...Views from mid-Atlantic
24 April 2004

Aaron McGruder writes Boondocks, the comic strip about African-Americans. Los Angeles Times staff writer Greg Baxton says that "Unlike his heroes, Garry Trudeau - whose once-radical Doonesbury lefties have lost their edge to middle age - and Berkeley Breathed - whose Bloom County has a playful, absurdist tinge - McGruder's Boondocks is transparently cynical rage, filtered through an African American prism. It's no coincidence that one of the strip's protagonists shares a name with former Black Panther firebrand Huey Newton."

Since we're on the subject of cartoons and edges, I cannot think why some syndicate doesn't pick up Day By Day, by Chris Muir. It's the edgiest thing out there. He starts my every day.

I'd always connected Richard Dawkins' writing with little rants about how very illogical religion can be, but it seems there are depths to him that I failed to plumb. Learn parsimony, he says, "by reading Shakespeare - or Evelyn Waugh - as well as J B S Haldane or D'Arcy Thompson. Learn lyricism by reading Wordsworth, as well as Carl Sagan or Peter Atkins. Learn wit from P G Wodehouse, as well as Steve Jones or Matt Ridley. You cannot write unless you love reading."

Yiddish, says this Haaretz critic, is in a pitiable state, with its natural speakers dwindling in number. It is "crawling on its belly down the corridors of academia, desperately eager to establish itself as a legitimate area of research alongside Assyrian and ancient Babylonian." Seems a bit over the top to me, but he at least admits it does have a fine line of blessings and curses.

Venus, it seems, is the secret gleam in the eye of British space scientists Their plan is to drop a procession of tiny "smart probes" the size of golf balls from a weather balloon drifting high over the planet, to measure light levels, temperatures and wind speeds at various altitudes beneath the clouds of sulphuric acid that mask the planet's surface.

The death of the world's foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes - he was found garrotted in bed surrounded by cuddly toys and a bottle of gin - seems to be anything but elementary. Was it murder? Suicide? A deviant sexual act taken too far? The coroner's baffled.

In February, librarians found a 62-page manuscript in which Johanna Fantova, a former curator of maps in the Firestone Library at Princeton University, who was 22 years younger than Albert Einstein, recorded his musings, opinions and complaints over the last year and a half of his life. Einstein died in April 1955, at age 76; she died in 1981, at age 80.

According to The New York Times, she reveals that Einstein had a parrot, sent to him in the mail by a medical institute. "Einstein took a liking to the parrot, which he named Bibo," says the Times, "but he decided the bird was depressed. He tried to cheer it up by telling it bad jokes. A year later Bibo rewarded his efforts by developing an infection and passing it on to Einstein. He worried that the 13 injections required to cure the bird would kill it, and so was elated when Bibo got better after only two shots."

23 April 2004

A new book has been published in Britain that tries to answer the question of why, when the rest of the world prospers, countries on the continent of Africa stagnate or even regress. Robert Guest, the Economist's African correspondent, who wrote The Shackled Continent: Africa's Past, Present and Future, says "The main problem in Africa is that personal advancement is possible almost exclusively by the political route: to become rich, or even minimally prosperous, you have either to seek political power yourself, or at the very least cultivate and become a client of those in power."

Right on cue, a leading international lawyer has called for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe to be prosecuted before the international criminal court in the Hague for crimes against his own people. The story suggests that not the least of the crimes for which he should be held accountable may well be the dismantling of the legal system meant to protect Zimbabweans from the abuse and misuse of power by monsters like him.

Kofi Annan is hitting back at those pointing fingers at the UN's behaviour in the Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal, saying they're treating allegations as fact. Hasn't stopped the Telegraph, though, which says the organisation is a ship of fools. "It is worth examining the UN record," says staffer Alan Philps. "At the level of emergency aid, the UN keeps millions alive in Africa. The World Food Programme, a UN agency, is the largest humanitarian organisation on the planet. All over Africa, it is the UN that has the lorries, the planes, the 4x4s and the know-how to get food to the starving.

