Pondblog
...Views from mid-Atlantic
29 May 2004

Here's a good example of how Michael Moore made his reputation as a liar. Fred Barnes, who tells the story, is the executive editor of the Weekly Standard.

Chalk one up for the good guys! An Australian on a disability pension who was part of one of those Nigerian email scams has been convicted on 11 charges involving helping others in Nigeria, Spain, London and Thailand to dupe gullible people. Nick Marinellis, 39, pleaded guilty but does not seem yet to have been sentenced.

Here's an unusual story. Three fishermen have apparently been successfully prosecuted in New York for illegally taking a massive quantity of Chilean sea bass and rock lobster from South African waters and exporting it to the United States. I say it's unusual because international law is so full of holes that fishermen normally manage to get away with it, as happened earlier this month with a Portuese fishing boat caught illegally taking cod off Canada.

In this case, Arnold Bengis, 68, who has dual South African-US nationality and is the former head of a South African fishing company, was sentenced to 46 months and his son David, 34, was sentenced to 12 months. Their associate Jeffrey Noll, 53, of Marietta, Georgia, received a 30-month term in the scheme to smuggle lobster and sea bass, which is also known as Patagonian toothfish.

Saturdays are often intriguing news days. The media's on-duty reporting staff are reduced to a minimum, and, as the first day of the weekend, the attention of readers is largely elsewhere. If you're a PR person, Saturday's the day you publish the stories that you know you have to publish, but that you don't want to have a great impact. That's especially so on the Saturday of a three-day weekend. So that's the day a smart reader keeps his eyes wide open. So does this story qualify as one somebody's trying to bury?

Libyan Nuclear Devices Missing is the headline in the Washington Post. It does seem an eminent candidate for discreet burial, doesn't it? It suggests Libyan officials admitted right from the moment they started to come clean about their nuclear programme, that the missing kit had been ordered from black-market suppliers months earlier and was long overdue.

"Four months later," the Post says, "the wait continues. Despite a search that has spanned the globe, U.S. and international investigators are still struggling to account for a number of sensitive parts Libya ordered for construction of its uranium enrichment plant - parts that potentially could be used by other countries or groups seeking nuclear weapons."

Britain's notoriously nannyish Ministry of Defence has finally decided to ease up on comment on the activities of the Special Air and Special Boat Services, repairing a self-inflicted hole in the foot that has caused many years of unnecessary hardship of one type or another.

Well, it's official. The New York Times says Phillip Larkin is one of the best poets of the 20th Century, so it must be so. And now the question is: Where on God's green earth has the Times been for the last three or four decades?

28 May 2004

Most of the press lifted the "world's youngest planet" story that is being so widely used this morning from a NASA press release that I thought was a great deal more interesting uncut and in its original state. Here it is, complete with excellent pix.

Want to see what a reporter with an attitude and a big imagination can make of a small handful of facts? Try this story written by Toni Solo and published in something called Dissident Voice.

Here's a little sample: "Trying to gather up into a manageable skein all the threads of deceit from the record of the crooked Bush regime and Tony Blair's cabinet-full of war criminals is a bit like gathering up the viscera of a gutted, badly slaughtered animal. Blood and shit are everywhere. The dirt and slime stick."

Dissident Voice describes itself as a California-based internet newsletter "dedicated to challenging the distortions and lies of the corporate press and the privileged classes it serves."

Claudia Rosett continues to be the only American reporter chasing the Oil-for-Food scandal on a full-time basis, and continues to do a fine job at it. This article claims that on the same day American forces and Iraqi police raided Ahmed Chalabi's office and home, an as-yet unidentified person hacked into Claude Hankes-Drielsma's computer and deleted all his files. Hankes-Drielma is the British adviser to the Iraqi Governing Council who in February lined up KPMG International, the accounting firm, together with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, a law firm, to carry out an audit of Oil-for-Food for the IGC. Rosett reports that "He testified before Congress last month that the KPMG investigation 'is expected to demonstrate the clear link between those countries which were quite ready to support Saddam Hussein's regime for their own financial benefit, at the expense of the Iraqi people, and those that opposed the strict application of sanctions and the overthrow of Saddam.' (Security Council members France, Russia and China come to mind.)"

In this Boston Globe story, though, coalition officials are denying that the Chalabi raid had anything to do with the Oil-for-Food scandal.

