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


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)

May 2005

ISSUE #99 - 1st May 2005


ISSUE #100 - 8th May 2005

ISSUE #100 - 8th May 2005[250+880 = 1130]


Centenarian Tallrite Blog


Alan Sugar - Afraid of his Gobby Apprentices


IRA Top Heavy Command Structure


Callaghanomics Slays Blaironomics


Free Health Cover for European Trippers


Pissing in Public in Paris


Quotes of Week 100

Centenarian Tallrite Blog

Celebrating with 100 balloons!I'm a Century old today!  Many people tell me I look every day of it.  

But what I mean is that this is the 100th issue of the Tallrite Blog.  Since it supposedly comes out every week, that means it's two years old.  Well, no, the first issue came out nearly three years ago, in July 2002.  That just shows how cavalier I have been in claiming to write a weekly blog and how many breaks I have given myself (and I'm taking another so #101 won't appear until 19th June).  Therefore I now claim, modestly, to be a nearly” weekly blogger.  

For the statistics-hungry, in those 100 blogs, I've published 627 posts, containing 180,000 words and 1.1m characters.  This is equivalent to a book of around 350 pages, not counting illustrations.  

And for the nostalgic (ha!), here is the first blog's innocent content, complete with those little red squares (each denoting the abject defeat of Kremlin Communism):


Organic Food


Nice Treaty Referendum


The Football Association of Ireland and Sky Television


Kyoto Protocol


Is The Economist Anti-Semitic

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Alan Sugar - Afraid of His Gobby Apprentices

Like millions of other viewers, I was riveted by the hugely popular BBC-2 TV show, the Apprentice Sir Alan Sugar starring entrepreneur millionaire-businessman Sir Alan Sugar.  Its format replicates Donald Trump's of the same name and now in its third successful series in the USA.  

Over a period of 12 weekly programmes, Sir Alan, founder, chief executive and largest shareholder of electronics giant Amstrad, set weekly business tasks for fourteen keen would-be recruits, and based on their performance fired them one by one until there was a winner.  

Tim CampbellLast week, 27-year-old Tim Campbell was that winner when he won a £100,000 per year job with Sir Alan, who uttered the magic words You're hired, instead of his usual You're fired.  

There had been something troubling me about Sir Alan's assessment of the 14 candidates and weekly selection of firees, and only in the final episode did it properly crystallise into two distinct though related issues.  


Mr Trump makes plain that he is looking for someone to run one of his companies, in other words a ready-made executive, and thus his candidates seek to demonstrate they are fitted for such a role.  

Sir Alan, on the other hand, repeatedly states that he is looking for an Apprentice, yet he never explains, and the candidates never ask, an apprentice for what and for how long before getting areal’ job?  The candidates clearly think they are competing to waltz straight into a senior managerial role, à la Trump, and try to impress accordingly, with Sir Alan's encouragement.  All the talk is about my experience”, “my knowledge”, “my energy”, “my salesmanship”, “my people-management skills”.  But of the single most crucial element for anyone hiring a youngster destined for great things, there is not a single word from anyone throughout the series.  And that word is potential.  

We well understand that athletes have sporting potential that they strive to attain, but so do we all.  For example, there is a maximum length you can jump, and you will never jump further than that in your life, no matter how hard and long you train.  That maximum length is your longjump potential, and you will not even reach it without the right coaching and application. And yours is different from mine.  

For different people have different potentials, yet this applies in a limitless array of human endeavour.  Your potential will be better than mine in one sphere; mine will be better in another.  It's what makes every human special, because each one of us is better than everybody else at something.  

What athletic coaches therefore try to do is to spot high potential for longjump when the jumper is still a child, and then develop him/her to reach it in the years ahead.  

Similarly, everyone has certain innate business potential; it is the natural ceiling, or level of seniority, beyond which you are likely never to reach, no matter how many years you work away at it and how good the coaching and mentoring is that you receive.  

The key quality to look for in high-calibre business apprentices is thus surely not what they know and can do today, helpful though this is.  It is instead their ability to continuously and quickly learn and develop their skills and understanding in order to reach the level required to, for instance, replace Sir Alan in a few short years.  Frankly, the candidates' present knowledge and experience could be zero provided they can demonstrate that elusive property, potential.  

Maybe the candidates can be forgiven for not understanding the role of potential if no-one explained it to them.  But I find it extraordinary that it seems alien to Sir Alan as well.  

