Monthly Archives: April 2005

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On Blair 

If I had a vote in Britain, I would happily vote Labour next Thursday. I don’t have a vote, because even after 27 years I remain solely an American citizen. I find the idea of monarchy so repellent that I refuse — even though it would mean faster queues at the airport — to become a subject of the queen.

But’s that’s neither here nor there. I know a lot of people who have turned very much against Tony Blair, because of his actions over Iraq and because of his perceived untruthfulness.

I disagreed with Blair on Iraq. I’m glad Saddam is gone and I think there may be a chance for a better Iraq to emerge out of the post-war ruins. But the hurdle for war needs to be set very high, and it was never satisfied for me.

But do I feel Blair was a liar over the war? No, I don’t. I think he did believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, as did many analysts at the time.

Tomorrow’s Guardian has an exclusive that the attorney general told the prime minister that the war might be illegal. That doesn’t shake me.

Blair has consistently said that he needed to make a decision, and he is comfortable with the decision he made. Lawyers offer advice on all sorts of things, whether you are in government or in business. It’s only advice, to be heeded or discarded. If the lawyers wanted an executive role, they wouldn’t be lawyers any more.

Why vote Labour? I’m a progressive, and the achievements of the Labour government over two terms have undoubtedly been progressive and good for Britain. There’s more investment in education and health, and certainly at the level I can witness every day — primary schools in inner London — there has been a profound, positive difference.

The economy is strong and stable. There’s been real progress made on tackling child poverty. Britain’s foreign aid has soared, directed overwhelmingly to the most needy countries (the stingy amount the US gives in foreign aid is still largely given for political reasons — think Israel, Egypt and Colombia, the three biggest recipients).

An issue I care a lot about, support for science, has been given particular attention by the Labour government. Not only has funding soared, but the government has a positive attitude about the potential and importance of fundamental research.

Fortunately, it’s clear that Labour will win another term, and I think they will have a sufficient majority to make a fourth term in 2009 very likely. There’s a long way to go in turning Britain into a more tolerant, egalitarian society, and more years of Labour are the best way to get there — whether the prime minister is Blair or Brown. Other countries should envy the quality of leaders the Labour party is providing for Britain.

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Sun’s Schwartz on quality over quantity 

The Financial Times has caught on to corporate blogs in a big way.

Sun’s president Jonathan Schwartz is interviewed today (subscribers only):

  I am much more interested in quality than quantity. When I go to a Wall Street analysts’ event and ask, ‘Which of you reads my blog?’ half the room raises its hand. I would rather have those 50 than 500,000 people from Slashdot [a technology community site] who want to comment on my haircut or my wardrobe.

The world’s worst airport bookstores 

I’m sitting in San Francisco airport waiting to board my flight home — back to London, which is still home for about 10 more weeks.

The international terminal in San Francisco is a very nice building, with decent amenities. But it must have the worst — truly the worst — bookstores in the world (for any place with pretensions to any culture).

I have a few things to read, but I thought I’d buy something else for the 10-hour flight. Nothing. Nada. Nichevo. They have every novel by John Grisham, everything by James Patterson, everything by Tom Clancy.

I didn’t see a single book, however, that didn’t have gold or silver raised lettering on the cover. There wasn’t even anything that could count as superior schlock.

I think this is both scandalous and a huge, missed marketing opportunity. Most terminals at both Heathrow and Gatwick in London have proper bookshops. I can recall a decent outlet in one of the terminals at Chicago O’Hare. Changi Airport in Singapore — an entire country that doesn’t have one decent bookstore — has an okay selection. I can’t believe the shelf space in SFO is more valuable than those places. They could surely afford one metre of Penguin classics. Or how about a shelf of passable technology books in an airport where you look out the windows and stare at Silicon Valley?

Labout a sure thing 

Jackie Ashley: “Short of Tony Blair going on live television and telling the nation that he intends to bring in compulsory euthanasia for the widows of war veterans to make more space for Algerian asylum seekers, Labour cannot be beaten.”

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Another papal choice 

Preposterous Universe: “My goodness. They’ve elected Larry Summers as Pope.”

Aids in India 

I could care less about the white smoke in Rome. The most significant story I read today is about India replacing South Africa as the country with the highest number of people living with Aids or HIV.

Richard Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids: “The epidemic [in India] is growing very rapidly. It is out of control. There is nothing happening in India today that is big or serious enough to prevent it.”

Good move 

As someone who spends a useful amount of my day either Skyping or Skype Outing, Lenn Pryor’s move from Microsoft to Skype makes a lot of sense. My plane heading from London to Berkeley may cross in midair with Lenn’s moving from LA to London.

Google Maps UK not quite there yet 

The wonderful Google Maps has now expanded to Britain. Sadly it’s missing the wonderful satellite option (I find Google Sightseeing completely addictive), but there are some deeper problems on a quick inspection.

I typed in my London address — number, street and full post code — and it returned “did not match any locations”. Add the city, London, and still the same result.

