I've seen a few people indicating support for the Burmese people in their struggle against an oppressive regime. If you're one of them I want to know what level of military action you'd support.
Who should be killed?
I've seen a few people indicating support for the Burmese people in their struggle against an oppressive regime. If you're one of them I want to know what level of military action you'd support.
Who should be killed?
There's a dream I get from time to time in which I am looking at a map or a globe and I notice a country that I've never seen before. It's usually landlocked in Canada or Russia. Nothing much happens. I just stare at it.
I had a similar experience this week while reading a comment on Pete Birks' blog. Birks had written about the various 'stans' of Central Asia, some of which are nation states, others merely regions of Russia and that prompted someone else to post a map of the regions of Russia and the remark: 'I'm intrigued by the autonomous oblast in the lower right-hand corner, labelled "Jewish"...'
I assumed it was some sort of joke but, lo and behold, there it was:
It's the blue one in the far east. It turns out that in the 1920s Stalin had some idea of promoting a dedicated Jewish region. It's a fascinating story and I recommend you read about it -
Check out the flag and the coat of arms too. The former is a bit like the 'gay rainbow' flag, while the latter has a tiger on it!
Intriguingly, Russia also has a republic that is officially Buddhist. It's Kalmykia, the green-coloured one in the west, marked with an 8, just above Dagestan. It amuses me that the jewish region is in the Asian part of Russia, just above China, while the Buddhist one is in Europe!
Is it a contradiction to be a staunch believer in capitalism and the right of individuals to spend their money as they please and yet still be disgusted by nonsense like this?
The basic story - a rich kid goes with an even richer friend and some assorted hangers-on to an expensive nightclub. They notice a famous basketball player. They order the most expensive champagne in the house, at $1,500 a bottle, and it is brought to them with some fanfare. The basketball player orders three bottles. The rich kids order six, the basketball player orders ten and the rich kids order the remaining stock of twenty-six bottles.
Rich kid says: "I cannot even begin to explain the energy going off at our table at this moment in time. Most of us were standing on top of the cushions, jumping out of control, and screaming at the top of our lungs."
Really? Did nobody point out how sad and empty this all was?
Conspicuous consumption has long struck me as the hallmark of the truly pitiful. Am I the only person who looks at footballers wives blowing quarter of a million on clothes and feel sorry for them that their lives are so empty that they have to waste money in order to be happy?
I saw a very interesting film earlier this week. "Breach" is the true story of the FBI agent and Soviet spy Robert Hanssen, who was arrested in 2001. His treachery is described as "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history". I recommend you see it while it's still in cinemas. It stars the excellent Chris Cooper.
Hanssen wasn't what you'd expect a spy to be. He was nothing like Burgess, Philby or Maclean. He had no ideological affinity to communism or socialism. In fact he was ferventy anti-communist. He also was extremely religious, devoutly Catholic; a member of Opus Dei, who went to church every day. He criticised the Soviet Union for its godlessness and believed that it was a lack of religion that caused its collapse. But notwithstanding the above, he supplied it with classified information and thereby caused the deaths of dozens of people. And despite his conservative views on sex, he secretly videotaped himself in bed with his wife and posted copies to friends. He even wrote about his sex life on fetish websites, using his own name!
He wasn't motivated by money. Although he took $1.4m over many years, he told his Soviet handlers on one occasion that he did not want more than $100k as he had no need for it and couldn't spend it without drawing attention to himself.
Something else, something much darker lay behind Hanssen's betrayal. An abusive father can't have helped, but what appears to be the underlying motivation was a desire to lead a double-life. As a youth he was inspired by hearing of Kim Philby's espionage. He later told the Soviets that he decided on his course of action at the age of 14.
Meanwhile in the present day, another high-ranking American has been brought down by the exposure of a double-life. Senator Larry Craig has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a men's lavatory in Minneapolis airport. He insists that he's not gay, but as Christopher Hitchens points out, many men who seek out such activity do not believe themselves to be gay. This was demonstrated nearly 40 years ago in a doctoral thesis by Laud Humphries (see the Hitchens link). In public life, they will profess conservative opinions on such matters. Craig for instance voted to prohibit homosexual marriage.
What might seem more shocking than the thought of a hypocritical politician is the fact that in this day and age, police are being paid to entrap homosexuals in this way. It seems a bit excessive to me, but as a straight man who wants to be able to use public lavatories without being approached for same-sex activity, perhaps I should be grateful for it. Now that homosexuality is legal, gays can meet in their own homes and leave the men's room alone.
