...Views from mid-Atlantic
23 December 2006

It's not a particular surprise, I think, that many people in Britain think religion does more harm than good. What is a surprise is that they think it overwhelmingly - 82% of them support that proposition. It was a Guardian/ICM poll that demonstrated the number: "It shows that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension - greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good.

"The poll also reveals that non-believers outnumber believers in Britain by almost two to one. It paints a picture of a sceptical nation with massive doubts about the effect religion has on society: 82% of those questioned say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree. The findings are at odds with attempts by some religious leaders to define the country as one made up of many faith communities."

It would be interesting to probe the extent to which the actions of radical Islamists have swelled the figure.

Here's another list, but not, thank heavens, of books or DVDs or CDs - of which we are all becoming rather tired, are we not? This is Science Magazine's Breakthrough of the Year issue, in which the editors and news staff review some of the big science stories of the past 12 months, and dub one of them the Breakthrough of the Year for 2007. The special section to which the link will take you showcases the Breakthrough and nine runners up, as well as shining the spotlight on the less auspicious Breakdown of the Year and taking a look at what might lie ahead in 2007.

You'll need to register to read it, but hey, that's painless and if anybody ever catches you reading Reader's Digest, you can trot Science out and claim catholic tastes.

Science says: "Last year, evolution was the breakthrough of the year; We found it full of new developments in understanding how new species originate. But we did get a complaint or two that perhaps we were just paying extra attention to the lively political/religious debate that was taking place over the issue, particularly in the United States.

"Perish the thought! Our readers can relax this year: Religion and politics are off the table, and n-dimensional geometry is on instead. This year's Breakthrough salutes the work of a lone, publicity-shy Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman, who was at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences until 2005. The work is very technical but has received unusual public attention because Perelman appears to have proven the Poincaré Conjecture, a problem in topology whose solution will earn a $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute. That's only if Perelman survives what's left of a two-year gauntlet of critical attack required by the Clay rules, but most mathematicians think he will."

Victor Davis Hansen asks, So what is Annanism? In the National Review, he answers. "First, it is the reification of Western subliminal guilt. American and European elites feel bad about their wealth, bad about their leisure, bad about their history - but usually not bad enough to do anything that might jeopardize their present privileged positions. And so into this psychological disconnect steps an articulate handsome totem from abroad, in requisite stylish dress and aristocratic mellifluousness, to lecture Westerners with moral pieties - as they smile and snore.

"In contrast, who wants a ruddy, uncouth, Walrus-mustached John Bolton railing about the sort of UN inaction that allows millions to perish and thugs to operate freely?

"Such embarrassments might actually cause the UN to do something that would require sacrifices in lives and treasure for the greater good. How much better to be charmed into somnolence than awakened by horrific reality. How much better for the soul to be gently chided with moral platitudes about Western insensitivity than electro-shocked about Middle Eastern, African, or Asian genocide that will go on until someone does something very messy to stop it.

"Second, Annanism represents the triumph of moral obtuseness: talk about threats to the rule of law or the need for transparency and honesty in global communications and commerce, while ignoring scandal and fraud on a monumental scale that not only enriches cronies and relatives, but contributes to the deaths of innocents in Iraq.

"Third, Annanism reflects petty hypocrisy. There is a reason why Annan, like the thousands of hangers-on in the UN, enjoys New York; there is a reason why he and his equally critical spouse prefer Western culture in places like Manhattan. He knows that the unique social, economic, and cultural life of the United States can subsidize lavish salaries at the UN, and that with life in an affluent and safe West comes pricey luxury cars and tony apartments.

"Annan also knows that one way to keep enjoying them is to keep reminding his hosts of their sins, in the fashion of the medieval court jester sans the loud stripes, cap, and bells. So there is something very creepy about the moral poseur remonstrating from Manhattan about the lapses of the United States in general, and in particular the neglect of the world’s poor. Both can be addressed more effectively and more honestly from a Rwanda, Kosovo, Kabul, or Ghana.

"With Annanism we are witnessing the triumph of the therapeutic over the tragic. We live in a time when morality is defined by wrinkled brows, not action, and a moral sense is found in barking at a benevolent host while purring to dangerous carnivores.

