Friday, June 30, 2006

Black swan

"We cannot help being fooled by randomness. We're too impressionable. I was in London when the second terrorist attack happened and I automatically behaved like anyone else, ducking for safety. Then I realised that my biggest danger in London came from my jet lag and being used to traffic driving on the other side of the road. We should worry about preventable sources of death. I should worry more about how much sugar I put in my tea than whether I am going to be hit by terrorists. The key is not to try to stop being a fool, but to be aware of when it matters not to be a fool. If you can't do anything about a problem, it's a waste of time analysing it".
-- Nassim Nicholas Taleb interviewed by Michael Bond in New Scientist, 1 July

Un-American activity

With a couple of American defenders standing beside him like an honor guard, [Jan] Koller leaned in for a header. The dull thud of his head crashing into the ball suggested a sandbag hitting a dam. I was, perhaps, a good thing that Kasey Keller, the American goaldkeeper, just grazed the ball -- its full impact mihgt have hurt him. By the ten minute mark of the game, the Czech fans were making the universal sign of spectator boredom: the wave. The Czech players, bigger, stronger and faster than the Americans, controlled the entire game, and the final score, 3-0, was one of the worst defeats by any team in the first round of the tournament.

...The Iranian [fans], in order to salve the wounds of a 3-1 loss to Mexico, were dancing to a scratchy tape of woman singing in Farsi. The English [fans] knew that they weren´t supposed to like the Iranians, but German Pilsner had dulled their geopolitical instincts. "Fuck the I.R.A.!" they chanted at the baffled Persians.
-- Jeffrey Toobin: Un-American Activity, The New Yorker, 3 July

Thursday, June 29, 2006


"[The Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica] blames everyone but himself. He had three pillars to his policy: keeping Montenegro with Serbia, retaining Kosovo, and getting EU negotiations. He's lost two of those and is about to lose the third one."
Braca Grubacic, a Belgrade political analyst, quoted in Serbs mark historic disaster day with renewed gloom.

To add insult to injury, Serbia and Montenegro were thumped 6-0 by Argentina in the World Cup, the biggest defeat of the tournament: "The football in Germany absolutely reflects the mood of the country".

(for Inat see Alexandra Kovac)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A flabby devil

Colonialism - a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, land-grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement - is rewritten into a benign developmental mission marred by a few unfortunate accidents and excesses...

Behind such the institence that we are being offered gutsy truths that the "politically correct" establishment love to suppress. This is the neo-conservative as spunky rebel against liberal tyranny.
-- Priyamvada Gopal: The story peddled by imperial apologists is a poisonous fairytale

False choices

Danny Postel circulates notice of Jim Hansen´s The threat to the planet, a commentary on climate change that also reviews books by Tim Flannery, Elizabeth Kolbert and a book and film by Al Gore.

Notable points include Hansen`s assertion that "scientists and political forces" are failing to deal with global warming because "scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet" and because "the press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus...give equal time to fringe contrarians". He used to spread the blame equally between the two, he says, but no longer does so: commercial interests are, he says, more culpable.

["balance" may one of the great unspeak words of our time].

One of things Hansen doesn´t really explore in his piece is the relation between development and climate change, and the politics thereof. That´s where I think a recent article in The Economist piece is useful.

Bolton v Gore reports an exercise at the UN (without those pesky Europeans) to rank priorities. Which should come first -- hunger and disease or climate change?

Of course there need to be priorities in spending, but in my view there can be big pitfalls in attempting to rank very different challenges against each other as if they were all exchangeable units from the same budget. Often, like is not being compared with like. And this is not to speak of the fact that climate change was "set up to fail" in the Copenhagen Con. (The Economist did acknowledge this at one point, but now with a change of editor, that honesty may have been forgotten. After all, the article perpetuates the lie that Al Gore was "nipped at the post" in the 2000 election -- not that the election was stolen).

I´d be glad of others views on this, because getting the political arguments concerning development right may prove to be as important as winning the media war in the US and elsewhere over the science of climate change.

An American friend who works on new water and sanitation technologies for developing countries writes:
the [UN] ambassadors selected clean drinking water among their top priorities, which will be impossible to achieve unless they directly address the local and global issues associated with environmental degradation. Whichever way you go about it, you have to address the fragile basis of human life on this planet.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bill of the Right

Cameron´s push for a British Bill of Rights can well be satirised (I particularly like Tim Dowling`s approach). But could there be any substance in the Conservative proposal? Could others make some substance from it. Could it make any sense to have one without a written constitution?

