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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
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September 2005
bulletISSUE #108 - 4th September 2005
bulletISSUE #109 -30th September 2005

ISSUE #109 - 30th September 2005 [228]

bulletShocked by Shell Shock
bulletGalloway & Hitchens Debate Iraq
bulletMao Demoted
bulletRight-Wingers Are No Good at Music
bulletQuotes of Week 109

Shocked by Shell Shock

In January 2004, Shell got itself into deep trouble when it had to admit it had been overstating its reserves.  Reserves are the amount of oil (and gas) a company thinks it has access to and can produce economically.  So the more it has, the more it's worth.  Thus if, like Shell, you have to downgrade your previous reserves statements by 4.4 billion barrels out of your portfolio of 20 billion barrels, you are destroying some 20% of your shareholders' wealth.  No wonder the markets were mad and forced out the chief executive Sir Phil Watts and the head of exploration and production Walter van de Vijver.  It later emerged that both had been aware of a reserves problem for at least a year and that Sir Phil actively conspired to keep this secret.  This surprised me: I had always considered he was a bad choice for the job (on the Peter principle that he had exceeded his level of competence), but never a crook, who now doesn't dare go to America for fear of being thrown in jail.  

The initial downgrade was a massive 3.9 billion barrels, but this figure expanded to 4.4 as Shell did more and more internal homework, and indeed it may yet grow larger.  

Reserves can be overstated for a variety of non-crooked reasons, some technical others managerial.  For example, 


the reservoir engineers can simply be incompetent; 


the internal review process that is supposed to oversee reserves calculations can be deficient; 


the data on which reserves are calculated may be poor without anyone realising it; 


there is always an incentive for a company to increase its reserves - 

indeed, many agreements with governments, for example that between Shell and Nigeria, provide specific cash rewards for finding new reserves; 


moreover, for each OPEC country, the higher your reserves the higher your production quota; 


direct rewards for staff who are able to increase reserves will encourage them to err on the side of the larger numbers; 


managers penalised if reserves decrease will feel disinclined to apply full rigour to reserves calculations when things are looking down.  

From my own experience (see disclaimer below), and notwithstanding the chicanery of Sir Phil, I am sure the majority of Shell's downgrade of reserves is due to factors such as these.  This is not a defence, but it makes the matter more understandable.  Worryingly, you can be sure that the problem is not by any means confined to Shell as nearly everyone in the industry is subject to similar influences.  

Millions of words have been written about the Shell débâcle, and I recently read Shell Shock” by Ian Cummings and John Beasant, with the subtitle “The Secrets and Spin of an Oil Giant”.  

The first half is devoted to a rather well-presented history of the Shell group; the second half is a naked attack.  

What struck me about the book was the constant innuendo that Shell was single-mindedly devoted to malign practices.  Furthermore, insofar as my own knowledge was concerned of specifics, those specifics are wrong or distorted to serve the pre-ordained assumption of malignancy on the part of the industry in general and Shell in particular.  

The modern hydrocarbon industry began with an oil discovery by a courageous entrepreneur Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania in 1859, and at $20 a barrel this sparked an immediate boom among the rapaciously greedy” (p40). This gratuitous language suggests that had it been, say, $20 shoes that were discovered ($432 in 2005 money), only ladies and gentlemen of refinement would have deigned to develop them.   And when due to the success of the rapacious and greedy, the price dropped two years later to 10¢ ($2.16 today), the industry was branded one of “crises and extremes, feast and famine, boom and bust”.  

Henri Deterding, an early boss of Shell's partner Royal Dutch is rightly portrayed as a Nazi in his later life.  But when the company is for no reason called an impressively large dunghill” and he is disparaged for describing the Soviet regime, accurately, as  murderous anti-Christ[s]” (p113), the authors make clear the ideology that commands their own admiration.  This a blunt warning of their anti-capitalist agenda and bias.  

Much is made of the recent massive change” to Shell's so-called bizarre ... crazy ” (p135).  All that has happened is that the Group's two holding companies, Royal Dutch and Shell Transport & Trading, have been merged into one holding company, Royal Dutch Shell.  It's been complicated to execute, but is essentially a very simple change, albeit long overdue. 

The thrust of the book is that Shell, for its own amoral profit-seeking purposes, suborns governments, armies and police forces all over the world, to bend to its will.  And it uses skilful propaganda to conceal the wickedness of its deeds, not only from the world but even from its own staff.  

No fewer than 48 pages are devoted to provide examples from Nigeria and Oman.  Let me share some of the half-truths and distortions, because having spent twelve years there, during some of the periods analysed, I have a first-hand perspective.  