I shudder to think what it must have been like for a normal man to need to use a public convenience for its intended purpose back in the old days. As one, unnamed source told Hitchens, the men's facilities at Clapham Common were so popular with those seeking sex that "If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it's like a breath of fresh air."
The first serious changes to the laws concerning casinos in four decades come into effect tomorrow, 1st September. As you can imagine, I'm mainly interested in how poker is affected, especially at the Victoria.
1) Casinos will be able to open from 12pm every day instead of 2pm. They will no longer have to close at 4am on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The Victoria card room will be open from noon to 5am every day.
2) Cash games will be able to charge per half-hour instead of every hour. This ought to save a lot of time, as it eliminates the arguments about who's on the half and who's on the hour.
3) Dealers will be able to play at other casinos not in the same group as the ones in which they work. Several Vic dealers have told us to expect to see them in action in other places. This could be good for players in general if it leads to a 'best practice exchange'.
4) A rake may be taken instead of an hourly charge. We are assured that the Vic won't do this.
5) Tournaments will be allowed to admit 'alternates'.
6) Tournament players will no longer be disqualified if they are not at the table for the first hand. Instead their chips will be in play until they arrive. If you know you can't make it to the tournament you will have to contact the card room in advance to ensure a refund. You will get your entry fee returned, but if you register and de-register a second time for the same tournament you'll forfeit the fee.
Christopher Hitchens joins Richard Dawkins in writing a book defending the atheist position. It’s called ‘God is not great’. In this interview with The Atlantic he fires off some wonderful zingers:
On finding out that he was Jewish:
You found out a few years ago that you’re technically Jewish.
As is Carol. We do a rather vestigial Passover seder so our daughter knows what the tradition is.
What value do you find in that?
The value in celebrating the murder of Egyptian children? I don’t think very much. But it is a tradition.
My favorite time in the cycles of public life is the time when the Pope is dead and they haven’t elected a new one. There's no one in the world who is infallible for those weeks. And you know, I don’t miss it.
On the Second Coming:
There’s a film—I’ve never seen it—about a village atheist in America. At one point, there’s some incredible thunderstorm or some other apocalyptic event that makes it seem as though the Second Coming really is about to happen. Everyone’s incredibly impressed. And even he thinks it seems to be true. But he keeps muttering as these events unfold, “But where did Cain get his wife?” All the old questions have to occur to you when you read the Bible. Maybe you can’t read, but you hear the story—wait a minute, there are only two guys in the world, and their parents, and then one of them finds a wife. Where did she come from? Once you’ve thought it, you can’t unthink it.
The subtitle of the book is ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’. If you don’t want to read 307 pages of Hitch’s screed to get to that conclusion, just watch 4 minutes and 43 seconds of Brian Sewell building up to the same point while relating the story of the Last of the Medici. Glorious stuff. The man deserves a knighthood for this alone.
I found an interesting map recently. It shows the US with its cities coded by colour and size to show whether single men outnumber single women or vice versa. The results are quite interesting. Rather than showing a random distribution, there is instead a very clear East v West split. It's as though at some point in their lives, men go west and women go east.
I wasn't surprised that the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area is male dominated and I've always had the feeling that Las Vegas is male dominated too. But I didn't expect LA to be the place with the biggest surplus of single men. The North East by contrast seems very short of single men. That's been the premise of a lot of American films and TV shows (single woman struggling to find a man in New York). I didn't realise how true it was until now!
Plan your next holiday accordingly!
Well I eventually figured out what the youtube link I posted below was about. If you listen long enough to Jim Cramer's rant, he says that 14 million people took out mortgages in the USA in the last three years. Half of them took advantage of so-called 'teaser' rates - introductory low interest periods for the first two or three years. Many of these borrowers were poor credit risks and many didn't understand that the low mortgage payments offered were only temporary. They could be forced to sell their homes when the bills go up.
I can understand his horror at the thought of seven million people being made homeless, but in a lot of cases the only way to have prevented this would be for them never to have had the house in the first place. I can't share his horror at the thought of investment bankers losing their jobs. As far as I'm concerned, the problems at the US investment banks are entirely of their own making. And it would be wrong for prudent people who didn't overstretch themselves to be made to bail out those who were reckless.
