...Views from mid-Atlantic
15 January 2005

Huygens' remarkable landing on Titan was marred, says a retired space scientist, by the European Space Agency's "bizzarre idea of how to present the first landing on a new planet to the public. It was a sorry spectacle - probably the worst PR disaster in the entire history of space travel," Jeffrey F Bell told SpaceDaily. It was an inept, anti-intellectual, reactionary, elitist approach to showing the taxpayers what their euros bought, he said. "Never has a great technical and scientific feat been made to look more trivial..."

In three decades, Finland has accomplished a remarkable transformation from one of the least healthy nations in the world to one or the healthiest. The Guardian explains how they did it.

14 January 2005

This is wonderful news - researchers at the University of Toronto have invented a flexible plastic solar cell that is said to be five times more
efficient than current methods in converting energy from the sun into electrical energy. But there seem to be an element of competition going on, at least where the flexibility part of it is concerned. A three-nation European Union research project called H-Alpha Solar has also announced the discovery of technology allowing very thin, flexible solar cells. Their discovery, however, has involved a degree of compromise in their ability to produce electricity efficiently. While cutting-edge solar panels now operate at an efficiency of about 20 per cent, the new flexible cells are only 7 per cent efficient.

So it's not what you'd call a dead heat.

Iran's mullahs are at it again - the Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has been summoned to appear before a Revolutionary Court in Tehran on Monday. AlJazeera quotes her as having said she doesn't know the specific reason behind the summons and as yet has not decided on her response.

I wish I'd seen this debate between US Supreme Court justices Scalia and Breyer, apparently carried on C-Span last night. The Washington Post says the scene "was a classroom at the American University Washington College of Law, where, for 90 remarkable minutes yesterday, Breyer and Scalia stepped out from behind the velvet curtain and argued legal issues in front of professors and students - and a national television audience watching on C-SPAN. It was the first time in recent memory that two sitting justices representing opposing factions on the court took their disagreements so completely public, and the effect was, at times, electrifying. The subject - whether the Supreme Court should consult the opinions of foreign courts in making its own interpretations of the US Constitution - is a hot topic in constitutional law. But it was almost overshadowed by the spectacle of two legal heavyweights engaged in a sharp but civil intellectual slugfest."

I don't have a great deal of time for Scalia, but he's right on this issue. As long as the Constitution is paramount in US law, American justices cannot be bound by decisions made in other courts. Nothing wrong with being able to take note of arguments and decisions made elsewhere, though.

This is scientists doing poetry:

The deep futility of all ephemeral things
Which stir the soul to unimagined dreams
Of Brussels sprouts, and spinach in the snow

I'm not so sure we mightn't get a better outcome if poets did science, but there we are. The Times covers the start of the UNIVERSE contest, organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It's part of Uncle Einstein's Year, marking 100 years since the publication of three seminal papers by the physicist.

It's an old story, and one which always seems to end badly, except in the movies. Jamaica's own Dirty Harry, Superintendent Renato Adams, head of the "Crime Management Unit" of the Jamaican Police, goes on trial in Kingston on Monday. He is charged with murder for his involvement in the Braeton killings of 2001, when seven youths were shot dead during a raid. Rights groups have said the CMU had a shoot-first, ask-questions-later policy, and that Braeton was just one example of the way they worked. But in blood-soaked Jamaica, Adams has become a folk hero for being able to beat the violent, armed criminals who so often hold the place to ransom. "These people want us to go after criminals on bended knee while they fire on us," he told Britain's Independent last week. "and then receive a posthumous award - because we behaved in a very tolerant way. I don't think like that."

That three militant groups should have claimed responsibility for yesterday's suicide bombing at one of the three checkpoints between Israel and Gaza is a kind of confirmation of the reports that have suggested Palestinian terror groups have formed a coalition to ensure that Mahmoud Abbas doesn't get too far with his ideas about peace. Israel has now shut all three crossings, effectively isolating the Gaza strip, and says it will not reopen them until the Palestinians take steps to fight terrorism, which puts the ball firmly in Mr Abbas's court. Haaretz, displaying an uncanny talent for stating the obvious, says "The Palestinian attack, which came just four days after the election of Mahmoud Abbas, could be seen as a challenge to the new Palestinian Authority chairman, who has often condemned suicide bombings as harmful to the Palestinian cause."