"In a society that values style over substance, rhetoric over action, and sanitized platitudes over grisly details, if Kofi Annan were not secretary-general of the United Nations we would have had to invent something very much like him."

22 December 2006

An interesting development in Lebanon, with news that police have raided houses in the north of the country, discovering large quantities of weapons, explosives, fuses and timers. They've also arrested seven members of the Syrian Social National Party. Naharnet reports that "SSNP leader Ali Qanso condemned the police action, telling a press conference hours after the raids on Thursday, that it was unjustified and that the party had kept the cache since the early 1980s when it took part in fighting Israeli forces in south Lebanon.

"'Stop your campaigns against us. We are not a militia and we are not a party of murderers,' Qanso said, referring to the mysterious campaign of bombings and assassinations conducted in Lebanon during the past two years. Nobody has been charged with the attacks, which are being investigated by the UN team looking into the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"It could not be determined whether the raid and arrests were related to the Nov. 21 assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel in Beirut's northern suburb of Metn, an SSNP traditional stronghold."

CARICOM is assuring cricket fans that it's working to fix the glitch which is preventing hundreds of cricket fans in Australia from getting visas to attend the Cricket World Cup early next year. The CARICOM official responsible (and also Deputy Prime Minister of Barbados), Mia Mottley, is quoted in Caribbean Net News as having said: "Yes, we have hit a snag with the issuing of the CARICOM Special Visa in Australia but we are seeking to resolve the issue as soon as possible. I wish to assure our friends in Australia that this will be ironed out. We took the decision to establish a temporary physical consular presence in Australia to reduce the inconvenience to Australians and New Zealanders. We believe that this is a gesture of good faith on our part in spite of the expense which we are incurring."

But then she says this: "This is especially since Caribbean people are unable to obtain a visa to enter Australia without sending their passports to Canada."

Silly thing to say. I suppose she means it as a way of telling people not to take it so seriously, but it does raise the notion that this 'glitch' might be a bizarre form of revenge on the Australians for invonveniences to which they've put CARICOM citizens in the past, doesn't it?

The Washington Post reports that "A businessman representing an Indian state-owned company pleaded guilty to bribing a former senior UN official with an unspecified amount of cash, a cellphone and a discounted Manhattan apartment, in exchange for more than $50 million worth of business contracts, federal authorities announced Thursday.

"Michael Garcia, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement that Nishan Kohli, 30, admitted making the illicit payments to Sanjay Bahel, then a high-ranking UN purchasing official, as compensation for steering business to Kohli from 1998 to 2003. Kohli faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. Bahel last month pleaded not guilty to related charges.

"Kohli's attorney, Jacob Laufer, declined to discuss his client's role in the scheme. But he said Kohli signed an agreement with federal authorities on Thursday to cooperate in their ongoing investigation into corruption at the United Nations. 'He has made a mistake, and he's contrite about it,' he said."

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr is praising New York mayor (and Bermuda resident on weekends and holidays) Micheal Bloomberg for taking some innovative steps to tackle poverty in New York. He quotes Bloomberg as having told a news conference: "When you do things with public money, you really are required to do things that have some proven track record and to focus on more conventional approaches. But conventional approaches, as we know, have kept us in this vicious cycle...of too many people not being able to work themselves out of poverty.'"

Dionne comments "Those who think Bloomberg is too liberal to be an honest-to-goodness Republican might notice that he also promised to 'carefully monitor these new programs and hold them accountable for producing results - just as a business would. And if we find that a certain program isn't making the grade, we will terminate its funding.'

"There is no better way to win public support for government programs that work than to be serious about shutting down the ones that don't. Bloomberg has not launched a Great Society experiment, and the importance of his initiative should not be exaggerated...

"But both parties would do well to embrace the spirit of Bloomberg's initiative. Republicans desperately need to show that they take growing inequalities seriously and recognize that the new economy is leaving millions of Americans behind."

Nice sort of story (obit, actually) in the LA Times, about a blues fan who helped blues artists: "Tina Mayfield was a guardian of the blues, a patron who treated its performers as if they were family and the music as if it were a precious heirloom. Through her work as a promoter she helped keep the blues alive and accessible to audiences in Southern California.

