...Views from mid-Atlantic
06 May 2005

The US State Department is claiming it does not know if anti-Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles has slipped into the United States or not. They'd better get their fingers out - Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are making all kinds of political hay with this story in Latin America, even if most of the US press are ignoring it. MSNBC did use a piece about him a few days ago, but used something written by a producer, not a reporter, and couldn't even spell the man's name correctly.

"Nearly six years after NASA's Mars Polar Lander vanished during a landing attempt on the Red Planet, a scientist said he has spotted what appears to be wreckage of the spacecraft," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "The observation came during a re-examination of grainy, black-and-white images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, which searched for the probe with no success in 1999 and 2000. 'The observation of a single, small dot at the center of the disturbed location suggests that the vehicle remained more or less intact after its fall,' wrote Michael Malin, president and chief scientist of San Diego-based Malin Space Science Systems, which operates the camera aboard Global Surveyor."

Can you believe it? The BBC apparently hated Monty Python and tried to destroy the surviving episodes. The Times attributes this claim to Terry Jones, who made it as TV's most influential comedy team was inducted into a Hall of Fame near Lucerne, Switzerland.

The Wall Street Journal, whose opinions I normally share, seems to have gone off the rails this morning. It suggests, rather testily, that the US Congress one should not be concerning itself with whether the resignation of two of Paul Volcker's Oil-for-Food investigation staffers meant there had been an attempt to let Kofi Annan off the hook. "Paul Volcker's probe..." it says, "has already turned over many rocks, and promises to turn over many more now that it is looking into the Security Council's oversight of the corrupt sanctions regime on Iraq. But all of a sudden the US Congress seems more concerned with Mr. Volcker's credibility than with the UN's. Leave it to Republicans to expose the capillaries but leave the heart of the matter untouched."

That's a ridiculous assertion. The US Congress would be making the mother of all political mistakes if it failed to investigate so obvious a line of enquiry.

The documents the US Congress has subpoenaed from the two staffers have now been turned over. Fox News says "The contents of the boxes handed over by Parton are believed to be damaging to the secretary-general because...they describe inconsistencies in the story Kofi Annan told investigators about a conflict of interest involving his son Kojo Annan, and Cotecna, the Swiss company that employed Kojo Annan and which won one of the most lucrative Oil-for-Food contracts."

British anti-war groups have filed complaints against the British Government with the International Criminal Court over the war in Iraq. This confirms what the US and others warned would happen - that the ICC would quickly become the political instrument of daffy fringe groups, not one of justice. The Guardian says the anti-war groups claim British forces "acted out of all proportion to the official war aim - ridding Iraq of its banned weapons programme but not regime change. They also argue that British troops acted, and were ordered to act, beyond the bounds of military necessity. British soldiers acted unlawfully by detaining and, they allege, mistreating Iraqi civilians, and by targeting cluster munitions on urban areas."

Earlier this week, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce complained bitterly about the Government's handling of the legal position of the troops it was sending to war in Iraq. The Government did not take care, he said, to make sure its troops had full legal cover from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. And he added this, I thought rather telling remark: "I have always been troubled by the ICC. Although I was reassured ... when [discussions over signing up to the ICC were] going through Whitehall about five years ago, I was patted on the head and told: 'Don't worry, on the day it will be fine.' I don't have 100 per cent confidence in that."

Tony Blair and his Cabinet obviously lacked the stomach to resist, as the US did, the pressure from the left wing of their party to be in at the birth of this Frankenstein of international groups. It is going to cause a great deal of grief before people come to their senses and either emasculate it, or get rid of it.

05 May 2005

This is an interesting turn-up for the books - the San Francisco Chronicle's cooking section has gone all investigative on us, and has published the first part of a long look at the activities of Len Pickell, the man who nearly ran the James Beard Foundation into a state of bankruptcy by cooking a great deal more than meat and veg.