It was never going to be easy, I guess, but one is still astonished by the speed and the cynicism with which the Palestinians have started the process of flushing down the toilet the opportunity for peace which Yasser Arafat's death represented. The three militant groups which claimed joint responsibility for the attack, by the way, are Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is an offshoot of Abbas's own Fatah movement.

13 January 2005

DEBKAfile (DEBKAfile, right?) says the US has warned Syria that if any of the Kornet AT-14 anti-tank missiles it recently purchased in large quantities from Eastern Europe turn up in Iraq, the US will invade them. This is not the most coherently-written story I've ever read, but the bottom line seems pretty clear. Syrian President Assad bought massive quantities of the third generation anti-tank weapons because he can't afford to buy fighter planes and tanks at the moment . US intelligence was clever enough to record the serial numbers of the anti-tank missiles he has bought. So, if any are found in Iraq, General Casey, commander of US forces in Iraq has received orders from the commander-in-chief in the White House to pursue military action inside Syria according to his best military judgment.

I thought turning into a bloody big beetle was bad enough, but reality...well, reality seems to want to expose Kafka as a sissy. This chilling story about a man doomed to live forever in the present is from the Telegraph, which is quoting his wife: "A virus had caused holes in Clive's brain; his memories had fallen out. The doctors said it was encephalitis, from herpes simplex, the cold-sore virus. The virus, they explained, lies dormant in most of the population. Once in a blue moon it slips its moorings, and instead of going to the mouth it goes to the brain. The brain swells up, and, before long, brain crushes against bone. The virus does its damage before anyone knows it is there. Affected areas include temporal lobes, occipito-parietal and frontal lobes... thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala; it just keeps on storming through. The part it wipes out completely is the hippocampus, Greek for seahorse. These structures are what we use for recall and remembering, and laying down new thoughts.

"By the time they had figured out what was wrong with Clive and started pumping anti-viral drugs into him, all he had left where his memory used to be were seahorse-shaped scars. He could not remember a single thing that had ever happened to him, but he remembered me and knew that he loved me."

Peggy Noonan is someone I admire. She's a contributing editor at the Wall Street Journal and at Time magazine now, but she was a special assistant to Ronald Reagan during his presidency, and stayed on to write speeches for George Bush, Senior. I watched her on a C-Span panel discussion about Ronald Reagan recently. She was, I guess, the most junior of the officials who had been invited to talk about Reagan, but it didn't take long to understand that in terms of substance, she was swinging more lead than most of the rest of them. In these comments in the Journal on the outcome of the CBS Rathergate affair, she demonstrates: "Some think bloggers and internet writers of all sorts are like the 19th century pamphleteers who made American politics livelier and more vigorous by lambasting the other team in full-throated broadsides. Actually, I've said that. And there are similarities. But it should be noted that the pamphleteers were heavy on screeds and colorfully damning the foe. The most successful bloggers aren't bringing bluster to the debate, they're bringing facts--font sizes, full quotes, etc. They're bringing facts and points of view on those facts that the MSM before this could ignore, and did ignore. They're bringing a lot to the debate, and changing the debate by what they bring. They're doing what excellent reporters would do.

"They will no doubt continue to be the force in 2005 that they have been the past few years. Meantime the MSM will not disappear. But it will evolve. Some media organs - Newsweek, Time, the New York Times - will likely use the changing environment as license to be what they are: liberal, only more so. Interestingly they have begun to use Fox News Channel as their rationale. We used to be unbiased but then Fox came along with its conservative propaganda so now just to be fair and compete we're going liberal.

"I don't see why anyone should mind this. A world where National Review is defined as conservative and Newsweek defined as liberal would be a better world, for it would be a more truthful one. Everyone gets labeled, tagged and defined, no one hides an agenda, the audience gets to listen, consider, weigh and allow for biases. A journalistic world where people declare where they stand is a better one. Networks, on the other hand, may try harder to play it down the middle, and that would be wise. The days when they could sell a one-party point of view is over. No one is buying now because no one is forced to buy. But everyone will buy the networks when they sell what they're really good at, which is covering real news as it happens. Tsunamis, speeches, trials - events. Real and actual news. They are really good at that. And there is a market for it. And that market isn't over."