But maybe this deficiency is related to the next.  


The candidates presented a wide range of personalities, most of them extrovert, and not a few were particularly noisy, argumentative, arrogant, aggressive even.  

Amongst the last five were two very noisy people, Saira the Pakistani and Paul the Italian, who argued with everyone but especially each other.  The other three, James, Miriam and Tim, were quieter and more cerebral.  James was fired for legitimate reasons; Miriam was also fired, but Sir Alan later admitted that this was a mistake. That left two noisy and one quiet person.  Sir Alan had several times said there was room in his company for only one loudmouth - himself, and as the programme progressed you realised this was true.  

For no proper reason that he was able to adequately articulate, he fired Paul and Saira, who were among the most able and energetic, clearly possessed great potential, but were very difficult to manage and control because of their fiery headstrong personalities.  Of Paul, he had once said, I see a little of me in you, so he was afraid, very afraid, at the thought of being confronted by Paul in the future; similarly with Saira.  So he hired the clever but docile Tim.  

However, when you look at 


Sir Alan's two trusted assistants” Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, who every week tailed and reported back (ratted) on the candidates' business exercises, and 


the three executives he engaged to interview the candidates in the penultimate show, 

you can finally understand why.  

All five were exceptionally demure, polite, deferential to Sir Alan.  He also bragged that gentlemanly people like Richard Branson and Bill Gates were his personal friends, but couldn't bring himself even to utter the name of the equally abrasive Donald Trump.  

I conclude that Sir Alan is a bully who likes to surround himself with yes-men, and that yesmanship is a more important quality to him than potential.  He fears “gobby”  people like Paul and Saira (to use Saira's own self-description), who are prepared to stand up to him and tell him he's wrong about something and why.  

Like most bullies, he can dish it out but he can't take it.  

Contrast him with Saira, someone else with bullyish tendencies.  Why did she select her worst antagonist, the misogynistic fellow-bully Paul as her teammate for the crucial final project?  Because she knew he also possessed enormous ability, and reckoned it was worth trying to manage his tantrums and personal abuse in order to avail of his excellent business qualities, a judgment and a demonstration of gritty leadership courage which were vindicated in the business success of that final exercise.  A success, incidentally, that Sir Alan ignored when he hired Tim whose performance was not so prosperous.  

Sir Alan's fear of challenge led him to get rid of all the assertive candidates in order to select a lesser candidate who will make life easier for Sir Alan.  After twelve weeks of TV, it was obvious to anyone that the invisible but stalwart Tim simply does not possess the potential for ever replacing him in the chief executive's chair.  

He should have chosen Saira, but was afraid of her, as of all the assertive, gobby candidates for his apprenticeship.  Had be been confronted with a youthful Jack Welch of GE fame, bursting with potential and fire, he would have been similarly intimidated.  Though conversely, the demonstrably gutsy Mr Welch would have hired Saira instantly.  

If Sir Alan wasn't such a hugely successful businessman, I would have said that his own potential was strictly limited.  

Shows how much I know.  

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An article by the Sunday Times's intrepid Liam Clarke about a pending reshuffle of IRA management caught my eye.  Not because of who may step down from or step up to senior positions in the coming weeks, but because of the arcane command structure that is casually described.   I've drawn it here.  

In red is the bit of the IRA that actually does the business, a GHQ with various departments.  But, on a one-on-one basis, the GHQ is oversat by no fewer than three boards, shown in green.  By any measure of management efficiency, this is a clumsy piece of machinery for making decisions, which would not survive long in a competitive business situation.  

It is of course fairly typical of state-owned monopoly enterprises where board after board, packed with appointees that the government of the day wants to reward, sit on top of a management team, getting in the way of the day-to-day business.  

However, insofar as the IRA considers itself the legitimate and only government of Ireland (north and south), it is perhaps not surprising that it is structured like one of those state behemoths.    

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Callaghanomics Slays Blaironomics

So, despite Iraq, Tony Blair is re-ascending the prime ministerial throne, bolstered by his creditable economic record.  

Hmmm.  The Motley Fool asks 

who has been Britain's best [post-WW2] prime minister? Churchill? Macmillan? Thatcher? Or Blair? 

In terms of annualised [British} stock market performance during their time at Number 10, the most successful PM since 1945 has been... James Callaghan.

