Wednesday, November 30, 2005

C.S Lewis

The Listener has a good piece on CS Lewis and his Narnia books this week. In it, the charges of Lewis’s critics (principally Phillip Pullman) are examined. The Listener concludes (correctly I think) that Pullman is wrong to say that Lewis’s books lack love; and its example of evidence against this: Digory’s Love for his sick mother (in the Magician’s Nephew) is a good one. The Listener’s arguments are more fragile when it tries to claim that Lewis’s Calormen aren’t a racist stereotype, however. (Although it makes the fair point that, in The Last Battle, he lets one/some of them into heaven, despite their worshiping of Tash, because they are good people).

And I totally agree with the point made in the article that, when Lewis works allegory hardest (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Last Battle), it is at its least effective. He could have toned down the Christian imagery some, and the message – the underlying Christian message – would have been stronger in my mind.

The article also mentions Lewis’s relationship with Tolkien. Now I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings books and though Peter Jackson did a good job with the movies, but – by the time the last movie was released – I was sorely tired of the whole phenomenon. Accordingly, I was cheered to read that Lewis (who thought the books sprawled on and on) once – supposedly – exclaimed to Tolkien “not another fucking elf”.

Here, here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Against State Killing

I sent the email to Singapore's High Consul this morning. If you consider their plans to execute convicted drug mule Nguyen Tuong Van wrong, please do something similar yourself.

Their email address (in NZ) is:

For more information on the case read here and here.

The email I wrote (quickly and poorly) reads follows:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am sending this email to you to register my deep disappointment at your government's plans to execute Nguyen Tuong Van.

While Mr Tuong Van is, in all probability, guilty of the crimes that he is charged with, his killing by the State of Singapore will – in my mind – only be addressing his crime by committing a much greater one (murder).

It will also be imposing the punishment of a lifetime’s suffering on a totally innocent person: his

Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that such punishment does anything to diminish the drugs trade.

For all these reasons I urge your government to re-consider the death penalty in this case.

While you may consider that this is an internal issue to the state of Singapore and, as such, none of my business, I would ask you to reflect on the fact that, in today’s globalised world there are very few internal issues anymore. And that some things, such as human rights, are universal and do not stop at national borders.

Kind Regards

Johann Hari Interviews

There is a great interview with Johann Hari (in two parts) here and here. He discusses a lot, from the media, to Chomsky, to Hitchens, to Galloway, to Israel, to Iraq. And, in my mind, what resonates in the points he makes is a combination of common sense (a commitment to reality over dogma) as well as a real belief in leftwing principles (democracy, economic inclusion etc.). I can’t think of a columnist who I read more avidly than Hari (Krugman and Monbiot are close I guess: Monbiot’s almost as good; and I like Krugman, although there is a lot in his older work that I disagree with and he suffers from economists’ arrogance).

Interestingly, in the interview, Hari comes close to a mia culpa on Iraq too. There is certainly an admission of great uncertainty, which is refreshing (and what is missing from the writings of Hitchens, Cohen and Harry’s Place). [Dislosure: Unlike Hari I opposed the invasion but did so with considerable uncertainty too.]

Really, there’s only a couple of things I’d take issue with in the interview: first Hari’s characterisation of Galloway as anti-abortion. Which, as I understand it, is unfair. Galloway, I think, is personally, morally opposed to abortion but doesn’t think it right to impose his beliefs on other women. While there is plenty to dislike about Galloway, I don’t think this position is unreasonable (plent of pro-choice people I know hold it; Bill Clinton said (paraphrase): “I think abortion should be safe, legal and rare”). And I certainly don’t think that it is fair to label this position as anti-abortion as – as I understand it – Galloway still supports the right of women to have safe, legal abortions if they so choose.

The second thing is Hari’s claim that “markets create wealth”. This is wrong(ish) although only in a pedantic way. Really, if you are talking about why our quantity of life (rather than quality because that is a more complex issue) is much higher than it was 100 years ago (cars, washing machines, medication, running hot water, super markets - which is what I understand by the meaning of the word “wealth”) then the answer is actually technological change.

Markets may be the best way of providing the incentives necessary to drive technological change but markets and technology are not the same thing. Indeed, many of the major technological changes that have taken place in the last 200 hundred or so years have come from either:

* Eccentric scientists who followed an idea because of their love of knowledge not their love of profit.

* State funded research (computers, planes etc.)

