...Views from mid-Atlantic
18 June 2005

In what the Independent describes as "a counter-argument" to Lynne Truss's book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Kate Burridge, professor of linguistics at Monash University in Australia, is calling for the use of the apostrophe to be dropped from the English language. "When I suggested on radio that the possessive apostrophe should be dropped from the language because people get it wrong so often, you would have thought that a public flogging would not have been a severe enough punishment," she said.

"I received hate mail, and letters from the apostrophe support group, though not all of them used the apostrophe correctly.'" Handy, that was, since Ms Burridge has a book of her own to tout - Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language, which you'll notice contains one of those colons that are simply indispensable in university circles these days. Professor Burridge is also against "dishonest euphemisms that try to sound neutral when really they are negative, such as 'friendly fire' and 'downsize'. She is kind enough to give us a little list of words she thinks ought to be expunged from the language: crazy, brainstorm, cripple, immigrant, cancer, mental, half-caste, dwarf, fat, thick, dumb, ginger.

Yes, ginger. Don't ask, because I don't know. I'm also in the dark as to why she would leave out words like asinine, damned and asshole.

It's certainly interesting that, as the Guardian says, "Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was facing the worst crisis in his 30-month-old administration yesterday after the resignation of his right-hand man amid allegations of corruption." But my real purpose in linking to this story is...well, I was going to denounce the Guardian for mangling English, but in the light of the last post, I suppose it would be more constructive to claim the very first sighting of the word architecture, used as a verb: "The most important man in the Workers' Party after President Lula, Mr Dirceu is credited with bringing it to the centre-left and architecturing the alliances which brought them their historic first presidential victory in October 2002." One Professor Burridge oversighted.

The Octagon library at Queen Mary, University of London, in the process of refurbishment, has disposed of some of its surplus books by chucking them into dumpsters near the building. According to the Guardian, the shrieking and screaming can be heard in the middle of last week. "'This is a crass display of philistinism,' said one staff member. 'There are books dating back to the 18th century, there are first editions, there are copies of Voltaire.' Another lecturer looking through a skip said: 'This is sacrilege. Look at all these books that are being thrown away without any thought. It is shocking.' The Library has an excuse, of course. Through the usual spokesperson, it said "We had only a very short window to remove a large quantity of books."

Henry Harpending is about to titillate the world's conspiracy theorists with one of the most politically incorrect academic papers of the new millennium, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. Why, he and his colleagues at the University of Utah asked, have Jews of European descent won 27 per cent of the Nobel Prizes given to Americans in the past century, while making up only 3 per cent of the population? Why do they produce more than half the world's chess champions? And why do they have an average IQ higher than any other ethnic group for which there's reliable data, and nearly six times as many people scoring above 140 compared with Europeans?

Prof. Harpending suggests that the reason is in their bloodline - it's genetic. The 61-year-old anthropologist's explanation is not easily dismissed, but it crosses into the territory scientists fear most...'There is this massive disconnect between public and private discourse; between what's said in the public arena and what your neighbour tells you [about racial groups] over the fence,' he said. 'Some of those things are wrong and bigoted, but some of those are right.'"

17 June 2005

US forces have launched another major hunt for insurgents near the Syrian border. This report from AP says it's called Operation Spear. It involves 1,000 Marines and Iraqi soldiers on a hunt for insurgents and foreign fighters in a volatile western province straddling Syria.

"Operation Spear started in the pre-dawn hours in Anbar province to hunt for insurgents and foreign fighters, the military said. The area...is where U.S. forces said it killed about 40 militants in airstrikes in Karabilah on June 11. The operation came one day after Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston called the Syrian border the 'worst problem'' in terms of stemming the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq."

Move your sorry ass over, Nessie! They've found monsters in Kanas Lake in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and you know that means trouble. People's Daily says: "On the afternoon of June 7, (around 7:50 pm, Beijing time), seven tourists from Beijing were sailing on the Kanas Lake, a scenic spot in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northwest China. When they stopped near Sandaowan for a photo, they suddenly spotted two dark objects, very large in size, springing out of the water, breaking a wave one meter high. They leapt forward one following the other, headed swiftly towards the middle of the lake and disappeared from sight in about two minutes. Then peace reigned again.

"Each of the 'monsters' looked about 10 meters long, said the seven Beijing tourists, who were the only witnesses to this bizarre encounter. They responded quickly by raising up their video camera on hand, and now local authorities are talking with them for a duplication of their tape."

