webofevil: (all hail)
From Korea by Simon Winchester:

One of the more famous Zen masters in Korea was Hyobong, who was a judge during the Japanese occupation—in fact, the first Korean to be allowed to sit on the Colonial bench. But after having to sentence a man to death, he became suddenly disenchanted with the whole idea of colonial justice, resigned, and became an itinerant toffee seller, during which time he thought deeply about how he could best lead a decent life. He finally decided to become a Buddhist monk and to start proper meditation. He then chose the hwadu “No!” and in 1931­—though it might be difficult to accept this kind of thing happened so recently, so much does it sound the stuff of legend—had himself walled into a tiny hermitage, with only a tiny hole for food to be passed in and out. He stayed there for 18 months, until one day in 1933 he realised that all of his doubts had been resolved. He had himself unwalled, and as a conclusion to his lengthy meditation on the hwadu “No!” wrote the following lines:

At the bottom of the ocean, a deer hatches an egg in a swallow’s nest.
In the heart of a fire, a fish boils tea in a spider’s web.
Who knows what is happening in this house?
White clouds float westward; the moon rises in the east.

After which revelation, Hyobong became a Zen Master, a respected teacher, and was appointed spiritual head of the Chogye order—the principal order in Korea. Thus, while cynics might not accept the validity of the hwadu system nor the sense of the poem that resulted, it has to be accepted that the man who so meditated, and the man who came up with this answer, was appointed to a position equivalent to the head of a major Western church—a church whose rituals must seem as strange to Zen Buddhists as their ways must seem back West.
webofevil: (all hail)
From a biography of writer Edgar Wallace, a salutary tale from 1906:

Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe

From time to time it is considered good business for a newspaper to engage in what is euphemistically described as a “crusade”, and in the autumn of 1906 [Daily Mail editor] Alfred Harmsworth decided to undertake a Napoleonic campaign against the rising price of soap. This increase in price had been agreed on by the soap manufacturers, following the sudden rise in the cost of raw materials; it had recently been discovered that some of the ingredients of soap could also be converted into margarine and other foodstuffs suitable for the poor, and to balance the consequent rise in the costs of production the soap manufacturers had put up the price of their products. More, at the suggestion of Mr Lever (later Lord Leverhulme), the Sunlight soap millionaire, they were planning an amalgamation of the principal firms to eliminate the tremendous costs of competitive advertising. Such an amalgamation would, of course, have enormously reduced the advertisement revenue of the newspapers, and rumours immediately spread about that it was part of the scheme to corner all the raw materials available and substantially increase the price of soap to the public. This latter consideration was, according to the statement of his newspapers, the sole inspiration of the philanthropic Harmsworth scheme to fight the “soap trust” and protect the public, and the poor washerwoman who would be most hardly hit by an increase in supervisors became an object of passionate editorial concern.

The attack on the “soap trust” was launched with all the vigour and thoroughness of which Alfred Harmsworth was capable, and most of the Daily Mail reporters, including Edgar, were sooner or later pressed into the fray. A “black list” of all the soap firms involved in the amalgamation scheme was published, with the names of their products, as also a list of firms not so involved, whose products the public was recommended to buy without fear of being instantly strangled by the great soap octopus. Lever Brothers came in for the heaviest punishment, for not only was Mr Lever the originator of the scheme, but he had also, on the advice of his agents, reduced the weight of the standard bar of Sunlight soap by an ounce, a diplomatic alternative to an increase in retail prices. The attention of the retailer had been expressly called to this reduction in weight by a small label gummed on the end of the soap carton, but the Daily Mail fell on the expedient with a yell of outrage which suggested that the “fifteen-ounce pound” was a deliberate attempt to deceive and vampirise the public.

In common with other members of the reporting staff it fell to Edgar to supply colourful detail of the suffering caused to the British public by the increased cost of soap, and he was specifically instructed to voice the laments of the poor struggling washerwoman. Accordingly, with great feeling (and, one cannot help suspecting, from the comfort of his study in Elgin Crescent) he contributed to the general Daily Mail philippics under the moving headline of “Cruel Blow to the Poor”. “Out of the region of high finance,” he wrote, ”away from the battleground where an indefinite public fights a very tangible twelve million pound trust, you are nearer to the crux of the whole question when you get to the place where the washing hangs out on the line and the steam and soapy scent of washing day permeates the neighbourhood… 'From early Monday morning to late on Saturday night'”—it is an unspecified washerwoman who is speaking—“I stand at my wash-tub—and very often well into the early hours of Sunday morning. To meet the competition of the laundries I have reduced my price to 9d. a dozen—and at this price the rise in the price of soap means all the difference between bread-and-butter for my children and dry bread.” This affecting account was inserted anonymously into the columns set aside daily in the Daily Mail for the attack on the soap trust, but it achieved unexpected and somewhat embarrassing prominence when it was quoted in court during the shattering libel action which ultimately followed.

