Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cracks In Various Edifices

After a rather hectic Christmas, I can report that peace has returned to the Manor. All the kids had put in an appearance, along with their friends and sundry acquaintances of mine. One dinner party was particularly memorable, involving as it did a wide-ranging discussion on the trends most likely to be prominent in 2012.

These trends were numerous, ranging from a committed PETA supporter on the importance of 'swine rights' to a biologist arguing forcefully about the critical nature of nematodes and their role in advancing agricultural production. A host of other trends were mentioned, but the group managed to winnow the list down to three.

The first is the coming into being of what Marshall McLuhan called 'The Global Village'. (The man was truly prescient.) The edifice containing nation states that remain separate and distinct is beginning to crumble.Technology has made possible a sharing of information that could only be dreamed about in earlier ages. The effect is dramatic, allowing oppressed people in dire circumstances to see and comprehend that not all are so oppressed, and, indeed, being free and relatively left alone by government or dour religious authorities, create little 'flash mobs' that feature joyful singing and dancing. If them, why not us? The group was unanimous in seeing this question as achieving real impact in 2012.

All also agreed that the second edifice showing cracks was the theory that 'Global Warming' was a hoax and not of any significance. Yet all present concurred that the last Ice Age was still in retreat, things were getting warmer and the weather getting more and more unpredictable. Our efforts at capping carbon are paltry, but this pales in significance when one considers the effect of methane currently bubbling up in the Arctic and Antarctica as the ice sheets decline. Methane is a far more formidable greenhouse gas than carbon, and life on planet Earth is going to get very exciting indeed, with at least some if that excitement scheduled for 2012.

Finally, cracks are beginning to appear, after some 10,000 years, in the role organized religion plays in life. Richard Dawkin's book, The God Delusion, has sold two million English language versions, and has been translated into 31 others. Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great' has become a best seller. This, in my opinion, is all to the good.

I do understand why our paleolithic ancestors invented all manner of gods and goddesses to explain the things that, given the state of knowledge at that time, were mysteries. There even was a birth goddess who was called upon when a man and a woman united. She, however, faded away when the tribe learned to count to nine.

It was, however, when patriarchy grabbed the religious reins that things really took a turn for the worse. The 'holy' religious texts used to browbeat various populaces into submission have foundations with no basis whatsoever in fact. Yet these texts allow religious leaders to wage war, curtail all manner of freedoms, and see women as chattel. AND IT IS STILL GOING ON. Science and reason should have brought all this to an end long ago, but the staying power of religion is formidable.

This could, and probably is, a result of fear of death. Woody Allen puts this well (as he usually does) when he stated "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying."

Cracks are, however appearing in the religious edifice, and not before time. As for me, I take solace in the following advice from Victor Hugo: "It is nothing to die; it is frightful not to live."

Discuss among yourselves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Irony And An Incident In Berlin

Just arrived back from Berlin in time for the annual Christmas gathering at the Manor. The event I most looked forward, the Great Snowball Fight involving the staff and kids, unfortunately has been cancelled. The problem? Snow. There isn't any.

Well, these things happen, and not all was bad. Team Simone will hold the Snowball Championship Trophy (a crystal icicle designed by Claes Oldenburg) for another year.

As for my trip to Berlin, it came more or less right out of the blue. The Compte de Rienville had been staying with me at the Manor, but had received an urgent request (an order, really) to attend a meeting in Berlin. "More Euro gnashing and flossing of teeth" he said, annoyance in his voice. Then he brightened. "Perhaps you could come with me? For"

"Always glad to supply both," I replied. "And a chance to keep up my German."

"C'est si bon."

The Compte made arrangements. First class on Air France, to which I reciprocated by booking a suite at the Adlon on Unter den Linden. Then we were off.

It had been some time since I had been in Berlin, but it was in this city that I had first really practiced The Trade. Not without some mishaps, including some nasty run-ins with the Stasi of the then DDR. Thus when the Compte sallied forth to his meetings, I took the opportunity to roam about. The Adlon is centrally located, and close to the Brandenburg Gate. I went through, thinking that at an earlier time this would have taken some time and not a little courage.

The changes in the former East Berlin were remarkable, and the rubble that had all been too evident at that time had disappeared, with new edifices everywhere. I searched for, and found, a back alley off Karl Marx Platz where I had almost been captured by the KBG. I shuddered at the memory. THAT venue hadn't changed much.

The Incident occurred as I was making my way out of the alley. Three skinheads entered. They spotted me, pulled out some wicked-looking knives, and one snarled, "That purse. We'll have it!"

That 'purse' was my Louis Vuitton, and they definitely weren't having it. I thought of using the martial art known as Tai Chi Chuan, but this was a killing technique, and would be like using a hammer to kill a flies. Instead, I opened my purse, pulled out my small Smith & Wesson J-Frame, and said calmly, "Well, lads, now you've done it. You've fallen victim to a cliche -- you've brought knives to a gun fight. Bad idea."

The tallest of the trio, and the obvious leader, said, "That puny little weapon? Bullshit. Let's take her!"

I shot him in the leg.

That brought proceedings to an abrupt halt.

"Now, lads, those knives. Schnell, bitte!" That shot would have been heard by someone, so time was an issue.

The two left standing complied, thoroughly cowed. (Bullies always tend to collapse when confronted by someone eager to fight back). I gathered all three knives, and said bluntly, "Now think about all this. And do something with your lives. Drive a truck. Make a shoe. And always remember, expect the unexpected. Oh, and you friend will need medical attention. If he is indeed your friend." That choice I would leave to them. The one thing I was sure of was that I would never be implicated in the attack. Brought down by a woman? An admission that would never be made.

I left the alley, dropped the knives into a nearby catch basin, and returned to the hotel and a serious Grey Goose over ice. The Compte arrived in a bad mood -- Euro meetings have that effect on him -- but the Grey Goose treatment, my recounting of The Incident and some play (our business, not your's) soon put that right.

The Compte said he had a connection at the Berlin Staatoper, and if I liked, we could attend. But I could tell he wasn't overly keen on the idea.

"What is the opera?" I inquired.

"Wagner's Gotterdammerung."

"Oh, let's not. Why attend an opera when Europe appears to be well into the twilight of the gods in any event?"

"Point taken," replied the Compte.

And here we come to Irony. It amazes me that Germany in the first half of the Twentieth century set about wrecking Europe, and largely succeeded. In the early Twenty-First century, however, it is Germany that has the power to save Europe. Odd. Exceedingly odd.

So concludes my little sojourn in Berlin.

Fitting, then, to wish all readers a truly Frohliche Weihnachten.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Veil Of Tears

Sorry -- a bit late with this one. Christmas at the Manor can be hectic, and throughout all the running to and fro, Wordsworth's line kept thundering in my head: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." But finally came a lull, along with a welcome visit from the Compte de Rienville, who somehow had managed to extricate himself from a myriad of European meetings involving frantic hand wringing about saving the Euro.

We were relaxing in the kitchen, enjoying a fine quiche laced with truffles whipped up by my cook, Henri, all washed down by an excellent Chablis. Both of us were absorbed in various newspapers. It was then that I noticed an item, and said to the Compte, "What if I were to apply for citizenship in Saudi Arabia?"

This question resulted in a huge "Hah!" as well as spilling of a good dollop of Chablis.

"What's so funny?"

He replied, "Oh, I just had a vision of you in a naquib trailing behind some bearded loon of a guardian, all meek, Islamic and submissive. Not really you, Cherie. Not by a long shot."

"Yet, were I actually to apply, then I would have to agree to abide by Saudi culture, mores, and their strict interpretation of Islam. This I accept -- it would be my choice, my responsibility."

"And your point is....?

"My gorge simply rises at --"

"And a beautiful gorge it is --"

"Stop it. I am talking about the reverse of the medal. What is profoundly irritating to me is that several women, daughters of Islam if you will, are refusing to remove their veils when taking the citizenship oath and receiving their papers. One went so far as to say she would be more comfortable swearing allegiance to Allah than the Queen. Now the Queen is an actual personage as well as a symbol, while Allah really is an imaginary friend. The whole thing borders on the ludicrous."

"So what occurred?" asked the Compte.

"I am glad to say that the good Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, would have none of it. This is Canada, not some country under the sway of self-appointed religious lunatics. I mean, if I were to flounce about Mecca in a tight sweater and mini skirt, I would probably lose, not only sweater and skirt, but my head as well."

"An appalling thought."


"You losing your head."

The Compte can be charming, but from time to time can safely be ignored, and I continued my little rant. "What I have trouble grasping in all this is that if these women are so uncomfortable with the Canadian way of life, why don't they just up and leave for whatever religious hellhole they came from?"

"A good question," said the Compte. "It is as if these women want to keep some of their traditions, but not all. Your word 'hellhole' sums it up well. I suspect, when push comes to shove, veils will be removed. Now I have come across a newspaper item that gets at another type of veil, a kind of vale of tears."

"What are you talking about?"

"I notice that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. A loss -- he always put forward interesting stuff".

"He did indeed", I said, "and I am sadly aware that he is no longer with us. His attacks on the horror of organized religion are to me essential reading. One quote from his God Is Not Great stays with me, a title from an etching by Goya: 'The sleep of reason brings forth monsters'. Hard to top that."

"And I won't even try," replied the Compte.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Family Update And The Imperfect Perfect

During my recent wrestle with the Illness Corn God, it was heartening to note that all my brats fluttered in from various parts of the globe, all full of concern. Lord Strunsky and I must have done something right. As I perked up, and they saw that I was well enough to cope with Newt Gingrich and his dandruffy head, fears were greatly allayed.

All were doing well.

