...Views from mid-Atlantic
28 October 2006

You may have heard or read this morning that Bermuda has a new Premier. The new man, Dr Ewart Brown, challenged the incumbent, Alex Scott, in an internal Progressive Labour Party vote last night, and won handily. It wasn't a surprising outcome - Scott is an odd, dithering sort of man who ruled the roost, according to party insiders, by raising his voice.

You can read his successor's official biography here. He's Scott's opposite - a smooth, good-looking man who can speak fluent sound-bite. He's got that Hollywood-style star quality that makes him seem born to the red carpet. That's certainly going to be his leadership strength, but it's also going to be his weakness, because stars in politics tend to get so impatient with the rules that they're unable to resist breaking them. Dr Brown has a reputation for getting things done, but also a reputation for sailing closer to the wind than some think healthy. He is said to have been a member, back in the day, of Bermuda's Black Beret Cadre, which modelled itself on the Black Panthers in the US, and he has a habit of declining to answer what he calls "plantation questions".

James Bone, you may remember, is the London Times reporter whose questioning about that Mercedes that Kofi Annan's his son bought in questionable circumstances caused Mr Annan to lose his cool in a big way at a New York press conference. The Times asked him to review a new book about the UN by the journalist, James Traub. It's a hagiography, he says. "The result is a book that becomes almost Orwellian in its blindness to scandals revelations. Even the title, The Best Intentions, sounds like one of those unrealistically optimistic UN reports.

"There is a theory among journalists that Annan is the UN's 'dumb blonde'. The first career UN official to reach the world's top diplomatic job, the American-educated Ghanaian has a great talent for looking pretty and allowing others to project their desires on him...

"It was my questioning of Mr Annan about the Mercedes that provoked the UN chief into an unprecedented outburst at his year-end press conference in 2005. The clash, televised live and repeated ad nauseam, did something that months of diligent journalism could not achieve: it dramatised the complex Oil-for-Food scandal for the viewer at home. For many UN staff too, it was a turning point. If Mr Annan had nothing to hide, they asked, why did he explode? Incensed, he refused to take my question and chided me for behaving like an 'overgrown schoolboy'.

"Yet, apart from that one phrase, Traub gets the entire incident wrong. Apparently not present, he seems never to have watched the outburst on TV. Perhaps working off transcript, he makes a grievous error. He cites a question from another reporter as though it came from my lips, and Annan's response as though it were delivered to me. Thus, Traub misreads Annan one final time at one of the most revealing moments in his career. Thus he he is able to avoid the very obvious journalistic questions raised by the 'missing Mercedes'. As this apparent Freudian slip reveals, the entire book suffers an acute case of 'Mercedes denial'."

"A British gang who committed a 'carousel crime'," according to the Guardian, "cheating the taxpayer out of 10 million pounds by falsely claiming VAT and laundering the proceeds, have been jailed at Canterbury Crown Court.

"HM Revenue & Customs defines carousel crime as a scam in which criminals falsely claim VAT on high-value export goods - goods which may be fictitious and therefore never exported - and pocket the VAT repaid.

"The case involved Virgini Ltd, registered in Scotland, whose director is Durgesh Mehta, 51, of Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, receiving 7 million pounds in VAT repayments after submitting false tax returns between July and October 2003."

Ralph Steadman is the English cartoonist whose work with Hunter Thompson, especially on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, made you think they must be especially close twins. Publicly, Thompson was the showman and Steadman the reticent Brit. But maybe not so reticent as all that, as this interview with the Globe and Mail suggests. "'We met each other at a time when I think we both were feeling a sense that change was coming, but we didn't know what the change was. And we were completely different, like chalk and cheese.' (Steadman takes a moment here to decide who was the chalk and who was the cheese.)

"'But emotionally and psychologically, there was a huge attraction. He wanted to know what was going on in my mind and I wanted to know what was going on in his. I was so desperate to know that. At the same time, I thought I would produce drawings that would completely floor his ideas...'

