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This archive contains all issues prior to the current week and the three preceding weeks, which are published in 
the main Tallrite Blog (  
The first issue appeared on Sunday 14th July 2002

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bulletISSUE #11 - 6th October 2002
bulletISSUE #12 - 13th October 2002 
bulletISSUE #13 - 20th October 2002
bulletISSUE #14 - 27th October 2002

Index of All Articles in the Archive


ISSUE #14 - 27th October 2002 [70]

bulletChina's Great Famine
bulletWashington Snipers
bulletMore Innocents Die as Russia Mishandles Another Crisis
bulletNo Limits Free Diving
bulletUlrika's Date Rape
China's Great Famine

Two weeks ago I talked about the Irish Famine and its aftermath, the combined effect of which halved the population through starvation, disease and emigration over a period of ninety miserable years, underlain by an overall inability to recover economically. 

Then I came across this article by Professor Vaclav Smil in the British Medical Journal describing the ghastly Chinese Famine of 1959-62.  

Unlike the Irish Famine, the Chinese Famine was caused primarily by the deliberate action of man.  Actually, one man, Mao Tse-Tung, who in launching his “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 secured his place in history of mankind as the greatest mass-murderer of all time.  

Mao made steel-production the nation's number one priority, in fact its only priority.  Tens of millions of peasants were forced from the fields 

bullet to mine for iron, 
bullet to cut trees for charcoal, 
bullet to smelt metal, 
bullet to surrender even their cooking pots for melting down.  

The result was mainly lumps of brittle cast iron unfit for even simple tools.  

Meanwhile, food production plunged - yet (as in Ireland) food exports continued; and as the peasants starved, the political élite continued to be well fed.  This dramatically illustrates the rôle of non-representative government, in that the direct penalties of the famine were borne by one group of people (the peasants) whereas the political decisions were taken by another (the rulers).  Had the rulers been accountable to the ruled, both groups would have been forced to share the pain.  This would have ensured that the steps eventually taken as from 1962 to resolve the famine, such as opening China to grain and fertilizer imports and to freer trade, would have been implemented years earlier.  Tens of millions fewer would have perished.  

Natural factors, such as a drought in 1960-61, exacerbated the famine, yet even some of these were man-made.  Several species of birds thought to devour crops were proclaimed vermin and a nation-wide programme of slaughter ensued.  Doubtless this provided some extra protein for consumption, but it immediately led to a dramatic rise in the insect population (which was normally kept in check by the birds) resulting in increased crop losses.

Mortality figures have never been accurately gathered.  Reckonings range from 16½ to 40 million, but the most generally accepted estimates seem to be around 30m unfortunates (plus a similar number of lost or postponed births).  This chart, with the famine period shaded, shows both the official Chinese figures for the death-rate, peaking at 25 deaths per thousand in 1960, and a reconstructed rate (peaking at 44/1,000) believed to be closer to the truth.  

Huge as the 30m figure is, it represents only some 5% of China's pre-famine population of 641 million.  Moreover, it is quite remarkable as the death rate chart shows, how dramatically the population decline was arrested in 1962 once the remedial steps were begun.  The pain lasted only three years.  

Contrast this with Ireland's famine [chart updated in 2006].  Its population also declined by about 5% in the first three years 1841-44.  But after that it just kept falling and falling  - for the next ninety years until it was almost halved.  

bulletUnlike China's, Ireland's famine was not the result of deliberate, murderous government policy.  
bulletBut, again unlike China, the failure to recover was the result of gross, culpable government incompetence and disinterest.  

But at least no-one responsible for the Irish Famine or its aftermath is glorified.  To this day, even in Western society, the monster Mao Tse-Tung is revered and celebrated as some sort of icon, yet no single person is responsible for more avoidable deaths than he.  

They even name restaurants after him, for goodness sake, though I'm not going to provide links.  I would rather eat in a restaurant called Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot or Idi Amin.  

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Washington Snipers

I had wanted to write something about the Washington Snipers, but when I read Sunday Times columnist Andrew Sullivan's take on 25th October, I found I had nothing to add.  Thought provoking; well worth reading.  

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More Innocents Die as Russia Mishandles Another Crisis

Russian rulers have a centuries-old tradition of not caring about the human lives of their people.  Think of Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Lenin, Stalin and countless other imperialist leaders.  

The break up of the Soviet Empire uncovered the Russian “Federation” for what it is, a Russian Empire comprising Russia itself plus a large collection of unwilling nations, of different ethnicity, language, religion, culture, assembled by force of arms.  Little Chechnya, brutally conquered in the 19th century, is but one of these nations. 

Russian leaders disregard of human life was brutally exposed in all its fecklessness to an aghast world when the Kursk submarine sank in August 2000 killing all on board.  

bulletPresident Putin didn't want the crisis to interrupt his sunny holiday on the Black Sea; 
bullethis military leaders preferred to see the subs crew die horribly rather than suffer the humiliation of allowing foreign experts to help; 
bulletthe prime ministers thugs forcibly sedated a dead crewmember's distraught mother who shouted at him at a TV press conference. 