My oldest daughter,Isolde, she who performs miracles with the violin, had flown in from Vienna, where she had gained the position of concert master at the Vienna Philharmonic. It was good to see her happy. Sebastian, my favourite dress designer, came in from Paris and was also doing well. Very well indeed, of which more in a moment.

My second daughter Victoria, an historian who supplements her income with portraying girls in all manner of peril in television and film, flew in from Los Angeles. Vicky, however, was in a spot of trouble. Apparently she had written an article for some prestigious magazine, the thesis being that the Old Testament of the Bible contains only one actual historical reference -- there really was a King David. All other instances are either folklore, hearsay, myth or priestly invention. The storm of criticism from infuriated divines this evoked was massive This thesis I will have to research myself, but if true, I told her in no uncertain terms to not apply the same technique to the Qur'an. Having one Strunsky on a hit list was enough.

Mark, my youngest and now a physicist, arrived from Geneva where he was involved with the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. Grateful that he had taken the time to come, I refrained from getting into our usual argument about whether consciousness or matter was at the heart of the universe. To my mind, smashing things to bits simply leads to smaller bits, but that's an issue for another day.

Now back to Sebastian.

He was, to put it mildly, ecstatic. He had just completed his Paris showing, and it had been a resounding success.

"And," I asked, as any mother would, "just how was this success achieved?"

"Well" he began, "about a month earlier, I came across a poem by Robert Browning, Andrea Del Sarto, to be exact."

"Andrea Del Sarto," I said. "Sixteenth Century. A Florentine. Called 'the faultless painter.'"

"Exactly. He painted perfect pictures, symmetrical, everything in its proper place. This made him popular in his time. But now...not so much. Then I went to the Louvre and looked, really looked, at Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The imperfection, if that's what it is, is in that smile. It draws you in, and holds you."

"Your point being?"

Here Sebastian got somewhat animated. "Long story short, Mum, I took this accent on imperfection and applied it dress design. Sheathes with oddly placed zippers. Skirts never with a perfectly rounded hem, slightly askew, but never outrageously so. Just enough to raise interest. Buttons and fringes where buttons and fringes rarely are. All of which, when shown, riveted the audience, Or so I am told. I left soon after the showing when I heard about your illness."

"I guess the proof will be in the orders."

"You're right. Although I hear that two have already been placed."

By whom?" I asked.

"Well, Lady Gaga was one."

"And the other?"

"The Duchess of Cambridge."

"Really! Can't go wrong there."

Sebastian smiled, and said, "You know, it was something you said that encouraged me, that Dorothy Parker quote."

"And just what quote was that?"

"Nothing succeeds like a dress."

Friday, December 2, 2011

Eye Of Newt

I have just dealt with a rather unusual request from the Americans, received from my CIA friend, Matilda Hatt. Apparently someone in some Department or other had read (and, surprisingly, understood) my analysis of the European debt crisis, and wanted my thoughts on the upcoming American election. Given the sea of Republican candidates that keep bobbing up, they apparently were at sea themselves when it came to assessing who would run against Obama next November.

This does not surprise, given that the confusion does not spring from politics, but rather from the media. You see, the media knows full well who will be contesting the election, but if they declare this, there would be nothing to write about for almost an entire year, and blank pages or screens are every media manager's nightmare. Moreover, receipts would fall, subscriptions lapse, and monetary rewards would shrink drastically -- a scenario to be prevented at any cost.

Hence great attention is given to a variety of Republican hopefuls. First to be so honoured was the former Governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman. This attention, however, did not last long. Mr. Huntsman advocated sensible and workable policies, had great experience in government, and was even appointed by Obama as Ambassador to China. (Huntsman is fluent in Mandarin.) While Huntsman is the one candidate that terrifies Obama, there was no need to worry -- most Republicans shunned him. After all, good sense is not what they're about.

Next to be promoted by the media was Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who wanted to eviscerate the Federal Government, save for the military. It was as if he was channeling the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, whose answer to any problem America might face was "Bomb'Em!" This was even too much for the Tea Party.

Then the media turned to Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, who appeared a very attractive candidate until she did an extremely foolish thing and spoke out loud. One example might serve: "Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows carbon dioxide is a harmful gas." Bye, Bye Michelle.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas then had his turn, and was doing well until, at a televised meeting of candidates, he emphasized that he would shut down three Government Departments -- Education, Health Care, etc. etc. Thus fell Governor Perry. [Note. The third forgotten Department was Energy, which has jurisdiction over America's nuclear initiatives and plants. What would happen to these if Perry's proposal ever came to be is unknown.]

Next comes a black challenger to Obama, Herman Cain. Mr. Cain runs a successful pizza business, and sees this experience as a springboard to America's highest office. He may be right, but it was all for naught, as a slew of sexual assault charges came to light. All Mr. Cain could do was to deny that he had had sex with that woman, or that woman, or that woman, and so on. The denials didn't work, and Mr. Cain's run was over.

Finally we come to the current front runner, former House Leader Newt Gingrich (real name Newton). We have seen Newt before, having success with his 'Contract With America' a contract that was quickly broken once Americans had a chance to see just what was on offer. Newt will put up a good fight, but the fact that he is a philanderer and an adulterer will be more that most God-fearing Republicans can stomach. After all, even as he was bringing impeachment charges against Bill Clinton's trip down the primrose path of dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, Newt was romancing his mistress while his wife was dying of cancer. A bridge truly too far.

So it will be the sensible Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Yes, Romney is a Mormon, a religion founded by a con man, Joseph Smith, always fleeing authorities across a multitude of state lines. At some point, however, he invented the Book of Mormon, and found an imaginary friend, the angel Moroni. This will work against him, but should not be insuperable to overcome. And as far as I know, no Mormon has flown an airplane into a building or maimed and killed on behalf of his imaginary friend.

The media, though, will still need things to write about, so there could well be other Republicans that are pushed into the limelight. And as for Newt, well, the election occurs in November, and the holiday season begins to loom. There would be few Democrats that could resist making the point that Newt really would be "the Gingrich that stole Christmas".

Couldn't resist that myself.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Currency Conniptions

Glad to be back from illness, and in one piece (sort of). I spent a great deal of time flat on my back -- no comments please, just don't go there -- and all too many said that if that was the case, things were at least... looking up.

The lack of physical activity did lend itself to a great deal of thinking, prompted by the various and sundry debt crises affecting the world. Each situation has its little idiosyncrasies, but the more I pondered, the more I perceived a common thread: money had lurched towards being an end rather than a means.

This matters.

I have learned through running a successful business (love those sugar beets) that money must be tightly tied to production, whether of goods or services. In this sense money acts as a medium to facilitate said goods or services. Put bluntly, it has no other value. In fact, the inherent cost of an American dollar, a Chinese yuan or a Euro, is minimal. That we give it a much higher inherent value is an act of faith that rivals anything promulgated by the Vatican or exhorted in a mosque.

As long as this bond (money) between the maker or deliverer of a good or a service and the buyer of same exists, things work well. Yes, there are strictures that come into play, such as the law of supply and demand, the necessity of being competitive, or, as Kenny Rogers might put it, "Knowing when to hold em, and knowing when to fold em."

Moreover, when a new approach beckons, credit might be necessary. Fine, that is what banks are for, but for that credit, there must be collateral. Pawn shops are past masters at this, actually holding the collateralized article for a given period of time. If the approach turns out to be successful, the article is redeemed; if not, bye bye pawned article.

Recently, however, American and European banks saw an opportunity to make money from money. They took the collateralized item (mortgage, land purchase, whatever) wrapped it up in some reasonable investment items, and sold them on to interested buyers who sensed enormous profits. All of which raises the dandruffy head of Signor Ponzi. When a number of the investors, worried about how the bond market was reacting to all this, actually wanted their money back, it simply wasn't there. Money had ceased to be a medium between producer and buyer, and become an end in itself, disappearing into the pockets of what is now termed "the one per cent".

The way out of this mess will be hard. The concept of money must return to its roots as a facilitation medium, and quickly. This will mean a great deal of harsh austerity -- step forward Greece, whose country 'collateral' is nowhere near what the country presently earns -- and very few other countries will be able to avoid fiscal pain.

And what lurks in the background? Well, Clinton advisor James Carville put it this way: "I used to think that if there was reincarnation I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope. But now I want to be the bond market; you can terrify anybody."

Bah, too much gloom. I will try not to get ill again.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lady Simone Is Indisposed -- Editor.

Our apologies. Lady Simone has fallen prey to what an N.H.L. coach would term an "upper body injury" and cannot address her weekly insights. She hopes to return the following week.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Afghanistan Redux

"You want me to do WHAT?"

It was Sir Harry on the secure line, requesting that I meet with Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, the warlord who runs most of the criminal networks in Afghanistan and a goodly portion of Pakistan.

"You do realize," I continued, "that the Haqqani network has close links with Al Qaeda, and that my name is prominent on their most wanted list? You do realize this?"

Sir Harry replied, "Simone my dear, you've forgotten the adage, 'Behold the turtle. It makes progress only when it sticks out its neck'"

"Yeah, but its MY neck."

"Some neck. Some --"

"Oh, stop it." (Sir Harry occasionally thinks he's Churchill. He isn't.) "Now what really is going on?"

Turns out that various 'feelers' had been put out by Haqqani personnel requesting a meeting. I was cited as the one with whom they wished to discuss 'things'. Apparently they knew of my close relationships with certain wives of world leaders, and mentioned Michelle O. and Hillary C. in particular. Moreover, they were interested in meeting the person who had almost got Bin Laden in Tora Bora, and since then had been a massive thorn in Al Qaeda's side.

I had to admit the request was an intriguing one, and when I learned that Sir Harry guaranteed a safe meeting, and that I could bring two associates, I accepted.