"But, once again, the question has to be asked, where does all this effort and dedication lead? Ultimately, the effect is to prop up corrupt regimes and stifle economic reform. In gloomy moments, staff complain that they are just a sticking plaster on a patient who needs stronger medicine - political reform at home and a fairer economic system globally."

Each atom of iron added to the sea could pull between 10,000 and 100,000 atoms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by encouraging plankton growth, which captures carbon and sinks it deep towards the ocean floor. That's the finding of trials in the Southern Ocean reported on in Science last week. It suggests that fertilising the sea with iron could be a real dent in the high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Belgian police acting on behalf of the European Union's anti-fraud office, Olaf, have raided the office of a Brussels journalist and confiscated a vast archive of documents identifying his sources. The journalist has clashed repeatedly with Olaf, who he accuses of dragging its feet on investigations of serious cases of corruption in the EU.

A Telegraph editorial says the case shows that something's rotten in the European superstate.

Flooding may be costing Britain up to 27 billion pounds a year by the end of the century, a twentyfold increase on current damage, according to a high-level investigation by government-appointed scientists. The report this story is based upon is here. Thanks for the tip, Stephen.

Today is the feast day of England's patron saint, St George (the one that did the dragon in). If they remember such things these days, his flag will be flying on staffs all over Britain. But the dirty little secret few Brits know and none will discuss is that George isn't British at all. The Independent says he "was a native of Cappadocia and a tribune in the Roman army. One day he went to Silena, a city in the province of Libya. Close by this city was a vast lake where a pestilential dragon had its lair. The citizens were compelled to feed it. and in due course nearly all the young folk were eaten and the lot fell upon the daughter of the king...George happened to be passing, saved the girl, killed the dragon and the king and all his people were baptised." (I'm not quite sure how baptism worked its way in here, but I guess you have to go with the flow.)

"As with all things about George, no one quite knows how a Roman soldier who apparently never visited Britain ended up as patron saint of England. One theory is that his military prowess, chivalry and faith were much celebrated in the Holy Land and the crusaders, returning to Blighty, told his tale to Edward III who founded the Order of the Garter around 1348 under his patronage. By 1415 his was the officially the highest-ranking feast day in all of England."

The Independent's political editor comments on failing UN efforts to do something about the genocide reportedly taking place in Sudan, which I saw described yesterday as being on the scale of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda. Part of the problem, she says "lies in the UN system, which only allows its investigators to investigate alleged atrocities with the consent of the country involved. In the case of Sudan, the Khartoum government first barred the UN team from travelling to Darfur, which led to its members interviewing refugees in Chad. The government has now agreed to admit the UN team - but not in time for it to report back to the commission this week, delaying any action until next year."

Haaretz columnist Ze'ev Schiff has a go this morning at analysing why, if the terror war continues unabated, there should have been an improvement in Israel's strategic position over the past year.

This is a delicious little story. Most of it concerns a Military Cross won by a Territorial Army soldier who dragged his wounded platoon commander to safety under fire. But at the very end, there's a little note to the effect that a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Engineers was given a George Medal for rescuing four RAF personnel who got stranded in the middle of a minefield in a Land Rover. Anyone who knows anything about the British military will be aware that infantry soldiers look down their noses at members of the RAF, because their military skills are rudimentary at best. To a squaddie, they can't march, can't wear a uniform properly and need the full panoply of aircraft cockpit instruments to find their way from their feather beds to the bathroom, most of the time. My guess is that RSM Pettit didn't venture out into that minefield to rescue these four hapless nitwits, he wanted to get them out so that he could stand them all up against a wall somewhere and give them the royal bollocking they so richly deserved.

I'm not sure whether these extraordinary stories should properly be described as something as light as a couple of straws in the wind, but they are obviously related, and demonstrate quite clearly that the British people have some serious and unresolved problems with race and xenophobia that need to be tackled in a hurry.

22 April 2004

Ottawa Citizen Columnist David Warren has been 'reading the tea leaves' about the changes the reality of the Middle East has brought about in President Bush and his administration. Their new pragmatism is mirrored in the population's attitide. "On Israel," Warren says, the U.S. public has now had 31 months to consider the 'plight of the Palestinian people', and also their behaviour, in light of what happened on 9/11/01. Sympathy for suicide bombers is at a new low. Sympathy for Israelis who kill Hamas terrorist leaders is at a new high.

