Monthly Archives: February 2007

Wonderful discoveries

Very occasionally I get slightly jaded about weblogs. But then I come across something new (to me) and wonderful. There have been a number of recent discoveries I put in that category.

A Surprising Life is written by one of my sisters, so I’m certainly parti pris. It’s not aimed at me: “About and for women of a certain age — in our forties, fifties, sixties. The possibilities, necessities and challenges we face — societal as well as internal. Things our mothers (at least most of them) never imagined and maybe things our daughters (and sons) can learn from.” But it’s giving me additional insight into my sister and the many women in her situation. And she’s a great writer (maybe it runs in the family ;-)).

My other two recent discoveries are more frivolous. Strange Maps delivers what it says on the tin. In addition to wholly engrossing imagery it has the right mix of erudition and wit (hat tip to David Derrick). Indexed, by Jessica Hagy, astounds me regularly. She teases out connections you never imagined.

Like Nixon to China

At 10:30 in the morning local time, Air Force One landed at Beijing airport 35 years ago today. I’m reading a fascinating account of Nixon’s China breakthrough, Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao.

Truth to tell, the book isn’t a patch on MacMillan’s great Peacemakers (published in the US as Paris 1919), but that’s because her earlier book was non pareil. It may also be because the distance in time of the Versailles negotiations is more comfortable for a historian.

Still, MacMillan does a masterful job of both recording the significance of that trip in 1972, and also teasing out the many weird aspects of the journey. When Nixon arrived in Beijing, it still wasn’t clear that chairman Mao would see him. Even Zhou Enlai wasn’t sure what the chairman would do, not least because of his terrible health. When Kissinger had asked Zhou in an earlier discussion about the meeting, Zhou had replied, “Not the first day. There are a lot of formalities on the first day.” So when Nixon and Kissinger settled down in their quarters in Diaoyutai on that February Tuesday, the key event was an evening banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

But at 2:30 that afternoon, Mao called Zhou to say he wanted to see the president “fairly soon”. So Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou, Winston Lord and a Secret Service agent piled into a Chinese limousine and rushed out to see Mao. The meeting, scheduled to last 15 minutes, lasted one hour. On that first trip, that was the only meeting with Mao.

Irrelevant aside I was stunned by one observation made by MacMillan in passing: “In 1949, when the People’s Republic was proclaimed by Mao after the Communist victory, Beijing contained the largest extent of medieval buildings in any city in the world.”

A rare financier

David Swensen: “People think working for something other than the most money you could get is an odd concept, but it seems a perfectly natural concept to me.”

It’s been a long time since an article in the business section of The New York Times made me feel so cheery about humanity.

Women in the top job

The women in leadership grand slam is looking increasingly unlikely. It’s a fair bet that Angela Merkel will still be German chancellor come 2009. Even though it’s very, very early days, Hillary Clinton is probably the best bet for the US presidency. But Ségolène Royal looks like she’s fading in the French presidential race. That’s a good thing for English-language writers that still care about those pesky accent marks: rival Nicholas Sarkozy boasts none.

Incidentally, I’m feeling very happy about how the US presidential race is shaping up. I know there is a very long way before the primaries, to say nothing of the national election. But the Democratic party has all the strong candidates and the Republican poll leaders, McCain and Giuliani, are looking increasingly doubtful and unelectable. I’d be happy with the match up of Obama, Clinton or Edwards against any of the Republicans.

The cure for linkrot?

John Holbo puzzled about how to ensure citations in his academic papers didn’t rot. Reader responses pointed him to the Wayback Machine, which I knew about, and WebCite, which I didn’t. It looks like a great service.

WebCite writes: “WebCite® is an entirely free service for authors who want to cite webmaterial, regardless of what publication they are writing for (even if the journal/publisher authors are writing for are not yet listed as members. Membership only means some sort of formal agreement with a publisher). We ask, however, to use WebCite® primarily in the context of scholarly publications.”

“Regardless of what publication” suggests to me that it could be a great resource for weblogs.

I also liked Holbo’s observation about the distinction between these services and Google: “It’s interesting: neither of these archives really has extensive search capabilities. You wouldn’t use them to find something. But stuff is kept there. By contrast, google is for finding, but not for keeping.”

How to find out about the mess in Bosnia

Last week I went for the first time to the regular bloggers’ breakfast in Berkeley. I sat next to an intelligent, well-informed non-blogger who harped on the old canard about bloggers merely offering comment on items they had read in the “professional” media. As my friend Dave Winer, who was also at the breakfast, said, “In Berkeley?”

In my daily perusing of feeds in Google Reader I find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of counter examples each day. Take today. If you want an insight into the international community’s mishandling of Bosnia, look no further than afoe (A Fistful of Euros). The limited appetite Americans in particular have for international news is largely dominated these days by the Middle East, with a dash of China. But the Balkans are still with us. I had a chill of recognition with this passage:

I’ve known a lot of Bosnians. They’re lovely people. But their politicians are, by and large, the scum of the earth. Nowhere, not even in Serbia — not even in Texas — is there such a baffling contrast between likable, easy-going ordinary people and the venal, mean-spirited asstards they choose to lead them. It’s a disturbing mystery.

(BTW, I heard a wonderful recording of a Fresh Air interview with the just-deceased Molly Ivins last week. She told some great stories about lousy, corrupt Texas politicians.)

The importance of blogs like afoe can be gauged by this passage from Ethan Zuckerman: “Of the two hundred fifty foreign correspondents [working for US media], one hundred are employed by the Wall Street Journal. I wondered about the geographical distribution of that hundred and the other reporters – would we find a huge concentration of journalists in Iraq and Israel? Would we find any in Africa other than in Cairo and Jo’burg?”

Blogging for dollars

As a comparative stick-in-the-mud, I don’t really associate blogging with making money. But my wife has added some blogging payments to her freelance repertoire as one of the select few writers for online realtor Redfin in the Bay Area. It’s an excuse to combine her enjoyment of open houses with writing.

What interested me, however, was discovering the excellent central corporate blog at Redfin. Some of it is the usual promotional fare, but Glenn Kelman isn’t at all reticent about using his sharper pen at times. I liked this rant, inspired by the foolish Enron piece Malcolm Gladwell wrote a few weeks ago in The New Yorker: “In fact, Gladwell’s gimmick journalism — which began when he started selling books & speeches to corporate America — is usurping the diligent search for facts because it’s cheaper and easier to do.”

By the way, if you want to follow my wife’s observations on Berkeley property, this seems to be the link (I can’t say that Redfin makes the most of tags, categorization or RSS — at the city-level I’d like — on its blogs, but they seem to be doing a lot of other things right).

Why Europeans see the world differently to Americans

Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books:

After all, the twentieth century turned out well for the US and the habit of supposing that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future is deeply ingrained in American thinking. Conversely it is no accident that our European allies – for whom the twentieth century was a traumatic catastrophe – are predisposed to accept that cooperation, not combat, is the necessary condition of survival – even at the expense of some formal sovereign autonomy. British military casualties at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 alone exceed all US losses in World Wars I and II combined. The French army lost twice the total number of US Vietnam casualties in the course of just six weeks’ fighting in 1940. Italy, Poland, Germany, and Russia all lost more soldiers and civilians in World War I – and again in World War II – than the US has lost in all its foreign wars put together (in the Russian case by a factor of ten on both occasions). Such contrasts make quite a difference in how you see the world.