The meeting occurred somewhere in Northern Europe, and I cannot divulge more with respect to place. Sir Harry loaned Sir Peter Crapp of MI6, a person that was as skilled (almost) in the dark arts as I was. As for myself, I brought along Irving, who was fluent in Arabic, and Matilda Hatt, who had a good working knowledge of Pushtun and Dari. They had other attributes as well, should things take a nasty turn.

I was surprised that we met with only two men -- the Chief of the Haqqani Network, Maulvi, and his son, Sirajuddin. Maulvi began speaking in Russian, something that indicated he had done his homework, and knew that I was comfortable in that language. The fact that he himself was fluent was in all likelihood based on the fact that he had fought the Russians tooth and nail at the time when Russians had delusions of running Afghanistan. It helps to know an opponent's language.

I wore my hair long and uncovered, as well as a nice blouse and jacket and an Armani pencil skirt. My point? Haqqanis, you're a long way from some poor Burka-clad minion that would be putty in your hands. Deal with it.

A trade was being offered. The Americans use of drones was, in Maulvi's words, disrupting business, and stopping such attacks would be a Good Thing. I countered that stopping suicide bombings would also be a Good Thing, as well as cutting all ties with Al Qaeda.

"You ask too much," said Maulvi flatly.

"Ah, but hear me out," I continued. "What if your network suddenly went all legitimate?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, as I understand it, among other Network activities, you offer, for a price, 'protection'. Now in the West, we call that insurance. Just think, your Network could offer such protection to ALL Afghans. They would pay a reasonable and affordable rate; the wide coverage would triple what you're bringing in now, and your new firm could serve as a model of legitimacy. Think of it as The Great East Life Assurance Company. Goodness, you could bring forth an IPO, even, in time, a listing on the NYSE."

Maulvi turned to his son. "What is the infidel bitch talking about? ' This was in Dari, and Tilly whispered the translation in my ear. Sirijuddin had obviously spent some time in the West, and had a handle on insurance. After their short interchange, Maulvi leaned forward. "People would cheat. They would lie. They would want more money to replace things than what they were originally worth. How could this be prevented?"

So I told him how, and the Haqqani's became familiar with the keystone of all such companies -- the insurance claims adjuster. They also agreed in principle to the deal, and gave me the go ahead to approach my conduits.

Who knows, the whole thing might come to pass. Yes, it's thinking outside the box, but never was such thinking more necessary. In this regard, I remember hearing the testimony at the Senate hearing concerned with the deadly fire that engulfed a NASA space capsule, killing two astronauts. One of the Senators asked, "How? How could such a terrible tragedy occur? Was there a failure?"

"Oh, yes," replied the NASA astronaut under oath. "There was a failure."

"A failure of what?"

The reply was terse and to the point: "Imagination."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ode On A Grecian Turn

Well, not an ode exactly -- I will leave that sort of thing to John Keats -- but the following little quatrain by Clarence Day struck a chord:

When eras die their legacies
Are left to strange police;
Professors in New England
Guard the glory that was Greece.

The key word here I believe is "WAS".

Now every so often I get a chance to simply mull something over, aided and abetted by a serious martini. In this case, my thoughts turned to Greece, and the "glory" that is now in serious decline. I offer these thoughts in the hope of making a very murky situation a bit clearer.

Not that Greece crashed overnight. It has, I daresay, been some time since the Greeks left mathematics, governance and architecture and went into the restaurant business. Notwithstanding this excellent culinary contribution, there has been a slow decline from the age of Pericles, Euripides, Sophocles et al. More recently, this decline began to hit warp speed as spending began to outrageously outstrip revenue, bringing Greece to the brink of bankruptcy.

And as Greece is now ensconced in the European Union, and has forsaken the Drachma for the Euro, the country cannot inflate their way out of the mess.

This would not matter overmuch if there were truly a United States of Europe, where Greece comprises an estimated 2%--3 % of European Gross National Product. The other "states" could easily make up the difference. In the United States, for instance, Alabama or Georgia could get into fiscal trouble, and a national solution would be called for. Europe, however, is a long way from such unity.

What exacerbates this situation is the interlocking of European bank holdings and bonds. Even the Americans are looking askance; their own banks and investment houses are more than a little exposed. The solution is seen in the form of a massive bailout, contingent upon stringent austerity demanded of, as George Bush called them, "the Grecians". All of this has produced a welter of hand wringing at meetings, involving much weeping and flossing of teeth. And when Greece appeared to offer its citizens a referendum on the looming austerity measures, the fear on European faces was palpable. (The referendum has since been rescinded.)

I do believe the situation will right itself. Scared politicians can act, if the scare is big enough. If they don't, well it is a Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis, who sums the situation up well in his brilliant Zorba The Greek. In the movie made from the novel, the Englishman, played by Alan Bates, asks;

"Zorba, do you think the log-moving mechanism will actually work?"

Anthony Quinn, playing Zorba, replies, "Dunno, Boss. It will either work....or be a catastrophe."

Difficult to improve on Zorba.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Oh Why, Oh Why, Do We Occupy?

At the urging of Sir Harry, my employer, I had been asked to examine the rationale behind the "occupation" presently occurring in various cities. This request struck me as a bit odd. The world's press saw it as a protest between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', as did I, but perhaps there was more to it. Sir Harry as a rule does not make witless requests.

There were various 'occupations' in Canadian cities, but these I avoided. Canada has nowhere near the gap between rich and poor relative to the other jurisdictions at issue, its banking system is sound, a sub-par mortgage would not be possible to obtain, and its unemployment rate, an estimated 6.5 to 7%, is not bad in the current economic climate. It also helps that the Prime Minister is a shrewd economist. There would be little point in conducting interviews with the occupiers; all you would get is a vague unease or the pushing of one sort of 'cause' or another.

Instead, I headed for New York, to Wall Street, the epicentre of the whole thing.

Irving, my Israeli minder, insisted upon accompanying me. He thought New Yorkers were slightly unhinged, and, in certain situations, could be dangerous. I acquiesced, recalling that New York was the chosen site for the film Men In Black with its thesis of New York as a kind of way station for extra-terrestials -- a not improbable proposition.

I travel armed, of course, keeping my customized 380 ACP in my purse, an attractive Fendi, since you ask. Why the gun is customized will become apparent in a moment.

At American customs, one comes face to face with officials of the American Transportation Agency (TSA) and all that that entails. A search of my handbag by an over sized woman with steely eyes produced the gun.

"What," she growled, "is this?"

"It's a vibrator." (When I said I had a custom-made gun, I meant it.)

"Doesn't look like a vibrator."

This somewhat odd exchange had drawn the interest of other TSA officials, both male.

"Well," I said, trying to be demure, "We can go into one of your little booths and I can show --"

The woman's face coloured. She quickly put the item back into the bag, and nodded curtly that I could go through. The two TSA guys looked disappointed, and Irving's face was contorted as he attempted to stifle a laugh.

In New York, we rented an Altima, and Irving drove first to Second Avenue, to the Israeli Consulate, saying that he was going to pick up his vibrator.

A bit later, I was mingling with the crowd in Wall Street. Irving was nowhere to be seen, but I knew he was nearby, watching.

The assemblage at Wall Street was unusual. It appeared that all walks of life were represented, not just the youth that so characterized the Canadian 'occupations'. The young ones were furious that their job hunts were proving so fruitless; the older ones just as furious that their pensions had been savaged (if they had any pensions at all). Both groups lamented the abysmal state of health care, and the even more abysmal state of the current U.S. Congress. As for the President, Obama was seen to be in the clutches of the very corporations that were at the bottom of the mess. This was summed up neatly by a professor of English at NYU who, on the subject of the President, drew on Hamlet: "O, what a noble mind is here o'er thrown".

This coming together of young and old I thought worthy to bring to Sir Harry's attention. Yes, the occupiers lacked a single purpose, yes, they were in some disarray, but one would be naive indeed to ignore just how many felt tremendous frustration at the growing gap between those that were exceedingly well off, and those that were tumbling down to penury. And if you're presently on the top, be careful. The situation is not going to go away.

Upon my return, I noted another factor had been added, perhaps to be expected. The various tribes of First Nations people had taken note of all this commotion, and, at least in Toronto, had begun to set up an occupation of their own, stating that this was "sacred ground" belonging only to them. (Why it was sacred remains unclear. Perhaps this was the burial mound of some elder long ago who had been gored to death by a gigantic elk. Or not -- reason tends to be rather unhelpful in this type of context.) In any event, money usually resolves this type of occupation.

Finally, what the occupiers are going to have to cope with in the future has been outlined by one deep thinker and philosopher. I speak, of course, of Doris Day, with one small addition to her famous lyrics:

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother
What will I be?
Will I be pretty, will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Unhappy Girls

Finally, some quiet time at the Manor, and a chance to catch up on what has been happening in the world. The following items caught my eye.

1.Unhappy Girls In China

I note that the People's Republic has been experimenting with television reality shows, and was achieving great success with a talent enterprise entitled "Happy Girl". The show was broadcast by a state-owned satellite television company in the southern province of Hunan, and was avidly followed by millions of fans. At the end of this years run, the Chinese government announced that the airing of the show next year would be cancelled.

This should surprise? The shows followers could, by using text messages from their mobile phones, VOTE, thereby expressing a choice for the most believable "Happy Girl". This expressing of democratic choice no doubt spread horror among members of the Politburo, hence the cancellation. The replacement? A show entitled "Practical Information About Housework". Unhappy girls indeed.

2. An Unhappy Girl In Ukraine

A part of me, and not the best part, believes that the winner of any election would dearly love to put the leader of the opposition in prison as quickly as possible. Makes things secure, as it were. This is precisely the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko.

