Saturday, April 05, 2003

Interesting story in the latest Ansible:

Diana Wynne Jones was subjected to ruthless house style when attempting to promote her new The Merlin Conspiracy: `Publicity for this book seems to involve being photographed an unusual number of times -- usually the same local photographer appearing with a different hat on and a different book of rules. Did you know that the Daily Mail insists that all women have to be photographed in a skirt? And not in black. I had to buy a skirt.'

I've heard that about the Mail elsewhere, but I've got this horrible feeling I'm going to actually have to look at the Mail properly to confirm this...

Friday, April 04, 2003

After mentioning the launch of Gary Hart's blog the other day, I started looking at some of the other stuff on the web for the next American Presidential election and found that there's some interesting trends developing out there. (If you're looking for American political information on the web, by the way, Politics1 is a good place to start, with information and links on all the major and minor candidates and parties)

During the 2000 election, there were a lot of commentators saying that it was the first election to properly use the internet. In a way, it was, with all the candidates having websites and sending out emails to supporters and potential voters, but it also wasn't, with most of the campaigns just seeing the web as another form of advertising and getting your message out. While the question of whether using the web for advertising is more or less effective than 'traditional' advertising might be an interesting one for people who work in advertising or marketing, it isn't for me. What strikes me as most interesting is that the coming election looks like being the one where the internet will be used for its strengths, not it's potential to resemble other media.

What's made me think this is seeing the Howard Dean 2004 blog. Dean is the former Governor of Vermont who's now running for the Democrat's Presidential nomination. He was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, but until recently, most commentators have been writing him off because of his perceived disadvantages - he was Governor of one of the smallest (in terms of population and size) states in the US, very few people outside of Vermont had ever heard of him and, despite the appeal of his message to many Democrats, he had very little of a 'political base' (aka 'major fundraising capacity') outside of his home state. In short, the conventional wisdom was that he'd be much like Paul Tsongas in 1992 - he could do well in New Hampshire, as it's his neighbouring state, but would soon fade when the primaries move on to the rest of the country.

However, it seems like the Dean campaign and supporters have realised this and learnt two important lessons from the past - firstly, that a victory in New Hampshire is quickly forgotten if you can't repeat it elsewhere (see Tsongas in 1992, Buchanan in 1996) and secondly, that you can build a base of activists for a 'minor' candidate through the internet. The main precedent for this was 1998, when Jesse Ventura seeimgly came from nowhere to become Governor of Minnesota. Rather than just having a website that spelled out his position on the issues and ask people to sign up for occasional email updates, Ventura used the website to mobilize supporters and get people active in his campaign. Part of this was motivated by the fact that, as the Reform Party candidate he didn't have the regular activist base that the Democrats and Republicans had, of course, but it proved that you can use the internet to create a network of activists (often from people who hadn't been involved in politics before) as opposed to just getting votes.

The Dean campaign has been very savvy in its use of the web with supporters active in many political forums (fora?) on the web (Democratic Underground, for instance) getting his name known, and prompting people to check out the campaign websites. The campaign has then helped these people become activists in the campaign by a very wise use of Meetup to organise gatherings of new and existing supporters on a regular basis, letting people know they're not alone and letting the Meetups build a gradual momentum to the point where they now have over 10,000 people signed up for them. So, almost a year before the primaries actually take place, there's already a national structure built up for the campaign at low cost and with people who feel empowered and part of the process. Other candidates are now following the same process, but it's given the Dean campaign an early head start and also given him national credibility - someone who can motivate that many supporters this early in the election process gets treated as a credible contender by the media, with all the benefits to the campaign that endows.

Beyond that, the Web (and especially blogs and discussion boards) is also providing a method for testing the strength of potential candidates and their ideas. Gary Hart's blog is an example of this and I'm sure he and his campaign advisors are looking closely at the sort of feedback it's getting in terms of how people view him as a potential presidential candidate as well as what they think of his speeches and writings. However, I think the more interesting development is a sudden burst of interest in the rumoured Presidential aspirations of Wesley Clark (former General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander during the war in Kosovo) in the last week. He's been getting attention in the US as a commentator on CNN and the mention of him as a Democrat candidate has been getting a lot of favourable comments (for instance, see the response to this Daily Kos article). It's also interesting that a lot of Dean supporters rate him very highly as well.

