Monthly Archives: September 2003

Blair, Brown, Bartlet and Blaine

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Tonight we watched The West Wing (the Xmas episode in which Toby is reunited with his convicted felon dad) and Tony Blair’s speech at the Bournemouth conference. We’re about 90% convinced that Blair’s speech writers are watching The West Wing too. His speech was honest, gutsy, rhetorically sophisticated and beautifully timed ? a piece or work, in fact. In The West Wing, it’s obvious that Bartlet is the only man within a thousand miles capable of supplying the wisdom, judgement and resolve that his rather soft-focus country needs. I’m afraid that Blair has done a great job of showing that the same applies here. He’s the only viable leader for his party by about a mile.

I think I must be the only person in Britain who thinks Blair’s speech gives the lie to media theories about Brown’s accelerating leadership ambitions, though. I think that if there ever was a deal it’s probably still in place. Far from signalling open competition for the top job, the two speeches were a matched pair, dovetailing nicely, overlapping in enough places to provide narrative tension (because a love-in would just be boring). If the Labour Party were a business, on the strength of these two speeches, Brown would be its get-the-job-done CEO and Blair its charismatic Chairman.

The Blair vs. Brown mortal combat story is a bit of showbiz worthy of David Blaine. Quite a lot of people think Blaine isn’t in that box at all and that he’ll show up on day 44 in some exotic location and the joke will be on us. Likewise, there’s a reasonable chance that we’ve been had by Blair and Brown and that this particular illusion will produce a comfortable third term majority ? or at least a more placid ending to the second.

(cool screenshots, huh? Click the little pics for bigger ones)

Keeping London’s motor running

From The Economist a few weeks ago (so this is for the outboard brain), an excellent leader and cover story about immigration – particularly to London. As a London fanatic (living in the outer suburbs) my greatest fear for my favourite city is that it should stagnate, slow down, dry up. Immigration has kept London alive and well for hundreds of years and, thankfully, it shows no sign of letting up. These pro-immigration articles are bracing, free-trader antidotes to know-nothing tabloid whinging.

Are chat rooms public places?

What are you really doing when you close a lot of hugely popular chat rooms? Looking for a real world analogy: are you just shutting the high maintenance, low profit caf? full of dodgy looking old geezers and annoying kids that you’ve been itching to kick out for years or are you doing something a bit more socially significant? Are you actually closing down a public place, with all the tricky public-private argy bargy that kind of action produces?

Chat rooms remind me of the kind of semi-public places that make up our City centres these days ? it might look like a Plaza, but it’s actually a privately owned chunk of high value real estate made available for nice, polite working citizens to eat their sandwiches in but definitely closed to smelly types and troublemakers.

No one will question Microsoft’s perfect right to close their chat rooms ? although I think this move is more about limiting legal liability than protecting kids ? but I wonder if there’s a larger corporate responsibility thing going on here. Should we expect owners of big chunks of high traffic online real estate like Microsoft to build and police safer online public spaces or is it OK for them to just duck out and leave it to the, presumably, shrinking band of chat specialists and marginal players who don’t really care what happens in their rooms?

Back in the real world, we routinely expect property developers to make provision for accessible and safe public spaces when we allow them to build in our cities. Should we expect the same kind of civic engagement from Microsoft, Yahoo et al? Or maybe we should bite the bullet and empower an already publicly-owned institution like the Beeb to provide these spaces for us.

I’m trying not to develop a Nectar Card obsession

Retailer loyalty schemes don’t work ? research shows that they attract ‘card collectors’ who are, by definition, loyal to no one ? or to everyone, which amounts to the same thing (how many loyalty cards do you have in your wallet?). They produce oceans of largely redundant data that can only be processed at margin-sapping expense ? Asda, super-lean subsidiary of Walmart, has no scheme at all, thank you.

Worse, they’re poor value for customers and intrusive ? the practically Orwellian mantra ‘Do you have a Nectar Card?’, which you can now hear in about a dozen major stores (Nectar is a ‘multi-brand’ loyalty scheme) is obviously driving lots of people up the wall ? I’ve actually sold a few of these ‘No. I do not have a Nectar Card’ t-shirts (I’m giving the profit to UNHCR) and the staff at my local Sainsbury’s convenience store, the kind of place you visit four or five times a week for a banana or a newspaper, roll their eyes as they ask.

The Nectar people obviously believe in the concept, though ? they’ve produced 40 Million of them and would like to see 20 Million in use. The way I see it, if the other 20 Million UK adults all bought one of my t-shirts we’d be able to send $120M to UNHCR. Since I’ve always wanted to hand over one of those huge cardboard cheques, I think you should get on with it and buy one.

Getting your arse kicked in the USA

WH Smith is the number 1 book retailer in the UK ? which is enough to make a sensitive bookworm weep ? but, according to The Bookseller (you may need to sign up for a free subscription to see this story), they’ve just crept away from the US market after an ill-timed (and expensive) attempt to break into the high margin airport and hotel bookstore business in the teeth of the biggest travel slowdown in US history. The thing is, WH Smith is such a terminally uncharismatic brand that no one will actually notice (compare and contrast with amazon).

19:57, Sunday 21 September 2003

Galileo just made its final plunge into Jupiter’s frankly unwelcoming gaseous heart – vapourised, sterilised and thoroughly mashed up as it did so. Goodbye sturdy traveller! We all got pretty misty-eyed about it round here (but not as misty-eyed as we did when little Sojourner was left behind on Mars).

While reading up on the final plunge I found NASA’s pretty good webcast archive, J B S Haldane’s 1954 speculations on ammonia-based lifeforms in Jupiter’s atmosphere (from David Darling’s amazing Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy and Spaceflight), New Scientist’s special report on the mission and some stuff about JIMO, the next generation, nuclear-powered Jupiter probe that will have enough onboard power to cruise around the icy moons like a minicab without waiting around for gravity assists.