And this brings us to Viktor Yanukovich, who managed to scrape up a win in Ukraine's last election (part of Ukraine is still in a gloomy Russian fog.) One of his first acts was to initiate very dubious legal proceedings against Ms Tymoshenko, who suddenly found herself jailed for seven years. One could almost hear Viktor saying, "There. Problem solved. No more fuss."

Well, a fuss there would be.

As readers would know, Yulia had been of great help to me in setting up my largest sugar beet plantation. In that one favour deserves another, I decided enough was enough, and made a few phone calls on very secure lines.

Shortly after, Viktor received two letters excoriating him for his actions against Yulia, one from the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (no slouch at dealing with wayward men) and another from Catherine Ashton, head of foreign policy for the E,U. Suddenly, American support and possible E.U. membership were at grave risk. I even managed to whisper into Vladimir Putin's tinted ear that Yulia had given him a more than fair gas contract, and urged him to "have a word" with Viktor. These actions also had the effect of causing the formidable magazine, The Economist, to raise a cudgel on her behalf.

Will such pressure work? We will see, but word has it that Viktor is rapidly considering his options. Perhaps a presently unhappy girl will become happy again.

3. Lindsay Lohan

A very paragon of unhappiness, with way too much already written on the subject. All I have to say is that the American legal system appears relentless in its pursuit of Ms Lohan. It is a great pity that the same legal verve isn't being brought against a slew of Wall Street bankers and traders, who continue to cavort merrily in The Hamptons or the Costa del Sol. So Anatole France: "Laws are like spider's webs; small creatures get caught. Larger ones break free and get away."


Friday, October 14, 2011

A Night At The Opera

I must confess to a fondness for opera. This stems from an experience I underwent when I was very young, and still learning The Trade. In short, while undertaking an assignment in Paris, I had screwed up rather badly, thus proving that Hesse was right when he stated "Experience is a good school, but the fees are high."

Very high indeed, and for three hours I would be at extreme risk. To go into more detail of what, where and why would fill a book; suffice it to say that I had to stay well hidden for those three hours.

At this point in time, a young French nobleman came to my rescue, pulled a string, and I found myself a cast member of the Paris Opera and its production of Bizet's Carmen. So there I was, in peasant blouse and flashy red skirt, part of Carmen's entourage, and obvious to all. Except those who were trying to hunt me down. Poe got it right in The Purloined Letter: if you want to hide something, make it visible.

The nobleman, of course, was the Compte de Rienville, and we have been together (more or less) since then. After the performance, and now safe, I even got complimented by the opera's Director, saying that I had a nice little contralto voice. I brightened at this, causing him to repeat the word "little".

Oh well, I had never dreamed of a career in opera anyway.

All of which leads to attending a recent performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. I had done a small favour for the lead cellist, who was being stalked by an extremely annoying man. After some things were said and done, I could report to her that the creep had left the country entirely. On crutches. The cellist had thanked me profusely, and also sent two seats in the Grand Ring of Toronto's new Opera House.

Matilda Hatt being in town, I persuaded her to attend. This took some doing. Tilly had never been to an opera, and was not that keen on the enterprise. "It will be boring," she stated, "and I don't have a dress anyway."

"I have a slew of Armani's, Donna Karan's" and Lord knows what else" I replied. "Moreover, my son Sebastian has created some stunners. So that will solve the outfit problem. As for being bored, I doubt that very much."

So off we went. I was comfortable in my Chanel little black dress, while Tilly looked smashing in an off-the-shoulder number, one of Sebastian's best. She really should put more effort into appearance.

When we entered the house, Tilly gasped. "My goodness, all this wood. So warm. So inviting. It's like IKEA on amphetamines!"

"Acoustics are first rate too."

The performance started, and I was interested to note that Tilly was transfixed. Verdi's music is powerful, the story gripping, and Tilly could follow every nuance through the overhead surtitles. At the end of the opera, with Rigoletto, remembering an earlier curse, screaming "Ah!-- la maledizione!" over the body of his dead daughter, I saw tears streaming down Tilly's face. Bored she was not.

Later, at a suitable bar, Tilly made an interesting point about Rigoletto. "You know," she said, "there's not one likable or noble character in the thing. Rigoletto is vicious in his taunts to others, and while he loves his daughter, hiding her away from the world does her no favours. The Duke is a rogue and a liar, Maddalena is a whore, the courtiers are toadies and lack anything near compassion, and the only one with any integrity at all is Sparafucile. And he is an assassin!"

"And your point?"

"The thing works! I enjoyed every minute."

I said, "I suspect Verdi has something to do with that. The music, after all, is dominant."

"You may be right," Tilly said. "You know, when I consider the 'Rigoletto' nature of the United States Congress, my thought is, Giuseppe, where are you now when we need you?"

Where indeed.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Lost Spike

Bit late with this one, but even people in The Trade need some down time, time I enjoyed in cottage country. I am, however, now back at The Manor, and begin with the following dialogue:

"Don't look over there! No one went there."

"Bit improbable, but you never know."

"Well go ahead, but it's a waste of time."

First, to get at what all this is about, some positioning is in order. I had been invited by my good friend of many years, The Emp, to rest and relax at his fine island cottage on beautiful Lake Piranha in the Haliburton Highlands. Bodhan, my Ukrainian sugar beet manager, was also present, as was Sir Peter Crapp, a colleague in The Trade. The Emp had made a request, but Sir Peter, having previously worked hard in shifting firewood from the mainland to the island, was more keen on taking a quiet row around the island than participating.

Now a word about my friend The Emp. The term comes from a genealogical exploration he once did, where he traced his family tree back through United Empire Loyalists to England, and then to Germany, where he was delighted to learn that one of his ancestors hailed from some minor German principality, but had succeeded in becoming, briefly, an Emperor in the Holy Roman Empire. Briefly, because he died shortly thereafter from a surfeit of capers. Exploring further, he ran across another ancestor named Miles The Slasher, and at that point his interest in genealogy withered.

The Emp, I might add, is a kind of emperor on the island, ruling benignly over a number of suitably cowed cottagers. All is usually well, but every now and then The Emp commits the error best illustrated by The Charge of the Light Brigade and thunders the wrong order. This causes confusion on the island. It also caused confusion in what is now known as The Lost Spike Incident.

The root cause lies in the shifting of firewood from the mainland to the island.

A truck drops the wood on the shore, in an flat area that doubles as a badminton court.The court, now covered lightly in leaves, is demarked by strips held down by four spikes. The Emp had taken pains to lift this mobile boundary, keeping the spikes in a little pile for later insertion after the wood had been shifted.

He had not taken pains enough. One of the spikes was missing. A first attempt by himself to find it came up lacking.

On the following day, our mission was to locate the thing.

The Emp's theory, not an unsound one, was that he or the trucker had inadvertently stepped on the spike, driving it under the sandy ground. Thus The Emp busily began raking up the likely spots where this might have occurred. All this fell into the area of the probable.

Bohdan and I, however,felt the need to explore the improbable. The Emp gave grudging agreement, propounding a theory that somehow the spike had become embedded in one of the truck's tires. Hence I was sent to retrace the area where the truck had been, while Bohdan raked leaves away in places where a spike was unlikely to have fallen.

I proceeded on my task, finding, in no particular order, a brass button, a busted badminton racket, a ticket stub for a Foo Fighters concert,and faded piece of paper that might have been the inside flap of a book on erotica. All of which indicated that the nearby cottage was the residence of interesting people.

The bickering between The Emp and Bohdan was growing louder (see opening dialogue) with The Emp making the point that in no way shape or form could the spike possible be where Bohdan was looking.

Following the trail of the truck, suddenly I heard a roar from Bohdan.

"I found it! Here!" Satisfaction glowed on his face.

I hurried back, curious to know by what means the spike had extended so far out of the probable search area. The Emp was also doing some hard thinking, and then admitted that on the previous day had raked rather hard, and could have turfed the spike to where Bohdan had found it. [Note: This admission, made earlier, might have saved a great deal of effort. On the other hand, perhaps the Emp had told us, and we had not heard.] In any event, we returned all smiles -- that which was lost was found, and all was well with the world. And if there is a moral, it would be that when the probable has been exhausted, the improbable takes centre stage.

Thus the tale of The Lost Spike, not to be confused with the tale of The Last Spike. For that we would need Sir William Cornelius Van Horne and his triumphant completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Enough. Or too much.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

To Work Or Not To Work

It was, I believe, Buckminster Fuller who once stated that the proper job of mankind was to get back to what it was doing before some clown came along and said you had to work for a living. In a nutshell, that thought acted as a thesis in my recent 'undisclosed location' meeting.

While I cannot give specific details -- oath of secrecy and all that -- there was no doubt that the terms 'work' and 'job' came under close scrutiny. Not surprising, considering that both seem to be fading away rather quickly. Or so many thought, praising technological advances that would allow everyone to feed, clothe and house themselves without anyone doing a stitch of work. This position was buttressed by a slew of Venn diagrams, stochastic bends, pie charts ,scattergrams et cetera ad nauseam.

All this, of course was rubbish, and I quickly became a voice in the wilderness by stressing that jobs and work were essential. People need something TO DO, and always have. Way back when, that something was hunting and gathering. Then came agriculture, along with the concept of deferred gratification -- it is to that first farmer's everlasting credit that he (or more likely she) threw some seeds onto the ground and had the patience to await results. Then came industry, followed by our current technological revolution.

Throughout all this time, people worked. Serfs and peasants actually had little choice in the matter, but even their bosses, sundry lords knights and barons, worked. Warfare was mano e mano in those days, and to be successful, you had to work hard at it. At present, work and jobs has become so central to one's self esteem that when a person's job is lost, so is the person.