Farley's 30 years old today...that link will take you to his creator, Phil Frank's celebratory birthday strip. It may be a bit laid back for fans of the Hulk and his ilk, but Farley's a left coast icon of considerable proportion, as you'll learn from this SF Chronicle feature. "...What a trip it's been. A right-wing raven named Bruce. Baba Rebop, the only guru to wear a propeller beanie. Alphonse the bear, the diehard Giants fan who runs the Fog City Dumpster restaurant with three other bears. Irene the meter maid and her 7-year-old daughter, Olive - who, shh, finally grows up in Friday's strip. The ghost of Emperor Norton, a true-life San Francisco legend of the mid-19th century, brought back to help with his pet project, the Bay Bridge. Feral cats who took it all off - their flea collars, that is - to make a statement.

"The cast and shenanigans go on and on, topped off, perhaps, by Velma Melmac, a chain-smoking, tattooed woman from Manteca who goes around Asphalt State Park and Yosemite hanging No Pest Strips around campsites and vacuuming the nature trails. The menagerie has grown so huge that Farley himself only appears once in a while.

"To celebrate the strip's anniversary, highlights from the past 30 years will be on display beginning tonight at 7 at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. At the beginning, the strip was called Travels With Farley, and the everyman character wandered America, the eyes and ears of readers of big newspapers and small, who followed his adventures in the nationally syndicated strip. Twenty years ago, Farley, who had done a stint as a park ranger and was by then an intrepid reporter at a dying afternoon paper called the Daily Demise, packed his bags and headed to San Francisco, where he got a job at the Daily Requirement, located at Myth and Fission. The Daily Requirement was a thinly veiled Chronicle, of course, and Farley became a six-day-a-week feature exclusive to our readers. The strip runs Sundays through Fridays in the Bay Area section of the paper."

Myth and Fission rules!

The US business community, not always known for its courage in the face of adversity, seems at last to be wising up to the tactics of legal bullyboy Eliot Spitzer. The Washington Times reports that "The US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and an association of leading commercial banks separately sued New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer yesterday, saying he is exceeding his authority. The lawsuit by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks an injunction preventing Mr Spitzer from obtaining lending data from JPMorgan Chase & Co, HSBC Bank USA and Wells Fargo Bank, which the federal agency regulates. The banks also filed in US District Court. Mr Spitzer's inquiry into mortgage lending began in April, on the heels of similar investigations into practices in the insurance, mutual fund, and securities industries."

The LA Times has begun its experiment with re-writable editorials this morning - the paper's calling them wikitorials (a little bow in the direction of the highly successful Wikipedia, a web encyclopedia written by readers. The Times says "A wikitorial is by its nature a collaborative effort among readers. For that reason, when you click below to enter the wikitorial area, you are acknowledging that the Los Angeles Times is not, and cannot be held, responsible for the words or actions of other readers on these pages. And, by clicking below, you are agreeing to abide by the posting rules and all other conditions of our terms of service."

The difficulty with the LA Times experiment is that while readers can correct or augment the facts in an encyclopedia successfully, it is difficult to "edit" an opinion - you either share it, in which case you leave it alone, or you don't and you write your own editorial.

The first piece offered for correction, for example, is called War and Consequences, a dull, bog-standard anti-war piece, which really ought to be put in the trash, not edited.

If you want a decent opinion about the war, you can't do better than the classicist and historian Victor Davis Hanson, who has the advantage of knowing what he's talking about. "Free-thinking Arabs refute all the premises of Western Leftists who claim that colonialism, racism, and exploitation have created terrorists, hold back Arab development, and are the backdrops to this war. Indeed, it is far worse than that: Our own fundamentalist Left is in lockstep with Wahhabist reductionism - in its similar instinctive distrust of Western culture. Both blame the United States and excuse culpability on the part of Islamists. The more left-wing the Westerner, the more tolerant he is of right-wing Islamic extremism; the more liberal the Arab, the more likely he is to agree with conservative Westerners about the real source of Middle Eastern pathology."

"...The American public is tiring of the Middle East, its hypocrisy and whiny logic - and to such a degree that it sometimes unfortunately doesn't make distinctions for the Iraqi democratic government or other Arab reformers, but rather is slowly coming to believe the entire region is ungracious, hopeless, and not worth another American soldier or dollar. This is a dangerous trend. Despite murderous Syrian terrorists, dictatorial Saudis, crazy Pakistanis, and triangulating European allies, and after so many tragic setbacks, we are close to creating lasting democratic states in Afghanistan and Iraq - states that are influencing the entire region and ending the old calculus of Middle Eastern terror. We are winning even as we are told we are losing."