Pickell was, as the Chronicle says, a "charming oenophile with a refined palate and flair for fund raising." He seemed to have all the right ingredients to head the James Beard Foundation. Instead, they were a Recipe for Scandal.

Benny Avni of the New York Sun says a Justin Leites, a senior staffer at the United Nations Development Programme, took a leave of absence from his post last year for two months, in order to serve as political director for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign in the blue state of Maine.

Twelve anonymous UN staff people have signed a complaint to the organisation, in which they make the point that "If UNDP staff can interfere with impunity in the internal politics of the most powerful country on earth, how can UNDP maintain that it is not interfering in a similarly partial manner in any of the weak and failing states in the developing world?" The complaint also notes that while Mr. Leites was "campaigning zealously in America on behalf of his political masters, three UNDP electoral workers were seized in Kabul, Afghanistan, and held hostage for nearly a month in October 2004...

"By taking an active leadership role in the bitterly-fought 2004 US presidential election, Justin Leites has handed to terrorists and would-be hostage-takers the perfect excuse to kidnap and threaten the lives of UNDP and UN colleagues elsewhere, especially those providing electoral assistance in more than 30 countries across the globe."

Once, 30% of the population of Argentina was black. Now, none of it seems to be. Where did they all go? This fascinating article in the Washington Post they were "lost to demography" - a phrase-maker's phrase if ever I saw one.

I have the greatest of respect for Simon Schama, who has written several really first-class books (I especially liked The Embarrassment of Riches, but likening New Labour Britain to "Blade Runner with tea"? Just what in Blade Runner could he possibly be thinking about? Nonetheless, his article in the Guardian about the British election is well worth a read.

"To rapt silence, broken only by aldermanic murmurs of assent, the SBL painted an apocalyptic picture of a New Labour Britain - Blade Runner with tea - in which pensioners no longer feel free to go to the shops in safety, where MRSA pullulates in hospitals unchecked by Matron, where a critical swab shortage holds up urgent surgery, a Britain where the police are doomed to standing around on street corners sucking on pencils as they complete interminable questionnaires while platoons of drunken yobs, Shauns of the Undead, run amok in the high street, pillaging Starbucks and sacking Boots.

"Under his government, Howard pledged, the police would be liberated from pencil duty and set free to 'invade the personal physical space' of the yobs (protected, presumably, by rubber gloves obtained from Matron). SWABS not YOBS: who could possibly disagree? And on and on in this vein until his uncanny resemblance to the goldfish from Cat in the Hat became not just physical...

"After the stifling incense-choked sanctimoniousness of American politics, getting back to Britain was like coming up for air. Or was I just nostalgic; childishly elated to be on the electoral roll for the first time, after 20 years of residential disenfranchisement? Maybe I was succumbing to antiquated memories of campaigns past: traipsing house to house for Harold Wilson in the brickier zones of Cambridge in 1964; exhilarated that we were at last on the threshold of seeing off the Tories who'd been Her Majesty's government ever since I'd become aware of politics. (Many years on, I'd seen The Enemy close up. Tripping over a rug in the Christ's College senior common room, I rose to find myself face to face with Harold Macmillan's whiskers. 'There there,' Supermac drawled, not missing a beat, 'gratitude understandable; prostration quite unnecessary.') Little did he know. In 1964 we were the New Model Army in Morris Minors, interrupting Housewives' Choice to drive aproned grannies to the polls, transforming, as we thought, a forelock-tugging squierarchical Britain into the bracing social democracy of George Brown, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins."

While we're about it, and since it's election day, Max Boot has a couple of interesting comments in the LA Times on the conservative election tactic of calling Tony Blair a liar: "Such a tactic is beguiling because, to True Believers, the other side's triumphs are never on the up and up; they must be the result of hoodwinking the hapless electorate. The problem with this approach was pointed out to me by a political strategist last week: 'Voters think all politicians are liars. So telling them that someone is a particularly effective liar doesn't work.'"

