Monthly Archives: September 2006

Webcameron?

I’ve been in discussions where pundits confidently declare that the benefits of the new, user-based, social communication technologies will flow disproportionately to progressive politicians.

Would that were so. The Tories in Britain are about to launch Webcameron. The Guardian reports:

The site has taken ideas on sharing video and images from YouTube.com and flickr.com, and also social networking sites such as MySpace. Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s closest adviser, and Sam Roake, a 26-year-old former Google staffer who is in charge of the party’s web operation, have masterminded the development of the site alongside Head, a digital agency.

“Politics is absolutely a key part of the general cultural change that the internet has brought about,” Mr Roake said. “Opening up like this involves a certain amount of risk but we’re confident that on balance it’s going to be a great thing – it heralds significant change in the way politics has been done.”

Apparently in Tory leader David Cameron’s first video blog on the site, he declares: “Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel 4, we’re the new competition. We’re a bit shaky and wobbly, but this is one of the ways we want to communicate with people properly about what the Conservative party stands for.”

I really want Gordon Brown to be the next prime minister and to crush Cameron in the next election. But Webcameron shows there are some very clever people involved with the Conservative campaign. “Shaky and wobbly” could be the new bywords for direct and authentic (however confected the product may actually be).

In Our Time is back

Truth to tell, I don’t miss London very much, even though I was a passionate Londoner for the 25-odd years I lived there. But there are some details I miss (as well as friends). Melvyn Bragg’s radio program In Our Time is one of those.

Sometimes In Our Time tries even my tolerance for pedantry, but more often than not its wide-ranging coverage of history, science and philosophy (it’s about the history of ideas, but it’s really whatever strikes Bragg’s fancy) makes me want to buy another half dozen books from Cody’s.

In Our Time has returned for a new season, and thanks to the miracle of podcasting, I can keep up. This week, Alexander von Humboldt: “Darwin described him as ‘the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived’. Goethe declared that one learned more from an hour in his company than eight days of studying books and even Napoleon was reputed to be envious of his celebrity.”

First right move at HP

No surprise here, although the board seems to have been the only body in the country that clearly couldn’t see this coming. Patricia Dunn is leaving the HP board immediately.

I disagree with those like Dan Gillmor who reckons the Augean stables should be cleansed, but it’s a huge error for CEO Mark Hurd to take the chairmanship. Leaving aside the conflict in corporate governance (most American firms don’t seem to care about this), shouldn’t the board try as hard as it can to allow him to focus on running the business? He’ll instead need to spend an inordinate amount of time staunching the bad news, dealing with regulators, lawsuits and his own involvement in the spying scandal.

If Hurd is as involved in the scandal as some of yesterday’s news reports suggest, he may well have to go. And then where would HP be? There couldn’t be a clearer argument for a fresh, authoritative, independent chair for the corporation.

The bad news from Japan

For all the hype about China, for all of India’s current growth, Japan remains the world’s second largest economy. But just about no one talks about Japan any more. Even in my Davos days, the handful of Japan-focused sessions we scheduled were attended almost exclusively by Japanese participants. No one else wanted to know.

It doesn’t take a very long memory to recall a very different time, when books about the Japanese challenge to American dominance were business bestsellers. The all-powerful MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) was intelligently directing resources to key sectors so Japan’s leadership could continue to grow. Their companies had already swept the car industry and consumer electronics. It was only a matter of time before semiconductors, computers, finance and pharmaceuticals would yield.

The bursting of the Japanese bubble put paid to those visions. MITI was replaced in 2001 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. There are plenty of world-beating Japanese companies, but after 15 years of economic sclerosis, no one hails the Japanese model as worthy of emulation.

I went the other night to the launch of a book that attempts to explain what went wrong – and continues to go wrong – in Japan. Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun is, in effect, a social psychology of a nation (I’ve known “Z” for 30-some years, since our time on The Daily Princetonian together). He examines in depth the hikikomori, the roughly 1 million Japanese that shut themselves in their bedrooms and don’t emerge, sometimes for many years. Zielenziger argues that the hikikomori are symptomatic of a nation that is choosing to retreat into its own shell.

“Japan is a monoculture in a world that needs a rainforest,” Zielenziger says. The intense focus that worked from 1945 to 1990, he argues, doesn’t work in a globalized, networked economy that provides the highest rewards to nimbleness, adaptability and innovation.