The whole conduct of the two Chechen wars, insofar as they have been reported on, seems to be an abject lesson in how to brutalize a nation for the sin of not wanting to remain a member of the Russian Empire.  

The recent theatre hostage crisis has provided yet another opportunity for Russian leaders to be casual about other peoples lives.  From the moment that more than 50 Chechen rebels seized Moscows Palace of Culture Theatre taking hostage the audience of some 800, it was notable how the concepts of negotiation and patience were absent from the pronouncements of Russian leaders and pundits.  Enraged, understandably, by the heinous crime, they were clearly itching to get in there and sort the rebels out.  They waited only 58 hours; negotiations were perfunctory at best.  There was no attempt to try to wear down the kidnappers emotional and physical resistance, much less seek a peaceable resolution.  

It has been stated that the rebels killed two hostages and that this was the trigger for the Russian special forces to go in, but there doesnt seem much evidence for this.  Indeed, at least one newspaper says the raid started before dawn on the basis that the rebels said they would start executing hostages at dawn, ie none had actually been executed.  

What is clear is that, in what from a military point of view seems to have been a well executed operation, the siege was forcibly ended with the death of 50 rebels and some 90 hostages (still counting) and the gassing of the rest.  A few rebels seemed to have escaped and the remainder were captured.  Only one of the soldiers died.  

In the TV footage that followed, Russian officials including President Putin were seen 

bullet congratulating themselves on the operation, 
bullet talking of having “liquidated” most of the rebels, 
bullet visiting surviving hostages in hospital.  

But from none of them was there a word of remorse for the huge loss of life among the hostages - over two killed for every rebel.  Actually, Putin did in the end make a not very convincing TV apology for the death of hostages.  

Meantime, the authorities refuse even to disclose the nature of the gas that incapacitated so many surviving hostages, thus making more difficult the task of the hospitals that are treating them.  The mystery gas was also directly responsible for many of the hostage fatalities, through heart failure, breathing difficulty and choking on vomit.  It seems likely that the gas is forbidden under international chemical weapons treaties; hence the secrecy.  

For the Russian leaders, the ending of the siege was an unmitigated success, and no churlish remarks about trivial civilian deaths or sick hostages will be allowed to sully it.  

Of course any sort of success at all vis-à-vis the Chechen War is a rare enough event.  Why don't the Russians just 

bulletdeclare victory, 
bulletgrant Chechnya the independence it craves, 
bulletwalk away and 
bulletseal the border behind them ?    

Late Note (Monday 28th) : The truth trickles out.  The hostage death toll has now risen to 115 and all but two were gassed by their rescuers. 646 remain in hospital, including 150 in intensive care. That means of the 800 hostages, 761 - 95% - are casualties.  The Russian media suggest that the deaths could double. Relatives are kept away and uninformed; the identity of the gas remains a state secret.  

But hey, there will be generous compensation - a princely £2,200 for dead hostages, £1,100 for live ones.  

The current Russian leadership continues its centuries-old tradition of not caring about the humanity of its people.  

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“No Limits” Free Diving

On October 12th, in the Dominican Republic, Audrey Mestre, a glamorous French free-diver of 27, set out to establish a new world record by diving to 165 metres (541 feet) on a single breath of air, while being filmed for an upcoming movie, “Oceanwomen”.  She was attempting to break the “No Limits” world record that her husband Pipin Ferreras set in January 2000.  Together, they were the most famous free-diving couple in the world.  

Audrey was born a water baby and got hooked on free diving through a combination of science and romance. Both her grandfather and mother were spearfishers, and from her early teens, Audrey was an accomplished scuba diver. After her family moved to Mexico, she studied marine biology at La Paz University and for her thesis examined the effect of deep diving on human lungs.

There are three main versions of free diving, each bringing you deeper :

  1. Constant Ballast or Constant Weight : Diving without any external aids other than flippers and mask.  The world record for this is 87 metres, set in April 2002.  
  2. Variable Weight : Dragging yourself down a rope anchored to the bottom.  Record 131 meters, November 2001.  
  3. No Limits  : Allowing yourself to be pulled down the rope by a 200 lb weight and brought back to the surface with the help of an inflatable balloon.  The record for this is 162 metres, which is what Audrey was trying to break. 

No Limits is the showiest, most dangerous and most exciting of the three.  It is about exploring the outer ranges in a dark, cold, lonely rush through the ocean depths.  At 70 metres the pressure is strong enough to crush a Coca Cola tin. The lungs constrict to one eighth of their capacity and the heart rate drops dramatically, redirecting the blood flow from the legs and arms to more vital areas. It hurts.  

