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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, and indexed by
time and alphabet, contains all issues since inception, including the current week.

You can write to me at blog2-at-tallrite-dot-com
(Clumsy form of my address to thwart spamming software that scans for e-mail addresses)

January 2005
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ISSUE #91 - 9th January 2005

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ISSUE #92 - 16th January 2005

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ISSUE #93 - 30th January 2005

ISSUE #93 - 30th January 2005 [261+ 204 = 465]

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Abdul Ameer Kadhum : A True Iraqi Hero and Patriot

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Trade Aid for Democracy in Africa

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Auschwitz Confession

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Why Are Palestinian Refugees Still Refugees?

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Tough Volkswagen

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Crunchy Paper and a Bogus Bog

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Quotes of Week 93

Abdul Ameer Kadhum : A True Iraqi Hero and Patriot


The uncle of Iraqi policeman Abdul Ameer Kadhum looks at his photograph during the officer's funeral ceremony in Baghdad on 31st January 2005. Abdul was killed when he jumped on a suicide bomber to protect voters waiting outside a polling station the previous day, when Iraq held its historic national election

©AP From the (subscription-only) Irish Times

Trade Aid for Democracy in Africa

Britain's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are in a competition to see who is the more caring about global warming and third world (read, African) poverty and disease.  Mr Blair keeps trying to trump Mr Brown's efforts, whether by scheduling a press conference to coincide with a Brown speech, or, more recently, inserting himself ahead of Mr Brown at the Davos World Economic Forum.  

In the latter case, his argument for anti-global warming measures such as Kyoto centres around a growing consensus that climate change is being caused by man's activity and therefore man should take action.  But he makes no case that Kyoto, or any other measure, represents the optimal use of money if the welfare of humans is your primary concern.  Kyoto , as I've often noted, is hugely expensive for a negligible benefit, so most certainly represents bad value for (other people's) money.  

Aided and abetted by Bono the Clown, he makes a better fist of African poverty and AIDS, calling for the doubling of international aid and 100% debt relief.  But he also goes one about partnering with African governments while helping them build democratic institutions and defeat corruption.  

I must say, that's where he loses me.  Doubling aid and partnering (most) African governments is a familiar recipe for the evaporation of money.  No CEO would hand over budget money to a department head without confidence that he will not deliberately squander or sequester it.  So why should aid money be treated with any more laxity? The underlying cause of poverty in Africa is not lack of inherent ability to create wealth; it is corruption at the top. 

If you doubt this, why would you think Britain, France and co were so keen to colonise Africa in the nineteenth century?  For fun?  To civilise the natives?  To introduce Christianity?

Well there might have been elements of all those things.  But the primary reason was simply to get rich.  Africa was - and remains - immensely wealthy in both natural resources and human resources.  Put the two together, get organized and fat profits were - and still are - to be made.  This observation is no endorsement of the ethics of colonialism.  Yet it is undeniable that Africa's downward economic slide nevertheless began with the departure of the colonialists in the 1960s and their replacement with local leaders, such as the likes of Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar Bashir of Sudan, who made/make it their business not to govern wisely but to steal as much money as possible for themselves, their families and their cronies. 

And sadly, with some noble exceptions such as South Africa, Madagascar and Botswana, this style of leadership is still the norm in Africa today.  As a result, any aid channelled through such governments is going to be siphoned off.  The only question is the smallness of the percentage that will remain.  

I do a bit of teaching on how to manage safety, and perhaps the strongest point I make is the power of management commitment.  In any organization, people watch and copy what the top man is doing.  So if he demonstrates his commitment to something good, be it safety or financial integrity, this message will be picked up and emulated.  

As will the converse.  And thus, when the top man is corrupt, as was for instance Nigeria's erstwhile President Sani Abacha (or, closer to home Ireland's 1980s Prime Minister Charles Haughey), everyone, not just within the government but within the populace at large, sees corruption as a more normal way of conducting everyday life.  Corruption quickly gets embedded.  And in Africa it continues to this day to suck the lifeblood out of most of its nations, not only by diverting money away from productive uses, but in deterring the local and foreign investment that could otherwise let the continent soar.  

It is encouraging that 62 major corporations - such as ABB, Petrobras, Rio Tinto -  committed themselves at the just-concluded World Economic Forum in Davos to a Zero-Tolerance Policy to Combat Corruption and Bribery.  This is certainly laudable, but is aimed at fighting corruption amongst and by businesses themselves (eg paying kickbacks for contracts).  But unless and until a country's top politician, ie its executive president, commits himself to eliminating corruption, the actions of well-meaning, honest businesses will never be enough.  They are not high enough in the pyramid.  

So in my view, the aid-giving, debt-forgiving countries of the west should pipe in their well-meaning bounty to Africa in either or both of two ways. 

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Channel it directly to the end users, effectively bypassing the governments.  This is what NGOs do all the time with admirable success, though it doesn't do much to improve governance.  

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Or dispense the bounty via the sitting governments, but only piecemeal and only in exchange for demonstrable improvements in governance structures, aimed at leading ultimately (and rapidly) to full democratisation.  This is a proven business technique, where a department wanting to expand has to earn” incremental budget increases by first improving its, say, productivity, step by step.  

For the ultimate defense against corruption is democracy.  A fully functioning democratic system is able to detect and expose the corrupt rascals and constrain or replace them.  Which is why that same now-elderly Mr Haughey is living out an unhappy retirement in disgrace and Ray Burke, one of his corrupt ministers, went to jail  for tax fraud last week.  Without democracy, the corrupt rule happily on and on until they die in bed (like Malawi's Hastings Banda) or are deposed (Mobutu).  

Democracy is indeed the panacea of all the world's ills (just watch how Iraq progresses in the next couple of years).  Messrs Blair and Brown would do well to get over their little tiff and reflect on this before they start spraying Africa with their taxpayers' hard-earned money.  

They and other Western leaders should adopt a slogan such as 

Trade Aid for Democracy in Africa.  

