Monthly Archives: September 2004

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Were you up for… well, we’ll see 

Tonight being on London time is a definite disadvantage. The presidential debate starts at 2am London time, which will certainly leave me bleary-eyed tomorrow. But such a lot hangs on this 90 minutes that I’ll stay up with the other political obsessives on this side of the ocean (Democrats Abroad is having a debate party tomorrow night, where supporters can watch a recording, but what’s the point of that?).

The Wall Street Journal has unfortunately hidden Christopher Buckley’s pre-debate piece behind its subscriber firewall. An excerpt:

  Whatever else Political Super-Bowl MMIV turns out to be, it is not likely to be the kind of match where attendants have to spread sawdust on the floor to soak up the blood. The Memorandum of Understanding worked out by negotiators for the two parties is 32 pages long. Countries, nations, have come into being with less paperwork. It specifies, among other particulars, that each candidate’s pen and writing paper be submitted for review beforehand. It’s there — I read it twice. For all I know, there’s a clause in there admonishing them not to eat their paste…
  The candidates may only be allowed (pre-screened) writing implements, but they’ll certainly sneak in a few hand grenades in the form of prepared zingers. They aren’t allowed to question each other directly — No, no, no, we can’t have that sort of thing in presidential debates. What do you think this is, Bulgaria? — but they can pose “rhetorical questions.” Thank God all this got worked out beforehand. Imagine the consequences for democracy if they actually spoke to each other.

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Op-ed for the yin, weblog for the yang 

Here’s a very nice interaction between weblog and conventional media. Daniel Drezner has an intelligent op-ed piece in today’s New York Times uncovering the misconceptions around outsourcing and offshoring. He uses his weblog to provide the source footnotes that the Times style won’t allow. He also uses his weblog slightly mischieviously to blow his own trumpet about getting some op-ed real estate.

Why thinking analytically is important 

Brad DeLong waxes indignant and lyrical about the kneejerk response of Slate writer Seth Stevenson to the making of inexpensive coir matting in a village in Kerala, south India. Stevenson reckons we should stop buying India-made coir mats because villagers are being exploited. DeLong explains why this is woefully wrong:

  What are the people who used to sit in their huts and make coir mats doing instead [if we close the market for their mats]? We don’t know. But we do know one thing: Whatever they are doing, they would rather be making coir mats. Those who took up the option of making coir mats did so because it seemed to them to be the best available option. And we — by trying to preserve our moral purity by not becoming polluted by physical contact with the products of Third World labor — have stolen that option from them…
  Think analytically, people. Think hard about opportunity cost–what people’s options are–and how to expand those options, not narrow them. Think not about the first-round effects of actions, but their implications for equilibrium. Only thus do you have a hope of attaining Enlightenment.

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What Kerry should say 

There is such a tremendous volume of weblogging on the US presidential contest that I usually steer clear of the topic, unless I have something new to add. But two posts today particularly caught my attention.

First, Scott Rosenberg urges Kerry to go on the attack at Thursday’s debate. He’s done a good job of writing the speech:

  “Mr. Bush, after 9/11 your job as president was to protect this nation, and you’ve failed. You didn’t bring the World Trade Center attackers to justice. Bin Laden is still on the loose, and the Taliban still operate in Afghanistan. Instead, you led the nation into a war on Iraq on false grounds. You botched the war, and thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died and are still dying because of your mistakes. In a time when America should have been a beacon of justice to Iraq and to the world, you allowed our troops to torture enemy prisoners. Despite all these mistakes, not a single official in your administration has ever taken real responsibility for them.
  I know what responsibility means, Mr. President. Do you? I didn’t ask my daddy to find me a safe berth away from the fighting in Vietnam. I know what it’s like to have people’s lives depend on my split-second calls. I’ve made the choices that won battles and saved troops’ lives. Have you?
  You’re a failure, Mr. President, and the only way this country can get back on track is by putting you on the unemployment line.”

Sadly, everything I’ve seen about the Kerry campaign so far suggests he’ll be reasoned and cautious, and not go for a knock-out blow. That might be the right percentage call, but I’m doubtful it’s the winning strategy.

At the same time, Brad DeLong points to a Washington Post article by Dan Froomkin:

  So here’s my question of the day: How far does this dislike of expressing regret extend? What would Bush do if at Thursday’s debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked him about some of the more serious things that opponents have said went wrong during his presidency? For instance, I wonder:
  • Would he, in retrospect, have prepared differently for the occupation?
  • Does he wish he had issued clearer directives against torture in Iraqi prisons?
  • Would he, in hindsight, have been more skeptical of the WMD intelligence?
  • Does he regret not having heeded that pre-9/11 briefing on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden?

Answers heard we none.