It's not only his European allies who seem to be turning on Jacques Chirac this morning, but his allies in France as well. The Telegraph says: "Opinion polls since the May 29 No vote on the EU constitution put his approval rating lower than any president since Gen Charles de Gaulle ushered in France's Fifth Republic in 1958. Even his allies seem to be turning against him. A senior figure in the ruling centre-Right was quoted as speaking ruefully of 'an old gentleman who does not really understand what is happening to him'."

Doesn't seem to make much difference with him...the Guardian says that he showed no sign yesterday of relenting in his demands for Britain to accept a cut in its rebate, which he described as an anachronism. "With Britain warning that it faces 'a difficult two days' of talks, Mr Chirac intensified the pressure by calling for an 'exceptional summit of heads of government' to review the direction of Europe and slow the process of enlargement."

The historian Paul Johnson comments, in a most excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal, that "What is notoriously evident among the EU elite is not just a lack of intellectual power but an obstinacy and blindness bordering on imbecility. As the great pan-European poet Schiller put it: 'There is a kind of stupidity with which even the Gods struggle in vain.'...

"The EU's economic philosophy, insofar as it has one, is epitomized by one word: 'convergence.' The aim is to make all national economies identical with the perfect model. This, as it turns out, is actually the perfect formula for stagnation. What makes the capitalist system work, what keeps economies dynamic, is precisely nonconformity, the new, the unusual, the eccentric, the egregious, the innovative, springing from the inexhaustible inventiveness of human nature. Capitalism thrives on the absence of rules or the ability to circumvent them.

"Hence it is not surprising that Europe, which grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, before the EU got going, has slowly lost pace since Brussels took over its direction and imposed convergence. It is now stagnant. Growth rates of over 2% are rare, except in Britain, which was Thatcherized in the 1980s and has since followed the American model of free markets. Slow or nil growth, aggravated by the power of the unions, fits well with the Brussels system and imposes further restraints on economic dynamism: Short working hours and huge social security costs that have produced high unemployment, over 10% in France and higher in Germany than at any time since the Great Depression which brought Hitler to power."

16 June 2005

The Dagu iron bell of Tianjin, you will be happy to learn (unless you were one of the rascally Brits who nicked it in the first place) is back where it belongs. People's Daily has the story.

And while we happen to be visiting China, why is it that only the Chinese media seem to be interested in the fact that Tiantian's got Meixiang pregnant at last? They live in Washington, for heaven's sake.

There's quite a lot to ponder in this LA Times feature about a scientist who studies brains. Uncle Einstein had one in a billion, apparently, but who in the world didn't know that? No, I thought the interesting bit was this: men and women have different brains. Men's are bigger (though not necessarily better), quite apart from anything else.

Her name is Sandra Witelson, and her findings have been published in Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Lancet and other peer-reviewed journals. "'What is astonishing to me,' Witelson said, 'is that it is so obvious that there are sex differences in the brain and these are likely to be translated into some cognitive differences, because the brain helps us think and feel and move and act. Yet there is a large segment of the population that wants to pretend this is not true.'"

Let's hope Larry Summers gets an opportunity to shove this data...um, down someone's throat, perhaps.

Britain's all a-twitter this morning about a speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday, condemning the British press for being a negative influence...he called his speech "This media tribe disfigures public life". The Press is a negative influence in Britain, there isn't any question about that. But what is astonishing about Rowan Williams's speech is how completely negative it is. He acknowledges at the end that "societies to some extent have the media they deserve and license," but seems not to have thought about whether that might be true and, if it is, what it is about the British psyche that demands a media that has so little respect for truth and fair play. Instead, his speech is 4,500 words of pretty unremitting complaint. Suggestions as to how the situation might be improved? Not really. He gets not much farther than saying the press ought to do better.

One is tempted simply to write his speech off as a Freudian slip - a demonstration of what it is about the British that condemns them to their press...their devotion to destruction, their inability to find a better way of relating to life than by pulling things to bits, ripping the wings off anything that flies. But Rowan Williams is the leader of one of the biggest and most influential churches in the world. Surely, one must be able to expect more of a man of his stature than this half-assed, pathetic bleat.

Speaking of half-assed, you'll be amused (or perhaps dismayed) by the way Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent of the London Times proves that part of what the Archbishop says about the press is true, with an account of his speech that is more than a little misleading. This is her lead: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised the new web-based media for 'paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry'. He described the atmosphere on the world wide web as a free-for-all that was 'close to that of unpoliced conversation'. In a lecture to media professionals, politicians and church leaders at Lambeth Palace in London last night, Dr Williams wondered whether a balance could be struck between the professionalism of the classical media and the relative disorder of online communication."