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Auschwitz Confession

Last week, large swathes of the world remembered and prayed for the souls of the victims of Nazi extermination in Auschwitz.  I cannot add to what has been said and shown in the media.  But I came across the handwritten confession statement of Rudolf Hoess, the camp commandant, explaining in dispassionate detail precisely what happened in that death-camp.  After the war, Hoess was deservedly hanged at, appropriately, Auschwitz itself, no doubt largely on the evidence of this signed document.  

To quote just two chilling sentences from the google translation, 

I [arrived at] Auschwitz by 1 December 1943 and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed there and exterminated by gasification and burning; at least one further half million died by hunger and illness, which constitutes a total number of approximately 3,000,000 dead ones ... We knew if humans were dead [after gassing them] because their [cries] stopped.

Click below to see the entire horrifying translation, of which I recommend you read all 850 words.

Confessional statement by Rudofl Huess, commandant of the Nazis' Auschwitz exterminatoin camp

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Why Are Palestinian Refugees Still Refugees?

I first came across Raymond Deane, chairman of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a year ago and wrote a post about a presentation of his that I attended.  Since then I've had a number of frosty exchanges with him in newspaper letters pages, for example challenging him to name any non-Israel Middle Eastern state with any democratic legitimacy whatsoever, from universal suffrage to a free press to an independent supreme court. (He hasn't done so, though arguably Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority and Iraq now qualify).  

The spat continued last week in the (subscription-only) Irish Times.  Amongst other half-truths, he repeated the now-familiar meme that Jewish people returned to Palestine after almost 2,000 years, to a country that happens to be inhabited by another people”.  In other words they grabbed the land from the Palestinian natives and displaced them. 

This is untrue, which my published reply to him spelled out in these terms.  

The Jews have lived continuously throughout the Middle East, and in the Palestine/Israel land mass in particular, for more than 3,000 years. Their history of defeat, persecution and pogroms by, successively, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders and Arabs attests to this.

Thus their right to continued settlement is at least equal to that of the Arabs.

As for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who fled or were pushed out in the 1947/48 war launched and lost by the Arabs, why are they and their descendents still refugees? A similar number of Jews fled or were pushed out of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and other Arab countries as a result of the same conflict, not to mention the millions fleeing from Europe.

Every single one was absorbed by fellow Jews, mainly in Israel, and given citizenship.

Why have the Palestinians never been absorbed by their fellow Arabs? How many Palestinians hold Saudi passports?

The Palestinian refugee problem exists only because of:

(a) Israel's refusal to massacre them in 1948, as it could have (who doubts that the Jews would have been massacred had they lost?)

(b) the disdain of fellow Arabs for Palestinians ever since.

Meanwhile, the recent election of Mahmoud Abbas, who promotes a combination of toughness and non-violence towards Israel, gives the Palestinians the first chance of a peaceful resolution to their piteous situation in a generation.

My letter elicited some fury, manifested in strange anonymous phone calls, the first time this has happened.  A particular source of ire is my remark that the Arabs would have massacred the Jews if they had won the 1947/48 war.  The remark is based 

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mainly on their oft-stated intention to drive the Jews into the sea”, 

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but is illustrated by an episode at that time when all but three of the Jewish villagers of Kfar Etzion were machine-gunned when they surrendered to the Arab Legion's Sixth Battalion.  

Up to now, no-one has refuted the facts as presented in my evidently controversial letter, inconvenient as they may be for some.  

And for the record, according to the universally-respected (Jewish) historian Benny Morris, between 1880 and 1930 the Jews actually bought most of the barely-populated land that is now Israel; they didn't steal it.  The eager sellers were mainly absentee landlords and real-estate speculators living in Beirut and Damascus, who couldn't believe their luck at getting hard cash for worthless, near-empty scrubland and desert.  

The refugees didn't have to be consigned to refugee camps for the next almost sixty years.  Other examples of refugees being absorbed and integrated into other countries include 

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All Asians expelled by Idi Amin to UK from Uganda in 1972; 

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30,000 ethnic Turks flung out of Bulgaria in 1989 in the direction of Turkey; 

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Waves of Vietnamese boat-people fleeing Viet Cong rule in the 1970s and 80s, and ending up all over the world; 

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Chinese refugees breaking out of Mao Tse-Tung's China to get across the border to the freedoms of Hong Kong in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, increasing the population from one to four million;

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a steady stream of asylum-seekers and refugees from numerous countries (including many Palestinians), the genuine cases amongst whom gain residency rights within the West, to this day.  

But so long as the the Arab world continues to duck the question “Why are Palestinian refugees still refugees?”, their situation will remain miserable.  Even if - as Israel's then Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed at Camp David in 2000 - they are paid compensation in lieu of returning to Israel, most of them will  remain stateless unless other Arabs show them compassion.  

Late Note: Blogger Toirtop 
(motto “
Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons - Bertrand Russell”) 
makes a furious reply to my letter, 
and even quotes that old charlatan Noam Chomsky.  
Presumably he sent it to the Irish Times but they declined to publish.  

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Tough Volkswagen

Some things you feel guilty about calling fun”.  

That goes for the arresting ad for a Volkswagen Polo that hit the internet last week, and also some news bulletins.  It depicts a suicide-bomber in an Arafat-style kefiyah who drives his Polo to a London restaurant, stops outside it and then detonates himself.  Only thing - the “small but tough” Polo is able to contain the explosion so no-one except the bomber is harmed - and presumably the interior decor and inbuilt CD player.  The closed windows don't even crack, the car doesn't even rock.  

Anyway, the ad turned out to be bogus, made by a couple of anonymous individuals known only as Lee” and “Dan, for either £400 or £40,000 depending on whom you believe.  

Poor Volkswagen.  They seemed torn by 

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on the one hand the high quality of the ad and the flattering, on-message message it contains about the toughness of their product and 

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on the other by the implication that they are involving themselves in the debate on terrorism and indeed capitalising on it.  

Eventually the spoilsports decided to sue the elusive “Lee” and “Dan” ... if only they could first locate them.  

VW's energies might be better spent marketing the “small but tough” Polo to beleaguered American troops in Iraq.   