Obviously, it's too early to say for sure whether these developments will mean anything in the election itself - the big money that seems to be lining up behind Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards could have the same effect it always does and drown out any number of eager activists, but it certainly could turn out to be an interesting election year.

(Before anyone asks, yes, I am aware that there are elections here in Britain next month, but I want to wait and read British Spin's promised analysis of them before I wrte anything detailed about them)
The Mighty Reason Man (at Very Very Happy) meets 'Jack, the All-Purpose Straw Man' to discuss whether the French are evil. It's very funny.
Today's Guardian has an excellent article about Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean film director who was kidnapped, taken to North Korea and forced to make films for Kim Jong-il. It's one of those stories that if it wasn't true, sounds like it'd be a great film (but I'm sure there's someone working on one about it, anyway). One of the most bizarre moments is one of the films he made in the North - a Godzilla-type film called Pulgasari:

Pulgasari is a monster of the people. When the wicked king oppresses the people, a jailed blacksmith moulds a tiny character out of rice, declaring he will use the last spark of his creative power to bring the doll to life. As the farmers are starving under the king's rule, the doll, Pulgasari, eats iron and grows. The cherubic toddler Pulgasari soon becomes a horned beast whose clawed foot is the size of a person. And since this is a movie made under the guidelines of On the Art of the Cinema, there are seemingly endless shots of the people's folk dances.

Finally, Pulgasari leads the farmers' army in an assault on the king's fortress - and against thousands of North Korean military troops who were mobilised and dressed up as extras. Ultimately, the king uses his experimental anti-Pulgasari weapon, the lion gun. But the enterprising Pulgasari swallows the missile and shoots it back at his oppressors. Finally, the king is crushed beneath a huge falling column.

Then the movie becomes curiously ambiguous. The beloved Pulgasari turns on his own people. Still hungry for iron after his victory, Pulgasari begins eating the people's tools. The confusing conclusion seems to find salvation in the spirit of the people. When the blacksmith's daughter tearfully pleads with Pulgasari to "go on a diet", he seems to find his conscience, and puzzlingly shatters into a million slow-motion rocks. Then, inexplicably, a glowing blue Pulgasari child is born, waddling out of the ocean. It's a terrifically bad movie.

I can't be the only person who reads that description and thinks 'I want to see that film', can I?

Thursday, April 03, 2003

First it was the Dixie Chicks, will Pearl Jam be next? (link via Atrios) And if anyone lives near an area where they organise some mass destruction of Pearl Jam CDs, would you mind popping down and grabbing a couple for me? I figure if they're throwing them out, they might as well come to a good home.
I'm not a huge gambler - I leave that to my brother, who once won £1000 from a £10 bet on the 1994 World Cup - but this article in today's Guardian caught my eye: Bookies face Aintree meltdown. Apparently, with a whole string of favourites winning at the Cheltenham festival, coupled with other good (if you're a punter) / bad (if you're a bookie) results, a lot of the smaller, independent, bookies (the ones who normally work on course, rather than those with shops on the High Street) are not going to Aintree for the Grand National as they don't want to take the risk of losing even more.

Some of the wounded bookies are not even willing to rejoin battle. Gary Wiltshire, the independent who earned respect for rebuilding his business from scratch after being wiped out by Frankie Dettori's famous Magnificent Seven winners, warns: "Bookies can forget all idea of getting even at Liverpool. The National is a wonderful spectacle, but bookmakers hate the race - how often do we get a [profitable] result?"

Wiltshire says he will be plying his trade in the far less fraught betting rings of Lingfield or Hereford on Saturday and wryly adds: "I left Cheltenham having lost £40,000 over the three days, but when I heard the fate of some of my colleagues in the ring I felt that I had won the pools."