The Archbishop's reference to the web was tiny...an aside that left you wondering whether he had ever actually visited what he described as "the world of the weblog and the independent media centre". (I'm not sure I understand what an independent media centre is in that context, but let that pass.) Attacks on blogs seem to be popular with some journalists these days, and I guess Ruth Gledhill found the fight she was spoiling for, even if she did have to trample the Archbishop's meaning to get there.

That's my end of this disgracefully unpoliced conversation, anyway.

These two stories should be read together, I think. In this one, in the New York Times, David Brooks laments the dying away of cultural sophistication in the US middle class. In this one, in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan is trying to defend (halfheartedly, I thought) the Public Broadcasting Service from an assault by Republicans who want to cut off its public funding because, they say, it has a liberal bias. It does have a liberal bias...of course it does. A liberal political outlook has been conflated with cultural sophistication in the US, and elsewhere, for generations. But politicians who conclude that that means they should strike back by killing off culture aren't conservatives, they're thugs.

It is a worthy goal to try to convince people that it is a fiction that only liberals understand and appreciate the finer things in life, but bludgeoning a fine and praiseworthy organisation like PBS to death is no way to do it.

15 June 2005

John Updike has written a fine review of ex-Newsweek reporter Robert Littell's new book, Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation, for the New Yorker. "...As I rounded page 300 and headed into the book's last quarter, the pieces of the puzzle began to click together and I felt myself sinking into an earlier assumed identity: I became a 14-year-old boy lying on a red cane-back sofa in Pennsylvania eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches (a site-specific ethnic treat) and reading one mystery novel after another. Not just mysteries - Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardner - but an occasional international thriller, like Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios and Graham Greene's The Third Man.

"The idea of reading a non-genre novel, with its stodgy domestic realism and sissy fuss over female heartbreak, repelled me, but I could lose myself all morning and afternoon in narratives of skulduggery, detection, and eventual triumphant justice. And so, to judge from the best-seller lists, can millions still. Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn't take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader's essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached."

A few days ago, the Rocky Mountain News published the results of a long investigation into allegations of dishonesty of various types that have been made against University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill. If you've been following the case, you'll find it rather a dry repitition of things you already know. But in a subsequent editorial, the newspaper sums it all up rather neatly: "All the facts laid out in recent days point to one unavoidable conclusion: Churchill did plagiarize, and he did invent historical events to suit his political agenda. True, it turns out that not all of the charges the standing committee on research misconduct is considering are equally damaging to the professor.

"His invention of facts surrounding the smallpox epidemic among the Mandan Indians in 1837 is more reprehensible than his misrepresentation of the Dawes Act. His appropriation of Professor Fay Cohen's work for a 1992 essay is more inexcusable than his almost word-for-word use of a paragraph by Professor Rebecca Robbins. His claims of Indian ancestry, although almost certainly bogus, at least may have stemmed from family lore. Churchill should have acknowledged the truth many years ago instead of slyly trying to throw critics off his track, but it will be difficult for the committee to categorically conclude he knew all along that he was no more of an Indian than King George III."

It's just a little depressing that one knows somehow that justice for this gentleman, a la mode, will undoubtedly involve large sums of money finding their way into his bank account.

Windows XP users are reminded that there are updates to be downloaded. PC Pro says that "After a quiet May, Microsoft's monthly update of vulnerabilities to its software has a busier June with three critical updates. Two of the critical updates involve Internet Explorer, including one that could allow an attacker to take control of a system via HTML Help. As reported, there are a total of ten security vulnerabilities for June although two of these include cumulative patches for several problems reported earlier." Confused? Relax and let Uncle Gates figure it out for you.

Paul Volcker's group has reopened its investigation into whether the UN's Kofi Annan steered business to a Swiss company that once employed his son, Kojo. The move came less than a day, the Washington Post says, "after investigators obtained a 1998 memo written by an executive of the Geneva-based company, Cotecna Inspection SA, saying that Annan and his staff indicated support for the company's bid for a $10 million-a-year contract to oversee imports of humanitarian aid into Iraq." The New York Post, in company with other newspapers with a taste for the dramatic, is calling this development a nail in Kofi Annan's coffin.