Lever Brothers had borne the assault as long as they could, and then had announced that the amalgamation scheme was to be abandoned. It was an undeniable triumph for the power of the Press, and the Harmsworth newspapers were not slow to drive home to the public the philanthropic magnitude of their achievement. So great was the triumph, indeed, that Harmsworth found himself completely unable to relinquish the subject, and when, a few weeks later, Lever Brothers made an attempt to retrieve the damage by a vast scheme of advertising (not, curiously enough, in the Daily Mail) he returned to the attack with open and exuberant scoffing. This sudden resumption of hostilities was too much for Lever. The Daily Mail campaign had already had a disastrous effect on the sales of Sunlight soap and the value of Lever shares; he had owned himself beaten, abandoned the trust, and restored the sixteen-ounce pound. More he could not do, and when he found himself and his firm still victims of hostile publicity he took legal advice, briefed Sir Edward Carson and F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) and sued the Daily Mail and associated newspapers for libel.

Edgar Wallace

It was a lively case, and with such brilliant counsel it soon became apparent that the Harmsworth crusade to protect the British public was going to be expensive. With masterly succinctness Sir Edward Carson drew up the case for the prosecution. The Daily Mail, according to the plaintiffs, had accused Levers of selling soap in a fraudulent manner; they also claimed that large numbers of employees had been dismissed as a result of the combine. They had, moreover, charged them with cornering the raw materials market, with attempting to bribe the Press, with using unsavoury fish oil in their products, and with pursuing a policy in regard to the combine which “tended to the oppression of the poor”. Up to the present, said Sir Edward, the trading losses of the plaintiffs had, as a result of these public accusations, already amounted to £40,000, and two million preference shares had been reduced in value with a loss to the shareholders of £200,000.

The charge of oppression of the poor particularly took the ironic fancy of the prosecution, and in the published reports of the proceedings (for the case was being followed by other newspapers with hilarious interest) Edgar's story of the piteous washerwoman occupied a prominent and unenviable place. “Turning,” said The Times report, “to another article entitled 'Cruel Blow to the Poor', Sir Edward said it told a story of a poor widow who supported a large family of small children by washing, and who lost 1s. 6d. a week through the increase in the price of soap. She must, said counsel, have used ninety-six 3d. tablets. (Laughter.) They had asked where this poor widow who was using ninety-six tablets a week and was being driven to the pawn shop by Mr Lever was to be found, and in answer to interrogatories the reply they got was that the story was contributed by a reporter on tne staff who was now in the south of France reporting the wine riots. (Laughter.)”

The defence pleaded in reply that their charges were true, that the conduct of the plaintiffs had been fraudulent and dishonest, and that the articles complained of were fair comment—but the jury thought otherwise. Judgment was given for Lever Brothers, who were awarded £50,000 damages—the largest sum up to that time that had ever been awarded in a libel action. Encouraged by this promising result the lesser soap companies which, with Levers, had borne the brunt of the attack, rushed into litigation, and Mr Lever's damages having set an opulent example, Sir Alfred Harmsworth found himself finally liable for damages amounting in all to a quarter of a million. It was a crushing blow, even to so rich an organisation as the Harmworth Press, and a panic of economy swept through Carmelite House. In the course of the anxious conferences and discussions which followed Sir Alfred asked irritably who was the reporter whose ridiculous calculations on the losses of washerwomen had provoked such malicious amusement at the Daily Mail's expense. Edgar, returning innocently from Narbonne, where he had, indeed, been covering the wine riots, found a black mark of disfavour registered against him.

Margaret Lane, Edgar Wallace: A biography, 1939
webofevil: (all hail)
A clear example of the potential for misunderstanding [in nuclear conflict] comes from Bruce Blair, President of the Center for Defence Information in Washington. Blair was a launch control officer for US Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. After the Cuban missile crisis, when the US and the USSR came close to nuclear war, the US government introduced a system of physical locks and launch codes that had to be given by the President before any missile could be launched. But as Blair explains: “The locks had been installed but everyone knew the combination. And so the ‘secret unlock code’ during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War remained constant at 00000000.” I have always used the same number on the combination lock of my suitcase, because it always seemed too much to bother with. The US Air Force took the same approach to the desire of elected politicians to control the use of nuclear weapons. Thus, for years, US presidents thought things were safer than they really were.

Dan Plesch, The Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace
webofevil: (all hail)
Public attitudes [about poverty] remain sceptical. An Ipsos MORI focus group in 2007 was presented with evidence of severe deprivation in some of Britain's poorest communities. “They probably don't wear coats because it's fashionable not to,” was one participant's explanation. “People in Cornwall don't need so much money—they can go out and cut trees down for fuel,” said another. The researchers concluded that people were reaching for outlandish explanations as to why the evidence didn't match their opinions.

Mark Easton, Britain Etc.
webofevil: (all hail)

This is how to issue a denial.

To this day, David Kolitz, owner of Elul, denies [his company’s involvement in Operation Seashell in 1981, supplying weapons from Israel to Iran], insisting that:

Elul does not trade in arms, has never exported weapons and/or ammunition to Iran at any time and has never served as a “front” for any such government activities, if there were any such activities.

Question: But your signature appears on the documents from Elul that deal with the trade with Iran and your name appears as a participant in all of the meetings on the subject.