O m a n

PDO, which produces nearly all of Oman's oil, is a 60% government owned company; Shell holds 34% and also has a technical services agreement.  

Among many distortions, the book asserts that Shell masterminded the overthrow of the current Sultan's father in 1970, as well as the activities of the British Army in subduing various rebel tribes.  These are ridiculous claims, whose main substantiation is that the Sultan once purportedly referred a military question to the local Shell CEO (p166).  Part of Shell's spinning (actually the Oman government's) is that the overthrow was “nearly bloodless”: the authors strongly dispute this.  They say that the body count was ... just two (p172).   So there.  

They imply that the offshore loading facilities have harmed the marine environment and turtle-hatching sites (p168/9).  This is totally untrue: anyone who has been out in a boat or dived in the placid waters or swum from the delightful beaches will attest that the area around the oil facilities is one of the healthiest, most pristine environments for fish, mammals and turtles in the Indian Ocean; I several times snorkelled among shoals of tiny baby turtles struggling gamely to reach deep water.  Spills are rare, miniscule and instantly cleaned up, and marine life actively seek out the protected oil installations to congregate and breed.  

The authors tell us that the government's spending of its oil wealth (under Shell's direction of course) was both so parsimonious as to keep the population in poverty (p170) and so prolific as to be “incendiary” (p173).  

They wander further from the truth when they try to blame Shell for supposedly destroying the oil reservoirs.  But in a singular display of incoherence, they simply show their own ignorance of the role of horizontal wells, multilateral wells, enhanced oil recovery, 4D seismic and other technologies in oilfield development. 

Finally, they abhor the agreements that Shell and the Oman government have freely signed, because they impose certain obligations and rights on both parties.  They believe that Shell should unilaterally break these contracts in order to take less and give more. This does not even bear comment.  

N i g e r i a

The pages on Nigeria continue in similar vein.  

The recurring theme is that the oil companies (and especially Shell) are plunder[ing] the country's resources, while abandoning the  people of the Niger Delta to poverty, unemployment, pollution and subsequent disease (p207) and that Shell is associat[ing] itself with military action” (p211).  

This is all a gross distortion.  


Since before the Biafran civil war of 1967-70, Shell has been by far the largest producer of Nigerian oil, yet always under agreements signed with the government of the day, under which it paid (and pays) full royalties and taxes, and accepted forcible nationalisation of 60% of its operation following the 1973 oil crisis.  If this is plundering”, then so is my local Tesco.  

Poverty, Unemployment

Like most nations, Nigeria has a central treasury that collects all taxes from the country, and then uses these for national and local expenditures (at least what's left after ministers have looted).  It is not the job of local industry to take over the funding and building of local roads, schools and hospitals, in fact to do so would be to subvert the central government.  

That said, it is in local industry's own interest to source employment locally and to try in a small way to assist in social developments, such as helping out with schools, medical services, agriculture.  This is exactly what Shell has been doing in Nigeria for the past 40 years.  I well remember in the early 1970s, for example, Shell's numerous schemes to help local farmers with new seeds, different growing techniques, various marketing strategies, innovative schemes such as combining fish and poultry farms to gain synergies (the chickens eat fish byproducts, the fish eat the chicken waste).  Such efforts continue today and are well appreciated.  

But they are never enough, because the central government systematically denies the oil-producing regions even the small percentage of their oil proceeds that have been agreed (up to 13%, p213).  This is why the areas have remained for five decades infrastructurally undeveloped and their people in penury.  


This is the protestors' favourite, and we've all seen pictures of oil pools in swampy areas of Nigeria, read stories of farmers' lands  being ruined, seen video-clips of people getting burnt in fires from leaking pipelines.  The accusation is that Shell pollutes with carefree abandon, its eye solely on profit (though how would pollution be profitable?).  

Well, here's the truth.  

Though it is rare, pipelines do sometimes leak, as a result of corrosion and/or poor welding, or sometimes accidental damage (usually by a vehicle).  Shell in Nigeria (and elsewhere, in common with most other responsible oil companies) is meticulous about promptly identifying leaks and moving swiftly to repair them, clean up the damage and make good any losses.  

The vast majority of leaks, however, are perpetrated with a hacksaw for one of two reasons.  

Either - in the case of crude oil - to pollute land in order to gain compensation, or at the least to get casual work for the clean up.  I have personally witnessed this many times, and farmers will be quite frank that compensation can be more profitable than crops. These leaks get the same rapid response as the accidental leaks; an added dimension is the plentiful opportunity to get dramatic photographs before Shell arrives.  