I asked Anthony Barnett, who kindly drew attention to a note by Matthew D´Ancona reminding Spectator readers that he, AB, argued long ago that the Tories would sooner or later embrace the cause of constitutional reform.

There is not too much in the note, but it does seem to correctly report that the British political class as a whole is deeply alarmed by the drainage of trust in its activities on the part of an increasingly abstaining electorate.

A longer interview with Renewal (Vol 14, No 2), which AB also kindly forwards, has more substance. It starts:
I find myself wanting to say there is a crisis in the way we are ruled. But oh no there isn´t. The crisis is that there is no crisis. A young woman gets a criminal record apparently under antiterror legislation because she stands in Whitehall and reads out the names of servicemen who have died in Iraq. She isn´t just asked to move on -- she is arrested. And nothing happens. The government makes a large deployment of British troops in southern Afghanistan, a deployment I might support if I knew what the mission was -- in effect another small war without parliamentary scrutiny, let alone a significant public debate -- which cannot be right. And nothing happens. John Scarlett was the head of the Joint Intelligence Agency and signed off on the dodgy and distorted dossier that alleged the case for war after the prime minister had decided long before that he would back President Bush. Soon afgter the prime minister appoints Scarlett to head MI6, flagrantly undermining its independence. And they get away with it.

What is happening here? Part of the answer is that there was once a system of checks and balances that at least moderated and sometimes prevented such outrages. These were informal, often secretive, and hardly democratic, but they did provide limits to the abuse of executive power. You may regret their passing -- I don´t. But now that they have gone they must be replaced by something better or we are exposed to the abuses of an unchecked executive inflamed by tabloid populism...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Andijan on tape

...three survivors of the crackdown, interviewed in hiding outside Uzbekistan, say that even the edited tapes confirm what they and other survivors have long told journalists, diplomats and aid organizations - that a cadre of armed men staged an uprising and took hostages, and were then joined by unarmed people who saw a crack in Uzbekistan's oppressive security apparatus as a chance to demonstrate peacefully for freedom.

This larger outpouring of support, one survivor said, persuaded the demonstrators that if they could stand for a few days, more people might join them. Instead, he said, they were shot without warning.

"You need to find the original tapes," one survivor said. "It would be simply horrendous."

--from Video of Uzbek Uprising Provides Complex View

The Carnegie Endowment today publishes a copy of the tapes it has, together with a transcript here. Martha Brill Olcott and Marina Barnett conclude:
Those reading the accompanying text and watching the film will have to draw their own conclusions. Our own view is that the search for “truth” in the events of May 13, 2005 cannot be a simple one. That innocent lives were lost is without question, but the motivations of those who came to the square that day were certainly varied. Many undoubtedly wanted simply to vent their frustrations about the social, economic and political failings of the Uzbek regime. They may have hoped for some remedy from the authorities, or that somehow better authorities might emerge to take their place. But others may well have had more sinister motives and goals that would have led Uzbekistan even further away from the goal of becoming a secular democracy than under the Karimov regime.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Marking the hours

"...The days around the solstice always have an atmosphere of strangeness. Some of this is to do with long lazy days hardly punctuated by night; and some of the summer strangeness comes from the unfamiliar exoticism of even our commonest plants at this time..."
As the world shifts from one solstice back towards the other, these reflections by Paul Evans are one of the best birthday presents I could ask for.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

More charm than Coriolanus

I don`t recall my Machiavelli too well, but there are most likely several pages of advice on how The Prince must seem reluctant to take up the crown.

The queen`s fifth cousin David Cameron is, conspiciously, an incredibly nice guy. In a speech today he may remind listeners that being a father is even more important to him than becoming Prime Minister.

But who said he had to choose one or the other?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

On Wenlock Edge

The hawthorns are turning a fruitful brown as the greatest may blossom in memory fades. They too are getting ready to throw a spectacular harvest of their genes into the future. Now the may and wild garlic flowers are spent, the pulse of white blossom continues with the foamy plates of elder, and the great seducing chemistry of the rose and honeysuckle begins. In open meadows, where wild thyme and common spotted orchid bloom, tiny shards of copper snap over the grass: small copper and large skipper butterflies. Blue butterflies flicker across the flowers of vetch and trefoil, whose yellow is so bright they leave ghost images after you blink. The greening of this year is explosive, and the bright sun and unexpected heat has brought on an exuberance that has rarely been seen in recent years.
Paul Evans: Country Diary -- thankfully a long way from Pebble Mill in the mid 90s!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"Hell is truth seen too late"