Kolitz: I am not saying that you are a liar and I am not saying that you are insane. Despite the documents that you have mentioned and despite my signature, I repeat my earlier response.
Ronen Bergman, The Secret War With Iran
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Hotdog magazine used to run a splendid throwaway feature: short reviews of shitty B-movies by funny people. Since I lost the actual clipping long ago, I don't know if this was Viz's Chris Donald or Viz's Simon Donald, but either way it was a Viz's Donald.
Blood Surf - available to rent now

A television producer believes he can make a fortune by filming two of his surf buddies riding the waves with deadly sharks snapping at their ankles. But things start to go wrong when a giant crocodile eats their boat. They end up trapped on a remote Pacific island with only the giant crocodile and a gang of sex-starved pirates for company. Their only hope is that a hard-drinking, crocodile-hating sea captain—hell-bent on revenge after an earlier boat-eating incident—happens to be passing by. The old sea-dog still bears the scars from his previous encounter with the 40-foot monster (although one of them, on his neck, very nearly falls off in one scene). He's made it his life's mission to hunt down the beast and yet, when the opportunity finally presents itself, he's found to be somewhat lacking in crocodile-slaying ingenuity. The best he can manage is to kick it in the mouth and call it a “fucking bastard”, which doesn't work, and it promptly bites him in half.

Hotdog, January 2001
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Cardinal Keith O'Brien is the latest senior churchman recently to rail against the legalisation of gay marriage, calling the plans “madness” and accusing the government of trying to “redefine reality”. Leaving aside the reality or madness of the cardinal's own chosen beliefs (virgin birth, transubstantiation, mandatory celibacy has no adverse consequences etc), he and his fellow protestors such as the Archbishop of York are following in an ancient clerical tradition of admonishing and scorning their errant flock, and as they become shriller and more strident over the next few months it's worth placing them in their proper context:
Eminent Victorians ... backed the idea [of an underground railway], though there were also voices ranged against such godlessness. At an open-air meeting in Smithfield, a preacher called Dr Cuming warned, “The forthcoming end of the world would be hastened by the construction of underground railways burrowing into the internal regions and thereby disturbing the devil”.

Stephen Smith, Underground London
See also: this.
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[Norwegian newspaper] Ringerikeblad's editor... found typographical “errors” particularly suitable for defying the Nazis. When his paper was compelled to carry a lead article declaring that “in this war the Germans are utterly senior in men and cannons (menn og kanoner)”, the printed copy read: “menn og kaniner” (men and rabbits).

Kathleen Stokker, Folklore Fights the Nazis
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On 16 December 1893, when Parliament had been in continuous session for 11 months and it had been announced that members would have only four days’ recess for Christmas—Mr Gladstone received a letter in a neat but childish hand, written on ruled paper, from the infant son of the Earl of Pembroke.
Dear Mr Gladstone,

I am sorry we cannot go to Ireland for Christmas, as you have only given Father four days holiday. And I hope you will give him some more after this letter.

Yours sincerely
George Sidney Herbert
Gladstone replied the same day:
My dear Boy,

It is very sad. I feel for you. And I feel with you. As you cannot get to Ireland, so I cannot get home, at Christmas. And you, I hope, will have many, very many, very happy Christmasses. But I, having had eighty-three already, feel that I am taking one of my last chances.

Can anything be done? Not by me. But I think your Father could do something, if he thought it right to ask some ten or a dozen of his friends to abate a little the number and length of their speeches. For they are so fond of him that I believe they would do it. But I could not expect them to do it for my asking. If they did it for him, there is no saying whether it might enable you to go to Ireland.

With best wishes for Christmas, Easter, and all other times,

Ever yours,

W.E. Gladstone
John Julius Norwich, Christmas Crackers


Dec. 15th, 2011 03:10 pm
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[In the bar after a workshop on smell attended by scientists and military researchers]:

“So,” I asked, charging my voice with national concern, “what are we going to come up with to match the sniffer sharks the US plans on using to detect submarines?”

“Well, I had a good idea few years ago but couldn't get the funding for it,” [Dr] Ben [Teckler, MoD scientist] answered.

“What is that?”

“Sabotage salmon.”

“Sounds good, but I'm not sure that they'll be much of a match for the sharks,” I said.

“But they have the best olfactory system and it's the easiest to recode. Basically salmon, when they are small and living in the river, encode the odours of their environment so that they will recognise them on their return from the sea to mate in the river. All we need to do is impregnate their water with the odour of explosives and then inject them with the right hormones when we want them on duty.”

“But the sharks will just eat them,” I said crossly.

“Well, we can protect them with a fleet of dolphins. Toby's got his own idea, though.”

“Yes. Electric eels. They are huge,” said Toby [MoD scientist], stretching out his arms to demonstrate. “They grow to over eight feet.”

“Sounds promising,” I said.

“Yes, but how would you train them?” Ben laughed.

“Oh come on, that's easy. Stick them in a tank. They emit an electrical charge,” Toby puffed up his face and imitated the noise it made,” when you prod them. All you have to do is emit the odours you want it to detect every time you prod it. Then stick a light bulb to it and send it off.” […]

“What about squid?” Ben laughed. [...] “OK,” Toby interjected. “I am seeing one submarine surrounded by a fleet of salmon with dolphin reinforcements and further along another submarine with a load of sharks around it. Another followed by a load of squid or prawns or whatever.”