"Much of their relationship was based on verbal sparring, Thompson playing tough and Steadman playing both the co-conspirator and sometimes the object of Thompson's greatest rants. 'You know he did say to me, [when] I wanted to be an American citizen' - now Steadman breaks into Thompson's low, clipped speaking style over the phone - 'You know, Ralph, as long as I am here, I will never allow you to become a human - no, what was it? - an American citizen. You are Welsh, Ralph, and that's it! You cannot become American. It's impossible, because we learned democracy before you even learned to take a bath.' He breaks into laughter. 'It's so poignant,' he says. 'Part of him was serious, dead serious. But there was a point I had to say, Hunter, come on. Give us a break. You're full o' shit. We did that to each other. It went on for 35 years, and it was pretty damn good, because it was like jousting words against words...'

"Despite the fact that Steadman is now in granddad mode, while continuing his regular output of writings and drawings, this doesn't mean he's any less accepting of the world's 'greed, treachery, stupidity, cupidity, the positive power of lying' (to use Thompson's words about former U.S. president Nixon).

"'I went, Yeah, man, I'll go for that. I did drawings for that cause. It was not necessarily Hunter's cause, but it was the goddamn cause that gonzo was about. It was about sorting out the wimps from the cheats and the filth and the unnecessarily awfulness that human beings were becoming. I mean, I'm getting emotional now, for Chrissakes, thinking about it.'"

27 October 2006

Otto Reich, who served in the American government as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, then in the National Security Council, has suddenly become convinced that Fidel Castro is dying of stomach cancer. He writes in the National Review about what made up his mind: "This time the rumors are real: Castro is dying of stomach cancer. He may have already died, even before the funeral preparations were finished, so the news is not out. Confirmation of the terminal illness comes from the usual sources but in a non-conventional manner. The Cuban government has been summoning to Havana representatives of the major international media to negotiate the best seats, camera angles, and interviews with the despot's political survivors, and to inform them of the ground rules for coverage of the state funeral.

"The foreign media are being told that the model for Castro's funeral is that of Pope John Paul II a year ago. The Cubans actually believe - or pretend - that the death of a tyrant deserves the same attention as that of the world's great men of peace."

Barack Obama announced a few days ago that he was, after all, interested in running for president in 2008. No surprise there. I thought his chances of being nominated by the Democrats were pretty slim (they can't afford to be doing any gambling this time around) before I read this article by columnist Barry Casselman in the Washington Times. Now I'm cast iron certain he won't get the nod.

"Mr. Obama was elected to the Senate only two years ago. He has no executive experience. The office in question is the presidency, arguably the toughest job in the world, requiring not only decisiveness, but vision, ability to manage and delegate, stamina, concentration and determination. Mr. Obama has had no chance to demonstrate any of these. He does have many abilities, including a gift for communication, a sense of humor, intelligence and a certain refreshing modesty and self-deprecation. His future is bright, and he eventually may be the first Hawaiian president (where he was born) of the United States."

Something would have to have gone seriously rotten in the democratic state of Denmark for any other verdict to have been handed down, I think. But it's nonetheless a relief to read in JURIST that a Danish court has dismisses a lawsuit "filed by Muslim organizations against the two editors of the Danish newspaper who published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad earlier this year. Worldwide protests among Muslims followed Jyllands-Posten's publication of the cartoons, leading to multiple deaths, the burning of Danish embassy buildings and boycotts of Danish goods."

Tom Leonard, (he's both a Scotsman and a poet, which is a pretty formidable combination), has a piece in this morning's Telegraph on bias in the BBC. Allegations about it, he says, are "...a battle that the BBC has become very adept at fighting. Every time the clamour of bias on some particularly hard news issue, such as Israel, Iraq, or Brussels, gets too loud, the corporation commissions some research that finds no bias, or - next best - evidence of bias on both sides.

"But no matter how much BBC bosses swear blind there is no problem, the issue refuses to go away. Why? Because for many licence-payers, the BBC's skewed assumptions about what the world is about and how its inhabitants should think is the most annoying thing about it - more annoying than dumbing down, than the universal licence fee, than Jonathan Ross's $34 million pay packet. More annoying even than Natasha Kaplinsky. And particularly infuriating when the BBC denies it outright, as did Michael Grade, the BBC chairman, in an article published a few days before a governors' impartiality summit a month ago.