Two stories this morning on the tragedy that is still unfolding in Sudan. The Washington Post reports that Khartoum has raised new obstacles that could delay the delivery of lifesaving supplies to the area for months.

And in the San Francisco Chronicle, the second of a two-part report notes that "About 1 million people have been displaced in Sudan by warfare that pits mainly black farmers-turned-rebels against government forces and nomadic Arab militias in a struggle for control of vast stretches of land in the west. An additional 110,000 have taken refuge in aid camps set up in neighboring Chad by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or UNHCR."

James Morris, the head of the UN World Food Program, describes the refugee situation as "one of the worst in the world today, a crisis of massive displacement, critical humanitarian needs and extreme levels of violence and fear."

British poet Hugo Williams was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for poetry this week. The Independent is carrying a pleasant interview with him this morning. Here's a link to some samples of his work. I don't know if the poem is included in these, but I remember reading one in which he quoted his father as having said you should be with someone for a full minute before you realise he's well dressed. Nicely observed.

The buzz around this morning is that Ariel Sharon is in serious political trouble in Israel, and that he will get little support when he presents his new plan for Gaza to the Cabinet on Sunday. His considerable opposition seems to be coalescing around Benjamin Netanyahu. You'll get a little of the flavour of what's going on from this Haaretz story, and a considerable amount of good background from this Washington Times analysis.

I'm not sure that saying 'we never should have started this in the first place' is any defence against the odium attached to not being able to finish it, but one Greek minister's trying it on for size anyway.

Architectural critics have been raving about Seattle's new public library, praising the Rem Koolhas design as a fine addition to the cityscape. According to the Christian Science Monitor, it's a pretty good library as well. "What makes it all work - why 500 people a day have been getting first-time library cards - is the raw power of so much function inside of the form," the paper says.

"The 11-story cathedral is 100,000 square feet larger than the old library. Because of this, the public has access to 75 percent of the library's collection, up from 33 percent before. The building is filled with Wi-Fi hot spots for people to connect their laptops to the Internet. Acoustic sound domes allow you to play music - yours or the library's - as loud as you like. Microchips embedded in each library item allow computers reading radio frequencies to sort and transport books, freeing the library staff to work with customers.

Seattle's librarian praises some 100 library employees who staffed 37 committees that created Koolhaas's marching orders: "The staff laid out every foot of the 365,000 square feet in here," she explains. "The architect was given a thick book filled with his instructions" not of how the building should look, but of what it needed to do and be.

How do you maintain a space vehicle that never returns to Earth? Severe conditions inside the engine combustion chamber - the reactive chemicals and the temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit - cause a roughening of the material from which the combustion chamber liner is constructed. The inner surface of the liner slowly becomes powdery and flaky, and this corrosion will worsen if the surface isn't polished between each mission. But now, scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) have developed a solution. Using an advanced "vacuum plasma" technique to spray both the coating and the liner onto a mold, building them up slowly layer by layer, they have learned to build a rocket engine combustion chamber that can withstand more than a hundred firings in a row without the slightest sign of roughening or blistering.

That property makes a rocket built with this new technique an excellent candidate for an ultra-low maintenance space ferry or for a next-generation launch vehicle, and, in case you miss the drift here, increase the efficiency of automobile engines down here on earth.

27 May 2004

Winter's coming in the southern hemisphere of Mars, where NASA's two robotic probes are busy probing. That means their handlers are having to come up with tactics that will enable them to make better use of the energy they're able to get from their solar panels. SpaceDaily says "As the Mars' southern-hemisphere winter advances and dust accumulates on the solar panels, the amount of electricity the rovers can generate is decreasing. The decline is more serious for Opportunity because the robotic arm of that rover has a heater with a malfunctioning switch. The switch cannot be turned off. A properly functioning thermostat turns the heater off during the day, but the heater stays on overnight even when it's not needed. The amount of energy wasted was not enough to hinder Opportunity from succeeding in its primary mission, but is now sapping about one-third of the rover's diminished amount of solar-generated electricity."

In San Francisco, City Fathers were hoping to build a dramatic new bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. The new bridge was designed to look like a long white line that hovered just above the water, then shot skyward just before Yerba Buena, and they were hoping it would be open to traffic in 2010. But they've had a terrible shock.