* Serendipity. (I doubt I’d be alive at present if it weren’t for antibiotics; it’s strange to think that there discovery was entirely an accident).

This isn’t to say that markets don’t serve a social function. Quite the opposite, they do provide some incentives and are a pretty good way of distributing goods (if you can mange inequality they are certainly better than Soviet style bureaucracy). They, also (if you can manage market failures well enough) are probably the best way of maximising utility without unduly restricting liberty.

Yet I don’t think that it is strictly correct to say that they create wealth. It certainly would be wrong to say that they are the only way of creating wealth.

Monday, November 28, 2005

CPAG vs the Government


Another day in aching bones…

File under the joys of living with Reactive Arthritis. It’s 6pm and I am absolutely exhausted. Partially this is the result of a poor night’s sleep (caused in part by being in pain), and mostly it is the result of the big day I had.

Well, actually it wasn’t that big at all, but it demonstrates how small things shrink to big asks when you are arthritic.

10:20am – Trying to find a park in the city, I get lucky - fortunately - and find a park only half a block away from my destination.
10:30am – Meet up with the friend of a friend in a cafĂ©. He used to be afflicted with a similar ailment to my own, but – after 5 or so years – managed to kick it. It’s great talking to him as (a) he gives me hope and (b) he gives me some good treatment ideas.
11:45am – Move my car to another car park so as not to exceed the 2 hour max time limit (my car already has a big blue chalk mark on the tire to remind me of this). Once again I am lucky – I get a car park close(ish) to where I need to go.
11:50am – Blood sugar levels low – I walk a few blocks to find somewhere which sells some food I can eat (chips).
12:10pm – I walk a couple of blocks to my next meeting for the day (which was close to the first). The meeting – which is about a server transfer affecting a website I manage (voluntarily) for a sports club – has been moved down the road. Which leads to another couple of blocks walk (power hobbling this time as I am late).
1:30pm – Walk back to car – drive up to university.
2:00pm – Lucky again, a car park close to the university means only a few hundred metres walk to hand in my timesheets for the last few weeks. Then back again to the car and then home. Where I have spent the afternoon working a little bit on a paper and distracting myself on Harry’s Place.
6:00pm – Exhausted total distance walked in the day: probably less than a kilometre. But it feels like 10kms.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Comment Moderation On

For the time being I am going to switch the comment moderation feature of Blogger on. This means that after you post your comment it will go into a cache and it will only become visible on the blog after I've okayed it. (This ought to take place fairly swiftly, unless you are posting from another time zone).

In practice I will ok all comments except those that are deliberate trolls, or openly racist or homophobic.

Chris, however, you are an exception to this rule - any comments you post whatsoever will be deleted.

[Update - correct spelling of racist now in place - thanks Sunny]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Freedland on Inequality

Jonathan Freeland has a barnstorming column in the Guardian on inequality.

Bed-time for Democracy

Oh my god.

Read this.

Bush wants to bomb an allied country to rid himself of the pesky problem of its free press, Blair mercifully talks him out of this. Britain's newspapers get wind of the story; Blair threatens them with court action if they publish. I suppose we can be thankful that he didn't bomb; but, nonetheless, democracies are only as good as the information flows within them. Accordingly, England's democracy is starting to look a little shaky.

Meanwhile in the USA, republican lobbyists are buying votes.

Race to the bottom anyone?

Bro Town and Stupidity

One of these day's I will write a longer post about what bugs me about Bro Town (the New Zealand made "comedy"); however, for now I'll just provide a link to Johann Hari's tirade against a UK comedy called Little Britain. I've never seen Little Britain, but a lot of these criticisms could be applied, in my opinion, to Bro Town (starting with the fact that it isn't actually funny; ending with the fact that calling one of your characters Abo is insanely offensive - and being Samoan is no excuse here - to the Aboriginal people of Australia).

More takes on Iraq

The Progressive US website has a couple of interesting opinion pieces on Iraq's future. The first argues "we need to leave but we need to do so sensibly", while the second is more "cut and run" (and flawed, in my opinion). They are both worth reading though.

Also worth reading are the opinions of Johann Hari (a lefty who supported the invasion, but who is genuinely troubled by its aftermath). He suggests here amongst other places that the decision to stay or go should be made by the Iraqi people, which - when you read his arguements in full - seems sensible.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Time to leave Iraq

And then, seconds after I made the last post I read this:

Most noteworthily:

An assault weapon the marines were using had been armed with warheads containing "about 35% thermobaric novel explosive (NE) and 65% standard high explosive". They deployed it "to cause the roof to collapse and crush the insurgents fortified inside interior rooms". It was used repeatedly: "The expenditure of explosives clearing houses was enormous."