Many people, especially those who understand scientific method, scoff at the idea of intuitive insight. You'd have thought that Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a contributor to Scientific American, would be chief among them. But in this review, he admits that Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink, has made him a convert. It's a book he praises on another level as well. "There are," he writes in the New York Sun, "roughly speaking, three levels of science writing in our culture: (1) technical (peer-reviewed papers, monographs, and university press books written by and for professional scientists); (2) popular professional (essays and articles in popular magazines and trade press books written by scientists for both scientists and moderately informed general readers - Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond come to mind); (3) popular general (essays, articles, and books by journalists and science writers for completely uninformed readers).

"We live in the Age of Science, and all three levels are vital for the dispersal of scientific knowledge to an educated democracy. Sadly, too many professional scientists think level one is the only legitimate form of science writing, and that anything else is simply "dumbing down"...Mr. Gladwell is presenting science at level three, where it is most needed, and where good writing is most vital. He has the ability to synthesize a large body of scientific data into a highly readable, page-turning narrative, and to convert the raw numbers of research and statistics into meaningful facts for our personal lives. I thought he did this brilliantly with The Tipping Point, and I think he does it even better in Blink. For this feat all of us in the scientific community should be grateful, because the craft of writing good science is just as important as the skill of producing good science."

It's hard to understand the reaction of some in the Arab world to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. In this article circulated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the editor of the Egyptian government weekly, Akhbar Al-Yawm, takes the Arab Doctors' Association to task for its policy of aiding Jihad warriors in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia, but refraining from helping victims of the recent tsunami in Asia because the tsunami is "punishment from Allah".

There was also, especially in the days immediately following the catastrophe, much speculation in the Muslim world that it was all an American plot to kill Muslims. Al-Arabiya TV, for example, suggested that nuclear blasts in the Indian Ocean could be behind the natural cataclysm. The Ansar chat-rooms went further: "The Kuffars (infidels) are using underwater nuclear blasts to provoke Tsunamis against the Muslim Ummah." The fact that the American base at Diego Garcia escaped damage was offered up as proof of a sinister hand behind the whole business - personnel there had been warned, the story went, and had taken precautions.

The reason Diego Garcia was spared, interestingly enough, may well have been its reefs. This is something significant for us in Bermuda, because we, too are surrounded by a substantial platform of reefs. I'm not sure anybody's done scientific research on this, yet, but here's an interesting excerpt from a briefing given by Andrew Natsios of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to reporters at a briefing in Geneva. He was asked this question by one reporter: The Pentagon said that there was no damage nor loss of life on Diego Garcia. Could you tell us what sort of warning Diego Garcia received to allow it to escape from any sort of damage?

This was his reply: "It is not a matter of escaping: there is nowhere to escape, it's three feet above sea level. If the tsunami had approached, there was nowhere to go. There are coral reefs around Diego Garcia, and that's what stopped the tsunami. It is not because they got any advance warning. They didn't.

"When Secretary Powell and I were with Jeb Bush in a helicopter, and going along the coast of Aceh, we noticed whole areas that were almost untouched. We saw the same thing in Sri Lanka. Some untouched while areas right next door were completely and totally destroyed. As I looked down below, I could see there was a difference geologically in the stone formations in the ocean, a difference between the areas that were affected from the areas that were not affected. It has to do with the geology of the area, not any early warming systems.

"The same thing is the case on the Burmese coast, for example. They were spared some of that because of the peculiar geography of that coastline.

"I think the same is true with the Maldives. The Maldives are just above sea level, but they also have some of the coral reefs. The particular geography of the islands, that's what protected it."

12 January 2005

I'm a fan of Philip Bobbitt, who published what I think is a very important book, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, for anyone who wants to understand global trends in political development. That's also a patch in which Robert D Kaplan has made a reputation for himself. One writer said reading him was "like putting on a pair of glasses you didn't know you needed... His is a journey to prove ideas. He wants the landscape of his travel map to affirm a larger truth. A kind of idee fixe that threads through his books and articles is that the nation-state doesn't hold, that the way we understand the world to be organized is dissolving, that we are missing the most important trends that determine and portend our own future."

So what a pleasure it was this morning to read Kaplan on Bobbitt in Policy Review! And not just Kaplan on the obvious bits of Bobbitt, but Kaplan extracting from Bobbitt an important insight that I missed completely.