"Appeasement is a two-way street. Until now, it has generally been assumed that the U.S. must do the appeasing, and that Arabs and their allies are supposed to be appeased. It is this basic formula that not only the Bush administration, but the U.S. at large has grown sick of. They get nothing for their appeasements but more grief; just as Israel received no benefits - only more blown-up buses - when she wasn't killing Yassin or Rantisi."

The bad news is that researchers have found that there is a limit to how fast computers can be made to push data around. The good news is that it's a thousand times faster than they're doing it at the moment.

Dissident members of the Sierra Club have lost their battle to take control of the Club's Board in order to promote strict immigration controls as a way of limiting the environmental impact of overpopulation. But a battle's only a battle, and the war rages on, apparently.

Columnist Mary McGrory, who Maureen Dowd describes as "the most luminous writer and clearest thinker in the business," has died at the age of 85. "Mary McGrory," says the Washington Post, "made her life and her mark in Washington, but she was Boston Irish to the core. She preferred scamps, underdogs and Yeats to prigs, Brahmins and Dickens. Of politicians, she could tolerate almost anything but dullness. She once summed up the view of politics she learned as a girl at the family breakfast table: 'If you're going to do all these dreadful things, you should be funny about it.'"

This is the fifth and final excerpt from Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward's book about the genesis of the invasion of Iraq.

A good companion piece is provided by the Daily Telegraph in London, which today runs an interview with Woodward in which he said the President himself opted to allow him to publish the book, despite political concerns about its potential for damage in an election year. "The President wanted this story out and, like all stories of decision-making, it is not pretty," Woodward said. "They started co-operating by answering questions. I sent a 21-page memo. I had the story. I had the turning points, the debates and decisions. I think they thought it was going to be written anyway, and it was. And the people who say journalists shouldn't send memos like this are wrong. Journalism is not a 'gotcha' game. It is serious history. You want to publish what you know, but you want the other side, because there is always, or almost always, another side. I wanted the President's voice."

Why on earth haven't excerpts from these diaries been published before? James Grover McDonald was an American diplomat who seems to have been present at just about every momentous event of the 20th Century. His diaries have now been made public through an arrangement his daughter has made with the US Holocaust Museum. I imagine it won't be long before there's a book.

I can resist a little gloat over this story, which confirms something I suggested would happen a few days ago - the US is going to start allowing former Iraqi military officers into the leadership of the new Iraqi security forces.

British papers are full of stories this morning about the UN Oil-for-Food scandal. The Independent's story is typical, the Telegraph's is better, and its editorial makes the point that continuing faith in the UN's ability to provide a cloak of legitimacy in Iraq is astonishingly misguided.

In the US, the Washington Post reveals in its story about the scandal that Kofi Annan is also busy trying to defuse another political crisis in the UN, which has blown up over his decision to discipline several officials for failing to provide adequate security in Iraq before the August 19 suicide attack against the organization's Baghdad headquarters. A group of 60 to 80 midlevel UN staffers, including many responsible for Iraq policy, have reportedly complained to Annan in writing that he should have taken personal responsibility for the security lapses, which led to the deaths of 22 people, including chief UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The Washington Times reports that Claude Hankes-Drielsma, who is advising the Iraqi Governing Council on the Oil-for-Food scandal, has accused US administrator Paul Bremer of deliberately slowing the IGC's probe, although he could not suggest why Bremer should do such a thing. "Time is of the essence," he warned. "Evidence can and may be lost...I expect shredders are working round-the-clock at this very moment."

The Palestinian Authority's Chairman, Yasser Arafat, has expelled the 21 wanted terrorists who have been holed up in his compound for the last two months. He reportedly feared an Israeli Defence Force raid to arrest them, something the Israelis told the commander of the Palestinian national forces would be undertaken if the men were not forced to leave.

Arafat spent some time a few days ago talking to members of the Western press, including the Christian Science Monitor, but appears from their report not to have said a great deal. He was wearing a lapel pin with the crossed flags of Israel and Palestine during the interview, which the Monitor said was meant to symbolise the two-state solution to the impasse. It seems to me rather to symbolise the hypocrisy which has destroyed his leadership, of publicly saying he supports a two-state solution, but privately pursuing a murderous policy designed to leave only the Palestinians standing in the end.