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Crunchy Paper and a Bogus Bog

Ah the wonders of the Freedom of Information Act.  Thanks to it, we have recently learnt that a major source of, er, irritation in British embassies across the dying embers of the British Empire was the crispiness of the ambassadorial toilet paper when vigorously applied against the diplomatic extremity. 

It all started in 1963 when John Hunt, a Harley Street doctor, wrote to his friend Dr Cornelius Medvei, describing statesmanly piles suffered by one his patients, an ambassador, who blamed the shiny toilet paper issued by Her Majesty.  Dr Medvei was medical adviser to the Treasury, so probably not the best man to approach.  

Nevertheless, long years of unrelieved research with copious bumf followed, which concluded that that the crackly stuff should be retained.  Not only was soft paper “distinctly more pervious [yuk] to infections such as dysentery” , but more to the point it was quadruple the cost.  Undaunted, the ladies in the typing pool then joined the chorus for softer, puppy-dog material, citing “damage to our delicate parts”, and so did the unions and even the British Standards Institute (which, one would have thought, was devoid of delicate parts). 

So at last, many further years later, HM’s Stationery Office – the same which provides the distinctly hard and uncomfortable headed and embossed parchment so beloved of other parts of the diplomatic corps – was softened up enough to relent.  But only because by 1981 the squishy stuff had become cheaper than the hard. 

No doubt had last week’s bogside row in a Dublin pub occurred in the British Foreign Office, another eighteen years of research and protests would have ensued. 

It seems that to conform with the law that disabled people should be properly catered for, the Mezz bar installed a disabled toilet, featuring a red door with a gold wheelchair sign.  Only thing, the door always seemed to be locked, supposedly for renovations.  But when eventually unlocked it revealed … a brick wall.  There was no privy at all, disabled or otherwise, nothing at all.  

Peter Wickham the manager, keeping an admirably straight face, said he had no idea about the bogus bog and blamed the owner.  But should wheelchair users be caught short, he said there was a genuine disabled toilet at the bottom of the stairs. 

So that’s all right then. 

Finally, we come (thanks to Eileen) to the final item on this week's lavatorial theme - which evidently interests you or you wouldn't have read this far.  View this video clip to learn how elephants actually use flushing porcelain in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  

Now can we please change the subject.  

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Quotes of Week 93

Quote : “To finance research into a vaccine, develop prevention campaigns and remove the remaining obstacles to access to care for HIV/AIDS, we need to mobilise at least ten billion dollars per year, instead of six, as is the case at present ...  Alternative possibilities for raising the necessary revenue include an extra tax on airline and shipping fuel and a small levy on all airline tickets sold throughout the world.

French President, Jacques Chiraq, 
at the World Economic Forum in Davos,
explaining how people other than he 
should pay taxes to finance the fight against AIDS.  
He of course never has to pay for his airline tickets or shipping fuel. 

Quote : “They gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews, in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational and outrageous hatred for example of Catholics, in the same way people give to their children an outrageous and irrational hatred of those who are of a different colour.

Ireland's President Mary McAleese, 
herself a Catholic from Northern Ireland, 
infuriates Northern Ireland Protestants by likening them to Nazis, 
whilst neglecting that Catholics also transmitted to their own children 
an irrational and outrageous hatred” for Protestants and/or Brits, 
and that in neither case were such transmittals 
 in any way universal in the way she implies. 

At her second attempt two days later, she apologised profusely. 

Quote : “In the case of [Deputy] Ray Burke, I see a much more sinister development: the persistent hounding of an honourable man to resign his important position on the basis of innuendo and unproven allegations.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in 1997, 
defending his friend and colleague whom he had appointed 
as Minister for Foreign Affairs just four months earlier.  
Mr Burke resigned due to allegations 
that he received £80,000 from a property developer.  
He was subsequently shown to be corrupt and 
last week jailed for six months for tax evasion

Quote : No I do not [think the murder of Jean McConville was a crime].”  

Mitchel McLaughlin, president of Sinn Fein, 
in answer to a direct question by Michael McDowell, 
Ireland's Minister of Justice, 
on RTÉ's Question & Answers TV programme.  

The Catholic widowed mother of ten young children in Belfast, 
Mrs McConville was abducted, shot and secretly buried by the IRA in 1972, apparently for once comforting a wounded British soldier.  

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See the Archive and Blogroll at top left and right, for your convenience

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ISSUE #92 - 16th January 2005 [238+190=428]

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Mummy to the Rescue in Guinea Foul

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Unethical” and Anti-“Unethical” Industries

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Aer Lingus Self-Destruction

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The Traveling Bra Salesman’s Lesson

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Quotes of Week 92

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Tsunami Victim - Lost Identity

Mummy to the Rescue over Guinea Foul

With one plea-bargain, he was free. 

Sir Mark Thatcher, possessed of an unearned hereditary baronetcy which his mother – with an eye to her son – had engineered for his father Denis, the first such hereditary honour awarded in some some 60 years**, pleaded guilty to involvement in that Equatorial Guinea coup attempt.  In so doing, he was fined the equivalent of €385,000 (small change since he’s in the hundreds of millions league, though they’re of questionable provenance) and sentenced to four years, conveniently suspended. And crucially he was allowed to flee South Africa – which he did within hours – and to escape not only extradition to Equatorial Guinea but even “friendly” interrogation by its investigators.    

Now had you and I, as foreigners, been guilty of helping organize an aborted coup against a friendly fellow-African country, do you think we would have escaped so lightly?  Not likely! 

 **The most recent previous recipient of a baronetcy that I can trace was Sir Leonard Ropner (1895-1977), 1st Baronet Ropner, of Thorp Perrow, Yorkshire

Our sentence would not have been suspended and we would even now been helping some robust EQ interrogators with their enquiries within the confines of its notorious Evinayong prison where Sir Mark's erstwhile co-conspirator South African Marc du Toit is serving 34 miserable years.  Or perhaps we would have found ourselves in Zimbabwe's Chikurubi maximum-security prison keeping company with Sir Mark’s pal Simon Mann (whom he implicated further), currently serving seven years.  How we would be longing to exchange our EQ interviews for bit of American torture at Abu Ghraib.      

