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The Daily Briefing 23/11/05
1 Gold, inflation and the crunch to come
Alan Kohler is a class act, simply one of the best journalists going around anywhere. But if TDB had followed up immediately on a backdeck conversation with subscriber Kurt M., it could have beaten him to the punch on this story. Kurt was talking about the rising price of gold, and how it has broken free of its usual pattern of being the inverse of what's happening with the US dollar. "Something big is happening," he said and immediately passed on the following three links: a constantly updated measure of US debt, currently $8,084,858,891,735.31 (it's the 31 cents that I'm worried about); a report that central bank representatives told an industry conference Tuesday they will maintain gold holdings as a proportion of overall reserves because of the increasingly important role it plays as a hedge against currency volatility; and an announcement from the US Federal Reserve that it will cease publication of the M3 monetary aggregate which some commentators (though not all by any means) have interpreted as a sign that it is running scared and has something to hide. Before getting to Kohler, one more straw blowing in what looks like an economic ill-wind - the NYTimes is reporting that the Federal Reserve is worried about inflation, and that more interest rate rises are on the way. "Minutes of the Fed's closed-door meeting on Nov. 1, released Tuesday, underscored that policy-makers were more concerned more about the prospects of resurgent inflation than a serious slowdown in the wake of a trio of deadly hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast."
Kohler refers to none of that, apart from the gold-dollar linkage, but says that "the US dollar is overvalued and the country's competitiveness has eroded to the point where the cash rate arbitrage will be pitifully inadequate to hold the currency. This has occurred because Asian central banks, led by China, have been buying US bonds at ridiculously low interest rates in order to keep their own currencies and improve their own competitive position." Kohler goes on to say "This situation cannot last. American financial assets will have to be repriced eventually, either directly or through a depreciation of the currency, or both" and that "the timing and force of the American reckoning will be the key to investment markets in 2006."
(Memo to self: take more notice of Kurt.)
ALAN KOHLER/THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
2 No exit that way
Every once in a while, you get to experience the joy of a column that rolls some part of the universe into a little ball and deftly rolls it to you. Eugene Robinson does just that, and with an enjoyable "a fine mess you got us into this time Ollie" tone to it. "George Bush will inevitably get out of the mess he has made -- he leaves office in three years and two months, not that anyone's counting. But the rest of us will be left with his handiwork: crushing national debt, rising economic inequality, a poisoned political atmosphere and, oh, yes, the war in Iraq. We're the ones trapped in the dark with no exit sign in sight."
EUGENE ROBINSON/THE WASHINGTON POST
3 White Phosphorous and faulty intelligence
The NYTimes came late, and cautiously, to the debate about the use of White Phosphorous in Fallujah, sometimes referred to as this generation's Guernica. And it may be one of the reasons that George Monbiot (link below) says "the media couldn't have made a bigger pig's ear of the white phosphorus story". What's well established is that WP was used in the attack, but not, the Pentagon says on civilians. That is an important, but ultimately irrelevant distinction, according to Monbiot. "The US army knows that its use as a weapon is illegal. In the Battle Book, published by the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, my correspondent David Traynier found the following sentence: "It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets"."
Another from the ingenious ways to kill and maim file, The Independent reports that Tony Blair is facing fresh fury over the use of controversial munitions in the Iraq war. "The dispute over British use of cluster bombs will be intensify this week with the publication of a report by the pressure group Landmine Action, which raises questions over the efforts made to ensure that the weapons did not harm civilians. It comes as international signatories to the international convention on conventional weapons meet in Geneva this week, amid pressure for a moratorium on the production of cluster bombs and tough new limits on their use."
And thanks to subscriber and occasional contributor, James O., this link to The Democrats Diary blog which argues that "the media's near total failure to report on the bloodshed caused by our side in the ongoing conflict that keeps many current US-UK government officials in their jobs, if not out of the International Criminal Court on charges of committing war crimes" and provides more links and references on the subject than any gainfully employed person could possibly follow. (So many links, so little time.)
GEORGE MONBIOT/THE GUARDIAN
4 ER in Baghdad
The only thing TDB knows about Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is that he has produced three of the best pieces of reportage to have come out of the Iraq war (links to the other two can be found in Archives). This one goes inside Yamouk hospital for a look at the medical front line in the "war on terror". (Perhaps George Bush and John Howard should pay a visit.) "What's even more frightening for these doctors is that they get casualties in from "commando" units, part of a feared paramilitary group with links to a Shia militia, which has a base a few hundred metres from the Yarmouk hospital. One night when I was about to leave the ER there was a burst of gunfire - heavy machine guns roared at the entrance of the hospital. The doctors started running around urging patients, if they were well enough, to clear out. Moments later, a group of masked young men in army fatigues and black T-shirts burst into the ward. Two went to where people had gathered in the hallway, pointing guns at them and telling them to look away. Three others carried between them a piece of cloth in which one of their comrades, badly injured, was lying."
