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To find an archived article, simply click on Index and scroll the subject titles, or do a Ctrl-F search

TALLRITE BLOG 
ARCHIVE

This archive, organized into months, contains all issues prior to the current week and the three preceding weeks, which are published in 
the main Tallrite Blog (www.tallrite.com/blog.htm).  
The first issue appeared on Sunday 14th July 2002

You can write to blog-at-tallrite-dot-com

January 2004
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ISSUE #62 - 4th January 2004

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ISSUE #63 - 11th January 2004

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ISSUE #64 - 18th January 2004

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ISSUE #65 - 25th January 2004

ISSUE #65 - 25th January 2004 [154]

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The Depravity of Suicide-Bombing

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Best Value Cars

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Flying Jokers

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Weapons of Math Instruction

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Are You Happy?

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Quotes of the Week

The Depravity of Suicide-Bombing

You see on the news such a succession of suicide bombers, be it in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, Moscow, Chechnya, Sri Lanka that to some extent, unless you are personally involved in some way, you can become inured to the horror of it.  Call it Suicide-Bomber Fatigue. 

But sometimes one of these outrages is so shocking that you are confronted anew with the utter depravity of the enterprise.   

It was brought home to me, once more, by the appalling suicide-bombing on 14th January of Reem al-Rayashi at Erez, which is a military checkpoint on the main crossing between Gaza and Israel. 

Reem came from one of the most wealthy families in the Gaza Strip, owners of the region's biggest car-battery factory whose main market is Israel.  There was none of the despair and grief that have prompted other suicide bombers.  

She was a woman of just 22, married to Ziyad Awad, five years her senior, and they had an eighteen-month old daughter and a son of three. Yet coldly and deliberately, she got herself trained up, and then went out and blew herself to pieces solely in order to kill and injure others.  Knowingly and avoidably she left behind two innocent, motherless tots.  

It is hard to imagine a more evil perverted deed.  

Yet the totality and context of the act are indeed even more evil and perverted.  

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Firstly, suicide-bombing is glorified amongst Palestinians.  
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Society holds martyrsin high regard; 

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most Muslim clerics teach that Islam permits suicide-bombing and that bombers are martyrs;  

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Sheikh Ahmed Yassim, wheelchair-ridden spiritual leader of Hamas, gave his personal blessing to Reem's attack (for which Israel will assassinate him);  

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Palestinian leaders such as the current Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia refuse to condemn such attacks;  

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schools worship the practice so much that martyrdom has become an ambition for Palestinian children;   

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and until the overthrow of Saddam, his $25,000 payment to each bomber's family was a cynical ploy to generate ever more volunteers.  

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Even non-Muslims sometimes join in the glorification from the safety of the West. 
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Sweden recently hosted a genocide conference which included an exhibit called Snow White and the Madness of Truth.  With a bootleg recording of Bach's Cantata Nbr 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut) playing in the background , this comprised a large basin filled with red fluid denoting Israeli blood, on which floated a boat carrying a pretty photo of a smiling Hanadi Jaradat, another female suicide bomber who killed 21 people in a Haifa restaurant last October.  

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British MP Jenny Tonge last week excused suicide bombers, blaming their acts on provocation, and added that she might become one  herself if she were a Palestinian (yeh, right.  And why not do it anyway - she doesn't need to be a Palestinian).  Even the PM's wife Cherie Blair has voiced similar sentiments.  

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Secondly, this glorification is focused very precisely and cynically at youngsters - teenagers and twenty-somethings.  For they, the seedcorn of a future Palestine, are expected by their elders to provide the suicide-bombers of today.  

As I've argued previously
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there is never a suggestion that, for example, a pensioner, who has lived a fulfilling life and is now past his working prime and becoming an economic burden, should abandon his grandchildren for an explosives belt.  

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In similar vein, those pro-suicide sheikhs and leaders never send out their own children.  

No, this is a glory reserved strictly for youngsters from the lower orders.  

How badly must you hate them.  

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Thirdly, training for suicide-bombers bears a lot of similarity to the behaviours of fanatical semi-religious cults such as scientology or the Moonies.  
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As trainees you are separated from friends, 

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you are taught new words, phrases and patterns of thought, 

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you are shown non-stop videos of Muslims dying, 

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your sleep is deprived,

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you are told continually that your family and friends are trying to hurt you.  

As with cults, the process gradually transforms you through five phases - deceit, dependency, debilitation, dread and desensitization

All designed to increase your hatred of and callousness towards not just your targets, but the world at large.   

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Fourthly, the vast majority of suicide victims are not Israeli soldiers or politicians (they are too well protected) but ordinary civilians - men, women and children, Jews, Muslims, Christians.  
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For example, Reem's bombing may have killed four military Israelis, but it injured nine more Muslim and Jewish civilians

If you're a bomber, you are an equal-opportunity hater.  

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Fifthly, Hamas selected the main Gaza/Israel crossing point for attack because thousands of Palestinians living in Gaza pour through each day to work in Israel.  This makes it one of the few symbols of peaceful co-existence in the area, a beacon of hope for the future.  So Hamas want to force Israel to close it.  
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Cutting off access to those jobs will increase Palestinian unemployment and so foment further misery and discontent, while boosting grass-roots support for Hamas and other militant movements.  

How badly must you hate your own countrymen?  

But that's not all.  

For further evil and perversion, there's the wretched Reem herself and her family. 

Her husband actually dropped her off on her mission.  She had told him that when he too blew himself up at some later date, as he had assured her he would, she would be waiting to welcome him to Paradise as one of the seventy houris”, or nymphs, that the Hadith holy book awards to each (male) martyr.  She was evidently unaware of the irony of departing this life as his sole wife only to stand up there in the heavenly clouds amongst 69 other nubile competitors for his dubious favours.  

But this romantic little vignette does not tell the whole sordid story, for other thoroughly distasteful factors, some say rumours, have emerged which may have played a part.  The excellent Not a Fish blog first alerted me.  

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It's said Reem's husband Ziad, a Hamas activitist, was in fact getting tired of her.  So when she suggested martyrdom in the hope he would dissuade her, to her dismay he in fact encouraged her.  

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Moreover, according to an Arab radio station, she was five months pregnant by her husband’s cousin (another Hamas activist), so knew she was going be murdered anyway to preservethe family honour.  Better to go out in style.  

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The Hebrew-language Yediot Ahronot weekly then reported that the cousin had been in on the deal - that it was he who recruited her and armed her with the explosives belt.  

Yet out of this, there is some dignity.  Like others before them, the four parents of the couple are appalled and outraged by what Reem has done, in no way condone it, are refusing condolences and hold husband Ziad primarily responsible.  And of course the two small children are blameless victims as much as those whom their mother's explosives, nails and and body-parts killed, injured or bereaved.  

Moreover, some Palestinian journalists are beginning to protest against the nihilism of suicide-bombing.  

But personally I blame Reem 100% for her depraved act.  No excuses, no dilution.  Ziad and cousin are also to be condemned for their wickedness and chicanery, but they didn't detonate the bomb.  She did.  

The whole suicide-bombing atmosphere that prevails among Palestinians and other Muslim groups and even some Christians is like a stinking rotting festering carcass surrounded by bluebottles.  But that is to denigrate bluebottles.  

Every individual has certain responsibilities in this life, and these have a strict hierarchy.  

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First, look after yourself, ensure you are no burden on anybody else.

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Second, look after your dependents, ensure they are no burden on anyone else.  

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Third, and only third, see what you can do to improve the lot of others in society.  

No-one has the slightest right to attempt the third unless and until the first and second are properly fulfilled.  By abandoning her toddlers, the further sin of the depraved Reem al-Rayashi was to do just that.  

May she not rest in peace.  

Back to Index

Best Value Cars

When you buy a car, what do you look for?  One whose value drops like a stone in its first three years or one which holds a lot of its value compared to other cars?  Obviously you want the one which holds its value. 

Wrong.  Well, wrong for some. 

It all depends on which stage of the car’s life cycle you choose to buy at.  We know that a brand new car loses maybe 15% of its value the moment you drive it from the showroom.  Nevertheless, we would want it to lose as little of its value as possible in its early years. 

On the other hand, if, for example, you’re buying a three year old vehicle, you will want it to have lost as much of its new value as possible so you can get it cheaply (provided it doesn’t continue to plummet after you have made your purchase). 

The Alliance and Leicester insurance group have just published a very interesting study of car prices and depreciation over one and three years.  It uses figures from the UK market (from What Car? magazine) but the findings are likely to be applicable anywhere in Europe. 

It tells you the best cars to buy new, after one year and after three years.  Also when it is the best time to sell particular cars (after one or three years) so as to minimise your loss. 

Below is a summary of the main findings identifying best buys.  In brackets is each car’s change in value expressed as that percentage which means most to your pocket, ie you want your car to retain a high value, but if buying second–hand you want one that has depreciated by a high amount. 

