31/05/03 What Went Wrong?
"What went wrong? For a long time people in the Islamic world, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East, have been asking this question."
After reading Bernard Lewis's "What Went Wrong" a few weeks ago, I've created a page containing select quotes from the book, and some others from Professor Lewis about Islam and the Middle East.

31/05/03 Boys Don't Cry
BBC2 are showing the film "Boys Don't Cry", starring Hilary Swank, tonight at 9. It's always annoying when a film that you have only recently rented is shown on a terrestrial channel.

28/05/03 The EU Constitution
"The European Union shall conduct a common foreign and security policy, based on the development of mutual political solidarity among member states, the identification of questions of general interest and the achievement of an ever-increasing degree of convergence of member states' actions. The European Council shall identify the Union's strategic interests and determine the objectives of its common foreign and security policy" (excerpts from the draft EU Constitution)
How can Ireland, a neutral country, and Italy, a member of NATO, possibly conduct a common foreign and security policy? Eiher the EU constitution is a piece of nonsense, with no meaning, or else it means the end of Ireland as we know it. If the former, what does that say about the sense of reality of its framers? If the latter, why aren't the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who are concerned about neutrality getting more upset?

28/05/03 The Truth About Europe
In an article in today's Irish Independent (registration required) economist Moore McDowell bluntly assesses the predicament Ireland now finds itself in with Europe. He argues that joining the Euro whilst Britain stayed out was not in our national interest, but we deluded ourselves and joined in any case. Ireland (and hopefully Britain) will face a referendum on the new EU constitution, and McDowell urges us to align ourselves with the British view of the EU, one whose powers are "severely circumscribed". Can we overcome our prejudice against Britian to see our true position in the world?

25/05/03 Bargain Hunters
According to travel agencies, when there is a terrorist attack somewhere, Irish people don't ring to cancel their holidays there, they ring up to see if there are any bargains to that destination. (seen in the Sunday Independent)
I'm not sure what that says about us...

24/05/03 On the Book Shelf
"He wants to say, 'I am tired of these horns and all that they mean'. Not brilliant, but certainly not the sentiments of a complete fool. The problems lie in articulation and enunciation. No matter how sweetly worded or wise the Minotaur's ideas may be, when he puts them to tongue, terrible things happen."
Just finished Steven Sherrill's offbeat, tender and intelligently written first novel, "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break." The intriguing idea behind this book is that the Minotaur of Greek Myth is now known as M and working as a line chef in a restaurant in the Deep South of America.
On several levels, the book reminds me of "Boys Don't Cry", the Oscar-winning film about a woman trying to live as a man. Sherrill describes in detail the humdrum rituals that M goes through to allow him to live in a human world - bathing, preparing clothes, treating his skin and so on. In "Boys", we saw how Brandon\Teena prepared herself when venturing out as a man - taping her breasts, fixing her hair and so on. Both are set in downtrodden, small-town America; M lives in a trailer park, encountering flawed people with limited aspirations and outlook, using their pets and hobbies as outlets for their emotions. The book dwells on the nature of manhood, something which both terrifies and attracts M - "he sometimes wonders why simulating death is such a common pursuit among men." M does not understand women at all, what could possess one of them to like him? Perhaps reflecting his own dual nature, M has more insight into the motivations of animals than the fair sex.
Similarly, as in "Boys", it is the attempt by M to seek out companionship whilst trying to overcome his nature that gives the book its dramatic push. You dread the tragedy that you feel must befall the vulnerable M as he ineptly makes contact with Kelly, a kind waitress from work, and lets his hope overcome his caution. Highly recommended.
Aside: The book hints that the world of Greek Myth has merged into our own, and that M is not the only 'erroneous' leftover from those ancient times struggling through our modern world.

23/05/03 What have the Norwegians ever done for us?
Al-Qaeda issue a threat against the interests of America, Britain, Australia and... Norway! Are they doing some secret work in the war on terror? Are Al-Qaeda football fans who can't take any more boring long-ball games?

21/05/03 Next Year's Television
If you want to see what major new television shows are in the works, check out Zap2It.Com's preview for each of the main US networks. Rob Lowe gets a new legal show after his exit from "The West Wing" called "Lyon's Den". There are vehicles for Whoopi Goldberg, Rupert Everett (as the British Ambassador in Washington) and Alicia Silverstone. Rachel Leigh Cook enters the contest for kick-ass babe as a girl without the gene for fear in "Fearless." "Wonderfalls" is an offbeat drama about a teenage girl in a quirky small town who starts having visions, and could be a sleeper hit. There are American versions planned for British hits "The Kumars at No. 42" (with a Hispanic family) and cult Japanese spoof game show Banzai (sample game: will a one-legged striker score against a one-armed goalkeeper).
In America, competition between the networks is vicious, shows are continuously assessed. Series can be culled after a few episodes and replaced or undergo dramatic changes in personnel and pitch. At times, it resembles a sporting or political contest and what's going on behind the scenes can often be more exciting than what's on the screen.