The marines can scarcely deny that they know what these weapons do. An article published in the Gazette in 2000 details the effects of their use by the Russians in Grozny. Thermobaric, or "fuel-air" weapons, it says, form a cloud of volatile gases or finely powdered explosives. "This cloud is then ignited and the subsequent fireball sears the surrounding area while consuming the oxygen in this area. The lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure ... Personnel under the cloud are literally crushed to death. Outside the cloud area, the blast wave travels at some 3,000 metres per second ... As a result, a fuel-air explosive can have the effect of a tactical nuclear weapon without residual radiation ... Those personnel caught directly under the aerosol cloud will die from the flame or overpressure. For those on the periphery of the strike, the injuries can be severe. Burns, broken bones, contusions from flying debris and blindness may result. Further, the crushing injuries from the overpressure can create air embolism within blood vessels, concussions, multiple internal haemorrhages in the liver and spleen, collapsed lungs, rupture of the eardrums and displacement of the eyes from their sockets." It is hard to see how you could use these weapons in Falluja without killing civilians.
This looks to me like a convincing explanation of the damage done to Falluja, a city in which between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians might have been taking refuge. It could also explain the civilian casualties shown in the film. So the question has now widened: is there any crime the coalition forces have not committed in Iraq?

It's hard to see any benefits for anyone from doing more of this.

Withdraw from Iraq?

Paul Krugman has a good column in today’s NYT (it’s behind the pay wall; remember, if you have access to the library database Proquest you can get your fix of NYT comment that way) on why the US ought to leave Iraq. Most noteworthily he makes the following comments:

The fact is that we're not going to stay in Iraq until we achieve victory, whatever that means in this context. At most, we'll stay until the American military can take no more.

Mr. Bush never asked the nation for the sacrifices -- higher taxes, a bigger military and, possibly, a revived draft -- that might have made a long-term commitment to Iraq possible. Instead, the war has been fought on borrowed money and borrowed time. And time is running out. With some military units on their third tour of duty in Iraq, the superb volunteer army that Mr. Bush inherited is in increasing danger of facing a collapse in quality and morale similar to the collapse of the officer corps in the early 1970's.

So the question isn't whether things will be ugly after American forces leave Iraq. They probably will. The question, instead, is whether it makes sense to keep the war going for another year or two, which is all the time we realistically have.

Pessimists think that Iraq will fall into chaos whenever we leave. If so, we're better off leaving sooner rather than later. As a Marine officer quoted by James Fallows in the current Atlantic Monthly puts it, ''We can lose in Iraq and destroy our Army, or we can just lose.''

And there's a good case to be made that our departure will actually improve matters. As Mr. Murtha pointed out in his speech, the insurgency derives much of its support from the perception that it's resisting a foreign occupier. Once we're gone, the odds are that Iraqis, who don't have a tradition of religious extremism, will turn on fanatical foreigners like Zarqawi.

The only way to justify staying in Iraq is to make the case that stretching the U.S. army to its breaking point will buy time for something good to happen. I don't think you can make that case convincingly. So Mr. Murtha is right: it's time to leave.

To be honest I'm still not sure when the Americans ought to leave Iraq. I opposed the war in the first place, but after all the bad things we have done to the Iraqi people I think that the question that needs to be asked now is: what course of action will be best for the people of Iraq?

In which case, there are three possible outcomes of a withdrawal of American troops in the near future:

1. With the visible enemy removed from the country, much of the impetus for the insurgents is removed. Those insurgents who are motivated primarily by dislike of the Americans (like the ex-Baathists and ex army members) are able to do a deal with the existing government, while those insurgents who are motivated primarily be religious fanaticism (Al Qaeda in Iraq) are marginalised and loose the support of ordinary Iraqis. As it is very hard to run an insurgency without popular support, they quickly become a minor force. Somehow tensions between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are diffused and the nation of Iraq heads towards a tolerable future.

2. The country collapses into a sectarian civil war (Shiites versus Sunnis, while the Kurds try to secede). Of all wars, civil wars tend to be the most bloody with the worst abuses of civilians (see former Yugoslavia or Rwanda or the USA). The end result is tragic and may destabilise the whole region.

