L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

03 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Easyjet vs (Broken) Railways

My aged parents decided to take advanatge of the new higher speed Eurostar and take the train from their home in Frinton (for the incontinent) to visit us over the weekend. They left their home to catch the 8:48am train on Friday morning and arrived in Cannes where I picked them up at 22:44 that evening. Their journey down here was, as a modern newspaper might put it, a saga. Certainly, as you can tell by the times above, it seems to have lasted about as long as a saga.

Firstly their train from Frinton to London made it two stations to Thorpe before stopping permenantly because of a cracked rail on the next stretch of line. Then after station staff informing them that a bus would take them to Colchester (so all the passengers trouped into the carpark to wait for it) a train arrived for Colchester and they caught that instead.

Well after that they got to London OK but an hour later than expected. Fortunately they had considerable spare time in the schedule so that was OK. They made their way to St Pancras and caught the Eurostar. Swoosh. Public transportation that works.

Arrival Paris Gare du Nord. You have to buy an RER underground ticket to go the two stops to the Gare de Lyon for the TGVs heading south. In the UK these tickets are included in the rail fare but that isn't possible in France. So you have to buy the ticket. Which involves having some Euro cash handy. And figuring out how to operate a complicated machine. Or queueing up at a ticket counter.

Then there was the problem (according to my parents) of actually finding the RER lines. I've never done this so I can't comment but they had quite a journey apparently to get from the mainline station to the RER tracks and the path was not clearly signed. It is worth noting that my parents are quite well travelled and have successfully managed the public transit systems of Milan, Istambul and Israel in the last couple of years so if they say it was confusing I believe them.

At the Gare du Lyon it seems that some tracks have a platform either side - one for passengers and the other presumably for maintenance. If you don't pay close attention you can wander up the non passenger side quite some way before realizing that you can't open the doors to get into the train. As with getting to London bit it's a good thing my parents had plenty of time to cross Paris.

Still once on board it's a smooth journey to Cannes where I'm waiting to pick them up. I can't help but notice however that the train to Grasse (the last one of the night or last but one possibly with a long gap betwene trains) leaves just a minute or so after the TGV arrives. Only people who are in the right carriage and are world class sprinters can make it to that train. The line to Grasse is a dead end so it isn't as if delying that train by 5 minutes would make much difference.

My parents intend to return tomorrow. The local SNCF is on strike so they can't rely on it to get into Cannes again, also, probably, the roads will be fuller than usual because of all the commuters who can't take the train. Ditto busses.

Its at times like this when you realize that it actually makes more sense to fly via Easyjet. I think my parents will not be letting the train take the strain again.

03 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Irresponsible Nanny State

Three British news items come to my attention today
1) Ordinary families would get £100 a week MORE benefits if they lived apart
The Daily Mail reports that :

Three out of four ordinary families would be better off living apart than sharing a home under Labour's benefits system.

Tax credits and benefits are increasingly skewed towards single mothers, a study has shown.

A typical couple on a low or middle income would be £69 a week better off if they lived apart.

2) 21-year-old fathers seventh child
The BBC reports that:

A 21-year-old who fathered his first child at 13 is about to become a dad for the seventh time.

Keith Macdonald, from Washington, Tyne and Wear has been branded a "reckless Romeo" after it emerged that all his children are by different women.

He is reported to be living apart from the mother-to-be.

As he is unemployed he does not support his children financially, but Mr Macdonald says he has no plans to father any more children [...] and that his mother has strong views about the situation.

He said: "My mum's not happy about all these kids. She tells me to pack it in and keep it in my trousers."

3) (OK so this is "Opinion"): Gordon Brown blames the citizen
Janet Daley in the Toygraph comments:

At his party's conference at the weekend, Mr Brown reiterated once again the theme of freeing individuals to realise their ambitions - provided, presumably, that their ambitions (for their children, for example) do not prevent other people (or their children) from realising their ambitions - even though the shortage of good schools, clean hospitals and safe urban streets that is causing us all to fight like rats for scarce food pellets is directly attributable to government directives over which the individual citizen has lost almost all influence. You may be powerless, but it's still all your fault.

Listen carefully for this contradiction and you will hear it everywhere: an entire generation of "irresponsible" parents can be castigated for allowing their children to behave badly, but attempt to intervene responsibly as an individual over anti-social behaviour and you find that the law is not on your side.

It is selfish and irresponsible to ignore government guidelines on diet and exercise because being unfit makes you a drain on NHS resources that should be available to the deserving ill. But offer to take actual financial responsibility for some of your own treatment and you are a social criminal who wants to buy extra privileges or jump a queue (even if that shortens the queue for everyone else).

And she continues below that with an anecdote that illustrates the third point.

So to recap. We have a government that actively provides incentives to do things like become a teenage parent, single mother or a deadbeat dad. It's almost as if the government wanted more single monthers, pregnant teenagers etc. This occurs despite official government policy that these things are bad. And if that were not bad enough, despite eness calls for more individual 'responsibility', if you try to help yourself without asking the government for permission/help you are castigated as some kind of selfish scumbag.

Classic "you are free to do what we tell you to do" totalitarian government policy but not, it seems to me, terribly responsible of the government though if you believe that the role of government is to improve the lot of its subjects.