"Not that he'd already made up his own mind or anything. Anyway, embarrassingly, it emerged (through leaked minutes that were rather harder to elicit from the corporation than Mr Grade's article) that even some of his most senior journalists disagreed. Andrew Marr, hardly one of the BBC's token Right-wingers, declared that the BBC 'is not impartial or neutral. It's a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people'. It has, he added, 'a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.' The meeting also heard that the BBC was patronising its audiences and constrained by an intolerant version of politically correct liberalism."

The slowing of the Atlantic Conveyor current is nothing new - I remember writing an article on it about four years ago and, of course, there was that awful movie, The Day After Tomorrow. It crops up in headlines every once in a while, but this appearance in the Guardian is the first time I've heard that the Conveyor actually stopped for a few days in 2004.

Is it the first sign that the current is stuttering to a halt, the Guardian asks.

"Lloyd Keigwin, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, in the US, described the temporary shutdown as 'the most abrupt change in the whole [climate] record'. He added: 'It only lasted 10 days. But suppose it lasted 30 or 60 days, when do you ring up the prime minister and say let's start stockpiling fuel? How can we rule out a longer one next year?'

"Prof Bryden's group (Harry Bryden of the National Oceanography Centre, in Southampton, England) stunned climate researchers last year with data suggesting that the flow rate of the Atlantic circulation had dropped by about 6m tonnes of water a second from 1957 to 1998. If the current remained that weak, he predicted, it would lead to a 1C drop in the UK in the next decade. A complete shutdown would lead to a 4C-6C cooling over 20 years.

"The study prompted the UK's Natural Environment Research Council to set up an array of 16 submerged stations spread across the Atlantic, from Florida to north Africa, to measure flow rate and other variables at different depths. Data from these stations confirmed the slowdown in 1998 was not a 'freak observation' - although the current does seem to have picked up slightly since."

26 October 2006

The Wall Street Journal's trying to figure out why France is having so much difficulty with its Muslim citizens: "It matters, then, that France's anti-terrorism laws are the toughest anywhere in the Western world. French prosecutors can hold terror suspects for years without charge; the definition of 'links to terrorism' is loose. Every mosque in France is monitored. Since 9/11, the government has cracked down on foreign financing and moved to train 'French imams.' All this - more than the slow integrationist trend that Messrs. Laurence and Vaisse celebrate - may be the reason why France hasn't been hit by terrorism since a wave of subway bombings in 1995.

"The French approach to assimilation, with its insistence on strict secularism and its dirigiste firmness, does not make for an American-style melting pot. But it may well carve a better path to civil peace, over time, than the policies of Europe's other Muslim-populated countries. The path would run smoother if France could undertake a major economic reform. Remarkably little has been done, even in the year since the riots, to loosen up the restrictive labor codes that do so much to keep poor immigrants - not least poor Muslim immigrants - from finding work and integrating themselves into French life."

Columnist Helen Rumbelow claims in the London Times that libraries have gone the way of public bathhouses - a good idea at the time, but one that is no longer needed.

"The public lending library...has had its day. To pretend otherwise is like bursting in on a woman luxuriating in a private bubble-bath and telling her to take her behind out to a public washroom for a good old hose-down. She has no need of that now, thank you.

"The same goes now that we can afford our own books. Some might even say that the widespread affluence that caused the end of bath-houses and libraries is a good thing, but I may be pushing my luck here. I had better keep my voice down; I am in enough trouble as it is.

"You see, people get in an awful tizzy about libraries. With each passing year they decline: in the past decade, book-borrowing has dropped by 40 per cent while the cost of the service - now at $2.4 billion - has risen by the same proportion. But the response to this failure is always a new bout of hand-wringing, a new set of celebrities pleading for the public to return. This is because to be anti-library is thought to be anti-book, literacy and all nice, decent British virtues that come with being shushed by a lady in a cardigan. Well, I am daring to report that books are booming in Britain, with sales up by 3 per cent a year since 2001. If you want the truth, it is that books have killed libraries."

The Guardian claims that "The home secretary, John Reid, is expected for the first time to draw an explicit link today between fundraising by terrorist groups and the European-wide so-called 'carousel' VAT fraud worth $63bn a year.