“It's chaos,” Ben laughed. “But the crazy thing, Amber, is that this is what our meetings are actually like.”

“They start off very serious,” Toby added, “but they end up with us coming out with all of these far-fetched ideas.”

“And sometimes someone somewhere funds them.”

“And as a result the world is a safer place,” Toby said in mock seriousness. “Except for the sea, that is. Bloody nightmare out there.”

Amber Marks, Headspace: Sniffer Dogs, Spy Bees and One Woman's Adventures in the Surveillance Society
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A round-up of things I have learnt recently:

In the confusing array of obscure Muslim sects, the Druzes were among the most obscure. They were a schism of a schism of a schism. Their roots led back to Shi’ite Islam, but the tie was tenuous. So secretive was the Druze religion that even most Druzes didn’t know the details of its teachings. Women and children were told almost nothing. Of the men, only about 10 per cent, al-uqal (the initiated) were allowed to study the ancient manuscripts. The rest, al-juhal (the ignorant, were not even expected to pray.

To say that the religion was obscure was no slight. The Druzes themselves admitted as much. The Druze Faith by Dr Sami Makarem, a Druze professor at the American University of Beirut, was on of the only books ever produced with the blessing of the religious authorities that provided a ray of enlightenment for the ignorant ones. It summed up the religion this way: “Druzism is an esoteric faith. To understand it one needs to be acquainted with Arabic esoteric terminology and with the way esoteric beliefs were written. The latter include deliberate disarrangement of arguments, brevity, and the introduction of trivial subjects while discussing issues of utmost importance.” A real incentive to delay further.

Lawrence Pintak, Seeds of Hate

EDIT: Obviously the Druze still exist now. Lawrence is setting the scene in 1982.

An Easter tradition called “strike the Jew”, whereby members of the Toulouse Jewish community would be batted around a public square by Christians, was ended in the middle of the twelfth century, after hefty payments had been made to count and capitouls. The clergy protested, but the ban held.

Stephen O’Shea, The Perfect Heresy

The former chief mufti, Shaikh Abdullah bin Baz... was a hugely influential figure in the [Saudi] kingdom. In 1982 he won recognition of the King Faisal award for international services to Islam. The same year he published a book entitled The Motion of the Sun and Moon, and the Stationarity of the Earth which held to the pre-Copernican, geocentric cosmology according to which earth is the centre of the universe and the sun moves around it. The cosmology is consistent with Quranic references to the “seven heavens” which modern scholars would see as referring to the Ptolemaic cosmology that held sway before the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo...

In an earlier article the venerable shaikh had threatened all who challenged his pre-Copernican views with a fatwa of takfir, pronouncing them infidels. He did not repeat this fatwa in his 1982 book, which was just as well, as it would have anathematized Prince Sultan bin Salman bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the son of the mayor of Riyadh and grandson of the kingdom’s founder. Prince Sultan is the Muslim world’s only officially certified astronaut. “Carried aloft in NASA’s space shuttle, [he] could certainly have commented on the Shaikh’s thesis if he had not been preoccupied with the urgent task of determining the direction of [Mecca] for his prayers.”

Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God

The only clear guiding principle [of Hinduism] is ambiguity. If there is a central verse in Hinduism's most important text, the Rig Veda, it is the Creation Hymn. It reads, in part,
Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation's day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps not even He.
Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World
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I am (potentially) filled with admiration for this paper, Conspiracy Theories. If it's meant to be taken entirely at face value then I'm not impressed at all, but if it's doing what I think it is then it's genius:
In it, Sunstein says that domestic and foreign conspiracy theories pose “real risks to the government's anti-terrorist policies” and argues that the government should be “cognitively infiltrating” groups that purvey these theories. Sunstein proposes having the government send undercover operatives and paid “independent” contractors onto online message boards and websites—and into some real-life groups—in order to undermine the theories.

There's no evidence that such a program is currently being undertaken by the Obama administration, but the paper set the conspiracy world aflame. “Cognitive infiltration” has become the latest buzz phrase in conspiracy circles. [Paraphrase taken from article in Slate]
That second paragraphlet right there is why, until I'm persuaded otherwise, I choose to believe this is a work of genius. Wild conspiracy theories only become a pain for governments when entire swathes of the population begin to believe them. If that possibility looms (and in the States it looms on a regular basis[1]), there isn't a lot they can do to combat the media clout of a Henry Ford or a bunch of Kochs, but anything they can do to target the nonsense at its source is a bonus. And in such a febrile environment, where everyone already suspects everyone else of working for the enemy (whoever they consider the enemy to be), what more elegant and efficient solution than simply proclaiming definitively that some of them are on your payroll? A couple of droplets of that added to the pool, and as the water starts to froth and bubble you can wander off and deal with something more important. So I am in awe—unless the administration really is wasting its money paying people to stooge for it on conspiracy forums. Although that's as good a way as any of tackling youth unemployment.