It is these percentages that provide the rankings.  In all cases you want the quoted % figure to be high. 


Category of Car

Buy when New
(value retained after three years, %)

Buy when 1 year old; sell when 3 years old
(value retained %)

Buy when 
3 years old 
(% price reduction compared to new)

City

Seat Arosa
(65%)

Fiat Seicento
(82%)

Suzuki Alto
(54%)

Supermini

VW Polo
(69%)

Nissan Micra
(77%)

Nissan Micra
(56%)

Small

VW Golf
(65%)

VW Golf
(89%)

Renault Megane
(56%)

Family

Volvo S/V40 Series
(66%)

Peugeot 406
(73%)

Renault Laguna
(69%)

MPV/4x4

Vauxhall Zafira
(65%)

Land Rover Freelander
(96%)

Renault Scenic
(49%)

Compact Executive

BMW 3 Series
(70%)

Rover 75
(86%)

Alfa Romeo 156
(49%)

Executive

BMW 5 Series
(60%)

Saab 9.5
(85%)

Vauxhall Omega
(65%)

Best Buy

BMW 5 Series
(60%)

Land Rover Freelander
(96%)

Renault Laguna
(69%)

The outstanding overall winner, in terms of preserving value, is the Land Rover Freelander.  Horrible as the car itself is, provided you buy it when it's one year old and sell it two years later, you will be out of pocket only to the tune of a paltry 4%.  

It's worth downloading and reading the whole report (PDF file of 205 kb).  

Back to Index

Flying Jokers

Here's a salutary tale about two young pranksters, one on each side of the Atlantic, with the same joke but quite different outcomes.

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Not long after a Delta Airlines Boeing 767-300 took off from Frankfurt on 18th January bound for Atlanta, a message was found in the toilet saying there was a bomb on board.  Wisely, the Captain, telling his passengers there was a medical emergency, made an unscheduled landing in Shannon, in Ireland.  

There the Irish police searched the plane and confirmed there was no bomb.  They also interviewed and fingerprinted all 147 passengers and crew for six hours, which identified an unnamed 19-year-old German student as the likely culprit.  They arrested him for endangering an aircraft” (which carries a life sentence), questioned him for 12 hours, but then simply let him go without even being charged.  

Wasting no time, he checked out of his hotel (not prison cell) and instead of continuing his journey to America, preferred for some reason to scuttle back home to Germany.  The police just seem glad he has gone away.  

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Meanwhile around the same time but on the other side of the Atlantic another joker, 21-year-old Polish/British student Samantha Morrison, was having her bags checked at Miami airport before flying back to the UK.  

Hey,she cried, be careful, I have three bombs in here”.  Three times she said it to the security personnel.  

Well, no-one joined in the merriment.   Instead she sparked a full-scale security alert and was immediately arrested, handcuffed and thrown into Miami-Dade County Jail for four nights, charged with making a false bomb report (maximum penalty fifteen years).  Within hours she found herself before a judge who set bail at $5,000 and 6th February to enter her plea.   

Conviction and punishment look certain.  

Moral of the story: If you're going to play these silly games, better do them in wishy-washy Europe.  Compared to our American cousins, penalties may be tougher but enforcement's a joke.  

On the other hand of course, if you want to carry bombs on board aircraft you'll also find that easier in wishy-washy Europe (which is what miscreants seemed to think when only BA and Air France aircraft in Europe were grounded over Christmas due to terrorist threats).  

Just don't mess with the guys in the cowboy boots.  

Back to Index

Weapons of Math Instruction

More on airport security ... 

By Guest-Bloggers Murat and Zeynap

At New York's Kennedy airport the other day, an individual later discovered to be a public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a setsquare, a slide rule, and a calculator.

At a morning press conference, Attorney general John Ashcroft said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement.  He is being charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

Al-Gebra is a fearsome cult,” Ashcroft said.  They desire average solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in a search of absolute value.  They use secret code names like ‘x’ and ‘y’ and refer to themselves as ‘unknowns’, but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval with coordinates in every country”.                               

As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, there are three sides to every triangle.” 

Taking time out from his War on Tourism, President Bush when asked to comment on the arrest said, “If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes. 

I am gratified that our government has given us a sine that it is intent on protracting us from these math-dogs who are willing to disintegrate us with calculus disregard.  Murky statisticians love to inflict plane on every sphere of influence,” the President said, adding: “Under the circumferences, we must differentiate their root, make our point, and draw the lineRest assured we will hunt down every foreign tourist.

President Bush warned, “These weapons of math instruction have the potential to decimal everything in their math on a scalene never before seen unless we become exponents of a Higher Power and begin to factor-in random facts of vertex.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, fresh from receiving his Foot-in-Mouth award from the Plain English Campaign commented, “As our Great Leader would say, read my ellipse.  Here is one principle he is uncertainty of.  Though they continue to multiply, their days are numbered as the hypotenuse tightens around their necks.”

Back to Index

Are You Happy?

Now that you've gone out and bought yourself that new car, are you happy?  How joyous are you really?  What are your strengths?  How satisfied are you with your work-life balance?  What about your positives and negatives?  

The answers to these and other aspects about your character are revealed in a series of simple questionnaires at a website called Authentic Happiness.  Try it.  It's quite clever.  You have to register, but it's free.

Back to Index

Quotes of the Week 

Quote: "Sheikh [Ahmed} Yassin [spiritual leader of Hamas] is marked for death, and he should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night"

Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Zeev Boim, 
on learning that the Sheikh personally blessed and ordered the
attack at the Erez crossing point between Israel and Gaza,
which was Hamas's first female suicide bombing

Refer to this week's leading story

__________________

Quote: “Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq ... There is a difference however between leading a coalition of many nations, and submitting to the objections of a few ... America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country.

President George W Bush in his 2004 State of the Union address,
r
eferring to calls from Democratic candidates
for US action in Iraq to be internationalised

Back to Index

SEE THE ARCHIVE and LINKS BARS AT TOP LEFT and RIGHT, FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE

ISSUE #64 - 18th January 2004 [121]

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40,000-Year Voyage from China to Polynesia

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Osama Still Not Alive

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Blogger of 2003

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Giant Python

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Unscientific Beer Mat

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Recovering from Christmas

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Quotes of the Week

40,000-Year Voyage from China to Polynesia

Last August I promised to explain how it was that the tiny native population of tiny Nauru, one of the Polynesian islands in the Pacific, is descended from native Taiwanese.  

In 1947, Thor Heyerdal, a Norwegian anthropologist and adventurer, undertook an epic voyage of 6,500 km in a flimsy, primitive raft made of balsa-wood and bamboo.  It was named Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god, Viracocha, for whom “Kon-Tiki” was said to be an old name.

Kon-Tiki raft, crafted from balsa-wood and bamboo

He and his five companions sailed and drifted westward from Callao, near Lima in Peru on the west coast of South America, to the Tuamotu Islands in Polynesia on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  The purpose of his gruelling, hazardous 14-week voyage was to prove the feasibility of the theory that the Pacific islands were populated by people, ie Peruvian Indians, whose ancestors had made a similar trip a millennium earlier.  

From Callao to Tuamoto, only 6,500 km

In 1950, he wrote a hugely popular book about the experience, the Kon-Tiki Expedition, and the theory was widely accepted as fact.  He died in 2002 aged 87. 

Late Note (Feb 2012)
In 2012, a Norwegian historical drama movie was made which was nominated for several awards

The islanders themselves are somewhat oriental in appearance, as are the Peruvian Indians from whom they are supposedly descended.  And the latter look oriental because, so the complementary theory goes, the original Peruvians' forefathers had trekked up what is now the Eastern coast of China and Russia, across what was then a land-bridge linking Russia to Alaska (today's Bering Straits), and then down the West coast of the American continent till they reached Peru, and indeed continued further to Chile.  

And why then did they choose to sail across the Pacific?  Well, so the theory goes, they didn't choose, but that was the way the winds and currents flow, from West to East.  It was postulated, therefore, that over time fishing boats were inadvertently blown out to sea, and that those that did not sink ended up stranded on Pacific islands many thousands of kilometres away.  So were new settlements born in Polynesia.  Artifacts and flora in Polynesia link the area to both South America and Asia, providing further support for the two migration theories.  

Except that Thor Heyerdahl's theory of East-to-West migration is balderdash.  Pure bunkum. 

First, think about it.  

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Fishermen drifting out to sea and ending up in Tahiti or Nauru?  If it was accidental, then how come they had women, livestock and seeds on board that allowed them to establish a population and way of life, using these non-Polynesian resources?  Not many fishermen bring such items along on an average fishing trip.  