It is ironic that it comes at almost precisely the same time that John Bolton is likely, finally, to be confirmed by the Senate as US Ambassador to the UN. The Wall Street Journal comments that "Above all, the prospective combination of Mr. Bolton's arrival to the UN - and Mr. Annan's departure from it - suggests an organization with the potential to be taken seriously by the United States...For those who are genuine friends of the UN's better ambitions - and we count ourselves among them - the pity is this didn't happen a lot sooner. While Senate Democrats Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have been tearing open every mattress to find evidence of Mr. Bolton's sinful behavior - and finding none - the gravity of the UN's internal crises have only become more apparent."

14 June 2005

The New York Sun notes that the European Union has decided not to continue the diplomatic sanctions it imposed on Cuba in 2003, in the wake of Fidel Castro's jailing of 75 people who had the temerity to disagree with him. The EU has opted to give Castro "a year of 'constructive dialogue' before next reconsidering whether to ban high-level diplomats' visits to Cuba, open embassies in Havana to Cuban dissidents, and take other measures that have greatly irked Cuba's strongman.

"The decision was issued at yesterday's External Relations Council meeting, a gathering of the foreign ministers of the 25 EU member states, in Luxembourg. It was the most recent development in a diplomatic saga that began in March 2003, when Mr. Castro rounded up and jailed 75 independent academics, journalists, and librarians, among other opponents, in what is known on the island as the 'primavera negra,' or 'black spring'...

"The Europeans' retaliation infuriated Mr. Castro, who promptly declared a 'freeze' on his relations with the continent, posing difficulties for countries with economic interests on the island. That freeze thawed in January, when Spain - under the governing hand of the Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and his foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos - pushed the EU to lift the sanctions for a six-month trial period."

The continuing saga in Ohio of the loss of millions of Worker's Compensation dollars to a Bermuda-based hedge fund operated by MDL Capital Management has taken another turn. The Toledo Blade says strings were pulled to keep MDL out of trouble when things started to go bad: "As multimillion-dollar losses by a Pittsburgh investment firm mounted last year, the chief financial officer of the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation told another top agency official that he had been told to 'give MDL a break', according to records released yesterday by Gov. Bob Taft.

"The records stated that Terrence Gasper, removed from his post after the bureau lost $215 million in the hedge fund managed by MDL Capital Management, told a fellow official that the instructions had come from the former administrator of the bureau, James Conrad, who had been asked by George Forbes, a member of the bureau's Oversight Commision, to go easy on MDL. Mr. Forbes daughter, Mildred 'Mimi' Forbes, is an executive with the investment firm."

Bermuda is currently agog over a a pay-to-play scandal involving MDL, among other investment management companies, a local Cabinet minister and the chairman of the group which manages Bermuda's public funds. A Government investigation has been set up, although its terms of reference are so narrow that it is unlikely to be mining any seamy seams. Hopefully, local media will be able to look more deeply than they have so far into the strings that connect MDL and Bermuda.

Trusts are very much a part of the lives of those who live in Bermuda and do business here. This is an analysis, written by a British lawyer for a trade publication called The Lawyer, of one significant difference between the British and the Bermudian version of trust law. Of Bermuda's law, he says "There is considerable scope for creative thinking here," which I guess is the lawyerly equivalent of unzipping one's fly and hammering joyfully on the table with one's Johnson. Here's the reason: "A trust governed by the law of Bermuda, then, may be in a special position. Provided that the trustees need the authority of the courts in Bermuda to enter into a transaction that the courts can legitimately regard as 'expedient', it may be possible to obtain an order of the court which not only confers the power to enter into the transaction, but also varies the trusts in appropriate terms - something which hitherto has been considered impossible."

The International Relations and Security Network story about yesterday's immigration hearing about Cuban extremist Luis Posada Carriles is typical of the way the US media covered it: "The lawyer for Cuban extremist Luis Posada Carriles on Monday said his client should not be subject to an illegal immigration hearing since he had never relinquished his US citizenship." True, perhaps, but for those who are looking at US treatment of Posada as a bellwether of its determination to cut away the ethical grey areas that cling to the fight against terrorism, the real lead on the story should have been "A US court has put off dealing with the Luis Posada case until 29 August."

The various Oil-for-Food stories have gone quiet recently, after the uproar over the Volcker aides who quit, taking their files with them, was hushed by the courts. This morning, though, the Kojo Annan/Cotecna branch of the tree caught fire again with the announcement that Kofi Annan might have had something to do with the award of a UN contract to Cotecna after all. It's being carried by a variety of newspapers - this is the New York Times version: "A memo written by someone who was then an executive of a major contractor in the United Nations oil-for-food program states that he briefly discussed the company's effort to win the contract in late 1998 with Secretary General Kofi Annan and his 'entourage' and that the executive was told that 'we could count on their support.'