Sunny Jim presided over no less than 19% per annum growth in the  FTSE-100 index, until Margaret Thatcher turfed him out as voters reacted to his incompetent handling of, among other things, the, er, economy.  

This is astonishing news.  Just as astonishing is that Tony Blair, with the sainted, charisma-free Chancellor Gordon Browne masterminding the economy for him, comes second from bottom with a measly 2% pa.  Allow for inflation and this actually turns negative, indicating a real-terms regression of 1.4% in stockmarket value.  (Are you thinking what I'm thinking?  Elect Blair, get Browne?)  

There are of course excuses.  

Under Callaghan's watch (April 1976 to May 1979), but with little or no input from him, 


a global recovery occurred following the 1973-74 oil crisis and recession, while


the IMF helped stabilise the British economy and sterling, and 


North Sea Oil began to fill up the treasury, enabling


interest rates to be lowed from 15% to 5%.  

So it's perhaps no great wonder that the FTSE-100 leapt by 71% in that short period.  

Conversely, Tony Blair has been done down by the global reverse and slowdown, for which he can hardly be blamed, that began in March 2000 when the dotcom bubble popped, triggering a longrunning downturn in the rest of industry.  Stockmarkets have still not recovered.  

Still, if we look far enough ahead, history will 


note only the bald figures, 19% vs 2%, 


dismiss or ignore the other guff and 


draw its conclusion about prime ministerial competence.  

Hope nobody tells Britain's newly re-elected PM.  

Mrs Thatcher, by the way, came third with a healthy 12% pa, and Anthony Eden, of Suez fame, was last on 1%.  

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Free Health Cover for European Trippers

May is here; the rain has lessened; flowers are blooming; barbecues are sizzling.  For many, this all smells of trips abroad to sunnier climes.  

People may not be aware (I wasn't) that EU residents are entitled to free or discounted medical treatment when visiting another European Union or European Economic Area country.  But you need to be carrying a post-August 2004, validated E111 form, which UK residents can download from here and Irish from here.  (For others, search your national health department website.)  

Sickness and injury represent the only big-ticket financial risk that most travellers face (what, you lost your suitcase? your ran over your digital camera? - big deal).  So it's not at all worth squandering your precious funds on conventional travel insurance if you're remaining within Europe.  

Live on the edge; take a chance on not having your umbrella snatched by a shady-looking foreigner abroad.  

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Pissing in Public in Paris

French pissoir. Click to see original by Fred GurnerLast week I drank beer rather than take a European Constitutional, dubbed the TEACoFEe, or tea-and-coffee.  So this week I need to, well, dispose of the beer.  

So let's go to the Paris of nearly four decades ago, when as a student looking for a job I well remember making use, during the student riots of 1968 that nearly toppled de Gaulle (but that's something for a future post), of a device like the classic one photographed by Fred Gurner of New York.  Follow the link to find the full-sized version with his full contact details (he has kindly given me permission to use this thumbnail).   

Going back another three decades or so and if you're lucky you might find this image, unearthed in (Britain's) Sunday Times.

Charles Henri Ford does up his flies in Paris, 1935
Henri Cartier-Bresson's classic photograph of
editor and film-maker Charles Henri Ford doing up his flies,
with evident relief on his face, in a Parisian pissoir in 1935.
Note also the subtle tongue-in-fly allusion

Though everyone called them pissoirs, the public urinals that littered Paris were officially called vespasiennes after the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who succeeded the fiddling Nero in AD68 and who first had the idea of facilitating public pissing.

He installed large earthenware urns all over Rome for the convenience of citizens, and to pay for them levied on each household a four-yearly headage tax, counting not only the humans in the house but also the animals.  (Did he also invent the Vespa motor scooter?) 

In Paris, the first pissoir was built in 1841 and according to a new biography of Paris, it blossomed throughout Napoleon III's empire days.  Along with his lamp posts, benches, kiosks and water fountains, the humble pissoir formed part of the embourgeoisement of the Paris street, with architectural styles ranging from Gothic through classical to the baroque. 

What first struck me as a callow, repressed youth was the complete lack of embarrassment on the part of anyone using them, upper torso and lower legs on public display, or of passers by of either sex.  

When war broke out in 1914, there were over 4,000 pissoirs in Paris.  Sadly, though, by the mid-1950s, thanks to domestic sanitary improvements, these quintessentially Parisian icons had dwindled to some 300 and today are but museum pieces, like stuffed dodos.  