"Mr Reid is hoping his interior minister counterparts from the five other largest EU countries meeting in Warwickshire today will agree to a new effort to combat carousel fraud by improving cooperation between agencies across Europe. The two-day meeting of the six interior ministers, from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland,known as the G6 and hosted by Mr Reid near Stratford-upon-Avon, last night opened with an unusual briefing by the head of MI5, Elizabeth Manningham Buller, on the state of the terrorist threat and a discussion on what can be done to pre-empt a terrorist attack."

You'll notice a certain name is not mentioned in this story, I assume as a result of some heavy-duty legal advice. That's flow I'm not going to be going against.

Scientists in Ohio seem to have found a way of opposing anti-evolutionists in education that is more constructive than simply jawing about it. The New York Times explains: "In an unusual foray into electoral politics, 75 science professors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have signed a letter endorsing a candidate for the Ohio Board of Education.

"The professors' favored candidate is Tom Sawyer, a former congressman and onetime mayor of Akron. They hope Mr. Sawyer, a Democrat, will oust Deborah Owens Fink, a leading advocate of curriculum standards that encourage students to challenge the theory of evolution. Elsewhere in Ohio, scientists have also been campaigning for candidates who support the teaching of evolution and have recruited at least one biologist from out of state to help...

"The letter says Dr. Owens Fink has "attempted to cast controversy on biological evolution in favor of an ill-defined notion called Intelligent Design that courts have ruled is religion, not science."

"In an interview, (their spokesman) said, "This is not some group of fringe scientists or however they are being portrayed by the creationist community," adding, "This is the entire scientific community, and I don't know of any other precedent for almost the entire faculty at an institution making such a statement."

It's Pondblog's third birthday today...three years and 5500 posts, near as dammit. Thank you for tolerating the sometimes rather eccentric ideas expressed here, and for occasionally offering some of your own.

25 October 2006

Beenie Man, the Jamaican dancehall guy notorious for his homophobic lyrics, has a go at defending himself in a Caribbean Net News piece this morning: "Jamaican dancehall artiste Beenie Man has hit out at critics who accuse him of homophobia, insisting Jamaican culture is far less prejudiced than in Israel.

"Beenie Man, born Anthony Moses Davis, has had scheduled appearances in the US and UK cancelled on numerous occasions, after members of homosexual rights groups protested against his lyrics, which includes material such as: 'I'm dreaming of a new Jamaica, come to execute all the gays.'

"Davis says, 'I like to entertain, not hurt people. In Jamaica being gay isn't the same as in the UK."

Bit underwhelming, really.

These are two rather different perspectives on the future of the web, one on troubles it faces in Europe, published by the Washington Times, and one rather long piece on the direction it is likely to take technically, from Tech Central Station.

The Times says "A European plan to apply traditional broadcast-television regulations to so-called 'new media' services has some American Internet companies and free-speech advocates worried it could stifle free expression on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The proposal, an update to the European Union's 1989 'Television Without Frontiers' directive, would regulate on-demand audiovisual content - such as streaming online video, podcasts or mobile-phone clips - 'to protect minors and prevent incitement to racial hatred,' according to a statement signed by Viviane Reding, European commissioner for information society and media, and linked on her Web site.

Patrick Ross, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington free-market think tank, said the regulation, though well-intended, would have unwanted consequences. 'One of the great difficulties of the Internet to a large extent is the Internet does not obey borders. When a company is operating across borders and they're facing disparate regulations, they face a choice of essentially operating two different companies or just operating at the highest level of regulation,' Mr. Ross said. 'And that could mean the EU's rules could essentially become the global rules.'"

TCS's Patrick Cox, in a bit of a meandering piece, says "We are...on the cusp of the Next Big Thing and those who are ready for the transition to 3D virtual worlds will be far ahead of the game. Those who are actually acquainted with VW will be in a position to help determine the direction of the many critical policy debates that will be engendered as the online VW experience becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the RW."

Nibras Kazimi, the Iraqi journalist who lives in Washington, DC, writes in the New York Sun this morning that "The 'Iraq is a failure' crowd is not only craven but also mistaken. If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I'd say that Iraq is succeeding. A strategic corner in the counterinsurgency campaign has already been turned, but the tangible results will take longer to register in the public mind. Should America retract now and walk away from the victory at hand, many more Iraqi and American lives will be harmed and disrupted down the road.