[1] Obviously nowhere is as given to wild conspiracy theories as the Middle East, but that's at least partly because everyone in authority there tries to stoke them:
Fayrouz, a paragon of the highest forms of Arab music and poetry, had boycotted Egypt for a decade in line with the Arab decision to ostracise the country for signing a peace treaty with Israel. So the July 1989 Cairo concert was the first chance for Israeli Arabs to hear a beloved diva whose songs were the unofficial anthems of Palestinian suffering. Some 27 buses carrying 1,000 devotees rolled across the border from Israel for the event. When the Egyptian ta authorities noticed the hoards arriving, they doubled the tax bill for the three-night extravaganza. To pay it, the Syrian/Saudi producer from the wily Khashoggi clan just printed and sold thousands of tickets, all stamped “Front Section”. Naturally the rich Egyptians who paid about $95 per ticket, a princely sum, figured they could swan into their front-row seats at the very last second, so their chauffeured Mercedeses all pulled up at once at 11pm, when the concert was scheduled to start.

The crowd soon overflowed the limited seating...The bedlam continued for hours, with all possible exits and any open space eventually crammed with chairs. A fire would have left a gruesome toll, but I thought a riot seemed a more imminent danger. Around 1am, with patrons still pouring in and no seats available, the concert promoter emerged on stage and announced that he could reveal the source of the confusion. There was a Zionist conspiracy afoot to undermine the concert! I laughed at this canard used to blame practically any unfortunate occurrence, including the weather.

Neil MacFarquhar, The Media Relations Department of Hezbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday
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On 7 December 1915 the British Government decided to evacuate [most of Gallipoli] but to stand firm in Helles at the toe of the peninsula. Anxieties about losing face before the Muslim world had to be squared with military realism... After a quarter of a million casualties in eight months, it was time to cut and run.

Complete secrecy was now vital: careless talk could cost thousands of lives. In cabinet in London on 24 November, a fearful Lord Curzon had painted the nightmare of a retreat being shelled to shambles, with awful political repercussions. The fact that Lord Milner and Lord Ribblesdale had loudly debated “Evacuation of the Peninsula” in the House of Lords in October and November accidentally misdirected the Turks and Germans. They could not credit such stupidity and carelessness among intelligent people, so supposed the debate was just propaganda.

Nicholas Rankin, Churchill's Wizards
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I got into trouble with my driving [in 1904 when I was working in Paris], and it came about this way.

I was saying good-night to a very old friend I had taken home when a gendarme accosted me in the politest way and informed me: (1) that I had driven too fast; (2) that I had not stopped when told to (I had seen nothing); (3) that I had not a permis to drive; and (4) that I had no plaque d'identité in the car. Monsieur would be summoned.

Monsieur was indeed summoned. On the day I should have appeared, however, I had to go to England, so I got a lawyer to look after my case. I don't know what he said or did, but on my return I was informed I had been fined 250 francs and given two days of prison. Boiling with fury at this savage sentence I naturally appealed. Nothing happened for a month or two, then I was bidden attend the court. I had had rather a beefy evening the night before and was so late up I had to go without breakfast; but on arrival I found a case going on in which a type of crime passionel was being decided and everyone was a bit on edge. However, eventually my case came up. The court was most impressive, and the three judges in black robes looked rather like inquisitors. I was asked to explain. I did. One of the judges asked if I was English. This does not sound funny, nor is it a compliment to my French, but after the former rather tense trial the whole court rocked with laughter—to the great annoyance of the judges.

I got a very severe lecture, my fine was increased to 500 francs and the two days in prison stood. I felt very down-hearted. Two days in prison with no breakfast was a poor lookout. I tried to press 500 frances into the hands of various people, but it seemed to be no one's business to receive it. I waited to be taken to the cells, but again no one took the smallest interest in me. Thinking it best to have a meal, I left and went to my digs. Days passed. I imagined every policeman I saw was about to arrest me, but nothing happened. Weeks went by and eventually I left Paris and moved to London. There I received a slip one day telling me to present myself on a certain day to pay my fine and do two days in prison. I wrote back to say I really couldn't come over to Paris just to do two days of prison, but thought I might be in Paris in the autumn, when I would come along. Another chit arrived—“Present yourself on October 1st”. I replied that I could not guarantee the date. This time a letter came telling me to ask for a pardon. This I did, but my letter was returned—I had asked the wrong man. I was told whom to address and tried again. To this day I have had no answer, but the fact remains that I have never paid my fine nor done my two days in prison.

Lord Brabazon of Tara, The Brabazon Story (1955)
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[Fritz Zwicky's discovery was ignored] for the worst of scientific reasons. Comb the internet for references to Zwicky and you'll find brilliant next to maverick, genius next to insufferable... he doesn't figure large in the astronomy textbooks, despite his many important discoveries. He was the first to see that galaxies form clusters, he coined the term supernova. He was certainly one of a kind... But it was his interpersonal skills that needed most attention. He was a prickly, difficult man, convinced of his own genius, and convinced that he never got the recognition he deserved. He had a tendency to refer to all his colleagues as “spherical bastards”: bastards whichever way you looked at them. Small wonder, then, that his colleagues turned a blind eye to his discovery.