Just one company, a joint venture of American Bridge, Nippon Steel Bridge and Fluor Corporation, bid on the suspension span for the first phase. It submitted a bid of $1.8 billion using American steel and one of $1.4 billion using foreign steel. Under Buy America rules, San Francisco can use foreign steel on the bridge only if the cost is 25 percent less. The cost differential in this case is about 23 percent. If the City were to accept the bid, it would push the estimated cost of constructing the two-section eastern span of the Bay Bridge past $4 billion - more than three times the original estimates.

I've mentioned this book before - one written by three current and former UN employees about their experiences on UN missions in Cambodia, Somalia and Haiti. It's called Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Matters, which may give you some idea of its flavour.

I mention it again because this story gives a few details which prospective throwers of booze-soaked orgies may find instructive, and because it makes some allegations about peace-keepers from Bulgaria I thought were interesting.

The Bulgarians wanted the money, the book says, but didn't want to send their best-trained troops. So they offered inmates in the prisons and psychiatric wards a deal: Put on a uniform and go to Cambodia for six months, you're free when you get back. Scores of criminals accepted the offer, were given uniforms and became UN peacekeepers, the authors say. That's interesting to me because I know that a force made up of perfectly sane people without military training would have difficulty keeping the peace in an old folks' home for five minutes, let alone for six months in Cambodia. Make them prison and asylum inmates and the only way you'd be able even to get them out of Bulgaria would be at gunpoint. So maybe this book isn't as accurate as it might be.

An Australian company is thinking of suing because of allegations it paid kickbacks to the Iraqis in connection with contracts to supply wheat. Hard to understand a profesional news organisation would have published a story like this without explaining who was making the allegations, but that's what this one does. The answer was given in a story in the Guardian yesterday:

"From June last year a tripartite group of UN agencies, the new coalition provisional authority and Iraqi officials began a comprehensive review to renegotiate thousands of contracts and cancel the kickbacks. The US defence department ordered a separate price review. A team from the defence contract audit agency examined 759 contracts worth $6.9bn. They included 300 Mercedes cars, worth 16 million pounds sterling, which Saddam used as loyalty rewards. These parallel reviews - revealed in testimony to Congress in the past month - were conducted without publicity. UN and American officials have explained that in their dealing with suppliers no formal reference was made to corruption or kickbacks 'so as not to prejudice possible legal action in the future'.

"The Pentagon investigators concluded that nearly half the contracts, particularly those for food, had been overpriced by up to 40%, amounting to 656 million pounds sterling. Payments believed to be kickbacks were often described as 'after sales service' charges, the investigators say."

If someone were to accuse ex-New York Times editor Howell Raines of having been born, he'd deny it.

So now the Brits know what not to do in schools if they want children to get a decent education. But do you think that'll stop 'em? Not a bit of it, the same British pluck that kept them going during the darkest hours of the Blitz will keep them at it until no child can possibly be left behind, because no child will be allowed to move ahead. We've got the same disease here in Bermuda, albeit with a set of slightly different symptoms.

They're known for writing Bible-length admonitions against putting toilet paper in the urinals (I'm kidding, but you know what I mean), so this is going to be a terrible shock to the European Commission's system. They've been told to keep it down to a maximum of 15 pages for most documents because the organisation's tranlators are under terrible pressure, getting much worse because so many new countries have joined. Over the past five years, the commission's 2,400 translating staff have had to cope with an average 5.3% annual increase in demand. Demand in 2003 was 1.48m pages. Without action, the backlog of 60,000 pages may rise over the next three years to 300,000 pages.

I'd suggest they use the old trick of asking what vital work each word of a document does, if I didn't suspect they'd form committees and spend the next ten years studying the implications of that, then more committees and another ten years to write a set of rules for word cutting.

I'm a great fan of contemporary American classical music composer Philip Glass, so you know when he wins a Classic Brit award, you're going to read about it here.

It was his score for The Hours, the 2002 film with Nicole Kidman based on the novels of Virginia Woolf, that was singled out. Opera singer Cecilia Bartoli won female artist of the year, with best male artist going to the bass baritone Bryn Terfel.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has ordered a study of federal judicial ethics in the wake of intense criticism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for taking a hunting trip with his friend, Vice President Dick Cheney, at a time when Scalia was about to hear a case involving the Vice President.