"But it was her efforts on behalf of artists themselves, some of whom knew her as 'Mama Tina', that may prove most enduring. She fought for their royalties, provided them money in lean times, offered them opportunities to perform, visited them when they were sick and aging."

21 December 2006

To understand what feeds former president Jimmy Carter's anti-Israeli frenzy, says Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the American Center for Democracy, in a Washington Times op-ed, you need to look at his early links to Arab business.

"...The Carter family peanut business received a bailout in the form of a $4.6 million, 'poorly managed' and highly irregular loan from the National Bank of Georgia (NBG). According to a July 29, 1980 Jack Anderson expose in The Washington Post, the bank's biggest borrower was Mr. Carter, and its chairman at that time was Mr. Carter's confidant, and later his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance.

"At that time, Mr. Lance's mismanagement of the NBG got him and the bank into trouble. Agha Hasan Abedi, the Pakistani founder of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), known as the bank 'which would bribe God,' came to Mr. Lance's rescue making him a $100,000-a-year consultant. Abedi then declared: 'we would never talk about exploiting his relationship with the president.' Next, he introduced Mr. Lance to Saudi billionaire Gaith Pharaon, who fronted for BCCI and the Saudi royal family. In January 1978, Abedi paid off Mr. Lance's $3.5 million debt to the NBG, and Pharaon secretly gained control over the bank.

"Mr. Anderson wrote: "Of course, the Saudis remained discretely silent...kept quiet about Carter's irregularities...[and] renegotiated the loan to Carter's advantage."

"There is no evidence that the former president received direct payment from the Saudis. But "according to...the bank files, [it] renegotiated the repayment terms...savings...$60,000 for the Carter family...The President owned 62% of the business and therefore was the largest beneficiary." Pharaon later contributed generously to the former president's library and center."

The Telegraph's business section has published an extraordinary attack by a London fund manager on the chairman of HSBC, Stephen Green.

"Michael Taylor, head of equities at Threadneedle Investments, criticised the effectiveness of Mr Green, who moved up from his role as chief executive to take over from Sir John Bond at the end of May. As part of a wider interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Taylor, who has been at the centre of bid battles for the London Stock Exchange and BAA, relayed his views based on a recent investor meeting with the HSBC chairman: 'We had Stephen Green in here two weeks ago, and, cor, he was asleep on the job is how I would describe it. He's just not up for it.'"

Amazing how much people like lists...had a call yesterday from a friend who made a thinly-disguised complaint about the lack of them on Pondblog this year. I have to plead guilty...they seemed a little stale, somehow. Here's one that isn't - the Guardian's list of 100 new Internet sites includes some really useful links. This Infobel World site seems to contain a good share of the world's telephone directories, for example. (Please forgive Bermuda's white pages. They're an unsearchable, visual disaster...in Firefox, anyway.) And Reevoo.com, which has user-generated reviews of consumer products, would be a good way of double-checking what the professional reviewers (who sometimes get it wrong) say.

Betty and Veronica have had a makeover - the Globe and Mail reports that "those on-again, off-again rivals for the affections of Archie Andrews, will stop looking so cherubic, at least for a spell. Their cheeks won't be so rounded, their eyes so beaming or their noses quite so pert.

"Four issues of Betty & Veronica Double Digest, starting with issue No. 151 due on newsstands May 14, will each feature a serialized story of 26 pages or so drawn in the new style. The running story, Bad Boy Trouble about a rebel who motorcycles into town and comes between the two girls, will be longer than the usual six-to-seven-page Betty and Veronica story. The rest of the 192-page issues, however, will feature the two girls and the Archie gang drawn in the old style, beaming eyes and all."

There's a picture on the Globe's site. I think they now look anonymous...robbed of any individuality. I wonder what they've done with Archie's hair.

20 December 2006

Bit of a brouhaha brewing down under, in Australia and New Zealand, over one of those little administrative oversights the Caribbean is famous for among those who've been there. CARICOM decided, for some reason, that visitors to the cricket World Cup in the spring from either of those two countries, together with Pakistan and India, would have to buy visas. But then they neglected to organise places from which travellers could obtain them.

