Saturday, December 22, 2012


From The Editor:

The good Lady had just returned to the Manor, having enjoyed what she termed a spectacular Christmas lunch with the Emp, Bohdan and her CFO, WDM. No fights, no carping (well, a little) and all parted in a sea of serenity. Then she disappeared.

I learned shortly thereafter that her progeny, or, as she is wont to term them, "her brats", had bundled her into a car, headed for the airport, and linked up with the Compte de Rienville and his private jet. The kids had apparently decided to give the Lady a break from hosting Christmas, enlisted the Compte's willing assistance, and took off. Not completely sure of the destination, but I do know that the Compte has holdings in the South Pacific -- Papeete to be exact.

A little note from the eldest child, Isolde, indicated a return in early January, along with the Lady's sincere wishes to her readers for a fun-filled and merry Christmas. I am happy to second such a motion.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where We Went Wrong

I was delighted by a surprise visit by the Compte de Rienville, who dropped in to the Manor all upset, and stating a need for comfort and understanding. Providing the comfort was not a problem -- I needed some myself -- but the understanding took a bit longer.

To wit:

The Compte had actually left France in a huff, having had a number of his ideas on addressing France's fiscal problems shot down and smothered in what he termed Hollandaise sauce.

"Hollandaise sauce? Oh, that's droll." (Francois Hollande is the President of France).

But the Compte was not seeking praise. "It can't go on", he stated. "There are just too many living off an ever declining tax base. Mon Dieu, are we Greece? And the President, who acknowledges the problem, is taking caution into a kind of art form, where little if any action is forthcoming."

"Well," I put in, "M. Hollande is putting in a tax of 75% on the rich --'

"Which is, or will, cause a mass exodus, and therefore any tax revenues raised will be paltry. And the public sector unions, instead of grappling with the problem, are asking for more. As Jean val Jean states in Les Miserables, "Comment faire?"*

"I believe," I said, "that you have put your finger on the problem. The public sector unions."

Thus began a long discussion, the gist of which is as follows.

Remembering some thoughts on this subject from the late Lord Strunsky, I told the Compte that at an earlier point of time, joining the public service involved a trade-off. You agreed to a lower pay scale than that offered by the private sector, in return for stability and job security. Hence, if you lusted to be the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, the public service was not for you. This approach had the advantage of providing a sound, but not dramatic, public service -- a Good Thing. You don't want buccaneers with access to the public purse, while also allowing some brakes to be put on the wilder schemes of politicians that surfaced from time to time.

When, however, public servants became unionists, things changed, and not for the better, as members strove to match or exceed private sector salaries while still holding out for iron-clad job security.

 An even uglier side to this question is noted in the New York Times in an article by James Sherk: "When government unions strike, they strike against taxpayers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (of all people) considered this 'unthinkable and intolerable'".

I mean, it is one thing to strike against the ACME Widget Corporation where, unless it is a company town, few are affected and even fewer notice. (The Compte interjected here that those with a widget fetish would certainly notice, but let's not go there). Yet when public service workers go on strike,  innocent taxpayers are held to ransom. Even schoolteachers have abandoned what was an honourable and esteemed profession, joined a union,  and now use children as hostages to fortune (theirs).

All I have to say is that when the Scots sent Edward of England back "to think again", it is high time to do something similar to public service unions.

* The Compte, of course, quotes from the original French version, literally, "What to do?" The English phrase is quite different -- "Who am I?" -- but it all works. -- Ed.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Marijuana Mystery

Of late, I have been perhaps too engrossed in the idiocy that marks municipal politics, and a mayor who, while attempting to balance the books, too often resembled a bull in a china shop. Although it must be noted that the china artifacts he smashed were Spode tea cups and Royal Doulton figurines that were made in China.

Time to take a broader view, and look at what's been going on in the world at large.

Not much better. Personal debt in Canada is still too high. The economy of Greece is still an issue, and the Euro appears on life support, with the IV drip being supplied by Germany. (Leads to the observation that what was beyond the capability of the Wehrmacht is not beyond the capability of German fiscal policy). China -- well, see comment above -- and as for the U.S., a 'fiscal cliff' looms. So all is not well, although the answer to the American cliff thingy lies in the amended Liberty Bond Act of 1917. To explore the impact of that legislation, however, would take some time, and is best left for another day.

It is not rocket science to acknowledge that the answer to the problems listed above involve a combination of higher tax revenues and less government spending on entitlements. Yet a third strategy could, I think, be profitably explored, that would go some distance to alleviating these financial conundrums.