"Iraq is succeeding because the Iraqi state has weathered the worst of the insurgent storm and survived, and because the Sunni insurgency is fatigued. 'What about all the bodies? What about all the bombings?' Indeed, it's the worst it has been, but not the worst it can be. I see many hopeful signs that cannot be dismissed. To me, the numbers of the dead - painful as they are - are not as critically dangerous as a much talked about shift in American strategy away from the goal of securing a democratic Iraq.

"Insurgencies are about perceptions, not about hard facts on the ground. Usually, insurgents try to present their goals as noble, hoping to win over the population. Historically, insurgencies had only two options: overturning weakening regimes or being methodically stamped out. Modern times afford modern insurgencies another option: They have an unprecedented chance to mold global perceptions. The insurgents in Iraq have given up on winning over the Iraqi people. No righteous cause can justify the senseless murder of elderly women out to buy some groceries, not even to the most gullible or cynical of audiences. Rather, the insurgents have other goals in Iraq: They seek to create an atmosphere of terror where even the most mundane acts of life are paralyzed. They don't fight for victory. They fight to make the other side 'feel' defeated. Public sentiment in Iraq is superfluous to the insurgents, whereas American opinion polls matter plenty. Should they succeed in making Washington waiver, then it would be a massive breakthrough in the business of terror."

"Poor 19-year-old Cpl. Shalit (one of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers) is being played by Hamas as a card in two separate games: with the Israelis for the release of Palestinian prisoners and with the Egyptians for political concessions in Cairo." Bret Stephens writes in the Wall Street Journal that "The Egyptians have been negotiating his release for months, probably in good faith: They fear that indefinite detention might lead to a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza, which would have spillover effects in the Sinai. At the same time, Mr. Mubarak has been ratcheting up the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's sister organization in Egypt, by canceling elections the Brotherhood seemed likely to win and tinkering with the election law to further shut it out of the political process.

"The political heat between the two sides was noticeably raised last week when Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar reportedly warned Egypt that if it failed to open its border with Gaza 'there will be no border'. Equally extraordinary was that the statement was widely reprinted in the Egyptian state media, playing into the broad suspicion that the Brotherhood, as a religious organization, is fundamentally anti-Egypt in the national sense. 'Now the line is, No More Foreign Ministry,' says an Egyptian source, suggesting the Mubarak regime is quickly moving away from diplomacy to more aggressive forms of persuasion with Hamas.

"If Egypt or Israel had the luxury of choice they would abandon Gaza to its own miserable devices, or - even better - to each other. But that's not how it works in the Middle East. The war for Gaza is coming, no matter who does the fighting. Whoever stays out of it wins."

A Scotsman with a little politics running in his veins is a pretty formidable creature, but a creature which often seems to be running in circles. Nonetheless, with devolution now a fact of life, the once-unthinkable idea of an independent Scotland is gaining strength. Telegraph columnist Alan Cochrane, (no prize for guessing which side of the border he comes from) writes: "There is a fond notion among the more rabid of my countrymen that the English oppose Scots independence. The truth is somewhat different. After we Scots bored rigid the rest of the United Kingdom's population for decades over our constitutional future, the English - possibly and understandably so that they could get on with their lives - said: ' If you want it, take it … but please don't make too much noise about it, there's a good chap.' And so the Scots, aided and abetted by English votes at Westminster, opted for devolution. However, in spite of this being a crashing failure and having improved the lot of ordinary Scots not one jot, there is a ferocious demand for more, not less, self-government."

24 October 2006

This is an odd little sidebar to the story of John Deuss's arrest on suspicion of being involved in carousel fraud. This is the second piece that has appeared by this writer, a woman called Susan Mazur. I haven't linked to her before, because she makes me nervous. She makes no bones about her support of Deuss, and her rejection of the notion that he might have done anything wrong. But she seems to have those opinions not on the basis of any factual information, but simply on faith that her friend Deuss wouldn't do anything like that. She writes for a New Zealand publication called Scoop, and she claims that Deuss funded, then somehow abandoned a project to publish a version of the Canterbury Tales, illustrated by the late Charles Mozley. Her article claimes that "Had the project been completed, there is no doubt it would have been the literary work of the century," presumably beating out works by such other prominent candidates as James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, et al.

