Monthly Archives: October 2004

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The journalist’s role 

I’m late to the party on the debate over the journalist’s role, provoked in part by John Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Having never seen Crossfire, and only seen the Daily Show a couple of times, I didn’t really understand the passions this engendered.

Far more interesting to me was a debate between John Humphries and John Lloyd on BBC Radio 4’s The Message (you can listen to it here — from 19′ into the programme — until, I think, the end of the week). Humphries is famous for his pugnacious interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme, while Lloyd, editor of the Financial Times Magazine, has recently written a book decrying the current state of journalism in Britain.

I found myself siding completely with Humphries. In the brief time he has on his morning news programme, he has an excellent track record of pushing and prodding interviewees to get to the heart of the matter.

Listen to both the Crossfire brouhaha and The Message, and you get a sense as well of the yawning divide in the debate between the US and Britain. In the US, the problem is that journalists aren’t encouraging debate or probing the issues. Here the controversy is whether (some) journalists are being too vigorous about pursuing the issues.

Another reason to have a weblog 

John Martinkus, an Australian seized in Baghdad on Saturday and subsequently released, may have been saved because his captors googled his name to check his story.

I tried it and returned 785 hits for him, which make it clear he’s a journalist. For someone like me with a weblog, there’s even more evidence of identity. Today googling Lance Knobel returns 13,000 hits. Not that I’m planning to go anywhere near harm’s way.

Today’s top news story: vaccines that don’t require refrigeration 

I’d be willing to wager that today’s most significant news has nothing to do with the US presidential election, Iraq or anything else likely to be found on newspaper front pages. No, it’s about a new technique for delivering vaccines that don’t need refrigeration.

BBC: “A new technology developed in the UK could revolutionise vaccine delivery by eliminating the need for refrigeration.”

Why is this important? In much of the developing world, the lack of refrigeration means that many vaccines become unusable because of high temperatures or contamination.

Cambridge Biostability, which developed the new technique, reckons that up to 10 million more children each year can be vaccinated within current budgets.

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Reasoned arguments  

Daniel Drezner is generally to the right of me on quite a number of issues, but that’s what makes his analysis of why he is looking increasingly likely to vote for Kerry so interesting. Read both his original post and his response to his commenters for a demonstration of what thoughtful voters might be considering in this election.

  Bush’s ability to articulate and persuade others of the rightness of his own foreign policy positions is shockingly bad. In the end, all he an say is “trust me.” Well, I don’t trust him anymore.
  Kerry, for all of his flaws, has at least acknowledges that the U.S. is going to have to expand the size of its military to meet the current demands of U.S. foreign policy.

Don’t count your chickens 

Henry Farrell has an enjoyable post on Crooked Timber dissecting The Economist‘s Lexington column. I’ve always been puzzled about why The Economist’s very right-wing stance on so many issues gets a free pass from people impressed by its generally excellent reporting.

If (and let’s hope it’s when, not if) John Kerry wins in two weeks time, I think a lot of current wisdom about Republican ascendency will have to be revised.

Six letters beginning with N 

Clue L from yesterday’s double acrostic in The New York Times (six letters): “Novice, tyro, greenhorn”.

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Don’t believe her 

The Guardian reprints an essay by Carol Gould on the wave of anti-Americanism and anti-semitism sweeping London.

“I have lived in Europe for all of my adult life, and from the day I arrived I have been aware not only of an oft-blatant anti-semitism but also a resentment of Americans among colleagues, teachers, my social circle and neighbours. What is significant about this rage is that it emanates not from the great unwashed but from the educated and intellectual classes.”

I’m an American and a Jew who has lived in London for the last 24 years. I find her account so distorted as to be unrecognisable. There are certainly grains of truth: the anti-zionism of some of the left wing can shade into anti-semitism, and there is a long tradition of a kind of snobby anti-Americanism in some factions of the left and the right.

But to claim this is widespread or endemic to the Guardian-reading class (with whom I spend most of my time) is nonsensical in the extreme.

Chris Bertram’s post on Crooked Timber has extensive comments, many echoing my impressions.

What can they be thinking? 