07 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

20080307 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Last week I also took this photo of a particularly early poppy in flower with an olive tree behind. I'd thought to go and retake it today but its been drizzly and dull so I decided I'd just stick to last week's image.
20080307 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
BTW this tree has featured in past olive tree blogging ...

As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

07 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

T'Hugo's Well FARCed

South America's answer to Kim Il Bob Mugabe, "T'Hugo" Chavez, is looking like a bit of a plonker today. Having given moral and allegedly more concrete support to the FARC in neighbouring Columbia, T'Hugo was less than pleased when the Columbians blew the crap out one of the FARC's bases in Ecuador - killing one of its leaders and then (even better for the Columbians) capturing all sorts of juicy intelligence data on some laptops. He threatened war and mobilized thousands of troops, sending them to the border with Columbia. He also claimed that Uribe was Bush's Poodle and made other foaming at the mouth comments that go down well in the "Bushiltler" circles but not so well elsewhere.

Irritatingly for T'Hugo, while a few other lefty presidents in S America gave him support, popular support for the FARC seems to be curiously lacking. There are are all sorts of resolutions and condemnations like "next time Columbia maybe tell the Ecuadorians first OK" but nothing much more. In part no doubt because, despite all the denials, the laptops seem to be pretty chock full of highly embarassing emails indicating that yes the presidents of Ecuador and Venezuela were indeed conspiring with a group that pretty much the entire civilized world considers to be drug-traffickers, terrorists etc.

As a result when it came to today's Latin American summit started the BBC reported that:

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez had called for a cooling of tensions over the raid.

And then the other shoe dropped. Instead of Columbia sending its troops to the border to counter the Venezuelan bluster, they 'killed' another senior FARC leader. ('quotes' from the BBC headline):

The Colombian security forces say they have killed another senior member of the Farc rebel group.

The reported death of Ivan Rios is the second blow to the left-wing guerrilla group in less than a week.

Last Saturday another top commander, Raul Reyes, was killed by troops in a raid just inside Ecuador.

He was the first member of the Farc's ruling secretariat to die in combat. The killing triggered a diplomatic row, with Ecuador denouncing the incursion.

Mr Rios was killed in a mountainous area of the western province of Caldas, military sources say.

And now we wonder when the rest of the FARC leadership have similar accidents. It's no doubt going to be a tad tough on the various hostages that the FARC are holding and which they said they would probably release during peace negotiations, but given that the FARC claimed to be going to release hostages who weren't actually in captivity recently no one with any sense is going to trust them anyway.

16 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Not too far away from where we live is this magnificent meadow and driveway lined with olive trees. All the wild flowers in the meadow do kind of compensate for the lack of trimming of the olive trees.
Belated 20070314 Olive tree blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.
PS Sorry its late, life interfered

16 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Last Centurion

We don't know who will be the Democratic presidential candidate for 2008 yet. But at present I'd say there is a 50% chance that it will be a Mrs H Clinton. If not it will be a Mr B Obama who may in fact be less cluefull in terms of things like the economy, the military etc. than his rival.

Neither of them, and certainly not Mrs C, will like John Ringo's book due out in September - the Last Centurion. It is available electronically now for a mere $15 as a Baen eARC, which is why I'm writing about it, but I think the timing of its release is going to throw it right into the maelstrom of the 2008 US presidential election. Somehow I doubt this is accidental.

The book is likely to be very controversial. John Ringo (unconvincingly IMO) puts the main action in the book occuring in 2019 and the year or two following but the sums don't really add up. It makes a lot more sense for the book to be set in about 2011, that is year 3 of a Mrs H Clinton presidency elected this year than for one starting in 2016. This is merely the first reason why I predict that the book will not go down well in certain circles. I'm going to try not to give spoilers so let's just say that "President Warwick", who is a female democratic party president and who bears more than a passing reseblence to the aforementioned Mrs H Clinton, is portrayed to be less than competant in her ability to manage global crises and to be, well to put it mildly, ideologically rigid and doctrinaire even when the ideology is shown to contrary to the facts on the ground.

As I say, however, that is merely the first point of controversy. The second and third are the nature of the crises that the world faces. Crisis one is a human H5N1 pandemic originating in China but quickly spreading worldwide. This crisis doesn't sound too controversial, plenty of people have warned about the dangers of this, and plenty have speculated that a country like the PRC is likely to try and conceal the extent of an outbreak instead of coming clean. This was, after all, pretty much what happened with the SARS outbreak a few years back. No the controversy here is the likely fatality rates and the reactions of governments and individuals to the pandemic. Again spoilers will be omitted but neither socialized healthcare nor urban liberals/progressives are depicted in a good light. If she were to read it I would expect Polly Pot Toynbee to have a stroke and I have no doubt that the liberal chattering classes will waste no time in rejecting this part of the book as being pure fantasy not backed up by any hard data.

The other crisis is going to be even more controversial. Ringo posits that anthropogenic global warming is a myth and that the earth's climate is strongly correlated with solar output. Furthermore he suggests that the sun's output is significantly reduced in an abrupt fashion and that shortly thereafter the earth cools by a few degrees in the space of a year. The first part of this is not part of the "consensus" on global warming but is a hypothesis that has some reasonable evidence and science behind it. The second part is something that we may discover the truth of this summer seeing as the current solar activity is a lot lower than it used to be a year or two back.

