Saturday, July 19, 2003

Kelly fallout

Google News UK is a great resource - it helped me find this excellent Belfast Telegraph article that provides a good summary of the potential fallout (political and otherwise) from David Kelly's death.
First,the Prime Minister's close friend and director of communications Alastair Campbell will find it hard to survive the tragic result of his remorseless and increasingly fruitless vendetta with the BBC, however unforeseeable it may have been.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and the MoD's permanent secretary, Sir Kevin Tebbit, will also be in the firing line for exposing a senior figure to the humiliation of star chamber interrogation by the Foreign Affairs Committee - especially as Kelly himself had quietly volunteered the information that he had talked to the BBC correspondent, Andrew Gilligan.

The Foreign Affairs Committee themselves are far from blameless, not so much for interrogating Kelly but signalling to him that their pursuit of the source was not yet over by summoning Gilligan in secret session the following day.

Kelly, in his own appearance, had thrown them off the scent by denying he was the prime source and they believed him.

But if, in spite of his denial, Lord Hutton's inquiry finds, or the BBC admits in advance, that he actually was the source after all - as Kelly's friend the veteran BBC journalist Tom Mangold believes - then the poor man may have taken his own life, rather than risk exposure and public disgrace.

Nor will the BBC escape censure; the public and lawyers like Lord Hutton, may not sign up to the general media view that sources are sacred and cannot be revealed under almost any circumstances.

Glenda's warning

It's not quite as dramatic as the headlines have made it sound, but now Glenda Jackson has said Balir should resign if WMDs aren't found in Iraq. I can't remember if she's close politically to Gordon Brown, but there definitely seems to be a 'Blair out' movement growing within Labour. There is an almost Shakespearean sense of hubris in all this following straight on from his speech to the US Congress, isn't there?

Another Lib Dem blogger

Yes, we 've got another one! Go say hello to Vivienne, whose new blog Forceful and Moderate looks like an interesting read:
It has been suggested that I write this column as a Lib Dem. Stereotypically, this means that I would need to write around 14,000 words about STV without either imploding from sheer boredom(whilst wearing sandals with socks) or confusing it with STD which is something entirely different. I may be also expected to grow a beard for this exercise although in my case this may pose a problem.
Plus, she helps maintain my status as 'the only Lib Dem blogger without an official party position' by being a member of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students Executive.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Blogg off?

Richard Allan has found an article about Monday's meeting in the Yorkshire Post - they don't seem very happy about it, especially the idea that MPs might be using this 'blogging' thing.

As I commented there, it's ironic as reporters of all kinds were banned from the Commons until sometime in the 1800s (not forgetting that it was only in 1977 that the proceedings were allowed to be broadcast on radio, and the 80s before they could be on TV) and I'm sure there were many people then complaining that MPs shouldn't have anything to do with these new-fangled 'newspaper' things...

Which prompted a thought - does anyone know who the first MP to write for a newspaper was? Not the first to be interviewed or have a speech quoted, but the first to actually write for a newspaper. It might be interesting to compare reaction to that to the reaction blogging MPs have got. Who knows, maybe the first column written by an MP was an amusing appeal to the 'young people' to become more involved in politics.

Tony Blair's email

While, he's in Washington, maybe he can ask Bush if he can get a copy of the White House's new email system:
Under a system deployed on the White House Web site for the first time last week, those who want to send a message to President Bush must now navigate as many as nine Web pages and fill out a detailed form that starts by asking whether the message sender supports White House policy or differs with it...

Completing a message to the president also requires choosing a subject from the provided list, then entering a full name, organization, address and e-mail address. Once the message is sent, the writer must wait for an automated response to the e-mail address listed, asking whether the addressee intended to send the message. The message is delivered to the White House only after the person using that e-mail address confirms it.
(via Daily Kos)

Tony goes to Washington

There's various bits of commentary about Blair's speech all over the web. Personally, I like Ryan's analysis and response to it.

Dean as Goldwater?

In the comments to British Spin's post about Howard Dean, I put forth the view that if you're going to compare Howard Dean to a losing Presidential candidate it should be Barry Goldwater, not George McGovern. The McGovern comparisons are understandable, because he was an anti-war Democrat, but the nature of the Dean candidacy seems to me to parallel Goldwater much more closely.