"The media clerisy flatter themselves on inheriting the early twentieth-century muckraking tradition of investigative journalism," says Kaplan. "But investigative journalism is, both chronologically and philosophically, just as much a legacy of the 1960s youth rebellion, in which, as Samuel Huntington wrote in his greatest book, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (1981), 'the arrogance of power was superceded by the arrogance of morality.' As secrecy became synonymous with evil in the late 1960s, exposure was elevated from a mere technique to a principle.

"In The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (2002), the academic Philip Bobbitt builds on this notion. He observes that, 'In the market-state, the media have begun to act in direct competition with the government of the day.' The media 'are more nimble than bureaucrats hampered by procedural rules,' even as they are 'protected in many countries by statutes and constitutional amendments.' He adds that the 'critical function of the media in the market-state is similar to that of the political parties of the Left in the nation-state.' Bobbitt is not here calling the media left-wing. For all one knows, he may believe that they have become, in certain quarters, dangerously right-wing. No, Bobbitt leads one on the path of a different insight: that the essential role of the left has always been to question and expose authority. For it has been the left's very fear of authority that makes it uncomfortable with the concept of leadership. People on the left rarely write books about leadership and taking charge: That is the domain of business and military types. Leaders must choose, and because even right choices may produce imperfect outcomes, there will always be much to criticize - and to expose. Thus, left-wing journals can be brilliant even as they are ultimately irresponsible.

"And so, as the nation-state slowly dies and market forces sideline the old left in the wake of communism's defeat, its function must be assumed by a new historical actor."

Yesterday, it was hot iron gas riding a ripple in spacetime that lit me up on SpaceDaily's site. Today, it's giant blobs of hot hydrogen gas, spotted billions of light-years away "in ancient galactic structures or filaments, where thousands of young galaxies are clustered together."

Meantime, Buck Rogers fans, a professor of computer science and complex systems at Brandeis University is trying to work out some more of those awkward little ethical questions posed by work on robots. In Wired, he wonders, among other things: "Should telerobotic labor be regulated?...Should local labor laws apply to overseas workers who telecommute?...Should robots carry weapons?"

Who could resist this stuff?

A pair of articles appear this morning that make you wonder whether you can believe what you read about the CIA. In the first one, published in the Washington Post, it is revealed that when the organisation sent Valerie Plame's husband to Niger to find out whether they were selling yellowcake to Iraq, they didn't bother to get him to sign a confidentiality agreement. This story is written by Victoria Toensing, who was chief counsel to the Senate intelligence committee from 1981 to 1984 and served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, and Bruce Sanford, a Washington lawyer specializing in First Amendment issues. It suggests that naming Valerie Plame as a CIA operative might actually not qualify as the crime everyone has been saying it is.

The second article, also published in the Washington Post, suggests that CIA officials allowed a serving officer, Michael Scheuer, who was in charge of those tracking Osama bin Laden, to publish a book criticising the adminstration's policies, because they were "fuzzy about enforcing rules that seemed to prevent agency people from expressing opinions." The Post's story quotes a "senior intelligence official" as having said that "people assumed the comments had received the endorsement of the agency leadership because they let him print it." The result was "the unintended effect of making the agency's job of appearing nonpolitical more difficult."

Is it possible the agency could be that inept?

A group of Toronto doctors has received Health Canada's permission to test in humans a combination of medicine's hottest ingredients: stem cells and gene therapy, according to the Globe and Mail. "The molecular concoction is a potential treatment for an incurable lung condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension that can leave people breathless just combing their hair. It affects more than 7,000 Canadians as the blood vessels of their lungs shrivel."

I sometimes get a little impatient with the Christian Science Monitor's style of writing for people whose IQ barely makes it into two figures, but this story contains a little gem of the kind that keeps cropping up in their stories, and therefore keeps CSM in my must-read category. "If I were to be asked what I would do if I were CBS, I would make peace with the bloggers and invite them inside,' says Mark Tapscott, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy in Washington. 'News is now a conversation. It is no longer this elite telling us what is important.'" Smart little insight.

Claudia Rosett has a hunch that Saddam & Sons might have been dipping into UN Compensation Commission funds in addition to Oil-for-Food funds. UNCC was set up in 1991 to channel some of Iraq's money into compensation for the victims of Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It was folded into Oil-for-Food when that relief program swung into operation in late 1996. It has disbursed some $18.8 billion dollars so far, making it quite a tasty little target for a thief with a key to the front door.