18/05/03 Quote of the Day
"You don't own a TV? What's all your furniture pointed at?"
Joey when a paleontologist tells him she doesn't own a TV on "Friends."

17/05/03 What is a Neo-Conservative?
If you'd been following the course of the Iraq war and the American decision-making process behind it, you're sure to have come across the phrase 'neo-conservative', usually with hawk after it. What in this world is a neo-conservative? Is it a conservative who is hawkish on foreign policy? Is it one step below a libertarian? Jonah Goldberg attempts a defintion in National Review and is so far failing. As it happens, there is a Panorama program on BBC tonight about the influence of 'neo-conservatives' on the Bush White House. I wonder if they'll attempt to nail down this nebulous category.
Aside: I use 'program' instead of 'programme' deliberately. Some people resist using 'program' because they see it as an Americanisation of English, however, 'programme' is a French affectation, and hey, at least the Americans speak English.

17/05/03 They seek them here...
Where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Either they've been spirited away, extremely well hidden or else... they weren't there. It's a difficult question, the war was justified to get rid of Saddam, but was it the wisest course of action if Iraq didn't have WMDs? But if Saddam wasn't hiding the weapons, why did he put up such a fight to the UN inspectors?
Jim Lacey advances an ingenious theory in National Review, which on the face of it seems preposterous, but when you think about how ruthless dictatorships work, is quite possible:
"It is likely that if Saddam no longer had a WMD program he did not know it. Why else would he endure over a decade of crippling sanctions? ...his henchmen did everything possible to obfuscate the true WMD picture and to thwart any inspection teams. If they had nothing to hide, they sure worked hard at trying to hide it. What if they were not just hiding a possible WMD program from inspectors, but also hiding from Saddam the fact that no such program existed?"

16/05/03 On the Book Shelf
I spent the last week getting through "Catastrophe" by David Keys (courtesy of Marino library). This is an intriguing book, which argues that the origins of the modern world lie in a catastrophic natural disaster which occured in the mid-6th century. I'd heard about the book via a Channel 4 documentary on the same theme which Keys presented a few years back. The book is interesting on two fronts - it provides a survey of the major changes affecting the world at the time: the end of the western Roman empire, the unification of China, the rise of Islam, the collapse of great cities in Mesoamerica; and it provides a hypothesis for the driving force behind these changes. In this case, Keys points the finger at a massive eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, which led to a 'nuclear winter' climatic effect, and a devastating outbreak of plague in Eurasia. Whilst I may not agree with all the changes that Keys has attributed to this disaster, I believe he is on to something with his catalogue of its environmental effects - these must have had historical consequences, and the 6th century was a very turbulent one.
The book is rather similar in conception to tree-ring expert Mike Baillie's book "Exodus to Arthur", which I reviewed in 2001.
Aside: One of the chapters in the book is devoted to Ireland, and Keys mentions how the Irish language evolved in the 5th\6th century from a dialect of a common Celtic tongue into a new language, Irish Gaelic, as the Celtic lands fell back upon themselves, and the Anglo-Saxons displaced them from what is now England.

14/05/03 Word for the Day
"A man is said to stand Moses when he has another manís bastard child fathered upon him, and he is obliged by the parish to maintain it." ( Francis Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796 )
I made the mistake of looking for a desk calendar in January - I hadn't realised, and of course it now seems obvious to me, that you should buy these things in December. The end result being that instead of getting a Dilbert or Farside calender, I went home with a "Forgotten English" calendar. Imagine a word of the day calendar... from the 19th century. My colleagues denounce it on an almost daily basis.

12/05/03 Shock and Awe
Over the next week, watch out for the number of times you see the phrase 'Shock and Awe' in the media. It'll pop up in articles which have nothing to do with Iraq - the guys who write football headlines are especially fond of it. The phrase has entered our vocabulary. The Chicago Sun Times explores the diverse uses the phrase has been put to.

10/05/03 On the Book Shelf
I've completed "What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" by Bernard Lewis, and am half-way through (illness interrupted) "Nonzero: History, Evolution & Human Co-operation" by Robert Wright. Professor Bernard Lewis, at the admirable age of 86, is commonly held to be the leading expert on the Middle East in the West. "What Went Wrong" is an informative little book, Lewis's understanding of that troubled part of the world is second-to-none, however, I could have saved myself the money and read some of his excellent articles, which summarise the main points of the book.
I was less impressed with "Nonzero", which argues that human history is essentially the unfolding of larger and larger non-zero sum games. As much as I wanted to agree with Wright's theory, I found his writing style a little irritating, and the evidence to support it weak. By the way, a non-zero sum game is one where both sides can win, such as in a voluntary transaction like a business deal; a zero sum game is like sport or war, one side's gain can only come when another loses.
On order: The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill, which has been getting some very favourable reviews. For a change, I'm reading some fiction, and this unusual book is about the 5,000 year-old Minotaur, now residing in middle America and trying to lead a normal life.