So how come Sir Mark got off so lightly?

One word.  Mummy. 

The enormous respect and awe which she commands is global.  Nobody (outside the UK, that is) wants to ignore her or wish her ill or cause her distress.  And so no-one is going to lay a hand on her golden boy.  The result of this motherly immunity is that he has become a titled, multi-millionaire convicted criminal, due solely to the combination of his incompetence and her background string-pulling. 

But what about the ethics of the coup anyway?    

 

 Banner hung from a third-storey window opposite the Cape Town court house 
which freed Sir Mark

Most countries have laws which prohibit private citizens from plotting the overthrow of foreign regimes.  But does this make such actions intrinsically wrong?  

I would say a coup d’état is intrinsically wrong only if the regime in question is legitimate.  

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Legitimate as in put in place by the free will of the people, 

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not legitimate as in recognized by the UN and international community. 

Tiny Equatorial Guinea, comprising a sliver of mainland plus five inhabited islands, is one of the smallest countries in AfricaPresident Teodoro Obian Nguem Mbasogo presides over Equatorial Guinea solely due to a coup of his own in 1979.  His people don’t support him and never have.  His primary political agenda is to sequester EQ’s new-found oil wealth for the benefit of himself, his family and his cronies, thus ensuring any benefit to his half-million people is kept to a minimum.  

As a result, though on paper EQ's economy is the world's fastest, growing at 65% pa, and its per-capita income exceeds Saudi Arabia's, its people are actually among the Earth's poorest.

Thus, he has no legitimacy whatsoever and in my opinion, from an ethical point of view, is fair game for any tin-pot mercenary (like Mr du Toit or Sir Mark) who wants to chance his arm.  

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The result, at worse, is to replace one thoroughly illegitimate kleptocractic thugocracy with another.  

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But it might equally result in a regime more in tune with the native population and thus turn out to be a net positive.  

So a coup will have no downside but very real potential for some upside. 

The real reason a country - any country - ensures it has strong anti-foreign-coup legislation is not because it cares about protecting foreign regimes.  It’s because it wants to suppress any inklings of a coup mentality either at home or abroad lest – horror – such urges one day be deployed against itself.  

There’s not much chance of this happening in established democracies like New Zealand, but the less legitimate a country’s government the more likely a coup, if that’s the only way you can get rid of the incumbent rascals.  (The BBC, among others, have labelled Equatorial Guinea as being ripe for a coup.)  

So coups aren’t necessarily wrong.  But what is wrong is to let prominent people escape the laws of their democratic country of residence just because of Mummy.    

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Unethical”and Anti-“Unethical” Industries

By common consent, if not reason, several legitimate industries are often scornfully labelled as “unethical”, such as those of oil, arms, drink, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, because their products can result in environmental damage and/or death (or, in the case of pharmaceuticals, lack of avoidance of death).  Some, such as fast-food which can be ruinous to health, are regarded as marginal.  Strangely, manufacturers of things like motorbikes, kitchen knives, baseball bats and gas-ovens are exempt despite the injuries and deaths caused by such products.  Equally strangely, those who freely purchase and use the products of the “unethical” industries are not so labelled themselves. 

Those who consider certain products to be harmful, and thus their producers unethical, put a lot of effort and brainpower into presenting their case and encouraging others to support them.  Organizations, such as Greenpeace, evolve around promoting specific goals, in their case environmentalism.  Some become multinational businesses in their own right, with large staff and offices, dependent on continuing donations to fund their existence, further growth and employee pension plans.  At the other end of the scale are looser arrangements of well-meaning, committed individuals who do not however make their cause into a full-time occupation. 

In parallel, the “unethical” industries have had to find ways to defend themselves, their products, their markets.  They have done this both by putting up direct public defences, typically through advertising campaigns and direct approaches to their distributors and end-users, but also by funding outside groups, often formed by their retailers and customers, who put out favourable viewpoints.  The industries have, of course, also responded to the critics by making improvements to their products, practices and openness, driven by the criticisms. 

This kind of debate and the action it fosters are very healthy in a democratic society. 

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However there is an unwritten undertone which is not so healthy.  And it is that the “unethical” industries, because they are pre-judged as unethical, are simply furthering their lack of ethics by defending the indefensible, that anything they say is unreliable if not untrue because their motive is to defend their profits.  Indeed their only motivation is protection and enlargement of shareholders’ profits and certainly not the betterment of the human race or the world.  Therefore you shouldn’t believe a word they or their apologists say. 

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Their opponents, on the other hand, are the reciprocal of all this.  They are beyond reproach because their motives are pure, driven solely by altruism untainted by filthy lucre or other non-virtuous objectives. 

Both attitudes are hogwash in their simplicity and dishonest in the behaviour they induce. 

As I’ve often remarked, motivations in human (as distinct from religious) life are irrelevant; we should direct our gaze and our judgements not at intent but at actions and results.  

So, science put out by the “unethical” industries, or proposals to improve the behaviour of themselves or their customers, should be scrutinized solely on the basis of merit, not dismissed because of the interests of the industry.  

But this is often not done.  Shell was disparaged by the environmental industry and forced to reverse its thoroughly researched plan to dispose of its Brent Spar storage and loading platform by sinking it in the mid-Atlantic.  Only later did the environmentalists admit that Shell had done its science properly and that any environmental harm resulting from the mid-Atlantic option was minimal.    It is similarly vilified for “unethical” behaviour in Nigeria, allegedly including 

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wanton oil spillage and pollution, 

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impoverishment of local communities, 

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connivance with armed forces to commit massacres, 

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collusion in the execution of protester and writer Ken Saro Wiwa.  

The instantly-dismissed truth, however, from my own personal experience, is very different (disclosure – I worked 30 years for Shell, seven of them in Nigeria, whilst the supposed misbehaviour was taking place).    I’ll write about it in a future blog. 