In the Wall Street Journal, Ms Rosett says: "Among other concerns, it is by now clear that Saddam & Sons saw themselves as entitled to all they could steal from the Iraqi people - the intended beneficiaries-via Oil for Food. Both the U.S. Treasury and the head of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, have documented the use by Saddam and his cronies of front companies, as well as corrupt business partners, to filch billions via kickbacks on other aspects of the program. But given that Saddam's illicit gains may be funding murder today, especially in such vital theaters as Iraq; and given the dark seams that ran through Oil for Food - of dirty money, secret arms deals and links to terrorist networks - the United Nations Compensation Commission seems a good place for investigators to log some serious time, and soon."

11 January 2005

On the space front, a couple of really quite extraordinary stories appear in this morning's SpaceDaily. First, NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory has found evidence that "A swarm of 10,000 or more black holes may be orbiting the Milky Way's supermassive black hole...This would represent the highest concentration of black holes anywhere in the Galaxy. Black holes are formed as remnants of the explosions of massive stars and have masses of about 10 suns. As black holes orbit the center of the Galaxy at a distance of several light years, they pull on surrounding stars, which pull back on the black holes. The net effect is that black holes spiral inward, and the low-mass stars move out." From the estimated number of stars and black holes in the Galactic Center region, apparently, it can be deduced that this dynamical friction will have produced a dense swarm of 20,000 black holes within three light years of Sagittarius A* , the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

The lead on a second, related story is this: Astronomers Jon Miller (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and Jeroen Homan (MIT) have seen evidence of hot iron gas riding a ripple in spacetime around a black hole." Wow! Those are words good enough to draw Hallelujahs from the cold graves of Bill Burroughs and Philip Dick.

"Black holes are such extreme objects that they can actually warp and drag the fabric of spacetime around with them as they spin," according to said Miller, who is the lead author on an article to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. "Gas whipping around the black hole has no choice but to ride that wave. Albert Einstein predicted this over 80 years ago, and now we are starting to see evidence for it."

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada's ugly assertion that black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was, among other things, unable to write to an acceptable standard, has drawn some withering fire from Bruce Fein, a well-known constitutional lawyer in Washington. In an article published in the The Washington Times, Fein says Senator Reid had made "staggering" errors of fact in his remarks. "Slated to lead Senate Democrats in the 109th Congress, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada epitomizes Democratic Party descent from debate to deceit in criticizing conservative Supreme Court justices and distorting court rulings. That vertical plunge in intellectual honesty thwarts constructive exchanges over the Constitution and Supreme Court appointments. Mr. Reid and colleagues should either do their judicial homework or remain silent. Nothing is as dangerous as ignorance or propaganda in action."

Libby Purves has some scathing (and unnecessarily polite) words for that ugly little religious whippersnapper who orchestrated a vicious campaign over the weekend against the BBC, causing at least one of its officers to have to go into hiding. The station offended by airing an opera that contained what he thought were naughty words and thoughts. In the Times, Ms Purves gives the BBC marks for standing up to the group that calls itself Christian Voice: "The BBC - instead of hiring security men and carrying on with the broadcast - could easily have caved in to this self-righteous thuggery, just as the Birmingham police and theatre management capitulated to the few Sikhs who became violent over the play Behzti. If the BBC had followed, we would be heading down a dark and terrible road into a jungle of debased sectarianism, fear and bigotry.

"It didn't. Thank God for that. I have plenty of criticisms of BBC television, and can rant at inordinate length about its lapses of judgment...But on Saturday night it did the right thing. It went ahead with Jerry Springer - The Opera...The decision to carry on in the face of crypto-Christian yobs and ill-informed protesters was correct. It should count in the BBC's favour - not against it - when charter renewal comes up."

I commented recently (on January 5) about Decca Aitkenhead's bubble-headed assertion in the Guardian that Jamaican homophobia was Britain's fault because it colonised the place. Mark Steyn concurs, and thinks HM Queen should give better speeches. (There goes his knighthood.)

The Telegraph believes the United Nations suffered one of the most far-reaching indictments in its history yesterday when audit documents were released, showing that investigators found it guilty of systematic mismanagement and incompetence in running the $56 billion oil-for-food programme in Iraq. "Internal UN audits of the numerous agencies dealing with oil-for-food, the biggest ever humanitarian operation, showed officials had catalogued the problems for years, but that managers had often been 'either unable or unwilling' to change course. The UN's laxity resulted in many millions of dollars being lost through suspect overpayments to contractors, the purchase of dubious or useless assets and alleged fraud by some employees."

