...Views from mid-Atlantic
31 December 2005

Another day of reviews and predictions. The first is from Columnist Michelle Malkin (who has made quite a name for herself during 2005), focusing on the contribution the New York Times has made to politics during the year. In the Washington Times, she writes: "The Times crusaded tirelessly this year for the cut-and-run, troop-undermining, Bush-bashing, reality-denying cause." It's worth reading.

While we're on the Washinton Times site, a small diversion. It's worth also linking to a story that paper's running this morning that my friend Brenda, in Britain, emailed me about early today. Apparently, one of the very first attempts at germ warfare was made from Bermuda by a Southern doctor, Luke Pryor Blackburne, during the Civil War, trying to infect Yankee soldiers with yellow fever.

"Had Blackburn's plot succeeded," the Times says, "he could have caused the deaths of thousands." It didn't succeed, though, because Dr Blackburne trusted a man called Swan in Bermuda, who ratted him out. Blackburne was never convicted of a crime, though, because our local cops burned the evidence. It all sounds terribly familiar, somehow...

From the depths of the sometimes murky world of Middle East politics, former Syrian Vice President Abed el-Halim Khadem's attack on President Bashar Assad shines out like a spotlight, and it may be another sign that Assad is unlikely to survive the year 2006 as Syria's top man. One of the former heads of Mossad, Danny Yatom, said in Israel on Saturday morning that "'the collapse of the Alawi regime in Syria was sped up' by former Syrian Vice President Khadem's disclosure that the murder of Rafik al Hariri could have been prevented. 'Khadem has confirmed suspicions that President [Bashar] Assad was behind the murder of Hariri and other objectors,' Yatom said."

The allegation itself is not news in the Middle East - it has been said before that Assad threatened Hariri. But what makes it such a showstopper in "the Arab street" is that it has been confirmed by someone as close to Assad as Khadem (even though he fled Syria after the recent party congress). The Syrian politician's diatribe against Assad is unprecedented and has shocked people both in Damascus and elsewhere in the Arab world.

One detail of the ex-vice president's interview that we're not so far hearing much about in the Western press is that he denounced the Syrian president for not having taken his advice to sack General Rustoum Ghazaleh, the former Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, immediately after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri last February. Khadem blamed the crime on Ghazaleh and made it clear that the general would not have acted without Assad's authority.

Pondblog's HipHop correspondent drew our attention to this London Times story which summarises the best typos of the year. Writer David Rowan recalls the "US television caption, shown live on ABC News's World News Tonight, which informed viewers that Alan Greenspan, then Federal Reserve chairman, was 'in the hospital for an enlarged prostitute', when he was being treated for his prostate.

"As for the all-time classic, it will be a while before we see the likes of the 1981 apology in Community Life, a publication in Pascack Valley, New Jersey, correcting a picture caption listing exotic gourmet dishes enjoyed during a foreign-language students' dinner: 'Mai Thai Finn is one of the students in the program and was in the center of the photo. We incorrectly listed her name as one of the items on the menu.'"

Rowan thinks that "If papers are to survive, we need to ditch this outdated obsession with 'facts' and print the stories that genuinely get people talking. No one remembers tediously accurate news reports - but unintentionally hilarious human error? Think what more screw-ups could do to drive circulation."

This is the most varied and interesting review of 2005 I've come across. National Review asked its "family and friends" to name their picks for best and worst political moments of 2005. Some are better than others, but the best are pretty darn good. I liked Bryan Preston's worst political moment: "...I would say that DNC Chairman Howard Dean's announcement that the war in Iraq was unwinnable - on the eve of true democratic elections there that for the first time involved the Sunni - has to be the worst. Dean has shown time and again that he and the party he leads simply cannot be trusted on matters of national security or, indeed, any other matters of any level of importance at all. To the contrary, the Dean Democrats can be counted on to throw al Qaeda a rhetorical lifeline at every major turning point in this war."