A fairly liberal supply of indignation seems to have built up. The Sidney Morning Herald says: "The travel plans of up to 7000 cricket fans hoping to visit the Caribbean in April for the World Cup have been thrown into disarray after it was announced that they must pay $US100 ($128) for a visa that appears impossible to get in Australia.

"Australians and New Zealanders have been singled out for the visa, but the British, South Africans and even people from non-cricketing nations such as Japan and Italy do not need one.

"The furore over the visa stipulation, announced two weeks ago by the organisation that represents the Caribbean community, CARICOM, caused the honorary consul-general to Trinidad and Tobago in Australia, Mike Agostini, to resign in disgust."

Mr Agostini, who resigned last Friday after 25 years' service, said the head of the (CARICOM World Cup) delegation to Australia, Gail Guy, had enlisted his help to secure CBD office space in Pitt Street, but had not repaid him the bill for the lease.

"'The delegation in my estimation were poorly led, poorly informed and attempting to do impossible things in a city like Sydney, for example trying to get CBD offices on a six-month lease,' he said. 'I got it for them, then they couldn't or wouldn't pay.'"

In his last press conference as UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan pleaded with capitals and critics not to judge the United Nations by the oil-for-food inquiry, but instead to appreciate its unique role as a voice for the weak, a caretaker for the helpless, and a force for peace. The Washington Times reports that "Mr. Annan said he regretted the way the oil-for-food program was 'exploited to undermine the organization.'

"'I think when historians look at the records, they will draw the conclusion that 'yes, there was mismanagement and there were some UN staff members engaged, but the scandal, if any, was in the capitals and the 2,200 companies that made a deal with Saddam behind our backs,' ' he said.

"'And I hope historians realize the UN is more than oil for food. The UN is a UN that coordinates tsunami, a UN that deals with the Kashmir earthquake, a UN that is pushing for equality and...a UN that is fighting for human dignity.'

"Over the course of an hourlong press conference that touched on Lebanon, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and UN administration, Mr. Annan, 68, betrayed traces of frustration and indignation, as well as wistfulness and pride."

Heartwarming. But when it came to the question of how his brother managed to 'inherit' a much sought-after rent-controlled New York apartment from him, he ducked. The New York Sun, which broke the story yesterday, says: "State and city legislators have expressed outrage over the Annan family's use of the Roosevelt Island apartment - which Mr. Annan lived in before becoming UN secretary-general 10 years ago - calling it 'corrupt' and 'unreal'.

"Although much of Roosevelt Island is dedicated to low- and middle-income housing, many of its current residents are U.N. employees or foreign diplomats. Among them is a recent influx of North Korean diplomats, who have been seen on the island in cars bearing official emblems of the communist state.

"Mr. Annan indicated yesterday that since he no longer lives in the Roosevelt Island apartment, he has nothing to do with it. He did, however, confirm that his brother lives there. The brother, Kobina Annan, is Ghana's ambassador to Morocco."

One does wonder what on earth Ghana's ambassador to Morocco is doing living in New York, doesn't one?

Max Boot, in his Los Angeles Times column reminds us that Muslims really ought to know about the Holocaust - some of them took part in it: "Pointless though it may be to argue with a madman, it is worth noting that Muslims were not as blameless in the genocide of the Jews as Ahmadinejad and his ilk would have it. Arabs were, on a small scale, cheerleaders and enablers of the Final Solution. The most famous example was Haj Amin Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem (and uncle of Yasser Arafat), who took refuge in Berlin in World War II. A rabid Nazi, he personally lobbied Hitler to kill as many Jews as possible and even helped out by recruiting Bosnian Muslims to serve in the Waffen SS.

"Robert Satloff, one of the world's smartest Arabists, reveals other links between the Arabs and the Holocaust in his groundbreaking new book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust's Long Reach Into Arab Lands. He shows how the Nazis set up the machinery of death in North Africa. Although 'only' 4,000 to 5,000 Jews died before the Allies liberated the area in 1943, many more were consigned to forced labor camps in hellish conditions.