3. A full scale civil war is averted but the existing government enters into a significant war with the insurgents; one which leads to large human rights violations; and, ultimately an Iraqi government which is almost as brutal as Saddam was.

Krugman, however, makes a couple of additional points which are well worth considering in this calculus. The first is that, due to the economic, political and social costs of the war to the US, the ultimate departure of US troops will, in all probability, not be dictated by “victory” (victory meaning leaving at a time when the Iraqi government is capable of handling internal tensions and the insurgents) but by necessity. Or, in other words, the Americans will pull out, not when they “win” but when they can take no more (this being much sooner than any “victory”).

In which case the question which needs to be asked is to what extent would pulling out ASAP make increase or decrease the chances of 1 (above) happening. I think that there’s a good case that it would increase the chances. That being said there is a reasonable case to be made for waiting until the Iraqi army is stronger/strong enough to fight the insurgents as well. Although that assumes that the Iraqi army will ever be this strong.

On top of this Krugman also brings into the equation the economic and military costs to the US of sticking round. Which are worth considering too, given that a large scale recession in American will be felt around the world (similarities here to the probable role of the Vietnam war in the stagflation of the 1970s). Of course, you could argue that America with a crippled army mightn’t be so bad – it would certainly reduce their taste for adventurism in the near future. However, it’s also worth considering that the words “crippled army” conceal within them the huge suffering of the US troops (who come, disproportionately from the poorer sectors of US society). It’s also worth considering that, while the US has a horrible record with international interventions, it isn’t the most-nasty player on the world stage, by any means. If a crippled US army led to a new era of multi-literalism that would be great; if it just leads to the unchecked rise of China along with increased belligerence from: the Sudan, Iran, North Korea etc. that might not be so great. Furthermore, in the past, reluctance – on the US public’s behalf – for conventional war hasn’t really led to better behaviour by the US. It’s just led to covert action.

All in all a complex situation, although I have to say that I am increasingly leaning to the “troops out soon position”.

Monday, November 21, 2005


The New York Times has and almost-good article on Bolivia (the article will be free to view for a week or so, although you may have to register). Which is to say the article would be good if it weren't for its silly attempts (particularly in the last paragraph) to compare Eva Morales with Che Guevara.

Let's see shall we:

Guevara Was born in Argentina, was a violent revolutionary and died (in Bolivia) because he failed to achieve the support of the Bolivian working class.

Morales on the other hand was born in Bolivia, is a democratic politician and comes from (and has the support of) the Bolivian working class.
Of course none of this means that Morales is destined to succeed or that he is perfect; but he ain't Guevara.

Other than these quibbles the article is good though; and it illustrates the United State's continuing role in undermining and resisting democracy in Latin America.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Joys of Living in Wellington

Ahhh yes, just another balmy day in Wellington. The sun’s out and the trade winds are rustling the leaves of the trees. They are also breaking off the branches of the trees too; and carrying old ladies and domestic pets through the air; and trying their best to rip the roofing iron off my flat.

Last night I had the joy of sleeping with ear plugs in, and I was still woken by the stronger wind-gusts. Of course, it doesn’t help that my flat is perched on a hillside and set like a sail at 90 degrees to the wind.

The photo below is from the Beacon Hill Webcam (taken today).

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why Treasury’s Got it Wrong on Tax Cuts

Back in the 1980s and 1990s New Zealand’s Treasury was notorious for functioning more like a rightwing pressure group than a government department: they were cheerleaders of the economic reform process; they published briefings with Orwellian titles like “Government Management”; and, eventually, many of their staff from that time did move on to join rightwing pressure groups or political parties. Theoretically, at least, this all came to an end some time in the late 1990s with Treasury – who, presumably, were somewhat chastened by the social and economic consequences of the reforms they championed – retreating from their role of small-government activists and starting to behave a bit more like a government department again.

That’s the theory at least; however, treasury’s most recent “Briefing to an Incoming Government” makes me wonder whether ideology hasn’t started to creep back into Number 1 the Terrace; either that or the people responsible for the briefing have a very strange grasp of public economics.

Particularly ideologically driven (or poorly thought out) is the recommendation in the briefing that the government reduce the top two personal tax rates. Doing this, according to the briefing, will have a “substantial [positive] growth impact”; a claim that is – supposedly – based on two things: economic theory and empirical evidence.

