...Views from mid-Atlantic
22 December 2004

Oh, I nearly forgot. One last thing before I go. Go here on Christmas eve.

I'm going to be taking a short break over Christmas. I'll be back on line, if all goes well, on December 28. Meantime, I offer my best wishes to all of you. I hope you have a very happy holiday season.

The death of tragedy, the Guardian says, has been exaggerated. The best play of the year, they say, is called Festen, and it's a tragedy that goes Chekhov's Uncle Vanya one better in at least one respect. The Guardian's Michael Billington quotes Desmond MacCarthy has having said of Uncle Vanya that the last act, in which the hero and his niece get back to the neglected farm accounts, conveyed that dreariest of all sensations: 'Beginning life again on the flat, when a few hours before it has run shrieking up the scale of pain till it seemed the very skies might split.'"

"But Festen goes further: it shows the characters quietly breakfasting after the night before and the father, hauntingly played by Stephen Moore, unable to find the words to express his shame. This is a play, among other things, about the dwindling vocabulary of guilt. We live, the authors imply, in a capitalist society, shorn of religious feelings, where we lack the words to express our pain or torment. In Norris's production, that final scene is as overwhelming as anything on the London stage. It also confirms my feeling that Festen is a landmark play: one that gives new life to tragedy by showing how it can be wrought out of our emotional inarticulacy and moral vacancy."

New York Times columnist William Safire is reaffirming his belief in the correctness of the invasion of Iraq, despite things not having gone quite as he expected.

"...A permanent Iraqi constitution ratified by the people is the pillar that will uphold democracy. The path towards full representational democracy has just started, with the first indispensable step of elections next month. The culmination of this process lies in the writing of a permanent constitution and the holding of elections for a permanent government next December. The permanent Iraqi constitution is the basis of a social contract for the Iraqi people. Through a political consensus of all Iraq's communities, the primacy of individual rights and citizenship must be protected above any other consideration, whether communitarian or geographic. That is the future that Iraq deserves, and the future that Iraq can have."

That's Ahmed Chalabi, writing in the Wall Street Journal this morning. If you think you detect signs of a man running for some office, you'd be right. He has emerged as a power broker in the main election list for the country's Shi'ite majority, which could dominate the Jan. 30 ballot. Chalabi used his connections with influential Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to help draw up a mostly Shi'ite list backed by the Iranian-born scholar, people familiar with the list said. Under the postwar election system, Iraq will be treated as a single electoral district. The electorate will vote for lists of candidates. The number of votes received will determine how many people on the list get into the 275-seat National Assembly.

Names high on the list therefore have the best chance of being elected. Chalabi is 10th on the Shi'ite list.

21 December 2004

On its busiest day, which was last year, Amazon.com received 2.1 million orders, or 24 a second, and shipped out a million packages. This is like a giant red flag to a man currently dealing with a firm that took an order early in November and hasn't managed to ship the damn thing yet, but perhaps more on that in the New Year. (Hear that, Rick? I'm going to expose your idle, sorry, anti-Christmas ass if you don't get your finger out!)

The San Francisco Chronicle explains, calmly, how Amazon does it.

More little straws in the Middle East air - Fareed Zakaria says, in his Washington Post column that he thinks there are some reasons for optimism. Among them are the reforms going on in some of the smaller Arab states.

"Dubai is far ahead of all others in terms of economic openness and efficiency. But Qatar and Bahrain are moving in the same direction with radical plans. It is a strange reversal. In the 1950s and 1960s, the large Arab states, led by Egypt, were seen as the modernizing forces in the region. The gulf monarchies were backward Bedouin societies. Now progress, at least economic progress, is coming from the gulf, while countries such as Syria appear to be stuck in the Stone Age. Indeed, despite the stirrings in Egypt, what is most likely is an increasing divide in the Arab world between the small, nimble states on the periphery - the Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco - and the slumbering giants.

"Although many in the region would be dismayed by this division, it is a healthy development. Pan-Arabism, which was never more than hot air anyway, has been one of the ideologies that has kept Arabs from modernizing. Competition will force each state to focus on its own future. And as some succeed, others will follow, and regional trade and tourism - currently abysmally low - will expand. Perhaps this will forge a new Arab community, one created by the practical realities of contact, culture and commerce rather than war, rhetoric and politics."

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, seems to have the same sense of progress. He's tallying up all the dreadful mistakes and errors of judgement that got us to this place.

And Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, claims in a Haaretz op-ed that European Union/Israeli relations are thawing out.

This is a wonderful story, but unless I'm missing something that can't be grasped from the web coverage, the Los Angeles Times made a mistake by allowing the writer to try to back into a story that really should have a punchy lead. The deal is this: the two Pioneer spacecraft currently heading out of the solar system into the wider universe are moving more slowly than they should be. Why? Well, if you rule out the possibility that the spacecraft systems have gone wrong (and they think they have) there are three possibilities, and each one is more fantastic than a Buck Rogers tale.