The New York Times reports that Ralph Nader is emerging as a real threat to a Kerry victory in the presidential election. “Polls show that he could influence the outcomes in nine [states] by drawing support from Mr Kerry.”

I find Nader’s blindness on what he’s doing extraordinary. But even more remarkable to me is the thought that there are countable numbers of people considering going into a polling station in November, looking at the choices, and voting Nader. What can they be thinking?

In 2000, it might have been possible for somewhat deluded people to think there was no significant different between Al Gore and the “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush. After the last four years, how wildly deranged do you have to be not to see the difference it will make to the entire world to be rid of Bush?

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Striking gold at Moe’s 

I made a quick trip between appointments today to one of my all-time favourite bookshops, Moe’s Books in Berkeley.

I went with a particular mission in mind. Two books had been on my acquisition list for some time and I thought Moe’s just might do the trick. Why didn’t I just order them from Amazon? I’ve been trying to restrain my Amazon habit. It’s too easy to just have the books roll in with barely a thought. And bookshops, particularly bookshops like Moe’s, are a wonderful experience. It’s nice to have a reason to visit.

I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that Moe’s is great only if you have a mission. For me, it’s not a great bookshop to browse idly in. There’s just too much, and I get overwhelmed. A mission doesn’t have to be as specific as mine today. It could have been, say, find a book on pre-revolutionary America. And Moe’s would have done me proud, I’m sure.

In the event, it did me proud with my highly specific search. Jonathan Kingdon’s Lowly Origin, about how we went from being four-legged apes to two-legged, upright hominids: found. Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forest, about the role of forests in western thought: found. Two for two. Fantastic.

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Debate to Kerry 

I’ve just finished watching the third presidential debate, which is the first one I’ve seen in real time when I’ve been conscious (watching at three in the morning in London doesn’t count). I think Kerry came out ahead, particularly because of Bush’s outrageous assertion that he never said he was unconcerned about bin Laden. There wasn’t, however, that much in it: I suspect the polls will show the public judged it as a close-run thing.

My dominant reaction, however, is I can’t believe how poor Bob Schieffer’s questions were. First, the majority of them were closed questions, inviting a yes no answer, instead of an open one. Second, his framing of the questions was terrible. Third, a good number of the questions were of marginal relevance to any significant issue. Fourth, he started on a bizarre note with a question about security, when this was supposed to be the different debate.

The other great thing about watching in an alert mood was following some of the active weblogs, notably Daily Kos, as the debate went on. What a great job of constant fact checking and temperature gauging. I did check some of the major right-wing blogs for the same service, but I didn’t think they kept it up as consistently.

Update: I see commenters on Daily Kos are also excoriating Schieffer. No question about energy policy, no question about the environment, no question about stem cells. You could go on and on.

Over the volcano 

The other treat about flying to and from Seattle was getting a reasonably close up view of Mt St Helens. I could clearly see the smoke and ash venting out of the crater.

Dinner overlooking Lake Washington 

After breakfast, I flew up to Seattle to see Linda Stone, a friend since we met on the train to Davos. She was then newly in charge of Microsoft’s relationship with the Forum and I was an old Davos hand. I revealed some of the arcana to her and a friendship was sealed.

Linda is famous, among other things, for being one of the technology world’s great connectors and she organised a wonderful dinner with assorted Seattle folk. We agreed at the start of the dinner that it wasn’t bloggable, but it was a great evening, with lively conversation (I didn’t know people could be so passionate about the monorail project in Seattle), some fabulous geek toys (you have to see the OQO to believe it) and a general suffusion of bonhomie that I’m still feeling even though I only had three hours sleep before I needed to get up to catch my plane back to the Bay Area.

Breakfast in the East Bay sun 

I’ve kept the setting for Davos Newbies on London time, my home base, even though I’m on the US west coast. So I think this week, for the most part, my daily filings will be largely retrospective (at least in terms of the calendar).

I had breakfast yesterday morning with Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired, at Rick & Anne’s a wonderful Berkeley institution.