In terms of theory, the argument Treasury makes runs something like this: progressive taxation (increasing marginal tax rates), by reducing the take home proportion of higher income earners’ pay packets, provides a disincentive for working harder (or seeking promotion; or behaving in an entrepreneurial manner) which, in turn, leads to lower productivity and less growth. This theory is pretty much accepted unquestioningly by mainstream economists; yet as far as theories go it’s a pretty tenuous one; after all, it ignores the fact that, unless marginal tax rates are over 100%, workers still end up richer when they cross a tax threshold. It also ignores the fact that people may be motivated to work harder for more than just purely financial reasons. For example, they may be motivated to work harder by the desire for status that comes with promotion; or for the autonomy and decision making power that comes with being higher up the employment ladder; or by competition with co-workers (remember any promotion is still going to make them richer at the end of the day); or by professional integrity; or by the belief that their job actually helps attain greater social good (plenty of teachers feel this; yet apparently treasury officials are unaware of any such potential altruistic motivations. Why I wonder? Do they never feel them themselves?). On top of all this, as heterodox economists since John Kenneth Galbraith have noted, higher marginal tax rates may actually make people work harder, putting in the extra hours so they can purchase the goods they want. (For a good discussion of the motivations of economists see the last four paragraphs of this column; for a good discussion about theoretical arguments around marginal tax rates see here).

So the theory – then – is a little shaky; what about the evidence? According to the treasury report (on page 20):

[T]here is a…[rich] body of international studies that can inform and support our analysis. These studies have made significant advances in recent years, analysing the aggregate effect of taxation on the economy, and analysing the specific channels through which taxes impact on growth. Taken together, these studies strongly suggest that high marginal tax rates damage growth, though there is still some debate about the scale of this effect.
This I found interesting as my understanding about the relationship between taxation and growth was that there was very little evidence to suggest that countries with higher levels of taxation had lower levels of growth (economist Brian Easton makes this point here). Unfortunately, while the Treasury briefing refers to studies, it doesn’t provide any references for them (and Treasury haven’t – of yet – replied to my request for such references) so in trying to find where treasury got their data from I have been limited to using Proquest (an academic database). From Proquest I did find a few studies which claimed to have found associations between higher marginal tax rates and lower economic growth (hardly a rich body of evidence but, to be fair, Proquest may not contain everything that has been written on the topic).

Perhaps the most comprehensive of the studies I could find was Padovano and Galli in the journal, Economic Enquiry (Jan 2001). In this journal article Padovani and Galli claim to have found a correlation between lower marginal tax rates and higher economic growth. In doing so, they note that they are at odds with almost all other empirical studies on the topic of taxes and growth; however, they argue that most of these studies only use average tax levels and so do not capture the impact of higher marginal tax rates. Having now read through Padovani and Galli’s several times there are certainly aspects of it which seem a little questionable to me, including the fact that they estimate marginal tax rates for the countries involved (they do test this though), and also the way they do or don’t take into account the positive effects of government spending; but, to be honest, I don’t know nearly enough about econometrics to know if these questionable areas are significant or not. What I do know, however, is that cross country analyses are a fraught way of determining the effects of government policy (Dani Rodrik discusses this in this PDF file).

The alternative to cross country analysis is, of course, to examine the economic histories of particular countries; and once you do this it becomes pretty clear that, if there are growth benefits from reducing marginal tax rates, they are easily overshadowed by other economic factors. For example, in the United States the strongest period of growth in US history was in the 1960s, a time when the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent plus, likewise the soc-called long boom of the 1990s took place after Bill Clinton raised the top marginal tax rate (reference here) On the other hand, the post war decade with the lowest economic growth in the US was the 1980s, also the decade with the lowest top tax rates (for more discussions of the US context see here and here). Likewise, in Great Britain the top tax rate was cut from 60% - 40% with no discernable impact on economic growth (reference here). While in New Zealand the Labour Government’s 1984 tax cuts were followed by almost 10 years of economic decline and then a further 5 or so years of intermittent growth. And when a new Labour government raised taxes in 1999 the following 6 years where characterised by solid economic growth. Of course, none of this means that high marginal tax rates increase growth, or even that they don’t slow it down somewhat. But it does mean that any negative effect that they do have must be much smaller than other economic processes.

