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The Daily Briefing 6/12/05
1 Global panic attack
Don't let 'em mess with your head! TDB doesn't often invoke the bloggers's cry "Read the whole thing", but when you have our national newspaper this morning editorialising to the effect that the prison cell ramblings of one flip-out justify giving up traditional freedoms for which millions have given their lives, then now it as good a time as any. Linton Weeks says the the US has become "Fraidy Cat Nation" as politicians and the media (who have a vested interest in fear) pump out an endless stream of things to be scared of. "Terrorism. Weapons of mass destruction. Bird flu. Hurricanes. Sex offenders. New and terrible forms of cancer. Sexually transmitted diseases. Alzheimer's. Crystal meth labs. Lawsuits. Prison breaks! Female suicide bombers! Wildfires! Identity theft! Terrifying toys! Falling branches! Insurance fraud! Killer cold weather! Searing heat! Flash floods . . . exploding gas tanks . . . erupting volcanoes . . . capsizing boats . . . devastating typhoons . . . wild emergency plane landings . . . train wrecks-famines-pestilence-ice storms-global warming! Deadly parade balloons!"
LINTON WEEKS/THE WASHINGTON POST
2 John Howard and Iraq
The last time we linked to Matt Price making an appearance in The Spectator he was bagging the boys in the baggy green caps, and hoping to see them done over. (Got his wish too.) This time he is telling the "to 'n froms" about the state of political play in the land girt by sea, and as you might expect from Price, it's readable and solid, although naturally it doesn't add much for local political watchers. What caught TDB's eye though was this reference to the lack of debate about Iraq in Australia: "Yet while Blair has struggled to justify Britain’s involvement in the messy conflict, Howard suffers no discernible backlash from Australia’s involvement in the war — unpopular though it is. This is in part a consequence of scale and distance."
As the avid reader knows, TDB has been banging on about this matter all year, and while there is some truth in what Price says, in the end it is pure piffle. Why on earth should "distance" between Canberra and a war zone make the slightest bit of difference; or for that matter the size of our involvement? Yes, of course they have some impact, but ultimately the reason for the lack of debate comes back to the failure of the ALP to pursue the issue, the failure of Australia's all too parochial and, at times, hick media to pursue it, and a silent (for some perhaps sullen) acceptance that we are impotent lackeys going along for the ride on this misadventure. But the fact remains that Australia was part of an invading army in a war of choice, and is now part of an occupation force. So every issue that has arisen since the invasion - was the pre-war intelligence botched, doctored or botched and doctored; were the number of troops adequate; how well planned was the occupation; is the use of torture and abuse legal or appropriate; was the use of white phosphorous legal? - can and should be sheeted home to the Howard Government. In all cases questions such as: was the Government consulted; has it raised the issue with the Bush administration; and what did it know and when did it know it, can and should have been asked. A proud, independent sovereign nation would not allow these matters to go unanswered, let alone unasked. (There endth the lesson.)
MATT PRICE/THE SPECTATOR
3 Gold up, workers down
Pundits who predicted economic gloom and doom this year have the worst record of pundits in any field, although there does seem to be growing agreement that the current global fiscal imbalance created by the US trade and budget surpluses "cannot last". Throughout the year, TDB set up a debate between liberal Paul Krugman of the NYTimes and influential conservative economist (and "Rupert Murdoch's ambassador abroad") Irwin Stelzer in The Weekly Standard. As chance would have it, both posted columns yesterday. And as it happens, given rising corporate profits in Australia and the passage of new workplace laws, both have greater relevance to the situation in Australia.
In the one linked to below, Krugman sets out to explain why the economy is not a plus for George Bush even though the headline numbers for the US economy look good. The reality for most workers is that those number mean nothing, he says. "But the main explanation for economic discontent is that it's hard to convince people that the economy is booming when they themselves have yet to see any benefits from the supposed boom. Over the last few years G.D.P. growth has been reasonably good, and corporate profits have soared. But that growth has failed to trickle down to most Americans."