Then there is Mr Ringo's hero/narator - Bandit Six. Bandit Six is a Minnesotan farm boy who has joined the army as an officer and is posted in the sandbox when the story opens. He's in Iran as it happens - sometime in the next decade the US invades Iran in much the same was as Bush invaded Iraq and with an equally mixed outcome - but I'm not convinced that the story would change much if he were in Iraq. Bandit Six is pretty much every progessive's stereotypical hate: he likes the military, is politically conservative, has no interest in political correctness, etc. etc. He also sounds like quite a lot of military bloggers which suggests to me that while he may in some respects be a stereotype he is also very much the real thing and not a strawman construct.

This is, in fact, a big reason why I like this book. A lot of the characters and scenes depicted in the book are highly plausible. Yes John Ringo may occasionally overegg the cake but for the most part what he writes seems pretty reasonable given the background. I don't know how I or my neighbours, let alone the whole world, would actually react to a one-two whammy of bird flu plus drastic global cooling but when you look at how people handle other smaller disasters what John Ringo describes sounds likely and this includes everything from the systemic SNAFUs to the local behaviours. It is also what is going to get up the noses of the liberal chattering classes because it lays out in detail why the statist big government approach to crisis management and the related dependancy/entitlement culture of welfare is going to break under the strain of such major events.

So here's the deal. The Republican / conservative / libertarian reader is going to love this book. If Liberal Fascism can sell then this book should too as it is, in may ways, the fictional equivalent of it. Likewise the liberal / progressive / Democrat reader, not to mention 99% of Europeans, all Arabs and everyone involved in the UN, are going to hate it. And by hate I mean pretty much get to the book-burning, lynch mobbing, fatwa stage of hate.

Which is going to be just great given the likely level of "debate" in the US presidential campaign when the book is released.

16 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Google Ads, Running, Spam and Other Fun

Yesterday I wrote a Livejournal entry to note in one convenient place where I am in terms of fitness etc. While writing the entry there were the following google ads on the side:

Weird Google Ads
The combination is downright bizarre. I also had some comment spam recently which read as follows (links removed)

GravatarFor the first time ever (and quite probably the last) we have an e-book for Olive Tree blogging. Through this e-book I got some knowledge on olive tree and its advantages the e-book are very helpful to know the unknown, information mostly today the e-books are pirated electronic books even though these are helpful.

Methinks someone did some some swift searching of my blog and spammed a comment that hit a couple of the major key words.

In other fun stuff, this Wapping Liar article comparing a diesel BMW to a Prius caused me much amusement. Yes a diesel BMW gets better MPG than a Prius and in places where diesel is cheaper than petrol is presumably considerably cheaper to operate too.

17 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Buying Cheap?

JP Morgan bought Bear Stearns for $2 a share more or less, well under 5% of its value a month or two ago and despite an analyst in the article linked to above saying that he thought Bear Stearns easily could justify a value of $40 / share. It may be interesting to compare Bear Stearns with Britain's Northern Rock which HMG decided to nationalise completely instead of sell off cheap. Both got into trouble by essentially finding that no other bank would lend money to them and neither has been allowed to fail catastrophically. The same may not be true for all entities however, the CCC hedge fund seems to be bust and while the Carlyle Group says it will "stand by" the investors in its hedge fund I don't think that means it will be baling them out. One suspects that, just like the dot bomb smash in 2000/2001, a large amount of paper/electronic money is going to dissappear into thin air again.

On the other hand it isn't just high finance where the bargains can be found. Over on this side of the pond Air France agreed to buy Alitalia after an auction to which no one showed up:

Troubled Italian carrier Alitalia has agreed to be bought by rival Air France for a cut-price 138m euros(£106m:$215m) in a move to save the state airline.

The Italian government, which holds 49.9% of Alitalia, failed to sell the company by auction in 2007.

Alitalia has lost money for five years, and has struggled to clinch a buyout.

Air France-KLM offered one share per 160 Alitalia shares, valuing Alitalia at a low-value 0.10 euros a share.

That is a 81% reduction on Alitalia's current share price.

So not quite as much of a bargain as JP Morgan, and given that Alitalia needs to fire about 50% of its bolshy workforce definitely a challenge on the merger front too - JPM won't have much problem firing people it doesn't see a need for at Bear Stearns. However it has to be said that having one not terribly successful, semi-state owned airline buying another even less successful state owned airline doesn't sound like a recipe for success. Just possibly current Alitalia shareholders are getting as good an offer as they will ever get because I suspect that Alitalia, like Bear Stearns, doesn't actually count as a going concern these days.

18 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Mr Murdoch - Beijing is on line 2

[Insert joke about President Hu?]
The Dalai Lama olympic torch
Something tells me that Mr Murdoch is not going to be terribly happy when he sees this cartoon which the Wapping Liar (prop R Murdoch) published today. I imagine that this is the sort of thing that ruins years and years of kowtowing and brown-nosing to the bosses in Beijing...

18 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

French Local Elections

The press, in its fickle way, is reporting that Sarko received a black eye, bloody nose etc. as voters swung away from the UMP and they span PM François Fillon's statement that many mayoral races were about local issues as being some kind of feeble excuse. This is in my opinion a somewhat facile reading of the results.