Or - in the case of gasoline - to steal the fuel for sale, export or own use.  Shell operates no gasoline lines at all, they are all run by the national oil company.  It is these lines, not ruptures of Shell's pipes containing crude (which doesn't easily ignite), that give rise to those dreadful fires.  

Meanwhile, to create a good narrative, you need only to film a handful of pre-clean-up leaks and raging fires.  And then you can use those clips over and over again, implying that each is of a fresh spill.  


This is a catch-all accusation, which covers malaria and countless other maladies of the fetid jungle and swamp.  These have no connection to the oil industry except insofar as the central government fails to use its vast oil revenues for adequate health services.  

Association with Military Action

There are two issues here.  

Firstly, for 29 of its 45 years of independence, Nigeria has been ruled by military dictatorships, which the UN unfailingly recognized.  Shell, in common with all companies within the country, had no choice but to accept these administrations as legitimate, to which royalties and taxes were payable.  While a foreign company may lobby for change, it can never declare that it does not accept a particular government and will pay its taxes to someone else or not at all.  Yet precisely because Shell does not act in such a way, the authors consider Shell is associating itself with whatever military action the current regime engages in.  

It's a ridiculous line of argument.  

The other issue concerns what happens if attacks are mounted against Shell.  

Some 500 policemen from the Nigerian police force are permanently seconded to Shell, which is solely responsible for their salaries, training, welfare, promotions etc.  An unarmed force whose commanding officer reports to a Shell manager, its job is to provide security to Shell's installations and people.  

In October 1990, anti-Shell demonstrations at Shell installations grew so violent that its own policemen could not cope.  So, for the first and only time, Shell did what almost anyone would do in the West when attacked - it called the Commissioner of Police for assistance.  But this proved a disastrous misjudgment because he sent one of his thuggish “kill and go” squads, which did just that leaving eighty dead and countless homes destroyed (p218).  

However it is Shell, not the Commissioner, who gets the blame for this and ever since has acquired a reputation for calling up the death squads whenever the slightest threat occurs.  

The truth is more prosaic.  Shell learnt a bitter lesson that day, and ever since, whenever it can't cope with the level of violence, it simply shuts down the relevant installation for the period that it is threatened - in some cases for years, losing millions of dollars.  This is not the behaviour of an amoral profit-seeker.   

Most of the anti-Shell sentiment derives from wrongs committed against Ogonis and other tribes where Shell is operating, and from the unwarranted execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 (for alleged murder following a perfunctory trial).  The Ogonis have legitimate grievances - their oil is being extracted for negligible benefit and Saro-Wiwa was hanged for speaking out.  But these were the result exclusively of government action and inaction, not Shell's.  

However because it is far too dangerous to demonstrate against the Nigerian government, who would mow down protestors in an instant, Shell is the soft target with plenty of money and no intention of opening fire.  

Blaming Shell is a no-brainer.  


I have spent time over these two country issues because I know a lot about them and know that the majority of what is written is patently false or misleading. And so much of the rest of “Shell Shock” takes a similar approach that its few genuine messages and concerns get swamped in the morass.  

Thus the book singularly fails to analyse the one issue it purports to address:  how did Shell end up overstating its reserves, across the world, by 20%?  At the end you'll be none the wiser unless you believe it was all a sinister conspiracy.  

The vitriol has blinded the authors.  

But I have to admit that the quality of writing is excellent.  It is highly readable, though not what you'd call entertaining.   

Nevertheless, I was shocked by Shell Shock.  

Disclaimer : I worked for Shell for thirty years 
in eight countries including Oman and Nigeria

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Galloway & Hitchens Debate Iraq

Gorgeous” George Galloway is a wonderful orator who claims to be pro-Left and rabidly anti-war, and recently made a Senate sub-committee look foolish when they questioned him about his links to Saddam Hussein.  Actually, he is pro-war.  He reminds me of those football and rugby world-cup fans who wear T-shirts that read ABE, meaning “Anyone but England”.  Galloway's pro-war philosophy in any conflict is to support “Anyone but America and Britain”, and that means Iraqi insurgents, the dictator of Syria, Hamas and countless other unsavoury characters whose common characteristic is that they want to  stop democracy and kill white Christians.  

Christopher Hitchens is an equally eloquent journalist, also nominally Left-ish, who supports the Bush/Blair enterprise and has developed a vitriolic disgust of Galloway.  

Earlier this month they agreed to a two-hour public debate on the motion “The Iraq war of 2003 was just and necessary.” Though it ends disappointingly, just kind-of fizzling out like a damp squib, it represents a wonderful record of debating skills at their best.  

