Monthly Archives: August 2003

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Something there 

Another great Baghdad blog, via Doc Searls. Here’s just a sample of Baghdad Burning:

“The Myth: Iraqis, prior to occupation, lived in little beige tents set up on the sides of little dirt roads all over Baghdad. The men and boys would ride to school on their camels, donkeys and goats. These schools were larger versions of the home units and for every 100 students, there was one turban-wearing teacher who taught the boys rudimentary math (to count the flock) and reading. Girls and women sat at home, in black burkas, making bread and taking care of 10-12 children.

“The Truth: Iraqis lived in houses with running water and electricity. Thousands of them own computers. Millions own VCRs and VCDs. Iraq has sophisticated bridges, recreational centers, clubs, restaurants, shops, universities, schools, etc. Iraqis love fast cars (especially German cars) and the Tigris is full of little motor boats that are used for everything from fishing to water-skiing.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that most people choose to ignore the little prefix ‘re’ in the words ‘rebuild’ and ‘reconstruct’. For your information, ‘re’ is of Latin origin and generally means ‘again’ or ‘anew’.

“In other words — there was something there in the first place.”

Down in UP 

I’d love to feel more optimistic about the long-term strengths of India, but sometimes its hard. Consider today’s Financial Times report on the dispute at Ayodhya.

Uttar Pradesh, UP in Indian shorthand, is the poorest state in India. But political leaders spend their time arguing over the Hindu and Moslem claims to land in the holy city. The FT’s conclusion is spot on.

“Those hoping that ultimately irresoluble disputes like this would fade with time have been rudely disabused. The 170m people of Uttar Pradesh are among the poorest in India. Most still lack access to electricity or drinking water. But it seems that the fate of a once-obscure mosque will preoccupy their political leaders for another election at least.”

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I leave Australia tomorrow so I indulged myself a bit today, taking advantage of some of the wonders outside a conference room.

In the morning, a boat dropped me off on Langford Cay, a spit of brilliant white coral sand accessible only to boats. The attraction of Langford, aside from the potential for sunbathing (distinctly frowned upon in skin cancer-aware Australia) is a reef known for its turtles. Sure enough, almost as soon as I slipped on my mask and snorkel and swam out a few metres, I was confronted with a glorious green turtle.

Turtles are endlessly fascinating, and I spent a good 20 minutes following my friend around the reef. I spotted two other turtles, one asleep on the sea bed, as well as the usual spectrum of astoundingly coloured reef fish.

The other wildlife encounter came during some tennis at sunset. Looking up at the sky during my serve I saw what I at first took to be vast flocks of birds. Look a little more closely: those aren’t birds, but fruit bats. In Europe, the bats I’ve seen are tiny creatures, flitting nervously around. These were big, swooping confidently in the sky above the bright lights of the tennis court. In England, there are bat protection societies, but I don’t think anyone could think fruit bats are endearing.

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Clyde Prestowitz, the president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, spoke at the opening session here on Hayman. His talk was a riff from his recent book, Rogue Nation, about how current US unilateralism damages US interests and is, in a fundamental way, unamerican.

I found myself in agreement with just about everything Clyde had to say. What’s interesting to me is that his critique comes from the right (Clyde served in the Reagan administration), but it’s a part of the right that seems to have very little traction in Washington at the moment.

He also told an anecdote that played to my steady fury about rich world agricultural subsidies. West Africa has vast numbers of subsistence cotton farmers, struggling to keep their families alive with a couple of acres, a wooden plough and an ox. The US has 25,000 cotton farmers with vast farms and all the modern technology. You’d think that explains why west Africans are uncompetitive. In fact, it costs 23 cents to grow a pound of cotton in west Africa and 82 cents to grow it in the US. But the 25,000 US farmers receive annual subsidies of $6 billion. That’s obscene.


Perhaps it’s the grass being greener, but whenever I come to the southern hemisphere, I envy their night sky. Compared to the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the Big Dipper just doesn’t cut it.

And Mars, which is a brilliant presence low in the sky in Britain, is almost directly overhead here. What a vivid red to the naked eye.

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Giving it up  

It’s still Thursday in London, but it’s a sunny Friday morning on the Coral Sea. My conference starts later today, so I’m taking the free time to do some totally unrelated reading.

Noel Perrin’s Giving Up the Gun is a fascinating short essay on a historical oddity that I hadn’t previously encountered: Japan’s decision to give up the technology of firearms and revert to the sword. Guns only arrived in Japan in 1543, courtesy of some Portuguese traders, but the highly developed martial culture of the country soon adopted and mastered both the use and manufacture of firearms.

But battles in the mid-seventeenth century were to be the last time the Japanese used guns for fighting for nearly two hundred years. Who says unilateral disarmament is a fantasy?

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Once again, I’m fortunate enough to be going to the Australian Davos Connection’s leadership retreat on Hayman Island on the Great Barrier Reef. But it means I’ll be in airplanes all day tomorrow and then at the mercy of a dial-up connection. Expect sparse postings.