Now, I'm not claiming that I can predict the future - if I could I'd currently be in a luxury suite somewhere in Vegas not an overheated office somewhere in London - but let's assume the conventional wisdom is right and that if Dean gets the Democratic nomination, he's going down to a big defeat, equalled only by Mondale, McGovern and Goldwater in recent US political history.

As I said, the McGovern parallel is the one that most people reach for, given that McGovern's candidacy was driven by his anti-war message. While this could be seen as a similarity between Dean and McGovern, it's only at the most superficial level. While both Dean and McGovern have an anti-war message, McGovern's main support came from people who were not already active in the Democrats, Dean's supporters, while they include many people who have not been involved before (see this week's Doonesbury featuring Alex's Dean house party) it's also strong among many active Democrats - specifically those who don't identify themselves with the 'New Democrat' DLC. For this core, the war is an important issue, but it's one of many on which they feel the party leadership is not listening to them. Dean is capitalising on that anger and frustration and he's positioning himself as the outsider from 'the democratic wing of the Democratic Party' against the party establishment.

The key, then, is not to see Dean as just the maverick anti-war candidate, but as the spokesman for the disenfranchised wing of the party, a group that has a vision and is frustrated at the party establishment's desire to fight over the centre ground. By staking out a clear identity, and having some definite beliefs and goals, this wing believes it can lead it's party into a dominance of American politics. That's not just a description of Dean, it's a description of Barry Goldwater and the conservative movement's takeover of the Republican Party.

In 1964, Goldwater challenged Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican 'establishment' candidate, and defeated him. Goldwater's victory was based on mobilising the Republican core behind the conservative agenda of which he was an outspoken proponent. Back then, Goldwater was seen as an extremist, out of touch with the American people - hence the Johnson campaign's counter to Goldwater's 'In your heart, you know he's right' slogan - 'In your guts, you know he's nuts' - but, despite the defeat, it allowed the conservative movement to increase their say in the Republican Party. It was the start of the process that finally culminated in Reagan becoming President in 1980.

The key thing to remember is that the Dean campaign isn't the shambolic mixture of hippies, college kids and Hunter S Thompson that made up the McGovern campaign. It's much closer to Goldwater's disaffected masses of party stalwarts, finally seeing a message that excites them and gets them involved. Dean may or may not be the Democrats' candidate next year, and if he is, he may or may not win in what may be a squeaker or a landslide. But if the conventional wisdom is right (and it so rarely is), then look on Dean as a Goldwater, not a McGovern and a much more interesting future appears. Not least the fact that four years after Goldwater, his party did win the election with a former Vice-President who'd lost a controversial Presidential battle before and was assumed by most to have disappeared from national politics...

Memory hole

Because there's been a lot of discussion recently over the reasons we were given to justify invading Iraq, there's a couple of liniks I wanted to note down here just to keep them out of my own personal memory hole.

UN Security Council Resolution 1441

Charles Dodgson's analysis of what Jacques Chirac actually said (as opposed to what he was reported to have said)

I might do a fuller post about these, but then again I might just let you read them and come to your your own conclusions about what it all means.

Plus, a quote from Iain Coleman I found while trying to find something else, which makes for a good response to the criticism of those of us who protested against the war:

The thing is, extremists will always hijack any cause you might think is worth protesting for. You can't stop them. All you can do is outnumber them, so that they are pushed back to the margins where they belong. As far as the SWP is concerned, hijacking other people's causes is their standard operating procedure. On February 15, the tables were turned: the mainstream voters hijacked their event.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

The trouble with statistics

Today's Guardian science section has an interview with mathematician John Allen Paulos who lost his savings on the stockmarket after thinking he could predict it. There's some interesting information in there about how random events can seem non-random (and hence fool us into losing large amounts of money) and there's also this interesting little nugget:
But mathematical illiteracy in general, he contends, poses far greater threats to society. Take, for example, the US government's nascent data-mining operation, originally called Total Information Awareness and now renamed Terrorist Information Awareness: the idea is to collect so many facts about so many people - details of appearance, health, credit records, travel and more - that terrorists can be identified accurately before they strike.