The reason is, at least to me, crystal clear: the link between person and job has become fixed, as in concrete. It is this aspect that cries out for more discussion, imaginative thinking, and the development of an action plan to move beyond this pairing.

The group, sad to say, was not overly interested, preferring to concentrate on bail outs, economic stimulus, debt reduction and the like, without really exploring the root cause, the need to be doing something that the person and the society values. Robert Frost summed up this position well in his poem "Two Tramps in Mudtime":

"Only when love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the job ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sake."

Now if only the Great and the Good can start from the position outlined by Frost, there just might, might, be a way out of the employment mess we are in.

Just a thought, folks. Just a thought.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Proposed Meeting of Minds

Yes, I am a bit early with this writing, but needs must. I have been 'seconded', or rather ordered, to attend a meeting,, and unfortunately not at liberty to disclose the location. Hah! An undisclosed location! Maybe Dick Cheney will be there, and if so, we will have Words.

This all came about shortly after the Compte De Rienville left, after a too short in and out visit. And no comments on that last phrase. It started, as these things usually do, with a call from Sir Harry, my sometime employer. He requested my presence at said meeting, and the tone of voice he used brooked no refusal. I did glean, however, that things fiscal would be at the heart of things.

"But why me?" I asked.

"Because," Sir Harry replied grumpily, "you apparently are noted for providing a needed food source, your enterprise is expanding, you make money, and your workers think you're some kind of goddess. But don't let any of that go to your head."

"Wouldn't think of it," I replied sweetly.

Now I am not one to indulge overmuch in fugitive speculation, but I suspect that what will be discussed, after the obligatory weeping and flossing of teeth, will be the current financial mess afflicting Europe and the U,S.A. And yes, here I would have something to offer. Yet regardless of any solutions put on the table, it will come down to people demonstrating leadership, something sadly lacking at the present time.

To illustrate this last point, the very fact that the U.S. group known as the 'Tea Party' can wield the influence it does is disturbing, indeed frightening. (I personally would dump the lot of them into Boston Harbour. After all, there is historical precedent).

What is need then is the identification of such a leader, with the political nous and the sheer guts to bang opposing heads together. Sadly, John A. Macdonald or Franklin Delano Roosevelt are no longer with us. Barack Obama is simply too conciliatory, and, with one exception, no one else measures up. The exception, the person who might just be capable of accomplishing such a difficult task, is --and you read it here first --

Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Australia Fair

Curled up in my study, I was absorbing some interesting news received from a colleague in Australia, code name Barbie Q. I hadn't seen BQ for some time, not since we participated in a shootout with a Nepalese drug gang near Ayer's Rock. Rather messy affair, really, but I digress.

What BQ was on about was that Australia's new passport designation. Apparently, sexual orientation, like Caesar's Gaul, would now be divided into three: male, female and a simple X. What this means (I think) is that those who do not identify themselves as male or female will no longer be required to check off the 'M' or 'F' under gender, will have the option of checking 'X'

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Generation X'.

BQ also included a statement by Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, to wit: "This [passport] amendment makes life easier and significantly reduces the administrative burden for sex and gender diverse people who want a passport that reflects their gender and physical appearance." In the past, Australian citizens had to choose either male or female, and were able to make changes to their gender on the documents only if they had sex reassignment surgery.

Well, well well.

All this prompted interest in the stance of some other countries when facing gender alteration. A little research discovered the following. The U.S. and Canada maintain Australia's first position -- proof of gender surgery - and the UK allows people to check a gender other than their gender at birth. In New Zealand a gender decision is made by a family court ruling.

The 'X' factor, then, belongs solely to Australia.

What was not in BQ's information was where all this might lead.

Now for those who feel the authority of compassion, and respond to it, the X's will have no problem. It has, however, been my experience that passport control officers are a breed apart, and compassion is not their strong suit. Particularly American officers.(I still rankle at that bitch at Chicago's O'Hare that tried to steal my Milano Blahniks.) So expect some trouble, and it would not be beyond the realm of possibility that some X's will find themselves instantly put in the 'no fly' category, and if they get vociferous, wind up in Guantanamo Bay. Though this latter action is probably a step too far -- Dick Cheney no longer holds the reins of power in his sweaty hands.

And X's should not even think of showing such a document in places such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. The powers that be in those countries are still deeply embedded in the 9th century, and the 'X' could all too quickly morph into an axe, headed for the traveller's neck.

All in all, though, an advance.

A soft knock on my door, and lo and behold, who should appear but the Compte de Rienville! I leapt to my feet, overjoyed to see him and that he was free (temporarily) from the European fiscal mess. The words he spoke to me at our first meeting flashed into my mind: "Our eyes have met; our thighs not yet."

Sorry about that. Got carried away.

And I really did get carried away.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Aiding, Not Abetting

I was in the study at the Manor, doing some research for a commissioned article, when Irving advised me that my visitor had arrived.

"Father Martin?"

"The very person."

"Good. Show him in. Oh, and Henri has some tea and scones ready. If you could be so kind...."

"T'is said. T'is done."

Irving left. The scones were a bonus, but a previous visit had made clear the good Father thought them marvellous. He was right. And while I am not who is usually kind to Divines, I make an exception with Father Martin. After all, he has come to see the value of my little group of atheistic nuns, the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain, and wards off the Bishop, who would disband the group in a heartbeat.

Irving reappeared with Father Martin in tow.

I rose and greeted him.

"Father. Always a pleasure."

"Likewise, My Lady. I trust all goes well?"

"As well as can be expected." At that point my thigh began to throb where a Libyan bullet had been extracted, but there was no need to bring this to Father Martin's attention. "Now, what brings you to the Manor? Have the Little Sisters done something untoward?"

"Not at all. No this is something quite different. The Church is very concerned about the famine in the Horn of Africa, and is mounting an aid campaign to help. The situation is desperate, and in need of --"

"Stop right there, Father," I interrupted.

"But --"

"Just listen for a minute. You should know that I have been in Ethiopia and Somalia. Right now, the area comprises one-third lunatic thugs who have no understanding of the Qu'ran, one-third devout Muslims who do, and the remainder are women and children who are starving to death. Too often, aid does not reach those for whom it is intended, but rather goes to purchase AK 47's, RPG's and other like weaponry. Is that how you want to see any funds you might raise used?"

"Well, no. Of course not. But the famine does not have a religious cause, but a natural one, a drought --"

"To be sure. But, Father, I should like to draw something to your attention." I rummaged on my desk for a moment, then said, "Ah, here it is. Father, are you familiar at all with the work of Dr. Amartya Sen?"


Dr. Sen is an economist currently at Harvard, and a Nobel Prize winner. In his text, Development As Freedom, we read the following statement: 'No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.' That, Father, outlines the goal to aim for."

Father Martin fell silent as he thought over Dr. Sen's words.

At that point Irving entered bearing tea and the scones. Father Martin visibly brightened, and after several sips of tea -- and four scones -- hesitantly asked, "Then just how should we be helping?"

"Well, what I have done is to fund the purchase of three steel-plated armoured vehicles and donated them to Oxfam. These vehicles laugh a Islamist-run road block to scorn. Thus aid is picked up in Mogadishu, barrels through these road blocks and then reaches the UN camps with their goods intact."

"But they could be shot at --"

"I have also supplied some colleagues -- well, never mind about that. The point is to make aid arrival as certain as possible. In this regard, I would suggest that you continue your campaign, but ensure that funds are sent to outfits like Oxfam or Medicins Sans Frontieres. Keep Holy Mother Church out of it. Islam is in a stage where it has trouble recognizing that there are many paths to salvation."

"You mean, many paths to God."

"No, I am not talking about imaginary friends, comforting as those friends may be. But nice try, Father."

"Oh, I always try. Goes with the territory. And now I must be off, although perhaps one more scone...and I won't forget Dr. Sen's words."

Nor should we all. The sentiment, of course, has been stated before.

Lest we forget.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keeping Current

Reading The Economist these days, packed with fiscal articles of doom and gloom, is akin to poring over The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Now in my opinion the Tibetan Book of the Dead is crap. But if the monks who wrote it knew it was crap, well then it's not crap. (Discuss among yourselves.)

My mood was not improved when I learned, upon my return from Geneva, that the Compte de Rienville would not be visiting. Apparently he had been sent to Tripoli and given the task of determining just where Moammar Gadhafi might be. As any woman would agree, he got his priorities wrong -- there are, I suspect, hundreds trying to determine Gadhafi's whereabouts. The Compte would have been much better off in my company. Certainly I would be much better off.

As to old Moammar's place of refuge, theories abound. Sir Harry suspects he will hare off to Zimbabwe, where his friend Mugabe will welcome him, kick some white landlord off his farm, and make him a present. Matilda Hatt, based on information based on a reliable source, is certain he has gone to North Korea and is exploring that country's delights with that paragon of democratic idealism, Kim Jong Il. This latter theory I believe to be rubbish. Tilly's "reliable source" was a drug-addled Azeri she encountered in an alleyway in Baku.

My own theory, based on Gadhafi's background and my own knowledge of Libyan tribal structure, is that he has fled to the town of Beni Walid, about 150 kilometres southeast of Tripoli. This town, and the surrounding area, is held by an ally of Gadhafi's, the powerful Warfalla tribe. The rebels are unlikely to attack, given that some of their own forces are members of that same tribe. Just a theory, mind you, but we will see.

Finally, and to end on a more positive note, it has become apparent that the whole Libyan situation is one that while there was a nasty and bloody cost in lives, nevertheless met with success. Good on the rebels, and good on NATO. One can but hope that what happens now profits all Libyans.