To hear a 45-minute edited version, go either to this or tune in directly here.  Then draw your own conclusion about 

  1. whose argument is stronger (my vote goes to Hitchens) and 

  2. who is the better debater (a dead heat).  

Don't miss it.  

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Mao Demoted

I sometimes seem to be an oddball.  I don't like people who murder.  And the more they murder the less I like them.  And I still don't like multi-murderers even after they're dead.  And the multi-murderer I dislike most is Mao Zedong because he killed, depending on what sources you consult, between 50 and 70 million of his own countrymen, which is far more than anyone has achieved in the entire history of humanity. 

Not even Stalin matched that, much less Hitler, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung or the Hutu wild men in Rwanda.  

So I have been waging a rather low-key campaign against a restaurant chain in Dublin called Mao, to make it change its name.  It is an attractive looking establishment which serves delicious Chinese and so-called fusion food, but under the watchful eye of several very large Maos painted on the walls.


But I just believe it is grossly immoral to express anything other disgust for this repugnant, blood-thirsty man.  

During June, I had a letter published on this subject in the (subscription-only) Irish Times, in which I said I would never set foot in a cafe called Mao.  

This prompted an invitation to join a radio chat-show called Liveline, where I was astonished to encounter people - both Chinese and Irish - who actually defended Mao.  One of them disputed the multi-million death toll on the basis that I hadn't personally counted every corpse.  Nevertheless, I definitely got the better of the discussion.  

Then, earlier this  month, the Sunday Business Post, an Irish weekly, interviewed me because the Mao restaurants have now taken down their hero's portrait and replaced it with pictures of a small boy, though they couldn't resist decking out the unfortunate little fellow in a miniature Mao suit.  Nevertheless, it is the first little bit of success, the first time the owners have bowed to (or even acknowledged) public pressure.  

Here's what the article said ... 

Following a series of letters to newspapers, RTE's Joe Duffy ran a radio debate on the topic. One of the interviewees was Diarmaid McDermott of Goatstown in Dublin, who had written to the [subscription-only] Irish Times:

Dubliners are expected to eat at restaurants where this vicious dictator's face peers down at them from the walls.

Would Dubliners eat so comfortably at a Cafe Hitler or Cafe Stalin, or even at a Cafe Saddam? I think not.

Another interviewee, management consultant Tony AIIwright of Killiney, Co Dublin, described Mao Zedong as 

the most evil and depraved man that history has produced.

I would sooner feast in Cafe Hitler, Cafe Stalin, Cafe Saddam, Cafe Pol Pot, Cafe Pinochet, Cafe Ho Chi Minh, Cafe Kim Il Sung and son and countless others than set foot in Cafe Mao, he wrote to the Irish Times. I challenge its owners to defend their disgraceful choice of name, or change it.

Images of the Chinese despot were removed from the Mao restaurants about three weeks ago and replaced by pictures of a young boy in a Mao-style suit.

However, the name of the restaurant has remained the same and the Dun Laoghaire branch continues to feature etched images of Mao on its glass doors.

Allwright told The Sunday Business Post

It's a step in the right direction. Anything that reduces the amount of glorification for the greatest mass murderer in humanity is a good thing. Now I think they should consider changing the name.

Calls to [the founder Graham] Campbell were not returned.  

So with this Mao-demotion encouragement, I think it's now time for me to go back to the attic, get down the placards, dust them off and return to the barricades. 

Long live the Revolution.  

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Right-Wingers Are No Good at Music

Passionate Left vs Logical RightI'm a subscriber to Tech Central Station, which produces some pretty well argued, Right-leaning commentary on various topical issues, week after week.  In fact more than I have time to read.  

But their latest offering is a musical one, The 70s Bunch, which purports to decry the petroleum price regulation carryings-on in the US during the 1970s, of such luminaries as Jimmy Carter and Senator Byron Dorgan (who?).  

Frankly it is a pretty grim song.  


A melody for which the adjective turgid was invented, 


singers who - how shall I put this - would do no credit to a primary school chorus for the vocally challenged, 


lyrics for which rhyme, rhythm and coherence are alien concepts.  

I have written previously about the logical Right and passionate Left”.  By that I mean that logic always lies on the side of Right wing ideology.  As a result the Left must resort to passion because what they say makes no sense at all and they know it.  

To put this another way, the Right use the left-side of their brain, which is the part that is strong on reason.  The Left use the right-side, where artistry lies.  Left, right, It's all very confusing.  

But the ghastly little 70s Bunch song illustrates the point perfectly.  The Right is no good at anything artistic.  The people at Tech Central Station should stick to using rational arguments to advance their case and lay off the silly and embarrassing ditties.  