"'Arabs played a role at every level,' Satloff wrote. 'Some went door to door with the Germans, pointing out Jews for arrest. Others led Jewish workers on forced marches or served as overseers at labor camps.'

"The picture is not entirely one-sided because, although most Arabs were either apathetic or sympathetic to the Nazis, a small number helped their Jewish neighbors. Satloff uncovered lost tales of 'righteous Gentiles,' such as the wartime rulers of Morocco and Tunisia. And on the whole, he found that Arabs behaved no worse under German occupation than did Europeans.

"But that isn't saying much because almost every country on the Continent was heavily complicit in the extermination of their Jewish populations. Satloff's research makes a mockery of Ahmadinejad's protestations that the Holocaust - if it occurred! - was someone else's responsibility. Individual Muslims were complicit in the horrors of the 1940s, even if, under foreign rule, they were not the primary culprits.

"Even worse, while Europe has disowned its terrible history, the Nazis continue to be glorified in the Middle East. (Mein Kampf is a perennial bestseller in the region.) Nowhere else in the world is Holocaust denial so prevalent. Ahmadinejad deserves thanks for calling the world's attention to this pervasive sickness."

19 December 2006

"As Secretary-General Annan prepares to leave his post at the United Nations, a mystery is surfacing surrounding his apartment on Roosevelt Island, subsidized by New York taxpayers, which is still in use by the family of his brother, Kobina Annan, says the New York Sun.

"The apartment was where Mr. Annan and his wife lived before 1997, when he became secretary-general. The Roosevelt Island home is part of an estate of low-rent state-regulated housing. For years, the Annans saved considerable sums by occupying an apartment meant to help financially strapped low- to moderate-income New York families.

"One question Mr. Annan has never addressed is why he and his wife felt comfortable availing themselves of this generous arrangement.

"Another is how it is that, since Mr. Annan and his wife left that Roosevelt Island apartment 10 years ago to move into the rent-free residence on Sutton Place supplied to the secretary-general, their former low-rent apartment was handed over to be occupied by the family of Mr. Annan's brother."

The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum thinks the Baker report on Iraq may be forcing European countries to face up to some uncomfortable facts of life: "On the day James Baker's Iraq report was published, I gritted my teeth and waited for the well-earned, long-awaited, Franco-German 'Old Europe' gloat to begin. I didn't wait long. 'America Faces Up to the Iraq Disaster' read a headline in Der Spiegel. In the patronizing tones of a senior doctor, Le Monde diagnosed the 'political feverishness' gripping Washington in Baker's wake. Suddeutsche Zeitung said the report 'stripped Bush of his authority,' although Le Figaro opined that nothing Baker proposed could improve the 'catastrophic state' of Iraq anyway.

"And then, for two weeks...silence. If there are politicians, academics or journalists anywhere in Germany and France who have better ideas about how to improve the catastrophic state of Iraq, they aren't speaking very loudly. There is no question that America's credibility has been undermined by the Iraq war, in 'Old Europe' as everywhere else. There is no question that America's reputation for competence has been destroyed. But that doesn't mean there are dozens of eager candidates, or even one eager candidate, clamoring to replace us...

"With some exceptions, the weird reality is that most European governments, whatever their original views on the war, are either officially or unofficially opposed to an immediate US withdrawal: Chaos might ensue. And the chaos would be a lot closer to Europe than to North America. Most European governments, officially or unofficially, are also now worried that the next American president will retreat from world politics or become 'isolationist'...

"Maybe now the Germans, and even the French, will finally come to realize that there is no alternative to the transatlantic partnership, no better international military organization than NATO, no real 'role' for any of us outside the Western alliance -- even if only because all the alternatives are worse. Maybe the Old Europeans will find inspiration to support and contribute further to the alliance, diplomatically and ideologically if not militarily."

The White House seems to have found a way of guaranteeing that a writer, himself a former White House official, finds an audience for his thoughts on Iran beyond his wildest dreams. The Washington Post says "Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst who became a senior director for Middle East policy for the National Security Council before leaving the administration in 2003, said the White House decided that substantial passages of an opinion article he had written for the New York Times involved classified information. Leverett said the article was only a summary of a longer paper he had written a few weeks earlier - which had been cleared by the CIA as containing no classified information...