And the Telegraph is pointing out what may not be obvious to those used to the time-consuming, attention-getting procedures used by governments of countries which have written constitutions - Britain, which does not have a written constitution, is in the midst of profound, but stealthy constitutional change.

"Leave aside the little-publicised fact that civil, family and criminal courts in England and Wales came under new management last month, with the creation of HM Court Service to run the Crown, county and magistrates' courts. Rather more important is the recently passed Constitutional Reform Act, which will change for ever the relationship between the executive and the judiciary throughout the United Kingdom.

"Here, at least, there is a clear divide between the main political parties. Labour has promised to spend 30 million pounds on building the supreme court created by the Act; the Conservatives would abandon the project and save the money.

"But does it really matter if the law lords cross Parliament Square in 2009 to sit in a building of their own? After all, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court will be identical to that of the House of Lords, with the addition of devolution issues under the Scotland Act. Surely this is no more than a tidying-up exercise - giving our most senior judges proper facilities for the first time and removing them from what, to outsiders, looks like a political arena."

04 May 2005

A couple of bits of breaking news. A South African paper, the Mail & Guardian says "Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a senior al-Qaeda suspect wanted in two attempts to assassinate President General Pervez Musharraf, has been arrested in Pakistan...Al-Libbi, a native of Libya who authorities say is a close associate of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden and acted as al-Qaeda's operational chief in Pakistan, was arrested earlier this week, Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said."

And in the US, the LA Times says Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols "has accused a third man of being an accomplice who provided some of the explosives used to kill 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building 10 years ago. Nichols, in a letter written from his cell at the U.S. government's Supermax prison in Colorado, said Arkansas gun collector Roger Moore donated so-called binary explosives, made up of two components, to bomber Timothy J. McVeigh that were used in Oklahoma City, as well as additional bomb components that recently were found in Nichols' former home in Kansas."

John McCandlish Phillips, who is an author and former reporter for the New York Times, says in a Washington Post piece that the media have gone too far in demonising US evangelicals. "In more than 50 years of direct engagement in and observation of the major news media I have never encountered anything remotely like the fear and loathing lavished on us by opinion mongers in these world-class newspapers in the past 40 days. If I had a $5 bill for every time the word 'frightening' and its close lexicographical kin have appeared in the Times and The Post, with an accusatory finger pointed at the Christian right, I could take my stack to the stock market."

When they were sold here in the 1950s, they were known as Velo Solexes, but they've gone through some changes since then, and this article in the Times refers to them simply as Solexes. They were so slow, you could almost walk faster, and so strangely put together, so clunky, that they made their owners all look as if they must be on their way to a clinic of some kind for tests. In France, some entrepreneur with a deficiency of bells in his belfry is bringing them back. The Times says "the old Solex moped has been given a new name - the Black'n Roll - and is being produced in France for the first time in almost 20 years. It has a top speed of 30kph, shiny orange reflectors on its pedals and a selling price of 600 pounds."

My guess is that any vehicle that looks that silly, with a name that stupid, that can't even get up to Bermuda's speed limit (which, at 35 kph, has to be the lowest in the world), will sell like hotcakes.

Max Hastings is in the mood for admissions this morning. He admits he is one of those who "work on the gloomy side of the prediction industry about Iraq, the prospects for Middle East peace, and the sanity of the Bush administration." He admits that "the greatest danger for those of us who dislike George Bush is that our instincts may tip over into a desire to see his foreign policy objectives fail. No reasonable person can oppose the president's commitment to Islamic democracy. Most western Bushophobes are motivated not by dissent about objectives, but by a belief that the Washington neocons' methods are crass, and more likely to escalate a confrontation between the west and Islam than to defuse it."

Nonetheless, a thought is forming in his mind - and it is a birth that is giving him great pain. What if, he is thinking in his Guardian column, what if western liberals were wrong...and Bush's grand strategy is actually getting us somewhere? Oh, the shame...

If you go to a performance of the Theatre of the New Ear, you're encouraged to leave your eyes at home. And what a cast! The Guardian explains.

