October 31, 2003

The GM food debate

The BBC reports that over a hundred scientists have written to Tony Blair complaining about the government’s failure to correct misleading reports in the press about GM crops.

Envirospin Watch has the full text of the letter, along with the names of the 144 scientists who signed it. Here's how it opens:

The results of the Farm Scale Evaluations of three GM crops announced on 16th October were reported across the media as “the end of GM in the UK”. In fact the FSEs did not assess the effects of genetically modifying the crops, but rather the impact of different types of weed control. They had little to do with genetic modification, its processes or potential.

However the government’s reaction to the latest misleading reports on GM was to remain silent. Since 1999, the government has sponsored several protracted deliberations on GM but has consistently neglected opportunities to address any of the unsubstantiated assertions about the process of genetic modification and possible risks.
They’ve got a point. A lot of the press reports I saw on the results of the GM field trials were extremely misleading, and the government hasn’t done much to counteract the false impression they created.

But this isn’t just a dispute between scientists and journalists about how research results are reported. It‘s part of the wider debate on GM foods between environmentalists and technologists. And, on an international scale, it’s part of an ongoing trade dispute between the USA and Europe, as this summary from GreenWatch makes clear:

In 1998, the E.U. banned imports of so-called genetically-modified (GM) crops. American farmers grow 70% of the world's GM crops. Their operations are high-tech and fairly efficient. American farmers have increased their yields by using scientifically-engineered GM seeds that resist disease and need fewer pesticides; they produce high quality food at a cheap price. By contrast, Europe's farms are notoriously inefficient, slow to modernize, and resist adopting new technologies like GM seeds. The result: American farmers under price the Europeans. The only way the E.U. can protect its farmers is by shutting out American GM products.
The EU has since reversed that decision but the regulations governing GM foods have been tightened to make it easier for individual nations within the EU to keep them out. The BBC reported on the changes just a couple of weeks ago:
A new directive comes into force in the European Union on Thursday placing tighter restrictions on genetically modified crops, and the sale of food containing GM ingredients.

The directive says GM foods may pose environmental and health risks, and every country proposing to grow or import them should conduct a detailed assessment of those risks. Governments will also have a statutory duty to consult the public.
Judging by recent events in the UK, it seems clear that whatever the scientists say about the risks of GM foods, the public, ill-served by the media and open to green propaganda, are likely to reject them.

That’ll be just fine by the EU and fine for sophisticated European consumers, who don’t seem to mind paying more for their food than they really have to. But it works out a little differently in Africa, where the BBC reports countries like Zambia have turned down much-needed food aid from the US because it was grown from GM seed.
GM food aid was sent to southern Africa during the current drought, despite strong reservations from Africa. Zambia banned the aid, saying it would rather go hungry than risk losing its export markets in Europe because its crops had been contaminated with GM seed.
The anti-GM meme has gone international. The BBC last year quoted President Mwanawasa of Zambia referring to GM food as "poison". Was that opinion informed by scientific research or gleaned from misleading media reports and the consensus amongst international NGO’s? I find it strange to see organizations like Oxfam and Action Aid arguing against people in Africa being allowed to grow food. I can’t see how that contributes to the relief of hunger.

The precautionary principle sounds fine to me, but if I’m starving I’ll eat anything.

Day by Day

Dean Esmay has a post up over at Blogcritics. It’s an interview with Chris Muir, the author of my favorite strip, Day by Day. It’s a fascinating article that covers Chris’s influences, motivation and techniques, as well featuring a lot of his work.

I’ve heard a number of people compare Day by Day to Doonesbury, but to me Gary Trudeau’s current work looks tired by comparison. Doonesbury embodies political correctness; Day by Day pokes good-natured fun at it. It’s a mainstream strip set in the modern world.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been running twelve months, and even harder to believe it’s not yet been picked up for syndication.

Be afraid, be very afraid

It's Halloween in the Junior household and it's all pumpkins and facepaints right now.

Here's a photo of a four year-old Spud from last year's festivities. He's scary, ain't he?

No, you're not supposed to say he's cute. Grrr!

Looking for a Halloween blog? Check out Michele's place, she's got dripping blood and everything!

Hopefully, normal blogging will resume shortly. In the meantime, the boys insisted I include this link to "The Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers.

Happy Halloween.

October 30, 2003

Clark v Bush

In his TCS column on Monday, Michael Totten worried about the increasing polarization of political debate and called for Democrats to co-operate with Bush over the War on Terror.
We can hardly expect other nations to stand with us if we can't even stand with ourselves.

This isn't to say that the party out of power ought to be rubber-stampers. Excessive bipartisanship is the functional equivalent of a one-party state. What we need is an implicit understanding that despite our disagreements we are on the same side. Because we are on the same side. Murderous fanatics are trying to kill us. Save the talk of "enemies" and "evil" for them.
A noble sentiment, but I thought Totten’s plea would likely fall on deaf ears. Even so, I never imagined any of the Democratic candidates would attack Bush over 9/11. Yet, according to the New York Times, that’s precisely what General Wesley Clark did in his American Prospect speech on Tuesday.

David Adesnik at Oxblog was so surprised by the news, he went fishing for a transcript. Here’s what he found:
And then there is 9/11. There is no way this administration can walk away from its responsibilities. This wasn't something that could be blamed on lower level intelligence officers. Our great Democratic President Harry Truman said, the "buck stops here." And when it comes to our nation's foreign policy, the buck sits on George W. Bush's desk. And we must say it again and again until the American people understand it. National security, next to upholding the Constitution, is the most important duty of any President.
So, Clark is suggesting that 9/11 wasn’t the result of intelligence failures; it happened because Bush’s foreign policy failed to deliver national security. In short: Bush was to blame for 9/11.

The Democrats have gone nuts.

A Nickel’s Worth of Free Advice has a more considered response.

October 29, 2003

Eric Schlosser

I was over at Normblog picking up a link for the previous post, when I came across Norm’s take on Eric Schlosser’s Guardian article about anti-Americanism in Britain.

Schlosser has been visiting Britain for almost thirty years.
I can't remember another time when having an American accent provoked as much immediate hostility from Brits of every race, creed, class, and sexual orientation.
I have to agree with him. I can also understand it when he says that, in certain situations, if he could put on a British accent with any skill he would. The traditional defense is pretending to be Canadian; most people over here can’t tell the difference.
Instead, when the anti-Americanisms start coming my way, I patiently explain that I love my country but not my government, that I oppose almost every single thing that George Bush has done since taking office, that he lost the 2000 election by at least half a million votes, etc, etc. Those points usually take the edge off things. And then I try to shift the conversation to Tony Blair. You can blame us for a hell of a lot of things - but not for him.
I often find myself in similar situations, and I will (contrary to State Department advice) loudly and visibly identify myself as an American. I’m not one of those “my country right or wrong” types, but I can’t just sit and listen while some anti-American bigot tirades ill-informed nonsense at me.

I’m not suggesting Schlosser should do the same. I’d just prefer it if he'd pretend to be Canadian instead of playing the same game as the Dixie Chicks.

Because you know what? I didn’t vote for George Bush either, and I can do a British accent. But I don’t think either of those things gives me licence to stand and nod while foreigners mock my country, slander my fellow citizens and demand my humble contrition for America's supposed sins.

It sounds like you’re more timid than I am, Mr Schlosser; that Canadian act should work just fine for you.

Editorial criticism

It seems some people were upset by a recent Normblog post about copy editors.

This was the gist of it.
[C]opy editors need to be tied to a post and have over-ripe fruit thrown at them the first time they veer from the straight and narrow by degrading the stuff they're there to improve; the procedure to be repeated periodically until they've thoroughly absorbed the lesson.
I took Norm’s post to be a playful rant, but it contains more than a grain of truth: any writer who hasn’t, at least once, felt like venting their rage at a copy editor, probably doesn’t put too much into their writing.

