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The Daily Briefing 29/11/05
1 End of the Rupert era
Peter Cole in The Independent looks at the establishment of a Hall of Fame for journalists. It has been established by the Press Gazette with 40 inaugural members to mark the magazine's 40th birthday. "I like to think that most of those in the Hall of Fame, a majority of them dead, would be content to be judged by their peers and successors simply for their journalism, and would have had some distaste for a form of celebrity status owing more to Hollywood than rattling the cages of the powerful."
Reports of Rupert Murdoch's demise usually turn out to have been greatly exaggerated, but in the sense that Guardian online editor Emily Bell uses the phrase, it may be on the money this time. Murdoch is the cover story for the 40th anniversary issue of the Press Gazette and Bell draws on an interview with him for the article linked to below. Bell sees a changing of the guard in the communications industry as the internet takes over from traditional outlets. " ... the interview itself is also a fascinating milestone, because it feels like the point at which Murdoch, and the era he has commanded so brilliantly, has come to an end. Like the infamous "Microsoft memo" which surfaced earlier this month and outlined how Bill Gates's company is now suffering crucial areas of "technology lag", this is a public footnote on the end of a remarkable business cycle. We have reached the Murdoch tipping point, a moment when the greatest visionary business leader of the postwar era has slipped, in the space of a few pages, into the past."
And to read Rupert in his own words, The Independent has published the interview from the Gazette.
And in The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz reports on Bob Woodward, one of the paper's stars (thanks to Watergate and a string of books), whose unusual relationship with the Post has come under scrutiny because of the Plame affair. "In today's polarized political atmosphere, Woodward's journalistic methods have been assailed by those who view him as dependent on the Bush inner circle for the narratives that drive his bestsellers. Still, his track record of consistently breaking news -- the New York Times ran two front-page pieces on his book "Plan of Attack," examining the prelude to the Iraq war -- is probably unmatched by any other journalist."
EMILY BELL/THE GUARDIAN
2 Help, we've been Googled
William Rees-Mogg draws on his experience as an antiquarian bookseller and publisher as he worries about the impact Google's plans to scan entire library collections and publish them on the internet might have on the publishing of "learned books". Rees-Moog sees hope in litigation underway in the US. "The Association of American Publishers has applied for an injunction against Google, on the grounds that Google plans to invade its intellectual property rights. The purpose of this application is to force Google to charge for viewing a copyright book, and to share the profit. Random House, the US publisher, suggests that a book might be downloaded for five cents per page, one cent for the website and four cents to be split between the publishers and author. There would probably have to be some minimum charge."
In the NYTimes, Adam Cohen warns about the enormous amount of information Google collects about users. "The government can gain access to Google's data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages. If the federal government announced plans to directly collect the sort of data Google does, there would be an uproar - in fact there was in 2003, when the Pentagon announced its Total Information Awareness program, which was quickly shut down."
Staying online, The Washington Post reports on how online shopping from work is changing the culture of the workplace and wonders if it might herald the beginning of the end for the shopping mall.
Rob Pegoraro, also in the Post reports that two Czech software developers offer free versions of their anti-virus programs to home users. "These no-charge downloads don't offer every feature provided by McAfee Inc. and Symantec Corp., the two security developers whose programs come pre-installed on most Windows PCs. But when put to the same tests as software from the Big Two, they did the job almost as well and with less fuss."
And in yet another sign that the end is nigh for newspapers as we have known them, the NYTimes reports there has been an 80 percent increase in the use of online classifieds. "The report is bad news for classified advertising sources like newspapers, which have historically dominated the market."
WILLIAM REES-MOGG/THE TIMES
3 Pay us to save the world
The UN is hosting a summit on climate change in Montreal this week, but The Washington Post reports that the US is not showing much interest in it, and notes that Australia has not signed up to Kyoto. "Despite the Bush administration's resistance, an assortment of U.S. elected officials, industry representatives and environmentalists are pushing to chart a new climate change strategy that will bring the United States back into international discussions while forcing developing countries to make meaningful cuts in their own carbon dioxide emissions."
The Independent yesterday splashed on a report (link below) that a bloc of 10 developing countries, led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, plans to make a radical proposal based on a variation of carbon trading schemes: pay us, and we will preserve our rainforest. "The Rainforest Coalition is now asking to be taken into the scheme. A heavily polluting country in Europe will buy carbon credits from developing countries that can prove - and there are two independent boards that will verify it - that they have managed to keep their "carbon sinks" intact. That way, for the first time, the developing countries will have a powerful financial incentive for doing what the rest of the world has been urging them to do for decades: control the logging."
In the same paper, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E Stiglitz praises the idea. "What is so impressive about the initiative is that it comes from developing countries; it represents their commitment. For the first time, they seem willing to take steps that Europe, Japan and other industrial countries (except the US) have made to avoid disaster."