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Did they perhaps, then, migrate on purpose?  Again, inconceivable.  The nearest island, San Feliz, is a thousand kilometres off the South American coast and it's another two thousand to reach the edge of Polynesia.  A millennium ago, no Peruvian/Chilean would have known those islands were there, nor could have seen them.  So he would have been sailing away with his precious family on board into unknown blankness, with no means of returning home (because of those prevailing winds and currents) should something go awry.   His wife and mother-in-law would surely have had something to say about that!

But then there's recent scientific evidence that now proves beyond doubt that Polynesia was populated by immigrants not from the American West but from the Oriental East.  And, incidentally, that Orientals did indeed make a separate migration north, east and south, overland from China to Peru and Chile.  

Bryan Sykes is a geneticist in Oxford University who has made a study of mitochondrial DNA, or mDNA.  This is a tiny component of your DNA, which serves no known function, yet is passed down the female line of animals, mother to daughter, virtually unchanged.  Unlike the rest of DNA, which mutates regularly down the generations giving rise to Darwin's theory of evolution, natural mutations in mDNA are so rare that they can be used as a time-marker for blood-lines.  

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One mDNA mutation occurs only every 10,000 years, so for example three mutations means 30,000 years have passed.  

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Thus if two people have mDNA that is identical but for one difference, you know they are cousins descended from the same mother between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.  

In the 1990s, Prof Sykes began collecting blood samples from native Polynesians, and to his astonishment concluded that regardless of which island they live on, they are all descended from only a handful of mothers.  This is extraordinary when you consider that the Polynesian islands occupy a box in the Pacific of about 5,000 km square.  Some incredible maritime feats must have been conducted for so few family lines to have spread so far.  

But he also analysed the mDNA of natives of New Guinea, Borneo, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, as well as of Peru and Chile, and compared this with the Polynesian mDNA.  This uncovered a clear lineage from Polynesia tracing back through the Western Pacific into Eastern China and Taiwan, a lineage that in at least one instance (a family line through New Guinea) was 40,000 years long.  

But when he searched for family lines linking Polynesians to native Peruvians and Chileans, none could be found.  Nevertheless, mDNA analysis of native populations along the postulated northern overland migration route did confirm that that's how Peru and Chile were first populated.   

These remarkable findings proved conclusively, for the first time, that today's native Polynesians are immigrants from East Asia, who arrived via a series of steps and stops at different islands, big and small, after a journey lasting in some cases 40,000 years.  

They did not come from South America.  Thor Heyerdahl was wrong.  

The remaining question is how did they do it, sailing into the wind into the unknown.  

The answer is through courage, skill, technology, navigation and luck.  One can only guess they were driven by economic necessity, or perhaps simply a desire for adventure.  And though many must have lost their lives in the attempt, we can at least be sure they did not migrate by accident, not when the prevailing winds were pushing them back to shore.  

The great advantage of sailing against the wind, is that if you have a problem, or simply lose heart, you still have a good chance of getting back home simply by riding the downwind.  Without this return ticket it seems most unlikely those canny womenfolk would have been persuaded to come aboard. 

The south-western rim of the Pacific contains a series of mountainous islands close enough to sail between on visuals, the largest being New Guinea.  This permitted those early mariners to navigate fairly safely eastward, one island at a time, as far as the Solomon Islands, over a period of some 40 millennia.  Archaeological evidence indicates, however, that they did not venture further east until perhaps only three thousand years ago.  

That is because the next island, Santa Cruz, was 300 km from the Solomons, far beyond the horizon, and the others further away still.  

The last series of voyages, therefore, had to wait until about 1000 BC by when boat technology and navigational skills had advanced sufficiently.  Then, over a period of some 2,000 years (as dated by archaeological artefacts), the rest of the Polynesian Islands were systematically colonised.  The migrants sailed in large, eminently seaworthy, double-hulled canoes up to ten metres long with a prow at each end.  This enabled the mariners to tack across the wind and reverse without the hazard of turning round in a high sea.  

They navigated by keeping a rising or setting star in the same position relative to the canoe, which would maintain a constant latitude.  But they also used other clues to detect an island over the horizon - 

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cloud formations that gather above distant mountains, 

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the flight direction of birds known to nest on land, 

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floating debris which would indicate there was land upwind and upcurrent, 

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the feelof the ocean swell as subtle reflections ripple back from some beach 150 kilometres away, a phenomenon that experienced seamen and anglers sense to this day.  

A continuing mystery, however, is how some of those migrants managed to turn right and sail southeastward, crossing lines of latitude, to find and settle in New Zealand.  We know they did, because the mDNA of the Maoris shows indubitably that they too are descended from the same group of mothers as the native Polynesians and those ancient coastal Chinese and (the even more ancient) Taiwanese.  

But it's all a fascinating story, a confluence of ancient derring-do with state-of-the-art forensic investigation.  One of the outcomes is that those Naurans are indeed descended from Taiwanese.  

But there is an aspect of the evidence of man's extreme longevity on this earth that always troubles me.  Why did it take Jesus Christ, the son of God, at least 40,000 years to come on earth and seek propitiation for man's sins?  Perhaps it means mankind has a further 40,000 years to go and Jesus therefore chose to arrive at the midpoint of his existence.  If not it suggests a certain, er, negligence with regard to the 1,000 to 2,000 generations of the human race that preceded the Christian era.  

Late Note (July 2010)

The Economist carries a wonderfully enlightening obituary for Pius Mau Piailug who was Micronesia's last master-navigator.  He learned his complex Polynesian art from childhood at the feet of his grandfather, which included the memorisation of the name, colour, light and trajectories of more than a hundred stars. 

Mau famously demonstrated his abilities in 1976 by navigating a canoe across 2,500 kilometres of open Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Tahiti without compass, sextant or charts.  As the Economist recounts,

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“He would point his canoe into the right slant of wind, and then
along a path between a rising star and an opposite, setting one.

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With his departure star astern and his destination star ahead,
he could keep to his course.

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By day he was guided by the rising and setting sun but also
by the ocean herself, the mother of life.

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He could read how far he was from shore, and its direction,
by the feel of the swell against the hull.

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He could detect shallower water by colour, and see the light
of invisible lagoons reflected in the undersides of clouds.

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Sweeter-tasting fish meant rivers in the offing.

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“Groups of birds, homing in the evening, showed him where
land lay
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These are precisely the techniques that those ancient mariners deployed as, with incredible courage and confidence, they migrated Eastward in open canoes with their families, animals, seeds and other possessions into the great unknown. 

Back to Index

Osama Still Not Alive

Once again, a speech on a scratchy audio tape has emerged on Al Jazeera TV, which purports to be Osama Bin Laden exhorting further jihad.  The speech must have been recorded only recently because it refers to Saddam's capture.  

But is it genuine?

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Our intelligence team has analyzed it to determine whether it is authentic or not, and they have determined that it is likely that the voice on the tape is bin Laden'ssays White House press secretary Scott McClellan.  

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Preliminary assessments says this is the voice of Osama bin Laden adds Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.  

Technical experts, linguists and translators at the CIA and National Security Agency have compared the latest message to previous recordings of bin Laden and say they are as certain as they can be that it is genuine.  

But they present no evidence.  

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy this guff.  For reasons discussed earlier, he is either dead or so badly injured and disfigured he dare not show his face lest it demoralise his supporters and cheer up his enemies.  

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As for that tape, I'm sure there are plenty of Rory Bremners and other impersonators out there in the Al Qaeda world who are well able to replicate bin Laden's linguistics (speech patterns, accent, intonation etc).  

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As for science, voiceprint identification is the principal technology available, where spectrographs of voice recordings are compared, on the basis that no two people produce the same spectrographic curve.  Accuracy of less than 1% is claimed, which sounds low.  But it means that if you have, say, just a thousand volunteers you should be able to find a few duplicates that the machine cannot distinguish between.  By comparison, the accuracy of DNA measurement is so great that the chance of two people having the same measured DNA is in the hundreds of millions.  

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And why else is the latest audio tape, as were the previous ones, of such a scratchy quality, if not to make voice identification more difficult?

If Osama were alive and well, you can be sure he would be using the media to put out regular stirring and defiant messages - and making them believable.  That means, at the least, using good quality video that leaves viewers - friend and foe alike - in no doubt whatsoever about the identity of the speaker.  Imagine the effect that would have in encouraging his followers and depressing the West.  

But it's very hard to do from an unknown grave deep in the Afghan mountains.  

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Blogger of 2003

Blogger of the Year was recently awarded by a panel to Joshua Micah Marshall for his left-leaning blog, Talking Points Memo.  

He calls himself an opinion journalist, but is also an accomplished professional reporter.  But he says “I’m much more invested in my [blog] than in any of those other things that pay me”.  He is also one of the few bloggers to attract advertising.  Why? Because blogs are where the influential reach the influential. They matter.  His especially.  

More about this and other year-end blog awards here.  (None for yours-truly.)