Suppose that the system could become 99% accurate, correctly identifying future terrorists as terrorists 99% of the time, and harmless people as harmless 99% of the time. That might sound like a fairly reasonable deal, until you do the maths.

If there are 1,000 future terrorists, say, in a population of 300m (roughly equivalent to that of the US), the 99%-accurate system will catch 990 of them. But it will also wrongly identify as terrorists 1% of the harmless people, which is 1% of 300m, or 2,999,990. "It's frightening," Paulos says. "Hundreds, thousands, millions of people would have these dossiers hanging over them, and most of the people arrested or followed will be innocent."

The lessons of history

Tony Blair has said that 'history will forgive' him. It's already repeating itself - he was saying the same thing back in March. I think my comment from then is still appropriate now.

Before pulling the trigger, point the gun away from your foot

Just heard something from the Brent East by-election. The Conservative candidate is reported to have said that she won't win and is hoping for a better seat next time. Now, you could say this is about reducing expectations, but when your party is at risk of losing second place in the seat, it doesn't seem too wise to me.

Daily Hell

Well, the 'let's see how many bloggers can get letters in the Guardian and Daily Mail' idea seems to have been a bit of a damp squib in the end... Note to self: Should you ever do this again, don't do it on a week when you're working nights and out of synch with the rest if humanity, and also don't do it on a week when everyone's all far too excited about going to the House of Commons on Monday.

Four more years?

Beyond the compass

Chris Lightfoot is working on a Political Compass-like survey that he hopes will be accurate and free from some of the perceptions of bias that some have towards the compass. Of course, whether anything political can ever be free of the perception of bias is open for discussion...

I'm having to raid the depths of my brain for what it can remember of my A-level in Statistics (I got a 'B', you know!) to understand it, but the details seem to make sense - the basic idea is not to impose the various axes of definition and then plot results to fit, but to gather an initial set of data and to study the correlations within that to determine the axes. I'm not sure that that makes any sense to anyone but me, but the principles behind it seem sound.

But, in order to see if the idea works, Chris needs people to take the survey to give him a reasonable amount of data to work with, so if you've got a few minutes spare (it took me about five minutes), you can take the survey here, read Chris' introduction here or read the rationale and notes on the statistical process (pdf file). Chris is promising to make this a much more 'open' survey than the Political Compass, giving people the chance to see how it determines their political 'position' from their answers. However, because the system is still being 'tuned' at the moment, you won't get any actual results as yet - but you will be able to get them when sufficient people have taken the survey to allow a meaningful set of scales to be determined.

Anyway, it seems like a worthy project, so please give him your support - if only because I want him to get enough answers in to be able to give me my full results!

Kill Bill 2...or straight to Blockbuster

This doesn't seem like good news - Quentin Tarantino's new film, Kill Bill, looks likely to be split into two parts when it's released. The 'official' reason given is that the film's too long to be released as one movie, but given that it's only reported to be three hours long (slightly longer than Keanu Reeves Slowly Drains Your Will To Live and about the same length as the Lord of the Rings movies) I'm not convinced that's the real reason.

I'm hoping it's not the case, because Tarantino's first three films were all excellent, but it sounds like Kill Bill might be a bit of a bad movie, and they're hoping that by cutting down the length, they can increase the number of showings it gets in cinemas before word spreads how bad it is. Or the first hour and a half is quite good, and the rest sucks, or lots of other explanations beyond 'it's too long'. Reservoir Dogs was only 99 minutes long but both Pulp Fiction (154 minutes) and Jackie Brown (154 minutes) were quite long, so it's not as if Tarantino fans have an aversion to long movies, is it?

Sacking ministers?

I was going to write in depth about the new Lib Dem policy (see two posts down for a lot of links) but I think the stories I've gathered together say pretty much all of it. The important thing to remember is that the 'scrap 30 ministers, save £5bn' is just a minor part of the policy. It makes for good headlines, but that's just the surface of it - there's a big shake up in there, but it's not necessarily in the number of Cabinet ministers.