The only stores in town 

About a year ago, Frank Leahy started a weblog about his move from Sausalito in Marin county to Cornwall. He’s recently moved from Cornwall, in the far southwest of England, to Leatherhead, in the nowhere of Surrey, south of London.

But he’s also taken time to reflect on some aspects of the US, particularly after a summer holiday on Cape Cod. I’m not as gloomy as Frank about the future of political discourse in the US, but his essay, The 7-11-ification of Politics in America, merits close attention.

“The same two chains – Republicans and Democrats – are the only two stores in town. There’s no longer a place to have a conversation about what matters in America. All the real conversations have been relegated to the far back corner, if you can even find them at all.”

I’ll trade you three Barros for two Krugmans 

A lot of economics weblogs are pointing to the market in Nobel prize winners in economics for this year, where Robert Barro and Paul Krugman are riding high. In fact, the site offers markets in all the Nobel prizes.

Marginal Revolution provides a well-informed analysis of the runners and riders.

My favourite, currently doing pretty well in the physics market, is Anton Zeilinger. Zeilinger gave a talk in Davos on quantum teleportation that is one of my more memorable Davos sessions.

Gilder stripped bare 

PZ Myers thoroughly defenestrates an ignorant piece by George Gilder on so-called intelligent design in the current issue of Wired. A wonderful, heart-warming read.

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No state, no county 

The eight million of us that live in London may be in an unusual situation. Almost every e-commerce site I know has a required field for state, county, region or province. But London is London. It isn’t in a county (although many sports organisations, like the Lawn Tennis Association, persist in dividing it into Surrey and Middlesex (which, to complicate things further, isn’t even a county anymore)).

So I leave that field blank. All too many sites give me an error message, requiring me to fill in a state or county. So there are lots of databases where my address reads something like London, London. It’s very annoying.

Are we doomed?  

David Weinberger went to a World Economic Forum media industry discussion and reports at length. Essential reading:

  These are smart people and I liked talking with them. They were willing to listen. Some, in fact, even agree to varying degrees. But they are riding beasts that are in agony, and the Internet will be a sticky stain on the bottom of their massive hooves.
  We are doomed.

His own view on the importance of an open Internet isn’t novel, but it’s very well stated:

  BigCon’s product, I said, is special. It’s published. That means it’s given over to the public for us to appropriate it, make it our own. We hum it, we quote it, we make jokes with it as a punchline, we get it wrong. We do that because it matters to us. And that’s how creative works succeed. They become ours in some sense.
  Further, culture advances by our having the leeway to build on published work and incorporate it into other works. From The Star Spangled Banner to most of Disney’s feature length cartoons, that’s what we do.
  So, we need the leeway, both to be able to continue as a culture, and — more important from their point of view — to continue to get value from what the Big Content folks produce. It’s our ability to absorb and reuse that gives their product value.

The Big Picture, seen narrowly 

I enjoy reading Barry Ritholtz’s market commentary on The Big Picture, but pace its title, the focus is sometimes very narrow.

Here’s his read on the election: “Your taxes are going higher, regardless of who wins on Nov. 2. Oil will be expensive. GDP will be modest. While different sectors may do better or worse under each candidate, Greenspan will still be Fed Chief. That matters a whole lot more than who is sitting in the Oval Office…”

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Vital reading on Putin 

The Financial Times’s subscription policy has rarely seemed more foolish to me than today. Martin Wolf’s column on Vladimir Putin and the fight against terrorism is essential reading, but it’s restricted to the handful of subscribers as well as the newspaper readers. At least the FT should have a Wall Street Journal-like policy of putting a few daily highlights on a publicly available site.

Here’s Wolf’s important peroration: “To pity innocent Russian children is right. To embrace the butcher of the Chechens as an ally in the struggle against barbarism is to risk losing our souls, not just the struggle against the Islamists.”

Poll averse 

I have to stop following polls day to day. I think it might be injurious to good health (unlike reading Homer, see below). But today’s news is far, far cheerier than in some time.

Homeric breathing  

Marginal Revolution reports that reading Homer is good for your health (as if I didn’t already know that): “Reciting the Iliad could have epic effects on your health. German physiologists have recently shown that such poetry can get your heart beating in time with your breaths. This synchronization may improve gas exchange in the lungs as well as the body’s sensitivity and responsiveness to blood pressure changes.”

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Time for succinct and lethal responses 

Joe Klein has an interesting column in Time. One powerful jibe: “[White House press secretary] Scott McClellan is beginning to sound like Baghdad Bob, the infamous spokesman for Saddam who announced hallucinatory Iraqi victories as the American troops closed in on Baghdad.”