This outcome was presaged by a bright young Muslim girl at the beginning. In an excerpt I caught on Al-Jazeera, she had said "If NATO can take out the heavy stuff, our boys will do the rest."

Sounds like they did.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Of Predators and the Matter of Matter

To Geneva, to spend a weekend with my son Mark, who is a physicist and working with others at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

I left a worried Irving (my minder) back at the Manor. The threat from Al Qaeda had diminished greatly; that outfit was now on the run from American drone attacks involving Hellfire missiles fired from Predator aircraft. Irving was not so sure the jihadists had given up, but when I informed him of a certain mis-information initiative, he relented.

This plan was simplicity itself. Certain imams and mullahs had been approached by the most trusted and scholarly Islamic authorities we could produce, and given a message. To wit: The Qu'ran had been terribly mis-interpreted by said imams and mullahs, particularly where suicide and the treatment of women were concerned. Allah was furious, and, taking a page from Zeus, allowed the Americans to hurl His thunderbolts from the sky. Seems to be working, too.

I was staying of course at the Kempinski. Very pricey, but the view of Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc was spectacular. The price had another advantage, in that it was beyond even the outrageous expense accounts of sundry U.N. personnel. Thus I could avoid any number of people walking around boring everyone they met and ever so afflicted with office.

Mark swept into my room, and gaped.

"Wow, Ma! Sure beats the dormitory at CERN."

"Life is there to be enjoyed. This is a suite -- your digs are next door. Laphroaig?"

Mark nodded, and I poured out two healthy dollops of the greatest peat based Scotch there is. "Now, how are things at the great smash-up?"

"We're close," Mark said excitedly. "We're very close to finding the Higgs bosun."

"Won't change a thing. Futile endeavour, really."

It's not futile! The importance --"

"Oh, don't get me wrong. Closing a door in a direction is not a Bad Thing. Allows for exploration in more profitable areas."

You're not still harping on that whole conscious thing, are you? That consciousness, not matter, is at the heart of the universe?"

"You bet I am. Time for you to review Heisenberg, Bell's Theorem, and Alain Aspect's proof of that theorem. And you wouldn't dispute that we are made of atoms?"

"Of course not."

"Well what staggers, or at least it staggers me, is that our atoms have become conscious that they are atoms. I admit this didn't happen overnight -- evolution takes time -- but this did occur. Hence my belief that EVERYTHING IS IN THE PROCESS OF BECOMING. Q.E.D."

Our discussion went on over a spectacular dinner, and well into the night. I ended all this by handing Mark a piece of laminated paper. It was a reproduction of a cartoon in which two puzzled archeologists are in a cave, gazing at a slew of drawings on the walls -- stick figures, hieroglyphs, circles, squares, and any number of unknown markings.

"Take your time with this, Mark. It will become clear."

Mark pored over the drawing for a long time, then exploded with laughter. "Oh, that's good. Very good." He had spotted, in an obscure corner of the cave, a simple inscription: e=mc(2).

"Got it from Punch Magazine," I said, "when it had an international audience. Sadly, not any more."

I miss Punch.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Of Iced Tea, Archery, and Poetry.

Ensconced in my office at The Manor, I had just finished reviewing accounts related to my sugar beet holdings. Everything was in good shape, save for one anomaly. I owed money, but the person who should receive the funds, couldn't. You see, the biggest of my sugar beet enterprise in in Ukraine, and the past Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been extremely helpful in arranging my acreage purchase, had then gone and lost an election and was now in opposition.

Now in Ukraine, being in opposition tends to mean that you are thrown into prison by the victor. Or, in this case, Victor, surname Yanukovych. In any event, I couldn't get the payment to her, at least not yet, and resolved to do what I could. This would mean getting in touch with one Vladimir Putin, and making him an offer he couldn't refuse. Then he could make an offer Victor couldn't refuse. My thoughts were on this matter when my maid and gardener Consuela popped her head in, carrying a large tray with several glasses and a big jugful of...something.

"I've just made some iced tea for the group outside," she informed me. "Would you like some?"

"What group outside?"

"Ms Levi, the Compte and Mr. Irving. They are shooting arrows."

"Are they now? This I had better see. Give me the tray, Consuela, I'll deliver the goods."

I took the tray, went outside, and sure enough, there were the Compte and Irving wielding the big Bickerstaffe longbows that Lord Strunsky loved to shoot when he was in the mood. I couldn't draw the things more than half way, but Lord Strunsky had no difficulty. Nor, it seemed, did the Compte and Irving.

"Ah," said the Compte, "sustenance. And brought by a veritable vision of pulchritude."

"Shut up", I retorted, but was inwardly pleased. Then, looking down the shooting range, noticed the two targets, all at this point resembling pincushions given the number of arrows that protruded.

Rachel, who had been engrossed in a book, looked up and said, "They're very good shooters My Lady. Very good indeed."

I didn't disagree, but had noticed something else. Irving's target featured a photograph of Iran's Ahmadinejad, which made a degree of sense, but I couldn't identify the photograph on the Compte's target. Not being shy about such things, I asked.

"General Norman bloody Schwartzkopf,' the Compte replied tersely.

"Why on earth?" I queried. "I thought old 'stormin' Norman' did a pretty good job during the first Gulf War. Got in, achieved the objective, got out. Mind you, that was on the orders of Bush Senior. And as we know, the son was not the father."

"Not the point," replied the Compte. "It was his statement when he learned that French forces wouldn't be participating. Now I admit, that wasn't our finest hour, but still, to say that 'going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion.' Merde. He's forgotten names such as Austerlitz, Jena, Borodino -- well, I could go on."

I thought that Schwartzkopf might remember other names, such as Blenheim, Trafalgar and Waterloo, but decided to hold my piece in the cause of international relations, or, more importantly, certain, er, other relations. He was a magnificent man.

At this point Rachel interrupted with a loud 'Wow!"

Everyone turned to her.

Rachel was waving a book about, and I saw that it was Lord Strunsky's copy of a text he had published himself entitled simply Poems Worth Reading. She must have retrieved it from the library.

"Just listen to this," she exclaimed. It's from a poem by Yeats, The Second Coming. Describes the current political scene perfectly. He writes, 'The ceremony of innocence is drowned / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.' Says it all, really.

There was a long silence after this, while each of us substituted various figures into the two camps. Finally, the Compte said, "Perhaps some iced tea?"

Good. One cannot be morose forever.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Life Can Be A Riot

Given the happenings in London, I had expected a call from Sir Harry, and was not disappointed.

"I would be interested," he said, "in your view. It's also why you get paid --"

"Surely," I interrupted, "this is more a matter for MI5 rather than your outfit." I was hesitant to enter this particular fray -- there are no easy answers, and even to evolve a strategy would take no small effort.

Sir Harry would not be put off. "My MI5 colleagues were impressed with your position on the American legislative gridlock, and appreciated your, how would the Americans put it, yes, 'off the wall' comments." (Sir Harry wanted me to know that he knows American idioms.)

"Very well," I responded, and I will try to assess the situation in a straightforward manner. No leg before wicket, as it were." (Thereby letting Sir Harry know that I am familiar with British idioms.)

Sir Harry snorted, then growled, "Just get on with it," and hung up.

In reviewing the situation, I realized right away that the English riots were a symptom, not a cause. The cause went much deeper, and perhaps finds its best expression in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. In that excellent piece of work, one of the Christmas Spirits confronts Scrooge with two ragged beggars, a boy and a girl. "The boy is Ignorance, the girl is Want," the Spirit informs Scrooge. "Both are fearsome creatures, BUT FEAR THE BOY MORE."

Indeed, and thus the root cause of the riots emerges. Ignorance. Until that is addressed, not much else will matter. Or -- I draw on UNICEF here -- things will not really improve until education is properly funded, and the Military has to hold a bake sale to build a bomber.

There is, of course, more to it than that, but education is where you start.

A second aspect that needs attention is the 'something for nothing' attitude. Welfare funds distributed without a concomitant responsibility to add to society breeds an attitude of entitlement and complacency, particularly where young males are concerned. Lacking work, and without the education to either gain employment or to evolve it through self enterprise, they HAVE NOTHING TO DO. Thus when there is an excuse for a good riot, well, they're all for it. Beats boredom hands down.

Now if education became the government's first priority, and welfare became associated with various forms of community service, light begins to appear at the end of an (admittedly long) tunnel.

Technology can help, but only as a handmaiden to a larger objective. Unless an idea put forward by James Marten in the old Datamation magazine ever comes about. To wit:

With a single flick of microscopic cilium, a one-celled animal will propel a stream of microbes towards the next living logic gate. Another of humanity's dream long deemed impossible will be realized: flesh and blood that actually thinks.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Debt And Dastardly Deeds

To Carisma, and lunch with my good friend Matilda Hatt. I arrived early, ordered a serious Grey Goose on the rocks, and began looking forward to the best ravioli in town. (My cook, Henri, disagrees, stating that the chef at Carisma has no understanding of how to use oregano. I stay out of such arguments; the ravioli remains superb.)

Matilda entered, distraught, plunked herself down, tried to smooth some wrinkles in her pant suit, saw my drink, and said "I'll have one of those too. Or maybe four. And you had to wear Givenchy, didn't you? But the skirt's too short."

I ignored this last bit. Tilly has no understanding of dress."Tilly, what on earth's the matter? You look worse than you did when you climbed out of that sewer in Milan sporting a very bloody nose."

"Just wait a bit," she said. Our waiter arrived quickly, and soon Tilly was similarly armed with Grey Goose. "Now, Simone, just listen."

What was concerning Tilly was the current debt crisis in the U.S.A., and the fact that the CIA was facing drastic cuts. What really irritated her was that her own finances were in good shape, yet she and other of her colleagues faced being either let go or severely downgraded for causes not their own. "Just how the hell did this happen?" she asked, fury in her voice. Then, to a passing waiter, "Yes, I'll have another."