A six-member committee appointed by Rehnquist will begin meeting next month, about the time the Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case involving Cheney. Rehnquist named Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee, to chair the panel.

26 May 2004

The New York Times has always taken corrections seriously, unlike some other newspapers. A few years ago, for example, it apologised for under-reporting the Holocaust during the Second World War. A few months ago, to the annoyance of many of its staff, it hired a readers' ombudsman. This morning, the paper is apologising for some of its Iraq war coverage.

"We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been," the Times says. "In some cases information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged - or failed to emerge."

Many of the articles they have now identified as needing correction shared a common feature. "They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on 'regime change' in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks." The best-known of those sources, the paper says, was the controversial Ahmad Chalabi.

This is a man the United States might consider making the very first envoy to another planet. Today. And don't worry about his little space suit, either.

Global warming? You want global warming? How 'bout the sky turning red hot? How about a decade during which the entire surface of the Earth would have been baked by the equivalent of a global oven set on broil? That would sort the men out from the boys, and no mistake.

Some of those with closed eyes at classical music concerts are asleep, claro. But some of them are experiencing the music in their mind's eye. So what do they see?

The Kronos Quartet is trying to find out. According to the arts and culture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, "Last weekend's Visual Music concerts by the Kronos Quartet, presented by San Francisco Performances at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, took on the matter directly. In a 90-minute program that was part high postmodernist experimentation, part mixed-media showcase and part MTV for the string quartet crowd, works by Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Krzysztof Penderecki, Mark Grey, film composer Bernard Herrmann (as arranged by Stephen Prutsman) and others were accompanied by lush video, classic cartoon snippets (seemingly limited by a technical misfire on opening night), a projected musical score, color-saturated lighting and movable musical sculptures.

"It was a strange and disquieting evening, at once fascinating and dull, visually resplendent and clunky."

A poll of Palestinian and Israeli opinion, conducted by OneVoice, a privately-funded group promoting Middle East peace, says 76 percent of both sides favour a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. OnceVoice says the survey result suggests that giving ordinary citizens an 'active role' might help end the region's 60-year cycle of bloodshed.

The UN Oil-for-Food scandal is rapidly growing Hydra-like locks, and is no easier to cover because of that. This Guardian story is really about a British company named as one of those hundreds of firms alleged to have agreed to pay illicit kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime.

But it also contains this information, which is brand new to me: "From June last year a tripartite group of UN agencies, the new coalition provisional authority and Iraqi officials began a comprehensive review to renegotiate thousands of contracts and cancel the kickbacks. The US defence department ordered a separate price review. A team from the defence contract audit agency examined 759 contracts worth $6.9bn. They included 300 Mercedes cars, worth 16 million pounds sterling, which Saddam used as loyalty rewards. These parallel reviews - revealed in testimony to Congress in the past month - were conducted without publicity. UN and American officials have explained that in their dealing with suppliers no formal reference was made to corruption or kickbacks 'so as not to prejudice possible legal action in the future'.

"The Pentagon investigators concluded that nearly half the contracts, particularly those for food, had been overpriced by up to 40%, amounting to 656 million pounds sterling. Payments believed to be kickbacks were often described as 'after sales service' charges, the investigators say."

"No matter where you lived," says the Globe and Mail's Stephen Strauss, "you could hear the whoops and whistles from the opponents of genetically modified everything when the Monsanto Corporation decided to withdraw its GM wheat from the market two weeks ago.

"On its behalf, the company offered the most detumescent of explanations for why they were walking away from a research effort costing hundreds of millions of dollars. They weren't ultimately abandoning their plans, they were just 'deferring' the herbicide-resistant wheat's introduction. In his excellent article, Strauss sheds much-needed light on the process of genetic modification, and ends by commenting that "being first in line in a technological revolution is often the wrong place to be when people have not yet realized that the revolution is inevitable."