One is that invisible, so-called dark matter (we aren't sure that it even exists) is holding the spacecraft back. Another is that the invisible dimensions of space are tugging at the Pioneers. This idea has its origin in string theory, an idea that suggests we are surrounded by far more than the three dimensions we know about. And the third is that gravity is more complex than ole Uncle Albert thought it was.

I wish I could winkle out the deep symbolic significance of this - US citizens go into full panic buying mode when they hear there's a shortage of flu shots, but Canadians, on the other hand, flee from their shots like liberals from reason. Is it that they're both crazy?

Here's a man who figures the Oil-for-Food scandal is "Just another trick of the neo-conservatives to blow away anyone who gets in the way of their plans for a global empire." He claims to have worked for the Wall Street Journal - I can't think that could have been for much longer than a couple of hours if this Aljazeera story is any example of his ability with facts. The neocons, he says, were not in the least bit embarrassed by the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he says, "because they had known well before the invasion that Saddam had done everything he could possibly do to assure the world that he was no threat to the region, the US and the world."

Read it - this one's a candidate of some kind for the Guinness Book of World Records.

20 December 2004

Former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter thinks that the insurgency of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a construct of former dictator Saddam Hussein's intelligence apparatus, designed to take attention away from loyalists in the Baath party. His article on the subject is in Aljazeera this morning.

Oz blogger Arthur Chrenkoff's twice-monthly roundup of good news from Iraq appears in this morning's Wall Street Journal. Among the points he makes is that some $120 million has been committed to the reconstruction of Al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah. "Marine civil affairs units are making damage assessments throughout the city and progress has been made in restoring some key infrastructure like water and power.

"Officials say as the city is cleared of insurgents and unexploded ordnance, announcements will be made that heads of families will be allowed back district-by-district to inspect their homes and businesses...Addresses on food ration cards issued before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq will be used to verify each family resides in the district being opened.

"US navy Rear Admiral Raymond Alexander says military personnel will be in the city to hand out damage claims forms. 'If their house is damaged, we're going to let them turn in a claim. Their house may be gone, do they want to rebuild or take that cheque and go somewhere else?' he said."

A former member of the UN's peacekeeping staff is arguing in the Wall Street Journal this morning that Kofi Annan should lose his job, but not because of the Oil-for-Food scandal. "The salient indictment of Mr. Annan's leadership is lethal cowardice, not corruption; the evidence is genocide, not oil," claims Kenneth L Cain, who was in Rwanda to collect evidence of war crimes for the UN shortly after the Hutu massacre of Tutsis there. The massacre, he said, did not have to happen.

"Gen Romeo Dallaire, the UN's force commander in Rwanda, sent Mr. Annan a series of desperate faxes including one warning that Hutu militias 'could kill up to 1,000' Tutsis 'in 20 minutes' and others pleading for authority to protect vulnerable civilians. But at the crucial moment, Mr. Annan ordered his general to stand down and to vigorously protect, not genocide victims, assembled in their numbers waiting to die, but the UN's image of 'impartiality'."

Maya Lin is the architect who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Many people thought that was a one-off success, and that she would, thereafter, sink into obscurity. Not a bit of it. Her work continues to be of a very high quality, as Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic of the Guardian says in this piece about her new non-denominational Riggio-Lynch chapel set by a pond in an orchard at Haley Farm, Clinton, Tennessee.

"Lin talks much about the quality of light in her work," he writes, "and here daylight is beautifully handled and modulated. The chapel is quiet and restful, yet light dances gently here. It is always fascinating to see, and to feel, how built space can create a sense of spirituality even in the very simplest forms and rawest structures.

"Le Corbusier's raw, almost bleak church at La Tourette is, for all its poverty, an undeniable house of God. In Imre Makovecz's extraordinary timber mortuary chapel at the Farkasret cemetery, Budapest, one can almost hear the wings of angels rustling in its dark recesses. Lin achieves something of this same divine conjuring act. 'I like to think of my work as creating a private conversation with each person,' she says, 'no matter how public each work is and no matter how many people are present.'

"Opened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the hard-won Civil Rights Act, the Hale Farm 'Ark' is a fine, low-key building that reminds us that contemporary art and modern architecture are not just about shocking, provoking and providing striking photo-opportunities. This is a building that takes architecture back to its roots, as a form of shelter, and as a vessel that connects us to old gods, and to a spirituality and sense of charity that we try, in our different ways, to celebrate at this time of year."

19 December 2004

I was drawn into this story by the intelligent and attractive face of Jessica Yu, the film maker who won the short documentary Oscar for her film Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, in 1997. But the gold was a little farther down in the story, when the writer started to talk about the film she's now working on, In the Realms of the Unreal. It's about the art of the extremely reclusive Henry Darger, a Chicago janitor who had suffered the early deaths of both parents, spent most of his teenage years in a mental asylum and as an adult led a lonely, reclusive, religion-obsessed life. When Darner died at 81 in 1973, his landlord found in his apartment a staggering amount of creative work, including 300 paintings and a 15,000-page illustrated novel, 'In the Realms of the Unreal.' Today he's considered one of the country's foremost 'outsider' artists, with exhibitions in major museums.