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Giant Python

Uuugh!

Indonesian villagers from Curugsewu in Java, Indonesia, recently captured a python that is almost 49 feet long and weighs nearly 990 pounds.  As such, it is the largest snake ever kept in captivity.  

Reticulated pythons are the world’s longest snakes. They are capable of eating animals as large as sheep, and have been known to attack and consume humans.

This particular specimen is being fed on three or four dogs a month.  

(Are you still listening, Dottie?)

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Unscientific Beer Mat

Having a drink in the pub last week, I had a look at my beer mat, on the right.  

Now I know that beer mats are not the first thing you consult when you want to do some scientific analysis.  However this one tells me that in order to taste my Carlsberg, I must tilt my bottle to almost 73.  I happened to have a sexton in my pocket (the way one does), so I tried this.  But to my surprise no beer poured out.  

It was only when the tilt angle reached 91 that I was able to begin slaking my thirst.  

I have therefore written to Carlsberg to demand an explanation for their unforgivable obeisance to the laws of gravity, despite the promise on their beer mat to the contrary.  

Also to the Advertising Standards Authority.  

Maybe I need to get out less.  

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Recovering from Christmas

According to the Daily Mirror, online auction exchanges such as E-Bay experienced a huge New Year surge in business as customers scrambled to get rid of their unwanted Christmas presents.  It's apparently all down to the hugely decreased likelihood of getting caught.

E-Bay targeted those who didn't like what they were given over the festive season with a week-long Get What You Really Wanted promotion.

There's still time for you to offload those ghastly scarves, socks and floral jumpers.  Or to do bargain shopping for next Christmas.  

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Quotes of the Week

Quote: “Disqualifying those who do not qualify to serve as the nation's representatives is not a violation of people's rights - it safeguards their rights.

Conservative MPs in Iran, 
where the hardline Guardian Council 
has barred liberal politicians from standing for election.

__________________

Quote: “Belfast is getting a reputation as the hate capital of Europe.

Davey Carlin, of the Anti-Racist Network, 
referring not to the historic hatred 
of Protestants for Catholics and vice-versa 
that has caused 30 years of civil warfare and 3,000 deaths, 
but to hatred of non-white immigrants.

Hence the curious phrase is getting”   

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SEE THE ARCHIVE and LINKS BARS AT TOP LEFT and RIGHT, FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE

ISSUE #63 - 11th January 2004  [150]

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Multiple Mass Killers

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Nigeria's Pernicious North-South Divide

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No WMDs in Iraq

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Yes to Armed Sky Marshals

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Kilroy's Not Here

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Google Zeitgeist

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Canada's Visible Yet Hidden Energy

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Quote of the Week

Multiple Mass Killers - also linked as http://www.tinyurl.ie/0i5).

It's actually quite hard to be a multiple-mass-killer, someone who kills lots of people, over and over again.  You need either a lot of money or to run a country or (usually) both.  

People usually regard MMKs with revulsion, but not all of the time and not all of them.  

For example, Saddam, always an MMK, was for most of his career not viewed with revulsion.  Today's revulsion is a fairly new phenomenon, since 9/11, since the discovery of his mass graves, since he was captured.  

Also, people's revulsion seems often to be dictated not by the magnitude of the MMK's crime, but by his intention or even his political leaning.  Killing, when that is not your direct intention, or when perpetrated by left-wingers, seems for many to be less heinous, though the victims are just as dead.  

Hitler made moral judgement easy.  A right wing fascist, he has been reviled for the past sixty years for intentionally slaughtering six million Jews.  

Mao and Stalin, on the other hand, were MMKs of Communist hue, whose killings (whether by famine, deportation, forced industrialisation, Gulag, execution) were merely byproducts of policies that were supposedly aimed at the long-term wellbeing of the working man.  So throughout their tenures, and even to this day, excuses were/are made in the West and blind eyes turned, even though their death rates exceeded Hitler's by a factor of five.  

Mao is so unreviled that there are even restaurants named after him (though I refuse to provide the publicity of a link).  Can you imagine a restaurant called Hitler?

Another example.  

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Everyone hates the right-wing, business-friendly General Pinochet for his killings and repression (though he certainly perked up the Chilean economy).  

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But great swathes of Western opinion support Castro despite his continuing killings, repression and economic destruction, simply because he dresses to the left and says he's on the side of the worker.    

I was reminded of all this by BBC journalist Michael Buerk, who, living up to his name, recently wrote an ill-argued article in the (subscription-only) Sunday Times comparing Ethiopia, famine-ridden twenty years ago, with today when it is once again ravaged by famine.  It was he who, most commendably, first broke the story of the Ethiopian famine, that captured the imagination of Bob Geldof and the world.  

In the article, he recounts his 1983 visit, the horrors of starvation he witnessed, as well as some inspiring visions among aid-workers and sufferers.  

But he then contrasts Ethiopia today with how it was at that time, and draws the conclusion that the current rulers, under Meles Zenawi, are saints compared with” the 1980s regime of Mengistu, for 17 years Ethiopia's MMK

Yet he remarks that the poor are getting poorer and recites a stream of statistics which I have summarised/embellished below.  In essence, famine and drought are causing at least as much misery today as they did twenty years ago.  

Ethiopia, Then and Now

When

1983

2003

Dictator in Charge

Mengistu Haile Mariam 

Meles Zenawi

Years in power

17

10 so far

Political Inspiration

Marxist

Marxist

Control of land

Entirely by Govt

Entirely by Govt

Foreigners banned from

All business enterprises

All business enterprises

Stock market

None

None

War waged

Civil

Against Eritrea

 

 

 

Average annual income

$190

$108

Food production per head

450 kg

140 kg

Population

34m

Doubled, to 68m in 20 yrs

Population growth

  2.5% pa

2.7% pa

Top soil lost

 

2.7% pa

Number hit by drought

6m

14m

Number fed by outside world

7m

14m

Deaths caused by starvation caused by incompetent state policies surely qualify as MMKs.  

Why then does Mr Buerk call the current rulers saints”?  

Simply because the Zenawi government is “ideologically, even romantically, focused on the peasants ... It genuinely wants them to have a better life.”  So he thinks Ethiopians should be grateful for the good intentions of Zenawi even though their lives are even worse than under Mengistu.  

There is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Actually, the reverse is true because God values intentions more than results.  If I try to shoot you but miss, in God's eyes I am more culpable, because of my evil intent, than someone who tries to miss you but ends up killing you. Under man-made laws however, I will get a lighter sentence than the other guy, who will be banged up for manslaughter.   

In the world of man, results are what should count.  Nothing else.  He who kills more is worse, he who improves the lot of others is better.  Mr Buerk's notion of a saint as someone who means well but continues to cause untold death and misery should be condemned for the pernicious leftwing claptrap that it is.  

In 1983/4, he contributed wonderfully to the solution.  In 2003/4 his apologia for an evil Marxist regime that is tantamount to an MMK makes him part of the problem.  

Buerk indeed.  

Late Note (early on 12th Jan): I've just seen Michael Buerk's BBC TV programme on which his article is based.  Most of it is an incredibly moving account, wonderfully produced, of the 1983/4 famine and how the world, shocked by Buerk's images and galvanised by Bob Geldof, rose up and stopped the starvation in its tracks.  

But Buerk's soft and sympathetic treatment of the current government, which is prevented only by more foreign aid from reproducing a famine twice as bad, is shameful.  The sight of the fat, smug Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declaring, after ten years of economic destruction, that the peasants must be chained to the land and of course his policies mean that Ethiopia is going to grow and develop was especially nauseating.  

- also linked as http://www.tinyurl.ie/0i5).

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Nigeria's Pernicious North-South Divide

Alternative link for this post:
http://www.tinyurl.ie/0ha

Whilst we're still on Africa, Internet Commentator last week ran a worthwhile piece on Nigeria and its tribal difficulties, prompted by a longer post at a blog called Foreign Dispatches.  

Both articles make the point that when the European colonisers arbitrarily drew the borders of Nigeria and other African ex-colonies, without regard to tribal/ethnic differences, they guaranteed discontent both within and between national boundaries, that continues to his day.   For Africans pay fealty to their family and tribe first.  Everything else is far behind.  

Of course, on the divide-and-conquer theory, these haphazard borders made them easier to rule and administer as colonies.  So perhaps those draughtsmen did not work arbitrarily at all.  

But those borders are what makes the countries especially hard to self-govern because the State does not command a high level of loyalty from its citizens, compared to family and tribe.  

In Nigeria, however, the contribution of ethnicity to its woes is correct only up to a point, for this misses a crucial element.

The big divide in Nigeria is North-South.  In the map below, that's roughly a horizontal line running between Abuja and Ilorin.  

North = Muslim/desert; South = Christian-Anamist/resource-rich

If you will allow this white man, who lived there for seven years, some political incorrectness and generalisation, I will explain.  