Liora Glatt-Bercovitch, a veteran state attorney in Israel, is the civil servant who leaked details to the press of the payment of bribes to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by a South Africa-based businessman, Cyril Kern, to help Sharon repay campaign contributions deemed illegal by Israel's comptroller general. The Christian Science Monitor says that "Even in Israel, where leaks are quite common, the actions of Ms. Glatt-Bercovitch have brought to the fore for Israelis difficult questions about the ethics of leaking by public servants. Her being placed on trial by the state in a reversal of the role she has played in prosecuting cases has generated a lively debate over when it is proper to leak, particularly under what conditions disclosing information does strengthen democracy or alternatively whether it violates public trust in public servants and undermines the democratic system."

Columnist Daniel Pipes published an article yesterday explaining the differences between Muslim and Western ideas about sex, an article that will put Muslim attitudes about women under a brighter light for many people.

"Muslims generally," he wrote, "believe female desire to be so much greater than the male equivalent that the woman is viewed as the hunter and the man as her passive victim. If believers feel little distress about sex acts as such, they are obsessed with the dangers posed by women. So strong are her needs thought to be, she ends up representing the forces of unreason and disorder. A woman's rampant desires and irresistible attractiveness give her a power over men that even rivals God's. She must be contained, for her unbridled sexuality poses a direct danger to the social order. (Symbolic of this, the Arabic word fitna means both civil disorder and beautiful woman.)" Thanks, Walcott, for the tip.

25 May 2004

The scandal swirling around the abuse meted out by US troops guarding Abu Ghraib prison has obscured a very basic and important issue. Ought the Geneva Convention be amended to take account of prisoners who are un-uniformed irregulars? At the moment, it does not protect terrorists, and Greg Buete of Tech Central Station argues that they should not be protected. My own view is that the public will demand some set of rules, perhaps not so much to protect terrorists as to protect civilisation's view of itself, and that perhaps some two-tiered system of rules should be devised.

"After decades in government and business, Donald Rumsfeld has worn more than his share of hats. Now San Francisco composer Bryant Kong has added librettist to the resume. Goodness gracious, as the man himself would say.

"Kong's new song cycle, 'The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld'," says the San Franciso Chronicle, "uses remarks issued by the Secretary of Defense during press briefings and interviews as the basis of a series of lithe and witty art songs. And to hear him tell it, using those words posed no more of a challenge than a more traditional literary source would have."

Paul Volcker, the head of the United Nations group investigating the oil-for-food scandal, says he's having to fight to see the documents he needs to find evidence of corruption. As a result of the tug-of-war that has been created by the conflicting needs of the UN's official probe, by Congressional probes, by an Iraq Governing Council probe and by yet another probe that seems to have been ordered by Iraq administrator Paul Bremer, Volcker says, some of the evidence might never be seen. Could it get any sillier? I suspect it could.

Bruce Fein, a Washington constitutional lawyer and international consultant, demonstrates his 20/20 hindsight on Ahmed Chalabi in the Washington Times this morning. He states his conclusion with a great deal less temper than many people might have done - "The lesson of Mr. Chalabi and sister foreign policy fiascos is clear: Personal friendships are no substitute for unstarry-eyed masteries of the political dynamics and landscapes of foreign nations." In fact, I might have chosen another, more robust analysis of the Chalabi affair had it not been for Fein's use of a useful new word (new to me, that is), fissiparous, that seemed deserving of a little currency.

A Canadian study suggests that 11% of newspaper stories covering scientific claims contained moderately or highly exaggerated claims; 18% of articles had between one and three significant technical or scientific errors and although only 41% of research used humans as research subjects, 87% of the scientific papers, and 98% of newspaper reports extrapolated the results to human beings. And in its coverage of the results of the story, Canada's Globe and Mail seems itself to have distorted the facts.

The United States is about to launch a multibillion-dollar computerised tracking system that will identify foreigners deemed suspicious as they try to enter the country. The technology will also allow authorities to keep tabs on those allowed in to make sure they do what they say they are going to do, and leave before their visa runs out. Fine, and praiseworthy even if you ignore the xenophobic controversy over the fact that it's a Bermuda firm that's going to build the system.

But if the US can't get this sort of thing right, what chance does it have of making good use of this kind of sophisticated technology? As with the military police at Abu Ghraib, if the people at the very bottom of the chain of command can't be persuaded to behave, those at the top can't expect praise for their shiny toecaps.

Work to produce a European Union constitution is being sidetracked by a fight over whether Christianity should be mentioned. Might seem like a bit of a minor issue to some, but it has very political overtones, and in any event, Europe's roots are not exactly the as Christian as people might like to think...a point made fairly robustly by Guardian readers.