Audrey's record attempt ended in tragedy.  Taking a huge gulp of air, she apparently reached bottom.  But on her way back to the surface, she blacked out at a depth of 90 metres. An emergency inflatable device was activated to rush her to the surface, but it was too late.  Efforts to resuscitate her were fruitless. Her dying moments, foaming at the mouth and bleeding, were stark and terrible. The dive was supposed to take only three minutes, and she had been underwater more than nine minutes.   

By its nature, No Limits pushes the body to the limits of survivability, so in a sense an eventual fatality was inevitable.  But Audrey's death will not deter adherents.  Additional safety measures will be put in place and techniques further improved.  

bullet No doubt Pippin's record of 162m will one day be successfully exceeded; and 
bullet no doubt there will be others who die. 

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Ulrika's Date Rape

Ulrika Johnson, the 34-year-old Swedish beauty, has just launched her autobiography “Honest”.  In it she claims that, when she was a TV weather girl of 19, she was date-raped by a well-known TV presenter, subsequently identified as John Leslie.  On 24th October, the Daily Mirror reported that her book says she spent four days in hospital recovering.  In a recent TV interview she talked of being “violated and raped” and that she felt a sense of responsibility towards other women in a similar situation.  Yet she is not pressing charges; she merely seems to be milking the incident to promote her book sales.            

She has put herself in a slippery situation.  


Either she was raped, in which case since she has publicised the matter, she has a duty to report it to the police, mainly to put a stop to further offences against women by the alleged rapist.  Of course it will mean going to court and trying to back up her case, which may be hard.  


Or she wasn’t raped, in which case her book is lying and she lays herself open to a suit by an outraged John Leslie for libel and hefty damages.  


Even her present do-nothing stance is fraught, because surely the police are obliged to bring a prosecution for a widely reported serious crime, when all the principal parties have been identified. (It would also help their abysmal crime-solving statistics !)

Roy Keane disclosed in his recent autobiography that he had deliberately assaulted Manchester City midfielder Alf Inge Haaland in a game in April 2001.  The TV footage clearly shows Roy aiming his boot at Alf's shin not the ball.  For this, and for publicising his intent, the Football Association punished him with a £150,000 fine plus five match ban.  Quite right too.  

Ulrika and Roy both chose, for reasons of personal reward and narcissistic delight, to bring into the public domain colourful aspects of their lives.  Celebrities such as they should realise that this kind of egotistical self-publicity brings responsibility and accountability as well as the cash.  

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ISSUE #13 - 20th October 2002 [47]
bulletKilling Fields of Bali
bulletFive Ministers Do the Work of 14 in N Ireland  
bulletN Korea Goes Apologetic … and Nuclear
bulletMilk Protest Turns Sour
bulletBBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year
bulletWorld's Funniest Joke(s)

Killing Fields of Bali

The appalling October 12th bombing, which killed over 200 people, most of them Australian youngsters on holiday, was not the first taste of hell in that erstwhile Paradise on earth known as Bali.  

Like many ex-colonies, Indonesia is an unnatural country of different nationalities, religions, languages, cultures, with no common theme.  It : 

bulletwas assembled for its spices and oil by the Dutch in the nineteenth century, 
bulletwas occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, 
bulletfought a five-year war of independence in which the future president Suharto distinguished himself, and finally 
bulletgained self-rule in 1950 with the revered Sukarno as its founder-president.  

(It's odd that many Indonesians have only one name.)  

An attempted coup d'état in 1965 by communist revolutionaries known as the PKI, which had over 1½ million members, was defeated.  

An unholy alliance of anti-communists, Islamists and the military, with General Suharto in the vanguard, then fomented a (nominally) anti-PKI purge, with the army and mobs engaged in large-scale massacres of half a million people.  This began in Bali where 80,000 were killed (an appalling 5% of its population), then spread to East-Java Province and Sumatra.  And because this was all done in the name of anti-communism, it shamefully had the support of the Western powers including the CIA.  

Out of the chaos, which included rampant inflation requiring a thousandfold devaluation of the rupiah, emerged General Suharto as supreme leader, deposing his colleague Sukarno in 1967, who died under house arrest three years later.  

In hindsight, of course, we can see that the anti-communist excuse and rhetoric were just a cover for power-consolidation and suited Suharto's purposes admirably as events proved.  He went on to misrule Indonesia for the next 31 years with a mixture of repression, cronyism, corruption and illiterate economics.  The current (unimpressive) president, Megawati Sukarnopoutri, is the daughter of Sukarno.  

So the pain associated with the tragedy of October 12th is no stranger to outwardly placid  Bali.  Perhaps the mixture of a Hindu island in a Muslim archipelago pandering to the pleasures of Christian tourists makes it irresistible to certain types of evil people.  

Meantime, the perpetrators have ensured that Australia is a fully committed and active ally of America's in the global War on Terrorism.  In time, they will pay a terrible price for their evil actions.  

You can find a detailed if incomplete history of Indonesia here.  