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The North is largely desert, with poor agriculture, not much rain and very little in the way of natural resources. Broadly speaking, its dour people come from relatively few tribes (Hausa, Fulani and others), have a culture of trading, are predominantly Muslim, and paler in skin than Southerners (skin colour is far more important in Africa than Europe/America). They are also smarter, more unified and better organized than those in the South, whom they disdain.

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The South has plenty of resources – good soil, buckets of rain, abundant oil and gas, a long coastline, a mighty river, and a hard-working, cheerful, energetic population. But they are divided into literally hundreds of tribes each with its own language, belong to various Christian and animist sects and are unable to work together as a single body (or small number of bodies). Not as streetwise as their Northern compatriots, and conscious of their blacker (ie inferior) skins, they don’t play the political game well.

As a result, the Northerners have been able to seize and hold the levers of power throughout most of Nigeria’s independence, and they dominate the South. 

This done, their single-minded objective has been to exploit the South’s resources for the benefit of 

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first the personal pockets of leaders, 

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then the infrastructure in the North, 

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leaving but a pittance for those from whom the resources have been removed.  

Just one example.  In the 1980s a new capital city, Abuja, was created from nothing, in the centre of the country but part of the Northern constituency.  Land was acquired and magnificent ministries, hotels, roads, houses and airport were built, unmatched anywhere in the country.  Ministries, embassies and businesses were forced to relocate to Abuja away from Lagos the previous capital (and still today the centre of commerce).  

While the population continued to scratch a living, this huge extravagant  project got top priority, funded by oil money.  Thus were many (more) billions of dollars siphoned off from the South to the North.  

Lumping North and South into a single country was the single biggest mistake of the British diplomat Frederick Lugard who drafted the boundaries (and whose name is preserved by a Lugard Street in Lagos). The dichotomy in resources means there can never be a Czechoslovakia-style velvet divorce. The North would never agree.  The  civil war of 1967-70 that killed a million people was all about the attempt of Biafra, biafrannotes.gif (170316 bytes)in the South-East with Port Harcourt as its capital, to become independent (complete with its own currency - click on the thumbnail).  Biafra, you see, held all of Nigeria's oil at that time.  There was no way it was going to be allowed to walk away.  

So Nigeria is just going to have to muddle along.  With education, communication (TV, radio, internet) and global trends towards respect for human rights, in time those different tribes and religions will find a way to work together, as they come to realise that is where the best interests of their children lie.  Its transition from a series of military dictatorships to the kind-of presidential democracy in place today is a step in such a direction.  

But how long will the whole process take?  Certainly not years.  Decades perhaps? A century?

Incidentally, the story behind the civil war in Sudan is not that much different, except that there the black Christian/animist South has fewer resources for the resource-barren paler Muslim North to expropriate.  But enough to drive southerners from their land so as to present an empty landscape for oil companies to explore.  

Foreign Dispatches, by the way, describes as “ludicrous”  the contents of the above post, as indicated by this discussion thread hosted by Internet Commentator.  

Readers might be interested in my previous post on Nigeria, entitled Fuel Shortage in a Land of Oil.  

Alternative link for this post:
http://www.tinyurl.ie/0ha

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No WMDs in Iraq

So it's almost official.  There are no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction to speak of in Iraq.  The 1,400-man Iraq Survey Group that's been in Iraq for the past six months has come up pretty much empty-handed and is being quietly withdrawn or redeployed.  

Does this turn Bush and Blair into liars?  After all, the threat of Iraqi WMDs was a central justification for going to war.  

A liar is someone who deliberately tells an untruth.  It is not someone who tells an untruth believing it to be a truth.  

Before the war, there was hardly a person who did not believe Saddam possessed WMDs.  

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After all, he had deployed them against both Iran and his own Kurds; the TV pictures went around the world.  

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Since the 1991 Gulf War, whose agreed peace terms required Saddam to lay down his WMDs, the UN issued several further resolutions to the same effect.  

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Yet Saddam never provided any evidence that he had got rid of them.  

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His two cousins-turned-sons-in-laws, Hussein Hamal and Kamel Hassan, after they defected to Jordan in 1995, revealed to US Intelligence his biological weapons programme - which Hussein Hamal had headed up.  Saddam did not deny this, and took his revenge by luring both men back to Iraq and then having them murdered.  

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In the build-up to the Iraq war, not even the anti-war movement claimed that WMDs did not exist.  

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It appears that Saddam even duped his own generals into believing he had WMDs - that each was told it was a different general who was in charge of them.  

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The Coalition forces expected to encounter WMDs.  That's why they went in to battle equipped with WMD protection gear; indeed there were complaints by some British troops of inadequate anti-WMD equipment.  

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Even Libya's Gaddafi, a less sinister tyrant, had as we all now know, his own WMD ambitions, even nuclear ones.  One can guess that the US and UK intelligence services had known this - and would have drawn similar conclusions about Saddam.  

It seems inconceivable, therefore, that Bush and Blair would 

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either have believed otherwise, 

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or if they had, that they would have hammered on about the WMDs knowing they would be shown to have been wrong once the war was won.  

It just doesn't make sense to tell blatant porkies when being found out is a virtual certainty.  

Another aspect should be noted.  The Americans have had ample opportunity to plant evidence of WMDs for the inspectors to find.  This would have saved considerable embarrassment.  That they didn't do so is further attestation to the generally honest behaviour of the Bush/Blair nexus.  

It is entirely plausible, however, that they would have stretched the evidence to help make the WMD point, as the Carnegie Institute claims in this (583 kb PDF) slide presentation.  It's understandable, though not defensible.  

However, such distortion is plausible only with a full expectation of finding WMDs.  For this would have provided an opportunity to say, well the WMDs were there, there just weren't so many as we had thought.  But you can't say that if there are none at all.  

My conclusion is therefore that the lack of WMDs does not amount to going to war on a lying prospectus.  

The secondary reason for the war, the liberation of the Iraqi people from a homicidal tyrant, stands utterly vindicated - by the mass graves, the personal horror stories, the horde of documentary evidence.  Saddam used to murder 30,000 of his citizens per year. The casualties of the Iraq war were well below this and the current killing rate but a tiny fraction. 

It is a constant mystery to me why the so-called peace-loving anti-war movement would wish this had not happened.  Do they love death so much?  

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Yes to Armed Sky Marshals

European airline pilots are getting exercised about America's new requirement that some aircraft flying to or over the US carry armed sky marshals.  Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Portugal are strongly opposed. As EU president, Ireland is therefore arranging a summit of EU aviation officials to discuss the issue.  

It seems to me that any country is perfectly entitled to make any demands it want, however unreasonable, in respect of visitors, whether overflying, touristing, doing business or immigrating.  It must of course accept the consequences of its actions, both good and bad, and tourists and businessmen staying away in droves could be one such.  

So if you don't like armed sky marshals perhaps you should go to Switzerland or Antarctica instead.  

The airline pilots have three principle objections.  None hold water.  

  1. They want to ensure there is a clear command structure on board and communication between the captain and the sky marshal.  
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    Totally reasonable; the Americans would demand 
    exactly the same.  (It doesn't really matter who is 
    in charge so long as it's only one person and everyone 
    knows who that is and there is a reliable means of communcation between the captain and the 
    sky marshal.)

  2. They are also concerned that guns if fired might depressurise the cabin.  
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    Apparently this fear has also been resolved - the 
    marshals will use low-velocity ammunition specially 
    designed to penetrate the skin of humans but not 
    of the aircraft.  

  3. They believe the whole idea is fraught with unknown or uncontrollable hazards.  
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    This might be true if armed sky marshals were 
    something new.  They aren't.  US airlines are already 
    carrying them on their flights.  Israel's El Al and 
    Jordan's Alia have been doing so for at least twenty 
    years; possibly other airlines also.  Yet not a single 
    adverse incident has ever been reported.  

Personally, I would be very happy to know there was an armed guard on board my flight.  I would much rather have him shooting, than see people setting fire to their shoes or cutting throats with box knives.  

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Kilroy's Not Here

Robert Kilroy-Silk hosts a long-running chat show on BBC TV every weekday morning and writes a column for Britain's Sunday Express.  With vaguely left-leaning sympathies, he is a former Labour MP who once (rather laughably) aspired to be Prime Minister. 

In April 2003 he wrote a column in response to the views of opponents to the war in Iraq that Arab States loathe the West.

We're told that the Arabs loathe us. Really? ... What do they think we feel about them? That we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 ... That we admire them for the cold-blooded killings in Mombasa, Yemen and elsewhere? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women-repressors? ... The Arab world has not exactly earned our respect, has it? Iran is a vile, terrorist-supporting regime - part of the axis of evil. So is the Saddam Hussein-supporting Syria. So is Libya. Indeed, most of them chant support for Saddam.” 