Leave the songs to the Left.  They're much better at it.  Just think of “Give peace a chance” and “Where have all the flowers gone”, “Imagine” to mention just three golden oldies.  No right wing ideologue could ever come up with such beautiful words and melodies.  Furthermore, when the Left are singing they're not doing any damage.  

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Quotes of Week 109  

Quote: “There is an overwhelming consensus of academic institutions that the call for structural reform - made not just by us but also by the commission, IMF, OECD and others - is not matched by delivery. Those who have been doing these reforms have been magnificent performers. I quote Ireland” 

Jean Claude Trichet, 
president of the European Central Bank, 
holds up Ireland as an example of 
how countries can succeed within the €uro zone.  

However, it and Finland are the only examples


I think I may need a bathroom break? Is this possible?” 

The President of the United States 
of America consults, 
in writing, with 
his Secretary of State 
during a United Nations world summit meeting
of heads of state and government
held in New York in September 2005.

It is not known whether she granted him permission

Quote: Great ” 

TV motoring presenter Jeremy Clarkson, 
on having a pie shoved in his face by Rebecca Lush 
who thinks he is cavalier on environmental issues. 

He had just been awarded an honorary degree 
by Oxford Brookes University 
for promoting the engineering profession.

Rebecca piously informed the media that the pie was 
a fair trade organic home-baked banana meringue, 
chosen because I knew that 
every politically correct element of it 
would irritate Motor Mouth all the more

So that makes the assault OK then.  

Quote: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” 

Released last week, these were the last words of 
Pope John Paul II, mumbled in his native Polish, 
3½ hours before he slipped into a coma and 
six hours before he died at 9:37 pm on 2nd April 

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

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ISSUE #108 - 4th September 2005 [150+364=514]

bulletAbuse à Liberation à Pain à Reconstitution
bulletA Doctor Lives through Katrina in New Orleans
bulletGiant Leatherback Turtle
bulletChinese Magic Square
bulletQuotes of Week 108

Abuse à Liberation à Pain à Reconstitution

Imagine there is someone who has control over you and doesn't like you.  A lot. He beats you regularly.  He uses a baseball bat to crack your ribs and smash the odd elbow or shin.  He uses the bull whip to lacerate your back.  He throws boiling water on you to inflict third degree burns.   This goes on for a long period of time.  Somehow, despite your pain and misery you survive.  

Then one day, someone comes along, removes your tormentor and gets you to hospital.  

Do you wake up the following morning, bright, full of the joys of spring and leap out of bed to resume your life and fulfill your lifelong dreams?  Perhaps your saviour even expects you to act this way.  

But no, you are on life-support, trussed up in bandages, splints and plaster casts, being fed by a tube through your nose.  You are on drugs but the pain is still excruciating.  And it will get worse.  You face months of agonising reconstructive surgery and excruciating physiotherapy to restore you to your former active and presentable self.  Mistakes will be made, infections will break out, which will cause you more pain to put right.  And you will need extensive counselling to try to restore your cerebral balance after the mental trauma that you have suffered.  

At the end of the process, maybe a year or more later, you will emerge a new person, repaired as best possible in body and mind.  You will be wearier, warier, wiser, but able to pick up the threads of your life and start again.  Most of your family will support you, and your children will be largely undamaged by your experience.  Certainly their own children will be completely undamaged.  

So in a maximum of two generations, your suffering will have been completely overcome”.  

Is this kind of scenario fanciful?  Surely what is fanciful is an expectation that the pain will disappear the day after your rescue.  

So why then do we expect traumatised countries and societies to recover the moment they are liberated?  Not only is this instinctively a ridiculous expectation, but recent history all round us provides plenty of evidence that that is not the way things can happen. 


Germany and Japan, so devastated after World War 2 that hardly anyone had the heart for any further insurgency or civil strife, still took some ten years before the lives of their people began noticeably to improve.  


We saw how Yugoslavia exploded the moment the despotic hands first of Tito (who died in 1980) then of Soviet communism a decade later were removed.  Republics seceded left and right, while Serbs, Croats and Muslims descended into a bitter triangular war whose nadir was the Srebrenica massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims, the worst on European soil since WW2.  


Ever since the abomination of Communism was lifted from Russia, it has been stumbling haphazardly towards democracy, but through a fog of corruption and incompetence, whilst many of its own colonial fiefs (especially Chechnya) have risen up in bloody rebellion.  To this day, it has a long way to go before becoming a proper liberal democracy with respect for human rights, and opportunities for everyone to advance.  Its people suffered under the jackboot of Marxism/Stalinism for seventy long years and despotic Tsarism before that.  How can it be expected to fix itself overnight?  