Marijuana. Or at least, its legalization and subsequent taxation.

This is not as bizarre as it sounds. A number of American states have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes, and the state of Washington has allowed it for recreational use. If you put marijuana side by side with alcohol, the comparison is startling. Alcohol is an extremely dangerous drug, as a myriad of road deaths illustrate, to say nothing of crimes and personal violence committed while under its influence. It was, in fact prohibited for a time in America, under the Volstead Act in 1919. This didn't work --the steady growth of organized crime, with no taxes coming in whatsoever, led to its repeal in 1933.

Marijuana, however, has quite a different effect on human behaviour, producing feelings of happiness and calmness, and which might produce a more congenial and grateful electorate. And another thing. Unlike heroin or cocaine, NO ONE TO MY KNOWLEDGE HAS EVER DIED FROM AN OVERDOSE OF MARIJUANA. 

Now I know that law enforcement has a huge investment in personnel and resources involved in the so-called 'War on Drugs', but the hard drugs are still there, along with crystal meth and, for that matter, Oxycontin. So there is still a great deal of work for the cops.

What baffles me is why government is so loathe to legalize marijuana. Goodness knows the revenue is needed, and the present grow-ops and gangs currently involved in its growth and manufacture could quickly become business enterprises (also subject to taxation) and bring forward a number of interesting Initial Public Offerings, doing wonders for a number of stock exchanges as well as benefiting shareholders.

I mean, where's the down side in all this?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mayors Behaving Badly

The number of mayors in the last two weeks that have crashed and burned astounds. What is it about political power that, Circe-like, leads such men to Bad Ends? (No women mayors seem so afflicted).

Here is a brief re-cap:

City:       Montreal.
Mayor: Gerard Tremblay
Issue:   Graft and corruption
Result:   Dismissal, public enquiry, criminal charges possibly pending
Cost to taxpayers: $Millions

City:   Laval
Mayor: Gilles Vaillancourt
Issue:  Bribery,
Result: Dismissal, criminal charges possibly pending.
Cost to taxpayers: $Thousands

City: London*
Mayor: Joe Fontana
Issue: Taxpayer dollars used to fund son's wedding
Result: Mayor hanging on, but barely.
Cost to taxpayers: $15,000.

City: Toronto
Mayor: Rob Ford
Issue: Improper legal procedure with respect to conflict of interest.
Result: Dismissal pending
Cost to taxpayers: $Zero

Yes, a sorry tale. The first three can rightly be accused of squandering a ton of taxpayer dollars. As for the forth, we are more in the arena of bull-headed stupidity than graft and corruption. All Mayor Ford had to do was recuse himself when Council was determining if the Mayor should pay back funds solicited on official letterhead for an economically-disadvantaged football team.** The amount was some $3150.00, none of which came from the City budget. Indeed, Council, by a significant majority, decided in favour of the Mayor and there the matter would have rested. Indeed, should have rested -- the optics alone would have been severe enough.

Enter The Left.

Furrier Paul Magdar, with lawyer Clayton Ruby in tow, launched a conflict of interest lawsuit against Ford, calling for his dismissal. The suit was successful, delighting the left wing of Council. On the other hand, the action did prompt this comment from, of all newspapers, Quebec's La Presse, in which columnist Yves Boisvert writes on November 27: "Great minds in the Toronto media, too happy to get rid of this right-wing firebrand, seem to have easily forgotten a principle of universal justice: The punishment needs to fit the crime. In the Toronto mayor's case, we are applying a professional death penalty for a minor breach."

Says it all, really, and now Toronto faces a very real possibility of the Left taking control, and bringing back the fiscal madness that had bedevilled Toronto during the previous administration. Mayor Ford had tried, and was succeeding, in correcting this fiscal imbalance. Now, however, a death spiral looms as the Left looks to Greece as its fiscal model.

Poor Toronto.

*For my UK readers, I refer to London, Ontario, not London, England. Boris Johnson seems to be doing just fine.

** Don Bosco, a Catholic secondary school. Goodness, if some funds were needed, you would think the Vatican could sell a painting or two.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Believe It Or Not

No, this is not a discussion on the work of Robert Ripley, but rather an examination of a philosophical  phrase that startled me, as did the identity of the author. Now where philosophy is concerned, I tend to the classics, drawing on such works as Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, Plato's Republic, or even The Biblical Ten Commandments, which all by themselves outline an ethical path. (the rest is commentary).

