Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Insights from Mark Ames

An extract from a Mark Ames piece from Exile magazine:

Americans have a choice between two elites, the leftwing intellectuals, or their remnants, and the right wing oligarchy. Guess which one will win. Here's a hint: one side has the money, the industry, the lobbyists, the police, bean-bag guns, APC-mounted water cannons, stun guns, pepper spray, rubber bullets, a near-monopoly on mainstream media contacts and lots of psychologically-impressive expensive dark suits with stern ties. The other side has mountain bikes and the ability to create 10-foot tall papier-mache puppets.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bush isn't up to the job...

A brilliantly written review by Gary Kamiya in today's tells us what we fear:

Suskind all but comes out and says what many have suspected: that Bush, although a man of deep faith -- he reads Scripture or a religious tract every morning -- is grossly intellectually unqualified to be president. Again and again, Suskind describes scenes that display his disengagement, his lack of curiosity, his ignorance of the most rudimentary facts. His inner circle knew his weaknesses, and assiduously prevented them from being known. "He is very good at some things that presidents are prized for, and startlingly deficient in others. No one in his innermost circle trusts that those imbalances would be well received by a knowledgeable public, especially at a time of crisis. So they are protective of him -- astonishingly so -- and forgiving."

I'll be reading The One Percent Doctrine by Ron Suskind soon.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Two Great Insights from Tom Bissell

Reading yet another vapid David Brooks column this morning, I got sidetracked and started to explore the strange world of travel writer and foreign "expert" Bob Kaplan. That led to a writer called Tom Bissell who methodically dissects Kaplan's work here.

Fortunately, Bissell doesn't confine himself to the hapless Kaplan - for instance here is a brilliant insight into the travel writing genre:

I believed then and believe now that the travel genre has much to answer for. Travel writers are seldom scholars. They are, by inclination if not definition, transients and dilettantes. All that can save the travel writer and redeem his or her often inexpert perceptions of foreign people and places is curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity, and an ability to write. Even travel writers well equipped in all of the above are inevitably attacked for missing the point, getting all manner of things wrong, and generally mucking about in questions of history and scholarship to which—when compared to experts—they have only lightly exposed themselves. This does not mean the travel writer is incapable of insight, to say nothing of entertainment, and in some cases the travel writer’s fresh-eyed unfamiliarity with a place can be made a virtue. As Lord Palmerston once said, “When I wish to be misinformed about a country, I ask the man who has lived there thirty years.”

And here's an equally perceptive view of Dubya:

Bush has gone from an isolationist to an interventionist minus the crucial intermediary stage wherein he actually became interested in other places. Kaplan has travelled from the belief that America should only “insert troops where overwhelming moral considerations crosshatch with strategic ones” to arguing that “September 11 had given the U.S. military the justification to go out scouting for trouble, and at the same time to do some good,” seemingly without understanding that he has even changed. Doubtless both men would sit any sceptic down and soberly explain that September 11 changed everything. What September 11 changed, however, was not the world itself but their understanding of America’s role in the world. For President Bush and Robert D. Kaplan, September 11 primarily means never having to say you’re sorry.

For my own part, I've gone the whole circle with travel writing, from enthusiasm in the late 1980s when the whole genre became very fashionable, to disillusionment early this decade. As for Kaplan, I read one of his books called Balkan Ghosts a few years ago but found it vaguely racist and very dull.

I've detested and mistrusted Dubya right from the beginning because he lacks the intellect to make rational decisions in complex situations. Such a contrast to his Dad - cautious, sensible, thoughtful, and very capable.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Fart Fart FART for Israel !

The excellent Max Hastings has been brave enough to turn in another article that criticises Israel.

Right on cue, the droves of Israel supporters have flooded the comments area. The arguments and insults of this mainly American crowd are remarkably similar and led me to dig out this old list:

Fart for Israel

How to fart for Israel and produce a smoke-screen of rancid guff to protect a terrorist state:

1) Label any criticism of Israeli Government actions anti-Semitic, and beyond the bounds of civilised discourse.

2) When confronted with a Palestinian sympathiser, call him or her a terrorist, or if he or she is over 70, a terrorist supporter.

3) If your opponent is winning the argument, mention THE HOLOCAUST.

4) Talk about suicide bombing, never talk about the occupation.

5) Shhhhh! Not in front of the Goy! - Don't mention the settlements, or the settlers, and especially don't mention the heroic actions of Dr Baruch Goldstein.

6) Remember that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B'Tselem, the United Nations, the European Union, the BBC, and the International Court, and any other respected oranganisation that critisises Israel are all driven by rabid irrational institutionalised anti-Semitism!

7) Just as all murderers are let off because other people commit murder, so Israel should be let off because it is not the only state in the world to violate human rights.

8) The Israeli army cannot lie when it investigates alleged atrocities comitted by itself. The army is incapable of telling lies. Ever.

9) What's good for Israel is good for America. Except peace talks and compromise.

10) Any Jew who critises Israel is mentally unbalanced and self-hating.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Rant about the World Cup

England play Sweden tonight in the last game of their World Cup group. Unusually, the result of the match matters very little because England already have enough points to qualify for the next round of the competition, when it becomes a knock-out event.

But of course it’s more complicated than that!

In the next round, England will face Germany or Ecuador. Much of today’s newspaper speculation is on which team it would be better for England to face. I believe the answer is clear-cut, and here’s why:

1) England Can Win the Tournament

Contrary to the impression the media gives, few very teams have a chance of winning the world cup. Historically the trophy is passed around a very exclusive little club. Here are the members:

Brazil (5 wins)
Italy (3 wins)
Germany (3 wins)
Uruguay (2 wins)
Argentina (2 wins)
England (1 win)
France (1 win)

The club is even more exclusive than it appears, as Uruguay haven’t won for 56 years and are no longer a force in world football and England haven’t won for 40 years, although they have played several quarter finals and a semi-final since then.