"Leverett said the CIA ordered two sections concerning U.S. dealings with Iran in his article to be heavily redacted, even though the material had appeared in news reports or had been discussed publicly by administration officials.

"One section described Iran's cooperation in helping create a new government in Afghanistan, which Leverett said in his Century Foundation paper led Iranian officials to believe the two countries were on the cusp of a diplomatic opening. But that ended when Bush named Iran as part of the 'axis of evil', he said.

"The other section concerned his description of an offer the Iranian foreign ministry sent the administration in 2003, through Swiss diplomatic channels, to resolve outstanding bilateral issues with the United States. The White House rejected the approach, which has been widely described in news reports since then.

"'The administration's handling of Iran policy has been the strategic equivalent of medical malpractice,' Leverett said."

The New York Sun, in its coverage, says: "The White House does not want the public to know that in May 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry floated the prospect of a wide-ranging dialogue with America on everything from uranium enrichment to anti-Israel terrorism."

You can read the longer Leverett article here, at the Century Foundation's website.

Another expert, this one atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer, who is professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and a former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, weighs in on the fashionable lock-step hysteria about global warming. In a Washington Times op-ed, Singer says: "The U.S. Supreme Court is currently addressing a question of crucial importance to the U.S. economy: Is carbon dioxide, from fossil-fuel burning for energy production a 'pollutant' that requires regulation? The petitioners, led by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, demand regulation - interpreting the Clean Air Act differently than the respondent, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"CO2 is non-toxic and naturally present in the atmosphere - but also a greenhouse (GH) gas and therefore a potential cause of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

"The oral arguments and scientific amicus curiae briefs, pro and con, never addressed the basic issue: Is CO2 the principal cause of current warming? The plaintiff's amici included two Nobelists in chemistry - although this tactic may backfire when law clerks discover that the two have little demonstrated competence in disciplines relevant to the issue."

Singer says he thinks that "the drive to regulate CO2 - and effectively control energy - appears to be based on ideology rather than science or any real concern about climate. Quoting Lenin: 'The establishment of socialism in capitalist nations requires only targeting their supply of energy.'" That's a bit of a stretch. It's much more likely to be the kind of intellectual laziness that leads people to ignore the facts, and choose sides on the basis of the personalities involved - especially on the basis of who they're too timid to be associated with.

18 December 2006

Susan Mazur seems to be making a career of interviewing former colleagues of John Deuss's. This one concerns Max Bernegger, a fashion executive who became an oil trader in Deuss's business. New Zealand's Scoop is carrying the story.

Suzan Mazur
: Can you tell me about the controversial Soviet deal in which Deuss was slow to pay for shipped Soviet oil because the Soviets failed to provide sufficient signatures on the contract?

Max Bernegger
: I knew John Deuss owed money to the Soviets. He went to Moscow basically to negotiate and they took his passport away from him. And he called me from Moscow and I was working on another deal and didn't know about this.

Deuss said, 'Max, I don't know what's going to happen.'

Suzan Mazur: That was in what year?

Max Bernegger: I think it was 1975. And he said, 'I'm not sure what's going to happen here.' But somehow he went to the Dutch Consulate and got his passport back and he got out of the Soviet Union.

The only reason I think they let him go was that there were too many people in the Soviet oil company who would lose their heads if the government found out how stupid they were in their dealings with Deuss. They made some major mistakes with Letter of Credit that went beyond the date.

While the Soviets delayed the presentation of the L/C, they increased their crude oil prices - breaking the agreed upon contract - as fully-loaded ships were en route to the US. John could really have told them, I don't owe you anything.

Of course he intended to pay the Soviets. But at the time he was in real trouble. We were happy that he made it back.

Suzan Mazur: You said you don't agree that he was one of the catalysts in the collapse of the Soviet Union. I mean he'd been an early player in the Soviet Union trading oil and also in the Arabian Gulf.