The phrase in question? "Seeing is believing puts the horse before the cart."* The author? Stephen King, of all people, he who writes all that hairy stuff about worlds that lie just beyond our present veil of existence. Great for escapism, and therefore I was surprised to be confronted with a truth that has nothing to do with fantasy but everything to do with day-to-day reality.

Certainly King would not leap to the mind as a deep-thinking philosopher, or at least not to my mind. Yet his horse-cart analogy bears some looking into.

The argument here is the proposition that what we see is determined by what we believe. In classical times, belief held that the world was flat, and  maps from that era indicate this, along with fuzzy edges that are highlighted by the phrase "Here Be Dragons." Yes, Thales of Miletus sometime around 620 BCE predicted an eclipse, but then, there have always been outliers, who had a different belief than the belief currently in vogue. Think Galileo. Think Copernicus. Think Einstein. Think Heisenberg. Or Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring. (I was determined to get a woman 'outlier' in there somewhere). All these departed from the prevailing belief and hence put forward another way to view the world and, indeed, the cosmos.

Thus it does no harm, before putting forward a point of view, to seek out the underlying belief that structures that point of view. Much of organized religion falls under such a rubric, and a great deal of nationalism, the twin causes of reprehensible actions that are all too evident in today's world. The belief that a certain way of viewing the world is the ONLY way to view the world is horribly counter-productive, particularly when that belief is juiced up to allow for killing anyone that does not succumb to that belief. All of which would indicate that the belief in question deserves a close, very close, examination, and if the belief is found wanting, alter it to one that allows for progression rather than stasis. So William Blake: "The cut worm forgives the plow."

Ample food for thought here.

* Stephen King, Duma Key, 'How to Draw a Picture' (VII)

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Seedy Tale

I was dealing with one problem when, out of the blue, another surfaced. The initial problem, in response to a request by Sir Harry, was to somehow to come to grips with the Hamas attack upon Israel -- in particular, the viciousness of locating their rocket launchers in close proximity to schools and hospitals -- and to develop an appropriate response strategy. For  Hamas, this was a nasty step forward and deeper into the Dark Side, and I suspected that the purveyors of said rocket launchers (Iran) lurked at the bottom of it all.

Then came the second problem.

Bohdan, who manages my sugar beet plantation in Ukraine, called, alerting me to a serious attack on my holdings. Through some reliable sources, Bohdan had learned that Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine and no friend of mine, had seen fit to lease an adjoining property to Monsanto. The aim here would be to genetically modify sugar beets, and plant them so that the wind-borne seeds would then contaminate my own crop. This would spark two actions: Monsanto would sue, stating that I had contaminated their crop. And secondly, any European sales would be at risk, Europe being very risk averse when it came to genetically-altered produce. Germany, of course, would be aghast at having their beloved Zuckerruben-Sirup so infected. Monsanto really is evil, and in pursuing such a course, showed themselves to be a true member of the Dark Side.

What to do?

I was well aware that Monsanto had tried similar cases in court, and had won.* Pursuing a strictly legal solution would, then, be unsuccessful, case law being what it is. So another measure was called for.

Now I also have friends on the Dark Side, and placed a call to Don Guido.

"Bella! Always good to hear from you. And you will be pleased to know that I have purchased your figlia's CD featuring the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The fair Victoria does a superb job. You must be proud."

"I am. I will let her know you approve." Don Guido was especially fond of Victoria, and I knew for a fact that he watched over her as she trundled around the globe. Don Guido beats travel insurance every time.

We continued briefly this little exchange of pleasantries, but I soon came to the heart of the matter.

"Don Guido, I don't suppose you have any contacts in Ukraine?"

"Not many, but enough to buttress a small but profitable enterprise. Why do you ask?"

I then explained my problem, indicating that Yanukovych was behind it all. I needed to persuade him that the Monsanto purchase was a non-starter, and that perhaps (to use a trite phrase) an offer could be made that Yanukovych could not refuse.

"This isn't your campaign to get that woman, Julie or Julia, out of prison, is it? Can't do anything there. The action stems from Putin himself, and I'd rather not irritate the man right now. Appears to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis, and hence any annoyance...well...could be bad for business."

"No, Yuliya Tymoshenko isn't at issue here, more's the pity. It's the deal Yanukovych has struck with Monsanto. If that could be, er, annulled in some way...."