But just as the defences of the “unethical” industries should be examined solely on their merits, so the assertions of the anti-“unethical”-industry groups should be subjected to the same dispassionate scrutiny.  There are countless examples of misleading statements put out by, for instance, environmental lobbies.  Perhaps the biggest is that the Kyoto Protocol will (at a ginormous cost proponents prefer not to talk about) cause a significant reduction in global warming, when the accepted science says it will only defer it by six years in a century’s time (see last week's post).  

Moreover, the antis themselves constitute an industry in their own right.  They organize themselves into groups, strive to have highly-motivated participants, generally have a hierarchical structure (someone’s got to be in charge), have a central cause (a “product”), spend money to promote that cause, collect funds and/or free (volunteer) labour, seek constant growth in size and spread, and put together budgets. 

So in effect you have two sets of industries battling it out, each with its own motivation and objectives, each tempted to distort the truth to suit its own agenda. 

In the debate in Ireland on how to deal with excess and binge drinking, I was reminded of all this recently by a letter to the Irish Times from an eminent psychiatrist attacking a pro-drinks organization called MEAS (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society). In trying to parry moves to impose draconian anti-drinks measures such as a total ban on advertising, MEAS proposes instead that, amongst other things a message about “drinking in moderation” should be pushed out.  The doctor’s response was that since MEAS receives funding from drinks companies, its ideas are not even to be listened to and so he simply ignores their arguments.  But he gives the game away by advertising himself as chairman of a “substance misuse faculty” and “consultant addiction psychiatrist”.  He is clearly a member of the anti-drinks industry, and good luck to him. 

But if he won’t even address MEAS’s suggestions, why should anything he says be taken at face value anyway?  You can find his letter and my (published) response here.  Make up your own mind. 

What’s the mystery about debating actual issues rather than which industry or anti-industry pays for them? 

To answer Irish Eagle's comment ...

Even bibles, like baseball bats, can inflict injury ...

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Aer Lingus Self-Destruction

At least Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a reason for destroying and renationalising the huge oil company Yukos : he wants to increase his own financial powerbase while restraining the pesky political ambitions of Yukos’ erstwhile CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom he’s had jailed.    

Here in Ireland, the Prime Ministers Bertie Ahern is destroying the state airline Aer Lingus, but for no discernable reason. 

Back in 2001, Aer Lingus was losing €140 million per year, smitten by 9/11, SARS, competition from Ryanair and other factors.  A new CEO was appointed – Willie Walsh, a young, dynamic ex-pilot, well liked and respected within the organization – with a mandate to turn the company round.  (Incidentally, his contract contained no provision to prevent him competing against AL within any specified period of future departure, an early sign of carelessness.)

He at once instituted radical changes, in the teeth of union opposition and with but the faintest support from his Government shareholder.  He

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cut staff by 4,000 through voluntary redundancies,

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eliminated free catering,

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improved airport turnaround times

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introduced new routes

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streamlined online booking,

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and, crucially, cut fares drastically so as to present a real challenge to Ryanair and other airlines.   

Passenger numbers and load-factors soared and by 2003/04, AL’s deficit had become a profit of €69m (2003) and €83m (2004). 

But he had not finished.  Either AL must continue to improve its overall performance or it will slip back again and be submerged by its competitors. 

He reckoned AL was still well behind Ryanair in terms of unit costs and thus wanted to make another 1,300 staff redundant and implement other cuts. 

He also wanted to introduce Ryanair-style low-fare routes across the Atlantic, for which there is virtually no competition and for which AL already has the infrastructure. 

And AL’s ageing fleet needs to be replaced with modern, fuel-efficient aircraft, which needs a thumping €1 billion of new investment.   

As a means of raising the cash, he proposed that AL be privatised, in whole or part, and indicated that he would be willing to mount a management buyout.   

At this point complacency and horror and hypocrisy rose up. 

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Union horror because of further job-losses (albeit voluntary); government horror at the thought of dilution of control, and a general “how dare he” horror.

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Complacency, because AL was now in profit (for which unions and Government claimed all credit), so why bother.  

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Hypocrisy because both claim they are protecting the passengers and that Ireland is an island (the third richest per capita in Europe and enjoying the best quality of life in the world) which without a state airline would instantly collapse.   

Mr Walsh was told his plan was unacceptable (especially the MBO bit) and that building hospitals was more important than buying planes.  Once he realised that he could therefore not fulfil his original mandate, he and two of his fellow directors resigned with six months notice, to be effective in May 2005. 

When it then emerged this month that the three men planned to start their own low-cost trans-Atlantic airline, implementing the very plan that the government had rejected for AL, Bertie Ahern had them peremptorily kicked out of their jobs in two weeks, without up to then having even advertised for replacements. 

So the stage has now been set for the new “WillieWalshair” to upstage AL.  It will not only steal its Atlantic passengers, but also no doubt many of its better managers, flight crew and cabin staff - those who are more interested in joining a feisty new airline with a future rather than remaining with a deadbeat, state-run, union-dominated, no-longer-competitive minilith.   

Meanwhile, what competent executive is going to want the poisoned AL chalice given its continuing sabotage by the state ?  And, to misquote Groucho Marx, does AL really want to hire anyone who would want such a job?

The coming auto-destruction of Aer Lingus is entirely the result of Bertie’s laziness, fear of the unions, lack of vision and general disinterest in the airline.  Nobody ever accused President Putin of disinterest in Yukos – quite the reverse. 

And if you ever get a chance to invest in WillieWalshair, I suggest you grab it.

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The Traveling Bra Salesman’s Lesson

Every year, Shell and the Economist get together and offer a prize for an essay around a topical theme : 2004’s theme was “Import workers or export jobs?”.  

It was won by Claudia O'Keefe from Frankford, West Virginia, USA, with her thoughtful, intriguingly-titled submission, “The Traveling Bra Salesman’s Lesson”.  Having suffered from successive economic downturn, the author seems to be almost penniless so the prize of $20,000 will no doubt be very welcome.  