03 May 2005

Robert Macfarlane is a British writer and mountain climber who has just published his first book, Mountains of the Mind. In the Guardian, one of several British publications to which he contributes, he's singing the praises of American author Annie Dillard, who won a Pulitzer in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was a really quite remarkable demonstration of writing skill...which I think I'm going to treat myself to again after reading Macfarlane's piece.

In Dillard's writing, he says, "the natural world streams through her, and she through it. There is a continual process of exchange; or, to use John Donne's word, interinanimation. And this is the greatest lesson of Dillard's prose: that we do not live separately from the natural world, but are part of it. She writes against the heresy of aloofness; what John Gray has called 'the humanist belief in human difference' - the idea that humans are a separate, unnatural order of life, the sub-Sartrean belief that we are self-created individuals.

"It's for this reason that Dillard speaks unashamedly, comfortably, of the spirit, and how it is accommodated by, extended by, animated in, landscape. 'You can heave your spirit into a mountain, and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will.' 'What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object.'"

One never knows, with some US lawmakers, whether there's something in what they say, or what they say is exaggerated, but it's probably worth taking a chance with Norm Coleman, who is the head of the UN Senate subcommittee on investigations. Several publications in Australia are carrying a story this morning quoting him as having hinted that tapes exist that link Kofi Annan to "wrongdoing" connected to the Oil-for-Food scandal. The Herald Sun says Coleman "used a rhetorical question in a US television interview yesterday to suggest that tapes might be held by former FBI agent Robert Parton, who last month resigned from the official UN inquiry into the Oil-for-Food program."

Once upon a time, when they tried to kill off the TV series Star Trek, the backlash from an adoring public was so extreme, it had to be revived. They're just about to kill Star Trek off again. Will history repeat itself? Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card (he's really good, if you haven't read his books) says it will not, in a perceptive piece in the LA Times today. "Screen sci-fi has finally caught up with written science fiction," he says. "We're in college now. High school is over. There's just no need for 'Star Trek' anymore." One hopes publishers will get that message, and stop marketing science fiction as if it were written only for children or adults suffering from some kind of severely arrested development.

That little window that opened recently in Kuwait, where legislators were voting on a plan to allow women to vote in local elections, has sadly been closed. The Independent says the plan had to be postponed indefinitely when Islamist and conservative legislators abstained from a vote. "Sixty members of Kuwait's parliament were present for the vote, which democratic reformers had hoped would herald a new era of female participation in the country's electoral process. Twenty-nine voted to allow women to run for municipal council seats and vote in local elections, but two voted against and 29 abstained. Thirty-three 'yes' or 'no' votes were required for a valid vote and no date has yet been set for another attempt."

I didn't spot this until yesterday, but it seems to me a perfect example of how nanotechnology, far from releasing some malevolent gray goo that is going to take over the world, as Prince Charles famously fears, is going to make a sea change for the better in our lives. Toshiba has announced "a breakthrough in lithium-ion batteries that makes long recharge times a thing of the past. The company's new battery can recharge 80% of a battery's energy capacity in only one minute, approximately 60 times faster than the typical lithium-ion batteries in wide use today, and combines this fast recharge time with performance-boosting improvements in energy density.

"The new battery fuses Toshiba's latest advances in nano-material technology for the electric devices sector with cumulative know-how in manufacturing lithium-ion battery cells. A breakthrough technology applied to the negative electrode uses new nano-particles to prevent organic liquid electrolytes from reducing during battery recharging. The nano-particles quickly absorb and store vast amount of lithium ions, without causing any deterioration in the electrode."

02 May 2005

Mark Steyn, who has a real knack for putting his finger on things, is handicapping next week's British political horse race in the Washington Times this morning, and doing a pretty good job of it.