In a sort of companion article, the Review's contributors were asked to make some predictions for 2006. I liked this one from Warren Bell, whose day job involves sitcomes: "Aliens from Mars will invade the Earth. Using their giant spider-legged attack vehicles, the invaders will lay waste to human civilization. President Bush will be named to head a hastily assembled International Council of Nations. He will begin a last-ditch effort to counterattack by launching nuclear warheads at Mars on Saturn V rockets. Rep. Nancy Pelosi will immediately condemn his plan as "unnecessary and irrational." Peace activists will march outside the charred remains of the White House, mourning the tragic loss of innocent Martian life. Michael Moore will release a documentary alleging links between Bush and the Martians. Then all the Martians get sick and die. The End. (I know, what a lame ending, but I couldn't come up with anything better.)"

30 December 2005

The last couple of days of the year are going to be full of reviews of the last year, and top ten lists. I'm going with the flow, but crossgrain, sort of. This is People's Daily's list of the top ten news stories in China for 2005. The last one they mention is very recent: "China will stop levying agricultural tax as of Jan. 1, 2006, according to a decision of the national legislature which approved a motion on abolishing the regulations on the tax on December 29." It was, for lack of a better way of describing it, a feudal tax, in that it was applied whether you made any money on your farm or not. So it seems to me the most iconic of China's efforts during the year to shake off its dodgy past and join the rest of the world.

"China's top legislature also made a decision on Oct. 27 to revise the personal income tax law to raise the cutoff point of the monthly personal income tax from 800 yuan to 1,600 yuan. The revised law goes into effect as of Jan. 1, 2006." It's going to be a good year for China, I think.

R Emmett Tyrell, who writes a pretty good column from time to time, talks in the Washington Times this morning about the political future in the US: "In politics what do I see? Well, I see the Republican Party struggling against high seas. The media see the party in danger of losing to the Democrats in off-year elections next fall.

"That probably will be the case, unless the Republicans have to run against the Democrats. Against the Democrats, they could win with Warren Harding in the White House."

It's not my country, so I'm not going to say whether I think he's right or not, but I know about English, so I can tell you that's a very successful way of putting it.

I've mentioned the LA Times's excellent food section before, I think. Obviously, I haven't had a chance to try any of their Year's 10 Best Recipes, published this morning, but they certainly sound good. "It wasn't easy to choose the 10 best," they said. "There were a few we knew had to be included. The Italian-style slow-roasted shoulder of pork that we perfected by testing it no fewer than nine times, from Laurie Winer's March story about porchetta. Nancy Silverton's burgers, which forever changed the way we think about hamburgers, from Emily Green's August cover story."

It's one to download and keep. I like simple things, so I particularly liked the sound of Slow-scrambled eggs with prosciutto.

Polly Toynbee's ticked off at the naysayers among us. In the Guardian: "Let's get one thing clear. This is the golden age - so far. There has never been a better time to be alive in Britain than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives. Unimaginable luxuries and choices are now standard - mobile phones sending pictures everywhere, accessing the universe on the internet and iPods with all the world's music in your ear. Barring calamity, there will be better. Acknowledging steady progress is the only way to prove what more could be done, if we tried harder."

Writer Simon Schama's trying to get out of the normal form of year-end review by giving what he calls an interim report on the first decade of the millennium. In the Guardian, he calls it, among other things: "The decade when coral reefs turned pallid and died; when Alaskan caribou butted their heads against pipelines; when what seemed like a marginal rise in oceanic temperatures translated into hurricanes that ate entire shorelines, was also the decade of the Hummer. Just as Paul Fussell identified the Jeep - light, speedy and tough - as the symbol of the war that America wanted to fight in the 1940s, so the Hummer will forever get remembered as the Supersize emblem of imperial hubris in the noughties: comical in its swaggering, pseudo-military fantasy; obese sheet-metal in denial; the self-dooming guzzler to end all guzzlers; blitzkrieg at the shopping mall - while the real thing - Humvees with teenagers in uniform - get taken out by rocket-propelled grenades in Falluja."

Here's an end-of-the-year prediction for you...2006 is going to be the year the e-book makes it in a big way. It's been around for a while, but there have been difficulties figuring out how to market the digital books to be displayed in such things. That may change next year. There are several companies working on the hardware, I believe. This BusinessWeek story concerns Sony's efforts. "Can Sony make the iPod of digital books? That's the plan. At the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 4 in Las Vegas, BusinessWeek has learned, the Japanese giant plans to unveil a portable e-reader device for the U.S. The new gadget will let users store and view digital books and will sell for $300 to $500, about the same price range as a full-size iPod."