Chris is in the throes of preparing an issue of the magazine that will focus on energy. Although Chris was once a climate change sceptic (he worked on The Economist for god’s sake — the home of climate change deniers), he’s come around to the belief that this poses one of the key challenges to the world. I can’t wait to see what the magazine comes up with.

Not incidentally, Chris’s own article in the current issue, The Long Tail, is well worth a look. It’s about the opportunities in micro-markets in books, DVDs, music and other media.

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A better day 

Today I feel better. Phew, because I’m seeing lots of interesting people. I’ll see what I can report later.

A Google day 

Highlight of my day, despite my blahs, was a visit to Google. My host, Raymond Nasr, director of communications, is certainly the only person at Google to wear a tie (a bowtie, in fact, which is integral to Raymond’s identity).

I had a tour of the Googleplex, which is filled with some neat technological toys. The oft-remarked display of Google queries from around the world at reception is topped by the extraordinary representation of the earth, with each Google query — colour-coded by language — streaming into space.

A day of the blahs 

About once a year, I have 24 hours of the blahs. Not quite a cold, not quite the flu, but a day when I’m just not firing on all cylinders.

Unfortunately, yesterday was my blah day. It’s unfortunate, because it also the first day of an action-packed week on the west coast. I think most of the people I saw yesterday didn’t really know I was under the weather, but I suspect they also weren’t overwhelmed by the amount of energy I displayed.

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An election echo from Australia 

The Road to Surfdom: “Honestly, do you want to wake up on Sunday morning resigned to another three years of the perpetual dullness of the clotted mind or would you prefer to be looking forward to what the future might hold as Latham and Costello battle it out?”

I think there are numerous reasons why Bush should be turfed out of the White House in November (“Where do I start?”), but I think the Kerry-Edwards campaign has really hit a winning line with the constant emphasis of re-election meaning more of the same. Change is good, change is needed.

It matters less for the world, but I sure hope a majority of Australians vote to get rid of the really nasty John Howard.

Nobel prizewinners and mooning reindeer 

I think I can guarantee that Elfriede Jelinek is the first Nobel prizewinner to have a reindeer showing its bottom to the world.

From Fleet Street to Bangalore 

BBC News: News and information provider Reuters has said it plans to make Bangalore its biggest information-gathering hub. The southern Indian city will employ 1,500 staff – or 10% of Reuters’ total workforce — the UK-based company said. The majority of the staff will be data and technical employees, but Reuters said it planned to employ up to 40 journalists in its Bangalore newsroom.

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Honest in the Russian government 

It will be interesting to see how much longer Andrei Illarianov remains Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser. In an interview in today’s Financial Times, Illarianov baldly states:

“The quality of economic policy has got worse. In 1999 and 2000 economic policy made a positive contribution to economic growth. The best economic policy was pursued in 1999. Since 2001, it has made a negative contribution to GDP growth.”

I’ve taken the tablet plunge  

After humming and hawing for a heck of a long time, I finally took the plunge and bought a Tablet PC. I suppose it’s partly technophilia, but there were two serious reasons why I bought my Toshiba M200.

First, my existing laptop was woefully, woefully out of date. It wasn’t powerful enough to run Radio UserLand, which I use to write Davos Newbies. And I’ve recently started using Groove to collaborate with some people in different countries — I couldn’t do that either with my six-year old Vaio.

Second, although I’m hugely keyboard friendly, I’ve also always been an avid notetaker. After trying a Tablet, and seeing how incredibly good the handwriting recognition is, I thought this would be the way forward for me: keyboard and the ability to take handwritten notes all in one machine. I’ll try to report on what I see the pros and cons over the coming weeks.

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Can’t clever people find better uses of their time? 