I found the piece amusing (I thought this was pretty funny as well) but from the sounds of it, some people took Norm’s words far too seriously.

Personally, for the same reasons Susanna mentions, I‘m strongly in favor of copy editors. I just didn’t realize some of them could be so sensitive.

Sussex burning

The BBC reports that a caravan containing effigies of Gypsies has been burnt as part of a bonfire party in Sussex.

Residents are reported to have been sickened and shocked, and the Commission for Racial Equality has called for the organizers to be prosecuted. Trevor Phillips, the CRE’s chairman said:
This is clearly an example of incitement to racial hatred. You couldn't really get more provocative than this. The police have to take it seriously. If we are asked at the CRE, we will say this case should be pursued and the people involved should be punished - which can lead to seven years in prison.
Sounds about right to me.

But I can’t help thinking that the condemnation involves a fair amount of hypocrisy, seeing as how the whole nation is gearing up for Bonfire Night on November 5. In the coming weeks, well-attended parties will take place all over the country, there will be firework displays and an effigy of Guy Fawkes will be ritually burnt.

Fawkes was the central figure in a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the reign of King James I. The plot was foiled and Fawkes was captured and executed. Fawkes wasn’t burnt at the stake, he was hung for treason. But a grateful King declared November 5 a public holiday, both to commemorate the event and to promote anti-Catholic feeling. Bonfire Night is, in origin, a specifically anti-Catholic ritual and it still persists in that form today, particularly in parts of Sussex.

I don’t know if it’s old prejudices at work, but most people see nothing wrong with celebrating November 5. When I ask my friends about it, they either profess to having no idea what I’m talking about, or they admit the ritual has sectarian roots but “that was all a long time ago” or “most people don’t know about all that”, so it’s okay.

I just don’t get it. Why is it okay to do it to Catholics but not okay to do it to Gypsies?

Bonfire Night in Lewes is a particularly ugly affair. The BBC knows this, yet it still promotes the event.
Lewes, East Sussex: liberal Middle England, a nice quiet place. Except on 05 November that is, when the town immerses itself in a night of booze, political sloganeering and pyromania.

Ostensibly, the members of the town’s five bonfire societies march in memory of the Protestant martyrs of 1556. Hence the “No Popery” and “Death To Rome” banners. But this is no sectarian hate-fest, more an excuse for a thoroughly hazardous knees-up.
I imagine that’s how the Klan might like to describe its gatherings these days, “Hate-fest? Hell, no! Sure, we’re renacting a lynching, and we’ve got all those banners saying “White Power” and stuff, but really it’s just an excuse to party.”

The BBC reported on the situation in Lewes back in 1997, acknowledging the history of the event and the way it is used to stoke hatred of Catholics. But the CRE was nowhere to be seen, and the BBC seems to think that what goes on in Sussex year after year is only a problem for the Catholic Church.
Tonight 3,000 people will parade through the town in what has become one of Britain's wildest nights out. For most of the thousands of people who line the streets every year it's a party - with banners, flaming torches and singing. But for the Catholic Church as long as the Cliff society continues to burn its effigies - which last year included the current Catholic bishop - it's an anti-Catholic ritual that's got to stop.
You’d think the recognition that burning Gypsies in effigy is wrong, might lead to the realization that doing the same thing to Catholics is equally worthy of condemnation.

Regarding the burning of the caravan and dummy occupants, I think the authorities should act immediately to prevent it happening again. Not least because, if it becomes a popular annual event, after a few hundred years people won’t see anything wrong with it at all.

October 28, 2003

California’s burning

New Scientist has a satellite picture of the fires and offers the following explanation.
The severity of the fires - the worst seen in the 45 years service of one fire chief - is being blamed on the concurrence of several factors. There has been no rain in Los Angeles since early May, meaning the region is extremely dry. On top of that, the last five years have seen drought conditions, while budget problems are reported to have led to insufficient clearance of brush.
Yesterday, Citizen Smash posted about the extent and impact of the fires. Today, he’s providing a rolling update. So far, there’s good news and bad.

Force de frappe

The Independent reports today that France is rethinking its policy on nuclear weapons to include the possibility of launching first strikes against "rogue states" that threaten to use weapons of mass destruction.
The former head of the French institute of higher defence studies, General Bernard Norlain, said a shift in doctrine was inevitable. "We have been working under the concept of non-use and deterrence," he said. "We said, 'This weapon is not designed to be used'. Now, faced with a potential enemy that is quite irrational, we are going to have to reverse that concept."

The change in French policy would bring France closer to the new US doctrine expressed in January last year. Defence sources told Libération that France was also looking at the implications of the American review's backing of "first-strike" miniature nuclear weapons, intended to attack command bunkers in "rogue" states.
I wonder who the French have in mind?

Syrian media

In the Guardian today, Brian Whitaker writes about press freedom in Syria. There isn’t any.
For all practical purposes the newspapers, radio and television are part of the government bureaucracy and their task at the moment, as the US prepares to impose sanctions, is to show that the rest of the world is rallying to support Syria in its conflict with Washington.
Last week, in Damascus, Whitaker interviewed Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's foreign minister.
Just as the interview was about to start, a man with a TV camera came in and filmed us sitting with the minister. It was later shown on Syrian television and, according to someone who saw the programme, all our job titles had been changed to make us seem more important. One of the journalists, a freelance who sometimes writes for Paris Match, was described as the magazine's editor.

It may not be much on the Richter scale of dishonesty, but these little tweaks of the truth gradually add up a self-flattering picture in which the world's most senior journalists, as well as its leading statesmen, are supposedly queuing to pay tribute in Damascus.
It’s a fascinating article that also provides a glimpse of Syrian life from Whitaker’s source, the mysterious Mrs X. But I can’t recommend it without reservation. I baulked when I read this.
If only Washington would worry less about Hizbullah and the Palestinian militants and turn its attention to economic terrorism by the Syrian elite, there might be some progress.
Progress towards what?

October 27, 2003

BBC activision

Blog.org highlights a new service coming soon from the BBC.
iCan from the BBC is a long-awaited site (still in beta) designed to enable and encourage community activism. It includes advice from activists, tools to link grassroots campaigns to larger organizations, and roving reporters who will publicise success stories. If it is done right this could be big (but if it is too successful it could involve the BBC in some interesting rows!).
I've got a problem with it already.

Check out the main picture on the iCan page to get an idea of the kind of community activists the BBC wants to help. You see that red, white and blue MAB placard at the bottom of the picture that says "FREEDOM FOR..."? The missing word is "PALESTINE".

The posters were produced by the Muslim Association of Britain for use in the 'Don't Attack Iraq & Freedom for Palestine' demonstration that took place in London on February 15.

I guess, at a stretch, you could describe the Intifada as a "local community project" but I don't think that's quite what the BBC had in mind. Was it?

Political propaganda

The BBC has a report on the “anti-war” protest in Washington on Saturday. Typically, the BBC seems determined to overplay the significance of ANSWER’s campaign.
The BBC correspondent in Washington says the demonstration reflects the mood of many Americans, who are becoming increasingly concerned about the cost of the occupation and the rising number of casualties.
Well, no. As this round-up of polls on Iraq suggests, there is increasing concern among Americans about US led action in Iraq, but to equate that concern with support for the ANSWER organized rally is unjustified and just plain wrong.

Another thing I found remarkable was the BBC’s selective use of adjectives: referring to Free Republic as a “conservative” organization but failing to mention that ANSWER‘s steering committee is full of communists and apologists for North Korea’s brutal regime. Organizations like the Korean Truth Commission, for instance, which regularly attempts to present North Korea as a communist utopia.

If you want to know what I think…

George Junior in England says the BBC’s coverage of the demonstration reflects the mood of many of the BBC’s correspondents, who are becoming increasingly concerned that most people regard ANSWER’s protests as unthinking, politically motivated dissent.
For a closer look at the protests go visit Anna at Belligerent Bunny Blog, who has a photo essay about the event, and Michelle at A Small Victory, who blogged C-SPAN’s live coverage of the rally on Saturday.