Yu says "His biggest exhibition is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. That's the best place to see his work. And they have even funded a study center for him - five doctoral candidates reading his 15,000-page book." Darger is not, the San Francisco Chronicle says, "for every taste; many of his hundreds of paintings have as subject matter naked little girls, frolicking innocently as little girls do, but sporting penises. Most find it innocently odd and poignantly dreamy; others find it offensive."

I linked on Friday to comments made in the Washington Post by Gen George W Casey Jr, the US commander in Iraq, who said the Iraqi insurgency was being run in part by former senior Iraqi Baath party officials who "are operating out of Syria with impunity and providing direction and financing for the insurgency." It wasn't a story that caught fire in the rest of the media, despite its significance, but the Jerusalem Post does this morning include a piece saying that Washington, "Livid over Syria's sheltering of former Iraqi Baathists who are using Syrian territory to help organize the insurgency against US forces...is contemplating a range of punitive measures to use against Damascus."

The world's press doesn't quite know yet what to make of the UN Conference on Climate Change that has just ended in Buenos Aires. But the media was so convinced it was on the side of the angels in supporting Kyoto and excoriating the US for failing to sign on to it, that one can guess that they owe much of their confusion to having to face up to the mounting evidence that they were backing the wrong horse all along. The Independent published the story this morning that all of them wish they had been able to publish - "Governments from around the world yesterday narrowly succeeded in keeping the international bid to combat catastrophic global warming alive, in the face of determined attempts by the re-elected Bush administration to kill it off.

"Top negotiators described the effort - at a special UN conference in Buenos Aires - as like hanging on to a cliff face by their 'fingernails', as the United States and oil-producing countries threw rock after rock to try to dislodge them."

But the Independent is indulging itself. Its story is bullshit...the kind of wishful thinking it seems to specialise in where the environment is concerned.

Tech Central Station has made a reputation for itself getting this kind of story right. Its lead reporter on this story, Ronald Bailey, writes in his wrap-up that "The Kyoto Protocol is dead - there will be no further global treaties that set binding limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases after Kyoto runs out in 2012...The conventional wisdom that it's the United States against the rest of the world in climate change diplomacy has been turned on its head. Instead it turns out that it is the Europeans who are isolated. China, India, and most of the rest of the developing countries have joined forces with the United States to completely reject the idea of future binding GHG emission limits. At the conference here in Buenos Aires, Italy shocked its fellow European Union members when it called for an end to the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. These countries recognize that stringent emission limits would be huge barriers to their economic growth and future development."

And Hans H.J. Labohm, who is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Nederlands Instituut voor Internationale Betrekkingen Clingendael, agrees with him: "Kyoto seems to have found its Waterloo in Buenos Aires, the site of this year's 10th annual UN conference on climate change. Its proponents have always argued that first stage of the treaty, Kyoto Mark I, was only the first step towards a far more comprehensive scheme which would ultimately comprise all countries in the world and would aim at greenhouse gas emission cuts of around 60% by 2050. Since the refusal by the G-77, China and India to accept any commitment to reduce emissions as from 2012, when Kyoto Mark I expires, and - more surprisingly - the announcement by Italy that it will withdraw from the Kyoto process in the same year, we have entered a totally different ball game.

"...Climate scepticism is gaining ground in Western Europe. It is even becoming respectable. Many organisations, often cum websites, provide ample information about the views of the climate sceptics, thus breaking the de facto information monopoly of the pro-Kyoto scientists belonging to the 'established climate science community'.

"The proponents of the man-made global warming hypothesis often argue that 'the science is settled' and 'all scientists agree'. This is simply not true. In personal debates between them and climate sceptics, they often challenge the latter to publish their views in peer-reviewed journals. Many sceptics, however, share the experience that they have been denied access to these journals, or that they had to meet scientific standards which by far exceeded those which were applied to papers of their less iconoclastic colleagues. Nevertheless, the body of climate sceptical literature has been growing dramatically over the years. But one can hardly escape the feeling that the pro-Kyoto scientists are ignoring contrary views, perhaps because they labour under a serious form of cognitive dissonance. Timo Hameranta deserves credit for drawing up a list of hundreds of scientific peer-reviewed papers, other scientific papers, overviews, presentations and books. He also draws some very pertinent conclusions from the overview of the sceptical literature: 'The scientific basis to tackle the climate change allegedly caused by human-induced CO2 emissions has collapsed. The newest scientific findings prove that current or near-future (i.e. in the next 100 yrs) CO2 emissions cause no dangerous anthropogenic interference with or dangerous perturbation in the climate system.'"

I'm a little surprised that writer Christopher Hitchens should have such mean-spirited and narrow thoughts about the Sixties. In the New York Times this morning he sniffs, of those who played a part, that "To this day, that especially vile reminder of the epoch - the graying and greasy ponytail trailing off the balding pate - is their living memorial."

Hitchens was born in 1949, and grew up in England. So maybe his age and isolation cut him off from being able to remember what the Sixties crowd was rebelling against, and from being able to understand how different the world would have been without their rebellion. Could it be that the man who wrote such an excellent and perceptive book about George Orwell failed to grasp Animal Farm and 1984 properly?


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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