Here's a taste of her writing style: "Deuss is surely a latter-day merchant telling tales as did his medieval forerunner. Someone who might, if the world's banking authorities succeed, have good reason to walk his own pilgrim's way and pray forgiveness.

"But hold fast before you condemn him to sack-cloth and ashes! What crime has he committed? None, if his vehement denials are true. And there are many who believe he has been unfairly singled out in the search for a scapegoat.

"Yet he is now thrust into the limelight as some kind of international fraudster instead of basking in the glowing reputation of literary benefactor; for that was surely his destiny had he not himself been cruelly robbed. John Deuss had a vision that, thanks to his hard-earned wealth, almost materialized on the long road to reality."

This is a moonbat in full flight.

Thanks to Brenda for spotting the story.

I'm a great supporter of Israel, but sometimes, I think they're indefensibly out of control. This is surely one of those occasions: "A secret, two year investigation by the defense establishment shows that there has been rampant illegal construction in dozens of settlements and in many cases involving privately-owned Palestinian properties." Haaretz says "The information in the study was presented to two defense ministers, Amir Peretz and his predecessor Shaul Mofaz, but was not released in public and a number of people participating in the investigations were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

According to security sources familiar with the study, the material is 'political and diplomatic dynamite'. In conversations with Haaretz, the sources maintained that the report is not being made public in order to avoid a crisis with the US government."

This must have been some scandal at the time - a racehorse that enthralled depression-plagued Australia in the 1930s is assassinated by American gangsters before he can compete in that country. The Independent says science is confirming people's worst suspicions: "For more than 70 years, Australians have been convinced American gangsters murdered their champion racehorse, Phar Lap, who died suddenly and agonisingly at the peak of his career while preparing to take on the US racing scene. Now their suspicions of foul play appear to have been backed by science, with medical tests suggesting the five-year-old chestnut gelding was poisoned with arsenic.

"Phar Lap, who triumphed in 37 of his 51 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the country's Grand National, won Australians' hearts during the Great Depression and is still regarded as a national hero. But, in April 1932, days after winning North America's richest race, the Agua Caliente in Mexico, he collapsed at his stables in San Francisco. His trainer, Harry Telford, found him in severe pain and with a high temperature. A few hours later, he died from internal bleeding. The most popular theory is that Phar Lap was poisoned by gangsters who, because he appeared unbeatable, feared that he would disrupt their illegal gambling rackets."

What is it with the Democrats' refusal to allow laws making voters identify themselves with photo ID? It seems...well, it seems a throwback to the days of Boss Tweed. The Wall Street Journal comments: "People in the good state of Missouri need photo identification to cash a check, board a plane or apply for food stamps. But the state Supreme Court has ruled that a photo ID requirement to vote is too great a burden on the elderly and the poor. Go figure.

"Public polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Americans - regardless of age, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status - favor voter ID laws. And nearly half of the nation's states have passed them. Yet a string of recent court decisions has blocked their implementation in some places, thus siding with Democrats and liberal special interest groups who would rather turn a blind eye to voter fraud.

"A Georgia judge ruled a voter ID law unconstitutional in September. Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of a similar law in Arizona, only to be unanimously reversed by the US Supreme Court on Friday. (While the Supremes didn't decide on the merits, their willingness to let the ID requirement be enforced in next month's election suggests some encouraging deference to state officials who want to protect the integrity of the ballot.) Also this month, a Seventh Circuit appeals panel heard arguments in a case concerning Indiana's voter ID requirements. And the Michigan Supreme Court will consider a voter ID challenge in November."

Slate's carrying an interesting article about new research into whether colonisation helps the colonised. The answer is that it does seem to.

"One of the deep questions in economics is why some countries are rich and others are poor. It is widely believed that institutions such as clear and enforceable property rights are important to economic growth. Still, debates rage: Do culture, history, government, education, temperature, natural resources, cosmic rays make the difference? The reason it's hard to resolve this question is that we have no controlled experiments comparing otherwise similar places with different sets of legal and economic institutions.

"In new research, James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote, both of Dartmouth College, consider the effect of a particular aspect of history - the length of European colonization - on the current standard of living of a group of 80 tiny, isolated islands that have not previously been used in cross-country comparisons. Their question: Are the islands that experienced European colonization for a longer period of time richer today?