I missed this earlier. Michael J Totten provides more background on ANSWER's Stalinist links.

October 26, 2003

Bye bye Blogspot!

George Junior's blog has moved to juniorabroad.com.

Thanks for reading and be sure to come visit me at my new home. Did I tell you I've got a comments section? And Monday, there'll be some fresh posts up.

See you there!

October 24, 2003

Blogging about

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last couple of days struggling to amend the stylesheet for my new Moveable Type blog. Hopefully, it’ll be up and running sometime over the weekend but I make no promises.

In the meantime, I won’t be blogging much. Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing to blog about, it just means I’m not going to get round to commenting on things.

Luckily, the blogs I link to pretty much covered most of the stuff I was going to post about anyway. If you’re interested, go take a look at:

Norm Geras on Linda Colley’s Guardian article on America.
Biased BBC on the BBC’s coverage of AIDS initiatives from Bush and Clinton.
Oxblog’s David Adesnik on misplaced optimism regarding Iran’s agreement to nuclear inspections.
Roger L Simon on that Rumsfeld memo.
Citizen Smash on Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin’s widely reported remarks.

I’ve got to get back to those stylesheets, so that’s all my posting done for the day.

See you Saturday.

October 23, 2003

Arafat and Reynolds

What is the BBC’s James Reynolds supposed to be doing in the Middle East?

I ask the question after reading this report, on his exclusive interview with Yasser Arafat last week. It doesn't seem to have attracted much comment but to me, it’s a piece of unconscionable fluff.

The intro is a load of self-deprecating nonsense.

It's one of those odd, disappointing rules of journalism - you spend years covering someone's every word and action, you confidently explain the thinking behind everything they ever do. But in spite of all this - you never actually meet them.It's always fairly embarrassing to tell people about this. Most tend to expect foreign correspondents to be confidants and foreign policy advisers to all the main leaders in their area.
The route to the interview is filled with details so innocuous they seem grotesque:

Half a dozen guards lounged around on plastic chairs outside the sandbagged entrance. They were watched by a white cat - who looked much more alert than any of the guards. We were led up past the sandbags into a small office on the first floor - opposite what looked like a bedroom. We set up our cameras and lights. One of Mr Arafat's men looked in and called the lighting romantic.
After the interview (which is sparsely reported), Reynolds, Arafat and his entourage stand around talking.

This, of course, should have been my chance to ask all those vital offbeat questions I should have been storing up in my mind for two years. Instead - fairly crushingly - I drifted into the most banal of small talk.

"Do you ever miss going outside?" I asked Mr Arafat.
He walked over to the window and pulled open the curtains.
"This is the only place I can get air," he said.

He opened the window and breathed in dramatically, looking at me - it seemed - for approval.
The whole report is marked by a naivity that is distinctly out of place in a foreign correspondent, but it's Reynolds' closing remark that demonstrates how truly divorced from reality he is:

I can't say I worked out who was more real - the eager old man breathing in fresh air, or the angry leader who warned me never to forget who he was.
Really? The BBC doesn't know whether Arafat is an angry Palestinian leader or just a tired old man yearning to breathe free!


October 22, 2003

Blogging the future

Instapundit highlights a piece over at Joho the Blog that looks at how blogging might change as it gets more popular.

More image, voice and video would be my guess. Back in August, Don Park suggested "hand-blogging" might be a big part of the future. But who knows?

Some people are already blogging the backlash.

Good news

A while back I was complaining about my archives being down and some other problems I was having with Blogspot.

I’m not about to start criticizing Blogspot. It’s a free service and without it, I wouldn’t have started blogging. I've only been posting since the start of July, but already it feels about time to move on. I don't want to stay at Blogspot and end up complaining about something I've been grateful for.

So, I decided to take advantage of Dean Esmay's generous Blogspot Jihad offer. I’m pleased to say that Dean has worked his magic, and I now have a shiney new Moveable Type blog, with comments and everything.

To me, it’s a thing of beauty and I could start using it right away. But I’m going to keep posting here while I set up my blogroll and double check I know what I’m doing with MT.

In the meantime, I’m adding a sidebar link to Dean’s site. Not because he set up the new blog for me (for which I'm very grateful) but because Dean’s World has been one of my regular reads for a while now, and deserves to be on my sidebar.

If you visit Dean's blog, be sure to check out his recent posts on Frida Kahlo and Leni Riefenstahl; there are some great images and lots of discussion in the comments.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and stare enchantedly at my new blogsite.

October 21, 2003

DoS attacks continue

Joe Katzman at Winds of Change has extensive information on the denial of service attacks that have been hitting Hosting Matters and affecting a lot of blogs, including a few I link to on my sidebar.

Hang on in there guys, it sounds like there’s more on the way.

Swiss watch

The recent performance of Christoph Blocher’s party, the SVP, in the Swiss federal elections has caused quite a stir in some quarters.

Here’s how the BBC reported the story, in an article headlined “Swiss right in political avalanche”.

The far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) has won the biggest share of the vote in parliamentary elections, throwing a decades-old system of consensus government into turmoil.
Francois Brutsch at Un Swissroll thinks the imedia are making too much of it and provides some background to the Swiss system, as well as an alternative perspective.

The Swiss political system is so stable that even the smallest landslide can seem like an earthquake. So it is with the performance of Christoph Blocher’s party in this weekend’s elections: beforehand the party controlled less than a quarter of the seats in the Lower House, it now controls little more than a quarter of them, but when the media and the pundits have nothing else to chew on, they feed on themselves.
Warning! My French is lousy, and that’s a quick and very loose translation from the original.

Even if your French is not great, it’s worth the read. The good news is, they write so well at Un Swissroll, you can run the post through a translation machine and still make sense of it when it comes out the other end.

Try doing that with one of de Villepin's speeches.

Fair and balanced?

On Friday, Biased BBC referred to this BBC report on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s win in the California recall election.

I’m not going to go over the same ground Kerry Buttram covered. Instead, I want to focus on one of the ways the BBC often distorts readers' perceptions of a story and inserts comment into its news: the vox pop or public opinion survey.

See the sidebar to the right of the BBC’s main story? Good. Go click on the “OPEN” button to see “California’s views on win”. You'll find a report, in words and pictures, which the BBC calls the “Voters’ Verdict”.

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has won the race to become governor of California, ousting Democrat incumbent Gray Davis.

BBC News Online speaks to residents of California and finds that many are experiencing mixed feelings over the Austrian-born actor's victory.
There follow six photos of people with quotes on their responses to Arnie's election victory. To summarize:

3 out of 6 were against the recall or think Arnie’s either an "embarrassment" or "not the answer".
2 seem fairly undecided.
1 voted for him.

So, the “Voters' Verdict” on Arnie’s election, according to the BBC, looks like this:

Against 50%
Undecided 34%
For 16%

If that’s the voters’ verdict, howcome they elected Schwarzenegger? Here’s how: Four million people voted for him, he won 48.7% of the vote and beat his nearest rival in the ballot, Democrat Cruz Bustamante, by over 1.4 million votes.

Maybe it’s one of those cultural differences, but in the USA we take the election result to be the voters’ verdict. At the BBC, the "Voters' Verdict" depends on who its reporter talked to while wandering around Golden Gate Park with a digital camera.

Fair and balanced? I smile when I hear that on Fox; sometimes the BBC makes me laugh.

October 20, 2003

Green manure

Envirospin Watch this week features a guest essay from Matt Ridley (author of Genome) which looks at the environmental movement’s criticisms of GM crops and finds their arguments illogical and inconsistent. Sounds about right to me.

A lot of people seem to view the debate between organic and GM crops as a battle between rapacious biotech companies and an enlightened group of informed consumers in the form of the environmental movement. They seem to forget that the organic sector is itself an industry with its own highly effective propaganda machine. The certification of organic foods is essentially little more than a marketing tool for farmers who would otherwise be marginalized by their backward methods, low crop yields and poor quality produce.