Meantime, in an analysis of the Sharon/Bush exchange of letters a few days ago, Haaretz concludes that in the absence of a responsible Palestinian leadership, America is taking its place in the talks with Israel, at least until Arafat disappears from the scene. As the Palestinian Authority Cabinet is threatening to resign en masse to protest the US moves and demonstrate its sense of responsibility, that's a good thing.

Cronyism, nepotism and corruption have crippled Greek efforts to get the place ready for the Olympics in less than four months time, the Guardian suggests. Will they be ready on time...probably not, everyone seems to have concluded. "What we are seeing is Greece's incompetence being laid bare," says Costis Hadjidakis, a conservative Euro MP. "All of its inefficiencies, its administrative and legal problems, have become obvious in the preparation for the games."

Ofcom, the new British media regulatory body, has published a report suggesting that, among other things, the BBC should stop chasing ratings and "reaffirm its position as the standard setter for delivering the highest quality public service broadcasting. The BBC governors should take the lead in ensuring the BBC addresses concerns about derivative formats, aggressive scheduling, competition for acquired programming and a balanced schedule in peak hours." I haven't watched television in Britain for some time, but if the BBC's programming there is anything like that of BBC America, Ofcom's barking up precisely the right tree. I've never seen so many makeover programmes in my life - rooms, houses, gardens, wardrobes...the only makeover the BBC doesn't seem to like is that of its own news management, now long, long overdue.

21 April 2004

The Iraqi Governing Council has announced that eight judges and four prosecutors have been appointed to sit on the Iraqi Special Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity, set up late last year to try Saddam Hussein and other high Iraqi officials accused of crimes against the Iraqi people. The head of the tribunal is US-educated Iraqi lawyer Salem Chalabi, nephew of Iraqi National Congress head and senior Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi. Salem is also the founder of the Iraqi International Law Group set up in June 2003 as "Iraq's first international law firm". No trial date has yet been set.

I'm not sure this is as classy a device as Dick Tracy's wristwatch, but I guess it'll do until they come up with something better.

This fifth excerpt from Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, concerns the "special relationship" of Britain and the US, and why Tony Blair's support meant so much to George Bush.

Meantime, this Washington Times editorial points out that the arguments about whether Woodward's book is accurate or not are simply a sideshow to a very much larger and more significant reality, which is that the US and other nations are fighting a war against terrorists who want to destroy the culture of the West.

An American commission appointed by President Bush has issued a gloomy report on the state of the oceans around the United States. The US Commission on Ocean Policy makes a large number of recommendations about measures that will tend to bring about improvement. The report can be read here.

Christine Doyle of London's Telegraph lifts ten ways to improve your memory from a book just published in Britain, How to Remember: A Practical Guide to Memory and Recall, written by Rob Eastaway. She misses the most obvious one, though, which...as I remember it...is to stop smoking ganja.

Britain's Independent newpaper says a retired scientist using a metal detector has found a piece of jewellry so important that it is equivalent to finding the Venus de Milo's lost arms. He dug up a piece of an elaborate gold torc necklace that may have belonged to Boudicca (used to be spelled Boudicea, and I've no idea why they changed it). The two-inch gold and silver terminal ring had been lost after the rest of the torc was discovered in 1965 by a farm worker in fields near the village of Sedgeford. That larger part of the torc became one of the most prized exhibits in the Iron Age Collection of the British Museum.

Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe in Norfolk and Suffolk in eastern Britain. When the Romans behaved badly to her, she and her forces burned and destoyed three major towns, London, St Albans and Colchester, killing many thousands of people. Bad-tempered woman.

Ze'ev Schiff, a columnist with Haaretz, has an interesting take on Ariel Sharon's motive in continually raising the possibility of assassinating Yasser Arafat. Sharon wants to be warned off by the US, the EU and others, because that way, he has an easier time of it with Israel's radical right, which really does want to assassinate Arafat.