29 December 2005

Ed Feulner, the president of the Heritage Foundation, takes stock in the Washington Times of American efforts to weed out the insurgency in Iraq: "Are they being effective? The Iraqi people apparently think so, considering the growing number of intelligence tips they've passed along. In March 2005, Iraqi and coalition forces received 483 intelligence tips from Iraqi citizens, according to Heritage Foundation Middle East expert James Phillips. This figure rose to 3,300 in August and more than 4,700 in September."

Charles Dahan, the world vice president of the Federation of Moroccan Jewry, has some praise in the Washington Times about the reform efforts of Morocco's King Mohammed VI: "Historically, Morocco has been a bastion of religious freedom and has actively worked to prevent the common causes of Islamic extremism: poverty, unemployment and unresponsive government.

"As a Moroccan American, I deeply regret that Morocco has had to go through tough and grueling periods in its history. However, I am encouraged by - and proud of - a leader who is willing to acknowledge the past in order to improve the future of Morocco. Here in America, many take our liberties and freedom for granted. Morocco has peacefully undertaken the difficult reforms and democratization we see Iraq fighting to achieve every day. Morocco, her citizens and especially King Mohammed VI should be commended for their forward thinking and leadership on human rights in the Arab world."

The New York Sun weighs in, on its editorial page, with a little impatient toe-tapping about that car that Kofi Annan is so sensitive about. "Since Mr. Bone (James, of the London Times, whom Mr Annan scolded for asking questions about it) and others began asking, neither the secretary general nor any of his aides or spokesmen has been able to come up with a simple answer. On November 20, our Benny Avni e-mailed the question to Mr. Annan's lawyer, Gregory Craig, who has yet to produce an answer. A week later, a spokesperson vaguely promised that Kojo Annan's lawyers will have some comment on the car 'soon', but as of yet they have supplied none.

"Failing to explain the technicalities involved in lending his good name and good money to purchase a Mercedes, Mr. Annan has pretended the whole affair had nothing to do with him and everything to do with his wayward son. 'I am neither his spokesman or his lawyer,' the father said of his son last week at that press conference.

"The question that lingers for us is why such a simple question needs so much attention from lawyers or spokespersons anyway. The fact that brilliant advocates like Mr. Craig, et al, were unable to craft a simple answer after so many weeks that the issue has been in the limelight, hurting Mr. Annan's image so badly, is bizarre. Either there is some deep dark secret that needs to be protected, or another factor is at work here. In October Mr. Annan has publicly told our Mr. Avni that his 'world is so small,' urging him to 'move on' and stop asking oil for food questions. The secretary general was apparently applauded by advisers eager to go on the attack. An emboldened Mr. Annan then went after Mr. Bone last week, but bullying from the bully pulpit backfired, and reporters are now more interested than ever in the story of the missing Mercedes."

EU projects have such a habit of coming to bits at the last minute, that the success of the launch of the Galileo global positioning system yesterday was a pleasant surprise. Once again, generally speaking, American newspapers have more complete and informative coverage than their British counterparts, for whom fitting it all into the language and the space that might be occupied by a story about a footballer's fling with a stripper seems always to be the Holy Grail of their brand of journalism. The Washington Post this morning has a good summary of what Galileo represents, both in technical and political terms. "Galileo will be more accurate than its American counterpart for civilian uses and so will allow such enhanced services as tracing emergency calls to within a yard of their origin and helping tourists find an ATM in a strange city using a chip inserted into a cell phone...

"Many Europeans see political significance in the project, too: The world's only civilian-controlled system will give Europe and its partner nations independence from the United States, which has warned it could diminish or cut off GPS satellite coverage to countries considered enemies in times of national emergency. Galileo represents 'the independence of the European Union', French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Wednesday after the 1,300-pound test satellite soared into orbit atop a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on the steppes of Kazakhstan."

28 December 2005

"Near the Ministry of Justice in the Hague, and visible from its windows, is an area of the Dutch capital where many of the unemployed grow marijuana for a living. While continuing to receive about $1,200 per month from the state for doing nothing, they earn up to $6,000 a month as well (tax free, of course) by cultivating pot in their apartments. City Journal's Theodore Dalrymple says that despite the fact that Holland's laissez faire attitute towards drugs has reduced the crime rate, there are drawbacks. All in all, he says, "I am glad I am not the Dutch minister of justice."