Yes, I know it's hard to feel sorry for bookies, who normally have what's effectively a licence to print money, but it's quite interesting to see how close to the margins a lot of them must be trading if just one month of good/bad results can come close to wiping some of them out.
Is anyone else unable to access Why Do They Call Me Mr Happy? Have I missed some announcement from Iain?

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Just finished reading The Star Fraction (thanks again to Sam for passing a copy on to me) and there's a quote in there that seems oddly relevant. Just to put it in context, it's spoken in 2060-something, after the Fall Revolution.

'Don't destroy our town to save it. Remember how the West saw off the Stalinists and the Islamists. The fun-loving, freedom-loving decadent West undermined and subverted its enemies by making them be like itself, not by becoming grim and hard and serious like them. Those who had the most laughs had the last laugh.'
Arundhati Roy's article in The Guardian today is another amazing piece of writing from her. I can remember a couple of years ago when she stopped writing novels to concentrate on campigning and activism a lot of people were saying 'why would she want to do that?' Well, this and all the actual campaigning work she's done is why.

I'd make some more extensive comments on it, but Michael's written such a good piece about it on Politx that, if I make any comments, I'll do them there.
We need to start a competition for best British blog quote of the year, if only to give this quote by British Spin a wider audience:

One of the difficulties of having a mature, frank and civilised debate about a difficult issue is that you don't get to cut off any balls afterwards.
Just have to give a quick plug to Ryan's 'That's Liberation' which is excellent: (to the tune of 'That's Entertainment' by The Jam)

A smash of brick and a rumble of boots -
Gutted houses and a flaming oil well -
Missiles landing in a shopping parade -
Lights going out and blood on the walls -
That's Liberation.
That's Liberation.

You can see the whole thing here.
Seeing a link to Open Secrets on PolitX reminded me of this site that I discovered a few weeks ago: which has a very good database of who donates what to all the UK political parties.
The upside of any major crisis - The Onion picks up its game again:

Bush Thought War Would Be Over By Now
Saddam Speech Suspiciously Mentions Nelly Song From Last Summer

And my favourite: Government No Longer Even Bothering To Hide Halliburton Favors (on the front page):

WASHINGTON, DC—With last week's announcement that it will award Halliburton a lucrative contract to put out Iraqi oil-well fires after the war, the U.S. government has officially stopped trying to hide its favoritism toward the Houston-based company. "When we first started cutting Halliburton sweetheart deals, we'd worry about how it would look, with Dick Cheney being their former CEO and all," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "Somewhere along the line, though, we just kind of said, 'Ah, fuck it.'" Fleischer added that Halliburton has something "real juicy" coming its way when the U.S. invades Iran in July 2004.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Further to my previous post about Scottish politics, here's a Guardian article that gives a good introduction to the issues of the campaign. And the first news of the campaign is that one of the Conservatives' MSPs has defected to the People's Alliance. Though it has to be said that it does seem the defection is partly inspired by the fact he looked highly unlikely to get re-elected as a Conservative. Still, looks like it'll add a little more to the election battles in Scotland - there could be an interesting struggle for fourth place between the Conservatives and the Scottish Socialist Party.

Of course, the important question about the Scottish Socialist Party is do they all look like Tommy Sheridan? And will electing more SSP members to the Scottish Parliament give a boost to the suit and tanning industries of Edinburgh?
I've found an interesting site about Scottish politics. It's clearly run by an SNP supporter, which most of the comment and opinion makes clear, but there's an interesting collation of Scottish opinion poll data, including this page which gives details of polls for the Scottish Parliament elections coming up next month, with polls going back to the last Scottish election in May 1999.