Throughout the year, Stelzer has been the optimist, every ready to give credit to Bush where Krugman looks for any stick to belt him with. But in his latest column, which addresses the same issues touched on by Krugman, Stelzer acknowledges that the economy is not working to the benefit of ordinary workers and that policies need to change. "It was not so long ago that reductions in marginal tax rates were necessary to increase incentives to work and risk-taking. But with taxes now lower than in modern memory, corporate profits so high that the boardrooms of America are populated by executives who can't figure out what to do with all that money, and with untold billions in the hands of hedge fund managers for whom no risk seems too great, is it unreasonable to wonder whether we need a further tilt in favor of high earners and entrepreneurs? One can only hope that someone in the administration is charged with the responsibility of figuring out a proper conservative response to this change."
In The Times, William Rees-Mogg joins the discussion, attracted to it by the rising price of gold and the fall in the relative value of the US dollar, for which he blames George Bush and those twin deficits. "The age-old discipline of supply and demand leaves the dollar with only one way to go. Gold will continue to rise in value so long as the United States is at war, the US budget is in deficit, the US trade account is in deficit and George Bush is in the White House. You can bet 5,000 coconuts on that."
If all of that sounds a bit gloomy, Moisés Naím, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy is not going to lighten the mood. Naím argues that the global underworld is more powerful and influential than ever. "Criminals have always tried to grow their businesses, influence politicians, gain social respectability, and buy into legitimate enterprises. The difference is that they are now able to do it on a scale and with consequences that are without precedent."
4 Detroits next big threat
Motown is doing it tough right now, General Motors in particular, but Sebastian Mallaby says it is about to be hit by another wave of competition, this time from India, that may be an even bigger threat. "In short, Chennai's car industry is reaching critical mass, and its output is good enough to compensate for dodgy (though improving) infrastructure. The same story is playing itself out in India's two other automotive hubs, around Delhi and Mumbai, and to an even larger extent in Mexico, Thailand and (yes) China. The McKinsey consultancy projects that the outsourcing of car parts, relatively limited until now, will sextuple from $65 billion in 2002 to $375 billion in 2015, with India's share soaring from around $1 billion to $25 billion. If you think Detroit is ailing now, wait until you see what's coming."
The NYTimes reports on India's growing car culture (it is now the world's fastest growing car market), part of the rise in consumerism there, and of the increasing number of roads being built to carry them. "Fifteen years after India began its transition from a state-run to a free-market economy, a new culture of money - making it, and even more, spending it - is afoot. This domestic hunger for goods has become an important engine for an economy that still lags in exports. So intense is the advertising onslaught, so giddy the media coverage of the new affluence, that it is almost easy to forget that India remains home to the world's largest number of poor people, according to the World Bank."
SEBASTIAN MALLABY/THE WASHINGTON POST
5 Changing the climate in Montreal
Climate change has had a big run in TDB this year, second only to Iraq. Back late last year, an effort was made to seek out and link to both sides of the debate, but it quickly became clear that sceptics are few in number, mostly with little standing in the required scientific fields, and often on the take from fossil fuel industries. (And then there is The Australian's Christopher Pearson, who is in some weird and wacky category all of his own. By the way, the Oz runs more climate change sceptical rubbish than any mainstream newspaper anywhere. Funny that.) Until August this year, that diminishing band of climate change deniers had included Ron Bailey, science writer for the libertarian magazine Reason, but in this article back in August he admitted the game was up - "we are all global warmers now". Bailey maintains a sceptical stance toward the Kyoto Protocol and praised the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate which Australia has entered in the article (link below) on the climate change conference in Montreal.
And TDB has linked to numerous stories about the threat China's rapid economic growth poses to the environment. Eben Harrell in The Scotsman reports that "Scotland's top botanist, who has just returned from a three-week official scientific visit to China, tells a different story. Stephen Blackmore, director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, said the country is pouring resources into environmental sciences and will soon lead the way in the innovation of botanic gardens and projects to promote biodiversity."