It only worked when I deleted my house number. So it can find my street, but it’s befuddled by a street address, at least for a certain inner London district. Not very good yet.

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I wish my Greek was better (and as for my Latin…) 

I’ve only just come across the wonderful Sauvage Noble. Highly recommended. Through it I’ve also come across the Ancient Library. Great stuff.

The Ancient Library, in turn, led me to the Wiki Classical Dictionary. It’s at a very early stage: there’s no entry, for example, on Homer. But I wonder whether the world is served by balkanizing the Wikipedia? Why not contribute these wonderful classical entries to the mother ship? A few random checks suggests to me that the Wikipedia is already doing pretty well on the classics.

Steer clear of Freakonomics 

I eagerly bought my copy of Freakonomics by Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner on the day it came out this week. I’m not the only one: it’s number two on today.

Freakonomics looks at the work of economist Leavitt and others who are examining interesting, real world problems like how many sumo wrestlers cheat, why crack dealers live with their mothers and the relationship between the ’90s decline in crime and Roe v Wade.

That sounds great, and it’s unquestionably true that there are good stories in these examples. But the book is poorly written, with none of the nuance of Malcolm Gladwell (who blurbs Freakonomics on the back cover). The writing is dumbed down to extremes and the cases seemed to me to be heavily padded. Even with that, it barely reaches 200 pages.

Freakonomics grew out of a New York Times Magazine article, and I’m afraid the result shows that some articles don’t deserve to be expanded into books. Leavitt is doing wonderful work, but there wasn’t enough meat in the book for me.

If you want a different view, my favorite economist blogger says it’s “highly, highly recommended”.

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Ask why 

I watched a preview of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room tonight.

I’ll get to the film in a minute, but for me the most interesting aspect of this was that the company hired to promote the film, Special Ops Media, have specifically targeted webloggers as an audience for the previews. Even little ol’ Davos Newbies.

I think we’ll see a lot more of this kind of intelligent targeting in future (even if it won’t necessarily regularly include me). Bloggers can be articulate enthusiasts, and they can motivate a much larger circle of other bloggers and readers. Clever marketing.

What about the film? Most of the material is familiar to anyone who has been reading the business press over the last few years. But seeing — and particularly hearing — the detail of Enron’s effrontery and bluster is another experience entirely.

The film is dotted with clips from Enron’s own corporate meetings, and in one memorable scene a spoof film that CEO Jeff Skilling participated in. It’s not believable that these executives didn’t realize exactly what was going on.

As another blogger has pointed out, the most startling passages are the tapes of Enron traders talking boastfully of how they were fleecing California out of billions of dollars during the confected energy crisis of spring 2001.

If you consume business stories the way I do, you’ll unquestionably enjoy the documentary. But I watched the film with two others who were split. One agreed with me, feeling the detail made for an absorbing film. The other, however, reckoned — with regret — that Enron is an old story, and no one will be interested in hearing about it now. Given the scale of the fraud and collapse, that’s a sad commentary on the lack of memory and perspective today. But Enron’s collapse less than four years ago does seem a very long way back.

Batting .333 isn’t too bad 

Tyler Cowan is right on two out of six points. I don’t have any evidence for that either.

The BBC does the right podcasts for me 

Well, this will make moving to California a lot easier. But why only the 8.10 interview on Today — I need the whole program(me) to get through the day.

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Another must-have Web resource 

If you have any interest in what’s happening economically in the world, have a look at the Roubini Global Economics Monitor. A fabulous resource (even if the user interface is a bit gimmicky — and still in beta, so some links are still not functioning).

Humour works, even in politics 

I think the thing I’ll miss most about Britain when I complete my move to Berkeley this summer is the humour applied even to very serious events.

Last year, I received hundreds of emails from Howard Dean, John Kerry et al encouraging me to support the Democratic campaign. I never saw anything like John O’Farrell’s plea to give to the Labour party campaign.

  £1 could pay for a carefully targeted mail shot to a Mr Michael Howard of Westminster.
  £10 could pay for a pile of leaflets for you to leave by your front door (before finally posting one at your ward organiser’s house to make him think you’d delivered the lot).
  £100 could pay towards a Labour poster and we’ll try not to put Michael Howard’s face near where you live.
  £10,000 is frankly more than you are going to give, so I don’t know why we put this here.

Apparently it raised £50,000, which may not sound a lot in the context of American political campaigns, but in Britain is an enormous amount.

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Call in the men in the white coats 

For all of its political bias, I sometimes think the Telegraph is a good newspaper. And then they print the completely loony ravings of Peter Oborne.

Tony and Gordon’s fireside chat 

Political junkie that I am, I sat this evening, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and watched today’s Labour party political broadcast (direct link to the Windows Media version. You can find other versions here). It’s easy to mock Anthony Minghella’s artfully shot conversation between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Minghella’s technique of coming in and out of focus, of closing in on Brown or Blair and then panning across a table with a prominent bottle of Highland Spring mineral water (was there a product placement fee?) was occasionally annoying. The continuity was also jarring. Although the audio suggested a single conversation, there were two different venues and sometimes Blair was wearing a tie, others he was open-necked.