"How it happened," I began, "was ignoring the advice proffered by Mr. Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield."

"What are you talking about?"

"Hear me out, it's really quite simple. To wit, 'Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.' The U.S. is now experiencing misery. Of course, so is Greece, Portugal, Spain and quite likely Italy. All because of that twenty pound ought and six."

"It can't be that simple."

"Granted. A person is not a country, and a little debt carried by a country helps the bond market along. That said, if the politicians in those countries had paid more attention to old Micawber's advice, a lot of the mess could have been avoided. But things intervened."

"What things?" I had Tilly's attention now.

Well, concerning the U.S., quite a number. The repeal of Glass-Steagall, the rise of arcane derivitives, a mis-use of VAR, the sub-prime mortgage mess and the arcane CDO's that followed, to say nothing of an extremely expensive and totally unnecessary war in Iraq. Oh, and at a time when you would expect revenue mechanisms to be front and centre to pay for all this, tax breaks were given to high income earners who least needed them."

Tilly just stared at me. Then taking a healthy swallow of her drink, said "I understood the Dickens stuff, but not the other."

"It's OK, Tilly. Neither did the politicians or the financiers. But I have hope. Barack Obama does understand the issue, although he faces an uphill battle with certain members of Congress who insist upon having a tea party and putting ideology before common sense."

And for the first time since she had sat down, a small smile appeared on Tilly's face. "So it will be all right then?"

I was quick to respond. "I didn't say that. In fact, things will likely get worse before they get better -- the debt hole is a deep one, and even Obama might not be able to make progress. After all, as Schiller tells us, 'Mit der Dummheit kampfen Gotter selbst vergebens.'"

"What the fu --"

"Sorry." Tilly was fluent in Arabic, Farsi, and Pushtu, but German not so much. "What Schiller is saying is 'With stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain.'"

"I want another drink," said Tilly

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Expecting The Unexpected

I had asked Rachel Levi, my I.T. specialist, to encrypt and send off some notes Sir Harry had requested on the Norwegian tragedy. The response team taking 90 minutes to arrive an arrest the perpetrator was ludicrous, and Norway is going to have to invest in creating mobile tactical squads that are armed, along with one or two helicopters that can actually get off the ground. Surely NATO could part with a couple of Black Hawks? At least get on the phone to Hillary. I mean, this was a lone psychopath, and should have been stopped in his tracks much sooner than he was. The attack, however, was unexpected, and there is the rub of the question.

[An aside: The incident in Norway was horrible, but the man was, finally, stopped. Other countries which didn't stop such psychopaths paid a terrible price -- Hitler in Germany, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and anyone with the surname Kim in North Korea.]

Once the material was sent to Sir Harry, I began a heated discussion with Rachel. We were in what used to be a cozy basement den, but,given the variety of computer equipment it now housed, the place now resembled the tracking room at NORAD.

The root of our discussion concerned the WRAITH software, developed by Rachel, and smuggled out of Israel because Rachel had doubts about the use of the software by the Likud Party presently in power. The situation had been smoothed over, helped by Sir Harry of MI6, but Rachel was still very much a persona non grata as far as Likud was concerned.

What the software did was very simple; how it did it was complexity itself. In short, Rachel could take over another computer system without the users of that system being aware that anything was amiss. An example. Before we began our conversation, Rachel had been happily transferring amounts of money ($100.000 a pop) from certain accounts and sending them to a number of NGO's concerned with the ghastly famine now present in the Horn of Africa.

"I just thought," said Rachel, "that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, and businesses such as Exxon and Goldman Sachs, should be doing more to help. And to them, $100.000 is more of a rounding figure than anything else. Surely you would agree?"

I admitted I could not find fault with her approach. "But Rachel, I continued, "it really has to stop. At least for a time."

"Why?' she countered. "The system's foolproof --"

"No system is ever foolproof. And your efforts are attracting attention, and, worse, these efforts are beginning to focus on this location. Or so I am informed."

"By whom?" asked Rachel, a note of petulance in her voice.

"Not germane to the discussion," I replied. (Actually, it was Matilda Hatt of the CIA who had given me the heads up.) "And you, Rachel, of all people, should know that there are some very capable techies out there, and sooner or later you would be traced, hacked, and your software protocol fall into some very dubious hands. If you will, it is in line with the analysis I asked you to send to Sir Harry."

"The 'Expect The Unexpected' thingy?"

"Right. That's the point. Just because you expect your software to be safe, doesn't mean that it is. The unexpected can and does occur."

"As you wrote in the Norway stuff."

"As I wrote in the Norway stuff."

Rachel sighed. "Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted. But I would ask for one more favour. I can create a phantom --"


"A phantom server. This will attract, at least temporarily, any hacker trying to locate WRAITH. Thought of the perfect place, too."


"Beijing. The Chinese are already under suspicion in the I.T. area, so this would make sense. Gets you off the hook too."

"Always nice to avoid hooks. Something I share with Peter Pan."


I just stared at her. That's the trouble with specialists. They specialize.

Discuss among yourselves.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Legal Lunacy

My legal advisor had requested a meeting, and it being insufferably hot, I suggested the Manor pool. This offer was received with thanks -- the weather really was trying to simulate at least one version of the afterlife.

I was on the diving board when the advisor, Gina Favola, appeared, wearing a spectacular bikini. Gina and I had grown up in Naples before we left; I to England and Oxford and eventually to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she to Toronto and Osgoode Hall, where she received her law degree and now practices corporate law for a VERY prestigious firm.

"Ah," I said in Italian, "the Bean appears," and before she could retort, dove in. This sobriquet came about when we were children. Gina's surname really means "butterfly" in Italian, but kids being kids, "favola" was reduced to "fava': that is, "bean." So it goes.

I surfaced, and then was cannonballed into by Gina. When heads again appeared above water, Gina said, "That's what you get for the bean reference. Truce?"


We swam to the edge of the pool, happy to be conversing in our mother tongue. The only others partaking that day were Consuela and her little daughter, Maria Aisha, happily splashing about in the shallow end. I wondered briefly where her husband Ahmed was, then recalled that he was in the Manor's greenhouse, attempting to splice some seedlings to create a number of very poisonous hellebores, complete with angry red leaves. These would be planted at the Manor's front gate to ward off unwanted callers. I was all for it.

Perched on the pool's edge, I asked Gina what was on her mind.

"Two things, actually. First, that land claims thing from the Crees. You will be happy to know that your offer was accepted."

A wee bit of background here. As readers will know, I have title to a rather large acreage in Northern Ontario, part of which I use for Camp Can Do, my program for women who for a variety of reasons have lost confidence in themselves. The program demands facility with motorcycles and small aircraft, and is designed to allow the women to, as Mark Twain once put it, "face life with the supreme confidence that a Christian feels in four aces."

Apparently a section of this acreage had been identified as a Cree burial ground, and a group of these Crees wanted the land returned in order to restore it to its original purpose. I saw instantly that the section of land in question was totally useless, and had Gina legally sign it over to them, wishing them well in their purpose.

Gina said, "This was not well received. They were looking for a cash settlement."

"Of course they were," I replied. "Not going to happen, and don't get me started on the idiocy of the Indian Act --"

"But there was an up side to the thing," Gina interrupted. "One of the younger lads was really into sculpture, and wanted to erect a suitable memorial. I looked at some of his really excellent work -- bought two pieces in fact -- and gave him the go-ahead, along with monies to purchase the necessary materials. Total cost, $2000.00, a sum which delighted him. Since the figure the group was asking for was in excess of $500,000.00, I thought this reasonable."

Well who could argue with that? "Now Gina, you mentioned there were two things on your mind."

"Si. And this one's a bit tricky. You should know that the firm allows its associates a certain amount of leeway when it comes to taking pro bono cases. I have just undertaken one, at the request of a moderate Muslim group."

"A moderate Muslim group? Isn't that an oxymoron?"

"Now, Simone, don't let your bias show."

"Oh, why not. I have a lovely bias. And after all, any number of jihadists would love to see my head on a platter."

Gina ignored this, and plowed on. "Now what has concerned this group is a decision by the Toronto School Board to allow Muslim prayers. On school time, no less, in direct contravention of the Provincial Education Act."

I said, "So -- what is that legal term, oh yes -- estop them."

"Normally, all this would go away. The problem here is the Charter of Rights, and its stressing of the right to religious practice. The charter trumps the Provincial Education Act."

"So it's game over," I replied glumly, "unless provincial politicians have the guts to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause. Which they don't."

"That may be true," said Gina, "but all is not totally lost. You see, at prayers, the girls, being inferior, must be behind the boys. This aspect also brings in the Charter, in that males and females must be treated equally. So here, then, you have two rights clashing. This is Supreme Court stuff, and why my firm allowed a pro bono approach. Eliot's 'right deed for the wrong reason' if you will."

I decided this was one case I would follow with interest. I also decided it was time for lunch, and as we walked into the Manor, my thoughts turned to the problems religion can cause, and took comfort in remembering H. L. Mencken's thinking on the matter: "Every time scientists take another fort from the theologians and the politicians, there is genuine human progress,"

Amen to that

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Canada Calling

I try to avoid involving my brats in these missives, but occasionally they impinge upon things. This is one of those times.

My eldest son, Sebastian, was in town negotiating a clothing deal with Target, and dropped into the Manor as a matter of courtesy. Well, not quite. He had found himself in a situation, and wanted some advice.

I always like to give advice, particularly when asked.

We sat in the kitchen, happily destroying one of Henri's quiches. Henri, my cook, considers quiche one of his triumphs, and in that he is not wrong.