I guess I should really declare an interest here. I’ve been involved in organic agriculture, off and on, for over twenty-five years and I’ve worked in the organic industry. My interest began in the 1970s, when organic agriculture was seen as part of the solution to some of the undesirable externalities of large-scale intensive agriculture. I don’t think organic produce is bad (I even eat some of it from time to time) but organic cultivation now seems to have become an end in itself rather than a means of achieving wider social benefits.

At the same time, the arguments in favor of organic agriculture have become more and more divorced from reality. In part, this is due to the influence of deeply unscientific thinking by many in the organic movement, which now seems dominated by New Age hippies, bio-dynamicists, and assorted eccentrics.

Growing organically is a valid lifestyle choice but unfortunately, organic cultivation is not the answer to life, the universe and everything, as many of its adherents seem to believe. When radical environmentalists destroy crops, intimidate farmers and threaten people’s livelihoods in support of their ideals, they cease to be harmless “do-gooders” and become the enemies of freedom of choice.

Elsewhere on Envirospin Watch, Philip Stott joked about there being a niche in the market for a restaurant that sold only GM foods. I’ve often thought of opening a restaurant myself (I’ve been involved in a few in the past), but it’s no exaggeration to say that it would be impossible to run a GM restaurant in this part of the country. I doubt whether there would be a sufficient market for it, but in any case, I expect vandalism and intimidation by radical environmentalists would effectively prevent me from doing business.

I’m sure that wouldn’t worry the organic movement but it should deeply concern the rest of us.

Identity crisis

This is not me. Honest.

I'm taller, fairer and older. Oh yeah, and Mac says I'm better looking.

She's not just saying that out of loyalty to me you know. Are you Mac? Mac!

Where'd she go?

Crime and punishment

No blogging yesterday. Mac and I went to a 30th birthday bash on Saturday night. It was a fun party, hosted by my favorite Canadian: Happy Birthday Michele!

It was kind of odd to be the oldest person at the party. That hasn’t happened to me before; all part of getting older I guess. It was a sobering experience, or it would have been if I hadn’t broken my three drink rule.

I didn’t drink much by English standards (folks over here can really put it away) but I mixed beer and wine, which I haven’t done in a long time. I spent most of Sunday remembering why.

By the way, Mac’s car has been found and the police have arrested some people in connection with the theft. We can’t have it back yet as the SOCO people haven’t dusted it for prints. I doubt whether they’re going to give it the full CSI treatment but they seem very professional.

No word yet on whether they’re going to prosecute the case. Sure, they’re collecting evidence but who knows whether there’ll be enough of it to warrant a prosecution.

I’ll keep you posted.

October 18, 2003

British blog comp

Via Jeff Jarvis: I learn that the Guardian is having a British blogs competition.

Jeff asks, “Why just British blogs?”

I suppose one justification would be that media interest in British blogging hasn’t kept pace with the increasing number of blogs in the UK. People I talk to over here have either never heard of blogging, or they think of blogs as being an entirely American phenomenon.

I think the Guardian’s blog competition is a fine idea. There are a lot of great British blogs out there (I link to some of them) and they deserve to be brought to a wider audience.

Most of the subjects covered by American bloggers have little relevance for British readers, so I think it’s reasonable for the Guardian to want to focus on British blogs: they’re more likely to address news items and issues that are of interest to people in the UK.

Of course, the competition may not be an entirely British affair. Entry is open to UK residents regardless of nationality. There are a number of non-British bloggers (Americans and others) who meet that requirement.

This blog is eligible but I won’t be entering the competition. It’s not my cup of tea, as they say. Judging by this post at Harry’s Place, it seems my entry wouldn’t be welcome anyway.

Some Brits can get pretty tetchy when they feel an American is treading on their toes.

Benefit of the doubt

Gregg Easterbrook has come under a lot of fire for his piece in the New Republic about Tarantino and violence in the movies, in which he seemed to single out Jewish studio executives for special criticism.

Easterbrook, on Thursday, explained the thinking behind his offensive remarks and apologized. Fair enough, I find his thinking convoluted but I accept he’s sincere in his attempt to make amends.

Funnily enough, the paragraph Easterbrook has apologized for is not the part that caused me the most difficulty. Here's what I had a problem with:

Why do we suppose that, with Hollywood's violence-glorifying films now shown all around the world to billions of people--remember, mass distribution of Hollywood movies to the developing world and Islamic states is a recent phenomenon--young terrorists around the globe now seem to view killing the innocent as a positive thing, even, a norm?
Is Easterbrook really saying that movie violence is one of the causes of terrorism? Because, if he is, then he seems also (in the article as a whole) to be saying that Jewish movie producers are partly to blame for Islamic terrorism.

Maybe Easterbrook wasn’t expressing himself too well, again, but I'd like to have seen him explain that one in his recent apology.

October 16, 2003

Gun lore

Dean Esmay has a good post up about children and guns.

I think he’s talking a lot of sense. I learnt to shoot a rifle when I was young. And I was lucky enough, the last two times I was in the States, to be able to spend a couple of mornings at the range.

Last time over, I took my eldest along, he was just coming up to thirteen. I spent a lot of time with him going though safety procedures before he even got near a weapon. The one thing I found myself saying to him, over and over again, was “A gun is not a toy.” Because for my boys, that’s all guns have ever been; plastic toys with Bang! Bang! bullets.

In my experience, the first thing most kids do, if they pick up a toy gun, is point is straight at one of their friends and, Kapow! I stongly believe that anyone who leaves a gun within reach of a child, or puts one in their hands without proper training, deserves to lose their liberty. In America today, accidents involving children and guns happen with tragic regularity.

Attempts to reduce accidental injury and death by educating children in the proper use of firearms are criticized on two grounds. Firstly, that firearms should be an entirely adult preserve; guns being, at best, one of those Unpleasant Facts from which children must be sheltered. And secondly, that teaching children about firearms tends to produce another generation of gun buyers and NRA members, which is of course a Bad Thing.

I’m not an NRA member but I support the right to bear arms. I know a lot of people think the Second Amendment is no longer relevant, as it talks about the need to maintain an effective militia. “Yeah right! When was the last time we needed a militia?”

I guess I see things a little differently. The last three generations of my family fought the Civil War and two World Wars; I’m the first chicken-hawk in a long line of soldiers. All of them were pleased they could shoot straight when their turn came.

You’ll excuse me if, not trusting to world peace, I keep my eye in on the range from time to time and teach my kids to do the same.

October 15, 2003


I was just about to publish the post below when there was a knock at the front door.

Mac opens it and there's a policewoman standing there.

"Good Evening Madam. Do you know where your car is at the moment?"
"Er, it's parked just up the road."
"No it's not."
"Okay. Are you going to tell me where it is or am I going to have to guess?"
(Mac can get tetchy when people steal her stuff)
"It's doing laps round Southmead I'm afraid."

If the police are in pursuit when the joyriders abandon the vehicle, we'll likely get it back, otherwise they'll torch it.

We're really hoping it's not found burnt out. We're not worried about the car, it's the music; about twenty or so cassettes, including some of our favorite sounds: Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Najma, Patsy Kline, "Sinatra Swings", an old country music compilation with "All my exes live in Texas", "Home grown tomatoes" and the rest.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Modern taboos

In the Wall Street Journal today, William McGowan, author of “Coloring the News”, talks about responses to his book and wonders, “Why are journalists afraid to debate the excesses of diversity?”

My experiences with "Coloring the News" confirmed that there are sanctions for speaking out too candidly about this subject. Traveling through the intersection of journalism and our nation's racial tensions requires a hard head, if not a helmet. Though some reviewers gave the book's arguments and evidence fair treatment, there were many instances when the unacknowledged ideological leanings of a news organization or professional groups made constructive dialogue all but impossible.