And, particularly in New Zealand’s case, other economic factors are important. If – for example – any tax cuts were to take place at present, with our economy almost at capacity, the consequence would, almost certainly, be a rise in interest rates. Something that would be best avoided if possible, given that New Zealand’s interest rates are already high by OECD standards and given that higher than average interest rates (everything else being equal) lead to currency appreciation, which harms exporters. (People who, if you haven’t noticed, our economy tends to rely on.)

In a similar vein, Brian Easton notes that poor fiscal policy, and its impact on currency rates, was probably the cause of New Zealand’s economic malaise in the 1980s and early 1990s. Which begs the question: do we really want to go through that again?

Of course, it would be possible a (as Treasury suggests latter in the briefing) to postpone tax cuts until the economy comes off the peak of its cycle, thus avoiding the need of interest rate rises. Yet at the same time, this also robs us of some of the potential for interest rate cuts (and, therefore, the chance of getting our interest rates back in line with the rest of the OECD).

All of which leads me to beleive that the economic benefits of Treasury’s tax cuts are far from clear. On the other hand, the costs are much more obvious. Despite talk of huge budget surpluses (which is just that – talk) New Zealand’s fiscal position leaves little room for significant tax cuts. Meaning that any such cuts have to come from expenditure. Something that Treasury fails to make clear in its briefing and something that I think “mainstream New Zealand” would be strongly opposed to. (My evidence for this belief is based on the number of political parties in the last election who campaigned loudly on cutting core services such as Health and Education. Answer: 0 parties which polled over 2%.) Of course, the natural conservative response to the question of where will the money come from? is that money won’t be cut from core services, but rather, “bureaucracy and hip-hop tours”. Unfortunately, the idea that cutting funding for the arts (Hip Hop tours etc.) could pay for substantial tax increases is absolute nonsense as I have discussed here. And, as for cutting bureaucracy, while small cuts could be made here and there (at a cost to services) there is very little significant that could go. When it comes to expenditure cuts Graeme Scott is bang on the money when he says that “it has to be done with a scalpel not an axe” (hat tip: Brian Easton) What’s more, given New Zealand’s aging population, and the associated health costs of this, in the long run, government spending is going to have to increase; something that tax cuts will leave little scope for.

None of this, however, features in Treasury’s analysis, nor do other impacts of the cuts like rising inequality. New Zealand is already one of the most unequal countries in the OECD and given that inequality has been shown to lead to increased violent crime and poor health outcomes as well as lower levels of happiness (a relevant link can be found here) it seems odd that treasury completely fails to discuss the distributional impacts of the proposed cuts.

All of which – like I noted at the beginning – appears to be evidence of one of two things: either Treasury is moving back to its 1980s role as an ideological pressure group, or they really don’t understand the fundamental public policy issues facing New Zealand.

Personally, I don’t know which is worse.

[Update: Sunday morning (yawn) after sleeping on this article I changed the first three words of paragraph 11 to "In a similar vien".]

[Update 2: Padovani became Padovano - thanks Genius]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Noam Chomsky

The Guardian has published an apology and removed its hatchet job interview with Noam Chomsky. What remains to seen is if Harry's Place and Oliver Kamm (google him if you wan't to find the link: I find him too odious to link to) will make this fact known. They ought to, considering the chortling that followed on their websites after the interview was published.

On the other hand Israeli (left leaning) newspaper Haaretz has a good interview with Chomsky (although it still gets some stuff wrong).

Robert Fisk

Radio New Zealand had a great interview with Robert Fisk. The link is here (to an audio file), although it will only be active for a week. It's really quite a moving interview; one that touches on Fisk's personal life and the way history seems forever destined to repeat in the Middle East.

[Udate: Norightturn - have provided what I think is a permanent link to the Fisk interview - have a look here ]

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Special Californian Bonus

If you've got broadband internet this little mix of Schwarzenegger and Sesimi (sp?) Street is fun.

Hat Tip: Maxspeak

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

SOS Pakistan/Kashmir/India

I don't usually, post messages on this blog suggesting that people give money to emergancy appeals. The reason for this is simple: no one actually reads the blog anyway, so what help is my relaying of an SOS actually going to do.

Still, in this case, I'm going to make an exception, for the reason that the situation in post-earthquake Pakistan/Kashmir/India is so dire that any extra help is crucial.

So, on the off chance that you have stumbled on this blog (wrong URL perhaps? virus on your computer?) please consider the following extracts from this CNN report:

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- One month after a massive quake rocked South Asia, the top U.N. humanitarian official called it a "race against time" to help more than 200,000 people in the higher mountainous regions of Pakistan.