These are pretty objectionable words, even if, as Mr Kilroy claims, they are supposed to be targeted at Arab States rather than Arabs.  For it blames all Arabs for the crimes of some; it also displays ignorance in thinking Iranians are Arabs.  

However, the remarks went largely unnoticed and unremarked.  

Then, on 4th January, the Sunday Express reprinted the column under the heading “We Owe Arabs Nothing” and all hell let loose.  

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Within three days, the Muslim Council of Britain wrote an angry letter to the newspaper demanding a right to reply, another to the BBC and a third to the UK's Press Complaints Committee.  

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A couple of days later the Commission on Racial Equality requested the police to mount a prosecution for inciting racial hatred, remarking “If it’s deemed not to be a breach of the laws on racial hatred, we will have to have a pretty good look at those laws.”  

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The Muslim media within and outside the UK understandably expressed their anger.  

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The blogosphere has its own share of fury, with many chat-threads along the lines of Kilroy is an evil bigoted fascist

On 9th January, Kilroy apologised saying, “I greatly regret the offence which has been caused by the article published in last weekend’s Sunday Express.”  

Then at last, once it was clear that everyone else was against him, the BBC showed leadership by, er, following the crowd and suspended his show from the air pending an investigation.  

The Sunday Express however are not so faint-hearted and continue to stand by their man.  

It's not the first time Kilroy has written articles deemed racist, but people did not get especially worked up.  

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In 1995  he said Muslims everywhere behave with equal savagery.

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In 1992, he described Ireland's then EU Commissioner Ray MacSharry as a “redundant second-rate politician from a country peopled by peasants, priests and pixies”.  You can't argue with the first part, but the second is a bit insulting.  

So the man is probably finished other than as an occasional commentator, which is  a shame because his chat-show, modelled on Oprah's, is actually quite good and not bigoted at all.  

Kilroy was here - but he's not any longer.  

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Google Zeitgeist

Google carried out no fewer than 55 billion searches in 2003.  

Here are some of the most popular, from its annual review of such things, called the 2003 Year-End Google Zeitgeist.  It's worth a 
quick look.  
  

Google’s Top Searches in 2003 
– out of 55 billion

Top 10 global searches

Top 10 UK searches

1 Britney Spears
2 Harry Potter
3 Matrix
4 Shakira
5 David Beckham
6 50 Cent
7 Iraq
8 Lord of the Rings
9 Kobe Bryant
10 Tour de France

1 Prince Charles
2 EastEnders
3 Winnie the Pooh
4 Jonny Wilkinson
5 Easyjet
6 David Beckham
7 Michael Jackson
8 Two Fast Two Furious
9 Paris Hilton
10 The Simpsons

Apart from the top tens from various countries, of particular interest is how searches suddenly focus in and peak when special events occur, such as the start of the Iraq war, Mardi Gras, the outbreak of SARS, a new movie, a big sporting event.  

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Canada's Visible Yet Hidden Energy

Peter T Katzmarzyk is a member of the Community Health and Epidemiology department in Ontario's Queen's University.  Last month he proposed, in the Canadian Medical Journal no less, an imaginative way for Canada to help meet its obligations under the (in my opinion worthless and pernicious) Kyoto Protocol that requires Western states to reduce their CO2 emissions.  

He has calculated that the army of overweight and obese Canadians carry within their bodies an average 8.3 kg of excess fat each.  This adds up to a national total of 8,855 tonnes of quivering material, equivalent to 29 terajoules of stored energy.  Or, if you prefer, 5,100 barrels of crude oil.  

This is sufficient to power all of Canada's 11.7 million homes for five hours.  Or, if you prefer, 6,678 homes all year round.  

However, should fat Canadians, in a fit of health-consciousness, resort to physical activity, other than running on treadmills that generate electricity for the national grid, this valuable energy resource will be depleted, thus increasing Canada's reliance on fossil fuels that many believe contribute to global warming.  

But Dr Katzmarzyk concludes on a hopeful note.  Our children have learned by example, and appear to be even more diligent than adults in conserving energy in the form of body fat.

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Quote of the Week 

Quote: We can't stop Europe. And there [will come] some day the moment in which somebody ... must give [the] example [of how] to go on, because Europe cannot always [move] to the speed of a very, very slow wagon.” 

European Commission President Romano Prodi,
strong advocate of the draft EU constitution,
speaking in Dublin after a meeting with the
new Irish EU Presidency, following the (thankful) breakdown
of the constitutional summit in Brussels in December

Bertie Ahern, Ireland's PM and thus the EU's President, 
then reproved him for advocating a two-speed Europe

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SEE THE ARCHIVE and LINKS BARS AT TOP LEFT and RIGHT, FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE

ISSUE #62 - 4th January 2004 [155]

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Bam Earthquake - A Threat to Iran’s Dictators?

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EU Uncompetitiveness 

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Saddam’s Capture - A Cruel Blow

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The Wasteful Halliburton Monopoly in Iraq

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Of Corgis and the Regina Monologues

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Tots for Money

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Predictions for 2004

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Quotes of the Week

Bam Earthquake - A Threat to Iran’s Dictators?

Nothing can help a Westerner, living in the warmth and comfort of his home several thousand miles west of Iran, to appreciate the enormity of the calamity that befell the people of Bam in the early hours of Friday 26th December.  Reports of deaths began at 3,000 in the first hours, in a few days ramped up to 70,000 and currently seems to be in the 40-50,000 range.  Whatever.  Out of a population of just 200,000, this is catastrophic by any reckoning.  

In the geologically unstable fault line that runs east-to-west through the Bam area, the construction substance of choice is/was thick, heavy bricks of dried mud and straw, with clay applied as cement.  These bricks were used to erect not just the walls of houses but their ceilings and roofs as well, whilst additional storeys were added at will without any building controls.  It is hard to imagine a material and planning process less suited to a known earthquake zone.  As the earth shuddered, walls just crumbled, and those weighty ceilings came crashing down on sleeping occupants, leaving few or no air-spaces for survival.  70% of the town’s buildings were reduced to rubble. 

Bam’s earthquake measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.  Contrast it with the earthquake of similar magnitude (6.5) that struck the San Simeon area in California just four days earlier but killed only two people, though the population is similar to Bam’s.  The principle difference so many survived was the lightweight, earthquake-sensitive architecture of the buildings, which only swayed but did not collapse. 

For the mullahs who run Iran as a theocratic dictatorship, the devastation of Bam will cause repercussions in a number of ways.  

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Certainly, they must bear some of the blame for making no attempt to improve building standards.  However this should be tempered by the reality that Iran is a developing country with widespread poverty, where people such as those in Bam have to make do with what they can get.  Many simply don’t have the money to hire engineers and architects to design their homes and to use expensive alternative materials. 

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But of course if the mullahs stole less of Iran's vast oil money, poverty would not be so widespread, so they must take their share of blame for that too.  

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They should also be blamed for the pitiful dearth of in-country resources to deal with this kind of emergency, given that Iran has suffered other grievous earthquakes in recent years and should have learnt from them. 

Nevertheless, when disaster strikes, it is usually the immediate response to it that sticks longest and loudest in the minds of victims and observers alike.  

Russia probably holds bottom place for the calamitous and heartless way it handled the submarine Kursk affair in 2000, when the sub was crippled by its own torpedoes and sank to the bottom with the crew trapped inside. 

President Putin didn’t want the crisis to interrupt his sunny holiday on the Black Sea, while his military leaders preferred to see the 118-man crew die a slow, horrible death in icy blackness rather than suffer the humiliation of allowing foreign experts to help. So die they all did

At least at Bam, the authorities, recognizing the limitations of their own emergency response equipment and manpower, not least that the city’s two hospitals had both been rendered unusable, immediately appealed for international assistance.  Then they quickly opened up borders to a horde of foreign helpers and waived visa and customs requirements.  Other than a sour and callous refusal to allow a willing Israel to help, this was highly commendable behaviour.  

Perhaps portending a (much-denied) easing of diplomatic cold-shouldering, America, the Great Satan, was among those who leapt to Bam’s aid, sending in government aircraft for the first time since the Iranian hostage crisis ended in 1981

How will ordinary Iranians view events in and around Bam and how might this now impact on the Iranian leadership?

In one obvious way, and in another more subtle way, neither of which will make those mullahs feel more secure.  

The obvious reaction is the popular fury that is already mounting at the poor building regulations, the unnecessary poverty in an oil-rich country, the dreadful emergency-response resources and the extra loss of life incurred by rejecting Israel’s help.  This fury is directed unmistakably at the mullahs.  

But the overwhelming international response is also showing local people not just foreign expertise unmatched by their own authorities, but an open-hearted willingness on the part of foreigners to help Iranians, without any expectation of reward.  Foreigners have come from all parts of the world, from France, Germany, Switzerland, but also from Japan, Korea and China.  And in particular, America, Britain and other members of the Coalition of the Willing have waded in to help.  