It is undoubtedly true that Sarko, Fillon and the UMP are less popular than they were a year ago, and that some people may have voted based on national politics but it is also worth pointing out that last year the UMP gained what was basically a landslide so it was unlikely that they would get similar results this year. Likewise local issues certainly do count, particularly in the smaller communes. The mayor of my commune, Mouans Sartoux, was re-elected with 81% of the votes cast (and over 50% of the registered electorate) according to the excellent Le Monde site. He won because he's a very very good mayor.

There was also the problem of turnout. The mayor of Grasse, for example, was also re-elected but the real winner was the "Apathy" candidate as turnout was around 55%. Turnout was a little better in Nice where the offical UMP candidate beat the former (UMP) mayor of Nice and a socialist challenger. Jacques Peyrat, the former mayor,probably lost UMP backing because the UMP decided he was really too sleazy to be allowed to be the official candidate, given the various scandals to do with the tramway, the football stadium and other municipal projects that should not be a great surprise.

One suspects that similar stories cover a large proportion of the races. I also suspect that quite a few French people consider, as indeed I do, that mayors do better when that is their only job. Unfortunately in France is has been quite common for mayors to also be national deputies (MPs), regional representaives or heads and any number of other elected posts. While it is true that being a senior politician and a mayor helps the commune you are mayor of get a certain amount of national pork the trade off is that you also lose the attention and focus of the mayor on local issues. Hence the place tends not to run as smoothly as it might and hence a certain willingness by voters to kick out mayors who seem to be ignoring their communes and focussing on the national stage.

Something not mentioned of course is corruption. French local government puts a lot of discretionary power at the hands of the mayor and many mayors seem to take advantage of this to line their own pockets. One would not want to name names, because that could involve legal unpleasantness, but many local mayors seem to end up better off than they ought to given their government salaries. As far as I can see French voters tolerate this so long as a) they aren't too greedy b) don't get caught and c) the majority of municpal services etc. work.

19 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

John Simpson - Anti-American and Clueless

I haven't done a good fisking in months, to be honest I couldn't work up the venom. But reading the BBC's John Simposon spout off about the US and Iraq as part of the round of fifth aniversary retrospectives gets me going again just nicely so here goes.

Iraq war shows limits of US power

By John Simpson World affairs editor, BBC News

Iraq war shows the limits if the BBC's ability to understand military affairs

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 I have spent almost a year of my life here, reporting on the conflict.

I have witnessed a disturbing amount of death and injury, and several of my friends have lost their lives. Others have become refugees and asylum-seekers.

I admit Mr Simpson is ahead of me there. I have not spent a minute in Iraq. No doubt this limits my comprehension, although I cannot help but note that Mr Simpson's view seems somewhat different to people such as Micheal Yon who has spent at least as long, if not longer, there. Oddly enough one can't help but notice that Mr Simpson is somewhat reticent about who precisely caused the death and injury etc. Could it perhaps be the "insurgents" that the US is battling?

It has lasted almost as long as World War II and cost almost as much.

Oh forgot. The BBC can't grasp basic economics either. Between 1943 and 2003 60 years elapsed. There is this thing called inflation that economists get worked up about. What it means is that a million dollars in 1943 ends up having a similar purchasing power as a million dollars would today. Another thing has also occured in the last 60 years, its called economic growth. 60 years ago Europe pretty much bankrupted itself and destroyed itself in WWII. The US did better but WWII caused considerable strain there too. Even if, in relative terms the Iraq war cost the same as WWII relative to the size of the US (or world) GDP it is a lot smaller. You can tell this by the fact that until last summer more or less the world (and US and UK) economy was going gangbusters despite the war in Iraq. Even in the light of the "credit crunch" and the "sub-prime loan crisis" the world, US, UK etc economies are remarkably healthy and expenditure on the war in Iraq (or even the "War on Terror" as a whole) has barely impinged.

Only one of its original aims, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has been achieved.

Of the other aims, one was unobtainable because Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction to be destroyed, and the other - bringing democracy to the Middle East - has been indefinitely postponed.

Good to see you peddling the anti-war party line Mr Simpson, pity it isn't based on fact. The point of the invasion with regards to WMD was that there was this UN resolution passed in 1991 that Saddam Hussein was flouting. Even when threatened with war in 2002 he failed to come clean. Not only did Saddam Hussein deliberately and continuously obfuscate the state of his WMD program, he also, and equally deliberately, maintained the core research teams and equipment for it. It wasn't just about destroying WMD, it was also about stopping Iraq from making and using more.

As for democracy in the Middle East. It is true there has been no sudden conversion of regimes towards democratic rule but Iraq itself has become considerably more democratially governed. Lebanon has to some degree overthrown the yoke of the Syrians and even in Saudi Arabia there is slightly more representative government than before

Nothing new in any of this, of course. Anti-war commentators have repeated it all again and again, while pro-war commentators mostly avoid mentioning any of it.

And anti-war commentators still fail to note the anti-terrorism part of the invasion. It may not have been entirely deliberate but opinion polls throughout the Middle East show far lower support for suicide bombing than they did before the invasion, perhaps because they have seen how such tactics hurt their fellow (mostly Sunni) Arabs.

More importantly, the war has shown the limits of American power. It is clear the United States can only manage to fight two small wars at a time.

Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the US armed forces almost to breaking point. America after the invasion of Iraq is no longer the superpower it was before.

Really? Breaking point? Two small wars? umm no. The US has decided not to simply kill large numbers of civilians to get at its enemies and their supporters. If the US wanted to it could quite literally bomb these places back into the stone age (some might argue that Afghanistan has barely graduated from it) and leave the surviving inhabitants to starve to death. The reason why the US military is stretched is that it is not fighting a war it is occupying conquered but not completely pacified territory. Occupation is not a war even if soldiers are used for both. If a major conflict (China say) were to occur the US could simply leave Iraq and Afghanistan to fester under some kind of blockade, it isn't doing so because it can afford not to.

Rearguard action

Yet American resilience and inventive power seem to have turned the corner here, at least in military terms. Tactics which were losing the war have been abandoned, and new, more intelligent tactics have taken their place.

Now, the American forces are engaged in fighting a rearguard action, winning time during which the long-term decisions can be taken about withdrawal or some form of continuing presence here.

Gosh it has to hurt to admit that actually the "surge" is working and that Iraq is better. No doubt that is why Mr Simpson calls success a "rearguard action", thereby demonstrating, yet again, his military cluelessness. Rearguards are used for defense when you are being driven out. If Iraq is peaceful then by definition the US isn't being driven out and hence this isn't a rearguard action. Soldiers leaving once peace has been achieved is more usually called "Victory" or "Mission Accomplished". Either that or the 1990s drawdown of UK troops in Germany was a rearguard action against the forces of Nazism and/or Soviet Communism.

Some people - for instance Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for the White House - will no doubt call this rearguard action a success. He may even be tempted to call it a victory.

Yet at present it is hard to think of it as particularly successful.

So "Tactics which were losing the war have been abandoned, and new, more intelligent tactics have taken their place" but yet this is not a success. Fair enough we are not yet completely victorious but the trends seem to be heading that way.

On Monday, Vice-President Dick Cheney came to Baghdad and talked about "the phenomenal improvement in security". That day more than 60 Iraqis were killed in bomb attacks.

He had to travel with unprecedented numbers of bodyguards, even though he never left the heavily defended Green Zone. Two mortar rounds hit the Zone while he was there.

None of this feels like a phenomenal improvement in security.

Leave aside the mere possibility that, you know, the 'insurgents' might deliberately notch up their attacks when they know Cheney and the media circus is in town, John Simpson either skipped mid 2006 - mid 2007 in Iraq or he is a liar. The Brookings Institute has a series of graphs in this PDF that show just how much of an improvement there has been since a year ago. Consider this graph of "multi-fatality bombings" as an example - it is not the only graph that shows a drop but its a pretty good one.
Brookings Institute Killed and Wounded in Multiple Fatality Bombings (Iraq)
In December 2006 to February 2007 (Jan to Mar?) we have totals of 1254,862 and 1690 wounded and 574, 429 and 704 killed respectively for grand totals of 3806 and 1707 for wounded and killed. In the same three months December 2007 - February 2008 the numbers are 459, 466 and 406 wounded and 211, 211 and 281 killed for totals of 1331
and 703 respectively. My maths says than this is roughly a third the number of wounded and about 40% of the number killed. If that isn't a "phenomenal improvement in security" then what is?

Elementary errors

Still, ever since the start of 2007, when Gen David Petraeus started introducing radically new tactics, the war has entered a different phase.

The various elements in the insurgency have been divided, the Mehdi Army has been persuaded to keep its head down, and the American and Iraqi forces have gone on the offensive, denying their enemy the chance to dig in and control territory.

The heading here is almost as misleading as the "rearguard" one above the previous section. Tactics have changed and things are getting better, this is not an elementary error.

Before Gen Petraeus took over, American military tactics were negative, and sometimes seemed almost defeatist.

The insurgents were able to operate at will along the main roads in Baghdad. They took over entire suburbs and towns.

Well Duh. This is why they didn't work and why they changed.

At the same time there was a breathtaking lack of political understanding.

In the first year after the invasion, Iraqi politicians found the American proconsul, Paul Bremer, both arrogant and silly. He made a number of elementary errors which have caused lasting damage.

Nowadays, by contrast, the face of American policy here is Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq. He speaks good Arabic and has a sympathetic understanding of the country and its people.

Altogether, the American military and diplomatic presence here has much more professionalism and intellectual seriousness to it.

Oddly enough Bremer seemed to be more popular with the BBC at the time (see this bio at his appointment). No doubt one of those elementary errors.

Long-term danger

Iraqi friends of mine who once hated the fact that the Americans were here now praise them for driving the militants from the streets. That is a real success.

But it is small compared with the damage which the war has done to America's reputation. The US state department finds it much harder nowadays to be taken seriously when it criticises other countries for their use of torture and arbitrary arrest.

People the world over have been repelled by things that have been done here: things that are now associated with place-names like Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Falluja.

So umm the elementary errors and rearguard action has driven the militants from the streets. Good to hear that it is a real success. Even more amazing that a rearguard action chock full of elementary errors could have such an effect. As for the US state department being taken seriously by torturers and tyrants. I somehow doubt the US state department has ever been taken seriously by these people. While there is no doubt that Abu Ghraib was a disgrace it has to be pointed out that Haditha and Falluja are far more examples of the media actively cooperating with the terrorists than anything else. IIRC in neither case have the more lurid accusations stuck to the US while in Falluja at least the behaviour of the "militants", something that the BBC hasn't covered in detail, helped turn the local Sheiks away from the militants and into the arms of the USA. If people the world over are repelled by US actions in Falluja then that is in large part due to the biased coverage of organizations like the BBC which has failed to cover the situation properly.