Many journalists were all too ready to read racial ill will into the book's critique of the diversity crusade or to dismiss it as a "right wing" screed and describe me as some kind of conservative ideologue with an agenda. While some critics showed an almost religious attachment to the concept of diversity, frustrating rational discourse, others did their best to discredit it with blithe dismissals or unfounded charges about the book's "dubious scholarship." With some I sensed that the distancing they did from the book was to avoid coloring their own career prospects.
Anthropologist Jonathan Friedman has talked extensively about this sort of thing. In an article called Rhinoceros II (pdf), he looked at the way associationism (as opposed to rational argument) is used to stifle debate and restrict research not deemed to be politically correct.

Like McGowan’s article, Friedman’s piece is also a personal story, which describes the treatment he and his wife received when they conducted a research project into Swedish attitudes to immigration.

[Note: I’ve never been able to get the pdf version of Friedman’s article to load properly, if you have the same problem the google cache is here.

In Friedman's forthcoming work "PC Worlds: The Anthropology of Political Correctness", a whole chapter is devoted to "Rhinoceros II". The book's first six chapters are previewed on-line at Global Anthropology.

Study time

Did I say I’ve been tidying the study?

Actually, I’m just moving stuff from one cluttered horizontal surface to another. There’s just not enough room for all the papers, books, notes and whatever, so they end up perched wherever I last put them. I must have over twenty yards of shelf-space in here, and it’s still not enough.

I’m thinking of more shelving, Mac thinks I should get rid of some books. Sounds like sacrilege to me, but I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet. But what to ditch?

While I’m thinking about it, here are five books I certainly won’t be getting rid of:

Battle Cry of Freedom - James M. McPherson

Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 - David Bronstein

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life - Sigmund Freud

The Mismeasure of Man - Stephen Jay Gould

The Inflationary Universe - Alan H Guth

I only wish I had the time to spend re-reading them. Ah well, back to work.

October 14, 2003

Forgive and forget

Norm Geras today concludes an excellent series of posts on "The rights and wrongs of amnesty".

In the middle of today's piece he uses an unattributed quote:

It is easy for Mandela and Tutu to forgive... they lead vindicated lives. In my life nothing, not a single thing, has changed since my son was burnt by barbarians.
I'd heard those words before somewhere, but I couldn't remember where the quote came from. Then I found it on-line; it was in this piece by South African poet Antjie Krog, which includes the "Parable of the Bicycle".

There was Tom and there was John. Tom lived opposite John. One day, Tom stole John's bicycle and every day John saw Tom cycling to school on his bicycle. A year later, Tom walked up to John. He stretched out his hand. "Let's reconcile and put the past behind us." John looked at Tom's hand. "And what about the bicycle?" "No," said Tom, "I'm not talking about the bicycle. I'm talking about reconciliation."
Norm Geras puts it more succinctly when he notes, 'Amnesty' is of the same linguistic provenance as 'amnesia'.

Label lesson

Michael J Totten takes exception to Instapundit's affirmative response to a reader’s e-mail, and provides a lesson in political labelling.

By the way, if you’re interested in labels, there’s a new one on the block: “Libertarian Paternalism”. A commenter on one of Totten’s subsequent posts links to the AEI-Brookings working paper on the subject by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

The idea of Libertarian Paternalism might seem to be an oxymoron, but it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice.
To my mind, it’s not an oxymoron; it’s a label, and not a very good one at that. The proposition the authors are advancing is that limiting individual choice can lead to better outcomes.

It just sounds like straightforward paternalism to me. Calling it Libertarian Paternalism looks like an advertising gimmick. The L word is not employed here as a descriptive adjective, it’s more of a fabric softener. It’s like old style paternalism but with added choice.

I’m not dismissing the paper, it makes some interesting points but to try to link the ideas in there to libertarianism just seems plain daft to me.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement research at Boston College, and a self-avowed non-libertarian paternalist, found the paper “delightful” (she’s a big fan of behavioral economics). Munnell has some disagreement with aspects of Sunstein’s and Thaler‘s paper, and her concerns mirror some of my own, nevertheless she ends by saying:

Their “libertarian paternalism” approach may serve as a bridge between the libertarians on the right and New Deal traditionalists on the left, and that bridge could help rebuild the national consensus on social and economic policy.
It's always good to finish with a flourish, but that last bit sounds a little optimistic to me.

October 13, 2003

Sidebar news

I’ve been reordering my sidebar and adding more links, again.

Anyone who visits this site regularly will know that I have more than a passing interest in media bias. I’ve decided to formalize that interest a little by adding a separate “media watch” category to my side bar.

The sites linked cover bias and bad reporting at the BBC and media spin on environmental issues, the Middle East, political correctness and the war on terror.

Apart from Biased BBC, the sites are all new additions to the side bar.

Some of you may be surprised to find me linking to Envirospin Watch considering my previous criticism of one of Philip Stott’s posts. Don’t be, the loudest criticism often comes from one’s strongest supporters; I’ve written before about the lunacy of radical environmentalists and I’m often critical of the free pass that a lot of “green” ideas get in the press. Envirospin Watch is a welcome and long overdue addition to the blogosphere.

Honest Reporting has been up and running since October 2000, scrutinizing the media for examples of ant-Israeli bias and campaigning against slanted reporting. Their links page provides access to other sites covering the same ground, such as MEMRI, IMRA and Palestinian Media Watch, as well as providing links to some pro-Palestinian sites.

Tongue Tied has been “carping about the excesses of clueless crybabies since the turn of the century”. Focusing on the extremes of political correctness, Tongue Tied continues to hunt out stories that display an unthinking adherence to institutionalized ideas about tolerance and diversity.

Watch is affiliated with Winds of Change (which I also link to in my sidebar) and covers media reports about terrorist attacks against America and the wider war on terror. The focus is on exposing “fundamentalism, apologetics, moral equivalence, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism”.

I'm still messing around with my sidebar. Having separate categories for different links made it look too cluttered to me. So I've re-organized it again (again) and I've de-linked a few of those media watch sites; Biased BBC and Envirospin Watch remain. I've decided to go back to only linking to other bloggers in the sidebar. Otherwise, I think I could get carried away with subcategories and links to all kinds of other sites.
Keep it simple Junior!

October 12, 2003

A new anti-semitism

Oliver Kamm rightfully attacks John Pilger for a letter published in Friday’s Guardian, in which Pilger accuses Israelis of “a virulent form of anti-semitism”.

Pilger is making an accusation not only of Israeli racism - a standard trope of the extreme Left - but also of Israeli anti-semitism. It's not a misprint: it's a libel he fully intends.
Kamm goes onto dissect the contorted thinking behind such a charge and concludes:

I'm no fan of Pilger's, but I think this calumny is the most egregious remark I've come across even from that source. What's wrong with it is that it reduces the suffering of the Jewish people - most obviously the attempt in the last century to kill every Jew in Europe, but a Judaeophobia that has lasted literally millennia - by means of semantic trickery.
Howard Jacobson has been angered by similarly egregious remarks in the British press. I caught a little of the pre-publication buzz and bought the Independent on Saturday solely to read his column.

Jacobson’s piece is titled “The unexamined hatred on our doorstep”. The unexamined hatred he refers to is anti-semitism and the doorstep is that of the Independent itself.

I am angry not so much with what my fellow columnists have been opining as with what they have been taking for granted, what one might call the complexion of their assumptions, or worse, the poetry of their prejudices.
I’d say read the whole thing, but it’s only available from the Independent on pay-to-view.

David Aaronovitch found life unbearable at the Independent and left for the Guardian earlier this year. I wonder whether it will be much longer before Howard Jacobson feels the need to move on, if only to get away from the malign influence of someone Aaronovitch once referred to as “the fascist hyena”.

A clarification

If you’re here because you googled “sexual acts BlackBerrying”, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve no idea what kind of act that might be.

I’ve mentioned “blackberrying” only once before on this blog. I now realize, to avoid confusion, I should have said simply that Mac and I were picking blackberries.