And if we chuck out Uruguay and possibly England from the club, we've got to add Holland (finalists in 1974 and 1978) – the best team to never win.

Still, no matter how we much we muck about with it, the winner's club is amazingly small especially given that almost the whole world enters the tournament (198 nations in the 2006 tournament).

It's a fact that England are in that exclusive club, and it’s not entirely crazy to believe they can win the trophy again, perhaps even this year.

What's the best way of winning? The best way to win a high risk event like a knockout tournament, where even a single sub-standard performance can bring disaster, is to play weaker opponents. Victories also buy time to change tactics or personnel and improve.

2) Home advantage

Home advantage is very important in football, and the World Cup is no exception. No fewer than four of that exclusive club of seven have used home advantage to win the trophy (Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934, England, 1966 and France 1998).

Therefore England are better off avoiding Germany (since they are the team with home advantage).

3) Germany and Ecuador are not equally formidable

Let's look at previous form. There's general agreement that the current German team isn't as good as some of their previous teams. None the less a national team is less of a snapshot of current form, and more a reflection of the depth and quality of a nation's professional league.

This explains why the World Cup keeps getting won by the same countries. Germany have won the world cup three times and been the runner-up four times! Ecuador's best performance has been... well this one actually.

Who knows the future? - Germany might lose, or key players may get injured. It’s even possible that will England improve. But for now the priority is to avoid the host nation in the next round.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Jokes and Laughter from [s]Mel Philips!

Like all fanatics, Melanie Philips is essentially humourless.

But exceptions prove the rule, as in today's diary entry:

The Israelis may be criticised for many things but they do not generally tell lies.

Heh heh heh! Good one [s]Mel!


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The World Cup

The World Cup is here again, and it's wonderful how much pleasure it gives...

Let's hope England play well tomorrow and that this time the luck will go our way and we end up winning the tournament.

I love the way you can pin down specific memories to specific dates - for instance:

An upsetting evening on the 4th of July 1990 when England lost to West Germany on penalties in the semi-finals.

The most exciting football match I've ever seen was on the 30th of June 1998 when England lost to Argentina, also on penalties.

And a very early memory of a football match is of June 7th 1970, when England played Brazil, and lost 1-0. I watched a recording of that game a few years ago and the quality of Brazil is outstanding, as is the performance of England captain Bobby Moore who at times seems to be single handedly breaking down every attack...

Hummmm too many losses in that list - Come on England!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Constable is Crap

The Chocolate Box Lid by John Constable (1821)

Went to the Tate on Saturday to see the Constable exhibition.

Ole Johnny ain’t my favourite artist, and there were moments that felt like being trapped in some boring and bland poster shop circa 1983.

It’s such a struggle to see these paintings as they were at the time, when the figures in them were completely modern, as was the transport and much of the architecture. When painted they weren't “olde worldie” and the technique was rather modern. The trouble is today they seem as fake-nostalgic as a bad advert, with a sort of “wasn’t life better years ago?” conservative sub-text.

The surprise isn't the subject matter (somewhat idealised countryside close to where I live in East Anglia) but just how rubbish a technician Constable can be. He’s got a really bad habit where he details one area of a canvas, and then seems to lose focus (literally) and paints an adjacent area in a much cruder way. Then there’s the literalness of the English light – it’s a filtered grey – yes very authentic, but it does make a lot of the paintings as dull as the water in the ditches and rivers that feature so prominently. Then there’s his really bad habit of painting different species of plant the same shade of green, and the badly drawn figures – his horses are especially unconvincing.

So you won't be surprised to learn that I still don’t really understand how this bland and frankly rather amateurish landscape artist became Britain’s Best Loved Painter. Loved by whom? I’ve never met anyone who thinks he’s the best, and most friends and acquaintances think he’s well overrated.

I enjoyed the exhibition, but left it disliking Constable slightly more than before - I'd hoped it would have the opposite effect.

Once we’d rested, eaten and regrouped we stayed in the Tate and had a long look at the permanent exhibition - the galleries were wonderfully calm and deserted on a hot summer's day. The collection is much bigger and more extensive than we both remembered, perhaps because all the modern stuff has gone to the power station on the other side of the river. So we had fun admiring some really good British art, like Turner, and Sergeant and the frustratingly inconsistent Graham Sutherland.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Roland Garros

From 1990 to 1996 for reasons that make no sense, and made no sense at the time, I lived in Paris.

It's remarkable how seldom I miss the city, or give it much thought now. But there's one glorious exception, and that's the French Open tennis tournament, called
Roland Garros.

One of the four grand slam events, it attracts the best players in the world who come to a rather
souless collection of concrete stadiums near the Porte d'Auteuil. Once inside they compete on a strange surface called "clay" which is in fact a complex mixture of house brick crushed to a fine grit, real clay, sand, and a rubber binding agent.

During the wooden racket era, this surface was deadly slow and boring, and turned tennis into stylised form of attritional warfare - 20 and 30 stroke rallys with the aim to play safe and wait for your opponent to make an unforced error.

But in today's power era of carbon fibre and titanium, the surface is much better. It slows the game down enough to produce rallys, yet keeps it fast enough to reward guile and variety.

But best of all is the attitude of the French towards Roland Garros. Sure, it's a national institution but one that belongs predominantly to tennis fans. The entire country doesn't stop to watch the final, or really give the tournament much thought. This means two wonderful things - the place is full of genuine tennis fans, and there is very little queing for tickets, which can be had at a very good price particularly in the first week.

I hate to admit it, but it's better than Wimbledon in all respects except asthetics - the colour of the red clay is vile, and hard on the eyes in bright sunlight...