Max Bernegger: He had the connections to people in the Soviet government who make very important decisions and who were the ones in charge. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, of course, those were the guys who made the money, who were the people you talked to and tried to make deals with. That was the normal thing.

Deuss had less influence and connections in Russia than Marc Rich. Deuss had this strength because Oman was behind him."

Worthwhile piece in the Guardian about the 16th Century winters that made the people of that day worry, as we do, about climate change. "The year 1565 saw the coldest winter anyone could remember. The world turned white, birds froze, fruit trees died, the old and young faded away. It was a shock - and a foreboding. This seemed to be more than just a cold winter. The climate was perceptibly changing, and that is what (Pieter, the Elder) Bruegel's snow scenes eerily record. All of them - from Hunters in the Snow painted in 1565, to Census in Bethlehem in 1566, to The Adoration of the Magi in 1567 - were made in response to that year and what it presaged. The key to their prophetic quality is right there in the mountains in Hunters in the Snow.

"Those mountains are Alps. In 1552, Bruegel crossed the Alps on an artistic pilgrimage from his native Netherlands to Italy. His experience of western Europe's highest and coldest mountain range, which he recorded at the time in drawings that survive, stayed with him all his life, sharpening his mind's landscape, yet never as tellingly as in Hunters in the Snow. Here he seems to say that all the world is turning Alpine - in a new Ice Age.

"He's right. Once, when the first painters made their marks on cave walls, all Europe was crushed and churned by glaciers that only survive now in the high Alps. In the 1500s and 1600s, these European glaciers were on the move, swallowing up pastures and devastating communities. The villagers of Chamonix, as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie discovered, petitioned their lords to do something about climate change: 'We are terrified of the glaciers...which are moving forward all the time and have just buried two of our villages and destroyed a third."

British author David Crystal has written a book called How Language Works which sounds like a must-have on the well-accoutred reference shelf. As the New York Times explains, "This is not a book meant to be read as a narrative. The author himself advises that this book should not necessarily be read 'from left to right'. He compares it to a car manual in which the section on tires can be read independently from the one on lights. The book takes us through the intricacies of spoken, written and signed language. He covers topics like lexicography, grammar, comparative linguistics, with meaty sections on dialects, dyslexia, discourse, multilingualism and more...

"Have you ever wondered: 'How languages are born?' This chapter is a fine example of how he deftly explains an arcane topic. The chapter concentrates on 'contact languages', those that spring up when two cultures come in contact and need a quick common language, often for reasons of commerce. As he points out, these are known as pidgins, and when a pidgin becomes the preferred language for a community, it becomes a creole.

"The established view has been that these languages evolve independently and each is unique, whether they are based on English or Danish. But Mr. Crystal says that modern research strongly suggests that all these languages derive from a 15th-century Portuguese pidgin. As the Portuguese explored Asia, Africa and the Americas, this prototypical pidgin spread, and the syntax remained in place as words changed to adapt to other languages. But there is still evidence of that old Portuguese pidgin. In English-based pidgins and creoles, for example, a few Portuguese words remain, like 'savi' for know and 'palava' for trouble."

London's Sunday Telegraph ran a story yesterday that is being picked up around the world today, an expose of another UN financial outrage, albeit on a smaller scale than oil-for-food.

Figures uncovered last week, the paper said, revealed that the newly published official history of the UN Development Programme, a vanity press book authorised by Kofi Annan's former right-hand man, Mark Malloch Brown, cost a staggering $567,379 to produce.

"Despite being offered for sale to the general public, the catchily-titled The United Nations Development Programme: A Better Way (online price $29.99) is unlikely to challenge the latest Dan Brown or Patricia Cornwell in the bestseller lists. It is languishing at 577,233 in the sales rankings of Amazon.com, the internet bookseller.

"But what has provoked outrage are the huge costs incurred in producing the book, which was published through the Cambridge University Press. They include a salary of $252,000 paid to the author, Professor Craig Murphy, for about two years' work. Prof Murphy was also given $37,299 in travel expenses for interviews, while an unnamed 'project co-ordinator' was given $87,639."