The newspaper's Diplomatic Editor, Anton La Guardia, suggests the damage is so great that it may be the final nail in Kofi Annan's coffin. "Kofi Annan survived the disasters of UN peacekeeping in Srebrenica and Rwanda, the bitter Security Council divisions over the Iraq war and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. But the man described by some as the 'secular Pope' is now more vulnerable than ever, because of growing scandal over his organisation's mismanagement of sanctions and humanitarian aid to Iraq. Calls for Mr Annan's resignation were once restricted to ideologically driven hardline US conservatives. Now diplomats in New York are openly asking whether the secretary-general can remain in office until the end of his term in December 2006."

Natan Sharansky, a minister in the Israeli government, and co-author, with Ron Dermer, of The Case for Democracy writes in the Wall Street Journal that Mahmoud Abbas is going to succeed in making peace in the Middle East only to the extent that he succeeds in building a free Palestinian society. "For many policy makers, a free society for the Palestinians has little to do with the demands of peace. What is advocated instead is a policy that will strengthen a 'moderate' so that he can fight extremists and make a deal with Israel. But merely replacing Arafat with Abu Mazen will not turn a failed Oslo formula into a success.

"Oslo failed because it was based on the premise that a strong dictator would make a strong peace. What Oslo's architects did not understand was that dictators need external enemies to justify the repression necessary to keep their societies under control. In contrast, democratic leaders, dependent on popular support, have a powerful incentive to deliver peace and prosperity to their citizens. In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, the focus this time must be less on summits and envoys and more on helping the Palestinians build a free society."

This is CBS's own coverage of the report on their forged National Guard documents story. There's a link to the full report prominently displayed on the CBS News home page. It certainly sees off the story written by Corey Pein of the Columbia Journalism Review that I commented on yesterday. And if you see what CBS had to do as a result of this very thorough review as purely symbolic, then firing four fairly senior executives does the trick. There are those who are arguing this morning that Dan Rather should have been dinged a little harder than he was for his part, and that the president of the news division, Andrew Heyward, should also have gone (it may be that in the wake of the publication of this report, Heyward will himself feel the need to resign. I can't get too excited about Rather who is, after all, just CBS's pretty face). I do think it is regrettable, though, that the authors of the report shied away from examining the allegations that those involved in airing the false story did so, at least in part, out of a political bias. Media like CBS, the New York Times and others of that ilk claim to...and should...play the news with a straight bat. That news philosophy does not mean that all involved with the news should do the same...there is lots of room on the scene for coverage which does have a political slant. But the public is best served if both types of coverage are available, and, above all, if they are not being deceived about which is which. CBS's biggest sin by far in this affair would have been to dish up politically-biased news under the guise of even-handedness, and it is a major failure that this report does not make a judgement about whether they did or did not...pour encourager les autres, as it is so neatly put by the French.

The Washington Times takes more or less the same view. "...The panel's report confirms the very worst suspicions of those who accuse the media of pursuing a liberal agenda. While acknowledging the accusations of bias, Messrs. Thornburgh and Boccardi say that to prove that it motivated the CBS producers is 'one of the most subjective, and most difficult, that the Panel has sought to answer.' They reason that 'The Panel will not level allegations for which it cannot offer adequate proof.'

"In light of the report's findings, this is absurd. It didn't escape the watchful eyes of National Review Online to see that the panel did not find it particularly difficult to accuse the bloggers, specifically those that followed the story, of having a 'conservative agenda,' as the report says on page 153. Instead, it takes as authoritative proof the denials of Mr. Rather and Mrs. Mapes. 'Absolutely, unequivocally untrue,' Mr. Rather told the panel. Mrs. Mapes insists her obsession was motivated by 'proximity, not politics,' referring to her personal ties with Texas. Their denials should hardly come as a surprise...The panel's refusal to connect liberal bias to CBS News' campaign to bring down a sitting president renders their report unsatisfactory."