Over in the Jerusalem Post this morning, Daniel Pipes, the Director of the Middle East Forum, says that a growing number of Palestinians are waking up to the bitter realities of losing a war, in the wake of the assassinations of two Hamas leaders. "Protracted isolation," he says, "has led to steep economic decline. Recent PA figures show that 84 percent of the Palestinian population lives in poverty, as defined by the World Bank, four times the number that did so before the Palestinians stepped up the violence in late 2000."

The German writer Gunter Grass is reported to have described the destruction of Tasmania's old-growth forests as an aspect of the same attitude that led to Nazi book-burnings. And if this extremely partisan story in the Guardian is even half true, a tragedy seems to be in the making. But I'm always nervous of reporters who say things like "logging is an industry driven solely by greed," because greed is a word that could be attached to any business, if it were in your interest to use inflammatory language. This one plainly feels it is.

The British Library has put ten of its rarest literary treasures on the Internet, including the Lindisfarne Gospel of St Luke and the world's earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra. The facsimiles are so realistic, the Guardian says, that they appear to wrinkle as they are turned.

The link the Guardian supplies doesn't seem to work terribly well, so use this one.

Norris McWhirter, one of two founders of the Guinness Book of Records has died of a heart attack at his home in Wiltshire. He and his brother started the extraordinarily successful record keeping enterprise in 1954. His brother was assassinated by the IRA in 1975, for having offered a reward for information about IRA bombers.

20 April 2004

This is a bit like giving away the plot of a movie, I know, but anyone who follows Doonesbury knows BD's in trouble in Iraq. For the last two days, he's been on his back, drifting in and out of consciousness, apparently the victim of some kind of terrorist attack. Newsday says he's going to lose a leg. That's very sad.

This is a disgusting, almost unbelievable story - the body of the Spanish special forces officer who was killed when Islamic terrorists blew themselves up in Madrid has been taken from his grave, apparently by people looking for some kind of revenge, mutilated and burned. It was found with a pick driven into its head and a spade driven into its chest.

Tony Blair's much talked-about but as yet officially unannounced decision to allow a British referendum on the European Constitution has set the cat among the European pigeons and no mistake. The Telegraph says "pins are now being stuck into Mr Blair's effigy across the chancelleries of Europe. At a stroke, he has undone the best-laid plans of the French, Swedish, Finnish, and key East European governments to finesse the unloved constitution without a vote." Isn't it interesting how European governments are prepared to talk a blue streak about the benefits of democracy, but seem so threatened by it in practice?

This is the third excerpt from Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, published in this morning's Washington Post.

Disengagement from the Gaza strip, according to Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, is likely to lead to the rise of "pragmatic forces" among the Palestinians, with whom Israel might be able to negotiate. Speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, intelligence chief Maj-Gen Aharon Ze'evi agreed with Mofaz, and added that the assassinations of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi had caused shock and anarchy in Hamas. They had asked Iran and Hisbollah for assistance, he said.

This Washington Times editorial discusses the Gaza disengagement in a little more detail, concluding from his recent actions that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is determined to ensure the Palestinians don't misinterpret an Israeli pullout from Gaza in the same way they read the withdrawal from Lebanon four years ago, as an Israeli retreat under fire.

Al Jazeera's story about the choices that now face Hamas's leaders bristles with rather un-journalistic defiance in a number of places, but it seems to confirm that Rantisi's death has put the organisation in some considerable difficulty.

Palestinian columnist Hani al-Masri of the Ram Allah based daily, al-Ayyam, believes Hamas should rethink some of its resistance tactics for its own safety and for the sake of the collective Palestinian national interest. Al Jazeera quotes him as having said that "Hamas made a strategic mistake by pushing the conflict with Israel towards a decisive battle without being adequately prepared for the showdown." But Islamist leaders reject any suggestion that Hamas should stop the resistance on the ground that it would only encourage Israel to further attack the Palestinians.

"'If they stopped the resistance and introduced political moderation now, it would be viewed as surrender,' says Salah al-Naami, a Gaza journalist familiar with Hamas. 'And this would cost the movement dearly in terms of its popularity.'"