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Five Ministers Do the Work of 14 in N Ireland

Sinn Féin, for reasons best known to themselves, have managed to engineer the collapse of Northern Ireland’s ruling Executive, the fourth suspension since it was inaugurated. 

An interesting aspect of this is that the British Government have appointed two new ministers from the mainland, Ian Pearson (MP for Dudley South) and Angela Smith (MP for Basildon), to join the Northern Secretary, John Reid, and his colleagues, Jane Kennedy and Des Browne in running the province. 

The five of them will carry out the work previously performed, with the consultative assistance of several Assembly committees, by 

bullet David Trimble
bullet Mark Durkan
bullet ten full ministers and 
bullet two junior ministers, 

drawn from five political parties.  

In other words, the work of fourteen Northern Ireland ministers plus the committees will now be done by just five people.  In fact, since three of them were already in place, you could argue that the work of the fourteen will be done by only the two new Westminster MPs, Mr Pearson and Ms Smith. 

A year ago, I had the opportunity to go to Stormont on a visit graciously hosted by the UUP’s Chief Whip, Jim Wilson.  As this was during the third suspension of the Executive, I asked him who was running the province, and he said (with a sly smile) that civil servants were.  When I asked what the civil servants would do when the Executive was eventually reinstated he replied that they would go back to doing their normal jobs. 

In appointing Mr Pearson and Ms Smith, Dr Reid has said that he will be a hands-on Northern Secretary, willing to tackle difficult issues that Executive ministers were reluctant to act on, such as 

bullet the introduction of water charges, 
bullet taking on sectarian violence and 
bullet confronting demonstrations in north Belfast. 

In other words, by bringing in a mere two ministers Dr Reid plans to do not only the same work as the fourteen recently displaced Northern Ireland ministers, but to do more - and more difficult - work. 

We may find that the people of Northern Ireland actually prefer the services afforded by Dr Reid’s team to what they have been experiencing under their elected representatives.  That should give all political parties pause for thought, not to mention the fourteen displaced ministers who are aching to regain the responsibilities and trappings of office.  

The longer the suspension, the more you will have to question the size of the eventually reconstituted Executive and the value it gives for money. 

And one day, the people on mainland UK may enter the debate.  After all, it is they who contribute 70% of the running costs of Northern Ireland.  The natives pay only 30% and the work of the ministers therefore centres not on raising money but on spending it.  An easy portfolio.  

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N Korea Goes Apologetic … and Nuclear

It’s not often that we hear about goings on in the reclusive Stalinist dictatorship that is North Korea, suffering under the hereditary misrule of the enigmatic Kim Jong-Il, tutored at the knee of his dead founder-father Kim Il Sung.  

But suddenly two curious items occur. 


Firstly, North Korea : 

admits to kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s (how many more are there?), 




says eight of them have died, and then 


releases the remaining five back to Japan (though not their children - doubtless to ensure their parents' good behaviour).  

This has been enough for Japan to resume talks and promises of aid.  

The kidnappees, plucked from Japanese streets, smuggled to North Korea and forced to teach Japanese language and culture to North Korean spies, were of no military, scientific, political or monetary value.  All were civilians :  

One was a 13-year-old girl snatched on her way home from school. 


They nabbed an engaged couple walking along the beach in the moonlight.  


A mother of two was stolen as she dropped her children off at day care.  

Most victims were young and female (talk about soft targets).  But never mind, Kim Jong-Il has said he’s really, really sorry for all this, and has promised not to do it again.  


Then, out of the blue, the same tyrant suddenly admits via his officials that yes, he has been developing enriched uranium with the express intention of building nuclear weapons.  This is in flagrant contravention of his 1994 agreement with Japan and the Clinton administration to forego nuclear weapons in exchange for a gift of two modern nuclear power plants. 

In both cases, the surprise is not the acts themselves, which are thoroughly in character of both the man and his murderous father, but the admissions.  Based on previous patterns, North Korea has only given something when it wants - and generally gets - something huge in return.  

So the question is, what's he after this time ?  Well it's money of course, it always is.  But this time it is perhaps tinged with fear arising out of President Bush's Axis of Evil” phrase and his subsequent belligerence towards Iraq.  From Kim Jong-Il's perspective, Bush probably looks slightly mad and therefore to be treated with caution.  So once again, as in Iraq, Bush's behaviour is eliciting concessions from despots.  

The Soviet Union was defeated not by arms but by the crippling economic cost of trying to match America's arms spending under a cloud of bellicose statements (remember the evil empire”) from President Reagan.  Perhaps we are seeing signs of North Korea's collapse under similar economic pressure.  The tragedy is that the North Korean people are starving to death the longer the wicked regime remains in place.  The current per capita annual income is US$900 which is a mere twelfth of that in free, capitalistic South Korea. 

The days of the current regime are surely numbered.  