"The secretary general's son, Kojo Annan, was employed by Cotecna Inspection Services, a Swiss contractor based in Geneva, and the nature of that relationship is among the issues being investigated by a panel appointed by the United Nations and several Congressional committees. Kofi Annan has said several times that he did not discuss the contract with his son and was not involved in Cotecna's selection. A United Nations panel headed by Paul A. Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, concluded in March that Mr. Annan had not influenced the awarding of the $10 million dollar-a-year contract to the company."

It's a small step, but perhaps a significant sign that the UN is trying to clean up its act. The Jerusalem Post says: "The United Nations on Monday appointed Israel's ambassador Dan Gillerman as one of 21 new vice presidents of the General Assembly, the first time since Abba Eban in the early 1950s that Israel has been given this ceremonial post.

"'Beyond the symbolic and perhaps even historic significance of the appointment, I will also be a member of the UN's committee that determines the organization's agenda,' Gillerman told Israel Radio on Tuesday morning. According to Gillerman, 'I hope I will be able to influence UN decision-making, although it will not be an easy task.'"

13 June 2005

Folks in Cuba have the right sort of attitude about their recent visit from tropical storm Arlene. The country's in the middle of the worst drought for 100 years, Arlene was full of rain, and they welcomed the combination as a blessing. Granma says the area most affected by the drought, the easternmost provinces, got the least rain, but no one's complaining.

Mark Steyn, in fighting form and with an eye on the point of Amnesty International's jaw, suggests in the Washington Times this morning that "...these are diminished times for gulags. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, some 15 million to 30 million prisoners Russians died in the Soviet gulags. By comparison, Guantanamo at its peak held 750 prisoners; now there are 520. None have died in captivity, and, as I wrote 3� years ago, it has the distinction of being 'a camp where the medical staff outnumber the prisoners.'

"You'll get swifter, cleaner and more efficient treatment than most Canadians get under socialized health care. Indeed, it's the only gulag in history where the detainees leave in better health and weighing more than when they arrive. They're in much better shape when they get back to their hectic schedule of killing infidels: Of the more than 200 who've been released, around 5 percent - that's to say, 12 - have since been recaptured on the battlefield."

Henry Kissinger, who in some ways is the father of modern American relations with China, agrees with the piece I posted by Victor Davis Hansen yesterday. He writes in a Washington Post piece that "The rise of China - and of Asia - will, over the next decades, bring about a substantial reordering of the international system. The center of gravity of world affairs is shifting from the Atlantic, where it was lodged for the past three centuries, to the Pacific. The most rapidly developing countries are in Asia, with a growing means to vindicate their perception of the national interest.

"China's emerging role is often compared to that of imperial Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, the implication being that a strategic confrontation is inevitable and that the United States had best prepare for it. That assumption is as dangerous as it is wrong...Military imperialism is not the Chinese style. Clausewitz, the leading Western strategic theoretician, addresses the preparation and conduct of a central battle. Sun Tzu, his Chinese counterpart, focuses on the psychological weakening of the adversary. China seeks its objectives by careful study, patience and the accumulation of nuances - only rarely does China risk a winner-take-all showdown.

"It is unwise to substitute China for the Soviet Union in our thinking and to apply to it the policy of military containment of the Cold War."

It's possible that what touched him off were some remarks made a few days ago by Donald Rumsfeld which irritated the Chinese and which, read in the light of Kissinger's comments, seem to have been ham-handed and ill-considered.

The Times of London reports on a spectacular Roman mosaic that has been discovered in Libya. The discovery was made in 2000, but has been kept secret until now so as to save it from looters. "British scholars yesterday described the 2,000-year-old depiction of an exhausted gladiator as one of the finest examples of representational mosaic art they have seen - a masterpiece comparable in quality with the Alexander mosaic in Pompeii. Mark Merrony, an archaeologist who specialises in Roman art, said: 'What struck me was the realism of the depiction. It's absolutely extraordinary. I have examined hundreds of mosaics across the Roman Empire, but I have never seen such a vibrantly realistic depiction of a human.

"'The image of the recumbent gladiator is nothing less than a Roman masterpiece executed by the Sandro Botticelli of his day. The human expression is captured in a realistic manner hitherto unknown in Roman mosaics.'"

Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff offers his twice-monthly summary of the good news from Iraq again this morning in the Wall Street Journal. Part of his piece concerns the activities of Sunni Muslims who, it will be remembered, stubbed their collective toe rather badly by failing to participate in the recent election. "Recent polling data shows that fully two-thirds of Iraqis believe their country is headed in the right direction...While a poll in January showed only 11 percent of Sunni Muslims in Iraq shared that view, that percentage has since grown to 40."

"Down south, the minority Sunnis are finally organizing themselves politically, thus ending their boycott of Iraq's democratic politics: The newly created Sunni alliance, which has not adopted a name, will open its first office in Baghdad, with branches later in other cities. 'The decisions taken by this body will be shared by all Sunnis parties and movements, Islamists, independents, merchants, military officers, heads of tribes and workers,' said Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of the Sunni Endowment. The charitable organization was one of three main Sunni groups to back the formation of the new organization. The others were the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party. 'We decided to establish this Sunni political and religious organization to speak on behalf the Arab Sunnis. We all have to work for the sake of Iraq to get this country out of this hard situation,' said Sheik Lawrence Abid Ibrahim al-Hardan, 47, who is from restive Anbar province west of Baghdad. Sunnis said they hope the organization will give them more of a say in Shi'ite-dominated Iraq and help bring the minority together ahead of new elections in December."

He's not saying much in his own paper, but Michael Kinsley, the Los Angeles Times's editorial and opinion page editor, has told the New York Times all about his efforts to modernise his pages to accommodate web-inspired changes in readership patterns. "Typically a collection of well-reasoned, short, unsigned, sometimes stodgy pieces on critical issues, editorial pages have long been a stalwart of newspapers," the Times says. "They may garner respect and attention from politicians and decision makers but often no more than a stifled yawn from readers...Mr. Kinsley...is making the boldest attempt to make them more dynamic, argumentative and interactive with several innovations aimed squarely at online readers, while being less like an unseen voice of authority.

"The changes, announced in yesterday's edition (in this letter from Andres Martinez, the editorial page editor), include allowing editorial writers a once-a-year chance to write a signed piece dissenting from the editorial position of the newspaper...This week, the newspaper, will introduce an online feature called 'wikitorials', as a way for readers to engage in an online dialogue with the paper. The model is based on 'Wikipedia', the Web's free-content encyclopedia that is edited by online contributors."

Kinsley, who edited the online magazine, Slate, is perhaps the senior working editor most experienced with web journalism in the business at the moment. The changes he is making at the LA Times are being watched by every editor worth his salt in the country.

12 June 2005

DEBKAfile has published a pretty disheartening analysis of the performance of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. "DEBKAfile's Palestinian sources offer an eyehole into Abu Mazen's world to explain why he is on the point of washing his hands of a thankless job.

"1. As head of the Palestinian Authority, he and his ministers have lost active control of the Gaza Strip or West Bank to lawless armed gangs who respect no authority.

"2. Gunmen use the homes of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank for target practice to make sure they remain non-functioning and understand who rules the Palestinian roost.

"3. His attempt in Gaza Wednesday and Thursday, June 8 and 9, to halt the Hamas-Jihad Islami missile and mortar barrage on Israeli targets exposed him to extreme mortification. His appeal was met by more shooting - and not only at Israeli locations and military. Now they are gunning for Rashid Abu Shbak, whom Abbas would like to name director of the national security apparatus in the Gaza Strip to shore up his authority there. For the time being, the would-be troubleshooter is staying under cover in Ramallah." There's a lot more.

The New York Post is making a good point about the zealot Eliot Spitzer's targeting of businesses he claims are sailing too close to the ethical wind. "...Even as Spitzer has cast his eye over an increasing number of industries, he has taken more and more donations from executives and lawyers in those areas...Spitzer has received money from mutual-fund executives, lawyers for Goldman-Sachs (whom the AG's office has investigated), law firms representing Spitzer's targets, such as AIG, and others...Spitzer's office claims his campaign accepts no money from anyone with business before him. But if Spitzer is going to go after alleged wrongdoers in nearly every field, perhaps he needs to go further - banning even more contributions. Or giving up his role as regulator.

"Is this more than is required of others? Perhaps. But by demanding a 'Caesar's wife' level of integrity from the industries he oversees - and claiming that he adheres to the same himself - Spitzer has put himself in this position. He has only himself to blame."