One important development, though, is that a lot of the credit for the policy is being attributed to David Laws MP (Paddy Ashdown's successor in Yeovil). Charles Kennedy hasn't made a big thing of it, but he's slowly moving some of the new, younger Lib Dem MPs (especially those who came in to Parliament in 1997 and 2001) into more prominent roles - Laws is one, but Steve Webb and Michael Moore are both getting more 'air time' as well.

Update: Iain Coleman's back, and writing on the same subject:
If you actually want to get results, whether in policing, in health, or in education, the way to do it is to recruit some dedicated people who want to do the job, give them the resources and autonomy they need to do it properly, then leave them to it. Sounds simple, but neither Labour nor Tory governments will do it. Why not? Because they're afraid. Afraid of giving people real political power. Afraid of local governments that they can't control. Afraid, fundamentally, of trusting the British people.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Carry On Conservatives?

Link collecting

I wanted to gather various links about the newly announced Liberal Democrat policy to reduce the size of the Cabinet and distribute more power among the regions. I'll try and write about it in more detail sometime later, so consider this an aide-memoire, but feel free to make any comments you want below.

Telegraph - Lib Dems would sack 30 ministers
Times - Kennedy calls for £5bn ministry cuts
Independent - Kennedy: Scrap 30 ministers to save £5bn
Guardian - Lib Dems to scrap departments
BBC - Lib Dems plan cull of Whitehall and Nick Assinder - Sacking ministers a surefire winner
The full speech from the Liberal Democrat website, under the headline 'Bye bye to big government'

Revisionist history?

George Bush is either living in a parallel universe, not being told the full facts or dumber than a box of rocks and shouldn't be allowed in front of a microphone without adult supervision.

Well, what else am I supposed to think when he says (last paragraph of the page):

'The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power'

But then, I guess it depends on what your definition of 'in' is, right?

(story from various places, White House link from Calpundit)

And more on blogging MPs

Richard Allan makes two good suggestions following up from Monday's event - Adopt an MP and (following a suggestion in the comments, thus showing the interactive nature of blogging) Adopt a Peer.

Related to this, I've been thinking about the 'every MP should have a blog' envangelists and I'm still not entirely convinced. First, and this is a point I made in Richard's comments, there are still quite a few MPs who are quite 'technophobic' (for want of a better word) who, while they're perfectly good MPs, probably wouldn't make good bloggers. Also, while we want MPs to blog, we also want MPs who write good blogs. We've probably been spoiled a little bit by having Tom and Richard be the first two blogging MPs in that they've really got involved with the medium, not just seeing it as a way to get people to comment on their press releases and mentions in their local paper. I think we're deluding ourselves if we believe that every MP who blogs is going to be like the first two.

The other issue is to acknowledge that blogging takes time - specially if you want to do it well - and many (or some, or a few, defending on your perspective) MPs just won't have the time necessary to run a blog (or at least, a blog that's any good and/or not really being run by their staff) especially if they're a minister or Opposition frontbencher. And while we might say that blogs are important in communicating with people, is it really a good thing that an MP takes time out that they could be using to deal with their constituents' concerns to 'waste time on the web'?

But, there are still lots of MPs who could write good and interesting weblogs without it causing any problems, and I'm suggesting that before you start pressuring your MP about how they should be blogging, think about who they are first and whether it's likely that they actually will - and if they do, will it be any good, or just a version of their current 'press releases and photo' website with added comments? If that is the case, following up on Richard's 'Adopt a Peer' proposal might be more useful. There are some interesting members of the Lords, especially among the crossbenchers, and their perspective could be quite interesting to see. Of course, as Richard is standing down at the next election, we could always start the campaign to get him named as 'Lord Allan of Blogovia'.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Fairly innocuous? Or just mostly harmless?

Along with their various other articles about blogging after yesterday's event, The Guardian have published a brief guide to political weblogs. Brief may refer to the amount of research put into it.

It's pretty accurate for most of the Left and Right blogs (though bizarrely includes a Green blog that's had exactly one post in the last seven months as opposed to featuring an actually updated blog like Beatniksalad or PolitX) but describing Anthony Wells as 'especially fervent in his criticism of the Liberal Democrats' seems just a little off base. Sure, he's not one of our biggest fans (what Tory is?) but 'especially fervent'? I'm guessing that some of the notes on Anthony and Peter Cuthbertson might have been a little mixed up.