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Milk Protest Turns Sour

Good to see Scottish devolution in action in the form of Scottish children not willing to be pushed around by mindless multinational organizations from down south. 

The Scotsman newspaper (motto “Scottish News direct from Scotland”) reports that two men from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a large multinational animal rights organization), one in a cow-suit, recently conducted a protest outside an Aberdeen school to let pupils know about the claimed hazards in milk and cruelty to cows. But then in response about 100 children, carrying banners and shouting “milk for the masses”, quite reasonably pelted them with cartons of milk, until - thoroughly drenched - they had to be rescued by two gallant policewomen.  

One pupil, Alan Smith, 16, said: “I certainly won’t stop drinking milk just because a man has dressed up as a cow outside my school.” 

About time these unaccountable multinationals were brought under control, don’t you think ?    

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BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Have a look here at the delightful winning entries to this year's competition, currently on view at London's Natural History Museum.   In particular, view the overall winner - a photograph by Angie Scott of a family of elephants staring at a strutting heron in a Zambian river.  


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World's Funniest Joke(s)

The University of Hertfordshire has just competed a year of remarkable research to find the world's funniest joke.  (This is not a joke).  People from all over the world apparently sent in their favourite jokes, no fewer than 40,000 in all, and provided almost two million ratings of how funny they found other jokes.  Goodness knows how the relevant faculty of the university managed to sequester the money for this.  

As well as sifting through all the data to discover the best joke in the world, the university research also identified the jokes rated funniest by respondents in America, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Germany and the UK, along with various also-ran jokes.  Many of them are not new.  

To save you the trouble of clicking through various website pages to find them, here they are, starting with ... 

The World's Best Joke

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and ...

Ah, heck, just click here and you'll find them all, neatly assembled for your edification !

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ISSUE #12 - 13th October 2002 [39]

Suicide Bombers - A Father's Lament


Gulf War II vs Gulf War I 


Big Countries Escape EU Punishments


Population Crash


Viruses, Worms and Now Parasites 

Suicide Bombers - A Father's Lament

Abu Saber, the distraught father of a young Palestinian suicide bomber, has written a most moving letter to the Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat (translated into English by MEMRI).  He is doubly distraught because the bomb organizers are now targeting his 16-year old second son to emulate his brother.  For the bereaved family, having their home razed to the ground under the new Israeli policy is merely an aside in comparison with their heart-rending grief. 

He begins by quoting from the Koran (2:195) "Act for the sake of Allah, and do not throw yourselves to destruction with your own hands."  (Non-Muslims may not be aware that suicide is forbidden by Islam.)

Abu Saber then quite reasonably asks why the sheikhs who issue fiery religious rulings, or the leaders who express joy on TV at each suicide bombing, do not send their own sons.  Worse, he names several of them who have deliberately sent their sons abroad.  

And he points out that the "idiotic policy" (of suicide bombings) has proved a colossal failure at obtaining even a tiny part of the usurped Palestinian rights.  The suicide bombers' loss of their own lives has been futile.  

My own view on this issue is slightly different.  

If those fiery sheikhs and joyous leaders had real concern about the future of Palestine and believed in the efficacy of suicide-bombings, they would not send out youngsters.  The youth are the seedcorn for a future Palestine, prosperous in peace.  It is only they who can do the work that will provide growth and wealth for the putative nation.  They should be nurtured and educated, not destroyed.  And they are also entitled to expect a few of the good things of adult life before they die.  

So if you really do believe that sending out suicide-bombers will enhance your cause, you should look for them amongst the 60 year olds and above, 

bulletthose who are past their working prime, 
bulletwho have experienced the joy of spouses, children, grandchildren, 
bulletthose who in their now old age will be an economic burden on the future state.  

If you think the Palestinians are to be helped by suicide-bombing - which I agree with the mourning father is an "idiotic policy" - then send out granddads not teenagers.  (This will never happen, of course, because granddads are far too worldly-wise and canny to fall for the martyrdom slogans that seduce the teenagers.)  

Abu Saber has bravely  pointed out the appalling cynicism and hypocrisy of those sheikhs and leaders, and named some of them.  He had better watch his back. 

I recently (July 2006) came across this thread discussing this post in a most bizarre way - and accusing me of being a Nazi for suggesting the suicide bombers should be recruited not from young Palestinians but from the past-their-prime over 60s (which, by the way, I regrettably am). 

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Gulf War II vs Gulf War I 

Pundit Melana Zyla Vickers has written a most interesting analysis which contrasts the military aspects of 


George W Bush's forthcoming Gulf War II against the Iraqi regime with 


his father's Gulf War I.  

It describes five areas where fundamental changes will occur : 

  1. Speed : by pre-positioning men and matériel in the Gulf area, the mobilisation time will reduce from six to two months. 

  2. Long-range stealth : radar-defying, long-distance B2 stealth bombers will fly round trips out of the US and Diego Garcia.  But there are only 21 of these $2.2 billion dollar miracle aircraft.  