10 January 2005

Fifty thousand telephone calls, many of them abusive and threatening, which caused BBC executives to have to go into hiding after Jerry Springer: The Opera was aired on the station over the weekend shows clearly that American fundamentalist sects and Muslims have no corner on religious lunacy after all - British Christians are right in there, pitching like champions. The national director of Christian Voice, which orchestrated the anti-Opera campaign, is quoted in the Guardian as having vowed to pursue a private prosecution against the corporation for the common law offence of blasphemy. "There will be nothing sacred if we cannot successfully prosecute the BBC," he said. More to the point, this ugly species of small-minded asshole is threatening the sanctity of the place that freedom and dissent and eccentricity once held in Britain. Paul Barker, writer and former editor of New Society claims in the Guardian that it's not the fate of freedom in the United States that people should be worrying about - it's the fate of freedom in Britain: "...Every libertarian must hope it's the dark before the dawn. Otherwise, forget America and Russia: it's farewell freedom in Britain."

Do you remember reading any news story that mentioned the speech Hamid Karzai made at his inauguration the other day? Particularly these words - "Whatever we have achieved in Afghanistan - the peace, the election, the reconstruction, the life that the Afghans are living today in peace, the children going to school, the businesses, the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community - is from the help that the United States of America gave us. Without that help Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists - destroyed, poverty-stricken, and without its children going to school or getting an education. We are very, very grateful, to put it in the simple words that we know, to the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day."

Blogger Arthur Chrenkoff notes in the Wall Street Journal this morning that "The Washington Post played Karzai's inauguration on page A-13, a placement that suggested it was relatively less important than Eliot Spitzer's decision to run for governor of New York or the decision of the U.S. government to import flu vaccine from Germany. As columnist Charles Krauthammer commented on the mainstream media's reaction to the inauguration, 'Miracle begets yawn'."

This, and the following couple of stories, are old news, I know, but I'm catching up. The Columbia Journalism Review hasn't exactly covered itself with glory with its coverage of the CBS/Rathergate story. It did nothing about it for four months, then published a long piece by one of its assistant editors, a man called Corey Pein. He seems to have been offended by the idea of bloggers leading a charge against a journalist of Rather's stature, and against a medium of CBS's stature. His article, Blog-Gate is a kind of object lesson in how silly your arguments have to be in order to defend the indefensible. His case, according to an analysis in the Weekly Standard, rests on the supposition that the documents were not forged - "'We don't know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were "apparently bogus",' Pein says" according to the Standard. "He adds, 'We don't know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof.' (Authentically forged, perhaps?) And finding proof for Pein may well be impossible. 'The bottom line,' he says, 'which credible document examiners concede, is that copies cannot be authenticated either way with absolute certainty.' Which suggests that, to Pein's mind, it is actually impossible to prove that the documents are forgeries."

Then he makes the extraordinary claim that the lesson of CBS's "forged" documents is that the media are allowing themselves to be manipulated by a throng of right-wing bloggers. Says Pein, "on close examination the scene looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule."

The blogosphere, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called right-wing, has given him a sound trundling, as you'll find if you Google his name.

Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer has written the mother of all essays on God's part in the Asian tsunami. It's long, and covers a lot of territory, but this will give you some idea, at least, of how it runs: "Harold (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) Kushner is one of those who thinks the problem of God's tolerance of catastrophic evils is solved essentially by making God a weakling - loving, but not really in charge, despite all the boasting in the Bible about God's powers, including the tsunami-related powers of raising and lowering the waters at will (remember that whole Flood thing?). Kushner is there on Beliefnet advising people to read the 23rd Psalm, which seems to me a wildly inappropriate choice, promising as it does that God will always be at our side to lead us beside still waters. So it's all good, except for the 150,000 who didn't exactly get the still waters that day.

"I recall the asperity with which this easy out (Kushner's 'God is not all-powerful') was dismissed by Yehuda Bauer, the former head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, when I asked him about it in Jerusalem. 'There's no way there can be an all-powerful and just God,' Mr. Bauer said. 'Because if he's all-powerful, he's Satan [considering the recurrent prevalence of genocidal evil in the world]. If he's just [meaning just but, as per Kushner, too weak to make the world just], he's a nebbish...I don't need a God like that.'"