Don Guido thhought for a moment, then said, "I understand that our Viktor is very fond of chinchillas. Keeps a sizeable pen of them, in fact. Perhaps if he awoke one morning and found in his bed six or seven slaughtered -- "

"I don't need the details. What is this going to cost me?"

"You have two coastal properties in Greece, Lots 107665 and 107666. I would like to purchase Lot 107666."

Now Lot 107665 I have designs on for a possible seaside resort, but Lot 107666?

"I am agreeable" I told Don Guido. "But the lot you requested  has a shoreline comprised of nothing but a path leading through a sheer rock face. In order to get one lot, I had to take them both. Why would you want -- "

"But that lot has an excellent and deep harbour. Is it a deal?"

"It is. I will have the necessary papers drawn up." I decided not to enquire about Don Guido's reasons for wanting a harbour in Greece. It is one reason why we get along so well.

Shortly after, I learned from Bohdan that Monsanto had withdrawn its offer to purchase the adjoining acreage. I also felt it  incumbent to make a hefty donation to the World Wildlife Foundation, to be directed to the preservation of the habitat of the Andean chinchillan population. After all, when one incurs a debt, it is only fair that one pays.

*Cf. Monsanto Canada v. Schmeiser, Docket T.1593 -- 98. This case went all the way to Canada's Supreme Court, where Monsanto prevailed in a 5-4 decision. It is unfortunate that not enough of the Justices could see the obvious solution, as sung by Bob Dylan: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A House Divided

Well, there you have it. The American Presidential Election finally occurred -- some 5 billion dollars spent to achieve the same congressional gridlock that previously existed. Not exactly a harbinger of hope, if things remain as they were.

Here I will go out on a limb, and state that there will be change.

One change immediately noticeable is the disappearance of references to the Deity in Republican comments on the election result. Not surprising, given that to the Tea Party evangelicals Mitt Romney was chosen by God to lead the U.S.A. out of the financial wilderness. This didn't work out so well: God apparently overlooked the role of the 'swing states' upon the Electoral College.

Of course, this is not the first time there has been some Republican religious backsliding. I recall, early in the Presidency of George W. Bush, that he would be guided by the precept,  'What would Jesus do?' This was hastily forgotten shortly after, it being highly improbable that Jesus would have authorized the invasion of Iraq. I remember calling Laura on the matter, suggesting that George look more to the Old Testament for models, where, to use a phrase, 'there's a whole lotta smiting goin' on' (apologies to Jerry Lee Lewis here).

There is, however, a change in tone from the Republicans -- or at least from the Leader of the House, John Boehner. He is still averse to raising taxes, but is willing to discuss other ways and means whereby cooperation might be achieved. This does not surprise, given the necessity of some clever mountaineering on the 'fiscal cliff' that must be dealt with prior to January 1, 2013.

This is no small matter. If there is no congressional action, the following occurs. The combination of higher taxes and spending cuts would reduce the deficit by an estimated 560 billion, roughly cutting it in half. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that gross domestic product (GDP) would be go down by four percentage points in 2013, sending the economy into recession. Unemployment would rise by close to a full percentage point, involving the loss of some 2 million jobs. The word 'unacceptable' doesn't begin to cover the effect.

Congress, however, does have two other options. Some or all of the scheduled tax cuts and spending cuts can be cancelled, ensuring that the debt will continue to grow. Step forward, Greece. Or a middle course can be adopted, one that would address the budget issues to a limited extent, but also would have a more modest effect on growth.

So over to you, Congress, but keep in mind Lincoln's words upon accepting the Senate nomination from the Illinois Republican Party in 1858: "A House divided against itself cannot stand." And let's not forget hope, and here I turn to -- who else? -- the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you get what you need."

Try, people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Act of God

The storm known as 'Sandy' tore through Toronto yesterday, and did some damage, although nothing to compare to what occurred at the Jersey Shore (wonder if Snooki remained safe?) and inundated New York City. That phrase 'some damage' included a tree falling on the roof of a colleague's house, barely missing Code Barry and his wife, who were asleep at the time. I am informed that the insurance company will step up to the plate under the 'Act of God' rubric. Good on them -- this is not always the case, and even cursory research into this type of tort indicates that assured coverage is by no means a sure thing.*

I ruminated a bit on the phrase 'Act of God'.

In paleolithic times, the words made sense. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions -- all were attributed to various gods and goddesses. (If nothing else, the Stone Age at least supported a kind of gender equality.) Later, lightning bolts were hurled by Zeus; a typhoon or tsunami was Poseidon feeling a bit testy; an overwhelming passion was the fault of Aphrodite and a raging forest fire was Loki losing it. Out of all this sprang organized religion, and my own research points to the entire Judaic edifice springing from a minor desert storm god.

