Monthly Archives: April 2004

The return of Shock and Awe

AC130 Gunship
I remain (queasily) supportive of the overall aims of the invasion of Iraq and even (implausibly) optimistic about the likely outcome but I’m certain that AC130 gunships, first used to terrorise civilians in Vietnam, subsequently improved upon in Grenada, Panama and GW1, are not the kind of weapon an occupying power should be using anywhere, let alone inside a crowded City like Falluja. The AC130’s awesome and concentrated firepower was part of the Americans’ Shock and Awe strategy – an instrument of terror as a deliberate tactic – the polar opposite of ‘hearts and minds’.

Management lessons from Ramsay and Blair

Gordon RamsayTony Blair
I always had Gordon Ramsay down as a superannuated Sunday Supplement wanker. Tonight I saw the first of his Kitchen Nightmares on Channel 4, in which he was parachuted into Silsdon in Yorkshire to fix the unfixable – a diabolical restaurant/bar called Bonaparte’s. Inevitably, he failed, and Bonaparte’s was shuttered by the end of the show. Along the way, though, Ramsay showed himself to be a sensitive and passionate manager with a genuine understanding of people. I wouldn’t like to work for him, though…

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister continues to provide management lessons of his own. Anyone who’s ever run a company will tell you that sooner or later you’re going to come to work one morning and get a sick feeling when you realise that some malignant subset of the crowd of sweaty herberts you hired (out of the goodness of your heart) has taken over your precious company – or at least plans to do so (or at least thinks they could do so if they felt like it). Peace of mind drains away, replaced by stomach-churning paranoia. The worm has turned. It must be like this for Blair right now. He’s still nominally in charge and there’s really no prospect of a coup before the next election but the cabal has formed and the ink is drying on the tawdry conspiracy that’ll see him replaced. It’s just a matter of time now.

Managing his Government, party and increasingly treasonous cabinet through this period while attempting to sell the utterly unsalable European Constitutional Treaty to a sceptical and ignorant public in the teeth of a hostile press is going to be the biggest test of his career and will make Iraq look like a walk in the park.

On two wheels

Olly without stabilisers, April 2004 (an instant picture from the FujiFilm camera)
If you’re a parent (or if you’ve ever been a small child), you’ll understand the significance of this picture. Olly, 5, learned how to ride his bike without stabilisers. We missed out on our soft-focus moment of parental joy, though (“You won’t let go will you Daddy?”) because Olly somehow figured out how to do it on his own…

Misguided spam warrior

If you’re the Northern gentleman who calls me on my mobile at all hours of the day and night (01:15, Saturday morning, for instance), withholds his phone number and then asks me “how’s the spam business, Steve?”, I’d like you to know the following (I figure you’re clever enough to find my mobile phone number so you’re probably clever enough to find this weblog):

1) the nasty, pornographic spam you’re receiving is not sent by (or by me, for that matter) but by someone spoofing an address. If you would do as I have suggested and send me an example (with all the headers you can muster) I might be able to help you figure out where it is coming from – I, like you, have small children and don’t think much of pornographic spammers.

2) and most important, really, I don’t work at any more and haven’t done so for about 18 months. These days I’m not even a Director or a shareholder. Even if were sending you pornographic spam I couldn’t do anything about it – about as much as you could, in fact. Come on, help me out here!

Big journalism

Vintage Vanity Fair this month (May). Great pity you can’t get this stuff online (can you?) – you’ll have to buy a copy. Dominick Dunne forgives Martha Stewart (he’s a friend of hers and attended the whole trial); Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose and David Wise closely examine the gruesome Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq (the kind of really big feature only a heavyweight like VF can afford – four top journalists for seven months plus Beltway expenses and some amazing photographs of the grim-faced war cabinet taken shortly after 9/11. What’s that? $200,000? $300,000?); Michael Wolff scores an unlikely interview with Disney’s Michael Eisner (having previously compared him to both Michael Jackson and General Franco) and Christopher Hitchens skewers Ralph Nader’s obsession with sabotaging Democratic Presidential hopes (looks like he’s getting ready to do it again this time round).