The International Herald Tribune reports that Swiss voters on Sunday supported a five-year ban on the farming of genetically modified crops. The article also reports on wider European attitudes to GM food. "While some governments, including Spain, Britain and the Netherlands, believe Europe has sufficient safeguards in place, many nations say further tests are needed before allowing widespread farming of genetically modified crops. Currently, only Spain has sizable areas given over to farming of such crops. Farmers in Germany and France are among those to have recently started small-scale operations."
And back in the Post, a report that this year's record hurricane season has researchers worried about the future. "Many storm researchers now agree that a decade or more of similarly rough seasons -- similar to the heightened storm activity that began in 1995 -- lies ahead."
4 Psychoanalysing Israel
What is Ariel Sharon really up to? TDB has linked to numerous articles based around that single question in the past 12 months. Perhaps Jacqueline Rose has an answer or two, although if so, it is not what many supporters of Israel want to hear. Rose, a professor of English at the University of London, is the author of "The Question of Zion" which "examines the paradox between what was a secular political cause and its inextricable link with a Messianic vision" and is critical of Israel. "Most provocatively, she draws tentative analogies between Israel's treatment of Palestinians and Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews. Even a sympathetic reviewer raised an eyebrow, observing that "in Jewish consciousness ... to compare Jews with Nazis is beyond blasphemy." Unsympathetic reviewers were simply outraged, and expressed their outrage at length."
Also in The Guardian, Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of Haaretz analyses Sharons' latest steps. "His personality and ideas are less than perfect. But Israel's situation is not perfect: we cannot afford another laboratory test in peacemaking. There is hatred and terror on the other side, facing Israeli arrogance and prolonged occupation. Such imperfect situations call for imperfect leaders, such as Sharon, to do the necessary job. He proved it in Gaza; now it is his turn to follow suit in the West Bank."
The International Herald Tribune reports that the Erupean Union has criticised recent Israeli moves. "The European Union's diplomatic representatives in East Jerusalem and Ramallah have sharply criticized Israel's policies in East Jerusalem, saying that they "are reducing the possibility of reaching a final-status agreement on Jerusalem that any Palestinian could accept.""
5The age of anxiety
As Paul Krugman notes at the start of this column, many eulogies were published following the recent death of Peter Drucker, and it may have been remiss of TDB not to have linked to any of them. This will in some way redress that, and also look at the profound changes Krugman says are facing workers in the US as its economy adjusts to new global realities.
6 Blowback to Afghanistan
One of the more compelling reasons for not invading Iraq was that it would distract and detract from the important job of nation building in Afghanistan. The Washington Post (link below) reports that "an onslaught of grisly and sophisticated attacks since parliamentary elections in September has left Afghan and international officials concerned that Taliban guerrillas are obtaining support from abroad to carry out strikes that increasingly mimic insurgent tactics in Iraq."
There is more than just a hint in the article above of "blowback" into Afghanistan from the invasion of Iraq, something Peter Bergin and Alex Reynolds from the New America Foundation warned about in an article TDB linked to some time back, but which might be worth another look.
THE WASHINGTON POST
7 Jacoby and utopia
Once thought dead and buried under the failure of communism and the backlash to the '60s, Ellen Willis allows herself to dream of a better world as she reviews "Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age" by Russell Jacoby. "That the culture war instigated by the 1960s revolt shows no signs of abating thirty-some years later is usually cited by its left and liberal opponents to condemn it as a disastrous provocation that put the right in power. Yet the same set of facts can as plausibly be regarded as evidence of the potent and lasting appeal of its demand that society embrace freedom and pleasure as fundamental values. For the fury of the religious right is clearly a case of protesting too much, its preoccupation with sexual sin a testament to the magnitude of the temptation (as the many evangelical sex scandals suggest). Meanwhile, during the dot-com boom, enthusiastic young free marketeers fomented a mini-revival of sixties liberationism, reencoded as the quest for global entrepreneurial triumph, new technological toys, and limitless information."
8 String theory - nothing to it
On Friday, TDB linked to this article in American Scientist reviewing two books on string theory, both advocates for it. Let's balance that up a little with the article linked to below, based on "Hiding in the Mirrors" by Lawrence Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy. In reviewing the book, Paul Boutin says it should be subtitled "String Theory Is for Suckers", and warns that a lot of valuable time and money is being wasted on the attempt to reconcile quantum physics with the general theory of relativity. "It's not just scientists like Krauss who stands to lose from this; it's all of us. Einstein's theories paved the way for nuclear power. Quantum mechanics spawned the transistor and the computer chip. What if 21st-century physicists refuse to deliver anything solid without a galaxy-sized accelerator? "String theory is textbook post-modernism fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money," Nobel Prize-winner Robert Laughlin griped to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year."