I subscribe to a number of Corante weblogs in my aggregator and I find the general level of postings quite high. But alarm bells ring when writers stray far off their ordinary turf.

Dana Blankenhorn, who writes the Moore’s Lore weblog, decides to have a go at China, and the rhetoric is reminiscent of the pre-Nixon “who lost China” tirades on the right. This is truly bizarre stuff.

“In a few years we’re going to wake up and we won’t have the strongest military, and we won’t have the deepest tech sector, and a Chinese astronaut will be planting a Chinese flag on Mars. China may yet rule the world without firing a shot. Where is our leadership here? Why do they continue to sleep? Why do they ignore the threat, to our livelihoods and our national security? Why?”

There’s certainly a lot wrong with China, but there’s more wrong with extrapolating from a paranoid view of the current Chinese leadership many decades into the future. China is changing dramatically economically and I haven’t yet encountered a knowledgeable observer of China who doesn’t reckon it will also change profoundly (although on a very different timescale to the economic change) politically. Blankenhorn should also note that the US is hardly standing still in military might, technological prowess or economic strength.

More bad science 

Chris Bertram picks up my link to Will Hutton yesterday and makes the clear connection to more dodgy science comment by Andy Rowell in today’s Guardian.

“Among the real gems of Rowell’s piece is the following thought: ‘The scientific establishment’s obsession with the “peer review” means important science that raises risks of GM technology is side-lined.’ The rest of the article consists of dubious and unsupported claims that critics of GM have been harrassed and persecuted, including the hapless Arpad Pusztai, who has been thoroughly discredited.”

My suspicions were raised when Rowell put peer review in quote marks. What’s the point of that?

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Taking on the crazies 

I find myself increasingly agreeing with Will Hutton on a range of issues. Among other things, this week he takes on the crazies on the MMR vaccine.

“Just consider the alarming fall off in the numbers of children receiving MMR vaccinations, now in some parts of the country below the threshold to ensure against an outbreak of the disease. Such is the public distrust of official medicine that a growing number of parents believe there is a greater risk to their children from having the vaccination than from not. Already the incidence of measles and mumps is rising. We are on the verge of a public-health disaster.

“Yet the best evidence we have is that the alleged link between autism and the MMR vaccine is non-existent and that the probability of risk on individual vaccines is zero. But more members of the public believe differently. Part of this story is that an individualistic, better educated and wealthier population wants to exercise choice; another part concerns BSE, where the scientific community’s advice was incorrect, and so justifies wariness over its alleged certainties.

“But no account of this development can be complete without the way our media report science. The dissident, so-called whistleblower, however dodgy the research on which his or her ‘evidence’ is based, is afforded massive attention; it is taken as axiomatic that the mainstream, evidence-based government-endorsed view will be self-serving and wrong. More than half of us believe the medical profession is divided over the health risks of MMR; in fact, it is more or less united that there is no risk.”


Agricultural subsidies have long been a topic to get my blood boiling. So let’s hope that KickAss (“Kick all agricultural subsidies) gets some traction. It’s a Guardian website, but that isn’t very clear.


I don’t have the easy hauteur of William Boyd (“I can see our two-acre vineyard of cabernet sauvignon grapes” etc), but his piece in The New York Times does capture some of my experience over the last two weeks in southwestern France.

For the first 10 days of our holiday, the daytime temperature didn’t move below 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit), and even at night it only cooled to about 34 or 35. We spent every possible minute in the pool or inside the comparatively cool stone walls of our rented farmhouse.

When I was at Oxford, there was a history exam that posed the problem: “Revolutions occur where oranges grow. Discuss.” I can tell you that when it’s hotter than that, no one could possibly have the energy for revolution or anything else.

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It’s August 

August in Europe means holidays. That includes me. I will be completely out of touch with any and all electronic devices for the next two weeks.

Lonely at the top 

I was a bit depressed last night to read Three Men in a Boat, from the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. It examines the current state of the Israel-Palestine conflict from the points of view of the three main protagonists, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen. It rings very true to my perceptions.

Here’s the sobering conclusion: “Of the three, only Abu Mazen genuinely believes the disarray must be brought to an end; only he truly aspires to a return to normalcy and a resumption of a political process. In this, he enjoys the support of the United States and the personal backing of its powerful president. He has the help of the United Nations, of Europe, of much of the Arab world. He possesses an internationally adopted instrument, the roadmap, aimed in the first instance at restoring calm and tailor-made to shore up his domestic position. Why then, in the midst of such a crowd, does he feel so lonely?”

By their rubbish ye shall know them 

After 13 years, The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts is leaving Japan. He provides some interesting reflections on the country pre- and post-bubble.

“I had read about the ‘Japanese miracle’ of rapid growth, peace, egalitarianism, long life and low crime, but it never seemed real until I arrived and saw with my own eyes that the proof of the country’s prosperity is in its rubbish.”

Thirteen years later, however, “the rubbish is not what it was. Instead of lovingly wrapped treasures, the tips are full of dirty, broken junk.”