I posted something on Friday about the trouble the Pittsburgh firm MDL Capital Management is in after losing money for a variety of high-profile clients, including Bermuda and the state of Ohio. The New Philadelphia, Ohio Times-Reporter now says (you have to read down a bit) that the state's Attorney General, Jim Petro, is suing MDL to recover the $215 million loss incurred by the state's insurance fund for injured workers. Petro is reported to have said "the bureau was led to believe other investors would invest in the MDL fund when the bureau was actually the fund's only shareholder. The state also accuses the company of breaching a written agreement that stipulated how the money could be invested."

It turns out this particular MDL fund has a Bermuda address and the contract with the bureau stipulates disagreements must be decided in a court here. Bermuda is currently in the grips of a pay-to-play scandal involving MDL, among other investment management companies, a local Cabinet minister and the chairman of the group which manages Bermuda's public funds. It would be interesting to find out who, if anyone local, was involved in MDL setting its fund up here.

The Sunday Times says the situation Tony Blair faces in Brussels this week is the same as the one Maggie Thatcher faced in 1984, when the British EU budget rebate was born. "At Fontainebleau it was the other nine members of what was then the European Community that had given way. This time the prime minister is lined up against 24 countries."

The paper hopes Blair wears iron petticoats at the meeting. "Mr Blair should...stick to his guns on the rebate. His reputation in Whitehall is that he is something of a soft touch when it comes to negotiating. Unlike the Iron Lady he is often too anxious to please."

And the Times underlines the obvious: "The fact that a budget rebate should be a central issue at Brussels is in itself astonishing. After the overwhelming French and Dutch rejections of the proposed constitution, the EU faces a crisis of legitimacy. The people have spoken and have emphatically rejected the grand constitutional vision offered by Valery Giscard d'Estaing and his Franco-German musketeers. The original aim of the constitution, of moving Europe's institutions closer to the people, is as far away as ever. And yet EU leaders want to talk about something - anything - else. Not since Marie Antoinette have we seen such disdain for the wishes of the people."

The paper's editorial shares space with a story that, stepping back a little, suggests why M Chirac is making such an issue of the rebate at this particular time: "A new trend is emerging among France's chattering classes. Tired of criticising les rosbifs as backward and bellicose, they are marvelling at Britain's economic robustness. Le Blairisme, once a dirty word for French leftists, is gaining respectability as the country's rejection of the European constitution focuses attention on what President Jacques Chirac has done wrong - and Tony Blair has done right."

And stepping way, way back to assess the significance of what's going on in Europe, Victor Davis Hansen says it's nothing less than one of those radical global power shifts that occur from time to time - this time eastwards away from Europe. "Yes, we are witnessing one of the great transfers of power and influence that have traditionally changed civilization itself, as money, influence, and military power are gradually inching away from Europe. And this time the shake-up is not regional but global. While scholars and economists concentrate on its economic and political dimensions, few have noticed how a new China and an increasingly vulnerable Europe will markedly change the image of the United States."

I think people who object to audiences clapping between movements are helping condemn classical music to an existence in the hinterlands of popular taste. Clapping is, after all, simply an expression of appreciation. It interferes with nothing but the sensibilities of people who object. In the same way, being able to elect to read a translation of the words of an opera is immensely constructive for those who are learning, and offends only the sensibilities of the few who want to demonstrate how much they know. Anthony Holden of the Guardian agrees with me. "English surtitles above opera in its original language, introduced in this country a generation ago, have been the biggest single advance in my opera-going lifetime. In my youth, dragged to performances of which I could not understand a word, I was bored witless by works that I have since come to love. Now, surtitles help me and countless others, some of whom would never otherwise go to the opera, discover new works, new musical worlds.

"But English surtitles above opera in English? Heresy to the purists, who react to the idea in strikingly lurid language. 'A celluloid condom inserted between the audience and the gratification of understanding,' snorts David Pountney, English National Opera's former director of productions. 'You cannot feel an opera in your bollocks,' muses ENO's outgoing music director, Paul Daniel, 'if you are having the information fed to you.'"

Scientists in Israel have succeeded in getting a 2,000-year-old date palm seed to germinate. The New York Times says: "The seed, nicknamed Methuselah, was taken from an excavation at Masada, the cliff fortress where, in AD 73, 960 Jewish zealots died by their own hand, rather than surrender to a Roman assault. The point is to find out what was so exceptional about the original date palm of Judea, much praised in the Bible and the Koran for its shade, food, beauty and medicinal qualities, but long ago destroyed by the crusaders." Of course, if this happens to be a male plant, they won't be finding much of anything out.


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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