Just after the invasion of Iraq, Britain's most senior military officer issued a directive to his commanders in the field to negotiate with senior Iraqi officers with a view to getting them to help maintain law and order under Coalition supervision. His directive was apparently countermanded by Donald Rumsfeld, who ordered the dismissal of the entire Iraqi army. It was a bad start to the occupation, and the Brits reckon this kind of American heavy-handedness has made the situation in that country a great deal worse than it ought to be. They should know, since this kind of occupation has been their stock-in-trade for a couple of hundred years.

Mansoor Ijaz, the chairman of a New York-based private equity investment firm, comes at the same problem in the Los Angeles Times this morning from a slightly different angle - "Muslim extremism's increasingly present face in Western societies is largely the result of a political failure of governments that are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of those who find the message of Al Qaeda's leaders more appealing than that of Tony Blair, George W. Bush or Spain's recently unseated prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar," he says. "That Britons born and raised on British soil would plan the murder of their fellow citizens because of tape-recorded tyrannical rants emanating from a cave far away should be proof enough of how fast we are losing the battle."

Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, the richest literary publication in the United States, since heiress Ruth Lilly gave it $100 million to spend. His goals, he says, are twofold - "to publish the best poetry being written and to 'create a place for everyone'." The Christian Science Monitor says he has already restored an energy and an edge to the magazine that had been missing for some time. Wiman's a pretty good poet himself, to judge by the sample the Monitor provided:

When I was learning words
and you were in the bath
there was a flurry of small birds
and in the aftermath

of all that panicked flight,
as if the red dusk willed
a concentration of its light:
a falcon on the sill....

If Kofi Annan's United Nations can't deal properly with the Oil-for-Food scandal, this Christian Science Monitor story asks, how can it pick new leaders and hold elections in Iraq? "The scheme was badly run from the start, relying too much on secret deals and secret bank accounts, with some 3,000 UN workers involved. The US complained for years but was stymied by France and Russia, whose companies benefited from the oil-for-food program.

"Now Mr. Annan, after hesitating too long, has been forced to set up an independent investigation. Last Friday, he wisely chose former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to lead the probe.

"But once again, Russia has intervened and is hindering the probe's scope by denying the commission a Security Council resolution that would help it be more effective. Perhaps Moscow fears Russian companies might be exposed for allegedly giving kickbacks to Hussein."

The Wall Street Journal has more about what's on Russia's mind.

Here's a fascinating story running in the New York Times this morning (you'll need to register to access it). "In a study that measured how emotional states affected views of outsiders, the researchers, from Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that anger increased the likelihood of a negative reaction to members of a different group and that sadness or a neutral emotion did not. Taken together with other research, the findings suggest that prejudice may have evolutionary roots, having developed as a quick, crude way for early humans to protect themselves from danger."

The study is going to be appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Society.

19 April 2004

Satellite data has confirmed what oceanographers have been saying for a couple of years now, the Ocean Conveyer currents in the North Atlantic are slowing down.

Dr Robert Gagosian, the President and Director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, confirmed this Conveyer phenomenon in an article published in 2002 that was available on the Woods Hole website. At one time, you could search on the words "ice age" and find it, but the website's search facility had itself slowed down so much this morning that I couldn't check it was still there. I quoted from it extensively in an article I wrote for Bermuda's Royal Gazette, however.

"In the past year," Dr Gagosian wrote, "oceanographers monitoring and analyzing water conditions in the North Atlantic, have concluded that the North Atlantic has been freshening dramatically - especially in the past decade. New data - from Ruth Curry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and her colleague Robert Dickson at the British Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science - chronicles salinity changes in the western North Atlantic since 1960.

"The Great Ocean Conveyor transports fresh surface water down into the depths. The depths can absorb a lot of fresh water like a sponge. But since 1970, the equivalent of an extra 20 feet of fresh water across the surface of the northern North Atlantic has been transported down into the ocean depths, most of that since 1990.

"A sponge that is three-quarters saturated can still absorb more water. But the moment that sponge is fully saturated, it can absorb no more water.

"At some point, the North Atlantic will no longer absorb any more fresh water. It will begin to pile up on the surface. When that happens, the Great Ocean Conveyor will be clogged. It will back up and cease functioning.