The interesting part comes in the recent polling data that shows a very interesting trend of support for both the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Green Party growing (mostly at the expense of Labour and the Conservatives - the Scottish Nationalists seem to be holding about the same amount and there's a slight increase in the Liberal Democrat vote). But, if the election comes out close to this (though what effects the war might have on voting haven't yet been seen in any polls) there would be the prospect of a wholly new 'rainbow' coalition for Scotland's government - SNP, Lib Dem, SSP and Green MSPs combined makes for an overall majority in the Parliament. That's going to make for some interesting politics. However, I'm not sure how likely it is as many Scottish Liberal Democrats are more (small 'c') conservative than the rest of the party and the thought of going into a coalition with the SNP and SSP might not appeal to them. However, that might be outweighed by the prospect of putting Labour out of power in Scotland.

I was trying to find some polling data for the Welsh Assembly elections, but there doesn't seem to be anything readily obvious on the web. If you have seen anything, please let me know!
Invest in people

After just a couple of days of playing Blogshares, I've already managed to double my 'money' and now have a net 'worth' of over $1000. Mostly, that's because I spotted that The Agonist was going cheap, and have made a quite nice profit on it. However, I'd like to thank Green Fairy and Ryan for believing in the potential of What You Can Get Away With and investing in me.

And, for those of you playing the game, my hot stock recommendation is The Rittenhouse Review. Firstly, it's undervalued on the market, and secondly, it's one that could be picking up a lot of links in the coming moves. Jim Cappozola, who writes Rittenhouse is being touted by several bloggers as a potential candidate for the United States Senate next year. If he decides to go for it, then he'll get a lot of attention, which will mean a lot more links and a giant boost in the 'market'. And, even if he doesn't, it's got some of the best writing on a blog, and is likely to pick up more links anyway.

You know, if this was for real money, I could make a living as a financial adviser. (Full disclosure: Yes, I've followed my own advice and bought some shares for myself)
Some more on groupthink

I've had a couple of comments on the post I made about groupthink yesterday, that have sparked off a couple more thoughts. (Thanks to Anthony and Harry for their remarks). I certainly think I need to get hold of a copy of Janis' original book and learn some more about the subject.

In response to Harry's post, and I said this in the comments there, if there is groupthink then I may have actually listed quotes illustrating two separate (but linked) instances - one in the Bush administration and one within the British Cabinet. Blair is a link between the two groups, and they're coming to similar conclusions (in fact, as I write this, I'm considering the notion that that the Cabinet is acting as a kind of subordinate group that's using the process to come to the same conclusions as the 'superior' group - again, more reading necessary)

Anthony's comment (and he's obviously read Janis, or does a very good impression of someone who has) does mention that Janis states that groupthink doesn't inherently lead to bad decisions (and of course, the converse that bad decisions are not necessarily an indication that groupthink is occuring). Yes, it's a bad process for making decisions, but bad processes can still come out with good decisions. Obviously, though, I'm in the group that thinks they're making bad decisions. Anthony does go on to question whether it's the nature of the US Presidency to encourage groupthink, given Janis' analysis of the Bay of Pigs and the hostage rescue crisis, or if it's just because he is/was American that prompts him to use American examples. I'd think it's more likely the second reason, but added to that the fact that Janis was probably writing for an American audience so wanted examples that were easily understandable to his audience. For instance, the actions of the British and French governments during Suez could be examples, and I wouldn't be surprised to find many instances in the history of the Soviet Union, especially during the Stalin era.

Anthony has also provided a good fictional example of groupthink, in his 'Gordon Banks' timeline for soc.history.what-if. It's in Part 20, but to really understand it you'll have to read the whole thing. Which you should have done already, after my previous plugs for it.

Monday, March 31, 2003

Not got any plans for the weekend?

The Virtual Stoa has discovered the excellent London Riot Re-enactment Society. It looks a hell of a lot more fun than the Sealed Knot.
Forgetting your own fallibility

"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against."

That quote by Lt Gen William Wallace has been featured in most of the 'that was the week of war that was' round ups in the papers this weekend. However, as this article makes clear, that has a lot to do with the fact that the war games didn't actually allow the 'enemy' to fight like that, and when they tried to they were told that they were breaking the rules. The Army Times article it references is quite interesting as well.