This is not going unnoticed by people whose media have for decades swamped them with propaganda about the evil, libertine West.  For the first time, they can see for themselves that such foreigners bring only goodwill and professionalism and that what they have been told all those years is plainly false.  Indeed, according to Sky News last Friday 2nd January, the imam at Bam’s still-standing mosque paid tribute to the foreign helpers and commended the warm and gracious reception given by the locals.  

The Bam tragedy will thus not only increase Iranians’ disdain for their own corrupt leadership, but will also certainly increase their understanding and amity of the foreigners - for so long demonised by Iran's leaders.   

This undermining of the mullahs’ authority and trust will be a significant further step towards the welcome disintegration of the regime.  

When coupled with 

bullet

the fall of murderous dictatorships in Afghanistan and Iraq,  

bullet

the taming of the one in Libya, 

bullet

the continuing American pressure on Iran to democratise, denuclearise and open up, 

the Iranian dictators will not see in another New Year.  They will fall to a popular, relatively bloodless Georgia/Serbia-style uprising.  The Iranian military, still hardened to defense of external borders by the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, will not turn their guns on their own people.  

Save for those from Bam and the theocrats themselves, it must be a hopeful time to be an Iranian, with the prospect of liberation nigh.  

(Other 2004 predictions below.)  

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EU Uncompetitiveness

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  The reverse is also true.  

Maria Cronin, director of EU affairs at IBEC (Irish Business and Employers Confederation) recently wrote 1,120 words in the (subscription-only) Irish Times bewailing the uncompetitiveness of the EU compared with America and Asia, and urging Ireland to fix this now that it holds the six-monthly EU presidency.  

I have boiled down a thousand of her words to the simple facts and figures illustrated in the picture below.  

You can see how for every metric the EU is on the Badside of its competitors.  For an overview of the EU’s problem, no more needs be said.  No need to read the article.  

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Saddam’s Capture - A Cruel Blow

The Irish Times carried this letter on 2nd January.  But since the newspaper is subscription-only, I transcribe it below.  For Ireland, you can read Old Europe”, “Left-Wing Establishment” or something equivalent.  

Wish I’d written it myself.  

Madam, 

The capture of the genocidal ex-tyrant Saddam Hussein has struck a cruel blow to the hopes and dreams of many within Ireland’s political and media establishment whose meal ticket is the peddling of anti-American hatred, in print and public speech.

It seems their great white hope threw in the towel without a shot being fired. For shame. With his straggly beard and badly dyed hair, Saddam seems less like the proud Arab strong man they told us he was, and more like an elderly tramp fished from a park bench. But even a tramp has some friends. Saddam’s praetorian guard, the thousands who swore to die for him, melted away and left him to his fate down a hole in the desert. Hannah Arendt’s observation about the banality of evil rings ever true.

President Bush, the cowboy in the White House, has also disappointed the anti-American nomenklatura. The courage and tenacity of his leadership in the war on terror has only highlighted the gross inadequacies of our own ruling caste, a circus of sleazy opportunists and embittered soixante-huitards whose recent attempts to bully the weaker nations of Europe into ratifying their constitution ended in acrimony. President Bush remains undaunted as he cleans out the Augean stables of the Middle East; I hope the New Year gives him the electoral success needed to finish the job.

No doubt in the coming weeks we will read much about the foolishness of the Americans in humiliating this former champion. It will only make the Arab street more angry, the experts will insist!  Maybe.

Or maybe the people of the Muslim world will tire of placing their faith in the murderous psychopaths, 

bullet

who through their epic misgovernance dragged an 
entire region backwards into medieval poverty;

bullet

who blamed the resultant misery of their people 
on the global conspiracy between Yankee and Jew, 
ably assisted in this blood libel by their apologists 
in the Parliaments and newsrooms of Europe, 
the very cradle of civilisation; 

bullet

who have hijacked a world religion and profaned it 
in their demented crusade against the West and all its decadent works, bringing chaos and death to 
New York, Bali, Buenos Aries, Kenya, Israel, Istanbul, 
Tunisia, Egypt, Moscow, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In the meantime the deluded and delusional of Ireland’s anti-war movement will gather in Dublin, placards aloft, to protest Saddam’s human rights, while his erstwhile victims in Baghdad will gather to celebrate the downfall of their tormentor. 

You couldn’t make it up. 

Yours, etc.,

Philip Donnelly

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The Wasteful Halliburton Monopoly in Iraq

As we all know, US Vice President Dick Cheney’s previous employer, the oilfield services company Halliburton, has a huge ($1.6-2.0 billion) contract with the US administration via the Military to provide Iraqi reconstruction services in oilfields and other areas.  

Sceptics argue that this is part of a George Bush strategy to reward his business and energy friends in order to buy his re-election.  

However blogger Robin Burk clearly explains, in a three-part review (Part I, Part II and - especially - Part III), the US Military’s procurement process and how this, quite legitimately, resulted in the present contract.  It is a clumsy process full of checks and balances, under which it would be quite impossible to rig major contract awards in the manner suggested.  

But lack of corruption does not mean that contracts get awarded in the most beneficial manner.  

What many people, and the media, seem to assume is that Halliburton is the only company able to take on the task.  It is not; there are three of these behemoths who compete fiercely with each other across the globe.  As anyone familiar with the upstream oil and gas sector knows, Halliburton is actually number two in energy services, in the USA and in the world.  

Schlumberger operates just as globally but is bigger in terms of market capitalisation and revenue.  Moreover, though it was founded in France and is incorporated in the Netherlands Antilles, it is, to all intents and purposes, a US corporation (like Halliburton), which files the same public filings as other US public companies and is not treated as a foreign private issuer under US securities laws.   Coming in third place is Baker Hughes.  

All three are publicly-owned multinationals whose stockholders are mainly US based, though the bulk of their assets and revenues lie beyond America’s shores.   

A few vital statistics, from their respective websites and Motley Fool:

Rank Order

1

2

3

Company

Schlumberger

Halliburton

Baker Hughes

Primary
Activity

Energy services

Energy services

Energy services

Founded

1924 in France

1919 in USA

1907 in USA

Incorporated

Netherlands Antilles

USA

USA

Market capitalisation

$32.0 bn

$11.4 bn

$10.8 bn

2002 Revenue

$13.2 bn

$12.6 bn

$5.0 bn

Employees

78,000

85,000

26,500

Operating where

>100 countries

>100 countries

> 70 countries

Source of Revenue

Mostly 
outside USA

Mostly 
outside USA

Mostly 
outside USA

Location of assets

Mostly 
outside USA

Mostly 
outside USA

Mostly 
outside USA

Shareholder nationality

Mainly USA

Mainly USA

Mainly USA

So the mystery, to me, is why is the US administration giving a monopoly of its Iraq work to one company, Halliburton, instead of generating healthy competition by spreading it among all three rivals?  This would result in lower prices and higher quality, and thus more reconstruction for the same quantum of US taxpayers’ money.  

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Of Corgis and the Regina Monologues

Royal dogs have been in the news recently.  

First, Princess Anne’s ugly bull terrier Dottie tucked into a pair of recalcitrant children back in November, for which Princess Anne was fined 1,128 and told to re-train Dottie. This makes her (Anne, that is, not Dottie) the first member of the royal family to hold a criminal conviction.  

Then two days after Christmas, she (Dottie, that is, not Anne) chewed to death Pharos, the Queen’s favourite corgi, who had foolishly bounded up to the car in welcome. In England, there is an unwritten rule that every dog is allowed one bite – the second bite (forgetting, for the moment, that savaging two children equals two bites) merits capital punishment, which the RSPCA is now demanding.  

So on reflection, several days later, Anne suddenly remembered that Dottie wasn’t the murderess after all, it was Flo her mother (Dottie’s, that is, not Anne’s).  This spared Dottie, though perhaps as punishment Anne stopped feeding her.  

For within a week, our ever-hungry Dottie, or was it Flo, removed another tasty morsel of fresh meat, this time from the leg of one of her (Anne’s, that is not, Dottie’s) maid

As I write, Anne is furiously trying to find a third bull terrier to blame for this latest capital-punishment offence.  And is sending Flo on an aggression-management course (I'm not making this up).  

Meanwhile, Tony Blair has suffered from his own corgi scandal.  

Later this month, he is starring in a TV drama production called The Regina Monologues” (don’t ask).  In it, he greets the Simpson family on holiday from the US, gives them some tourism tips in London (his famous war on tourism), and true to form gratefully accepts a $1 bribe. 

The original script called for Homer Simpson to present him with a corgi, but Tony thinks viewers will think the corgi is a poodle of Tony and therefore Tony is a poodle of GWB.  No I don’t follow the logic either.  So the corgi was banned in favour of the $1 bribe. 