24 May 2004

The President's Council on Bioethics catches a little praise for its report on biotechnology. Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee, writes if "how dramatically this Council has broken with precedent, and done something that few, if any, of its predecessors have ever tried to do. It has deployed its own expertise, and the expertise of others, not to propound the 'solutions' to the problems before it and thereby remove them from the vagaries of the political process, but to give us an informed glimpse of the complex and far-reaching choices before us.

"It is not doing so to frighten us, or steer us in some particular direction. There is no hidden agenda. The report's irenic and tentative tone, and the complete absence of bullet points in its text, should dispel any such misimpressions. Instead, it is doing so to equip the rest of us for the work of genuinely democratic decision-making, for the difficult tasks of self-rule that lie ahead. It reminds us of what we all know, or should know - that the deeper questions raised by the advance of biotechnology are not technical problems to be fixed, at least not in any obvious sense. Instead, they are questions that penetrate to the very heart of our humanity. They are questions that, by their very nature, cannot (and should not) be delegated to others, for they are beyond the competence of any existing expert to judge. It will take all of us, deliberating in good faith, using all our faculties and all our knowledge about the human condition, to decide them wisely."

San Franciscans thought they were exempt from the disease of snobbery. Can it be true? The Chronicle, prompted by author Joseph Epstein (Snobbery: The American Version) looks deep inside the SF psyche: "Largely devoid of bona fide religion, people in San Francisco tend to imbue lifestyle choices with a spiritual reverence. We are churchlessly holier- than-thou, hipper-than-thou and most definitely more-virtuous-than-thou. Among our temples is Chez Panisse, the church of Alice Waters, a pilgrimage for those spreading the gospel of 'slow food' and nourishing their very souls on organically grown chard and heirloom Brandywine tomatoes while rescuing the endangered Blenheim apricot. We may have more varieties of virgin olive oil here than actual virgins."

In the midst of a widening war in Iraq, the Bush administration finally seems to be getting serious about Syria, says Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in the Washington Times. "On May 11, President Bush signed an executive order imposing military and economic sanctions on the Ba'athist state and labeling it an 'unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy' of the United States. Nonetheless, the European Union is busy finalising a formal "Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement"withthe Assad regime. This accord, says Berman, establishes a European-Syrian "free trade area" and institutionalizes both cultural and political dialogue with the Ba'athist state. It is, he says, "modeled on precisely the same sort of engagement that has been so spectacularly unsuccessful in prompting Iran's clerical regime to reform. Now, against the backdrop of American sanctions, Europe again has reaffirmed its intention to continue 'critical and constructive engagement' with Damascus."

Sometimes, according to the author of Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power-Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense, it seems as if there never was such a thing as the Enlightenment. "The sleep of reason," says Francis Wheen, "brings forth monsters. Some are manifestly sinister, others perhaps merely comical - harmless pastimes, as Nancy Reagan said of her reliance on horoscopes. Cumulatively, however, the proliferation of obscurant bunkum is a menace to the Enlightenment legacy bequeathed to America by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Where is H.L. Mencken when we need him?"

Dan de Luce is the Guardian reporter expelled last week from Iran after he went on an unauthorised trip to the earthquake-shattered city of Bam. He recounts his time in the country in an article in the Guardian this morning. "Iran," he says, "is a country where repression is arbitrary, not systematic as in many other states in the Middle East, and it is not as efficient either. Some laws are never enforced, some murders are never solved and some critics of the regime are left alone while others are locked up. Iranians never know where the boundary is, allowing the 'system' plenty of room to manoeuvre as it pleases."

I don't always agree with Max Hastings. He sometimes seems to me to ride hobby horses in the name of fashion, not reason. But when he says "It is not the Iraqis who make serving soldiers roll their eyes in fear and despair. It is their own masters in Whitehall," then I couldn't agree more. My one quibble is that he seems to think this fear began with Geoff Hoon and will end when he disappears. That's not correct. Whilehall has been playing fast and loose with the British Army for decades, and especially since the fall of the Soviet empire gave them the excuse of collecting a peace dividend on behalf of a grateful nation.