The New Localism

Alan Milburn, proper Blairite (retired), has got the faith (you’ll need to have a subscription). He thinks Labour’s third term goal should be ‘subsidiarity‘. He wants Labour to embrace decentralisation, devolution, community-level decision making and law enforcement and all things modishly grass-roots – ‘the new localism’ he calls it. Of course, I think he’s dead right. One of the big frustrations of the first two Labour terms has been the grim-faced, white-knuckled refusal to loosen the grip on central power – or rather the paradoxical readiness to devolve power to Nations, Cities (and even regions) but, and at the same time, to concentrate real power – mostly in ministries but also in a long list of agencies, committees and commissions – at the centre.

I want to be even-handed – most Governments talk the ‘power to the people‘ talk while in opposition but then find the glamour of undiluted power difficult to give up once in the hot seat – and not always for sinister reasons. The temptation, as a barnstorming, pro-change Minister, for instance, must be to think: “I’ll just get this raft of reforms out of the way then I can hand power back to the people in time for my replacement’s shift. If I expend too much energy devolving power now I’ll never get through my programme and we’ll be back at square one”.

Still, I don’t need to tell you that the net already makes a powerful argument for decentralisation. In a networked world, the theory goes, power, like intelligence, settles closer to the network’s edge, in the ‘nodes’ themselves and miles from the big, dumb core where decision turnaround can approach infinity and where bad decisions – skewed by political contingency, electoral short-termism and simple ignorance – are in the majority.

If Milburn is on the money, if his ‘new localism’ is going to have Labour’s official endorsement for the third term manifesto, I think this is the kind of issue that could excite jaded supporters and catch the imagination of ordinary voters and might give the next Labour Government the boost it needs.

Do me a favour, Ms Figueroa!

The sainted geeks at Google want to read your email and embed relevant ads in return for 1GB of free storage. News at 11. Sounds like a pretty good trade. We planned to do exactly this at (which was, as I’m sure you’ll remember, the UK’s number one email service for a heady year or two) and even Stuart, our authentic geek conscience, thought this was a pretty good idea since we wouldn’t really be reading your email, just parsing it (note: Stuart has a degree in philosophy. He has no difficulty with the difference between parsing and reading). In the end, we decided to take the direct route and charge our customers cash money for using the service. In fact, I think this might be a better strategy for a powerful brand like Google but I really don’t think we can blame them for trying to balance privacy, security and convenience to produce a sustainable business that fits with their other (free) services.

Meanwhile, in California, which I thought was the spiritual home of free market capitalism and a place where exercising your free will is a compulsory daily chore, like flossing, a Senator Figueroa is framing legislation to stop GMail. She says Google’s embedded ads are like: “having a massive billboard in the middle of your home”. If someone knocked on my door and offered me the opportunity to have a massive billboard in the middle of my home I might say ‘no’ – or I might (what the hell) say ‘yes’. Figueroa has presumably been nobbled by Google’s competition or simply fails to understand the nature of choice on the net. Either way, her naivety could be seriously damaging to Google and to other online innovators.

tramadol, codeine, acyclovir, propecia, fioricet, levitra, phentermine, adipex, ambien, vioxx, flexeril, wellbutrin, skelaxin, valium, diazepam, alprazolam, viagra, xanax

A small selection (just the prescription medicines, I think) of products advertised in the comment spam I’ve been deleting from my weblog every day for a couple of months now (just one of the many services I quietly perform on your behalf with no reward and little thanks). I do hope Robin can get that blacklist thingie installed soon!

Oh shit

MRSA – the hospital super-bug – is well-and-truly out of the hospitals (and getting more super by the day – it kills between 25 and 43% of its victims). Species-level ecological trends like this really sort out the optimists from the pessimists. If you’re a classical anti-growth green or an eco-warrior there’s really only one possible response to MRSA: lots of apocalyptic “woe is me” hand wringing and misery. We’re doomed. We’re on the wrong path and the only option is a giant developmental U-turn, some kind of low intensity economics, low tech medicine, population caps, reduction in consumption. Blah blah.

If you’re an optimistic pseudo-green (that’s me), MRSA is an opportunity (a grim one, I’ll admit) for us to think about our relationship to micro-organisms, to infection and pathogens in general and to innovate our way out of this crisis. We’re almost certainly coming to the end of the ‘antibiotic era’. The question is, what comes next – the revenge of the microbes or a new era of smart, adaptive anti-infection medicines? Thankfully, as this article from Business Week shows, there are plenty of optimistic pseudo-greens in the research community busy developing ecologically clever, unconventional responses to MRSA and its nasty cousins.