Liberated Central and Eastern Europe, with the foul taste of that jackboot lingering in its mouth, is still struggling to find its balance and to raise the living standards of its people, with progress becoming less certain as you move eastward.  

the ongoing poverty and second-class citizenship of East Germans despite multi-billion cash infusions from their  Western brethren;   


the persistently high unemployment in places like Poland (20%); 


The colourful democratic revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine; 


the chaotic, people-power expulsion last March of the Communist deadbeat dictator Askar Akaev of Kirgiszstan. 

These all illustrate that recovery from an abusive relationship is indeed a slow and difficult process.  


Even Ireland learnt that instant freedom does not result in instant nirvana.  After 700 years of colonising the country, the British marched out (of 26 counties) in 1922 and a one-year civil war immediately broke out between those who favoured the terms of the withdrawal and those who didn't.  It would take another seven decades before Ireland would really start growing, both economically and in population terms.  

And so to Iraq.  I confess that I was one of those warmongers who expected the Iraqis to welcome the American invader-liberators both with flowers and with an enthusiasm to build a new, Saddam-free, democratic Iraq, given half the chance.  Insurgency was not even on the radar.  In retrospect that was naive.  For over thirty long years, Saddam was brutal ... 


in suppressing the Shi'ites, Kurds and marsh-Arabs, and indeed the non-Tikriti Sunnis, 


in launching unnecessary but bloody wars against Iran and Kuwait that killed hundreds of thousands, 


in his relentless pursuit of WMD (yes, that's right, and they included chemical and  nuclear weapons - remember Osirak), 


in his pillaging of national oil wealth both for himself and to bribe others, 


in his routine use of torture as an instrument of policy, 


in his grooming of his two vile sons to continue in the family tradition when time time came for Dad to depart.  

A beaten, bloodied, bowed society was the inevitable consequence.  As inevitable, is that the cure will be long and unpleasant.  And that's precisely what we've been seeing, ever since the first days of liberation unleashed joyous looters onto the streets of Baghdad, followed not long after by the beginnings of the insurgency.  

Yet the positive progress should not be ignored.  It is the only Arab country governed by a properly, openly, justly elected assembly.  Ever.  In the history of Arabia.  Reconstruction is continuing apace in those parts of the country where the insurgency is not active, which is the majority by far.  

And a constitution (pdf, 99 kb) will soon be put to the people, which despite the under-representation of Sunnis when it was negotiated (due to their decision to boycott the election in January), still gives them as much as they can reasonably hope for, given that their leadership days are over since Iraq is now democratic and Sunnis constitute only 20% of the population.  What they get is 

  1. 20% of hydrocarbon revenues (ie in proportion to their population), administered centrally; 

  2. a legal system based on both Islam and secularism; 

  3. bolstered by a guaranteed 25% parliamentary representation for women;  

  4. a federal system that gives them a large degree of autonomy in the areas where they are in the majority.  

Don't knock that 20% by the way.  Iraq, when it eventually calms down, has massive production potential and reserves.  A recent publication (pdf 2.8Mb, page 8) by the Society of Petroleum Engineers puts the production potential of the fields in the south at 5-6 million barrels per day, to add to the existing million from the north.  At $60/bbl, that's $400 million per day, of which 20% for the Sunnis.  They also get 20% of the proceeds of undiscovered reserves, reckoned at 50-100 billion barrels.  And that's not to even talk about Iraq's huge gas deposits.    

Not bad for a grouping that has no oil of its own.  Moreover, it is also more than its people were getting from Iraq's decrepit oil industry under Saddam, not that the average Sunni did that well once Saddam, his family, his cronies and his fellow-Tikritis had had their  share of looting. 

The other three features listed above (ie b, c and d) can only bolster the Sunnis' standing in the new Iraq.  The only thing that they will not get ever again, is minority power over the Shi'ites and Kurds and others.  Those days are gone forever and in their hearts they cannot fail to know it.  Even civil war will not restore their power.  In fact a civil war will likely result either in military defeat and subjugation by the majority Shi'ites or else independence for an oil-free Sunnistan, with anything but a sunny future.  What's currently on offer is infinitely better. 

As for the non-Sunnis, under the new constitution, they're all facing concessions that they don't like as well. 


Shi'ites don't like sharing power or oil and many have no truck with secularism or female representation, preferring to see Iraq turned into an Islamic theocracy with close links to Shi'ite Iran. 