Drawing on personal experience, she muses on the disappearance of well-paid jobs in America as they migrate overseas to people who get paid a fraction, and the fate of the American workers left behind, invariably to do lower-paid jobs than before. This is happening amid fierce political debates on outsourcing and immigration and raging frustration on the part of the displaced American workers, many of whom are highly skilled yet in areas (such as bra salesmanship) for which there is no longer a home market.   

She concludes that it is not The American Dream we should seek, but The Global Dream.  Let go the past and re-invent a new future.   

It's well worth reading the six-page essay.  You can access it here (pdf, 29 kb).  Don't bother with the other winners.  

(Wish I could get away with plagiarising it as a post of my own making!)

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Quotes of Week 92  

Quote : “There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe.

Chancellor Gordon Brown to prime minister Tony Blair, 
as quoted by Robert Peston in his new biography,
Brown's Britain”,
 currently serialised in the Sunday Telegraph.

Mr Blair said flatly that Mr Brown never said this to him, 
a day after the chancellor conspicuously 
refused to deny it categorically.

Quote : “The IRA are not criminals, never were criminals, and in my opinion never will be criminals.”

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, 
expressing republicans anger 
at the Irish government’s attempt to criminalise them, 
in the wake of the £26½m Northern Bank heist. 

See also Bertie Ahern's quote of last week.

Quote (subscription only) : “Sunday's election was a sham, aided and abetted by Western diplomacy. As with apartheid, Western citizens must, by imposing a popular boycott on Israel, lead our governments to a better policy.”

James Bowen, a university professor in Cork
and co-ordinator of the Cork Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  

How the Left hates elections when they are free and fair.  
The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign much preferred 
the bogus election of Yasser Arafat in 1996, 
and they mourn his democratic replacement 
by an anti-violence pragmatist like Abu Mazen.

Quote : “There is no doubt that the number of customers is down. In some pubs they are down by a third and in others by a quarter. Instead of investing their money in sensible things like nights out and drinking, they are squandering [it] on mortgages and children’s education.

James Boyle, owner of Harry’s Bar in Dublin, 
laments the marked drop in customer numbers 
since Ireland introduced a smoking ban in March 2004

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Tsunami Victim - Lost Identity

LostTsunaniGirl.jpg (54400 bytes)Do you recognize this little girl (click thumbnail to enlarge)

 A victim of the Indian Ocean tsunami, she is in hospital in Phuket, Thailand, and does not remember anything or know who she is.  Therefore, her family cannot be contacted.  

If you think you know her, please 

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send an e-mail to JHurley@HeesenYachts.nl who is co-ordinating a global search for her family; 

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alternatively, e-mail me at blog2@tallrite.com

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or just leave a comment and I will follow up.

If you know others who you think might be able to help in the search, please give them the permalink of this post. 

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ISSUE #91 - 9th January 2005 [158]

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Lip Service and Inaction for Kyoto

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The Gates/Bono Proposals for 2005

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Palestinians Have Reason for Hope

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Defending the British Empire

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Ignorance and Prejudice in 2004/5

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Quotes of Week 91

Lip Service and Inaction for Kyoto

The Kyoto Protocol, having obtained ratification from the required 123 countries and emitters of 55% of the world's greenhouse gases, will come into force on 16th February 2005.  It will require participants (which exclude all developing countries including mega-polluters China, India and Indonesia) to reduce their emissions by around 8% relative to what they were in 1990, with a deadline of 2012.  

With the Protocol having been signed and ratified largely under the philosophy of act now, think later, a number of governments have recently begun to realise that it is going to cause them some pain.  Many countries are exceeding their carbons emission limits and will continue to do so unless they take action.  That action includes things like : 

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closing down profitable plants that emit a lot of carbon, 

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introducing a carbon tax to discourage carbon consumption, 

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buying CO2 credits from the few that are well below their limits, 

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planting trees to offset the excess emissions, 

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paying fines for not meeting the targets.  

Whichever way you look at it, Kyoto is going to be very unpopular politically, because it will cost a great deal of money, as well as jobs (both the discontinued factories and other businesses killed by the carbon tax).  

The (subscription-only) Irish Times tells us that little Ireland expects to be spending around €200 million per year just on buying CO2 credits.  The international experts estimate that the global cost of compliance will be a recurring US$100 billion per year [Ref 1].  

The public debate about Kyoto is all to do with three assumptions about global warming :  

  1. that global warming actually exists, for its existence is indeed supported by some scientific evidence, but other evidence indicates that current temperature changes are simply part of a natural pattern;

  2. that it is caused by release of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, but for this the evidence is mainly based on the weak science of correlation - ie emissions and temperatures are both rising, therefore emissions cause the warming 
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    (which is like saying Ireland's binge-drinking is increasing, tigers in the 
    wild are decreasing, hence binge-drinking kills wild tigers); 

  3. that man can significantly reduce global warming by cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, for which the scientific evidence is particularly scant, and indeed even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth admit that Kyoto will have but a marginal effect.  

As I pointed out in the very first issue of my blog, that marginal effect is that Kyoto will merely defer a 1.9ºC global temperature rise from the year 2094 to the year 2100 [Ref 2, 3, 4].  

To help close off discussion of inconvenient facts like this, pro-Kyotoites frequently cite their anger at the hated George Bush's refusal to ratify Kyoto, conveniently forgetting that his predecessor and the Senate unanimously rejected it as well.  The reason they did so was simply the Protocol's cost and ineffectiveness, and this hasn't changed.  

Indeed, even if the science under A and B above were rock-solid, which it isn't, a scheme that absorbs $100 billion a year for almost a century in exchange for a piffling six-year deferral is an outrageous misappropriation of money.  Were such vast sums are waiting to be disbursed, there is a huge array of uses for it more beneficial to humanity.  For instance, Kofi Annan and the World Bank have said that $200 billion would provide every human being on earth with clean drinking water and sanitation, which would avoid two million third-world deaths a year [Refs 5, 6].  

Ask a subsistence farmer whether he wants clean water today or the promise of a six-year global-warming deferral for his great-grandchildren, and you already know his answer.  

The thing about Kyoto is that it is designed more to make rich people feel good about themselves than to solve an actual problem.  This phenomenon is not new.  