  3. Precision : Laser-guided precision bombs limited by cloud cover will be replaced by even more accurate satellite-guided munitions which are immune to the weather and will cause fewer civilian casualties. 

  4. Surveillance and unmanned strikes : the new Predator unmanned video-equipped remote-controlled planes used so successfully in Afghanistan can scan wide areas of the desert, and also make attacks.  This will constrain Saddam's freedom to move armaments and armies as well as improve the accuracy of selecting targets.  

  5. Strategy :  Instead of removing Saddam's army from Kuwait, this time Saddam will be removed from his army.  This narrower focus, coupled with the above technology, will apparently require only 100,000 men instead of the 500,000 that liberated Kuwait. 

Well worth reading the full report.  

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Big Countries Escape EU Punishments

As part of the plans for the single European currency, the €uro, the EU's "Growth and Stability Pact" was agreed in 1997, under great pressure from Germany's Bundesbank who feared flaky countries like Greece or Italy would undermine the €uro with profligate fiscal policies. The pact stipulates 

bullet that countries should be fiscally responsible and 
bulletthat no country may run a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, under pain of fines that can be as much as 1% of GDP. 

More than a year ago, the European Commission formally censured Ireland for proposing a budget that the Commission deemed was inflationary.  Ireland strongly rebutted this and ignored the reprimand (though it is now clear that the Commission was right !).  

Some months later, Portugal was also ticked off, for a deficit that was in danger of crossing the 3% threshold. 

But look at what's happening now, in 2002.  

Lo and behold, it is mighty Germany itself that is most likely to breach the limit. That's because of lower-than-expected economic growth, coupled with - because it would be unpopular with voters - unwillingness to rein in public-sector spending, not to mention implementation of economic restructuring.  France and Italy are in a similar predicament. 

So will these huge countries, founders and self-appointed leaders of the EU, face the mandatory reprimands and fines that the Growth & Stability Pact specifies, not to mention loss of face among their peers ? 

Of course not.  That big stick is reserved solely for little countries that can't fight back.  

Instead, the Growth & Stability Pact is now being weakened (prompted of course by the said big countries) to relax the rules and allow the miscreants a further year.  

Euro-zone finance ministers have agreed to allow Germany, France, Italy and Portugal to exceed the 3% limit from now until 2003.  

Moreover, France, still not satisfied, has said that due to "other priorities" it has no intention of reining in its deficit until at least 2004.  

Some smaller member-states have reacted with fury, demanding that the European Commission should reprimand Paris without delay, pointing out how quick they have been to reprimand small countries.  This won't happen of course.  

For many, the major negative effect of the EU's Nice Treaty will be the extension of qualified majority voting to 30 new areas.  Among other things, this will permit some EU countries to group together to protect their own interests without regard to the others.  In effect, a two-tier Europe will be enabled.  Jacque Delors, still highly influential, has talked of the more eager countries forming an avant-garde - We could have a Union for the enlarged Europe, and a Federation for the avant-garde, he said in an interview.

But, the Growth & Stability Pact has exposed the fact that a two-tier Europe is already in play - 

bullet big countries who flout the rules with impunity and 
bullet small countries who may not. 

The Nice Treaty will legitimise and so encourage such two-tiering. 

Fourteen countries have ratified it.  Only Ireland, with just 1% of the EU's population stands in the way of its formal adoption.  But it is the only country that is asking its people, rather than the parliament, to decide about Nice in a referendum.  

And when it is put to the vote on 19th October there is every possibility it will be defeated, causing Nice to turn to ashes.  Anger over the cynical approach of France, Germany and Italy to the Growth & Stability Pact will have contributed to such a result.  

Interesting times.  

Note Dated 19th October : With a respectable turnout of over 50%, Ireland has ratified the Nice Treaty, by roughly 2:1.  

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Population Crash

Imagine a peasant country, subjugated by foreign rulers, beset by a diseased harvest year after year.  People are dying in huge numbers of hunger and pestilence, while others leave in droves to find work and new lives (and racial discrimination) in faraway foreign lands, countless perishing in the process.  Meanwhile, the rich élite remain rich and even export food to the foreign rulers.  

Imagine the population crashing by one-third in three decades.  Imagine that the economic devastation is so utter that the population continues to decline for a further ninety years, until it is almost half what it was.  Imagine that 160 years after disaster first struck, the population still stands in 2002 at only 67% (73% by 2006).  

Other than the time-scale, it sounds like many African countries in this generation.  

But no, this was civilised Europe - Ireland, and the famine caused by the country-wide blight of the potato crop that was the people's staple diet, which struck in 1841.    Click on the thumbnail to view the population trend.  