I put the word in quote marks in the original post because I think the term is quaint, not because I was trying to imply anything other than that we were foraging for fruit.

I guess I really need to be more careful about the language I use.

If you look at that original post of mine, you’ll see that it was all quite innocent: Mac and I went “blackberrying”, when we got home I “pilau-riced” her, then she “apple-pied” me so much I had to go and sit down.

Yeesh! I wonder what I’ve just said.

October 11, 2003

Who said that?

Yesterday, I was tidying the study when I came across Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience. Thoreau was one of the heroes of my political youth and the first lines of that essay still impress me.

I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
I was looking to see if there was much on-line about Thoreau, when I came across this page from John Setear, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Setear refers to Thoreau’s opening words "That government is best which governs least", but he doesn’t know who said them. He mentions that one of his students suggested it was John Adams and that someone on the Web thinks it was Thomas Paine but…

The Web's overwhelming favorite as the [author] of this quotation, however, seems to be another Thomas: one Thomas Jefferson, […] Yet none of the print sources that I consulted (Bartlett's, the aforementioned Oxford Dictionary, and a couple of others) attributed this quotation as an original matter to Adams, Jefferson, or Paine--or indeed, to anyone.
He’s right. Googling about a bit, I found the phrase was usually credited to Jefferson, only rarely was it correctly attributed to Thoreau. This is obviously a widespread fallacy and it’s not surprising that others have noticed it before me, and similarly despaired at its persistence.

Recently, the motto has made its appearance in an accreted form. It has acquired an additional phrase, and can sometimes be seen as "That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." This addition seems even more remote from its reputed author, because it lacks logical consistency.

Nevertheless, the motto has been so frequently attributed to Jefferson, it seems doubtful that it can now be separated from him anymore than we could now separate George Washington and the Cherry Tree.
I agree, the Jefferson attribution looks like a deeply embedded fallacy to me; another reminder, if one were needed, that we’re not living in the information age, but in the age of opinion, where misinformation expands to fill the space available to it. Bad memes proliferate where opinions are presented as facts and become truth by acclamation. Nowhere is this more true than on the internet.

Jefferson had a view on this sort of thing. Back then, he was talking about newspapers but, were he alive today, he might have said:

Nothing can now be believed which is seen on the internet. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
Sounds about right to me.

For crying out loud!

I’ve got a lot to post about today: bad memes, broken dreams and blogging America. But do you think I’m going to get a chance to do it?

It’s not chores that are getting in the way. Sure, it’s Saturday so I’m on fajita duty again tonight, and it looks like Mac and I will be going out for a spot of retail therapy this afternoon, but I’ll have chunks of time in between.

What’s likely to keep me from blogging is lack of computer time. It’s a modern problem; I just realized my family needs an IT strategy.

Two computers between the five of us are not enough it seems. On weekends, any time spent in the study is repeatedly interrupted by delegations of boys asking when they can use the computer.

Right now for instance, I have a five year-old at my shoulder as I type.

Spud: Can I use the computer when you’ve finished, Dad?
Me: Why don’t you use the other one?
Spud: It’s too slow, we need to upgrade it.
Me: What, two computers aren’t enough for you?
Spud: (indignantly) Everybody has at least one, Dad.
Me: I'm going to quote you on that.
Spud: Are you planning to get Windows XP then?
Where does he get it from?

See you later, I hope.

October 10, 2003

It’s an English thing

One of Mac’s regular on-line haunts is NiceCupOfTeaAndASitDown.

Here’s their Mission Statement.

Well I think we should all sit down and have a nice cup of tea, and some biscuits, nice ones mind you. Oh and some cake would be nice as well. Lovely.
That about covers it; the site is dedicated to tea, biscuits and cake. And I mean dedicated. Nicey and the Wife don’t just do biscuit reviews, condemn the horrors of vending-machine tea and eat cake, they also deal with wider issues. Like Nicey’s Universal Cake Theory (which posits that where ever you find intelligent life, you’ll probably also find cake) and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs as we all know ruled the earth for about 270 million years, and although we can't be sure and despite there being no evidence it is now believed that they might have enjoyed a nice cup of tea and a sit down.
It’s a great site if you’re into biscuits but they haven’t got a clue about cookies.

Ancient wisdom

Sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;
Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;
Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;
Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the wise avoid extremes, excesses and complacency.
Lao Tzu

October 09, 2003

Babies and bathwater

I’ve been visiting Envirospin Watch, a new blog by Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London. Norm Geras recently recommended him and there’s a link to the site on the front page of Butterflies and Wheels.

In his second post, Prof Stott sets out his stall:

This Weblog will monitor carefully the output of environmental and science journalists in the British media. The purpose is not to take up a particular position on a given subject (e.g., 'global warming'), but to assess whether the topic is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television.
It’s a noble aim but unfortunately, after reading through the posts at Envirospin Watch, I’m concerned that Stott himself may not be fairly covering the issues. I’m not alone, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber took him to task for a post on global warming. Chris’s post has engendered a debate that currently runs to seventy comments.

The E Watch post I had most difficulty with is called “So you think organic food is really safer and better” (archive links aren't working so you'll have to scroll down ). The post reports that a number of batches of contaminated organic maize have been withdrawn from sale in the UK and asks why the British media didn’t cover the story (the emphasis in the following is Stott’s).

While conventional and GM crops are subjected to a daily tirade of abuse in the UK media, 'organic' products are lauded as the salvation of humankind. The scientific facts do not bear this out,, as witness the above.
You know what? I’m not surprised there’s no scientific evidence that organic products are the salvation of humankind. But I am surprised to be told that the contaminated maize story is evidence against that proposition. As Chris Bertram pointed out, Professor Stott seems to have a problem evaluating evidence.

Reading Stott’s post, you might get the impression that organic maize is more likely to be contaminated by fumonisins than non-organic maize. There is no evidence that this is the case. The Food Standards Agency is sponsoring ongoing research by the Central Science Laboratory into fumonisin contamination. The project, which is still in its development stage, will look at both organic and non-organic maize products. So it’s not really appropriate for Stott to be talking about “scientific facts” in this context.

It looks to me like Philip Stott, despite his declared intentions, is taking a definite position against organic foods. That’s not really surprising; Stott is a regular commentator on biotechnology and a vocal supporter of GM crops. He has written widely on these subjects and has a very particular point of view.

I’m going to keep reading Envirospin Watch; Stott writes about things that interest me and I appreciate his perspective. I just think it would have been better if, instead of trumpeting his objectivity, he had openly declared his position and left it to his readers to judge whether or not he was being fair and balanced.

I don’t think he is, but then I never expected anything else.

Flitting through the blogosphere I notice that City Comforts Blog also takes issue with E Watch’s organic food post. And, to introduce another perspective, here's a page from NGIN reporting on their past correspondence with Philip Stott.

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong and it’s best to just come out and say it.

I said in the post above that there is no evidence that organic maize is more likely to be contaminated by fumonisins than non-organic maize. That is incorrect, and it’s no use me saying that I meant there was no evidence from the FSA that this was the case. If that’s what I meant then that’s what I should have said.

There is evidence that myco-toxins are more prevalent in organic crops than in non-organic crops. This article from Science in Africa provides an overview of fumonisin contamination in maize.

My mistake doesn’t invalidate the whole post, but it seems cheap to defend any part of it, given that the error I made is much bigger than the one I had initially sought to draw attention to.

Wading through hogwash

It’s been Michael Moore week in the Guardian.

A lot of people will tell you that Michael Moore needs to get a shave, lose some weight and stop talking nonsense. I agree with them but more, much more than that, he needs an editor.

Moore doesn’t so much have a point of view as a line in invective, his investigations lack analysis and his writing is, well… flabby. Someone needs to come along after he’s said his piece and tidy up the mess so as to make it presentable. No one ever does.