These days, the pissoir has been replaced on the Parisian streets by the ultimate pay toilet — the sanisette, though there are only 420 of them. 

On the outside the sanisette looks like a six-foot aluminum can; inside it has a clean chemical smell and is slightly larger than an airplane bathroom. A small fee, 30 €urocents, entitles you to ten minutes of rest before the door automatically opens — ready or not (a time limit designed to dissuade hanky panky).  Then, allowing you just enough time to exit, the door closes in order for the sanisette to go through its auto-sanitization process. And woe to the innocent who has not departed! 

I promise not to return to this kind of foetid subject for a very long time ... not before issue number 200.  

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Quotes of Week 100

Quote: Our full support for the McCartney family remains our guiding principle at this time

A Sinn Féin spokesman explains why 
the EU grouping to which it belongs, the European United Left, 
rejects an EU parliamentary motion tabled by five other groupings 
accounting for 86% of MEPs. 

The motion offers financial aid to the family of 
Robert McCartney, whom the IRA murdered in February, 
to pursue a civil action,
as well as urging Sinn Féin to cooperate with the police, 
and condemning IRA violence and criminality

Quote: Universal trade liberalisation ... forces choices on vulnerable countries, whose effects may be – in the short to medium term – very costly indeed to a whole generation of workers, to the environment, to political stability ... 

The challenge that has to be put to a naïve confidence in free trade to deliver a flourishing human environment is a challenge about what is needed for a country to play the part it wants and needs to play in the global economy, what is needed to give it appropriate economic power. 

And the answer is unlikely to be a simple recommendation for a universal and instant end to protection or preference.

That noted economics giant Rowan Williams, 
who as Archbishop of Canterbury 
leads 70 million Anglicans around the world, 
argues in convoluted ecclesiastical language that, in effect, 
trade protection and preference 
are more beneficial to workers than free trade, 
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary 
throughout human history.  North Korea anyone? 

(I do not recall any Archbishop of Canterbury 
of recent times who did not spend all his time with the fairies)

Quote: Being an opposition backbench MP is the lowest form of life

Edwina Currie, 
ex Conservative MP and ex John Major lover, 
comments on Irish radio (Newstalk 106
on the latest Conservative election defeat

Quote: “I am a five-times-a-night man. At least.  I can do it more, depending how I feel.” 

Tony Blair, during the election campaign.  

When asked whether he was up to it, 
Cherie said firmly, He always is.” 

Whatever are they talking about?

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

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ISSUE #99 - 1st May 2005 [185]


The EU's Tea or Coffee Constitution


Non-News about Iraq Legal Advice


Ivory-Billed Woodpecker


Ian Revue and the Inland Revenue


Quotes of Week 99

The EU's Tea or Coffee Constitution

The deeper the EU Constitution delves into its ratification process, the wobblier it looks.  That is because in those countries who will hold a referendum, whether as a legislative requirement (Ireland) or through foolish choice (France, Britain),  people are beginning to scrutinise it and the more they do so the more its flaws are exposed.  I'm sure close scrutiny was the last thing ex-French president Giscard d'Estaing had in mind when he autocratically chaired the convention that drew it up (in fairness, without his autocratic overruling of objections, it would never have seen the light of day).  

Even so, scrutiny is a lot less easy than downloading its 1.9 Mb bulk from here.  For it comprises 485 turgid pages with 246 articles and sub-articles.  And just as a camel is a race horse designed by committee, so this document, the result of deliberations and arguments by 105 delegates, is anything but sleek and fast.  Nor is it straight.  For it is riddled with contradictions that have been deliberately introduced so that opposing factions can both claim their whims have been catered for.  Constructive ambiguity this is sometimes called.  

This approach works fine provided it involves only the cognoscenti, which in this case includes those who did the drafting, the 25 Governments who have signed the paper and the thousands of EUrocrats who realise it is going to be their feeding trough for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.  Those knowing people will take out of it such interpretations that suit their particular agendas, and ignore any inconvenient contradictions.  

But once the great unwashed masses get their hands on the wretched document the process works in exact reverse.  Whipped up by awkward domestic politicians and various partisan journalists, it is those aspects that displease them that are seized upon and the favourable bits ignored.  

Start with the name, Treaty Establishing A Constitution For Europe”.  Is it a Treaty?  Is it a Constitution?  Choose whichever you hate more.  