09/05/03 Media Watch - Britain
Across the pond, the BBC takes media 'objectivity' double-speak to new heights with this incredible line in its response to a complant:
"even if the two men were involved in terrorist acts, it did not follow that the BBC should necessarily have referred to them as 'terrorists' rather than 'militants'."
The complaint referred to a BBC News report about the killing of two Palestinian terrorists in a house in Nablus in November 2002. The complainant make the reasonable points that the men killed were members of a terrorist organizations (Hamas), that the word militant implied that Palestinians did not engage in attacks on civilians and queried why the BBC used the word terrorist in relation to the Bali and September 11 attacks. Money quote: "the complainant asserted that the BBC was differentiating between the perpetrators of violent attacks on civilians by using the terms 'terrorist' and 'militant' according to its perception of their 'political legitimacy'".
The BBC is supposed to be an impartial public-service broadcaster? Seems to me that one way to guarantee partiality is to fund an organization from the public sector.
(link found courtesy of Samizdata.Net)

08/05/03 Media Watch - Ireland
I had the pleasure of catching the end of Primetime on RTE tonight. I say pleasure because I found the closing report to be hilarious. Ostensibly the piece was about how certain media outlets (not RTE to be sure), such as tabloid newspapers weren't being 'objective' enough about politics, and that they had favoured Fianna Fail too much in the last election. The evidence for this was that a clear majority of the photos in those newspapers were of FF, rather than Fine Gael or Labour figures. This hardly seems conclusive - as FF were the incumbent government their frontbenchers would be more famous than their opposition counterparts (I'd like to see similar evidence from the 1997 election), and Bertie Ahern is adept at being photographed in situations that photographers love. Another accusation from a Labour TD was that Fianna Fail has gone out of its way to cultivate links with the media. Yes, and? What political party in the world with any sense does not do the same? Doesn't Labour? They play the same games as FF, what gets them is that FF are so much better at them.
Not content with trying to give Fianna Fail a beating, the piece then took on Fine Gael and the challenges facing the opposition, using a source (a Trinity college professor) to label them as dead wood. In a delightful turn, their source then advised that Labour should not seek to merge with Fine Gael because social democractic parties are doing so well in Western Europe - he used Tony Blair as an example to back up this belief. Does anyone really think that New Labour are social democratic? Even when they implement Conservative policy on the NHS? Social democratic parties in France did so well that the presidential run-off was between Chirac on the centre-right and Le Pen on the far-far-right.
The best thing about the report was that it started out alleging a lack of media objectivity, and throughout the entire report didn't present one person with an opposing view to this, or anyone from Fianna Fail to defend themselves. You have to love RTE.

03/05/03 Jingoism
Why is the word 'jingoistic' used when referring to a nationalistic and aggressive foreign policy?
Apparently it comes from a 19th-century music hall song by GW Hunt, which was popular at a time when British politics was split between Disraeli & Gladstone over dealings with Turkey and Russia.
"We don't want to fight, but, by jingo if we do,
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too..."
The term 'jingo' came to be associated with the more aggressive policies of Disraeli. Interestingly, the policy advocated was not that Britain should conquer Turkey, but rather ensure that Russia didn't conquer her either:
"We've fought the bear before and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople."

02/05/03 The "Irish" Virus Attacks
I got an email in work with a virus attached - thankfully it was only the Irish virus!
Dear Receiver,
You have just received an Irish virus.
Since we are not so technologically advanced in Ireland, this is a MANUAL virus.
Please delete all the files on your hard disk yourself and send this mail to everyone you know.
That'd be grand, tanx.
Paddy O'Hacker

01/05/03 Intacto
Intacto is an intriguing Spanish-made film, which I saw last night in the Screen (I believe that's the only cinema showing the film in Dublin). Although Spanish-made, about half the dialogue is in English, with the rest in Spanish (subtitled in English). Intacto deals with the nature of luck - in its universe luck is a tangible property that can be transferred from person to person and accumulated by certain 'lucky' people. Max Von Sydow, for instance, plays a Jewish survivor of a concentration camp. Although an interesting concept, I felt the film was let down by its execution. With a little more imagination, this 'gift' of luck could have made for a better film. In one scene, the protagonist is trying to make a getaway and smashes the window of a car in order to steal it. He was supposed to be exceptionally lucky (he was the sole survivor of a plane crash) and I was expecting him to find an unlocked car. Perhaps in a year or so we will see a big-budget Hollywood film which incorporates Intacto's core concept, until then, I'd recommend Intacto to someone who likes offbeat and inventive films.


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