And a tough judgment on the debates:

  I’ve never seen George Bush lose a debate. He is a brilliant minimalist. Kerry by contrast is all oratorical flab — although he did begin to show some signs of life last week in a solid speech to the National Guard convention, in which he blasted Bush’s “fantasy of spin” about Iraq. It is a powerful fantasy, though. And it is easy to predict Bush’s response to any Kerry criticism about Iraq: “My opponent is too pessimistic,” the President will say. “See, what he doesn’t understand is that the President of the United States has to stand firm. We can’t show weakness. And we won’t on my watch.” Unless Kerry can come off with a succinct, and lethal, response to those vaporous but compelling platitudes, he will lose this election.

The question that dare not speak its name 

Matthew Yglesias ponders whether the Democratic party would be better off with Howard Dean after all. The logic is that a clear anti-war candidate could say, “I will never hesitate to use force — unilaterally when necessary — to defend the United States of America. The Iraq War did not defend America.” But on a Dean candidacy he concludes:

  But could Howard Dean have credibly made such a case? I rather doubt it. Tony Zinni could have done it just fine (the fact that he’s not a Democrat and seems to have all sorts of rightwing views would, of course, have been a stumbling block in securing the nomination), but a former governor of a small New England state surrounded by peacenik camp followers who sat out Vietnam with a bad back? I don’t see it.

The reason such a question is even being asked was summed up by the BBC’s Washington correspondent Matt Frei on the news last night. “You can find millions of Republicans who are wildly enthusiastic about George Bush,” he said. “But I haven’t found one Democrat who is wildly enthusiastic about John Kerry.”

Still, we have to play with the hand we’ve been dealt. My hopes are beginning to feel rather threadbare at the moment, however.

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A journalist who is definitely on the cluetrain 

Charles Arthur, technology editor of The Independent, has a wonderful rant about one-on-one interviews and how useless they are. Worth quoting at length:

  I think that one-on-one interviews are dreary, unless I’ve set them up (which I’ll do because I want some info from a contact). If the company sets it up, they usually have A Message they want to Tell Me. It’s face time with suits, and the PR people love it because it’s the sort of thing they can put in their billing to the client (“achieved 60 minutes exclusive with technology editor of national newspaper”). I hate it because there’s barely ever a story. Just a Corporate Message.
  Guess what? I don’t want to hear that Message. I’d rather you bought an ad in the paper and we met for a coffee and talked sense. More than that, I don’t see why people are put through one-on-ones, which take huge amounts of time, are boring for the client answering the same questions, don’t generate interesting stories, and always leave me thinking that I could have spent the time better surfing and emailing folk and generally interacting rather than being Told A Message.
  Yet companies and PRs that adore one-on-ones run a mile if you suggest a round table of hacks. Why? It’s more efficient: you get six people around a table and that’s six hours’ worth of interviews done in one hour. It’s more interesting: journalists know more as a group than individually, so can follow stories up. And if one writer has to drop out (say because their newsdesk wants them to do a story) it doesn’t mess up your schedule. Quicker, better, cheaper. Choose all three.

100 ways to make money 

Just as I generally disagree with Boris Johnson, I went off Tom Peters as a management thinker some time ago. But I have to admit his weblog makes for good reading. He’s just started a series entitled 100 ways to help you succeed/make money: his promise is that four days a week for 25 weeks he’ll provide one tip.

The Boris Johnson weblog 

I don’t agree with much of his politics, but if he does manage to maintain his blog in the gaps between his several other jobs, the Boris Johnson (MP and editor of The Spectator) weblog should be lots of fun. Here’s his first real entry:

  Hi folks, this is Boris Johnson here. Welcome to my blogsite, where I hope to be blogging for some time to come. You may ask yourself why on earth I am filling the electronic ether with yet more of my stuff, given that I can already be discovered in the pages of the Henley Standard, Daily Telegraph, Spectator etc.
  It is a damn good question.
  The answer is that very persuasive man called Tim has recently been to my office in the Commons. He told he that blogging is the future. He spoke of the online community, and its rapid expansion. He said that newspapers were outmoded.
  He spoke of a new kind of politics. He waved his hands and rolled his eyes. So I have acceded to his advice, and begun to blog.
  Tim tells me that the idea is that I fall out of bed every morning, blazing with inspiration, and thunder out 3000 words on the issue of the hour, so generating a pandemic internet controversy. I am not sure, frankly, that I will manage that. But I hope that there will be some other bloggers out there who may feel moved to give me some advice – not least on the funding of the Arts, to which I am now devoting my meditations.

Eleven rules for reading newspapers  

From the excerpts I’ve read in The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, Andrew Marr’s new book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, will be a very good read. Today, The Guardian provides Marr’s tips for newspaper readers. A very perceptive list by the BBC’s political editor and former editor of The Independent.