"At one level, Tony Blair is an absurd figure: In the jurisdiction he is supposed to govern, the hospitals are decrepit and disease-ridden, crime is rampant in the leafiest and loveliest villages, urban politics fragments along racial and religious lines, and the Irish Republican Army has been transformed with the blessing of Mr. Blair's ministers into the British Isles' homegrown Russian mafia. But, in areas where he has no responsibility, Mr. Blair flies in and promises to cure all. He is particularly keen on Africa: Genocide? Aids? Poverty? Don't worry, Tony has the answer. He can't make the British trains run on time, but he can save the world.

"By the time this election was called, the British had fallen out of love with Tony Blair. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, they haven't fallen in love with anybody else. But, in the artful way of highly evolved political systems, the electorate is doing its best to signal to the prime minister this Thursday's 'five-year mandate' is in fact one year's notice."

The real Kilroy, of WWII Kilroy Was Here fame, was an inspector of ships named James L Kilroy. He was, as the Washington Times points out, a global kind of guy. "Press accounts of the time reported that more than one woman went into the hospital delivery room with a coy 'Kilroy was here' painted on her abdomen. The sentiment has since appeared atop Mount Everest and in the dust of the moon, according to historian Charles Panati, who has written a half dozen books on the origins of popular sayings."

Judges in Egypt have been sufficiently encouraged by Mr Mubarek's recent paper-thin concession to democracy in his country's elections to loudly demand their independence from control by the government. The LA Times quotes Assam Abdel Gabbar, an Alexandria judge who sits on Egypt's court of appeals as having said "We guess that this is our chance, and we don't believe it will come again anytime soon."

Hope he's got his ducking muscles in trim.

An Afghanistani women's football team? Well, why not? Men have been to the moon. Arthur Chrenkoff's twice-monthly roundup of good news from Afghanistan, published in the Wall Street Journal explains one or two of the obstacles these ladies had to overcome. But he doesn't, damn his eyes, say whether they wear their veils on the field. Guess he's just starting out in journalism.

Organisers of a campaign against the British university lecturers' association boycott of Israeli universities have collected 25 signatures of AUT council members they needed, and are now confident of getting the ban rescinded, according to the Engage website. "There will be a Special Council of AUT, probably at the end of May, at which Engage is confident that the campaign for a boycott of Israeli thinkers, writers, teachers, musicians and artists will be permanently defeated. Engage has collected more than 25 signatures of council members calling for the Special Conference and according to the rules of AUT, this is enough to make sure that it will happen. Please keep them coming, though; the more council members signatures we have, the better.

"We need to start to organise immediately in the universities. We must insist that there is an open and democratic debate on this issue in every AUT branch. We must insist that there is an opportunity in every local association to send motions to the Special Conference and to elect Council Members who will vote to end the boycott proposals once and for all. We need every academic to become an AUT activist, at least for the next 4 weeks. If you are not a member of AUT, please join, if you are eligible."

Meantime, the Jerusalem Post claims the web site of Sue Blackwell, the Birmingham lecturer who presented the motion calling for boycotts of Israeli universities, contains a recommended link to a Web site owned by an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi activist. "Wendy Campbell, who owns the MarWen Media Web site," the Post says, "has promoted Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories discussing 'unrivaled Jewish power', and maintains an additional Web site entitled 'Exposing Israeli Apartheid', which is also linked by Blackwell."

Author Joel Brower sniffily dismisses Black Maria by saying, in his New York Times review of it, "There are more than a hundred pages of terrific poetry in Black Maria, but the book is nearly 250 pages long." Snappy little line, huh? Well, consider this: Black Maria was written by a young black man. In five "reels" of about 15 poems each, it is the film noir story of a private eye called A K A Jones in a place called Shadowtown. It is full of stuff like this -

The piano boogied twilight
She sang & swooned & the sun started up
An argument with what was left
of the dark -

The swingshift stumbled out
The graveyard drug in thirsty & worse.

This is like finding a ten dollar bill on the street. OK, maybe it's not a twenty, but what are you going to do...leave it lying there?