And Live Science reckons the way to improve your memory is to set up the equivalent of a "brain bouncer" to keep unwanted information out of your head.
9 Stiff competition for bad s*x award
Serious book reviews in a moment, but first the literary prize no-one wants to win, the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award. The longlist has been announced, as The Guardian reports below, and the article includes links to the complete passages that have been nominated.
Speaking of lists and awards, the NYTimes recently listed 100 notable books it had reviewed in the past 12 months; and The Guardian reported on the 132 books in the longlist for the world's richest literary prize, the International Impac Dublin literary award.
10 War and Comedy, Moptops and Billiard balls, Physics and Ecology, Chutzpah and Hitchens.
TUESDAY BOOKS: a selection by donn wood.
Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman Finkelstein
If your memory stretches back to August, you may remember a TDB link to a story in The Guardian about the extraordinary carry-on between the author and Alan Dershowitz, (of, amongst many other things, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson legal defence fame, [or infamy]) before this book was even published! In Logos, ‘Beyond Chutzpah’ (the title is a(nother) dig at Dershowitz, who wrote a book titled ‘Chutzpah’ in 1991) is reviewed by Matthew Abraham, and I caution any readers who might consider themselves to be pro-Israel to take their heart pills, or at least a stiff drink, before reading the review; let alone the book. (link below)
A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson
The Peloponnesian War is the name that Greek writer/historian Thucydides invented to describe four separate conflicts over twenty-seven years, which ultimately destroyed the Athenian Empire/State (they started it); dragged in (often unwilling) combatants from Italy to the Middle East; was lost in large part to a failed, under resourced adventure deep into enemy territory, which probably wouldn’t have been strategically significant even had it been won; and made it possible for a new world Power to arise (we’re talking A the G here) ... are you getting that déja vu all over again feeling? (No, I’m not trying to make some political point about Korea-Vietnam-Iraq, just pointing out that 45 minus 14 is not far from 27.) In The New Criterion, Barry Strauss reviews this history, and as well as applauding its scholarship, writes that ”... perhaps the most accessible aspect of ‘A War Like No Other’ is also its most human feature. Again and again, Hanson lingers over the few, very few names of ordinary men who died in the fighting. Astymachus, Xenares, and Glausidas go unremembered but unfairly so, because the Peloponnesian War was theirs alone. Hanson’s effort to bring them back to life—them, and not only the giants of the agora—is only one small measure of the achievements of this exceptional book.”
Bald! From Hairless Heroes to Comic Combovers by Kevin Baldwin
In The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reviews this “... amusing and fairly encyclopedic inquiry into the universe of bald ...” and claims that both the author and he are perfectly (non)qualified to respectively write and review this book.
Ayn Rand by Jeff Britting
In The London review of Books, Jenny Turner reviews the latest biography of the Mother of Objectivism, who was also the author of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘The Fountainhead’. However ... “No such thing as a proper biography of Ayn Rand exists. Most books about her are written by people with all-too-personal investments. Jeff Britting is not only the producer of a documentary film called Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997), he’s also the ARI’s archivist.” Perhaps because of this, Turner makes this article a potted bio in itself, and as such, it is well worth reading.
Wide Eyed by Trinie Dalton
“To call this collection eclectic is to call rain wet. It’s an adventure through random musings expertly crafted into short stories. It’s a glimpse into a head you wish was your own, if only temporarily.” In Bookslut, Ryan Klos reviews this book, and concludes ... “’ Wide Eyed’ is a wild, mixed bag of story with something for everyone. Some stories are more fantasy than others, but the book mostly reads like a diary, the kind of diary where you can’t help but occasionally question what the writer was smoking.”
The Beatles by Bob Spitz
“... as we hefted this literary cinder block and contemplated reading it, we had to wonder what could possibly be left to say about the musical foursome whom John Lennon once declared more popular than Jesus. Ten pages in, we were hooked.”Jane and Michael Stern review this exhaustive (1000 page) biography of the Fab Four in NYTimes Books.
Alphabet by Kathy Page
In Bookslut, Cherie Thiessen compliments this dark and disturbing novel whose main character is a man who killed his girlfriend and doesn’t quite know why he did it. “’Alphabet’ is a finalist for this year's Governor General's award, Canada's highest literary honor. No wonder.”
The Single Helix, by Steve Jones
Oh, help, more science! But apparently, according to Steve Connor in The Independent, this book focuses on “... the search for truth through the entertaining medium of the written word. Whether it is a digression on the p53 cancer gene, or how to measure the speed of light at home, Jones once again shows that, for all its difficulties, science can still be fun.”
Have Mercy On Us All by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by David Bellos
“A town crier in modern-day Paris? That's both the conceit and the launching pad of Fred Vargas's Have Mercy on Us All, which manages to be both an ingenious thriller and a meditation on code, communication and miscommunication.” In The Washington Post, David Bellos commends this book, (which, incidentally, parallels the 15th and 21st centuries) in which someone is trying to scare the city by murdering people and pretending they have been killed by the Black Plague.