I'm going to call it the TEACoFEetea or coffee”, whatever you're having yourself, take your pick, so long as it's weak and insipid.  

Article 1.3.3 of the TEACoFEe tells us The Union shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on ... a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress,

Compassionate-sounding social market or rough-sounding highly competitive market?  Help yourself.  

In Article 1.6, The Constitution and law adopted by the institutions of the Union in exercising competences conferred on it shall have primacy over the law of the Member States.” 

Your own parliament is now toothless.  

Article I-16-1/2 tells us The Union's competence in matters of common foreign and security policy shall cover all areas of foreign policy and ... a common defence policy ... [and] Member States shall actively and unreservedly support the Union's common foreign and security policy, refrain[ing] from action contrary to the Union's interests or likely to impair its effectiveness.

So fire your foreign and defence ministers, and goodbye to your neutrality (if you have any left).  

Worried about the €uro's long term stability as well as growth within the €urozone?

Article III-184-17 reaffirms the Stability and Growth Pact (that Germany insisted on as a condition of the €uro, and then was one of the first to breach it, heavily and repeatedly).  It contains severe penalties for persistent offenders, but the article then ends by saying “nothing prejudges the future debate”.  

In other words, the Pact is secure - until it's not.  

Article I-III-130: The Union shall adopt measures with the aim of establishing or ensuring the functioning of the internal market ... compris[ing] an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of persons, services, goods and capital is ensured.

Clear enough to strike fear into any statist state (France? Germany?).  

Don't worry.


Derogations (ie let-outs) start appearing just three sentences later.  


There are frequent clauses (try Article III-134) about aiming to abolish restrictions, so plenty of wriggle room there.  


Trade prohibitions are acceptable on grounds (Article III-154) of ... public policy ... or the protection of industrial and commercial property”, which can pretty much cover as much as you like.  


Don't even think about interfering with the sacred State monopolies (Article III-155) that litter (and bleed) the EU.  


Trade restrictions are fine provided they “contribute to improving the production or distribution of goods or to promoting technical or economic progress” (Article III-161-3), which can cover what you like.  

And does the TEACoFEe turn the EU into a Federation, a United States of Europe that can thumb its nose at the other United States?  Well, to those who want a Federation (eg Germans, French, Belgians) it doesn't - it's anti-Federalist.  But the same document is pro-Federalist to the antis (eg British, ex Communist states), in both cases depending on your definition of Federal.    

So ultimately, the French in their referendum on 29th May are going to say no to the TEACoFEe, because they read the “free trade” anti-Federalist bits, which smell to them of brutal Anglo-Saxon commercialism and liberalism, while ignoring the numerous escape hatches.  President Chirac confirms their fears when he plaintively wonders whether Brussels will stand up for French interests or has it been captured by free-trade neo-liberalists.  On the herd instinct, the Dutch, exacerbated by anti-Muslim feeling whipped up by the murder of Theo van Gogh (nothing in this debate is logical), will probably also vote no when they get their turn three days later.  

Meanwhile, the Brits are obviously going to say no, but for diametrically opposite reasons.  They will be concentrating on those escape hatches.  They see the TEACoFEe as being full of restrictions and Brussels diktats, which fulfils all their innate anti-EU prejudice, and are moreover terrified of a United States of Europe.  

It is curious, by the way, that the noes seem  for no reason to divide into Rumsfeld's notorious Old Europe and New Europe.  


Old Europe fears  wider integration with no deepening and the demise of the “social model”.  


New Europe feels the model will be unilaterally imposed, accompanied by deeper integration and not much widening.  

And the tea-or-coffee TEACoFEe is indeed all the things it is both vilified and praised for.  A tome for everyone to hate - and love.  

This is perhaps the strongest reason of all to vote no.  For if you vote yes, you don't know what you're getting, other than endless and expensive legal rows as lawyers line their pockets, at everyone's expense, as they try to interpret its 485 contradictory and ambiguous pages, decades into the future.  (If you are a young lawyer, of course, with a long career ahead of you, then you should definitely vote yes.)  

What is needed is, in fact, two documents (which after enough failed referendums might be what we eventually get).  


One, purely for ease of understanding and administration, an uncontroversial integration of all that has already been agreed heretofore (the Treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Nice etc); 


the other a short, meaningful and equally uncontroversial Constitution confined to the EU's values and objectives, together with its citizens' rights and duties.  