Zielenziger’s exposition of his book was so unremittingly dark that I felt like asking ironically, “So what’s the bad news?” Unfortunately, there is some truly bad news in prospect. Zielenziger sketched a scenario where soon-to-be prime minister Shinzo Abe connects with the lost generation of 20-35-year olds to provoke a period of powerful, resurgent nationalism. In a Japan that is nuclear capable. In a Japan that views China’s growth far more as a direct challenge than as an opportunity. And on a global stage where the US may well be happy for Japan to be its security surrogate in east Asia.

Update Zielenziger also has a blog, where he seems to be covering Asian political and economic news more broadly (he was Tokyo bureau chief of Knight Ridder for seven years, and travelled extensively throughout east and south Asia). One of the latest posts expands on his comments the other evening about Shinzo Abe.

"Tweaking your filters is job No. 1"

Andrew Leonard in Salon (subscription or “daily pass” required) explains exactly why blogs are so important to me:

Thoma and Salmon, like DeLong, are prolific bloggers. Line up enough of these pre-processors in your blog aggregator, as I do, and you get the benefit of a bevy of smart people filtering the critical news of the day — and then deconstructing, critiquing and otherwise adding value to that information. What would once have required taking an article from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times or Financial Times into a graduate level seminar and having it taken apart by a professor and a few other bright students is now available, in infinitely greater scope and detail, for free, on every subject of interest to humanity. For my own project here, striving to better understand globalization, the ongoing assembly of rank upon rank of pre-processors on a network of related subjects — the economy, China, India, energy and the environment, and intellectual property — has become a vital part of my daily explorations. In the age of information overload, tweaking your filters is job No. 1.

Economic warning signs, xtreme version

Ethan Zuckerman is in Harare, grappling with an inflation rate of 1200%.

To review – signs that your economy is in trouble include:

- You can’t use your own money to purchase essential goods and services.
- Critical goods, like petrol, can be purchased by average citizens only if they’re willing to break the law.
- Prices change so fast it’s not worth printing them.
- Your currency includes an expiration date, and may well be worthless before that date.

And it’s probably not good news if you’re brushing your teeth with beer, either.

I remember when Israel was experiencing hyperinflation, the joke was that it was cheaper to take a taxi than a bus. Why? In a bus, you pay when you get on, but in a taxi you pay when you get out.

A good press corp exists, but it sometimes has puzzling standfirsts

Today’s Financial Times, which bids fair to be the world’s best English-language newspaper, leads with senator John McCain’s stand against president Bush’s insistence on the use of torture. That’s fine, but there’s this odd standfirst in my print edition: “Republican puts chance of presidency on the line”.

The article’s tack is that by defying the president, McCain will alienate Republican voters. I think the three bylined FT reporters on the story have been taken in by the administration’s spin.

McCain’s consistency on the Geneva Convention, understandable from someone who was horribly maltreated as a POW, will surely be a great asset to him in both Republican primaries and a potential national race. How can anyone think that other Republican candidates will gain an advantage against McCain by advocating torture? There are clearly loads of deluded Republican voters – Bush did win re-election after all – but all the public opinion evidence today is that the president is losing the argument and McCain, John Warner, Lindsay Graham and Colin Powell are winning it.

The FT’s spin, not incidentally, also helps McCain’s favored narrative that he is a maverick, willing to defy authority for what he thinks is right. I think there’s an enormous amount of bluff to that pose, but the FT and others seem happy to push it along.

It's clearly over for Tony Blair

Today’s Guardian crossword puzzle, 11 across: “Top man, by not retiring, starts to lack authority, increasing resentment” (4, 5).

For those not accustomed to English cryptic crosswords, here’s how the answer works. Look at “by not” backwards (retiring) and you get Tony B. Then take the first letters (starts to) of “lack”, “authority”, “increasing” and “resentment”. I know, it looks easy once someone has told you how.

Who is HP kidding?

Does the HP board really think that’s enough? It seems the worst of all solutions: Patricia Dunn stays on the board and Mark Hurd is put in the poor governance position of being both chairman and the CEO. Another step down for HP.

When I searched for the press release on the HP site, I saw a link to blogs. They list eight executive blogs. Not one mentions anything of the phone records scandal or the board turmoil. I realize it’s a precarious position for an employee to reflect publicly on such a mess, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence in HP’s blogging culture.