Predictions for an "unusually harsh winter" meant the roughly 200,000 people above the snow line in Kashmir and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan were in urgent need of help, Jan Egeland, U.N. Emergency Relief coordinator, said on Monday.

"We have to face what is happening now in Kashmir," he said. "What is particularly difficult in Kashmir is, of course, that people freeze to death if they don't get assistance in weeks."

The U.N. official said it was even more urgent to help survivors hit by the October 8 quake than survivors of hurricanes or tsunamis or even Africa, because of the freezing temperatures.

"So, this is the whole nature of the race against the clock that we have been talking about for some time. We have two, three, four weeks more before the whole area is covered by deep snow and the whole area is above the snow line of 2,000 meters (6,000 feet)."

As many as 20 percent of 200,000 people had not been reached at all and most of them had received "inadequate assistance," Egeland added. Another 150,000 people coming down from the high mountains and into camps would need assistance as well.

The death toll from the quake stands at 73,276 people, Reuters news agency quoted a government comission supervising Pakisatn's relief effort as saying on Tuesday.

Earlier a U.N. spokeswoman had put the toll at more than 87,000.

Several weeks into a disaster, aid crews typically move from life saving into humanitarian aid work, but Egeland said it would be a "marathon sprint" throughout the [northern hemisphere] winter, with life-saving work a necessity until the snowmelt in April.

Egeland called for more donations from Asian and "oil rich" nations, and said some countries should move their pledges towards reconstruction into relief aid.

In addition to cash aid, the United Nations needs helicopters as well as stoves to heat the half million tents they estimate will be used.

Because of what Egeland described as a weak reaction from corporations, the United Nations is appealing to the general public and private corporations.

"We have too little, really, from the general public and we have too little from corporations, compared to the enormous, enormous effort that we have going on today."

Asked why the response to tsunami relief had been so much greater, Egeland cited both the timing -- during the Christmas season -- and the television footage as factors.

"If there had been more images from more tourists of the actual earthquake and how it fell on the children and on the people and how people didn't drown in the wave, but they drowned in rubble, I think we would have seen more outpouring," he said.

Egeland's last point is worth noting: Despite the fact that the death toll relating from it is huge, the Asian earthquake has not led to anything near the flows of emergency assitance that followed the Indian Ocean Tsunami; yet money is desperately needed, and if it is not given 10s of thousands of people may die.

So if you are able, please consider donating. Oxfam's always been my favourite development agency so I have provided links to their websites below. But any reputable agency will do.

Oxfam New Zealand

Oxfam Australia

Oxfam Great Britain

Oxfam USA

Oxfam International

The French Riots...coming to a country near you

post missing

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Alex Higgen's Blog

Alex Higgens has updated his blog; and, as always, it is really good reading - so have a read. Be warned though, it takes a while to open.

No good name for this illness

There is a long and funny (and slightly delicate) story to be told some day about my experiences in London in May of 1999. And one of these days I’ll write it out in full. For the time being, however, I’ll spare you the details and myself the blushing, and only provide the briefest of recaps. I had just spent the (northern hemisphere) winter meandering around the Cape Verde Islands and, amongst marvelling at the beauty of those odd, lost, Saharan-sand covered ghosts of volcanoes, I managed to contract Salmonella. At the time, it really wasn’t too much of a problem though – it anchored me to a toilet for a couple of days and left me feeling shaky for a while, but was mild enough that I didn’t even bother to go to a doctor in the Cape Verdes. I wasn’t highly feverish nor was I throwing up and, as I was due to fly back to Portugal a couple of days later, it seemed sensible to wait until I could converse with a medical professional who spoke English.

So I never bothered the Cape Verde Islands’s medical system with my problems and on the appropriate date took my flight to Lisbon. When I arrived in Portugal – being the cautious type – I did stop in to see a doctor though. A doctor who, ironically enough, spoke hardly any English, which led to me having to wrap my broken Portuguese around words such as [special Portuguese speaker’s bonus] casa de banho, mucu and sangue. Which was followed by the doctor – slowly and patiently – confirming my suspicions that there was nothing more than mild dysentery to worry about. He wrote me a script for antibiotics but, because the last of my symptoms cleared up by the following morning, I never collected the meds. Instead I went surfing and flew back to London a few days later.

End of story.