Above all, we have seen how hard it is for the Americans to deal with a few thousand lightly armed volunteers.

Germany's 19th-Century Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, said that great powers had to be very careful when they put their military strength to the test. Unless they are overwhelmingly successful, he meant, the perception will be that they have been defeated.

In spite of the new successes on the ground here, that is the long-term danger America faces.

Really? No doubt this is different to Britain's stellar record against a few hundred lightly armed Irishmen? Or for that matter how many troops were involved in the (successful) Malaya emergency? And perhaps John Simpson should listen to some of the whining from Al Qaeda? If he thinks the US hasn't succeeded perhaps he needs to look at the dissarray and lack of popular support of its oponents. In most situations when one side kills or captures 90% of the effectives of the other side and takes, on average, casualties at a ridiculously low rate in historical terms then that is called being "overwhelmingly successful" aka "winning". What Mr Simpson forgets is that Osama and others claimed that the USA had no stamina for a protracted struggle with multiple deaths. This was, in fact, a common belief in the late 1990s. It isn't such a belief today because President Bush has stayed the course in Iraq and allowed his troops to remain there long enough to beat the crap out of the various opposing forces instead of turning tail and coming home with their opponents still alive and causing trouble.

20 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Blogging Elsewhere

I have an article posted at Pajamas Media today on how the French perceive the US Presidential Race. Share and Enjoy

20 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Sea Temp Trends Lower - Shock Horror!

There is a higly amusing NPR article (highlighted by Instapundit) which states, in the sort of shocked tone that Vicars use when they learn that their best altar boy has been caught mainlining heroin at an orgy, that the ARGO sea survey robots are reporting that since 2003 sea temperatures have fallen. This the article confidently states must be wrong because the earth is warming:

Some 3,000 scientific robots that are plying the ocean have sent home a puzzling message. These diving instruments suggest that the oceans have not warmed up at all over the past four or five years. That could mean global warming has taken a breather. Or it could mean scientists aren't quite understanding what their robots are telling them.This is puzzling in part because here on the surface of the Earth, the years since 2003 have been some of the hottest on record.

Now I've been looking at some of Anthony Watts recent work, particularly this post, and it occured to me that actually the final statement in this extract is, well, true only if you use GISS and ignore those irritaing 1930s.

So I thought I'd have a little play with the figures (data taken from the same sources as the Watts post above) and I got this amusing chart:

Atmospheric trends since 2003
As you can see (click the image to enlarge if you need to) all four global series (UAH, RSS, HadCRUT2 and GISS) report a downward trend in the 62 months from Jan 2003 to Feb 2008 inclusive.

In other words the entire hypothesis of the article: that the oceans are staying cool while the atmosphere heats up, is completely flawed. In the last 5 years the atmosperic trend has been down. Not by much of course and equally clearly (I hope) this 5 year data sample is nowhere near enough to determine trends, but in fact the correct statement is:
"[O]ver the past four or five years [...] global warming has taken a breather."
This is the statement that the NPR article seems at pains to state is not the problem.

Having said that the article is pretty good at explaining how much we don't know about the various mechanisms of climate regulation/change even though it seems determined to stick to the "consensus" view that the world is heating up lots.

21 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Good Friday olive tree blogging

One of the cool things about olive trees is how they seem to regenerate themselves and how new growth can pop up almost anywhere including in places that look pretty much dead. I'm sure a good priest would be able to make a good Eastertide sermon out of this renewal idea.
20080321 - Good Friday olive tree blogging
This Easter we're going on an Easter Egg hunt near Le Broc and going on previous years l expect a bunch of eggs to be hidden in olive tree hollows not too disimilar to this one.

As always you can click on the image to see it enlarged and are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives to remind yourself of how nice olive trees are.

21 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Expelled from "Expelled"

I was (and still am) about to write a post inspired by a comment that blogger PZ Myers made recently. However, when I went back to his webpage today to start that one, I discovered something that just takes priority. I hope I don't have any Creationist types reading here because I want to mock them or at least those who purport to make movies on their behalf.

There is, it would seem, a documentary called "Expelled" which is all about how *the scientific establishment*(spoken in deep threatening voice) expels all those who dare to suggest that just maybe evolution doesn't happen and so on. Sort of like how the inquisition is alleged to behave only without the physical torture and the burning at the stake parts. Anyway, in the course of creating this documentary, and using tactics straight out of the Michael "Tubby Riefenstahl" Moore playbook, they interviewed some well known scientists such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. Then they seem to have twisted their words around so that:

Dawkins concedes that life might indeed have a designer but that designer almost assuredly was a more highly evolved being from another planet, not “God.”

This after interviewing them supposedly for a different project called "Crossroads" with a rather different slant (and it should be noted making those interviews and interview requests after having registered the Expelled domain and not the Crossroads one).