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After the Madrid bombings, the Spaniards held a huge parade in the capital to demonstrate their solidarity with the slaughtered and their families.  It made the paraders feel warm, but achieved precisely nothing in terms of preventing repetitions.  By contrast, after nine-eleven, there were no vigils but America launched two wars to defeat terrorism (and is still waging them).  

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Following the devastating south-Asia tsunami, countries across Europe held a three-minutes silence on 5th January.  Again, this achieved zero for the victims, whereas the massive global aid and military effort is doing much to deal with the tragedy and its aftermath.  I agree with Boris Johnson who suggested on Radio 4 that the three minutes would have been better spent had EUrocrats in Brussels used them to tear down those EU tariff barriers (of up to 40%) that wickedly impede Asian exports to Europe, such as agriculture and textiles.  That would truly help the unfortunates to rebuild their lives and their countries (as well as improving EU economies though cost savings).  

As I've argued previously, people and their actions should be judged not on their intentions (which are irrelevant) but their outcomes.  

On this basis, Kyoto should be shot down at once.  

But since of course, the rich world is simply not going to cough up an endless $100 billion a year or anything like it, for Kyoto or anything else, in the end, Kyoto is doomed anyway.  Common sense, commerce and the desire of politicians to remain in office are what will strangle it.   

But we can expect in the meantime an awful lot of hubris, hot air, wonderful intentions, lip-service and inaction.  

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The Gates/Bono Proposals for 2005

Microsoft's Bill Gates and U2's Bono got an interesting article published in several newspapers in the first few days of January, aimed at galvanising a step-change improvement in the prospects of the world's poor at a time when our TV screens were full of images of suffering in south Asia.  Such a change, for which the technology and money now indubitably exist, would  be comparable with the abolition of slavery (in most of the world), the defeat of Soviet Communism and the end of South African apartheid.  

For what they're worth, here are my comments on their four-point plan.  

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First: Double the amount of effective foreign assistance; full immunisation of children would alone save five millions of their lives.  
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As long as mechanisms are in place to ensure the money is spent properly and not squandered, it's hard to argue with this one

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Second: Cancel all poor country debt.  
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This is attractive on the surface but valueless - even counter-productive - unless and until the governments who will in the first instance be the recipients of the sudden largesse can demonstrate their honesty.  It will be a long wait, I fear.  

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Third: Change unfair trade rules, to create a pathway for poor countries to reach self-reliance.  
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Assuming this means eliminating all trade barriers everywhere, starting with the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and America's equivalent, I thoroughly support this one; and it would benefit rich countries as well as the poor.  

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However, the proposal smells as if Messrs Gates and Bono mean rigging markets to force Western buyers to pay over the odds for poor-world imports, which would of course eventually stifle those imports.   The proven path to prosperity is to provide things customers want at the best available prices, without interference or distortion by governments.  

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Fourth: provide funding for the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, which is a new consortium being established to provide a more aggressive and co-ordinated approach to developing a vaccine. 
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With 40 million sufferers, HIV/AIDS is a plague that even when halted will take two generations to recover from.  It's probably the single greatest economic threat faced by poor countries because, apart from the human misery, it exclusively snatches people during the most productive period of their lives.  The new consortium is only to be welcomed, as is the endorsement given to it by the G-8 and by George Bush.  

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But developing a successful vaccine is not sufficient.  It needs to be accompanied by a less-glamorous but equally aggressive, ongoing education campaign so that, as in most of the West, people know how to avoid HIV/AID.  Avoidance is always preferable to cure.  

That said, the authors are good at getting the attention of world leaders, and (much as I can't stand Bono) they should be lauded for their efforts to make 2005 a transformative year of action for the poor.  

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Palestinians Have Reason for Hope

It is ironic that the only three entities in the Middle East that are holding free elections are those under foreign, non-Islamic domination.  Afghanistan and Iraq under the American occupation, the Palestinians under, effectively, the Israelis.  Nevertheless, that they're happening at all, notwithstanding the security issues, is a sign for hope in the future.  

The ballot that astonishes me the most is the upcoming one for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority.  It's two in the eye for the late unlamented Yasser Arafat.  

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Firstly, that it's taking place at all after Arafat spent a lifetime ensuring that nothing like a free election would ever be allowed to threaten his position.  

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Secondly, because the front runner is Abu Mazen, his erstwhile friend-turned-enemy whom he recently tried to kill, and who after his ill-fated four-month spell in 2003 as Prime Minister under Arafat swore he would never seek office again.    

Abu Mazen, born in 1935 as Mahmoud Abbas, is an undoubted Palestinian nationalist, who wants the Jews out, who wants a second Palestinian state (after Jordan) and who has a track record of virulent anti-Israelism.  Yet he is hugely different from most other Palestinian leaders in one vital respect.  He uses his brain.  

And his brain long ago told him some basic, if distasteful, truths.  

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That Palestinians can never ever inflict military defeat on Israel, a country perfectly capable, without even using its nuclear weapons, of vanquishing all Arab countries simultaneously, as it did in just six days in 1967.  

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That the Jews, who have lived in the Palestine/Israel area continuously for thousands of years, are never going to leave or be ejected, so there will be no Palestinian state without some sort of compromise.  Their heartfelt post-Holocaust mantra, Never again”, is for them much more than a trite motto or slogan.  

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That launching attacks on Israel weakens and punishes the Palestinians themselves more than the Israelis, in terms not only of casualties and economics, but in providing Israel with “cover” to not negotiate seriously and to expand its settlements.  

This means that if he is elected, as seems likely, and if he is able to restrain the madmen addicted to suicide bombs, AK-47s and mortars regardless of effect, he will be a formidable foe indeed.  For by using exclusively diplomatic channels, negotiation and international public opinion to advance the Palestinian cause, he will effectively disarm Ariel Sharon and force or embarrass him into negotiating on an equal footing, egged on by his allies in America and elsewhere.  Israel will not fight militarily if not attacked, and if not attacked it can no longer assume the moral high ground.  Nevertheless, though they don't like him they can see that Abu Masen is a man you can do business with, just as Margaret Thatcher famously recognised similar qualities in the Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev.  