The fascinating thing for me is that while the US has had the same credit splurge that the UK has had, house prices have started falling, particularly in Florida. That's because, as one eminent UK economist* put it: 'In Britain we buy and sell houses, but in the US they also build them.' A friend of mine likes to send me spreadsheets showing me the average 'inventory' of US housebuilding firms. 'Inventory' in this case means the number of unsold houses on their books, divided by the average monthly sales rate. The last time he showed me the numbers, the inventory period was over eight months! Typical UK builders have no 'inventory' at all in the part of the UK where I live! He keeps asking me why I don't try to live in the US. Young Americans who have lived within their means and have saved responsibly will soon be rewarded by having a large amount of housing options to chose from. This contrast with the UK could hardly be more stark. One reader of this site recently wrote to tell me:
I thank God that I was not born three or four years later and shudder to think what it must be like to leave college today with £30,000 of debts and no prospect of ever affording a bedsit in Hackney for your trouble.
All of this brings me back to my last piece about land use in Britain. I've had some sensible replies like the one above and some idiotic ones too, like this:
I guess you didn't hear about the flooding in the news? Spare land has important uses other than housing and farming. Flood plains
This is a pure red herring put up by people who have their own homes and who don't want more housing competing with theirs in the market. Of course I'm aware of the flooding. But if you offer someone with no home the choice of continuing to have no home or to have a home that floods for a month once every twenty years, I know what he'll take. In any case, it is not hard to get around the issue. You put a garage on the ground floor and the living quarters one storey higher. Next!
Yes, the UK can import all the food it needs. That assumes that it has the money to afford to do so in the future. It also assumes the cost of transporting globalised food doesn't go through the roof with the record oil prices. Every country in the world wants to be western. That also means importing food so that they can develop their farmland. What happens when every country wishes to import rather than grow food?
The tragedy of the underdeveloped countries is that there are barriers to them selling their food in Europe and the US. As a result they can't earn enough by farming and many of their people chose to flee to Europe as economic migrants. The protection of the European farmer is one reason for the huge movement of people into Europe. If we bought food from overseas then we could release our land for new homes and the poorer countries wouldn't be so poor. The revenues they earn from their food exports would be used to buy our manufactured goods. It's win-win, except for European farmers who fear change. For everyone else it would be a massive gain.
This same person then described me as 'still as selfish as ever'. Incredible! Apparently it's selfish of me to want there to be more homes and more trade with the developing-world with which they could drag themselves out of poverty and give our high-tech export industries a new market! Written no doubt by someone who's got their own piece of middle England (or I suspect southern Ireland) who doesn't want anything changing now that he's on his feet. Who's really selfish?
* Probably Roger Bootle, but it might have been Tim Congdon or Patrick Minford.
Pete Birks often comments on the poor standard of financial news coverage on British television and radio. I've noticed it too. I've been meaning to tape some of the stuff I see on News 24 and copy it down just to show how bad it is. I had in mind to go on to compare it unfavourably with US business news coverage, where more people own equities and there is a higher level of investment knowledge. I think the British public deserve better.
I can't see it going down too well on BBC Breakfast Time somehow. For the record I've no idea what this guy is talking about, but I think he wants US interest rates cut.
I went to Guernsey this weekend to stay with a friend. On the way there the Aurigny ATR72 flew at an altitude of around 15,000 feet on a path from Gatwick to Poole before crossing the channel. It was the ideal vantage point to see the landscape of West Sussex and Hampshire.
There is almost nothing there.
It's easy to think that the whole of the south of England is overbuilt. But it's a myth. There is a huge amount of empty space. I have a running argument with my mother about the need for more house-building and it always ends with her telling me something like - 'You can't concrete over the whole country. It has to be able to grow its own food.' She recently suggested that I spend a week on a farm to help me understand whatever it is that I am missing.
I certainly am missing something. Her son is renting (and sharing) at the age of 38 and has been overweight since his late twenties. Obesity is soaring, children are getting adult-onset diabetes. Yet she worries about the strategic need to maintain national food self-sufficiency. It finally dropped on me last month that her earliest memories are of the Second World War and the post-war rationing. It must make a deep impression and I wonder whether it's influenced the way policy-makers of her generation have thought about land-usage ever since.
I don't worry about that so much, as I don't think future wars are going to be like WW2. Either we get nuked or we'll face some sort of insurgency/civil war driven by fanatics, like in Iraq and Sri Lanka. I don't see the country being surrounded by U-boats and denied supplies of food from the Commonwealth. In any case it's also possible for the UK to have a greater population density and still have agriculture. The Netherlands has a far greater population density than the UK and it exports food to us!
All of which brings me to this piece in the Times -
which demolishes the overbuilding myth and suggests changes to the way homes are designed.
ps - on the return journey the plane crossed the channel on a different flightpath, reaching the mainland at Brighton. Once that's out of view there's nothing to see until you land at Gatwick.