One in four females joining a US university in the fall of this year will be unable to find a male to canoodle with, according to the Weekly Standard. "At colleges across the country, 58 women will enroll as freshmen for every 42 men. And as the class of 2010 proceeds toward graduation, the male numbers will dwindle. Because more men than women drop out, the ratio after four years will be 60/40, according to projections by the Department of Education."

A group of statisticians, the Guardian says, has laboured for months to crack the secret of producing best selling novels - only to find that under their formula The Da Vinci Code should have been a flop. I don't know why that should be a particular surprise - if statisticians knew anything about writing books, they wouldn't be statisticians, would they? However, I link to the story because where book titles are concerned, I think they're on to something: "It (the statisticians' report) assumes that much of success lies in the title. The team of three statisticians, helped by programmers, studied 54 years of fiction number ones in the New York Times and the 100 favourite novels in the BBC's Big Read poll.

"Comparing these with a control group of less successful novels by the same authors, they found that the winning books had three common features; they had metaphorical, or figurative titles instead of literal ones; the first word was a pronoun, a verb, an adjective or a greeting; and their grammar patterns took the form either of a possessive case with a noun, or of an adjective and noun or of the words The ... of ..."

I have a friend who's just in the process of selling a book, and he's violating all of those rules. I hope he's listening.

Remember Benon Sevan? He's the guy who ran the UN's Oil-for-Food programme. He ducked for cover in Cyprus, which has no extradition treaty with the US, when things got hot for him in the US last year, and since then, no one has seemed particularly interested in getting him back. Claudia Rosett is saying in the Wall Street Journal that she thinks Kofi Annan is probably the only one in a position to do anything about Sevan. "There are provisions quite likely available for taking real steps to correct the Cyprus aspect of the situation. But someone has to act, and that someone may well be Mr. Annan himself. But Mr Annan, whose temper is known to get kinda short over questions about that Mercedes Benz his son bought in his name, isn't wild about answering questions about Mr Sevan, either:

"The Manhattan District Attorney's Office opened an investigation into Mr. Sevan earlier this spring, and confirmed to me Tuesday that the investigation is continuing, but the New York prosecutor has no jurisdiction in Cyprus and cannot in any event bring charges against Mr. Sevan unless Mr. Annan lifts his diplomatic immunity - which it seems Mr. Annan has not done. A spokeswoman for the Cypriot mission to the UN says that 'the issue' of Mr. Sevan is 'on the desk of the attorney general in Cyprus, who is studying the case.'

"Mr. Volcker's committee, which is maintaining an office until at least March 31, 2006, to assist authorities inquiring into Oil for Food-related issues, did not reply to queries Tuesday about whether Cyprus has sought any information or cooperation. And Interpol, which might have the ability to help pursue the case across borders, cannot act except upon request of an existing investigation - either by national or possibly even UN authorities. One precedent might be Interpol's recent cooperation with the UN investigation led by Detlev Mehlis into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. But when I phoned Interpol's offices in France on Tuesday to ask whether the UN or any other authorities, including the Cypriot attorney general, had asked for help in the case of Mr. Sevan, Interpol referred the question back to that black hole known as the UN."

27 December 2005

The children of a refugee camp in Sudan took international aid workers hostage in a bid to get the world to pay attention to their plight, according to the Washington Post. "'Our fathers are dead. Our mothers are humiliated. Our animals and properties are stolen,' one said he told his friends. 'Can we let this stuff keep happening to us?' On that afternoon two months ago, mobs of angry youths surrounded a health post, waving knives and sticks and chanting, 'Revenge!' Inside were at least 32 Sudanese and international aid workers.

"Several youth leaders told them they would be held hostage there until the government released the detained camp leader, Sheik Suliman Ahmed Taha, participants recounted. 'No one really wanted to hurt the aid workers. We just wanted someone to pay attention to us...'"