17 December 2006

It was inevitable, I suppose - a book has been written (by someone called Shelp, which doesn't augur well with us serendipidistas) about Hank Greenberg, the former head of the American International Group. It's called Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of A.I.G.. No surprise there. The New York Times headlines the story 'The Foundation, and the Flaws, of an Empire'. No surprise there.

But here's a clue about what kind of book this is: The Times notes that AIG was founded by a man called Cornelius Vander Starr, who it describes as "a gadabout soda-fountain operator in Fort Bragg, Calif., who switched to real estate, then insurance."

Then there's this: "It was Starr who started the 'revolution' in the way Bermuda regulated insurance companies, meaning that he arranged for the island to write rules that insurers found convenient."

Does he sound like a cheap fixer? Does it sound as if Bermuda was cheap enough to be fixed?

That's a bunch of crap. CV Starr founded American International in Bermuda in 1947. The legislation of the day did not allow such a company to be incorporated here. But our legislators were smart enough to see that a company of the type Starr wanted to set up might just benefit the country. So they passed a law allowing AIG to operate.

The enormous success Bermuda has had, in that line of business, since that very smart move, is envied and emulated around the world. To call it a fix is stupid, inaccurate, mousy-sized weasel talk.

If that's the kind of information Shelp is peddling, buy a comic book instead. They're a lot cheaper.

Britain's cash for honours scandal seems to be lurching towards some kind of climax, with stories in a number of newspapers this morning suggesting that Tony Blair is fitting up his friend, (well, former friend) Lord Levy, to take the fall. The Telegraph reports that: "The Prime Minister is refusing to offer any public, or even private, backing to the man who helped secure 14 million pounds in secret loans for Labour before the 2005 election. On a peacemaking trip to the Middle East yesterday, Mr Blair conspicuously declined to offer his fund-raiser, known as 'Lord Cashpoint', any support. Lord Levy is one of only three people to have been arrested over the loans affair.

"The row follows increasing suggestions from allies of the Prime Minister that, while Mr Blair is 'in the clear', Lord Levy remains of great interest to the police and may be questioned for a third time. He is understood to be trying to throw all the heat and responsibility for the scandal back on the Prime Minister. Friends claim that his role was only secondary and that Mr Blair had primary responsibility for the offer of peerages to four businessmen who made loans to Labour."

The Times is not amused. In an editorial this morning, it is wagging its beefy finger: "It is slippery and it stinks to high heaven. It may be that after all this no charges will be brought. If in doubt, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, can be relied upon to do the right thing and conclude that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. Nobody should be tempted to draw the wrong conclusions from that. The cash for honours affair has exposed the murky morality at the heart of our political system. It must change and that change should not involve taxpayers funding political parties that cannot keep their own houses in order. Will history treat Mr Blair any more kindly than his contemporaries do? On present evidence, no."

The Observer's got another list ('tis the season, innit?), and it's not a bad idea. They've listed 50 lost (under-appreciated is probably a better description) films. I've seen a very small bunch of them, and of the bunch, The Front Page is the standout.

This is a nicely-observed little article in the Guardian, by Kathryn Hughes, on the blurry magic of the season: "Somehow Christmas never achieves the sharp magic that it does in books. Instead of the tingling anticipation of Christmas in literature, what we actually have is the slumped inevitability of Christmas in real life. You could set your watch by what the popular press calls 'the countdown to Christmas'. Even before we reach what the church still quaintly refers to as Advent, the newspapers are crammed full of presents to give and receive and sparkly outfits for every conceivable Christmas occasion from the office party to lunch with the in-laws. From early December, we're taught all about how Nigel and Nigella are planning to manage not simply the Big Day but all the various permutations that hedge it round on either side (mulled wine for the carol singers, tasty turkey rissoles for Boxing Day, perhaps even galettes for Twelfth Night).

"No wonder, then, that by the time we actually get to December 25 we are hollow-eyed with the relentlessness of it all. Having stepped on to a moving staircase sometime around November 14 we are propelled along in a sullen dream until, on January 3 or thereabouts, we are thrown out once again into the everyday world. It is like being a laboratory rat scurrying through a maze in pursuit of slightly stale snacks."


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

Article Archive

2003 Index


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