The BBC election blog reckons it’s an updated fireside chat, which might be right. But what’s wrong with that?

I thought that overall it hit most of the right chords that remind people of how steady and substantial the domestic achievements of the government have been. Of course it skates over the tensions in the relationship between the two men, which is hardly a surprise. What was good is that it was positive and constructive. I’ve heard that the Labour party’s research reckons that every time a voter sees a picture of Conservative leader Michael Howard, Labour’s positives go up. But there was no trashing of the opposition in the broadcast — just singing a good Labour tune.

It looks like tomorrow’s Tory broadcast is going to take a different, let’s-frighten-the-voters line.

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Embargo cults 

I wonder how much longer the system of media embargos can survive.

Many organisations allow accredited journalists (whatever that means) access to information or reports in advance of its release, so they can write an informed article, rather than rushing something out the door. I used to get reports from the World Bank, IMF, the UN and the OECD under these terms, which as a magazine editor — with deadlines well before when the publication actually appeared — was very useful.

In the rougher world of government and politics, I don’t think embargos persist in many places. Certainly when the UK government issues an important report, journalists have to quickly grab their copy and scan it for headlines. In most cases, release is simultaneous on the Internet.

The World Bank’s embargo policy is in the news today because of a kerfuffle with the Financial Times. The bank accused the FT of violating its embargo on the global development finance report by publishing a one paragraph preview on Monday, ahead of the Tuesday release.

Yesterday, the bank announced the FT would be barred from accessing its Online Media Briefing Center for six months. This may have been a correct application of the rules, but it would have harmed both the FT and the World Bank. I don’t think any media outlet treats the bank’s publications with the attention and care of the FT.

Oops. It turns out the World Bank had violated its own embargo and today rescinded its ban on the FT.

I like the idea that embargos allow those who wish to read complex material, digest it and write something considered. But with the number of potential outlets for information increasing daily, I suspect it’s an idea who’s time has passed. Release things to everyone at the same time, and those who want to rush out the news will do that. Those who want to write something more thoughtful have the time and space to do that. More democratic, more sensible.

Cruelty and hypocrisy at the Vatican 

Polly Toynbee is wonderful:

  The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy. It has weak temporal power, so George Bush can safely pray at the corpse of the man who criticised the Iraq war and capital punishment; it simply didn’t matter as the Pope never made a serious issue of it or ordered the US church to take strong action.
  The Vatican’s deeper power is in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees. With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms — this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.
  This is said often, even in this unctuous week — and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost. How dare our prime minister go there in our name to give the Vatican our approval for this? Will he think of Africa when on his knees today? I trust history will some day express astonishment at moral outrage wasted on sexual trivia while papal celebrity and charisma cloaked this great Vatican crime.

A bonus link from The Guardian: Jonathan Steele clears up the history of the pope’s minor contribution to the fall of communism.

  After prolonged negotiations with the regime, he made a second visit to Poland in 1983. Although martial law was lifted a month later, many Solidarity activists remained in jail for years. The government sat down to negotiate with Solidarity again only in August 1988, by which time Mikhail Gorbachev had already launched the drive towards pluralistic politics in the USSR itself and publicly promised no more Soviet military interventions in eastern Europe.
  The impetus for Gorbachev’s reforms was not external pressure from the west, dissent in eastern Europe or the Pope’s calls to respect human rights, but economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and internal discontent within the Soviet elite.

No news at Downing Street 

Given the viciousness of modern politics, I love the way the proprieties are followed in some areas in Britain. The Downing Street website announces:

  It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any ‘new action of a continuing or long-term character.’
  Therefore, during the election period, the Government will make few new announcements — so this website will not be publishing its usual mixture of news stories or briefings during the campaign.

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A US Democrat views the British election 

New Donkey:

The bottom line is that on every key issue facing his country, our country, and the world, Tony Blair has an abundance of exactly what virtually all U.S. Democrats say a party of the center-left should have: a clear, articulate vision; a values-based progressive message that does not ignore collective security or cultural issues; and a full agenda for shaping change in the interests of most people, especially those with no privilege or power, even in places like Africa.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Election 05 

I’ll be out of London for at least half of the campaign and for election day itself.

Fortunately, this year there will be plenty of resources to keep track of the UK general election. Both the BBC and The Guardian have started election weblogs, and both offer RSS feeds — although it takes a couple of clicks to get to the BBC’s feed, a design choice which I don’t understand. The Guardian’s weblog features a folksonomic graphic, which is clever but not particularly useful.

Unsurprisingly, both blogs pick up the story of the Alastair Campbell weblog. The Guardian reckons it must be a hoax; the BBC feels it’s probably a hoax, but isn’t sure. I have to say that if it is a hoax — and the odds are that it is — whoever is writing it has effected a complete mind merge with Campbell himself. The tone is right, the details are uncanny and it’s both funny and absorbing.