Michael Brooks, 13 Things That Don't Make Sense
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Amid a tumult of alarmist babble, I recommend the occasional restorative dose of cold but refreshing water from Newsweek International editor (and [livejournal.com profile] strictlytrue girlie crush) Fareed Zakaria:
A cottage industry of scaremongering has flourished in the West—especially in the United States—since 9/11. Experts extrapolate every trend they don't like, forgoing any serious study of the data. Many conservative commentators have written about the impending Islamization of Europe (Eurabia, they call it, to make you even more uncomfortable). Except that the best estimates, from US intelligence agencies, indicate that Muslims constitute around 3 per cent of Europe's population now and will rise to between 5 and 8 per cent by 2025, after which they will probably plateau. The watchdogs note the musings of every crackpot Imam, search the archives for each reference to the end of days, and record and distribute the late-night TV musings of every nutcase who glorifies martyrdom. They erupt in fury when a Somali taxi driver somewhere refuses to load a case of liquor into his car, seeing it as the beginning of sharia in the West. But these episodes do not reflect the basic direction of the Muslim world. That world is also modernizing, though more slowly than the rest, and there are those who try to become leaders in rebellion against it. The reactionaries in the world of Islam are more numerous and extreme than those in other cultures—that world does have its dysfunctions. But they remain a tiny minority of the world's billion-plus Muslims. And neglecting the complicated context in which some of these pseudoreligious statements are made—such as an internal Iranian power struggle among clerics and nonclerics—leads to hair-raising but absurd predictions, like Bernard Lewis's confident claim that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planned to mark an auspicious date on the Islamic calendar (22 August 2006) by ending the world. (Yes, he actually wrote that.)
The GDP of Iran is 1/68 that of the United States, its military spending 1/110 that of the Pentagon. If this is 1938, as many conservatives argue, then Iran is Romania, not Germany.

Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World
Still, he wrote that in 2008, so I'm sure that in the past three years everything has completely changed and Melanie Phillips is right after all.
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[Szent-Györgi] crystallized [the chemical factor] in pure form and showed that it was an acid, related to sugars, that also occurs in oranges and in cabbage. The chemical names of sugars all end in “-ose”. Not knowing what kind of sugar it was, he first called it “ignose”. When the editor of the Biochemical Journal objected to that flippant name, he changed it to “godnose”, whereupon the incensed editor gave it the prosaic name “hexuronic acid”.

Max Perutz, I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier
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In line with best practice, I will not link to the Daily Mail article that this post is culled from, even though I’m aware that many people’s first instinct will be to visit it immediately to verify that I am not making this stuff up.

A few extracts from Whatever Next?, the memoirs of Earl Ferrers, published this Thursday at £25:
While John Major was Prime Minister, he asked me to go to the Department of the Environment. It had always seemed to me that the department reflected the long-hair and sandals brigade, and tried to protect all the bugs and beetles which I find a menace.

‘The environment’ is the ‘in’ thing. If you are doing something for the environment, that means you are a good person and taking your responsibilities for the planet and the bugs seriously. That is rubbish. The world has been going for hundreds and thousands of years, and one wonders why, in 2011, there is impending disaster. I don’t believe it.

When I got to the department it appeared we had a big issue: the dung beetle. It was one of the animals that it was proposed we should protect. Who on earth wants to protect a dung beetle? Most people don’t know what it is, or what it looks like. If you saw a beetle walking across the kitchen floor, how would you know it was a dung beetle? If you conclude it is a dung beetle, then you must not kill it—or you will have committed an offence. But who is going to know that you have killed the dung beetle? Are they going to shop you to the police? We’ve all gone bonkers.

The Conservative Government introduced the Wildlife And Countryside Bill and part of it was to protect bats. I thought the Government had gone mad.

Lord Melchett was a bumptious young Labour Peer, about 24, who became exasperated with me for some non-sympathetic remarks about bats. He said: “I am sure that what the noble Lord is saying is not the advice of his officials.”

I said: “No. It is from my own experience. If there is one thing which my family cannot stand, it is bats. The girls dive for cover. They are terrified of the bats getting into their hair. The place is mayhem until the bats are removed. And, when it is suggested that the bats have the same right to your house as you have, I just don’t agree.”

It was not the Government line, it was mine—and I lost.

Naturally, with all the travelling and rushing around as a Minister, there were bound to be times when one was caught out. Which I was—by Mrs Thatcher.

When I went with my wife, Annabel, to No 10 for a lunch, I had not had time to look at what we were doing in the House of Lords that afternoon. During the pre-lunch drinks, the Prime Minister said: “Lord Ferrers, what is the House of Lords discussing this afternoon?” Horror of all horrors. I had not the slightest idea—and I was Deputy Leader of the Lords. I was mortified. Back in the House of Lords, I told fellow peer Christopher Soames: “I am in a terrible state.”

“Why?” he asked.

“I have bogged it with the Prime Minister. She asked me what the House of Lords was doing this afternoon and I didn’t know.”

Christopher roared with laughter. “She knew perfectly well. I told her myself this morning.”