Kurds want a completely independent Kurdish state, rather than to be part of an Iraqi confederacy, and they want more control over the northern hydrocarbon deposits than they're getting. 


Christians, Turkomen, Assyrians and other minority religionists fear being submerged, and are terrified of Sharia law emerging notwithstanding the constitution's words about secularism. 

But that's what any constitution is all about.  Trying to wend a path that gives most people most of what they want, whilst recognizing that everyone has to put up with compromises. 

When Iraqis are invited to vote on their constitution, expect a huge turnout, which will, alone, be another gigantic step forward for Iraqi (and Middle East) democracy.  The Sunnis realise their mistake in boycotting January's elections and won't want to repeat it. 

They would be foolish to reject the constitution.  But a failure to ratify would be just another sideways step on the rocky road to Iraqi democracy.  The constitution would simply have to be renegotiated by a convention that would then include properly mandated Sunnis.  It would be very surprising if, however, the outcome were to differ that much from the existing document, which already gives so much to Sunnis.  And it would be truly astonishing if it were to be rejected for a second time. 

There is no doubt.  Iraq remains on the road to true democracy.  It will (eventually) ratify a fresh constitution.  And this is not the time for the Coalition to give up on it, as many on the left would advocate. 

The path from Saddam's abuse, to Iraq's liberation, through its pain, to arriving at a new (re)constitution is long and difficult.

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A Doctor Lives through Katrina in New Orleans

Dr Greg Henderson is a pathologist who recently moved from Wilmington to New Orleans, where he rode out Hurricane Katrina in a hotel.  Here's the graphic account he wrote from New Orleans on 31st August, two days after the city had been wiped out, killing thousands.  I received it from a relative whose home is New Orleans. 

Thanks to all of you who have sent your notes of concern and your prayers.  I am writing this note on Tuesday at 2 pm  I wanted to update all of you as to the situation here.  I don't know how much information you are getting but I am certain it is more than we are getting.  Be advised that almost everything I am telling you is from direct observation or rumour from reasonable sources.  They are allowing limited internet access, so I hope to send this dispatch today.

Personally, my family and I are fine.  My family is safe in Jackson, Mississippi, and I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New Orleans.  I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list.  In addition, this hotel is in a very old building on Canal Street that could and did sustain little damage.  Many of the other hotels sustained significant loss of windows, and we expect that many of the guests may be evacuated here.

Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today.  Overnight the water arrived.  Now Canal Street (true to its origins) is indeed a canal.  The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater.  I have heard that Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water.  Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional.  However, I spoke with them today and they too are on generator and losing food and water fast.

The city now has no clean water, no sewerage system, no electricity, and no real communications.  Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods.  We are worried about a cholera epidemic.  Even the police are without effective communications.  We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that is admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement.  This is tough because looting is now rampant.  Most of it is not malicious looting.  These are poor and desperate people with no housing and no medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families.  Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous.  We hear gunshots frequently.  Most of Canal street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons.  We hear gunshots frequently.  The looters are using makeshift boats made of pieces of Styrofoam to access.  We are still waiting for a significant national guard presence.

The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight.  Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children.  Many other guests have unusual diseases.  ...  There are (Infectious Disease) physicians in at this hotel attending an HIV confection.  We have commandeered the world famous French Quarter Bar to turn into an makeshift clinic.  There is a team of about seven doctors and PAs and pharmacists.  We anticipate that this will be the major medical facility in the central business district and French Quarter.  Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreens on Canal under police escort.  The pharmacy was dark and full of water.  We basically scooped the entire drug sets into garbage bags and removed them.  All under police escort.  The looters had to be held back at gunpoint.  After a dose of prophylactic Cipro I hope to be fine.  In all we are faring well.  We have set up a hospital in the French Quarter bar in the hotel, and will start admitting patients today.  Many will be from the hotel, but many will not.  We are anticipating dealing with multiple medical problems, medications and and acute injuries.  Infection and perhaps even cholera are anticipated major problems.  Food and water shortages are imminent.

The biggest question to all of us is where is the National Guard.  We hear jet fighters and helicopters, but no real armed presence, and hence the rampant looting.  There is no Red Cross and no Salvation Army.

In a sort of cliché way, this is an edifying experience.  One is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life.  It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care physician.  We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible.  I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear.  Despite it all, this is a soul-edifying experience.  The greatest pain is to think about the loss.  And how long the rebuild will take.  And the horror of so many dead people .  PLEASE SEND THIS DISPATCH TO ALL YOU THINK MAY BE INTERESTED IN A DISPATCH from the front.  I will send more according to your interest.  Hopefully their collective prayers will be answered.  By the way, suture packs, sterile gloves and stethoscopes will be needed as the Ritz turns into a MASH.  