Then we come to the 'centrist blogs' which may well be the loosest definition of 'centre' in political terms I've ever seen. There's me and Chris Bertram (but no mention of his move to Crooked Timber) and 'centrist' is probably just about accurate there. But, in what strange political world does a definition that includes me and Chris also cover Stephen Pollard, Natalie Solent and Alister Black? In fact, can anyone come up with a political category that includes a libertarian, an SSP activist and a neo-conservative member of the Labour Party?

Anyway, I shall let you get on with reading the rest of this 'fairly innocuous, well-meaning blog' while you ponder that. Meanwhile, I shall be dancing the ancient bloggers' ritual 'woo-hoo! I've been mentioned by The Guardian!' dance.

Wales is another country, they do things differently there

Via Dustbinman comes this story of petty-mindedness and pointless arguments from the Welsh Assembly. Yes, the entire business of the Assembly was almost suspended because they couldn't decide who was going to sit where. But, Welsh politics always has the air to throw up some rather bizarre arguments, though they're usually over the issue of bilingual translation. During my time in NUS Wales I can remember discussions over whether a translator should be available for a meeting in which no one actually spoke Welsh and a tale from one University Union about whether all internal memos should be bilingual, including those sent from one non-Welsh speaking person to another.

Voice of the commuter

Via Who Do You Work For, here's an intresting speech by Bob Russell, my local MP, on some of the rather bizarre decisions the SRA have made about East Anglian rail services. I've often seen Bob on the same trains as me (though he can obviously afford a first class season ticket) and even once saw Charles Clarke on one as well. MP spotting - it's like train spotting, only not quite as sad.

Triumph of the bloggers

Just as a reminder, if people are still interested in doing it, that this Thursday's Guardian and Daily Mail are the papers to get your letters into in the hopes of seeing lots of bloggers on the letters pages (I think I explained it better here and here). If you're sending in proper letters, not emails, you'll need to post them off today.

Senator Springer?

Anglo-French translations

Something I've been thinking about for a while is how English often adopts the French name for something without translating it, whereas other languages do translate it. The two most prominent ones both come from sport - Grand Prix and Tour de France. Both aren't translated into English and it actually means they take on a slightly different meaning.

Grand Prix is usually taken as just the name of a Formula 1 race. It's only when you see some of the other European races that you realise it actually means 'Large (or Grand) Prize' - Grossen Preis von Deutschland or Gran Premio d'Italia - referring to the origins of Formula 1 as the concluding race of a weekend meeting that featured the best drivers and the biggest prize.

The Tour de France is actually a slightly more interesting example. While the French grand can be translated into English as 'grand' thus keeping roughly the same meaning, the French Tour translates as 'Lap' rather than 'Tour'. So, the Tour de France is actually the Lap of France, not the Tour of France - referring to the race's usual circular route around the country. Again, the other European translations make this clear - the main Italian race is the Giro D'Italia or 'Lap of Italy'. However, because the concept of 'Tour' is so embedded in English, when professional races were launched in Britain and the US they were both called 'Tours' - the Tour of Britain and the Tour du Pont/Tour de Trump in the US.

However, there's one name where I've noticed a divergence between (British) English and American English - the medical organisation usually referred to as Medecins sans Frontieres in the British (and British influnced) media and Doctors Without Borders in the American media. It's based on a pretty unscientific personal perception, of course, so someone may well be able to prove me wrong on this one.

Dear Channel 4

While you're obviously keen on using Big Brother Live to fill a couple of hours of late night/early morning TV, it might be worth considering arranging for some back up programmes for when you have a situation like tonight where you were just showing either one person reading a book or everyone else sleeping. There are people who like watching that sort of thing, but that's what E4's for, isn't it?

Monday, July 14, 2003

Can weblogs change politics?

I've just got to work after this evening's VoxPolitics seminar - Can Blogs change Politics? to which the answer seemed to be a resounding 'maybe, but does it really matter?' Anyway, I made a few notes during the seminar, some, all or none of which might make sense. All are just transcribed from my little notebook:

People writing novels on their mobiles? WHY?

This may be one of the most pointless and irrelevant speeches I've ever heard. Good job it's in the House of Commons, as no one will notice the difference. Geeks'll love it though.