Nonetheless, Hoon has a lot to answer for, especially for his part in failing to anticipate and sort out supply issues for the troops in Iraq. Hastings may be right when he says "This is what happens when a small man is made master of big issues, which overwhelm him. He shifts deckchairs, because he is incapable of better. Tony Blair must accept ultimate responsibility. He is the man eager to use the armed forces, while shunning responsibility for funding and managing them properly. Hoon is his creature."

Marcel (son of Max) Ophuls is the film director perhaps known especially for The Sorrow and the Pity, which challenged the postwar myth of the French people as gallantly resisting occupation by the Nazis. "Alongside the gallantry of the Resistance, it argued, was a nation that was often collaborating with Nazism in a shameful way. Mostly the film has been taken as a severe indictment of the French. How could P├ętain's Vichy have collaborated with the Nazis? How could French police officers have rounded up Parisian Jews and sent them to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps? Indeed, some have argued that the film - a jigsaw of interviews and newsreels - says something singularly contemptible about the French psyche. This is something Ophuls finds ridiculous. 'For 40 years I've had to put up with all this bullshit about it being a prosecutorial film. It doesn't attempt to prosecute the French. Who can say their nation would have behaved better in the same circumstances?'"

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times international affairs columnist and author, has earned himself a reputation as an insightful and knowledgeable commentator, especially since 9/11. But churning 'em out as he does is bound to result, once in a while, in a certain...formulaic quality, shall we say. Now you can take advantage of that. Write your own Thomas Friedman column, courtesy of the New York Observer.

23 May 2004

Here's something we need Michael Moore to make a documentary about. If he left tomorrow morning, he'd be on the other side in...no time at all, really...

The Washington Times is paying tribute to the extraordinary Alan Greenspan this morning. "Mr Greenspan has managed to successfully deal with all of these potential and actual crises while guiding the U.S. and world economies through an evolving economic paradigm that, in his perceptive view, has been 'encompassing globalization and innovation far more than in earlier decades.' Considering the complicating factors involving September 11, the corporate-governance scandals and the stock-market and business-investment collapses, Mr Greenspan has performed all the more remarkably in recent years. Knowing he plans to remain Fed chairman at least through his 14-year term, which ends Jan. 31, 2006, should be a source of comfort to one and all."

To Bermuda, and other British overseas territories, the extraordinarily high-handed behaviour of the UN's committee on decolonisation is old hat. What kind of organisation is it that believes people can't think for themselves because they live in what was once called a colony? It's certainly one that cannot believe in principles of democracy, equal rights and self-determination, despite what it says.

Fiona MacCarthy has described her as "our prize chronicler of sensuous experience". Rabbi Julia Neuberger has proclaimed her "the finest woman writer of the 20th century", and Bruce Chatwin saw her as "one of the most dazzling practitioners of modern English prose". Francis King describes her novel A Legacy (1956) as "one of the great books of the 20th century", and Francis Wyndham told readers of The Daily Telegraph that her novel Jigsaw (1989) is "of absorbing interest from start to finish". Raymond Mortimer said of her first book, A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), that it was "radiant with comedy and colour", and Stephen Spender described her two-volume Life of Aldous Huxley (1973, 1974) as "one of the masterpieces of biography".

Yet Sybille Bedford keeps such a low profile that some people, even some of her staunchest admirers, still think of her as a law reporter.

Tom Waits and Robert Wilson's homage to German expressionism, The Black Rider has opened in London. Students of William Burroughs, who had a hand writing the script, will be fascinated by this little detail from the Guardian's review: "You can see why this idea might have appealed to the darkest part of Burroughs's soul. He had lived this mythic tale himself, of course, when he shot and killed his wife, having missed a gin glass she balanced on her head, as he played at William Tell in Mexico City in 1952. Thereafter, by all accounts, Burroughs was apt to speak of his 'possession' that night, and of an 'Ugly Spirit that had entered his soul'.

"In a letter he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1955 he suggested that he had thought about writing about his wife's death, but had not because 'I think I am afraid. Not exactly to discover unconscious intent. It's more complex, more basic and horrible as if the brain drew the bullet towards it... I was concentrating on aiming for the very top of the glass...'"

If it works the same way in Britain as it does in Bermuda, they'll find that the Police draw farther and farther away having to enforce laws about noise until there may as well not be any.


Articles

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


Article Archive

2003 Index


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