01 May 2005

The former Washington director of editorial policy for the Scripps Howard News Service is another of those who don't quite buy the picture of Elliot Spitzer as caped crusader in a world of crooked capitalists. In the Washington Times, he says "One of those he has just kicked in the teeth, Maurice 'Hank' Greenberg, a highly acclaimed entrepreneur, chief executive officer and philanthropist, is fighting back. Evicted as chairman of American International Group after a Spitzer assault, he just may prove he is not a fraud-committing liar, as Mr. Spitzer unscrupulously called him on national TV, but that Mr. Spitzer himself is the fraud.

"He's a tough, smart guy, this Mr. Spitzer is, and may shake off these rare challenges and come out on top. The other possibility is that justice will come out on top."

A Toronto-based Muslim journalist, Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, has a piece in the LA Times today that is every bit as intriguing as its title, This Land Is Whose Land? In Europe, she says, faced with calls to halt immigration, at least in part because Muslim immigrants refuse to integrate better in their new countries, "Muslim leaders cry racism and plead to journalists like me, 'Do you see why we feel driven into the arms of fundamentalists?'

"It doesn't take long," she writes, "before I hear something else from European Muslims: This wouldn't happen in America. We would belong in the United States.

"As incredible as that sounds in the era of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, dozens of Muslims in Western Europe have told me that the US has a genius for inclusion because of how it treats social status. To the question, 'Can you earn status rather than be born into it?' America still answers 'yes'. Given their hunger to achieve, Americans are disposed to jostling with the 'other', and they expect the 'other' to jostle right back. What makes someone a real American is not so much his color or faith as his willingness to compete."

The New York Post says the UN-appointed commission probing the oil-for-food scandal scrapped two drafts of its interim Oil-for-Food report that were highly critical of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his son.

"The explosive news of a potential whitewash was disclosed by a source close to Robert Parton - the man who handled the investigation of Kofi and Kojo Annan - who quit the UN Independent Inquiry Committee headed by Paul Volcker. Parton authored the two hushed-up reports before leaving in protest that Volcker's inquiry was too soft on Kofi Annan.

Annan himself has said those who are criticising the UN are like a lynch mob. In a long interview with the New York Magazine, he said he's thought about quitting, but has so far dismissed that as the easy way out. It's hard to understand, says writer Meryl Gordon, just how far Annan has fallen.

"Annan was unanimously reelected in 2001 to a second five-year term, and his career peaked when he won the Nobel Peace Prize that December for his efforts to bring new life to the beleaguered UN. Footage of the award ceremony in Oslo shows a beaming Kojo at his father's side. 'Kofi had the quiet charisma and the respect of most of the world, and the Nobel Prize was the high point,' recalls Richard Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the UN...who attended the event. 'The night before the ceremony, he looked out from a balcony at a crowd holding candles in the street below. It was an extraordinary moment.'

"It was one of Annan's last good moments to date. The US decision to invade Iraq without UN consent created the biggest rift between the UN and the US in decades, and left Annan, a fierce war opponent, politically hobbled. In August 2003, 22 of Annan's colleagues, including the UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of Annan's closest friends, were killed in the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. The oil-for-food scandal has not only raised questions about Annan's integrity and competence as a manager, but also embarrassed him - and caused him tremendous pain - as a father. Aides have been accused of unethical behavior, UN peacekeepers in the Congo have been charged with sexually abusing minors, and a Swiss investigation was launched recently into whether bribes were paid to renovate a United Nations building in Geneva. In March, the Bush administration nominated John Bolton, a fire-breathing conservative and one of the UN's most outspoken critics, as the US ambassador to the UN - a straight jab at Annan and the international body.

"Five separate congressional committees are currently holding hearings on the oil-for-food program and other UN mismanagement issues, and Capitol Hill Republicans are screaming for Annan's resignation. 'He's headed up a scandal-ridden and broken organization,' says right-wing California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the chair of one investigation. 'The UN's ability to do its job has been tarnished.'"


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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