Future changes to either document should then be debated and negotiated, openly and on their merits, not smuggled in via a vast, obscure TEACoFEe type all-seeing all-dancing snow-job.  

Tea or coffee?  Neither thanks.  I think I'll have a beer.  

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Non-News about Iraq Legal Advice

What a fuss about the two pieces of advice concerning the legality of the Iraq war, which were given to Tony Blair by his Attorney General, Lord Peter Goldsmith, two weeks before and then three days before the war was launched.  The issue is that the first advice (7th March 2003) which Downing Street kept secret until making it available last week as a 693 kb PDF file, contains caveats, whereas the second one (17th March) does not.  Moreover, though the second advice was published at the time, Tony Blair shared the contents of the earlier one with neither his Cabinet nor Parliament.   His opponents accuse him of two things -  


hiding relevant information, ie the first advice, and 


leaning on Lord Goldsmith to produce a more helpful, definitive piece of advice the second time, indeed advice that contradicts the first.  

The situation is more prosaic and less conspiratorial.  

The first advice presents all the pros and cons, including how others might act, particularly those who opposed war.  For example, failure of Iraq to comply with UN Resolution 1441, which threatened serious consequences”, was to be considered by the UN Security Council.  Lord Goldsmith presents the pros and cons of two interpretations of considered”: 

  1. considered, as in talk about but don't necessarily decide anything one way or the other, and 

  2. considered, as in no military action to be taken unless subsequently so decided by the Security Council.  

His second advice, of 17th March, baldly conveys his judgment that interpretation nbr 1 (above) applies because if the Security Council meant “decide” instead of “consider”, it would have written “decide” into 1441.  This is neither incompatible with nor contradictory to the first advice littered with all those pros and cons.  

He also says in his first advice that a second UN Resolution explicitly authorising war would be the safest legal course.  D'oh.  But this is a long way from saying it is necessary.  

And disgruntled people might try to take the UK to court for an illegal war and we cannot be certain that they would not succeed”, both parts of which again fall into the bleedin' obvious category, resolution or no resolution.  

So having presented a series of such arguments in his first advice of 7th March, he drew his conclusion in his second of the 17th.  


If Iraq had failed to disarm as required by 1441 (and earlier resolutions), military action was allowed under the revived First Gulf War resolution 678, the one which authorised that war, because this been only suspended - not cancelled - by the 1991 ceasefire resolution 687.


All 1441 demanded was a “consideration”/discussion of Iraq's breaches, which duly took place, not a further decision or resolution about going to war.

And this was the essence of his second missive to Tony Blair, which presented pure advice without repeating all the pros and cons that underpinned it.  

And the other matter about leaning on Lord Goldsmith?  So what if Mr Blair did lean on him to alter his advice?  That's part of his job.  Everyone tries to persuade his lawyer.  But Goldsmith is a grown-up and responsible for his own advice and personal integrity.  So if people truly think Goldsmith in drawing up his second advice document was influenced against his better judgment by Tony's whingeing , it is Goldsmith who should resign not Tony.  

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This handsome fellow, a native of America, was believed to have been extinct since its last confirmed sighting was reported in 1944.    

But in February 2004 and several times subsequently, according to last week's Science Magazine (PDF, 585 kb), he was spotted, and fleetingly filmed, flying within a forest in Arkansas.  The point was apparently proved by grainy TV pictures revealing his unique dorsal wing pattern and audio matching of his distinctive squawk - which you can listen to here.  

The original spotter, Gene Sparling, said seeing it was the most unbelievable moment of my life” (maybe he needs to stay in more).  

There were cursory media reports about all this last week, including a blurry video clip, but nothing much about the bird itself, so like the ivory-billed woodpecker, I pecked away to find some details.  

The ivory-billed woodpecker was in his day the biggest woodpecker in America, standing 20 magnificent inches tall, with stiff tail feathers that it would lean back on.  The American Indians loved him because his striking plumage looked great in their own huge feathery headdresses, and they also used to trade his tough, ivory-white beak.  

He and Mrs Ivory Bill lived in thick lowland primary forest in the deep South near the Gulf of Mexico and each breeding pair needed 2,000 acres of timberland to live comfortably.  Great climbers thanks to two toes pointing forward and two backwards, they would nest 40 foot up a tree, where they would peck a two-foot deep cavity in which to lay a clutch of two or three eggs, though rarely.  