And if Abu Mazen's brain is still functioning, he will be smart enough to recognize a good deal when he sees one and to grab it, even though it undoubtedly will involve much unpalatable compromise.  

This is in complete contrast to his vainglorious predecessor at Camp David in 2000, whose only concern was to remain an icon and a war-leader, however disastrous for his people.  For this reason, Arafat never concluded the excellent deal that was available.  

Twenty months ago, I called Abu Mazen the Palestinians' Great Hope, then had to retract.  Can he become so again? Time will tell.  

Meanwhile, there is an election to win, which involves a kind of dance macabre.  

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So Abu Mazen is using suitable belligerent phraseology such as Zionist enemy”;  

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to which Israel obliges by labelling his statements as “very militant . . . and the likes of which we haven't heard in a long time”, and always being careful to say nothing nice about him.  

Maybe Abu Mazen will indeed be able to deliver to the Palestinians a future which allows them to devote all their energies to making money and looking after their families.  He is once more their great hope.  

Late Note (10th January) : Abu Mahzen has indeed won the PA presidency, and with between 66% and 70% of the vote.  This impressive margin gives him a strong mandate with which to negotiate with Israel.  

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Defending the British Empire

It's so rare these days for anyone to dare defend imperialism that it is most refreshing and thought-provoking when it is done properly.  

Last week in a BBC interview, historian Andrew Roberts defended the British Empire as an unmitigated force for good, adding for spice that this was in marked contrast to the German, French and Belgian Empires.  In delicious political incorrectness, he pointed out how the British had

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introduced peace and justice, 

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put a stop to inter-tribal massacres (such as those in Sudan today), and 

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provided the benefits of civilisation that whites had enjoyed for 500 years.  

He said that Africa had enjoyed its longest period in its history of peace and justice during the British Empire period than it had seen before or since.  

The interview was in  held in response to South African President Thabo Mbeki's New Year's Day castigation in Sudan of Winston Churchill, calling him a racist who ravaged Africa and blighted its post-colonial development

Mr Roberts retorts that Churchill did indeed view coloured people as being on a lower hierarchical scale (nice euphemism!), as did all other whites at the time, but that this prompted the British imperialists to increase not decrease their efforts to improve the Africans' lot.  Moreover, Mr Mbeki should in fact be thanking Churchill for stoutly resisting, during the Boer War, the very boers/Afrikaners who later created apartheid.  

The sneers of the BBC interviewer makes the three-minute discussion all the more entertaining, whether you agree with Mr Roberts' arguments or not.  Listen to it here.  

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Ignorance and Prejudice in 2004/5

I knew I shouldn't have done it, but this time last year I made a few predictions, based, as I said at the time, on ignorance and prejudice.  

Ah well, here to give you a laugh is my scorecard, with a total mark of just 31%.  The main thing I got right was the i+p.  

So I'm laying off the predictions business for 2005.  But I can promise continued i+p, both ill-informed and objectionable.  

Prediction

Result

Score out of 3

There will be bloodless revolution in Iran that will overthrow the ruling mullahs.

Absolutely wrong; the mullahs have gained in strength

0

Assad Jr, the optician, will also fall.  

Wrong (but I still think his days in power are numbered)

1

Kim Jong Il will not fall, but he will wobble.  

Absolutely wrong, didn’t wobble in the slightest

0

Bush will be re-elected in a landslide.  

Convincingly re-elected, but not in a landslide

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 ... 

Right about the demise;


Abu Mazen's election probably makes this about right;


but probably wrong about a disinterested Israel  

 

2

Israel will complete its security fence and then look for ways ... 

to start expelling Israeli Arabs in the interests of Jewish demography. 

Fence three-quarters completed

 

No move to expel Israeli Arabs

1

 

 Total

/18 = 31%

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Quotes of Week 91 

Quote : “I think this is the worst holiday I have ever had, and hopefully ever will have.

11-year-old British girl Alexa Cole, 
concluding her handwritten account 
of the tsunami in Thailand's Khao Lak 
that hospitalised her and her famiy, 
using heartfelt phraseology 
that only an innocent child could utter 
without sounding facetious.

Quote : . “If nations are poor, if they don't see hope, if they're riddled by disease, if no one is helping them, then radicalism takes over.  They lose faith in democracy, and they start turning in other directions.   This is an investment not only in the welfare of these people, which in and of itself is a good thing to do; it's an investment in our own national security.”

US outgoing Secretry of State Colin Powell, 
commenting on the south Asia tsunami, 
makes plain that there is a security 
as well as a humanitarian rationale 
for helping poor people in distress

Quote : “Demand a better deal for the poor of the world in 2005.

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft and 
co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 
and Bono, lead singer of pop group U2 and 
co-founder of DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa), 
in an article published on 3rd January in several newspapers.
See here for my post above on their article 

Quote : “We had 14 years of independence, but now ... we are free ... The era of Kuchma, Medvedchuk and Kuchma is history. ... Today it is fashionable, stylish and beautiful to be a Ukrainian

Victorious Victor Yuschenko, 52%:44% winner of the second run-off 
of Ukraine's presidential election, 
following annulment of the first for vote-rigging 

Quote (audio interview, minute 12-17, this quote being at minute 16) : “Let's be honest, everybody knows that in an investigation, the Chief Constable doesn't start putting out the evidence day by day.  I mean, what kind of eejit do people take us for?

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, 
explaining why the Police Service of Northern Ireland 
is not revealing the evidence on which it bases its declaration 
that the IRA were responsible for the £ 26½ million heist 
of the Northern Bank in Belfast on 20th December.

See also Sinn Fein's denial in Issue #92.

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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

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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:

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

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the corruption of Singapore's legal system, and

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

More details on my blog here.

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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,

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part of a death march to Thailand,

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

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regularly beaten and tortured,

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racked by starvation, gaping ulcers and disease including cholera,

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a slave labourer stevedoring at Singapore’s docks,

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

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

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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:

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Drunk walking kills more people per kilometer than drunk driving.

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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?

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

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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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