Here are his 11 rules, but it’s well worth reading the full analysis behind each of his points:

  1. Know what you’re buying
  2. Follow the names
  3. Register bias
  4. Read the second paragraph; and look for quote marks
  5. If the headline asks a question, try answering “no”
  6. Read small stories and attend to page two
  7. Suspect “research”
  8. Check the calendar
  9. Suspect financial superlatives
  10. Remember that news is cruel
  11. Finally, believe nothing you read about newspaper sales — nothing

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Amateur security is rather nice  

This may be a slightly crazy and even irresponsible thing to say in our age of terrorism, but I feel oddly reassured by the two security lapses in London this week. It’s not that I’m complacent about risks. But I think there are real benefits to living in a society where the first impulse is casual and non-violent rather than shoot first, ask questions later.

A few years ago, when I first had to go to Downing Street, the security consisted of a policeman checking your name was on a list. If it was, you were ushered through the gates and walked to Number Ten. No one checked your bag, no one checked any ID to see that you were in fact the person you claimed to be.

Inside 10 Downing Street, the only additional security was the requirement to leave your mobile phone on the table in the hallway.

This was in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. Of course, a few months later, metal detectors were added to the security, which I’m sure is sensible. Still no one confirmed a visitor’s identity.

When the ridiculous Batman climbed onto Buckingham Palace this week, he wasn’t shot. The Guardian had a picture of a friendly looking paramedic chatting with the masked intruder. The marines at the White House wouldn’t have been so kind. Similarly the official with a sword — no guns anywhere, note — didn’t draw his weapon in the House of Commons yesterday.

No one wants a security breach that results in real harm. But equally it’s good that we have an environment where the root assumption is that no harm is intended.

John Robb’s difficult question  

John Robb: “Inconsistant (fuzzy) goals continue to plague the US occupation. What do we want in Iraq? You pick:

  1. A stable country sans Saddam?
  2. A secular democracy that respects individual (particularly women) rights?
  3. A country that is friendly to the US?
  4. A country open to globalization that may not be a democracy?
  5. A staging ground for US forces in the region?
  6. A honeypot to attract al Qaeda (so they don’t attack the US)?
  7. A demonstration of US military power?
  8. A demonstration of US beneficence?
  9. All of the above or some of the above?”

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Campbell in the control room 

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former communications chief, has visited al-Jazeera and come away with his thinking changed.

“I thought they would be cocky and brash because they had made themselves into the media story of the last decade. In fact, I found them worried about the way they were perceived, and genuinely perplexed by what they saw as a one-dimensional American view of their output. They see themselves as agents of change, but condemned as part of a dangerous status quo. They report anti-Americanism, but deny anti-Americanism is part of their ethos.

“Whether I was lulled or not, the truth is that the station is now a significant media player. It will become more so when the English language service comes on stream. Western politicians should feel free to attack it if they think it deserves it. But there is a case for a more engaged approach. It is no good just complaining that your policy is constantly misrepresented. You have to engage in the task of putting your case, whatever you think of the medium, and you will probably do the job better if you try to understand where the medium is coming from.”

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The Big Lie 

It isn’t just lefties (see below) who recognise the disasters perpetrated by the Bush administration. Francis Fukuyama, a darling of right-wing think tanks, has a devastating piece in today’s Financial Times (subscribers only). His conclusion:

  The Republican convention outrageously lumped the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war into a single, seamless war on terrorism — as if the soldiers fighting Mr Sadr were avenging the destroyers of the twin towers. This has, in fact, become true, but only because mismanagement of the war has created a new Afghanistan inside Iraq. Eliminating this new terrorist haven is an urgent priority if it is not to metastasize to other parts of the world. The Bush administration has made any number of foreign policy errors, particularly over Iraq. If re-elected, it must honestly review what went wrong and consider how best to proceed. But, if Mr Bush is returned with a large mandate in November, the administration will have got away a Big Lie about the war on terrorism and will have little incentive to engage in serious review. If Mr Kerry wins, he needs to get past silly campaign improvisations and elucidate a serious strategy for Iraq.

The wastrel administration 

A worthy sequel to yesterday’s recommended post by Josh Marshall is Scott Rosenberg’s analysis of the behaviour pattern of the Bush presidency: “For all the campaign-biography mythos of a misspent youth redeemed by Jesus and a sober adulthood, George W. Bush is using the presidency to play out his own drama of irresponsibility on a nation-size stage. Once a wastrel, always a wastrel.”

Shakespeare quartos 

The British Library has opened a site that makes available their 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed before England’s theatres were closed in 1642.

You can either read a single quarto or compare two different versions of a play side by side. This is the sort of project long advocated by Raj Reddy in his universal digital library. Now anyone in the world with access to the Net can browse these great treasures that were once reserved for only a few scholars.