6 On property p*rn and reproduction
While over at The Spectator having a look at Matt Price's political wrap, you might like to check out the latest piece from the magazine's editor (and TDB's 'love interest' for the year) Boris Johnson. When not editing, Johnson writes columns for The Daily Telegraph, writes books, runs a blog, delivers speeches, gets around London on a bicycle, serves as a Conservative MP, and despite having a wife and children, still managed to find time to get caught up in the "Sextator" scandal. This is not a man with time management issues. The column linked to below naturally refers to issues in the UK, but everyone of them applies just as well here. It is just that it is all but impossible to imagine anyone from out political classes having the gumption and nous to write about the economic and social sickness brought on by property p*rn. "Houses cost more and more; and for those who are not owner-occupiers, of course, the position becomes worse and worse. All MPs meet young people who are desperate to get on the property ladder, but who cannot afford it, and this is having a serious demographic impact. Every year from 1997 to 2003, the average age of first-time buyers increased. The longer couples have to wait to find a house, the longer they delay having children. The longer they delay having children, the fewer they have; and it is the general shortage of children that is at the heart of the pensions crisis."
BORIS JOHNSON/THE SPECTATOR
7 Intelligent design meets its maker
TDB was almost done with linking to the intelligent design debate by the time it made an appearance in the local papers. Now there is the news in this timely piece (coming as we try to wrap up as many debate and issues before the holiday break) that the attempt to have this latest version of creationism taught in US schools may have run it course. "Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement's credibility. On college campuses, the movement's theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals."
For those who missed it, do check out the satirical site which responded to ID by arguing that the intelligent designer was the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as first reported by The Washington Post.
8 Why drugs make you unfaithful
A new excuse for infidelity, one that at least does not sound as lame as "it just happened"? I'm really sorry but my dopamine receptors must have been blocked. Or, I must have done too much acid at uni. This speculation has been brought on the research by Brandon Aragona at Florida State University in Tallahassee into the behaviour of prairie voles. (This story was posted at New Scientist at 18:00 on 4 December 2005, but it did sound familiar.)
9 Slimming for Jesus, Singing for Supper, and Looking for Bigfoot
TUESDAY BOOKS: a selection by donn wood.
BORN AGAIN BODIES: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity by R. Marie Griffith
"The scope of 'Born Again Bodies' is intimidating. Though focused on the American story, it begins deep in the Middle Ages and ends yesterday." Despite the sarcastic and negative bias the title inspired in this neo-pagan, Grant Wacker in Christianity Today thinks the book intelligently probes the way religion has affected the drive for the perfect body in America. (As over 60% of Americans are currently overweight, while over 30% are obese, I'm not sure what that says about the quality of their faith, but let's not go there.) "Marie Griffith's marvelous book will make a lot of people think twice. She has done what many historians aspire to do but few actually manage to accomplish: make this world a more humane place."
WHY BIRDS SING by David Rothenberg
"David Rothenberg has written a short but fascinating book on a surprisingly large question. 'Why Birds Sing' is, according to the book's subtitle, 'an everyday mystery'. To bird biologists, however, it is their version of Napoleon's Moscow: a challenge that exists to be famously retreated from." Lawrence Norfolk in The Telegraph.
ALWAYS MAGIC IN THE AIR: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson
Geoffrey O'Brien in NY Review of Books examines this history of the last dazzling gasp of Tin Pan Alley (between the late 50's and early 60's) which spawned such names as Neil Sedaka, Lieber & Stoller, Carol King, Bacharach & David, Doc Pomus, Mann & Weil, and, of course, Phil Spector. (If some of the names aren't familiar, the songs they wrote and the music they created will be.)
WATER MIRROR by Kai Meyer
"In the pre-Potter days, would an American publisher have brought out "The Water Mirror"? Hard to say, but Kai Meyer's very European fantasy, translated gracefully from German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, brings a refreshing, and occasionally jarring, perspective to New World readers." In NY Times Books, Polly Shulman reviews the children's fantasty 'Water Mirror', and her almost sole objection is that, as this is the first book in a trilogy, she'll have to wait until next year for the next installment.