So now the propaganda piece is done and various previews are going on. One of the previews was in Minneapolis and taking place at the same time as the 34th Annual National Conference of American Atheists - invited guest one R Dawkins. So, taking advantage of the RESP link Messrs Myers, Dawkins and friends and relations show up to the preview, no doubt interested in seeing their 15 minutes of hollywood silver screen fame. But it seems that PZ Myers is not allowed in, as he explains:

There is a rich, deep kind of irony that must be shared. I'm blogging this from the Apple store in the Mall of America, because I'm too amused to want to wait until I get back to my hotel room.

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn't even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn't going to cause any trouble.

I went back to my family and talked with them for a while, and then the officer came back with a theater manager, and I was told that not only wasn't I allowed in, but I had to leave the premises immediately. Like right that instant.

I complied.

But what is bellyachingly funny, and where the irony really bites, is that Richard Dawkins was allowed in. Although subsequently the umm true believers in the audience felt he'd crashed the party illegally.

So umm let me summarize
  1. A documentary whose prime pitch to do with "freedom of expression" doesn't want people who might criticise the movie to show up at the previews and object
    1. Even if they were actually featured in the documentary (and paid for their time)
  2. But they apply this policy inconsistently so that one is barred while another is allowed to enter
And when this gets out the rabid moonbats have a field day because they can justifiavly point to the incompetence, incoherence, inconsistency and unintelligence of their foes. How does the saying go? ah yes. Load Gun. Attach gun to foot. Insert foot in mouth. Pull trigger.

22 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

The Easy Option

In the previous post I mentioned that I wanted to discuss a comment made by PZ Myers. This is the comment:

Science is providing a perspective that does not support tradition, that often reveals an uncomfortable reality like global warming or our familial relationship with worms, and it's difficult — there are no simple, intuitive paths to understanding the details of our disciplines. Religion, creationism, climate skeptics, the whole spectrum of ideologies that deny reality are easy: they are selling comfortable lies, the lies your parents and grandparents and whole darn family hold, the lies that make promises that the whole universe likes you personally and will help you out, the lies that require no intellectual engagement to support. You don't even need to be able to read a bible, as long as you can thump it.

Apart from the global warming reference I found myself agreeing with this. People are often unwilling to spend time examining stuff that their nearest and dearest tell them is true and certainly they hate it when someone tells them that not only is what they think wrong but that in order to understand why they need to study things and otherwise use their brain. It has to be said that I have precisely that reaction when I talk to the average "environmental" believer or pretty much any socialist/ communist/ statist because typically answering their objections requires them to go and do some research and/or learn economics.

Indeed the largest problem I have with those climate scientists who claim manmade global warming is occuring and that it will be a catastrophe, is that they seem to deliberately obfuscate their work. I'm willing to try and replicate some of their analyses, as are far more competant people such as Steve McIntyre, but we find it hard because they don't publish all the steps or all the source data. Furthermore, having apparently worked back from the conclusion they wished to the data they gathered and then been called on their inconsistencies they seem to react precisely like the folks PZ Myers is criticising, that is make appeals to higher authority and/or metaphorically stick their fingers in their ears and shout "I can't hear you".

In fact quite a lot of environmentalists seem to have this problem as do all sorts of poverty alleviation do-gooders. They simply hate the fact that some of the best environmental protection and poverty alleviation comes from figuring out the right economic incentives and letting the people involved get on with it. Their prefered solutions all seem to involve government regulation upon regulation along with government declarations, conferences and other similar events that make for good press but don't actually change anything on the ground. Looked at dispassionately these people frequently seem to worship the god of (transnational) government and they come across just as loopy as the creationsists and religious fundamentalists.

Of course while blind acceptance of "authority" in the form of experts, books etc. is bad, so is total skepticsm. I found an excellent essay recently (the essay isn't recent) that quotes a passage by G.K. Chesterton in a story in "The Man Who Knew Too Much":

"You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority."

This blind acceptance of "anything without authority" explains all the 9/11 truthers and most other conspiracy theorists quite well. And in some ways can be treated I think just the same as the blind acceptance of authority. Effectively the easy option for these people is no different in result to that which results from literal belief in the bible or anthropogenic global warming. [Note I'm not denying the possibility that AGW is occuring, what I'm complaining about are people who accept it is happening because they have done no further investigation than listen to the news]

The problem is that I suspect the reality denying "easy option" may be a valid survival technique in many cases. Most of the time we don't have time to investigate whether something is true or not and most of the time it doesn't actually make much difference to our existence anyway. We are better off spending our days hunting, farming, earning money etc. rather than considering the whichness of what. Historically we have turned to our religious leaders to do the investigating of the whichness of what, these days we more often turn to scientists, journalists or government leaders, but in either case what we do is ask an expert and believe his answer without taking time to validate it (or at least not much time) and this is, as I say, a good thing because it keeps us and the rest of society fed, clothed, housed etc.

For the most part and for most of human history it hasn't really mattered which god one worships or which rites and sacrifices are made. Obviously some religious actions (e.g. Aztec human sacrifice) are pretty bad and others (e.g. medieval christianity's distrust of hygeine) are in fact marginally harmful to the practitioners whereas others (avoidance of pork in hot climates) provide health benefits, but in general it hasn't mattered whether one believes in Thor, Zeus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Moses or Mohammed (or any other spirits, gods and goddesses). This is because, while each religion's explanations for our existance are contradictory and generally not backed up by any evidence, the practical behaviour code of each religion has been much the same. All religions pretty much preach not to murder, steal etc., most preach respect to authority and so on. And one can argue that many of the various isms, i.e. socialism etc. are much the same at a personal level. Hence for most humans most of the time, the "easy option" of asking a priest or scientist or government official, works well enough that there seems no reason to do something else.