Irieland's Population, from 1841 to 2006; click to expand

On a recent trip to the south west of the country, driving around the spectacular Ring of Beara, the emptiness, punctuated with deserted stone cottages, reminded me that this was once a well populated region.  But beautiful as it is, it was a harsh place, bitter and windy, especially in the winter.  All you could hope was to survive a few miserable years scraping a subsistence living.  Yet for centuries people existed like this, until the famine began to take hold in 1841 and changed the landscape forever.  The Irish famine is seared deep into the soul of every Irish person, at home and in the diaspora.  

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Viruses, Worms and Now Parasites 

We all have heard of computer viruses and worms, those malicious pieces of software that arrive as uninvited attachments from known or unknown correspondents, infect our machines and use our address books to send themselves to other victims. The newest to gain widespread publicity was the BUGBEAR worm which featured very recently in television broadcasts. I immediately updated my anti-virus software, and was glad I did because in the space of the next week, it picked up no fewer than eight incoming e-mails which contained BUGBEAR. A narrow escape. 

I use free-of-charge downloadable anti-virus software from, which so long as you update it every two weeks,  is very effective. Microsoft have a site which will scan Windows computers for security loopholes. 

However, I recently learnt something about computer parasites when I inadvertently found out I had contracted one. They typically embed themselves, silently, onto your system via free software or other items you have downloaded from the internet. They are intended to help the commercial businesses that have provided the free software, and unlike viruses and worms are not meant to be malicious as such. Parasites fall into three main categories : 

bulletAdware plagues the user with unwanted advertising; 
bulletScumware adds advertising links to web pages; 
bulletSpyware watches everything the user does online and sends the information back to marketing companies.  

In addition, because they are often badly written, parasites can degrade your system performance, cause errors and precipitate repeated crashes. 

These latter were the symptoms I have been experiencing over the last few months. However a rather mysterious company called  Doxdex gave me clear instructions of how to find and uninstall the offending software, which was called "".  Performance has much improved since.  

I would recommend you check out your own system. 

Footnote - I have no personal interest in any of these linked sites

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ISSUE #11 - 6th October 2002 [29]

Too Much Currie for the British Conservatives  




Catholic Church : A Source of Evil ?


Nature vs Nurture


Waiters Don't Get Their (Credit Card) Tips


No Money in Blogging

Too Much Currie for the British Conservatives

John Major, Tony Blair’s predecessor as British Prime Minister, was seen as a good but grey man who despite his best endeavours gradually lost control of his party and its agenda.  After six years of steady decline in the fortunes of the Conservatives, he was unceremoniously turfed out of 10 Downing Street in 1997 in a landslide defeat.  His ascension up the greasy political pole had been spectacularly fast and stealthy, like a shark rising from the deep.  He was first elected to Parliament in 1979, in two years he was a parliamentary private secretary, became a whip in 1983, a minister in 1986 and chancellor (finance minister) in 1990.  When Margaret Thatcher was ditched in 1991, he was elevated to party leader and PM at the start of the First Gulf War, because he was seen as the man least likely to rock the boat or offend anyone, attributes which he more or less fulfilled. 

But what’s this ?                    

Edwina Currie, another one-time Minister under Mrs Thatcher, whose ministerial career came to an abrupt halt in 1988 when she announced, truthfully, that all eggs contain salmonella bacteria to a greater or lesser degree, has suddenly published her memoirs (“Edwina Currie Diaries, 1987-1992”), and they include four years of steamy passion with none other than said grey John Major. 

The affair ended in 1988 and has been secret until now.  Had it come out during Mr Major’s own ministerial career, that too would have stopped dead in its tracks.  This would have resulted in a different party leader and quite possibly the earlier return of ("Old") Labour to power, and God knows how differently British contemporary history might have developed. 

The Conservatives, already reeling with stories about 

bullettheir disgraced ex-grandee Lord Archer defying the day-release terms of his prison sentence for perjury, 
bullettheir current leader having curry dumped on him by an aggrieved voter, and 
bullettheir poll performance stuck doggedly in the doldrums, 

are furious about the Major/Currie revelation. 

But whom are they annoyed at and why ?  

Well, it is Edwina who is the object of their ire, for her effrontery in publicising the affair.  Tories rage at Currie treachery over Major”, screams the Sunday Times (though unfortunately the online article is subscription-only).  David Mellor, former Conservative minister whose own ministerial career was ended by a sex scandal, calls Mrs Currie "a cheap trollop".  

No-one is criticising John Major for embarking on the affair, though in doing so he broke his solemn marital vows.  No-one is criticising Mrs Currie for the same thing. 

No.  It is the messenger who has committed the cardinal sin, the sin of revealing naughty behaviour.  The naughty behaviour itself is perfectly acceptable. 

Chutzpah or what !

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In his book The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten defines chutzpah as being possessed of the ability, having murdered both your parents, to plead for mercy on the grounds that you are an orphan. 

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Catholic Church : A Source of Evil ?