"So," I began, "what's this all about?"

"That." He pointed to the hem of my skirt, upon which was Sebastian's logo, a small red maple leaf.

"I think it's rather cute," I said. "Makes a little statement. Much better than the Nike Swish or that wee alligator. What's the problem?"

Sebastian, as I and Lord Strunsky taught all our children to do, was silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. All the kids have well absorbed the Irish proverb, 'Many a man's tongue broke his nose.' Then he explained.

"When your driver Ahmed picked me up at my hotel, I couldn't help noticing the slew of condos being built. Cranes are everywhere and I have never seen so many cement trucks in my life. Ahmed indicated that most units were pre-sold, but wasn't sure just who had bought them. And by the way, Ahmed talked me into discounting two dresses and three skirts for his wife. He's a great bargainer. You know, I could use a talent like that in my purchasing department --"

"Forget it. Ahmed stays here."

"Worth a try. Anyway,My stores in New York and Chicago sell a great many items, all with that maple leaf. The logo obviously surfaces thoughts of Canada within certain minds, and lately, there have been a slew of questions about Canada, what the policies are, how to obtain citizenship, do you have to speak French?...well, the queries go on. So Ma, any ideas you have on responding to such questions would be appreciated."

Now as readers will know, I have good sources of information, and I knew for a fact that a lot of American money was tied up in those condo units. But this was investment money, and I think Sebastian's issue was somewhat different.

"I think that simplicity is the answer. I remember Isolde, when she was two, asking 'Will I burn my fingers if I touch the Sun?' to which your father replied, 'Yes.' I mean, why would you launch into an explanation of hydrogen fusion with a two-year old? Your father, Sebastian, was a very smart man, who knew very well that context precedes comprehension."

"And this is"

"By keeping any information simple and to the point. And I am going to assume the queries come from sane Americans, that all too silent majority."

Sebastian nodded.

"Then I suggest the following."

What I outlined to Sebastian was summed up in four points. First, the person would have to swear allegiance to the Queen. That might stop the query in its tracks. Second, language. Unless the person was planning on settling in Quebec, in which case fluency in la plus belle langue du monde was a definite plus, English will do just fine. Third, taxes are somewhat higher. You don't have single payer universal health care, a sound Federal pension plan and well-funded social security without the fiscal resources to make them happen. Canada has, for instance, a Federal sales tax. America does not.

Finally, Canada has read the Second Amendment to the American Constitution correctly and has an armed militia; that is, the army and police. Now while long guns are permitted for farmers and hunters, handguns and assault rifles are illegal, and The Law takes a very dim view if you are caught possessing one. It is no wonder that those committing a crime, when being chased, take the first opportunity they have to ditch their weapon. A gun on your person in this type of situation puts you in very deep legal shit.

"So there," I said to my son. "This type of information should give any curious American much food for thought."

Sebastian said, "My thanks. But my American customers all appear very worried, and even are talking about the U.S.A. going bankrupt."

"Well then," I responded, "one can only hope that a point made by Winston Churchill holds. As he so well put it, 'America usually gets it right, after she has exhausted all the alternatives.' Agreed?"


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Royal Tour

Irving entered the room, the secure phone in hand.

"It's him", he said.

I sighed, and put down the book I was reading, given to me by an esteemed cousin whose only quibble with me was his not approving of my relationship with the Compte de Rienville. The book was by Stephen Clarke, and was entitled 1000 Years of Annoying the French. Good stuff, if you're in the mood for some highly interpretative history.

I took the phone from Irving, who then wisely left, not wanting to irritate me further.

"Well?" I said.

It was, of course, Sir Harry, who began as usual with no preamble whatsoever. "Just what are you Canadians trying to do? Kill them?"

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Hockey games. canoeing. dragon boat races. And that little manoeuvre with the helicopter -- well, faces at the Foreign Office were ashen. Ashen I tell you."

"Oh for God's sake, Sir Harry. You are jesting at scars that never felt a wound. The two of them were never in any danger, and in fact my sources tell me that they are enjoying the trip immensely."

"Oh, really? Setting a helicopter down on water? I mean, the whole machine could have vanished into the deeps --"

"Enough of this," I interrupted. "The helicopter exercise was a special request by the Prince himself. Canada is the only country that knows how it is done, and William wanted to learn the technique. Which he did. Have you forgotten that his trade is helicopter search and rescue?"

"No I haven't. But this leads me to my request."

Hah, I thought. Here we go.

"I need your analysis of the Royal visit." said Sir Harry.

"I am not part of the security team."

"No," said Sir Harry bluntly,"but you have colleagues that are. And you talk to them. What I have now is the tabloid press, with its pernicious, pettifogging puffery. Ghastly. I want to know what's really going on. Why are the Duke and Duchess so damn POPULAR?"

I was silent for a moment, digesting the phrase 'pernicious pettifogging puffery', and part of me wanted to commend Sir Harry on his foray into the world of Alliteration. I refrained, and instead bowed to the inevitable. "Right," I said, "a report will be sent in the usual way. I already know of one aspect that will interest you."

"And what is that?"

"Ah, that will have to wait until you receive the complete report. Bye, now."

Sir Harry was not the only one who could be brusque.

I then proceeded to have several conversations with various colleagues in The Trade who were tasked with all things having to do with security. In all their comments, I discovered a surprising thread -- the Duke and Duchess were enjoying themselves immensely, no more so than when conversing with Canadian John and Jane Does.

I thought about this a bit, and came to the conclusion that such conversations were with people that led far more interesting lives that those of the dignitaries accompanying them. Addicts in recovery, men and women that had lost their homes to fire, soldiers just returned from Afghanistan -- all were engaged with, and avidly listened to.

This worked a charm in Quebec -- not the easiest venue to impress -- and as for the First Nations, well, the reception was heartwarming. Not surprising, given that Victoria herself had signed the treaties, and thus property rights allotted by the Great White Mother Across The Sea became a fact. The couple even managed to crack open (a bit) the frozen ice that is Stephen Harper. Apparently the Duke and Duchess, no slouches when it comes to pop music, were surprised as hell to learn that the Prime Minister was also no slouch in this area. One source indicated a particularly animated conversation during the Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa exploring the linkage between Bruce Springsteen and earlier 'social' singers such as Leadbelly and Arlo Guthrie.

So the leitmotif of my report to Sir Harry will focus on this interpersonal aspect above all others. The ability of Will and Kate to talk to people, and more importantly, to listen. Moreover, one might wish that if the majority of our politicians are paying attention, some of these interpersonal skills might be picked up and employed.

Mind you, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride....

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Union Strikes: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Good to be home at last, and to enjoy the comforts of the Manor, not the least of which is the outdoor swimming pool. Irving had kindly brought me a serious Grey Goose martini, and all was well. The day was improved with the arrival of my youngest daughter, Victoria, who, incredibly, wanted my advice upon something. (This hadn't occurred since she was ten). Wonders never cease.

She had arrived in style, in a red Ferrari 599 GTB Fioreno.

Irving, in bringing her around to the pool, asked, "How the hell can she afford that?"

"You forget her little sideline," I replied.

As readers will remember, even if Irving didn't, Victoria supplements her income as a brilliant historian by appearing in ghastly Grade B horror films as a victim sine qua none. The rewards are significant, and I have wondered from time to time that it's probably the history income that is the minor player here. Not many historians tool around in Ferraris.

But I digress.

Apparently Victoria had been commissioned by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to write a brief but accurate history of unions. This she had done, but had included a component that she was uneasy about. Hence the request for advice.

The day being sunny and hot, Victoria stripped and soon was splashing about in the pool while I gave her paper a read-through. As I drew to the end, I saw what the problem was.

First, The Good

Victoria had traced the first recorded instance of union activity to 1245, when a strike was organised by the weavers of Douai. (Wonder if they got dental?) From there she cited activities on the part of the medieval guilds right to modern times, with appropriate references to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and George Orwell's Down The Mine. All good stuff, and of particular interest was Victoria's insight that the achievement of better wages, workplace safety and health benefits all contributed to the growth of a contented middle class, a true bulwark against revolution. It is no accident that Lenin wanted the Middle Class to disappear (and Stalin made sure that it did).

Then The Bad

Victoria then launched into an area that really had no business being in such an historical accounting. In short, and in terms of strikes, she makes the point that strikes are fine in the private sector, but should be banned for the public sector.

In the private sector, the firm is the target. In the public sector, it is the public that is the target. Her argument here was that the firm was at risk, and the firm's management could either negotiate or not. The striking union had to be aware as well that if the firm lacked the resources to meet the union's demands, the firm could fail, and the union's members would be out of a job entirely. This is mano e mano stuff, with only two parties involved.

In the case of the public sector, THREE parties are involved -- the union, the government, and the public at large. Victoria's point here is that the public is innocent and really not responsible for the situation that has led to the strike. Yet it is the public that bears the brunt of the strike, whether in terms of teachers unavailable to students, no mail delivery or garbage collection that suddenly isn't. She indicates that certain services deemed essential to the public welfare are not permitted a strike option -- police and firefighters fall into this category. They can Work To Rule, but the issue can only be resolved through binding arbitration. It is this policy that Victoria wanted adopted for all public and civil service unions.

And she is absolutely right.

But that is not what the NLRB asked her to write about, and I reluctantly advised her to drop the section, suggesting at the same time that the thesis be saved for a future paper. Victoria heaved a sigh, and agreed.

Now The Ugly

This next bit has nothing whatsoever to do with strikes or unions, but I include it because shortly after Victoria left, I came across a newspaper item that indicated that the next chair of the UN Human Rights Commission will be North Korea. Unbelievable, and I close with these words from Cervantes Don Quixote: "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be."