"The very recent freshening signal in the North Atlantic is arguably the biggest and most dramatic change in ocean property that has ever been measured in the global ocean. Already, surface waters in the Greenland Sea are sinking at a rate 20 percent slower than in the 1970s.

"At what percent will the Ocean Conveyor stop? 25 percent? 40 percent? 60 percent? This is not like a dimmer switch, but more like a light switch. It probably goes from 'on' to 'off'.

"We can't yet determine the precise source or sources of this additional fresh water. Global warming may be melting glaciers, or Arctic sea ice. In recent decades, the volume of Arctic sea ice has decreased by 40 percent. And if North Atlantic sinking slows down, less salty Gulf Stream waters flow northward - which exacerbates the situation.

"In February 2002, at a worldwide meeting of oceanographers, new data on North Atlantic freshening prompted many scientists to say that salinity levels in the North Atlantic are approaching a density very close to the critical point at which the waters will stop sinking.

"One of my colleagues at Woods Hole, Terry Joyce, put it this way: 'I'm in the dark as to how close to an edge or transition to a new ocean and climate regime we might be,' he said. 'But I know which way we are walking. We are walking toward the cliff.'

"To that sentiment, I would add this: We are walking toward the edge of a cliff - blindfolded. Our ability to understand the potential for future abrupt changes in climate is limited by our lack of understanding of the processes that control them."

When scientists talk about an ice age in this case, they're not talking about a huge sheet of ice that will cover the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. What they expect, though, is an average winter-time drop in temperature of about five degrees Fahrenheit over much of the US, and ten degrees in the Northeastern US and in Europe. That may not sound like much until you start to think of the effect on such things as agriculture and transportation, and perhaps, on intricately-woven little ecosystems.

Columnist Paul Greenberg says, of the Bush/Sharon declarations of last week, that it was about time an American president recognised the reality that the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East was the refusal of "one demagogic leader of Arab Palestine after another - from the Grand Mufti in the '30s to Yasser Arafat in the '90s - to make peace with the Jewish state on any terms but its eventual extinction."

Jamie Gorelick's conflict of interest as a member of the September 11 Commission is nothing new. It was pointed out to the Commission in a private interview earlier this year by former acting FBI Director Thomas J Pickard, according to the Washington Times this morning. House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner called for her resignation after Attorney General John Ashcroft made her role public, and blamed a memo she wrote for hampering US counterterrorism efforts by segregating criminal investigators from intelligence agents.

Ms Gorelick defended herself in the Washington Post yesterday, saying her role had been too narrow to have had the effect suggested by the Attorney General, and that the real blame belonged with justice departments under Presidents Reagan and Bush the father. She said the commission had acted with "professionalism and skill. Its hearings and the reports it has released have been highly informative, if often disturbing. Sept 11 united this country in shock and grief; the lessons from it must be learned in a spirit of unity, not of partisan rancor." Images of pots and kettles leap to mind.

The Washington Post this morning suggests that the physical attack on an American anti-Cuban activist by a Cuban delegate at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva is part of pattern of behaviour by Cuban officials. I'm not sure they make the case terribly well, but that doesn't detract from their conclusion, which is spot-on.

This is the second of five articles the Washington Post will be publishing, adapted from Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, on the genesis of the American decision to invade Iraq.

The Los Angeles Times has discovered that taking drugs isn't the only way to relieve depression and calm anxiety. As if he were discovering water on Mars, staffwriter Benedict Carey notes that "Cognitive behavior therapy, a short-term talking cure, helps people make small, seemingly mundane changes in the way they think (the cognitive) and act (the behavioral) that can produce profound and lasting recovery. Although it came of age in the 1980s as a treatment for depression, the therapy has proved itself effective in recent years against more than a dozen illnesses in which mental distress plays some part. Between 50% and 60% of people diagnosed with depression who complete a course of the therapy show significant improvement - a success rate that's at least as good as that seen among patients on drug regimens." To an outsider, the readiness of Americans to drug themselves on the flimsiest of excuses, egged on by television advertising that makes it sound un-American not to be popping pills for half a dozen ailments at least, is a sign that pillmakers should urgently pursue inventing a drug to stop people taking drugs.