An amusing little mickey-taker in the New Yorker, satirizing the lengths to which airlines are prepared to go to cut the frills out of air travel. It takes the form of a letter from an airline's new chairman to his passengers, announcing "passenger-related initiatives inspired by our merger with the Fifteenth Circuit Bankruptcy Court." Samples are: "Baggage check-in and pickup at the luggage carrousel are now two separate cash-pay opportunities. Lavatory Class, a low-cost alternative featuring aisle-free seating and almost unrestricted rest-room privileges." It also mentions that in exchange for a small fee, flight attendants will not serve passengers a meal. Having taken quite a lot of flights over the Christmas period, I'd willingly pay that fee. There was one meal, on Air France, of all airlines, that was quite astonishingly bad. I must single out, for special attention, a little block of brie that, had the staff at Gitmo threatened to force inmates to eat a second helping, would have induced confessions all round, and attracted the attention of the World Court at the Hague. Probably best to take one's own sandwiches from now on.

09 January 2005

Sorry about my disappearance last week - my computer more or less melted down a day or two after I came back from holiday. Major damage was done to a CD-ROM drive, both IDE hard drives (two other small SCSI drives survived, which ought to tell you something) and a stick of RAM. As nearly as I can tell, the culprit was a bad power supply unit. Good thing I have a pretty rigid back-up regime, or I'd have been in real fix.

The 2005 Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom has been released. It looks at a range of indicators - including tax policy, monetary policy and property rights - to size up who in the world is getting freer and who isn't. Accoding to the Washington Times, "as usual, a striking correlation between freedom and prosperity emerges. The data all point to incompetent or tyrannical government as the source of the world's economic ills."

You can read the report in its entirety at this site. I hope Bermuda's Government, which has made a point of cozying up to Caricom and Cuba over the last few years, takes note of the report's comments about the Caribbean, which are typified by this paragraph. "Economic freedom in Latin America and the Caribbean has stagnated. Over the past nine years of the Index, the average score has improved by an unimpressive 0.05 point, largely due to minor improvements by some of the region's least free economies plus Chile's strong improvement. The median score for the region has worsened by 0.01 of a point - not a dramatic decline, but indicative of the overall stagnation of economic freedom in the region since the 1997. The countries that are representative of the median score for Latin America and the Caribbean in the 2005 Index - Nicaragua and Guyana - are on the cusp between "mostly free" and "mostly unfree."

The New York Times has been the main recipient of House Committee leaks of the news that 56 until-now secret internal UN audits criticised the UN for inadequate management of the Oil-for-Food programme, but the scrappy little New York Post was cut in for a piece of the action as well. The Post managed to "obtain copies" of three of the documents in advance of their wholesale release on Monday. The Times got 10 of them. The reports have been kept secret by the United Nations for years, but they were scheduled to be released tomorrow after months of pressure by conservative U.S. legislators. "'These audits show the U.N. didn't manage the program adequately,'" the Post quotes the staffer at the House International Relations Committee who gave them the reports as having said. "That assessment comes after Paul Volcker, who is leading the United Nations' inquiry into the oil-for-food program, said in an interview Friday that he doesn't believe that the reports show any major wrongdoing."

Condoleezza Rice, the United States's new Secretary of State, has made a smart little change over at her new office. Not appointing John Bolton, a hawk backed by many conservatives, to be her deputy has led to his departure to the private sector, according to the Telegraph . Bolton was a robust opponent of Britain's "softly-softly" approach to Iran over its nuclear programme.

If Dr Rice had appointed him to be her deputy, she would never have been able to shake the impression that she was a puppet of the right.

This is where the future of automobiles lies, I think - fuel cell technology. Two years ago, industry engineers and scientists said it would be a decade before they managed to improve the technology to the point that it could rival the performance of gasoline engines. They've done it in two, with the Sequel, an experimental hydrogen-powered care being unveiled today, according to the Washington Post, by General Motors. GM is introducing the car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Rival companies are apparently making similar announcements.

Here's a silly comment - the third most senior executive of the CIA claims we're better off with Osama bin Laden alive and at large than we would be if he were captured or killed. The London Times quotes AB "Buzzy" Krongard (who apparently stepped down from his post some weeks ago) as saying that if the world's most wanted terrorist were captured or killed, a power struggle among his Al-Qaeda subordinates might trigger a wave of terror attacks. "You can make the argument that we're better off with him (at large)," Krongard said, "because if something happens to Bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror." This might be true in the very short term, but in the longer term, what to do with leaders of this kind is a really simple calculation, one that has been made in the same way since the dawn of history. Alive, bin Laden is a terrorist rallying point. Dead, he's not.


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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