The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge
This book is not a Watership Down-type arboreal fable, it is a radical (and gloomy) call to action to save the last remnants of the world’s forests, before we cut down the last bastion of sustainability on this increasingly overcrowded planet. Adam Thorpe, writing in The Guardian, finds Tudge’s facts and conclusions depressingly convincing. And since, according to Zipf’s law, referenced in “The Single Helix’ (see above) humans are about 10,000 times more abundant than we should be, given our body size, perhaps we should take heed. But then what would happen to GDP, GNP, CPI, S&P, WTO .... oh, where’s the brandy? VSOP.
Set Up, Joke, Set Up, Joke by Rob Long
“Rob Long's very, very funny book is a long, horrifying look behind the ... curtain. While waiting to hear if his comedy series has been recommissioned the hero receives a basket of fruit from the studio and is paralysed with fear. A basket of fruit - what does that mean?” Comedy writer/producer Long has written an account of one season in Hollywood, which is reviewed by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian. "Every top show is like a comedy Los Alamos project - burning up vast quantities of brains, cunning, endurance and paranoia. The formula is simple: the studios simply buy up job lots of brilliant young souls and crush them. There's just enough moral weight in this hugely enjoyable book to make you wonder if it's all really worth it, if it might not be better for a nation to send its best and brightest on a quest to end global warming or poverty, rather than just another third series.”
Dictionary of Republicanisms
For six months, that politically neutral (not!) magazine, The Nation, asked readers to submit definitions of Republican doublespeak, and the resulting book has just been released. This article by Katrina vanden Heuvel is hardly a review, but it’s worth reading for a giggle, or a snort of outrage. I liked
“staying the course – interj - Slang. Saying and doing the same stupid thing over and over, regardless of the result”, and “Fox News – fict - Faux news”; but my favourite was “creationism – n - Pseudoscience that claims George W. Bush's resemblance to a chimpanzee is totally coincidental”
Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Pinol; translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan
“Eerie, engaging, bizarre -- a nightmare come to life -- a compelling blend of horror, science-fiction and travel: all these things spin out in your mind while reading Albert Sánchez Pinol's first novel, ‘Cold Skin.’” In The San Francisco Chronicle, Alan Cheuse reviews this unsettling book. which has already been translated from its native Spanish into 15 other languages. “It's certainly not for everyone, horror never is, especially horror with such an odd sexual element. In this regard, the novel reads like Lovecraft with testosterone. But if weird tales are now and then something to your liking, this novel will run you hot and cold.”
And They All Sang :Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey by Studs Terkel
At the age of 93, the grand old man of American radio has published “...a riveting collection of interviews with more than 40 of the past century's greatest musicians. Among those interviewed are gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, classical guitar wizard Andres Segovia and jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Betty Carter and Dizzy Gillespie. Terkel is just as comfortable with young rock singers such as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan as he is with opera singer Richard Tucker.” Michael Shapiro in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Hypochondria Can Kill: A Disease for Every Occasion, an Illness for Every Symptom by John Naish
“Among other things, Naish teaches us how to recognize signs of incipient telephone stroke (vertigo and dizziness caused by pressing a phone between ear and shoulder for too long), credit card sciatica (thigh and lower back pain caused by sitting on an over-stuffed wallet), and caffeinism (confusion and restlessness suffered by those drinking too much tea or coffee).” Joshua Glen, writing in The Boston Globe, finds the tone tongue-in-cheek, but the subject matter quite serious.
Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays by Christopher Hitchens
“The most difficult thing one encounters when writing a review of a Christopher Hitchens’ collection is the problem of how to avoid mentioning his prodigious intake of booze and fags. But none can escape the temptation. So with that out of the way, we can move onto more important questions. Like, what, apart from nicotine and alcohol, is Hitchens on?” In Three Monkeys Online, Rory Dufficy reviews this collection of writings from the politically (but perhaps not morally) peripatetic one-time hero of the left, and now booster-in-chief for the war in Iraq. But there is more to Hitchens than legal drugs and testosterone. (Even if that’s mostly what we seem to hear from him these days). Dufficy thinks this collection shows the best and worst of Hitchens, from the literary commentary to the anti-anti-war bile. Hey, he’s a human being, not a plaster saint, and as far as I’m concerned, as Billy Joel once sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun ..."
Mystery series by Cara Black, Magdalen Nabb, Charles McCarry and Tom Corcoran
Lastly for this week, Rod Cockshutt in Triangle Books recommends the various series of crime, mystery, espionage and misadventure from these writers to keep you engaged this Christmas. Criminally good reading. (I know, I’ve used that line before, but not for months!)