LOOKING FOR BIGFOOT by Mike Palecek
"Mike Palecek has written before about small-town Iowa, about the people of America, about truth, corruption and lies. He has written about brave individuals who are driven to make a difference. He has created characters who work within a system they hate, who later step outside that system and find doors everywhere are slammed in their faces." In January Magazine, Chuck Gregory thinks this is the author's best book so far. "Mike Palecek poses powerful questions. He has constructed a masterpiece in this novel. It deserves to be read. It's exhilarating and terrifying. It's realer than real."
EQUIANO THE AFRICAN: Biography of a Self-made Man by Vincent Carretta
"When Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography in England in 1789, he achieved instant celebrity. Several thousand copies were sold, the subscribers including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Duke of Cumberland. The book went through nine editions between 1789 and 1794, and pirated versions appeared in Holland, New York, Russia and Germany. He was a best-selling author, and became the wealthiest black man in the English-speaking world." In The Guardian, David Dabydeen reviews this iconoclastic history of the 18th century hero of the abolitionist movement, and finds that even though Carretta's research disproved Equiano's claim to have been born in Nigeria, ... "Equiano's autobiography, Carretta suggests, is a monumental 18th-century text, a unique mixture of travel-writing, sea lore, sermon, economic tract and fiction. That the early chapters may have invented a life in Africa only adds to our appreciation of Equiano's imaginative depth and literary talent."
A BRIEFER HISTORY OF TIME by Stephen Hawking with Leonard Mlodinow.
The one (small) problem with this book's best-selling predecessor was that hardly anyone who bought it ever read it, and almost none of those who did can understand it. This version, more concise, was presumably devised to solve this dilemma.Terence Kealey in The Telegraph gives this an A for Effort. " As a charming work in progress, A Briefer History of Time cannot be beaten. Yet it does not make modern physics easy because it is not easy. And by stripping so much mystery away, the authors may have also removed the mystique that prompted so many people to buy the 1988 version. This though is the better, clearer book."
GRIMM'S GRIMMEST illustrated by Tracy Arah Dockray, introduction by Maria Tatar
"Parents of young children should beware: despite the inclusion of rich and fabulous illustrations by Tracy Arah Dockray and the vaguely childish associations of the Grimm Brother's fairy tales, 'Grimm's Grimmest' is certainly NOT intended for children." Aaron Blanton, in January Magazine, tells us that the Grimm Brothers were very PC when it came to telling folk tales, and self-censored their material to make it suitable children's fare. However, these versions of the stories the Grimms' used are much darker, more sinister. "Thus readers of the original stories -- as represented here -- find themselves faced with the "graphic descriptions of incest, murder, mutilation, and cannibalism that fill the pages of these bedtime stories for children." Clearly, 'Grimm's Grimmest' will not be for everyone. But for a different perspective -- one so old it's new again -- and brilliantly executed, you'd go a long way to find better."
TEACHER MAN by Frank McCourt
"Frank McCourt's stock in trade is writing about his own life, and so this follow up to 'Angela's Ashes' and 'Tis' details his life as an English teacher in New York high schools." Rebecca Seal, in The Guardian finds the best-selling author in fine form, although perhaps guilty of embroidering (or in Frank's case, as he's severely self-deprecating, maybe that's debroidering) the truth for better effect. (Rebecca, would a writer do that?) "This book is charming, and it relies heavily and successfully on the lilting style and phonetic writing that marked out his last two books. At times McCourt can be a deeply frustrating protagonist, but this is, none the less, a really good read." (link below)
Tuesday Books is a little lighter this week, because lots of publications are putting out their Christmas, or Best of the Year, lists. It would be surplus to requirement to add comments, but here at least are links to The Washington Post, and The Independent, and NYTimes Books, and lastly, The San Francisco Chronicle.
REBECCA SEAL/THE GUARDIAN