Unfortunately there are times and places where this isn't the case, where we actually need to work through the evidence and do sums ourselves and here we're left struggling in a modern society. This is in fact where democracy and the internet with its ability to let anyone comment on anything comes up and bites us. The problem is that I think human nature may have evolved so that for many people the "easy option" ends up being the only option.

24 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Bookeen Cybook Review

Bookeen Cybook Library ViewI've had my NAEB delivered Bookeen Cybook for a week now. Enough I think to write a review that is slightly better than "shiny". This is the short version of the review - this is a link to the full Cybook review.

First comment. If you are European you are stronly recommended to buy from the NAEB store rather than direct from Bookeen because with the current weakness of the US$ you save a LOT. Choosing the cheaper USPS shipping rate I paid NAEB US$403.80 for my Cybook which works out at €256.00 at current exchange rates. Adding the €57.15 duty I had to pay the French customs we have a total of €313.15.

By comparison if I attempt to buy a base Cybook (and the NAEB package is closer to the deluxe Cybook) for postal shipment in France then the price is €358.30 which works out at €45 (or about 15%) more. Given that the deluse pack is €450 (plus shipping) and NAEB doesn't include the spare battery (€44.95) the actual price of the NAEB package if shipped from Bookeen would be over €400. In other words
In fact if you buy now you are even more strongly recommended to buy via NAEB because Bookeen are sold out for new orders right now!

Review summary

The Cybook is light enough to take anywhere and intuitive to use. The display is crisp and clear and the battery life seems to be sufficient for even the longest of journeys so long as you don't listen to music. Copying books onto it is straightforward and may be done by copying books onto the removable SD card or onto the internal flash. The latter can be used to sync books between the Cybook and a windows PC running a recent version of the Mobipocket reader. There are some bugs that show up when playing music and other people have reported other issues to do with the first time you insert the SD card shipped with it but nothing seems to be a real showstopper.
Bookeen Cybook and Asus Eee in the sun
The eInk display technology is magnificent and completely legible in bright sunshine unlike any other electronic display. The Cybook connects to any computer via a USB cable and when it does so it appears to be just another external drive, thus there is no lock in to a particular computer or OS. Likewise the Cybook's support for multiple open formats means that it is the perfect reader for someone like me who primarily buys open formats and it also means there is no lock in to any ebook vendor or format. The gripes I have (and the bug I found) should all be fixable with a software upgrade and none of them seriously impacts my ability to read. The battery life, size and the speed of power up means that this reader is perfect for travelling, you can read it while standing in line for security theatre and expect to have just the one device for the entire trip. With a suitable font, the Cybook seems able to display any text which is impressive and means that the Cybook can be used by people from all over the world not just Europe and America. It may in fact be possible to download foriegn dictionaries and phrasebooks onto it which would be a further boon for the traveller. My hope is that Bookeen will open up the interface a bit so that third parties (e.g. me) can create alternative library displays and other add ons that would enhance the reader and build a community. If they don't manage to build a loyal community of users then the hardware will no doubt become commoditized (it already appears to be available here) and Bookeen as a company will go bust.

24 March 2008 Blog Home : All March 2008 Posts : Permalink

Liberal Notes Uselessness of UN

Marty Peretz at TNR's "The Spine":

Let's face it: no one with real power in the world gives a damn whether the people of Darfur eat or starve, live or die. The United Nations and its cheerleaders least of all.

Darfur is not the only place in Africa where massacre as policy is an ongoing reality. But massacre as policy has been going on in Darfur longer than in any place else on the continent. The government in Khartoum, that is, the government of Sudan, initiated it and keeps it going. And the Arab League supports the genocide and protects it in international agencies from the U.N. Human Rights Council to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (which has as members 56 pious Moslem states.)

Lydia Polgreen has written a desolating but cool dispatch in this morning's Times. At bottom, there is a shortage of troops and supplies. But no one will provide them. No one. That's why people also talk as if one can rely on the U.N. Rely on it for what? For giving cover to talk.

You know this was exactly why Neocons and their hangers on (which includes people like me) dislike the UN so much. The UN, as we have so often pointed out, treats all governments more or less equally whether they be reasonable democracies or kleptocratic tyrannies. This lets the tyrants and their apologists delay action indefinitely. Of course it also doesn't help that few nations apart from the Angosphere (and France) seem to have a competant military that they are willing to deploy on UN peacekeeping missions and that even fewer nations are willing to actually try and use a UN mandate to blow up the actual troublemakers (in this case that would be the Khartoum leadership I think). I don't know what the complete answer is but I'd guess a part of it would be to recruit a mercenary force whose incentive based pay would have number of dead arab militia fighters as one of its KPIs.

The problem is that all these solutions involve actions that
  1. demostrate the impotence of transnational talkfests conferences and negotiations
  2. demostrate the benefits of powerful "western" imperialism
and it is an article of faith amongst "liberals" that neither of these things is possible.