The Guardian has been publishing edited extracts from Moore’s new book ”Dude, Where’s My Country?” One piece, on the evils of corporate America, called “Face it, you'll never be rich” runs to nearly eighteen hundred words. It’s not the shortest by any means.

I’ve read it, so you don’t have to. Here’s my edited extract of the Guardian’s edited extract. I’ve slimmed it down to 158 words but trust me, you're not missing much.

The war on terror has distracted the nation from the war that business corporations have been waging on average Americans. Since 9/11 the business bandits and their government accomplices have been on a punch-drunk rampage, looting the savings and destroying the hopes of millions of families.

America’s economic future is being destroyed by the greed of these corporate mojahedin. The American people are being mugged by lawless gangs of CEOs. They are fleecing the public and destroying the American dream, which is a myth anyway.

Rich people are greedy bastards and Wall Street is a rich man’s game. It’s a smooth conspiracy of the well-heeled, a sham, a ruse concocted by the corporate powers-that-be to lure your average Joe and Jane into handing over their life savings. These evildoers have fleeced the American public and have made off like bandits with the life savings of suckers like me and you.

We’re nothing but peasants to these corporate crooks.
Unfortunately, making it shorter doesn't make it any more intelligent. I guess four words would have done: "American corporations are evil."

To my mind, it's a measure of the Guardian’s decline that it regards Moore’s partisan frothing as “explosive” new writing.

October 07, 2003

War and peace activists

I was thinking things had gone a bit quiet at Biased BBC, but in the last few days Natalie Solent has made a number of good posts, including a couple of examples of the BBC’s anti-Israeli bias.

When it comes to Israel, the BBC seems prepared to ignore (and at times rewrite) history to suit its own analysis. Its choice of terms when referring to pro-Palestinian groups is equally questionable.

A prime example is the BBC's use of the phrase “peace activists” when referring to members of the International Solidarity Movement. Those quote marks are mine by the way, the BBC uses the words without sneer quotes.

On Saturday night, dozens of Israeli and foreign peace activists made a beeline for Ramallah after the Haifa attack, suspecting it could be the trigger for Israeli retaliation against the Palestinian leader.

Many stayed the night on mattresses and blankets in a meeting hall in the compound, with some, including Mr Avnery, saying they would use their bodies to physically thwart an operation against Mr Arafat.
The human shields the BBC calls “peace activists” have been recruited by the International Solidarity Movement to offer protection to Yasser Arafat. ISM recruits are not peace activists, they are part of the Palestinian struggle. The ISM is a partisan organization working not for peace but for a Palestinian victory.

Am I being biased? You decide; here (at www.palsolidarity.org) is what the ISM is about.

The International Solidarity Movement is a Palestinian-led movement of Palestinian and International activists working to raise awareness of the struggle for Palestinian freedom and an end to Israeli occupation. We utilize nonviolent, direct-action methods of resistance to confront and challenge illegal Israeli occupation forces and policies.
Still want to call them "peace activists"? They are members of an anti-Israeli resistance group. I wonder why the BBC doesn’t describe them that way?

Perhaps it’s another example of the BBC’s inability to properly categorize things. It’s been having difficulties with the word “terrorist” for a couple of years now.

Bargain books

D C Somervell’s abridgement of the last four volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s “A study of History”is $35 from Amazon, I just picked it up for 50p (about 80 cents) at a second-hand book sale.

I first came across Toynbee’s work during my first year at college. I was reading Asimov’s “Foundation” at the time and I remember comparing Toynbee with Hari Seldon, the father of psycho-history in Asimov’s trilogy.

Re-reading Toynbee’s work twenty-five years on, I can see why I was tempted to make the comparison. His terminology, and the way he presents his arguments; at times it reads like bad Sci-Fi.

Here he enumerates the “laws” governing the social radiation of culture:

The first law is that an integral culture ray, like an integral light ray, is diffracted into a spectrum of its component elements in the course of penetrating a recalcitrant object.

The second law is that the diffraction may also occur, without any impact on an alien body social, if the radiating society has already broken down and gone into disintegration.

Our third law is that the velocity and penetrative power of an integral culture ray are averages of the diverse velocities and penetrative powers which its economic, political and ‘cultural’ components display when, as a result of diffraction, they travel independently of each other.
See what I mean?

Juvenile criticisms aside, working my way through Toynbee reminds me of the extent to which Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” was a simplification, rather than a distillation, of previous work.

Reading Toynbee is much more rewarding. His view of cultural radiation can be employed to explain the development of militant Islam’s conception of the US as The Great Satan (I’m surprised I haven’t seen a paper on it). And his concept of a military ‘limes’, where border states do business with trans-frontier barbarians, seems strangely applicable to present day Europe.

If I’m not posting, it’s because I’m reading.

Total recall 2003

My home state of California goes to the polls today in a recall election that looks like a race between sitting Governor Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

CNN reports on both candidates’ last day of campaigning. Arnie was out around San Bernardino; here’s his final pitch from the stump.

The choices tomorrow are very simple. Do you want to go backwards with Gray Davis, or do you want to go forward with Arnold? Tomorrow is the people versus the politicians.
I’m for Arnie but with reservations. There’s been a lot of dirt thrown about Schwarzenegger’s past, particularly his treatment of women. None of it seems to have done much harm to his chances, though some of it is undoubtedly true.

Roger L Simon says it best.

He's about as imperfect as you can get, except for one thing in his favor --he hasn't spent his life as a politician. Perhaps when he gets to Sacramento he will remember why he was sent there and apply an intelligent amateur's common sense (and a little of his movie charisma) to moving the State of California in a postive direction. I also hope he will abjure party politics and stick with the kind of pragmatism for which many of us voters would be electing him.
If Schwarzenegger gets elected, he’ll carry a lot of public expectation into office. If he can’t provide the strong pragmatic leadership needed to address the budget deficit, he might quickly find himself in trouble.

If you want some background on the election Citizen Smash has the answers to some frequently asked questions.

October 05, 2003


I’ve been busy again this last week, so Sunday morning finds me catching up with my blog links.

I haven’t heard a bleat from Lileks since Wednesday, Alice Bachini is busy and Dailee is taking a break until the end of October; both Rachel Lucas and Stephen Green had nightmares a while back and are also on a blog-break. Michele gets the dreams but keeps right on blogging.

On the plus side: The Indepundit is back, as Lt Cmdr Smash hangs up his uniform and Scott returns to civilian life. A grateful nation clicks and reads.

Elsewhere this weekend:

Alan Brain wants to know what we can do about North Korea.
Norm Geras has a couple of poems by Sophie Hannah.
Susanna at Cut on the Bias is talking family history and the North/South divide.
Natalie Solent reminds us of President Carter’s bungled response to the Iran hostage crisis.
David Adesnik at Oxblog nominates Oswaldo Paya for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Tim Blair points to the French quagmire in Ivory Coast.

And, if all the bad news gets too much for you, Saturday's Winds of Change has only good news: Shabbat Shalom.

October 04, 2003

News from home

MSNBC News: Military practices downing airliners.

CNN: Gun control laws don’t reduce firearm violence.

Fox News: Bruce Willis offers reward for capture of Saddam.

Washington Post: High times ahead for Canadian PM.

ABC News: Rock and Roll suicide live on-line.

Washington Post: Unmanned aircraft to share the skies with commercial airliners.

ABC News: A common sense approach to the Sunday sportsfest.

CNN: Ignoble laureates named.

October 03, 2003

An evening out

Mac and I are going out for a meal this evening.

The sitter arrives at eight and once the two young ones are settled, we’ll be off out for some fine Mexican cuisine.

We’re going to Casa Mexicana in Bristol. I used to eat there pretty regularly about fifteen years ago, when I was footloose and fancy free. A lot of restaurants with a Mexican theme have opened in Bristol since then, but Casa Mexicana still does the best Mexican food in town.

It doesn’t look like they have a website I can link to, but I found this short review by Caroline Stacey in the Independent, which just about covers it.