This connects to another issue that I've seen mentioned a few times recently - the phenomenon of groupthink. While it sounds like a concept from Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's actually a concept from psychology referring to situations where 'do not consider all alternatives and they desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions'. Now, I'm not a psychologist, but do any of these symptoms of groupthink (in bold) remind you of certain people's actions?

Having an illusion of invulnerability

Richard Perle: "Because it was basically over before anybody touched Iraqi soil, as a result of the air campaign. And our abilities today are by orders of magnitude better than they were then. We were primitive in 1991 by comparison to what we can do today." (interview with Josh Marshall)

Rationalizing poor decisions

An article in The New Yorker magazine also claims that Rumsfeld rejected advice that more troops would be needed to fight a war in Iraq. The magazine says Rumsfeld insisted at least six times that the proposed number of ground troops be reduced.

Rumsfeld denied those charges and defended the war plan, which he said was developed not by him, but by Gen. Tommy Franks. "It's a good one and it's working. I think the people who are talking about it really are people who haven't seen it."
(CBS News)

Believing in the group's morality

George Bush: "In all these days of promise and days of reckoning, we can be confident. In a whirlwind of change and hope and peril, our faith is sure, our resolve is firm, and our union is strong." (State of the Union address)

Sharing stereotypes which guide the decision

Kenneth Adelman, Defense Policy Board member and personal friend of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, has repeatedly declared that the coming war will be a "cakewalk." Richard Perle, Defense Policy Board Chairman, expresses no less confidence as he promises that Iraq will serve as the bridgehead for democracy across the Middle East. Curiously, the need for a war is so urgent because Iraq poses such an enormous threat, while at the same time the risks posed by going to war are so few because the Iraqi military is so weak. (from The War In Context)

Exercising direct pressure on others

As a Nato member, (Turkey) has been under intense pressure from Washington to allow US troops to use its bases as a platform to attack Iraq. (from BBC News)

Not expressing your true feelings

Claire Short: "I have decided to support the government in the vote today. Given my remarks last week, I believe I should explain my reasons. I know I will be heavily criticised for my decision and many people will feel I have let them down. (quote from BBC News)

Maintaining an illusion of unanimity

George Bush: "Every nation in this coalition has chosen to bear the duty and share the honour of serving in our common defence." (TV speech announcing the start of the war)

Using mindguards to protect the group from negative information

David Blunkett: "We have to back our troops....we have to back those who are in conflict in bringing down Saddam Hussein and we have to ask everyone to answer the question: 'who do you wish to win?'" (comments on Robin Cook, Breakfast With Frost)

And I found all those quotes in about half an hour of lazy searching with BBC News and Google. There's going to be a lot of source material for a psychological historian sometime down the line.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Gwyneth Jones has written an interesting piece about being on the first (February 15th) anti-war demo in London. It's a great representation of the various thoughts that pass through your head while shuffling for several hours through London - though she got to hear some of the speeches, so she must have been well ahead of us.
Like Celebdaq meets Daypop

Another way to waste your time in a vaguely blog-related way: Blogshares. Yes, where you can buy and sell 'shares' in all your favourite blogs and then watch as your investments go up and down depending on how popular you are. This blog has a current value of $72.48 which is about $72 more than I thought it would be worth. Anyone can play and get a virtual $500 to speculate with and I'm just wondering - given that there's an online market for game-related Everquest stuff (I use the technical term 'stuff' because I have no idea what it is), how long before people really are selling links from their blogs?
You never know, it might work...

If anyone reading this happens to fall into one of these categories:

1. Members of the Swedish Academy and of other academies, institutions and societies which are similar to it in construction and purpose;
2. Professors of literature and of linguistics at universities and university colleges;
3. Previous Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature;
4. Presidents of those societies of authors that are representative of the literary production in their respective countries.

Would you mind nominating Kurt Vonnegut for the Nobel Prize for Literature?