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Sam Brownback have joined forces to write elsewhere in the Post that despite American engagement, "Darfur's humanitarian, security and political conditions are deteriorating. If the United States does not change its approach to Darfur, an already grim situation is likely to spiral out of control.

"Although the killing abated somewhat this year, Darfurians continue to be displaced - more than 20,000 in the past few weeks alone. In addition, several million civilians are trapped in camps that are becoming more, not less, vulnerable. Women living in camps for internally displaced persons have to walk ever farther to obtain the firewood they need to cook the food donated by the United States. This has increased the incidence of rape, a tool in the onslaught of the militias known as the janjaweed. Mounting banditry has caused the closure of vital road corridors and the evacuation of some international aid workers. As a result, humanitarian access is more limited than it has been at any point since April 2004, causing a spike in the number of Darfurians who are not receiving lifesaving aid.

"While the 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur has undoubtedly reduced the violence, it has become clear in recent weeks that it lacks the resources and manpower to secure a region the size of France. Indeed, the African Union force itself is increasingly being targeted and harassed. Five of its soldiers were killed and 34 were kidnapped in October. As one AU colonel recently said, 'We are sitting ducks.'"

This story, about the ten worst Britons in history, is in all the British papers this morning. It ran first in the BBC's History Magazine, but I'm linking to this Independent story because it quotes a professor of medieval history at London University, Nigel Saul, as having used a a word in a way I've never seen before. He said: "Despenser (Hugh, Edward II courtier) was pure evil. He browbeated the weak into signing away their estates.'" I thought the past tense of browbeat was browbeat. My Shorter Oxford's mum. Anyone? Will I one day have to say that I pleaded, but no one shedded any additional light?

Max Hastings, whose training is as an historian, is writing today about something that is a problem for educators the world over - the extent to which teachers in one country should take into account the sensibilities of those of their students whose roots are in another, in the subject matter of their teaching. Britain, says the headline on his Guardian article, is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu. "It may justly be asserted that - for instance - the Muslim peoples of the Middle East sustained much higher cultural values in the 12th and 13th Centuries than the European crusaders they fought; that many Indian peoples possessed more impressive heritages than our own. But the world's development in the past 500 years has been dominated, for good or ill, by what westerners have thought and done. Other societies, again no matter whether for good or ill, have been losers whose power to determine their own destinies, never mind anyone else's, has been small.

"History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might. If one's own people were victims of western imperialism, it is entirely understandable that one should wish to study history from their viewpoint. But, whatever the crimes of our forefathers, this is the country of Drake, Clive and Kitchener, not of Tipu Sultan, Shaka Zulu or the Mahdi."

James Bone of the London Times, whom Kofi Annan called an overgrown schoolboy for asking him a question he didn't like, is having his day in the court of public opinion. In a Wall Street Journal piece, he notes that: "It is a time-honored tradition at the U.N. to bury a scandal by conducting an inadequate inquiry and then declaring the matter closed. Mr. Annan did precisely that when news first broke in January 1999 of his son's involvement with a Swiss firm that won a UN contract in Iraq. At the time, the secretary-general turned to a respected financial figure, Joseph Connor - a former chairman of Price Waterhouse World Firm who was then the UN's under-secretary-general for management - to investigate.

"The inquiry - which had a crucial paragraph mysteriously added to Mr. Connor's signed version - took less than a day. It found that Kojo had resigned from the Swiss firm, Cotecna Inspection SA, before a UN contract was awarded to the firm. We now know that was false.

"Before attacking me at his news conference last week, Mr. Annan bemoaned that the press had been misled by 'deliberate leaks'; Sadly, I can confirm that. I was shown Mr. Connor's confidential report - including the added paragraph - by a furtive Annan aide. I regret I incorporated that UN-sponsored falsehood into a piece I filed."

One Pondblog reader, whose alarm was obviously qualified by a certain schadenfreude, sent me a copy of a story last week, suggesting that Homeland Security heavies had pounced on a student who borrowed a copy of Mao's Little Red Book from his local library. It sounded a little unlikely, but then there's that saying, isn't there? 'Nobody ever went broke overestimating the capacity of officialdom for stupidity'...something like that. Anyway, I'm delighted today to be able to link to the New Bedford Standard Times story that confirms the Dartmouth student who made the accusation has now admitted he made the story up.


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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