Aljazeera reports on the call, largely symbolic, from Iraqi leaders attending an Arab League sponsored summit in Cairo, "for the withdrawal of US and British forces from Iraq by immediately setting a timetable for gradually rebuilding Iraq's armed forces". (If, has been widely speculated, the US is looking for an excuse to leave sooner rather than later, this could help by giving them some political cover.)
The Bush administration has tried a number of strategies for dealing with growing calls to withdraw from Iraq since respected Democrat hawk, Congressman John Murtha, gave that cause momentum by joining it late last week. The first response was to describe criticism of the war as "unpatriotic", but when that did go down to well, the line of attack was changed, and people arguing the war was a mistake were accused of trying to "rewrite history". Dan Froomkin in The Washington Post looks at the changing response and notes that "fully 55 to 57 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration was intentionally misleading in the run up to war".
Tom Engelhardt in Mother Jones says the key to explaining the White House response is simple: fear. Englehardt, a long-time critic of the war, says the "Bush administration got spooked" because its main weapon in the debate, fear, was no longer working for it. "Starting on September 11, 2001 -- with a monstrous helping hand from Osama bin Laden -- the Bush administration played the fear card with unbelievable effectiveness. For years, with its companion "war on terror," it trumped every other card in the American political deck." (Seems to works a treat in Australia as well, with more than a little help from journalists.)
On the other side of the debate, Robert Kagan & William Kristol in The Weekly Standard, the magazine recently credited with bringing about the invasion of Iraq, are careful not to attack Murtha while arguing that "his outburst last Thursday was breathtakingly irresponsible."
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD/THE GUARDIAN
5 Curveball and the case for war
Ah, our old friend Curveball, haven't heard from you in a while. But you are back with a vengeance, we noticed. Curveball was the Iraqi defector whose information was used as the basis for the US to claim "Saddam has WMDs and could use them in 45 minutes" (OK, it was the Brits who peddled the 45 mins bit.) This long investigative story from the LATimes, which has been much commented upon in the blogosphere, looks at the gap between what he actually told intelligence officials and claims that were pushed on the public to make the case for war. "An investigation by The Times based on interviews since May with about 30 current and former intelligence officials in the U.S., Germany, England, Iraq and the United Nations, as well as other experts, shows that U.S. bungling in the Curveball case wa worse than official reports have disclosed. The White House, for example, ignored evidence gathered by United Nations weapons inspectors shortly before the war that disproved Curveball's account. Bush and his aides issued increasingly dire warnings about Iraq's biological weapons before the war even though intelligence from Curveball had not changed in two years."
In The Washington Post, Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the run-up to the Iraq war, says that this privileged position gave him access to information others did not have, and led him to vote against invading Iraq. "From my advantaged position, I had earlier concluded that a war with Iraq would be a distraction from the successful and expeditious completion of our aims in Afghanistan. Now I had come to question whether the White House was telling the truth -- or even had an interest in knowing the truth."
There is a massed debate happening over at the new OSM blog, essentially about whether the Bush administration lied to make its case for war. Defenders argue that Bush and co made their case genuinely believing it to be true, therefore strictly speaking it was not a lie. Perhaps, but that last quote from Bob Graham may be more to the point - everything points to the fact that the Bushies were hell-bent on going to war and manufactured the case for it.
Which is the subject of this investigation for Rolling Stone by James Bamford on the role played by John Rendon. "One of the most powerful people in Washington, Rendon is a leader in the strategic field known as "perception management," manipulating information -- and, by extension, the news media -- to achieve the desired result. His firm, the Rendon Group, has made millions off government contracts since 1991, when it was hired by the CIA to help "create the conditions for the removal of Hussein from power." Working under this extraordinary transfer of secret authority, Rendon assembled a group of anti-Saddam militants, personally gave them their name -- the Iraqi National Congress -- and served as their media guru and "senior adviser" as they set out to engineer an uprising against Saddam."
Not that it had anything to do with oil of course, although The Independent is reporting that Iraqis face the dire prospect of losing up to $200bn (£116bn) of the wealth of their country if an American-inspired plan to hand over development of its oil reserves to US and British multinationals comes into force next year.
And Col. Larry Wilkerson, former aide to Colin Powell, has told CNN that the "philosophical guidance and the flexibility in order" that lead to torture and abuse came from (Greg Sheridan's love interest) Donald Rumsfeld.