Anyway, since he has been singularly unsuccessful in banning hunting with hounds, he has at least shown moral leadership by banning cartooning with corgis.  Tough on dogs, tough on the causes of dogs. 

Get the message, Dottie?  

Actually, there is a report that in a bizarre veterinary accident, Princess Anne has been put down instead of her dog ...   

Back to Python

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Tots for Money

So, two months ago, your two-year-old son Konrad is rushing around the local playground when he accidentally crashes into the railings and cuts his head. You pick him up, plonk your hankie on his head and take him home to get cleaned up, and the hospital to get sewn up. 

End of story?  

Not if you live in Greenwich, Connecticut, because you’ve got some more cleaning up and sewing up to do – in the courts, where you sue the council for painting the railings an environmentally-friendly green and thus rendering them difficult to spot against the surrounding shrubbery. Oh, and by the way, your son is a model and actor, and so you’re claiming loss of earnings whilst his head heals, as well as for pain and suffering. 

Graham in Abu Dhabi, who kindly alerted me to this, is speechless.  So am I. 

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Predictions for 2004

To provide you with an opportunity to poke fun at me in a years time, here, based on ignorance and prejudice, are the Tallrite predictions for 2004.

bullet

As mentioned, there will be bloodless revolution in Iran that will overthrow the ruling mullahs.

bullet

Assad Jr, the optician, will also fall.  

bullet

Kim Jong Il will not, but he will wobble.  

bullet

Bush will be reelected in a landslide.  

bullet

Yarafat will die (from illness not assassination) to be replaced by a hardline pragmatist who who will want to negotiate seriously ... but with a by-then disinterested Israel, 
because ... 

bullet

Israel will complete its security fence and then look for ways 
to start expelling Israeli Arabs in the interests of Jewish demography.  

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Quotes of the Week

Quote: This is a bit disappointing” 

Professor Colin Pillinger of the UKs Open University,
on the loss of his 35m Mars probe, Beagle 2

Quote: They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now” 

Trademark self-deprecating gag of
comedian and game-show host Bob Monkhouse,
who died on 29 December 2003 after a 50 year career

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SEE THE ARCHIVE and LINKS BARS AT TOP LEFT and RIGHT, FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE

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 What I've recently
been reading

The Lemon Tree, by Sandy Tol, 2006
“The Lemon Tree”, by Sandy Tol (2006),
is a delightful novel-style history of modern Israel and Palestine told through the eyes of a thoughtful protagonist from either side, with a household lemon tree as their unifying theme.

But it's not entirely honest in its subtle pro-Palestinian bias, and therefore needs to be read in conjunction with an antidote, such as
The Case for Israel, Alan Dershowitz, 2004

See detailed review

+++++

Drowning in Oil - Macondo Blowout
This
examines events which led to BP's 2010 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. 

BP's ambitious CEO John Browne expanded it through adventurous acquisitions, aggressive offshore exploration, and relentless cost-reduction that trumped everything else, even safety and long-term technical sustainability.  

Thus mistakes accumulated, leading to terrifying and deadly accidents in refineries, pipelines and offshore operations, and business disaster in Russia.  

The Macondo blowout was but an inevitable outcome of a BP culture that had become poisonous and incompetent. 

However the book is gravely compromised by a litany of over 40 technical and stupid errors that display the author's ignorance and carelessness. 

It would be better to wait for the second (properly edited) edition before buying. 

As for BP, only a wholesale rebuilding of a new, professional, ethical culture will prevent further such tragedies and the eventual destruction of a once mighty corporation with a long and generally honourable history.

Note: I wrote my own reports on Macondo
in
May, June, and July 2010

+++++

Published in April 2010; banned in Singapore

A horrific account of:

bullet

how the death penalty is administered and, er, executed in Singapore,

bullet

the corruption of Singapore's legal system, and

bullet

Singapore's enthusiastic embrace of Burma's drug-fuelled military dictatorship

More details on my blog here.

+++++

Product Details
This is nonagenarian Alistair Urquhart’s incredible story of survival in the Far East during World War II.

After recounting a childhood of convention and simple pleasures in working-class Aberdeen, Mr Urquhart is conscripted within days of Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in 1939.

From then until the Japanese are deservedly nuked into surrendering six years later, Mr Urquhart’s tale is one of first discomfort but then following the fall of Singapore of ever-increasing, unmitigated horror. 

After a wretched journey Eastward, he finds himself part of Singapore’s big but useless garrison.

Taken prisoner when Singapore falls in 1941, he is, successively,

bullet

part of a death march to Thailand,

bullet

a slave labourer on the Siam/Burma railway (one man died for every sleeper laid),

bullet

regularly beaten and tortured,

bullet

racked by starvation, gaping ulcers and disease including cholera,

bullet

a slave labourer stevedoring at Singapore’s docks,

bullet

shipped to Japan in a stinking, closed, airless hold with 900 other sick and dying men,

bullet

torpedoed by the Americans and left drifting alone for five days before being picked up,

bullet

a slave-labourer in Nagasaki until blessed liberation thanks to the Americans’ “Fat Boy” atomic bomb.

Chronically ill, distraught and traumatised on return to Aberdeen yet disdained by the British Army, he slowly reconstructs a life.  Only in his late 80s is he able finally to recount his dreadful experiences in this unputdownable book.

There are very few first-person eye-witness accounts of the the horrors of Japanese brutality during WW2. As such this book is an invaluable historical document.

+++++

Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies
Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies

This is a rattling good tale of the web of corruption within which the American president and his cronies operate. It's written by blogger Michele Malkin who, because she's both a woman and half-Asian, is curiously immune to the charges of racism and sexism this book would provoke if written by a typical Republican WASP.

With 75 page of notes to back up - in best blogger tradition - every shocking and in most cases money-grubbing allegation, she excoriates one Obama crony after another, starting with the incumbent himself and his equally tricky wife. 

Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarett, Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Steven Rattner, both Clintons, Chris Dodd: they all star as crooks in this venomous but credible book. 

ACORN, Mr Obama's favourite community organising outfit, is also exposed for the crooked vote-rigging machine it is.

+++++

Superfreakonomics
This much trumpeted sequel to Freakonomics is a bit of disappointment. 

It is really just a collation of amusing little tales about surprising human (and occasionally animal) behaviour and situations.  For example:

bullet

Drunk walking kills more people per kilometer than drunk driving.

bullet

People aren't really altruistic - they always expect a return of some sort for good deeds.

bullet

Child seats are a waste of money as they are no safer for children than adult seatbelts.

bullet

Though doctors have known for centuries they must wash their hands to avoid spreading infection, they still often fail to do so. 

bullet

Monkeys can be taught to use washers as cash to buy tit-bits - and even sex.

The book has no real message other than don't be surprised how humans sometimes behave and try to look for simple rather than complex solutions.

And with a final anecdote (monkeys, cash and sex), the book suddenly just stops dead in its tracks.  Weird.

++++++

False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World
A remarkable, coherent attempt by Financial Times economist Alan Beattie to understand and explain world history through the prism of economics. 

It's chapters are organised around provocative questions such as

bullet

Why does asparagus come from Peru?

bullet

Why are pandas so useless?

bullet

Why are oil and diamonds more trouble than they are worth?

bullet

Why doesn't Africa grow cocaine?

It's central thesis is that economic development continues to be impeded in different countries for different historical reasons, even when the original rationale for those impediments no longer obtains.  For instance:

bullet

Argentina protects its now largely foreign landowners (eg George Soros)

bullet

Russia its military-owned businesses, such as counterfeit DVDs

bullet

The US its cotton industry comprising only 1% of GDP and 2% of its workforce

The author writes in a very chatty, light-hearted matter which makes the book easy to digest. 

However it would benefit from a few charts to illustrate some of the many quantitative points put forward, as well as sub-chaptering every few pages to provide natural break-points for the reader. 

+++++

Burmese Outpost, by Anthony Irwin
This is a thrilling book of derring-do behind enemy lines in the jungles of north-east Burma in 1942-44 during the Japanese occupation.

The author was a member of Britain's V Force, a forerunner of the SAS. Its remit was to harass Japanese lines of command, patrol their occupied territory, carryout sabotage and provide intelligence, with the overall objective of keeping the enemy out of India.   

Irwin is admirably yet brutally frank, in his descriptions of deathly battles with the Japs, his execution of a prisoner, dodging falling bags of rice dropped by the RAF, or collapsing in floods of tears through accumulated stress, fear and loneliness. 

He also provides some fascinating insights into the mentality of Japanese soldiery and why it failed against the flexibility and devolved authority of the British. 

The book amounts to a  very human and exhilarating tale.

Oh, and Irwin describes the death in 1943 of his colleague my uncle, Major PF Brennan.

+++++

Other books here

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