Professor Richard Dawkins is a controversial professional atheist who has written several books on themes of logic and atheism.  His atheism is more than just non-belief in God, it is an aggressive anti-religionism of the sort that in earlier times resulted in the destruction of churches and slaughter of priests, in for example, Leninist Russia, republican Spain, Maoist China. 

In a recent interview with Dubliner Magazine in Catholic Ireland, he asserted that the Catholic church is “one of the forces for evil in the world” and that it is a lesser sin for a priest to molest a child (an act with a finite end) than to instil the child with Catholic beliefs (a lifetime brainwashing). 

This is truly an outrageous assertion and an unacceptable downgrading of paedophilia as a crime. 

The essence of the Catholic faith, as first articulated by Jesus Christ, is to love your neighbour as yourself.  How anyone can view such a philosophy as a source of evil is beyond me, and if all children could be “brainwashed” to follow it throughout their lives the world would be a better place.  Of course there are many Catholics, clerics and lay alike, who do not follow Christ’s teaching, but their evil behaviour does not make the teaching evil.  Just as the 9/11 bombers were not following the precepts of Islam, so paedophile priests and nuns are not following the precepts of the Catholic Church.  As I discussed in an earlier item entitled “Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse”, paedophile clerics are, in any case, only a tiny minority. 

But then the Catholic Church itself often seems incapable of not shooting itself in the foot from time to time, in a way that invites cynicism and ridicule.  

According to the Irish Times, a Monsignor Andrew Baker - of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, no less - recently made some extraordinary statements regarding homosexuality, including these choice phrases -


"... homosexual tendencies are aberrations that can and should be addressed by both the individual and by competent experts with the aid of behavioural sciences as well as by spiritual means, including prayer, the sacraments and spiritual direction ..".


"... homosexuals may be more familiar with certain patterns and techniques of deception and repression ... "


"Nor can a homosexual be genuinely a sign of Christ's spousal love for the church ... "


"if the homosexual could be healed from such a disorder, then he could be considered for admission to the seminary and possibly to Holy Orders, but not while being afflicted with the disorder".

In effect, the Vatican seems to be saying that homosexuality is a curable disease.  Like leprosy.

As a practicing Catholic, I am utterly shocked by this reprehensible attitude and can imagine little that is more un-Christlike and therefore un-Catholic than sentiments such as these in respect of people unlucky enough to be born gay. 

Suppose the word "black" or "disabled" were substituted for "homosexual" ???

With people like the Monsignor to defend Catholicism, you have to have some sympathy with the likes of Professor Dawkins who see it is a source of evil.  

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Nature vs Nurture

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, has been making money on the lecture circuit lately, promoting his book “The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature”.  

He propounds the preposterous theory - 

bulletthat babies are not born with identical personalities and abilities; 
bulletthat at birth they each possess possess an innate human nature; 
bulletthat they are born different.  

As they grow up, these differences grow or diminish depending on how they are raised.  Their personalities at adulthood are therefore a function of both nature and nurture, not just nurture. 

This has outraged many left wing liberals who believe 

bulletthat babies' minds are a blank slate, 
bulletthat individuality is solely the product of culture and socialization, and 
bulletthat a genetically-influenced brain would cause an existence devoid of responsibility, meaning and purpose. 

Professor Pinker’s findings seem to astonish everyone - except for anyone who has ever had any contact with growing children.  

What astonishes me is the contrasting readiness with which some people will accept that humans are born with genetically-dictated physical differences - such as skin colour, height, muscularity, disease susceptibility.  No-one seems to deny that, in general, 

bulletblacks are good at sprint events, browns at long distance running; 
bulletblacks at heavy-weight boxing, whites at swimming; 
bulletblacks are more susceptible to sick-cell anaemia, whites and women to multiple sclerosis;
bulletsome babies are born disabled.  

Yet these same people will deny that there might be genetically-dictated differences that dwell in the head, such as differences in personality or mental ability.  

Dr Pinker puts the lie to all that.  People are the result of both their birth and their upbringing.  For better or for worse.  

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Waiters Don't Get Their (Credit Card) Tips

I was astonished to learn that waiting and other staff in restaurants don't necessarily receive the tips that customers add to credit card slips when they use this method to pay their bills.  

Not only that, but a recent EU court case has ruled that the restaurant management may count such tips towards meeting their obligation to pay employees the statutory minimum wage.  Apparently, the legal title to the tips rests with the restaurant because that is who the credit card slips are made out to.   

So before you add a tip to your credit card slip, ask whether the waiters will receive it.  If not, give them cash.  

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No Money in Blogging

I have sometimes been asked whether I make any money out of blogging.  I don't.  It's a labour of love. Fellow-blogger John Scalzi expresses it much better than I in this piece.  

Clay Shirky explains why - 

bulletIt is that blogs destroy the intrinsic value [of conventional publishing], because they are a platform for the unlimited reproduction and distribution of the written word, for a low and fixed cost. No barriers to entry, no economies of scale, no limits on supply.”   

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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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