"...Feyrer and Sacedote's key findings are that the longer one of the islands spent as a colony, the higher its present-day living standards and the lower its infant mortality rate. Each additional century of European colonization is associated with a 40 percent boost in income today and a reduction in infant mortality of 2.6 deaths per 1,000 births.

"By itself, the relationship between longer colonization and higher living standards could arise either because European contact raised living standards or because European explorers colonized the most promising islands first. The authors cleverly reject the latter possibility by noting that the sailing of the day relied on wind, which meant that islands located where wind is weak were "less likely to be discovered, revisited, and colonized by Europeans." Thus, wind conditions, rather than island promise, determined which islands were colonized first, and so which islands remained as colonies longer. The relationship between colonial duration and wealth reflects the effect of colonization on material living standards, rather than the other way around.

"So, what did the Europeans do right? The authors conclude that there's no simple answer. The most plausible mechanisms include trade, education, and democratic government. When the study directly measures these factors, some of them help to explain income differences among islands—for example, the places that traded only basic agricultural products in colonial times now have lower living standards. But even after accounting for these concrete determinants, longer European colonization has some extra pro-growth effect. Exposure to European colonizers, it appears, benefits living standards for reasons apart from the direct effects of government, education, and markets."

23 October 2006

A teacher in Washington, DC, called Mike Greiner, has begun to teach English grammar to students at his school. Apparently no one has thought to do this since the 1970s, when grammar fell out of fashion in America (explains a lot, doesn't it?). The Washington Post headlines its story Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback. "Greiner, 43, teaches future Advanced Placement students at the Chantilly school. Left on their own to decide where to place a comma, 'they'll get it right about half of the time,' he said. 'But half is an F.'

"Ten or 20 years ago, Greiner might have been ostracized for his views or at least counseled to keep them to himself. Grammar lessons vanished from public schools in the 1970s, supplanted by a more holistic view of English instruction. A generation of teachers and students learned grammar through the act of writing, not in isolated drills and diagrams.

"Today, Greiner is encouraged, even sought out. Direct grammar instruction, long thought to do more harm than good, is welcome once more."

Perhaps there's hope that America might at last begin to atone for its shameful behaviour towards the adverb.

An American poll has revealed, according to Haaretz, the shocking news that: "Eighty-one percent of American Jews believe that the real goal of the Arabs is the destruction of Israel and not the return of occupied land, according to the annual survey of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on various issues."

I'd have written that story in a slightly different way...Nineteen percent of American Jews are silly fools who somehow fail to appreciate that the real goal...etc, etc.

Eric Newby, whose book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, is one of the classics of travel literature (also the funniest travel book ever written), has died, aged 86. The London Times does its usual fine job on his obituary. It mentions a story that is told whenever Newby, his travelling companion on that journey, Hugh Carless, or Wilfred Thesiger are discussed: "The book ended with a salutary encounter between the somewhat bedraggled, Newby-Carless expedition and the caravan of the iron-hard, legendary veteran of exploration, Wilfred Thesiger. At the end of a long evening swapping recollections, Newby and Carless prepared to turn in on ground which was, in Newby’s words, 'like iron, with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our airbeds. 'God, you must be a couple of pansies,' said Thesiger.'"

The Guardian follows up its most excellent editorial on the occasion of Chuck Berry's birthday last week with another that demonstrates that the news is far from the only important thing in life. This time, it is in praise of a stubborn winemaker called Serge Hochar, who makes a ridiculously good wine which, to my intense regret, I knew nothing about for the first 64 years of my life.