Erm no – actually, more like beginning of story: a few weeks later – crashing at a friend’s house in Fulham – the damnest things started happening to the strangest parts of my body and – hey presto – I was back at the doctors before you could say “my god! how on earth did that get there”. What then followed was humorous – or, at least, has elicited laughter from those people I have told the full story to – and involved two misdiagnoses, a whole heap of waiting around Charing Cross Hospital, a professional medical photographer taking photos of my symptoms, and much anxiety before a kindly Scottish doctor said to me “Terence, you haven’t got herpes you’ve got Reiters Syndrome.” Like I said, there is a whole bundle of detail missing from this summary of events, but it’s getting close to dinnertime and I want to finish this post, so the said detail will have to wait for another date.

For now, I’ll just note that Dr Winchester’s informing me that the aforementioned diagnosis was actually a misdiagnosis had me falling to my knees and punching the air. Or at least it would have, had my knees not been swollen to the size of softballs at that moment. And had the expression on his face not suggested to me that – whatever Reiter’s syndrome was – it was probably worse than herpes.

What followed was about 9 months of extreme discomfort – swollen joints, exhaustion, and an occurrence of what was probably Iritis. Iritis, can leave you blind, although I was lucky and experienced no damage to my eyesight. I did, however, experience acute pain from it – Iritis is definitely the second most agonising experience of my life to date. Indeed, it would be the most agonising were it not for the fact, that a couple of weeks before the Iritis, I had the joy of experiencing having my knee drained of fluid by a nasty fat syringe while insufficiently anaesthetised. There were also a few other symptoms to my illness that I will gloss over for now. But, basically, what I’ve told you is a reasonable enough description of life with a type of auto-immune arthritis..

Luckily for me, about 9 months after the initial attack of the illness I went into remission, which afforded me almost two whole years of symptom-free life (read globetrotting and surfing). Less luckily, in late 2002 the illness returned and since then I haven’t been able to shake it. It’s been better and worse but never have I been symptom free. For what it’s worth, at present, it is about as bad as it gets. Mercifully, I haven’t got any problems with my eyes though, but my spine is a long slivering snake of pain, my right knee is swollen, my feet hurt to walk on and my right arm is giving me gnawing on and off pain. At times I am reduced to crutches. More than this though, I am suffering from what feels like a mild fever (although my temperature is normal) and I am totally exhausted.

All of which brings me to the point of this ramble: there is no good name for this illness. My affliction used to be called Reiter’s Syndrome; a name which seemed to fit the bill, with the word syndrome appropriately, implying – in my mind at least – a variety of symptoms. What is more, as a wannabe writer, I quite liked the phonetics of the name.

The trouble is – as I found out last year – Hans Reiter, the doctor who first described the illness and who got to lend his name to it was a eugenicist and – arrgghhhh – a supporter of the Nazis. Moreover, according to the New Scientist, Reiter, during the Second World war:

designed typhoid inoculation experiments that killed more than 250 people at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Now one thing I promised myself, when I made the decision to blog about my illness, was I that I would really try to avoid drowning my posts in self pity. (After all, things could be a lot worse.) But that is just my fucking luck . To be afflicted by an illness that was named after a Nazi war criminal.

Thankfully, though there is an alternative name for my affliction: Reactive arthritis. A name which is being increasingly used in light of a campaign by some doctors to free this illness from its named-after-a-Nazi past (needless to say this is a campaign I completely approve of).

So reactive arthritis it is. Which is the name I use now when people ask me what is wrong with me (actually I usually say something like: “I am afflicted with reactive arthritis, left wing politics and an incurable urge to hug trees”).

The trouble with Reactive Arthritis though, is that it seems to imply that the symptoms of my illness are limited merely to joint pain. Which isn’t the half of it. The joint pain is bad, but the exhaustion and on and off fevered feeling makes things much, much worse. Likewise, joint pain alone is unlikely to kill me but damage to my heart (which can occur in reactive arthritis) might.

So I’m left with a dilemma – obviously I won’t be calling my illness Reiter’s – but Reactive Arthritis doesn’t seem right either. It just seems to imply something less than that which I’ve got. And this isn’t just semantics either as I have, from time to time, experienced the problem of some significant people (but not all) in my life not understanding just how difficult my uncooperative body makes things.

A strange dilemma right. One I never would have imagined having to deal with. But then again, I never ever really imagined having to live with disease either.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Chavez articles Update

Harry's Place also linked to the NYRoB articles on Chavez and the comments section turned into a fascinating pro/anti Chavez debate - have a read...