Great moments in text messaging:
From DY to Andy Ward -
"Titmus, Oakley and I win a fiver in pub quiz - and I doubled up with a side bet with Oakley. We are winners!"
From Andy Ward to DY -
"No one remembers who came second :-)"
Martin Amis recently said that if he were asked to describe Las Vegas in only one word it would be 'unislamic'. The Sahara Hotel and Casino has other ideas. The picture on the wall opposite the bed in my room there clearly shows the 'Ka'ba' - the black stone in the centre of Mecca. The picture above my bed (not pictured) was of the golden dome of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (or Al Quds if you're so inclined)!
The caption on the In House television reads: 'Free 7 spot Keno ticket, You Can Win $1,000!'
I'll pray to that!
I've been in Vegas since Tuesday night. Blogging will be light for the next week as I don't have a laptop. It's been great to see so many friends and familiar faces here, but I'm not convinced the cash games are better than the ones at home. So far I'd say they are worse, but this could be due to poor game selection on my part. Frode told me to play the Bellagio at 6am, but my body clock is completely wrong for this.
Prospect magazine had an interesting article about the Middle East in its May edition. 'The Middle of Nowhere' argues that 'despite its oil, this backward region is less relevant than ever, and it would be better for everyone if the rest of the world learned to ignore it.'
That's actually two statements rolled into one. The latter one is the important one. It's an interesting thesis and for many an appealing one. Just learn to ignore AIPAC, Tikkun, the ISM, etc and the problem should get better by itself! I don't doubt that the region would benefit if Iran stopped interfering, but it's less clear to me whether it would benefit from a more laissez-faire attitude in the West.
The article makes some intersting observations about the Middle East and I recommend that everyone read it. But I think it's misleading to point out that the region has "only about five per cent of the world's population". What matters most is what percentage of the world's young people it has and how fertile they are. Middle Eastern nations are mostly very young in comparison with the rest of the world, apart from Africa. And they have larger families. On current trends, Yemen's population will overtake that of Russia within a few decades.
But of more concern to me is the second statement - that the conflict would benefit if the rest of the world took less notice. The reason it bothers me is that there already is a violent conflict that the world takes little notice of and the lack of external interest doesn't appear to make peace more likely. It's a conflict that doesn't involve oil or Islam.
I'm talking about Sri Lanka, where a Tamil minority wishes to break away from the Sinhalese majority to form its own state to be called 'Eelam'. Since 1983, the Sri Lankan civil war has claimed 68,000 lives. The Tamils pioneered the use of suicide bombing, years before the Palestinians adopted it. Yet the civil war there gets a fraction of the attention from the world's media and politicians that is given to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Why?
I must confess I have a personal axe to grind here. I'm getting fed up of reading books and articles about terrorism that don't make reference to the Sri Lankan Civil War. I read the whole of Nathan Sharansky's otherwise excellent 'The Case for Democracy' waiting for him to make the comparison. It never came. I keep waiting for a critic of Israel to make a comparison of Israel's handling of public security with Sri Lanka's. Surely if an unflattering comparison could be made, I would have heard it by now? I've skim-read a lot, though not all, of Norman Finkelstein's 'Beyond Chutzpah' and I've not yet seen any such comparison, though I have seen an unflattering comparison made with the British handling of the threat from the IRA. If Sri Lanka has a better human rights record then say so. Either it doesn't, in which case Israel isn't so bad, or it does, but nobody wants to say so, because 68,000 people have died!
Two decades ago I represented my school in a public speaking competition. I was part of a three-man team; one person introduced the main speaker and one person did the vote of thanks afterwards. We did reasonably well in the heats with our talk on crime, but lost in the grand final to an all-girl team who spoke on the horrors of life in Iran under the Ayatollahs.
The main speaker of our team was an ebullient young man with a gift for self-promotion. Many people said that he was a bullshit-artist, so perhaps I should have been a bit more sceptical 12 months later when he told me that the headmaster had selected his idea for the following year's competition over mine. I took this at face value and let him get on with it. I wasn't interested in the topic he wanted to discuss. I later found out that the conversation with the headmaster had never taken place. It was a flat-out lie.
He went to America after he finished school. The sister of a schoolfriend tracked him down in California where he was living with an American woman. When she left the room, he leaned over to my friend's sister and said 'Don't tell her my real age ... she thinks I'm 35'. Some habits are hard to break.
I often wonder what became of him.
Separately, I see that the beautiful Hollywood actress Brittany Murphy has married an Englishman of the same age as me. I wish her all the best in life and hope that there is no truth at all in the terrible rumours circulating about him.