They enjoyed eating the fruit of magnolia and pecan trees, but their main diet - comprising 70% of intake - was Insects, many of them noxious.  This included wood-boring beetles, both adults and larvae, many caterpillars species that burrow into trees, and ants that live in and off decaying wood. Many ants are particularly harmful to timber, for if they find a small spot of decay in the vacant burrow of some wood-borers, they enlarge the hole, and as their colony is always on the increase, continue to eat away the wood until the whole trunk is honeycombed. Moreover, these insects are not accessible to other birds, and could pursue their career of destruction unmolested were it not for the appetite and skills of the ivory-billed and other woodpeckers, with beaks and tongues especially fitted for such work.  Thus they save many trees.  

But for our ivory-billed woodpecker, alas, it worked the other way round.  If the Indians didn't trap them for their feathers or ornithologists for their collections, loggers relentlessly chopped down the trees leaving nowhere for the birds to live.  So they died.  

It is a miracle, however, that a few seemed to have survived these past sixty years, far from the prying eyes of man, and in a 540,000-acre piece of land that is both forest and being re-forested.  This area is an ideal habitat for, well, 270 happy couples.  With proper conservation of the woodland, this means the numbers should with luck now slowly increase.  

For a change, an environmental story that is heart-warming instead of global-warming.   

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Ian Revue and the Inland Revenue

Many people lead double lives, some have aliases, others work under a nom-de-plum or nom-de-guerre.  

But Ian Macfarlane, who earned £138,000 a year as a conveyancing (real estate) solicitor in Dorset, took a different tack.  Back in 1996, he strolled into his bank and opened a new account in the name of (a non-existent) Mr Ian Revue with a fictitious address.  Then he began writing company cheques for stamp duty made payable “I Revue”, in bad handwriting so it looked as though the payment was being made to the Inland Revenue tax authority (“I Revenue”), and deposited them into Ian Revue's account.

It was a simple scam, and by last July, he had paid in no fewer than 163 cheques in this way, totalling £825,000.  He and his family had then had a merry old time with the proceeds.  

But he attracted attention when one day he paid in a cheque for a property that didn't need stamp duty, and so the law eventually caught up with the lawyer.  

He's currently waiting to hear the length of his jail sentence.  

The thing that puzzles me, though, which has not been raised in the press reports, is how come the Inland Revenue over a period of eight years never noticed that they weren't receiving the stamp duty they were due?  Was it an inside job?

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Quotes of Week 99

Quote: “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.  As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin reveals his love 
of the Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist murder-empire that was the USSR,
in his annual state of the nation address 
to parliament, to the country's top political leaders 
and to Orthodox Church clergy

Quote: “The purpose of the advice was to show how the war could proceed lawfully”.

Tony Blair, in defending the advice he received 
from Lord Peter Goldsmith, the Attorney General, 
reinforces the traditional instruction to lawyers, 
Don't tell me what I cannot do; 
tell me how I can do what I want to do

Quote: “From the left window I could see a women-only carriage that had toppled over.

Passenger Sadao Hayashi, 
describing the immediate aftermath 
of Japan's Amagasaki train crash, 
tells us that Japanese trains have 
women only” carriages

Quote : The President is “usually in bed by now ... If you really want to end tyranny in the world, [George], you’re going to have to stay up later ... At nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep and I’m watching ‘Desperate Housewives’ ... With Lynne Cheney.  Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife.

First Lady Laura Bush brings the house down 
at the 91st annual White House Correspondents’ dinner 
which honours award-winning journalists

Quote : “Scary is a very strange word to use to express your feeling of the possibility of seeing me on the street with hot pants ... Everyone can be still sexy after 50.

Yoko Ono, at 71, and in hot pants, 
demonstrates that she can't

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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
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
May, June, and July 2010


Published in April 2010; banned in Singapore

A horrific account of:


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


the corruption of Singapore's legal system, and


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,


part of a death march to Thailand,


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


regularly beaten and tortured,


racked by starvation, gaping ulcers and disease including cholera,


a slave labourer stevedoring at Singapore’s docks,


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


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


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.


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:


Drunk walking kills more people per kilometer than drunk driving.


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


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


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


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


Why does asparagus come from Peru?


Why are pandas so useless?


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


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:


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


Russia its military-owned businesses, such as counterfeit DVDs


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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