Sometimes technology can be too clever. Today’s Financial Times has (behind its firewall) an article on technology designed for lying:

  A week earlier he had downloaded a piece of software that runs on Nokia mobile phones. Now, whenever he receives or places a call, a window pops up asking whether he would like a sound to play in the background during the call. There are nine sounds, ranging from the useful, such as traffic or heavy machinery, to the more bucolic, such as birdsong or a thunderstorm.
  “They sound very genuine and they give you the potential to pretend you’re in a different place,” says Liviu Tofan, founder of German company Simedia, which developed the software. “We also give you a function which plays a telephone ring after 15 or 30 seconds, so you can say you need to get another call.”
  Mr Tofan says that the application was originally written “more for fun and as a technical challenge than anything else”. Since its launch in February, however, it has been a runaway success. Simedia now has distribution partners in both the US and China and a new cross-platform version of the software planned soon.
  The company is well aware of the uses to which its products might be put. “Certainly,” says Mr Tofan, “people do use it to give plausibility to their excuses – both for work and in relationships.”

Here’s someone who really knows about Iraqi sovereign debt (unlike Cheney) 

I’ve been reading a lot of blog fact-checking on last night’s vice-presidential debate. Most have focused on Cheney’s lies about meeting Edwards, his past statements on the (non-existent) links between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the definition of “coalition” forces.

Felix Salmon, however, hits on something I haven’t seen picked up. Felix methodically unpicks Cheney’s response about the cost of the war, in which he refers to Iraq’s debts. Here’s Felix:

  Now it just so happens that the one thing I really do know about is Iraq’s sovereign debt: I just wrote a 6,600-word cover story on the subject for the September issue of EuromoneyÂ…
  Cheney then points out, correctly, that the cost of the war in Iraq so far is $120 billion, not $200 billion. On the other hand, the total projected cost of the war in Iraq has actually reached $200 billion. You pays yer billions and you takes yer choice, I suppose. Cheney then decides to compare the $120 billion figure with $95 billion that he says “the allies” are giving as their “overall contribution”. And that’s where he starts moving into the realm of complete and utter fantasy.
  Cheney’s $14 billion figure I have no idea about: it’s not footnoted on the official Bush-Cheney debate facts page, and I haven’t been able to Google it. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t. But the $80 billion figure is just crazy. Here are the facts.
  Firstly, “the allies”, as that term is generally understood, can’t possibly reduce Iraq’s debt by “nearly $80 billion”, because they don’t even have that much in Iraqi debt. The US is owed about $4.4 billion, the UK is owed less than $2 billion, and all of eastern Europe combined is owed maybe $6 billion – mostly to countries like Bulgaria, who weren’t part of the coalition in the first place.
  Secondly, no one’s “stepped forward and agreed” anything. Some of Iraq’s major creditors, including France and Russia, have paid lip service to the principle of reducing Iraq’s debt, promising a “substantial reduction” or suchlike when Iraq goes to the Paris Club of bilateral creditors later this year. In the world of debt restructuring, a “substantial reduction” can mean anything from 35% to 95%. Indeed, if there was any kind of agreement, Cheney wouldn’t need to be citing estimates: he could just cite the agreement. But there is none.
  Thirdly, there are certainly people out there who think that Iraq’s debt will be reduced by $80 billion. But that’s all in the future: it hasn’t happened yet. Cheney’s verb tense (“have agreed”) is unambiguous: he’s saying this has already happened. It hasn’t. The talks haven’t even started yet. Even if a Paris Club agreement is concluded by the end of this year (a very big if), the Paris Club in total accounts for less than $42 billion of Iraq’s foreign debt. And it doesn’t take a former CEO to know that you can’t reduce $42 billion of debt by $80 billion.

As he concludes, “Any questions about Iraq’s sovereign debt — just ask. I’m your man.”

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Here’s what honesty gets you on the Wall Street Journal 

The reporter who wrote the striking email about conditions in Iraq has been shunted aside by her editors. Laura Rozen comments: “What a way for the newspaper that employed Daniel Pearl to honor the brave. Honestly, if I had a subscription, I would cancel it.”

Scientific explanation 

Steve Sailer has written a very interesting account of ethnic nepotism as an explanation of the fierce resistance to foreign occupiers in Iraq — and many other phenomena. It all derives from the great WD Hamilton.

Get angry, get even 

One of the best angry critiques of a terrible user interface I’ve seen is Tom Coates’s deconstruction of the London bus ticket machine. I knew that I couldn’t be the only person to be terminally frustrated with these beasts. The post is also an excellent demonstration of some of the capabilities of Flickr.