Text messaging from the House of Commons floor reminds me of the legend of the New Labour MP who had a speech sent to their pager in little chunks.

The prime role of the web has been to de-isolate nutters and make them think they're normal.

'Is this the end of politics as we know it?' Nope.

What the hell does 'building social capital' mean?

Disintermediation. Wow, that's a nice big word that you can use when you don't actually have anything to say.

Would/will Tom Watson and Richard Allan keep blogging if they weren't MPs?


Of course, the big question I had was why did the supposed individualists of Samizdata arrive en masse and all sit together? Anything would think they were acting, well, collectively... Still, it was interesting that a comment from one of the collective was followed by someone making reference to the 'green ink brigade'.

Still, I got to meet Matthew Turner briefly, so it wasn't a completely pointless evening, but couldn't hang around for any of the beers or real discussion afterwards, as I had to get to work. Maybe they agreed on something or arranged something constructive there.

It was commented on disparagingly, but this Andrew Orlowski article from The Register did make some serious points in between the usual Orlowskian 'all blogs are shit' invective:
the hallmark of a popular mass-market technology is that it kind of slips into people's lives without very much hype. Think of VCRs and mobile phones. Or fax machines. You had one because you thought it was useful, not because someone told you needed to have it.

Paging Dr Huxley

I just had a spam email from some online pharmacist telling me how 'Soma & many others are available online'. And yes, it turns out that there is actually a muscle-relaxant drug available called 'Soma'. Describing the internet as a brave new world has never been so accurate, it seems, though I'll start getting worried if I get any porn spam talking about 'orgy-porgy'.

What crisis?

Jackie Ashley interviews Charles Kennedy in today's Guardian, and includes a nice response to his critics:
And the mystery? Well, simply that if it's going so badly, why is it going so well? The Liberal Democrats have been polling strongly, consistently above 20%. They did well in the local elections. Their position on Iraq, doubting that weapons of mass destruction were such an imminent threat, now looks wise. And Kennedy himself seems to be popular in the country. A recent Populus poll showed his trust ratings at +16, against -13 for Tony Blair.

There is something close to a sense of grievance about this in the political hothouse. People wrote him off, and yet he refused to leave the storyline.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

For your reading pleasure...

A few things I've spotted recently that are of some interest:

Via Calpundit, here's an Esquire profile of General Wesley Clark, who seems to be on the verge of entering the race for the US Presidency next year. It's interesting not only in terms of discussing his role as a 'noncandidate candidate', but also to read about his career within the military and the sort of jobs he's had. Whether or not he runs for President (though it's looking more and more likely that he will) he's clearly a very interesting man.

Scott at Pedantry has an interesting post about the French term alter-mondialiste and how it is now being used as a more positive alternative to 'anti-globalist'. It translates into English as 'alter-globalist' or 'one who believes in a different vision of globalisation', but the search is on for a better English version as 'alter-' is not a commonly used prefix.

Rwanda have qualified for football's African Nations Cup for the first time. Today's Observer has an article that reveals the full story of just how they managed it, including a match in Uganda that features traffic jams, mass fights on the pitch and people digging up the area behind the Rwandan goal to try and find the magic that allowed their goalkeeper to play so well.

Finally, it was the 100th anniversary of John Wyndham's birth last week. Robin McKie argues that we should be giving this at least the same attention as Orwell and Waugh's 100th anniversaries, not least because Wyndham is the only one of them to have had his work satirised by The Simpsons:
'I know what you're thinking: you want to hurt us,' says an eerie, blonde young Midwich Cuckoo with glowing eyes to a terrified villager. 'Now you're thinking: how does he know what I'm thinking. And now you're thinking: I hope that's shepherd's pie in my knickers.'

Technical information

Two quick points:

First, the address for my XML feed has changed (thanks to Etienne for pointing out that Voidstar's service was no longer operational). It can now be found here, via Blogmatrix.

Secondly, a couple of people have asked if there's a problem with the comments. Apparently, one of the servers at enetation is running behind the other (this is a very rough explanation as I can't really remember the whole thing) so it is storing comments when they're made and displaying them when you click on the comments link. However, there's a delay in updating the bit that shows how many comments have been received.