Monthly Archives: March 2004


Politics is an ugly business and there’s nothing uglier than Messrs Howard and Davies scoring the easiest points of their miserable careers from the Romanian visa scam. They’re so in tune with the Daily Mail’s second-rate racial hygiene fantasies that it makes me nauseous. The apparent chaos in the immigration service is hardly encouraging (another frustrating, pointless own-goal) but nothing in this story supports the phony hysteria and gutless populism of the Tories – they can barely contain their glee. It’s like free money for a bankrupt political force like the post-Thatcher Conservative Party.

Sealing the borders – rolling on the giant National condom against foreign contamination – is an almost irresistible policy for a mainstream politician at a time of crippling uncertainty, real threats from brown-skinned terrorists and accelerating globalisation of capital and labour. That doesn’t make their disreputable double-act any nicer to watch. This is the lowest point in Howard’s leadership so far and something tells me we’ll see lower.

Some links: today’s Downing Street press briefing on the topic – scrabbling when they should be kicking Howard smartly into the weeds. The Commons debate according to today’s Evening Standard and tomorrow’s Independent. A gripping piece from The Guardian about the business of preparing ‘business plans’ for wannabe immigrants in Sofia.

Morton on Mars

I should have know that Oliver “Mapping Mars” Morton would have the edge on the mainstream media for the current blizzard of Mars news – and particularly for the breaking Methane story. Azeem directs me to Morton’s incredibly well-informed weblog which is currently running between 48 hours and a week ahead of the broadsheets (add 24 hours for broadcast outlets because they get their stories from the broadsheets). This is a really good example of the power of the best weblog media. Morton is a Mars maniac and knows his planet (although his excellent book is weirdly out of print, according to Amazon, which doesn’t seem right given the year we’ve had). More to the point, his insight is accessible, authoritative and accountable. A mainstream media outlet might be able to provide two from that set but certainly not all three.

Water everywhere

Mars from Mars Global Surveyor showing water ice clouds
My kids – before they’re my age – will know Mars better than I know, say, Tasmania or Patagonia. They won’t have been there but they’ll feel like they have. If they’re paying attention (unlikely), they’ll also have a pretty detailed mental image of two or three of our Sun’s other planets, submarine images from Europa’s salty ocean and – maybe – reasonable pictures of half a dozen small-ish, blue-ish planets orbiting other stars. I suspect they’ll also know that the solar system – and the universe beyond it – are greener and more hospitable to life than we could ever have imagined and that there’s as much water (liquid and otherwise) on distant planets as there is here on earth. They’ll also have a pretty good idea how it got there.

Leo Enright, the BBC’s Space Correspondent (now that’s a good job title) has made a wonderful series of programmes about the discovery of water elsewhere in the Universe. His amazement and pleasure at the rush of new discoveries he uncovers keep spilling over into infectious laughter. Joyful factual radio.

Reports reports reports

In case you haven’t had enough reports lately, here are two really fascinating ones. One that got lots of press when it came out last week (including useful summaries from The BBC and The Guardian) and one that got approximately none at all a couple of weeks earlier. The first, The Barker Review, is about housing policy. It’s a proper, grown-up piece of economic analysis (and hence unquestionably naive and unpolitical) from a top Bank of England adviser but the message is simple: we need to build lots more homes in Britain and we need to get on with it. This is the kind of thing that gets the Today Programme and The Daily Mail steamed up, hence the press coverage.

The second, The local labour market effects of immigration in the UK, is probably even more important in the long run. It’s from deep within the Home Office’s Research Development Statistics department and its conclusion is understated but dramatic: “The perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, thus contributing to large increases in unemployment, or that immigrants depress wages of existing workers, do not find confirmation in the analysis of data laid out in this report.” In the design of a rational future immigration policy, credible statistical analysis like this is going to be vital. Whether its conclusions can be made politically palatable or not is another matter.

The Barker Review of Housing Supply. Delivering stability: securing our future housing needs. HM Treasury, 17 March 2004. The local labour market effects of immigration in the UK (PDF), Home Office, 6 March 2004. The Home Office link is from Kenan Malik’s weblog.

The next Stella Vine

One of Paul Murphy's 150 pictures of Apu from The Simpsons
The near-legendary Paul Murphy has a show opening on 3 April at the cheeky Transition Gallery in Hackney (London’s Brooklyn). Transition hit the headlines a few weeks ago as home of notorious pole dancer-painter Stella Vine, set for international stardom since Charles Saatchi bought her small primitivist painting of Jade from Big Brother Princess Diana for £600. Murphy’s show is called APU150 and features 150 drawings of Apu, the convenience store owner from The Simpsons.

The show is rumoured to climax with a huge laser projection of a naked Apu as Mephistopheles inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. A plan to moor the terrifying, three hundred-foot, lottery-funded ‘Apu Blimp’ to the roof of the London Assembly has been shelved pending a safety review by the Mayor’s Office. Murphy may be twice the age of most of the trendy young artists currently making waves in the top Thames-side galleries but I’m confident he’ll be able to smoothly follow Vine onto the international stage if he can stay off the gargle for long enough (Paul, take this picture to the opening for recognition purposes. You never know).

Following the wrong leader

Peter Preston in The Observer on the ‘compact revolution‘ in newspaper publishing. I’m pretty sure this is the beginning of the end for broadsheet newspapers (although they’ll take a decade to die) and I’m interested to note that serial innovator The Guardian has decided not to visit planet tabloid any time soon but I think the fact that the same paper has apparently stumbled on an online publishing model that might just work is actually much more important in the long run. As I keep saying, The Guardian‘s ‘digital edition‘ is a genuine innovation, works beautifully and – remarkably – might even coexist (for the time being) with the paper’s continuing free online version. While copying The Independent and rushing out tabloid editions probably makes short term sense for Murdoch et al, copying The Guardian‘s digital strategy will almost certainly be more important in the future (yes, that’s Andrew Neil rubbing his hands over the Guardian’s compact dilemma in The Scotsman and Brian MacArthur in The Times).

Tivo has landed

We’ve adopted a second-hand Tivo (why don’t the cable companies launch their own PVR? What’s wrong with them? Do they like being kicked around by Sky?). PVRs are supposed to change your life. Ours is weaving its strange magic in ways we didn’t expect: if the Tivo’s busy recording something, we’ll politely sit down and watch until it’s finished (rude to interrupt). We now routinely watch Seinfeld straight after the morning school run (very decadent). The kids want to know why we can’t fast forward live TV. Yesterday we recorded a documentary about head lice (because we could)…

Lovely money

A Bulgarian banknote - 20 leva GOLD Series 1885
Lots of handsome Bulgarian paper money from a huge private collection of old bank notes, bonds and so on. Bank note design is a fascinating collision of authenticity (not a forgery), accountability (‘promise to pay’) and aesthetics (National pride, solidity, ‘bankability’, history). How will a nation communicate these values once physical currencies are history and States lose their monopoly over their production?

A grim kind of hope

Is it perverse to hope, as I do, that the Madrid attrocity is ETA and not Al-Qaeda? If it’s the former, we can expect electoral collapse for the separatists (the last European hold-outs for a militant, colonial-era model of national struggle) and, hopefully, a final purge of their twisted, irrelevant ideology but, if it’s the latter, then the ‘nihilists’ have their European beach-head and the world looks different again.