Greg Henderson

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Giant Leatherback Turtle

Last week I wrote about a turtle that was so slow it must have been male, or something like that.  A reader pointed out to me that it was in fact a tortoise.  

So here's a real turtle which was rescued last week off the Co Kerry coast (click thumbnail to enlarge), where it was entrapped in fishing nets and the buoy ropes of lobster pots.  It's a giant, female Atlantic Leatherback, 1m long by 1.8m wide, weighing in at 450 kilos (the record is 918 kilos), and possibly a century old.  After capture, the venerable old lady was fitted with a satellite tracking device and released back into the wild.  

Atlantic Leatherbacks swim thousands of miles in deep water, and are most common from the Gulf of Maine in the north to the coast of central Florida in the south. They have also been sighted as far north as Iceland and the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada, as well as off the southwest coast of Ireland every summer.  

Every three of four years, they lay their eggs on a moonlit night in October, on the sandy beach of their own birth, whether in Venezuela, Surinam, Southeastern Florida, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean or similar idyllic spots.  Other than this, their movements and habits remain largely a mystery.

But we do know they are severely threatened by marine pollution (including the plastic bags they eat mistaking them for jelly fish) and by having their eggs robbed.  The giant leatherbacks are thought to number only 26,000 now. 

Oh, and they have their own website.  

Late Note: This particular leatherback turtle, the one found in Kerry, now has a website of its very own, 

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Chinese Magic Square

For those who like that sort of thing, this is one of those magic squares, at 6x6 one of the larger ones, noted during a recent trip to Xian in China (home to Emperor Qin Shi Huang's renowned terracotta warriors from the 2nd century BC).  

Visitors are informed that the magic square is a sacred object to dispel evil spirits”.  Each digit, from 1 to 36, is used only once, and when adding up any column, any row or any diagonal, you must get the same total, in this case 111.  Makes Sudoku look very easy.     


Magic 6x6 Square














































































































It's pretty clever, but if you have an hour or three to spare, you can go here to learn all the mathematical details.  

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Quotes of Week 108

Quote: “You know, Ted, I'd have given my right arm to have played the violin”.  

The much admired Northern Ireland politician,
Lord Gerry Fitt, who died last week,
bemoaning in 1970
to the then British prime minister Ted Heath,
that he could play only the mouth organ.

Quote: “We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator”

Ultra-conservative US television evangelist
Pat Robertson,
a close political associate of George Bush,
suggests, on August 22nd,,
that Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela
be assassinated for defying American policy.

Quite reasonably, Mr Chavez wants Mr Robertson
to be extradited to Venezuela
on terrorism charges. 
The White House says there is no legal basis for this
- although it has firmly dissociated itself
from Mr Robertson's recommendation

Quote: “The programmes have been one-sided and unfair to the Coalition.” 

Ireland's Minister of State for Health Tim O'Malley whinges 
about the summer hit TV programme “Rip Off Republic” 
which exposes how the behaviour of 
ministers in the present coalition government (and its forebears)
have contributed through taxation, incompetence and venality 
to the rip-off reputation that Ireland has 
deservedly acquired in the last few years. 

Unfair” is not much of an argument; 
untrue” would be different matter 

Quote IT 30/8: “The programmes have been one-sided and unfair to the Coalition.”

Ireland's Minister of State for Health Tim O'Malley whinges
about the summer hit TV programme “Rip Off Republic”
which exposes how the behaviour of
ministers in the present coalition government (and its forebears)
have contributed through taxation, incompetence and venality
to the rip-off reputation that Ireland has
deservedly acquired in the last few years.

“Unfair” is not much of an argument;
“untrue” would be different matter

Quote IT 30/8: “I will be strongly reaffirming the French vision of a political, ambitious, social Europe rooted in solidarity... Europe is not destined to become a vast free trade area diluted in the globalised economy... Europe is not a race to the bottom as regards taxes and social benefits. Europe stands for common rules to harmonise social legislation upwards.”     

President Jacque Chirac, 
in his annual address to the Ambassadors' Conference, 
traditionally a summary of the president's world view.


Quote IT 1/9: “We know better than the others that the real wealth of society doesn't come from profits or stock-market value, but from holding society together and the strength that brings. That is what makes Germany unique and that is what we have to preserve.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tries to get re-elected 
by denying that Germany's prosperity since the Second World War 
is entirely due to the profits and stock-market value 
of its mighty companies, large and small, 
and the nuclear protection of the hated U.S. 
who liberated the country from Nazism.

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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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