At Question Time, if you can score a point or make them all laugh it is very satisfying. The schoolboy ethos is never very far away. When one Minister was at the Despatch Box, I found a drawing pin and placed it on the bench next to me, where the Minister was going to sit. John Belstead, who was Leader, practically had apoplexy. He screamed sotto voce, if one can do such a thing: “No. No. No.” I removed it just in time.
The noble Earl has one or two admiring things to say about women’s appearance, too, which I’m sure will make heartwarming reading for any ladies, although to get the fullest picture it’s also worth noting his publicly stated opinion on their nature as well.
webofevil: (Default)
From The Idler Book of Crap Jobs:
After a glorious Oxbridge education, my uncle started working for MI5 in 1952. His first assignment was to infiltrate the Communist Party. He was given a new name, a job working for the railways and the task of immersing himself in his new identity. After 10 years he had worked his way up through the railworkers’ union to a position of influence within the Communist Party, but his success was to be his downfall. He was such a good asset to MI5 that it became less and less likely that they would ever allow such a successful operative to “come out” and be reassigned to another mission.

He had to live on the railworkers’ salary so as not to draw attention to himself, he wasn’t allowed to pursue any interests that might conflict with his identity, he couldn’t have any time off from his “new life” and he had constantly to lie to his family. So throughout the next 30 years the only link he had with the intelligence service was a monthly meeting with his contact at MI5.

In the end he went mad, his wife and children left him and he started to compulsively collect newspaper clippings that related to his original mission. The piles of paper began to take over his house. It got so bad that in the end he had to cut pathways through the piles of newspaper that filled every room. Eventually, because newspaper is made from poor quality paper, the paper dust he habitually inhaled began to shred his lungs with tiny paper cuts until one day he effectively “drowned” in his own blood. The truth about his life only emerged 10 years after he was buried.

Most crap jobs steal some of your time. His stole his life.
webofevil: (Default)
The most astounding thing about America’s rendition programme, if also the most grimly predictable, was the incompetence. If you offer a bounty for “enemy combatants” anywhere in the world, but especially in a region notable for its poverty and corruption, chances are that you’ll find quite a lot of random and bewildered individuals handed over just for the reward.

If you then refuse to go through any due legal process but instead say vaguely that these prisoners are all “bad men” and just cut straight to the torturing, quite apart from the fact that you have just severed ties with any of the moral values you may have claimed to be defending, you are unlikely to get anything useful out of the process and you are wasting a lot of people’s time. Even if you have bagged some genuinely dangerous people, you will essentially be torturing a fair few innocent people for the sheer hell of it, which you may find backfires on you in the long run.

Here’s one example of how to wind up in Cuba without actually having committed any offence:
Yusuf was technically a citizen of Chad, but he was born in Medina, in Saudi Arabia, and had lived his whole life there. The US military could have got his birth certificate from their Saudi allies with a telephone call. It was a little more difficult for me, but I got it and it showed he was born in November 1986. After four years of intensive interrogation, far from securing a rich harvest of “enormously valuable intelligence” (General Geoffrey Miller’s words), the military could not even work out Yusuf’s age, just as they could not spell Binyam Mohamed’s name after years of torture in Morocco and Afghanistan.

[…] Yusuf explained how his [initial] interrogation quickly descended into farce. Early in his captivity the US agents questioned him with the assistance of a translator who used a dialect of Arabic in which the word zalat means money; in Yusuf’s Saudi dialect it means salad, or tomato. Yusuf reconstructed the interrogation aqs best he could remember it.

“When you left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, what zalat did you take with you?” demanded the translator, suspecting that the money must have come from al-Qaeda sources.

“What? I didn’t have any zalat when I went to Pakistan.” The 14 year-old was confused. He had been through a difficult time since his seizure by the Pakistanis. He was prepared for any trick the Americans might spring on him, but all this talk about tomatoes was beyond him.

“Of course you had zalat. What do you take me for? An idiot!” The translator flared into hostility.

“I didn’t! Why would I?”

“Of course you did. Now tell me, where did you get the zalat you took with you?”

“I didn’t take any zalat with me. I didn’t!”

“Aha! So you got zalat in Pakistan when you arrived?”

“Well, yes, what zalat I wanted, I could get there. That’s natural.” Yusuf was trying to be conciliatory, though the conversation continued along this strange line.

The translator seemed suddenly excited. “Where could you get zalat in Pakistan, then? I want a list of places. Details. Descriptions, places. Details.”

Yusuf wanted to keep him in a good humour. Trying to remember Karachi, he began to discuss places in the market where one might buy salad. With each description of a market stall the translator turned to the American interrogator, who took careful notes.

That evening Yusuf was returned to the cage where he was being held. He was a very muddled adolescent. He talked through his bizarre interrogation with other prisoners, turning over each of his recollections.

Finally one of the older prisoners solved the puzzle: “You were talking about tomatoes. They were talking about money. That’s what it must have been.”
The whole sorry story is an object lesson in how not to react. Faced with a crisis that, while obviously a crisis, did not equate to something on the scale of, for example, the second world war, the Cheney/Bush administration panicked, started barking things like “Threatcon Delta” and jettisoned all notions of law. This is what you get if you draw your inspiration for how to behave primarily from Tom Clancy novels.
Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, a Libyan who was captured in November 2001, [was] the first big name of al-Qaeda who found himself in US custody. He was initially held by the FBI at the airport in Kandahar, then aboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship in the Arabian Sea, before vanishing to other secret locations. Jack Cloonan, an officer who had worked for the agency since 1972, claimed that the FBI was developing a good relationship with—and good intelligence from—al-Libi.