In its entirety: "Barring an infestation of phylloxera, the worst calamity that winemakers in most places have to worry about is unsuitable weather. Naturally, these perils also matter to Serge Hochar, winemaker of the justly celebrated Chateau Musar. But Mr Hochar routinely has to contend with an additional hazard that happily afflicts few of his peers. For Chateau Musar's vineyards lie in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, between Beirut and Damascus, which means they have repeatedly found themselves in or near some of the world's most violent conflicts. Battles raged around the vineyard throughout the 1983 grape harvesting season, while in 1989 Mr Hochar's home and the Chateau Musar winery suffered direct hits from shelling, and his wine cellars served regularly as bomb shelters for local people. Yet through it all Mr Hochar has continued to produce often spectacular amounts of one of the world's more improbable fine wines. Remarkably, he missed only two vintages during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. This year he has triumphed over adversity again. In spite of the Israeli invasion in the summer, which struck just as early picking had begun at Chateau Musar, and which necessitated a nerve-jangling five-hour lorry trip to carry the grapes from the vineyards to the winery, the harvest has once again been safely gathered. Winemaking has taken place for 5,000 years in Lebanon and not even the Middle East conflict can stop the remarkable Mr Hochar from keeping that tradition alive."

22 October 2006

RW Apple filed this story a few days before he died. It's his list of the ten best restaurants in the world, and it's a wonderful example of his ability to make what could easily be rather dull as readable and exciting as a Tintin comic. As an example, this is what he says about the Jean-Georges in Shanghai:

"I have lived in Asia and eaten more than my share of Chinese food, Lord knows, but I remain a man of the West, not the East, and I still find the Chinese passion for 'gristly, slithery and squelchy textures', as the English writer Fuchsia Dunlop calls them, hard to cope with. Delicacies like sea cucumber and bird's nest have little taste, Asian friends tell me, but great 'kou gan', or mouth feel, which escapes me.

"Hence I tread lightly here. I would happily fly to Shanghai to eat the seraphic - yes, seraphic - soup dumplings at Nan Xiang, or the snails with chopped, spiced pork at tiny Chun. But I would be more likely to go to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's glamorous place on the Bund, the best of all his places (there's also one in New York, I think), in my view, where the food is a little Eastern, a little Western.

"A year ago, as I reported in the Travel section, Betsey and I ate a nearly flawless meal there. A single Kumamoto oyster wreathed in Champagne jelly was followed by raw tuna brightened by Thai chili paste. Then cubed raw kingfish with Taiwanese mangoes and chili-lemon granita was utterly irresistible - peppery, sweet and acidic, yellow and orange and red, all at once. A second trio, equally satisfying, comprised crab dumplings with black pepper oil and tiny local peas; seared sweet scallops from Dalian, nestling with clams in a tomato jus; and superbly fresh snapper with crunchy cucumber strips. Vaut le voyage, as Michelin would have it."

I stumbled across this review by one poet, James Fenton, of another's new book, Horse Latitudes, because Paul Muldoon has apparently included 90 rhyming haiku in it that are said to evoke Bermuda. Fenton's Guardian review quotes one of them:

Still the raw recruits.
Portuguese men-o'-war test
their new parachutes.

Doesn't do much for me. Maybe the others are better. But the net's best quality is its serendipity, isn't it?

Fenton also quotes the words of a song Muldoon wrote with the singer Warren Zevon, who died of lung cancer in 2003. They're taken from the title song of the album My Ride's Here. This is really first-class stuff. Santa, please take note.

I was staying at the Westin
I was playing to a draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the Tablets of the Law
He said, "It's still the Greatest Story"
I said, "Man, I'd like to stay
But I'm bound for glory
I'm on my way
My ride's here..."

The Globe and Mail says teachers in Canada are reconsidering the efficacy of homework (50 years too late, dammit): "A math teacher with 26 years under her belt, Judy Hoeksema now assigns half the work she would have and fewer routine textbook exercises. Some colleagues are handing out no homework at all. 'We've all been under this illusion that lots of homework creates good study habits for the future,' Ms. Hoeksema says. 'Now, we've realized it isn't making much difference.'

"So have a rising tide of other educators and parents - as revealed by the backlash against homework filling the pages of newspapers across North America and the covers of magazines such as Newsweek. Just published are two controversial books arguing against a link between homework and grades and urging schools to eliminate homework for all but the oldest children."

Here's Victor Davis Hansen, in a temper about the left: "Why do Republicans drive leftists so crazy these days? Liberal Democrats are beginning to sound like rowdy students on spring break, shrieking and exhibiting themselves on camera.

"The danger is that by emulating the rhetoric of a Cindy Sheehan or Michael Moore, the feral Democrats - when they return to power as tamed leaders who must govern - will have created Frankensteins. And, as we know, such monsters always turn on their creators."


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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