against Saddam Hussein.
  And as I sat there, headphones clamped to my ears and listening to the news conference, the temptation to speak out was overwhelming. What would happen, I wondered, if I removed my artificial leg, waved it in front of Bush and Blair, and proclaimed “See this. This is the outcome of your war. Iraq may have been liberated, but I — and hundreds of others like me — will be burdened with this artificial limb every day for the rest of my life because of the conflict you created.”
  Dozens of cameras were there. An outburst would probably have made front page news around the world. But what would it have achieved, except for a fleeting 15 minutes of fame?
  Without doubt, my career as a journalist would be over.
  The leaders would offer sympathetic words — but little else.
  Call me a sell out, but I bit my tongue — and kept silent.”

It would be comic if it wasn’t so sad 

Here’s a great way to win hearts and minds. Limit media access to the initial hearing of Saddam Hussein to American journalists. Brilliant.

On the BBC news last night, we were treated to the spectacle of ABC’s Peter Jennings, who was allowed in the courtroom, telling us that the judge and Saddam argued, but he couldn’t understand what they were talking about.

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Not all it seems 

Daniel Davies questions the Wal-Mart miracle: “I have no particular animus against Wal-Mart as a corporation, other than that it keeps getting chucked up in my face by consultancy types with phrases like ‘I have seen the future and it works’. But I consider it rather striking that one of the exemplars of the American Economic Miracle also appears to be an exemplar of some of the most important reasons why this kind of economic miracle might not be all that it seems.”