"Sharon was a superb tactician but a terrible strategist. He started a disastrous war in Lebanon which he hoped would eliminate the PLO there just as it had been eliminated in Jordan. I remember first meeting him soon after the 1967 war at a meeting with Haaretz editors: he was still an army general at the time, greatly admired for his victory in a war ominously named after the Six Days of Creation. He tried to convince the editors that Israel must annex all the conquered territories—Sinai peninsula and Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights. If the Palestinians wanted a state, he said, they could overthrow King Hussein. Jordan should be the Palestinian state; hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already lived there anyway. He convinced few of those present. Forty years old at the time, he was still trim and ruddy with a shock of blond hair. An elderly editorial writer, a man of German origin who had seen the Weimar Republic sink, shook his head and muttered behind me: 'Ein Kriegsgott!'—a Teutonic war-god".
Amos Elon - What does Olmert want?

See also Ewen MacAskil on Olmert's land grab

Forest Gate

"To come into my house like that, accusing me, shooting me in my chest, and saying that I was a terrorist, it really hurt. As to the identity or motive of the police informant, I have no idea. I'm in the same situation as everyone else. In my eyes, the person that said this - gave the police inaccurate intelligence - they are the terrorists to me. They terrorised me and my family.

The comments of Tony Blair, that comment I heard, it was the most hurtful thing. He said he was 101 per cent for the raid, 101 per cent for the hole in my chest".

Mohammed Abdulkahar, quoted in The Independent

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Shimshon der Nebedicher

The [Guantanamo] camp commander said the two Saudis and a Yemeni...had killed themselves in "an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us".

Friday, June 09, 2006

Kuffar and beur

Brendan O`Neill calls the 7 July 2005 bombs in London Britain`s Columbine: "a murderous stunt executed by four bored and overgrown adolescents who had nothing better to do". It sounds like there`s something to this if you don`t think too hard. More intelligently, Shiv Malik observes the conspiracy theories circulating in Forest Gate about Kuffars.

From France Timothy Garton Ash says the politicians have failed. But he also reports that many young people in the suburbs seem to approve Ségolène Royal´s proposal to revise national service.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


The NY Times opinionator identifies Mary Anne Weaver´s article in The Atlantic as one of the most prescient and useful on Zarqawi, who was killed last night (and who Yvonne Ridley claims as a best buddy):
A former Jordanian intelligence official tells Weaver, "Zarqawi [is] not the main force in the insurgency." The attacks "made Zarqawi the symbol of the resistance in Iraq, but not the leader. And he never has been."
And it was good to hear Adel Darwish (my friend, and a long time ago my employer!) on the World at One analysing Zarqawi´s character, his vanity, his mistakes. With the Jordan bombings, said Adel, Zarqawi broke the taboo preventing members of his tribe from turning him in. So they shopped him.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Why "United 93" makes people more stupid

I've just come back from a late screening of United 93. Paul Greengrass is a good craftsman (or he was with Bloody Sunday). If I ever go to Shanksville, Pennsylvania I will put a flower on any memorial to the passengers and heroes on that plane.

But this film will do little more than add to US national stupidity. With no context, and no requirement to learn about the context within which these atrocities arose and why, the film will lends itself to stirring up more brute force and bloody ignorance, and greater catastrophes in future.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"Adapt or Bust"

"Although it's almost two decades since the UN recognised that climate change was a catastrophic threat to the Earth, it's clear that the insurance industry has not take catastrophe trends seriously enough. Climate change is today's problem, not tomorrow's. If we don't take action now to understand the changing nature of our planet we will face extinction."

Rolf Tolle, franchise performance director for Lloyds

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Shohei Imamura

"The Japanese did not change as a result of the Pacific War—they haven't changed in thousands of years!"

-- Born 1926, Tokyo, Japan. Died 30 May, 2006, Tokyo, Japan

Bras and the Ba'ath

"Hanging above souk stalls, other lingerie styles resort to gimmickry: they are festooned with blinking lights, or play soundbites from Egyptian pop songs or standards such as Old MacDonald had a farm. Damascus, the manufacturing capital of Syria's lingerie industry, exports its products to almost everywhere across the Arab world, from Libyan hairdressing salons to small-town malls in Saudi Arabia".

From an article by Malu Hasla in the New Statesman focus on Syria.

Merchants of ugly

"British Waterways have clearly been planning the eviction even as they negotiated with boat owners over a replacement yard. They are greedy, shifty and dishonest and cannot open their mouths without lying. This eviction is a needless setback. They seem desperate to sell the yard without planning permission."

Philip Pullman in the Guardian quoted on the CastleMill website.