BOB DROGIN AND JOHN GOETZ/LATIMES
6 Fade to black
Patrick Goldstein says the "era of moviegoing as a mass audience ritual is slowly but inexorably drawing to a close", killed off by the same forces that are radically and rapidly reshaping music, television and newspapers, and by the industry's own failings. "As it stands, Hollywood has become a prisoner of a corporate mindset that is squeezing the entrepreneurial vitality out of the system. It's not just that studios are making bad movies - they've been doing that for years. They've lost touch with any real cultural creativity. When you walk down the corridors at Apple or a video game company, there's an electricity in the air that encourages people into believing they could dream up a new idea that could blow somebody's mind. At the big studios, the creative voltage is sometimes so low that you wonder if you've wandered into an insurance office."
Part of Hollywood's problems come from video games, and the NYTimes reports that "three decades after bursting into pool halls and living rooms, video games are taking a place in academia. A handful of relatively obscure vocational schools have long taught basic game programming. But in the last few years a small but growing cadre of well-known universities, from the University of Southern California to the University of Central Florida, have started formal programs in game design and the academic study of video games as a slice of contemporary culture."
The LATimes Microsoft's new Xbox 360. "The powerful but expensive Xbox 360 is the first entrant in what's expected to be a ruthless fight for dominance in the $25-billion global games market. Rivals Sony and Nintendo Co. are readying their own next-generation consoles for release next year."
And John Hood at Reason looks at growing calls for restrictions on product placement in film and television, but true to the magazine's libertarian bent, he is not partial to the idea.
7 Google dreaming
Jack Shafer has a dream. Or he had a dream, that Google has peaked, and that newspapers, led as always by canny and ruthless Rupert, fight back. "Like the Apple iTunes operation only bigger, RupeWeb was a sort of "Club Web." Its content was for members only and invisible to the Web spiders of Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc. (Some people call this kind of Web the "invisible" or "deep" Web.) Many RupeWeb users started helping themselves to the new search engine he had purchased in his acquisition of Lycos. Capitalizing on plummeting hard-disk prices, faster processors, growing bandwidth, and sleek new algorithms, the RupeGrab search engine ran loops around Google. People didn't even seem to mind that RupeGrab billed its search results as "Fair and Balanced"."
8 Brain and hypnosis
The power of suggestion. Sandra Blakeslee reports that hypnosis is receiving some new respect from neuroscientists, who are learning something about it, the brain and perhaps human behaviour along the way. ""In medical hands, hypnosis was no laughing matter. In the 19th century, physicians in India successfully used hypnosis as anesthesia, even for limb amputations. The practice fell from favor only when ether was discovered. Now, Dr. Posner and others said, new research on hypnosis and suggestion is providing a new view into the cogs and wheels of normal brain function. One area that it may have illuminated is the processing of sensory data. Information from the eyes, ears and body is carried to primary sensory regions in the brain. From there, it is carried to so-called higher regions where interpretation occurs."
9 Albarn, Wray, Turner and jazz
TDB is a fan of Sasha Frere-Jones who has provided some good hints for improving the selection of music playing in the background. In the article linked to below, he reports on the eclectic career of British musician Damon Albarn of Blur fame ("Song 2"). "As Blur stalled out, Albarn went to Africa and made an album with Afel Bocoum, who trained with the legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and helped produce reissues of Trinidadian calypso and reggae music for Honest Jons, a London record label that he co-founded. In 2000, Albarn and a friend, Jamie Hewlett, formed a new band, Gorillaz, officially consisting of four cartoon characters: 2D, a spacey blue-haired singer; Murdoc, a creepy bassist; Noodle, a Japanese female guitarist; and Russel, a hulking black drummer."
The Globe and Mail reports on the death of Link Wray, the guitar legend said to have inspired many other rock musicians, including Pete Townsend, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Steve Van Zandt and that man Bruce Springsteen
The Independent takes a look at Alex Turner, the 19-year-old lead singer of Sheffield's Arctic Monkeys, who was yesterday named by NME the coolest man on the planet.
And not sure if donn has linked to these, but David Yaffe in The Nation reviews four books on jazz. "For the jazz musicians and jazz journalists struggling for mainstream attention, the sky could appear to be falling, but judging from the deluge of recent books, the music's shelf life is just beginning. Jazz, more than any other musical genre, currently dominates academic presses; compared with pondering the use of the grace note in Haydn, chasing the path of Django Reinhardt or a riverboat band might even seem sexy. Hip-hop is so recent, rock and roll so flaky and ubiquitous. Scholarly presses are more willing to admit jazz's importance today than they were when the music was at its most vital stages of development."
SASHA FRERE-JONES/THE NEW YORKER
10 Cartoon aliens
It's not yet available online, Tom Reiss in the current New Yorker "writes about invasion novels and what they tell us about the modern world". Until it becomes available, you might get something out of cartoon editor Bob Mankoff's look at how aliens and UFOs have been depicted in the magazine's cartoons in the past 60 years.
THE NEW YORKER