Talking to Jason Vest of the American Prospect magazine, Cloonan described the patient and effective approach that he had outlined to his agents for al-Libi’s interrogation. “I told them, ‘When you get access, don’t say anything at first. Sit. Say hello after a while. Offer him tea, dates, figs. Point out where Mecca is. Ask him if he wants to pray. And sit. And when he starts to look a little inquisitive, tell him who you are, and that he has rights and privileges, and that you’re going to give him his rights. Just like any other interview.’ So they do all this. And they start building rapport. And he starts talking… they’re getting good stuff, and everyone’s getting the raw 302s [interview summaries]—the agency, the military, the director. But for some reason, the CIA chef of station in Kabul is taking issue with our approach… a series of conference calls ensued among military, CIA and FBI officials; in the end… the CIA’s prerogative carried the day.”

At this point a Toyota Tundra pulled up at the detention centre where FBI agents were conducting the interrogations. There was a box in the back. The CIA’s agents started shackling him up and al-Libi spoke to the FBI for the last time. “I know this isn’t your fault,” he said, just before they taped up his mouth.

A CIA agent leant close into al-Libi’s gagged face. “You’re going to Cairo, you know. Before you get there I’m going to find your mother and I’m going to fuck her!” he screamed, before stuffing al-Libi into the box to begin his trip. The CIA apparently thought that by rendering him to Egypt they could expedite the “mining” of his information.
From one perspective, the CIA’s approach worked splendidly: al-Libi gave them some spectacular information. It all turned out to be worthless, of course, from the non-existent New York radioactive bomb plot to the implication of innocent people as senior al-Qaeda operatives, and it certainly contributed to the prolonging of some people’s torture, but at least he talked. A win’s a win.

A certain theme emerges from looking at what has gone on behind the security screen marked “Enemy Combatants”: don’t trust anything run by soldiers, don’t trust anything run by the Americans, and that goes double for anything run by American soldiers:
Sean Baker, a member of the Kentucky National Guard, had suffered the most significant injury inflicted during the history of Guantanamo, and he wasn’t injured by a homicidal Muslim but by his fellow soldiers. They had been rehearsing how they would deal with the prisoners. […]

On 24 January 2003, not long after Baker was posted to Guantanamo, a sergeant called for a volunteer. Baker saw that no hand had gone up, “Right here, sarge,” he said.

Second-Lieutenant Shaw |Locke, in charge of an Emergency Reaction Force, told Baker what to do. “We’re going to put you in a cell and extract you,” he explained. “Have the ERF team come in and extract you. And what I’d like you to do is go ahead and strip your uniform off and put on this orange suit.”

The jumpsuit was the same as those worn by the prisoners.

“I’d never questioned an order before. But…” Baker recounted his story. “At first I said, my only remark was, ‘Sir?’ Just in the form of a question.”

“You’ll be fine,” Locke assured him.

“Well, you know what’s gonna happen when they come in there on me?”

“Trust me, Specialist Baker,” Locke said emphatically. “You will be fine.”

“Sir, you’re going to tell the ERF team that I’m a US soldier?” Baker said.

“Yes, you’ll be fine, Specialist Baker. Trust me.”

They agreed on a code word (“Red!”) that would instantly stop the exercise if it got out of hand.

Locke wanted the training to seem real. Apparently he did not let the ERF team know that Baker was play-acting. In their subsequent statements each soldier swore he thought this was a real extraction.

As he was instructed, Baker refused the ERF team’s orders and hid under the bunk. They entered the cell, beat him, choked him and slammed his head against the floor.

“Red!” Baker shouted.

The beating continued, particularly by the soldier on his back, a man called Scott Sinclair. “That individual slammed my head against the floor and continued to choke me,” he said. “Somehow I got enough air, I muttered out, ‘I’m a US soldier, I’m a US soldier’.” Even this—said with an American accent—failed to stop the attack, until one of the soldiers noticed something wrong. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” the man shouted.

Baker started having seizures that morning. He was taken to the naval hospital at Guantanamo. “He’d had the crap beat out of him,” said Staff Sergeant Michael Riley, the platoon leader. “He had a concussion. I mean, it was textbook—blank. You know, a dead stare, but really looking through you.”

Baker suffered brain damage. A military medical board determined that he suffered from mood and seizure disorders caused by a traumatic brain injury he sustained [...] Baker was discharged from the military and is unemployed.

What would have happened if the subject had been a prisoner, instead of a soldier who ultimately shouted out with an American accent? “I think they would have busted him up,” says Baker. “I’ve seen detainees come out of there with blood on ‘em—if there wasn’t someone to say, ‘I’m a US soldier’, if you were speaking Arabic or Pashto or Urdu or some other language in that camp, we may never know what would have happened to that individual.”

My clients had suffered injuries as part of the ERF routine—Omar Deghayes was blinded in one eye, Sami al-Laithi had his vertebrae fractured and there were daily beatings that occurred during the “forcible cell extractions”. The prisoners can’t take the military to court for their beatings because the McCain Amendment, designed to outlaw torture, also abolished the Guantanamo prisoners’ right to bring a lawsuit against the United States. Sadly, neither can Specialist Baker, as soldiers are likewise forbidden from suing the military.
All extracts from Clive Stafford-Smith, Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons

December 2015

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