It sounds as if Tony Martin, the farmer jailed after he shot and killed an intruder at his farm in Britain some years ago, is going bonkers. The teenager who died was one of a gang which had made Martin's life hell by continually breaking into his farmhouse and stealing whatever they could find. The Police in the area were little help to him, despite his repeated requests for help. In the United States and in other countries, Martin would not even have been charged with a crime. But Martin spent over three years in prison, and the case became a symbol of the extent to which the law in England bends over backwards to ensure fairness for lawbreakers, but ignores the victims of crime.

There'll be no such confusion in Italy, if proposals currently being drawn up become law. The law in most countries gives people the right to use force in proportion to the threat they face. In other words, if you meet a man on the street who threatens you with a teddy bear, you're not entitled to draw your pistol and shoot him. If he threatens you with a knife, and you fear for your life as a result, you are entitled to shoot him. What they're doing in Italy is shifting the balance to favour the victim by writing into the law the principle that "anyone who is at home should be considered a priori under attack [from a burglar] and may legitimately regard himself to be in danger of his life." In these instances, Italian law may soon say, "any action must be considered legitimate defence."

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in London, are busy putting together a huge, searchable database of information about plants. Some of it is already available at e-PIC, on the Kew site (you'll need the Latin name of the plant you want to search for if you're going to give it a try). "'What we want to do is make all of the information that we have - an enormously wide and varied amount of information about different types of things to do with plant science - available,' says Mark Jackson, architect of e-PIC, Kew's electronic plant information centre...Kew is one of the older scientific organisations on the planet, and its collection extends back to herbals illuminated by medieval monks; the observations of explorers such as David Livingstone, the first samples brought back from Botany Bay by Sir Joseph Banks and a collection of seven million pressed examples of leaf, stem, flower and berry."

18 April 2004

Cuba, stung by the UN Human Rights Commission vote last week condemning it for human rights abuses, has called on the UNHRC to investigate the circumstances of prisoners kept by the United States at the Guantanamo naval base.

Meantime, the former head of the Human Rights Commission, Mary Robinson, who now heads the Ethical Globalization Initiative based at Columbia University, is causing a fuss at Emory University, where she is due to give the commencement address. A petition is circulating in the school, suggesting she should be disinvited because of her record, at UNHRC, of pandering to nations to whom human rights means nothing. (That link worked fine yesterday, but the Emory server seems not to be working this morning. Perhaps they can't cope with the traffic...or perhaps it is the fuss they can't cope with.)

Dale McFeatters, a columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service, reminds Americans that "national emergencies should not make us forget who we are." Sweeping up and jailing a whole class of people based on religion and national origin, as occurred all over the United States in the wake of 9/11 is bad precedent, he says, and "not what this country is about.

Excerpts are being published in the Washington Post over the next few days of Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, which describes the genesis of the White House response to the 9/11 terror attacks.

This is the first installment.

One of Saddam Hussein's more charming habits was having the right ear cut off Iraqi men he said were traitors...some 3,600 of them. Now, a home-grown human rights group is helping fund plastic surgery to build new ears for victims, with cartilage taken from their rib cases. Sensible idea.

I had a feeling, when I saw stories in the English papers last week about the "disastrous" effects of planting genetically-modified crops in Argentina, that it wouldn't be long before they were shown to be false. Sure enough, Argentine farmers say Monsanto's GM soya has worked something of a miracle. "It allowed us to increase production and manage our land far more effectively," one of them told the Telegraph. "Since GM soya's introduction in 1996," the paper said, "its production in Argentina has grown by almost 75 per cent, while more traditional crops such as rice, maize and wheat have shown a steady decline. Today, 99 per cent of soya grown in Argentina is genetically modified and farmers cultivate 85.5 million acres of it."

The Guardian's ombudsman talks about the ethics of mucking about with the pictures that are published in newspapers. I personally see nothing wrong with flopping a picture (he says flipping, but flopping is what it's called in this neck of the woods) to make the page look better balanced. But pictures which, when flopped, would give themselves away, just aren't candidates for flopping in the first place.


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

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