I was surprised that Casa Mexicana doesn’t have an on-line presence; even the Ma-and-Pa’s where I had lunch yesterday has a website: check out the “muriels”. No, I don’t know why Bristol people call them that, but I always think it’s funny when they do.

Ahora, tengo que ir. Hasta mañana.

Chapman's back

Steve Chapman is back from his blogging hiatus with a post about the Brent East by-election, public cynicism and anarcho-individualism.

Steve took a break from blogging at the start of September, but has returned promising longer but less frequent posts.

He's changed his mind about the war in Iraq (he's now anti), so I'm looking forward to his post on the subject. He prefigured his position in the comments to this post.

I changed my mind over Iraq (a 'cause' I took some convincing over anyway) for the simple reason of realising that it is impossible to support such a war and still call oneself a libertarian, whatever the folks over at Samizdata say. There's a logical continuum between opposing the interventions of government at home 'for our own good' and opposing the same abroad for 'THEIR own good.'
I'd like to see that "logical continuum" idea worked out in a post, because I’m not sure you can so easily compare the two situations. But I'd be interested to see someone try.

Here's hoping we won't have to wait so long for that next post.


Asymetrical Information has a post up about prison rape referring to this Slate article by Robert Weisberg and David Mills.

While hard data on sexual assaults in prison is not easy to find, and observers dispute the precise frequency, no one who knows American jails and prisons doubts that rape and sexual assault—usually perpetrated by other inmates but occasionally by prison staff—are facts of daily life. What is surprising is how easily the citizenry and the judicial system have come to accept the brutal reality of our prisons and absorbed it into mainstream culture.
The Slate article looks at the Prison Rape Elimination Act that was passed earlier this year. The act seems optimistically named, seeing as how it’s only going to survey the extent of the problem and suggest possible remedies, but it’s a step in the right direction.

October 02, 2003

Plame wars

I was on my way over to the Cul-de-Sac at Suburban Blight when I came across Kelley's take on the Plame affair.

I'm just not seeing the proof. I'm not even seeing anything, at this point, other than innuendo. I'm not being sarcastic - have I missed something? Two days ago I hear this ridiculous interview with Wilson on the radio, and today lawmakers are calling for a special prosecutor? WTF? Is there even evidence enough in the affair to warrant a special prosecutor yet?
I feel pretty much the same way. It's probably a whole lot of hullabaloo about nothing but if it isn't, and they find some evidence of serious wrongdoing, I'll be pretty p'd about it.

I've been actively following the story only to the extent of noticing that googling "Plamegate" a couple of days ago produced just 6 results, whereas today the same search produces about 135 hits. Expect that number to rise considerably over the next few days as the loonies join the bandwagon.

Wake me up if they find anything.

Barbaric murder

Today, the Guardian has a round up of press reaction to the murder of Heshu Yones, which has been referred to as an "honor killing".

"I understand the panic that parents from some ethnic communities feel in the west's over-sexualised society, but killing your child is a barbaric response," said Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Daily Mail yesterday. She insisted that there should be no special concession for Abdalla Yones, who began a life sentence on Monday for the murder of his 16-year-old daughter, Heshu.
I don't often agree with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown but she has taken a consistent line in repeatedly urging Asians in the UK to condemn the barbaric treatment of women that goes on in some families.

Yesterday, I bought the Daily Mail for the sole purpose of reading the piece the Guardian refers to. Unfortunately, the article is not available on-line. That's a pity because Alibhai-Brown's piece deserves a wide circulation.

Yones is a Muslim and such killings are shockingly frequent in Muslim countries (although they also take place in Hindu and Sikh families). Now we are seeing them with alarming frequency in Britain too.
Back in April 1999, Rukhsana Naz, 19, from Derby, was strangled by her brother as her mother held her down. She had a boyfriend and was pregnant after leaving the husband who had been forced on her in the first place.
In June 2001, Shahida Perveen, 24, from Manchester was murdered by her father after he found her with her secret boyfriend in her bedroom.
Last January, Sahda Bibi, 21, also from Manchester, was murdered an hour before her wedding because she was marrying out of choice and her relatives did not approve.
Mother of two Surjit Kaur Athwal, 26, from Middlesex, has been missing, presumed murdered, since December 1998. She had started divorce proceedings against her husband and disappeared while in India for a family wedding.
Alibhai-Brown has been trying to raise awareness of the problem for some time now. She has received hundreds of letters from Asian women in the UK who live in fear of such treatment at the hands of their families.
But in Britain, sadly and tragically, there is much more obfuscation, too little condemnation. There is a kind of cultural protectionism so that concerned people, both inside and outside ethnic communities, are paralysed into silence.
They know that if the speak out they will be accused of being racist or of harming community relations. But just imagine the uproar if Heshu had had her throat cut by a white racist.
If a white racist had murdered his daughter in this way, I don't think BBC Radio would have had a cultural commentator on, explaining why the father had felt justified in acting the way he did. But that's beside the point.

As Alibhai-Brown makes clear, this is not a Muslim issue, it's an Asian issue. It would be good to see more people being as forthright as Alibhai-Brown in their condemnation of this latest killing.

So called "honor killings" are barbaric murders but it's not just the crime that needs to be condemned; it's the attitudes of those who support and condone it. The racist tribalism and the primitive view of women that motivate these people have no place in modern society.

Consumer freedom

In the nineties, after the Berlin Wall came down, Mac and I hosted a number of visitors from Eastern Europe. We’d put up one or two of them at a time, bed, breakfast and evening meal: East Germans, Latvians, Czechs. They came from various backgrounds: artists, academics, trainee teachers and young students, all visiting the “The West” for the first time.

As an introduction to the benefits of capitalism, I used to like to take them to the local supermarket. It was a real treat to see the look of bewilderment on their faces at the sight of a fully stocked Tesco. They’d never seen so many things for sale in one place before. They just couldn’t believe the number and range of goods available, and the experience was sometimes too much for them.

On her first visit to Tesco, one of the Latvians got hung up on the toothpaste aisle. She was confused by the number of dental hygiene products available. “All these are different?” she asked. No, I said, they all do pretty much the same job; it’s mostly just the packaging that’s different. “It is good to have choice” she said, still staring at the display, “Which one does the government recommend?”

I was reminded of the Latvian conversation when I came across this Telegraph piece by Alice Thomson. She caricatures the evils of supermarkets before praising them to the heavens.

Supermarkets are evil, I thought as I pushed my trolley round Tesco Metro in Canary Wharf. They've bankrupted British farmers with their milk cartels and demands for supermodel vegetables. They've destroyed specialist butcher's and baker's, I muttered as I chose some lemon and tarragon chicken breasts from its "Finest" range. They've forced out village and corner shops, ruined communities, blighted green fields, championed strawberries at Christmas and driven us to obesity with their one-stop shopping.
Michael Jennings at Samizdata and Alice Bachini both point to Thomson’s article and take up the song of praise. Supermarkets are applauded for their convenience, the range of goods on offer and, strangely to my mind, the price and freshness of their produce.

I guess we’re lucky to live near three greengrocers who sell fresher produce at lower prices than the supermarkets. And there are a variety of shops within walking distance that undercut Tesco on most of the other groceries we buy. The supermarket is handy when I’ve got the boys with me and I need to do a quick shop or I need cleaning products. Other than that, most of the stuff they sell I’m not interested in and the rest I can generally get cheaper elsewhere.

I have the time to shop, and Mac and I both love to cook, so apart from bread and milk we buy mostly fruit and veg, grains, pulses and a little meat. Most of the people I see at the supermarket are buying tinned, packaged, processed or frozen foods that we generally don’t eat. It’s a matter of taste I guess.

I’m not anti-supermarket but the praise that Tesco and the rest receive here seems too fulsome to me. Supermarkets offer a fine range of goods at fair prices but you’d think from reading Thomson that they’d created heaven on earth.

With all those tempting offers, they seem more like Eden to me.