These 'divine' figures were given very human attributes, and one was never entirely sure which side they were on or just who would be supported. This was captured well by Shakespeare (are we surprised?) in King Lear when Gloucester states, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th'gods / They kill us for their sport." Again, this made a sort of sense; the world was fraught with the unknown, and having a number of supernatural deities to blame for misfortune, or to credit when one's lot improved, made an existence bearable, particularly when that existence, to use Thomas Hobbes' phrase, was "nasty, brutish and short."

As science advanced, however, gods came into question. Tidal waves, tsunamis and earthquakes owed their formation, not to the actions of a god, but to the clash of the earth's tectonic plates. Lightning caused forest fires, and a violent thunderstorm was the result of hot and cold air masses coming together in a manner far removed from a tender embrace.

All these advances, of course, were fought tooth and nail by those with an interest (and prosperous livelihood) in maintaining their status as guardians of God -- priests, bishops, imams, mullahs -- the list goes on and on. Eventually, of course, the whole hoax will come crashing down. I mean, one can but hope. Perhaps this would be the finest, and final, Act of God.

As for my own belief, it is simply this: GOD IS A PLACEHOLDER FOR WHAT WE DON'T AS YET UNDERSTAND.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

*In fact, it is a mess. Insurance companies hate the phrase 'Act of God', and much prefer dealing with terms such as 'perils' and 'exclusions from these perils'. No doubt.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Times A Charm

To London, and my suite at the Dorchester. I was looking forward to a dinner at The Grill and their excellent Cornish scallops, but my dinner companion was Sir Harry, and his presence was more likely to lead to indigestion rather than a fine dining experience.

My feelings were mis-placed. Sir Harry was, for him, in a state of elation. I knew this because every so often a trace of a smile flitted across his face, something completely out of character. What had exercised him was the success of what he termed "blow back". Apparently, in Afghanistan, when the Ungodly fires three mortar shells at a British army encampment, this action provides enough time to track the trajectory of the hostile round and fire a retaliatory shot to precisely the spot where the original shells were fired. Poof! No more mortar fire, and those doing the firing were sent post haste into their Islamic Paradise, 72 virgins et al. (Question for self: why 72? I will look into this and report at some future date.) enjoyable dinner. We even waxed philosophical for a time, exploring the nature of the number three, with the 'three' acting as a kind of lynch pin countering the action of the previous 'two'. In folk tales, for instance, the third sister is all-important. Think Cinderella. Shakespeare himself draws on this tradition as well in King Lear (Cordelia) and The Merchant of Venice (the third casket containing lead and Portia's portrait).

Baseball has its three strike rule, and, in a completely inappropriate adaptation of the 'rule of three', the state of California has (via an ill-thought out referendum) enacted a three strike rule in terms of prison sentencing. If it's your third court appearance, and the verdict is guilty, you are gone for ten years, even if the charge is a relatively minor one. I guess this pleases some people, but in my mind's eye all I can conjure up is  Les Miserables and Inspector Javert.

Sir Harry made the point that in many cases involving three of whatever, competition of some sort is at the fore. He went on to state, quoting Lord knows whom,* that "neither the devil nor God wants competition. That's why we humans end up in our lonely no-man's-land." I couldn't quite follow his argument, other than The Trade often hurls you into a no-mans-land, but the statement certainly prompts thought. I also noticed that this particular insight had restored Sir Harry to his usual state of gruffness, and it was time to bring this somewhat odd meeting to an end. Unless the man would spring for dessert.

He wouldn't.

*From Henning Mankell's brilliant and disturbing novel, Kennedy's Brain -- Ed.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Indian Love Call --- Not.

I should state right at the outset that I admire a number of First Nations leaders, such as Sitting Bull, Cochise, Tecumseh, or, more recently, Chief Dan George. Then there are former chiefs Terry Nelson and Dennis Pashe, and admiration is about the last thing I would give these two.

My interest in them was piqued by an item on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting System, (CBC) something that surprised. The article was not laudatory, as the CBC usually treats First Nations, but was a condemnation, The article was of course quickly removed, but not before it had appeared in the Canadian version of the Huffington Post, and from there trickled into (where else?) The Toronto Sun. The situation borders upon disbelief, and I thought it wise to give my sources prior to relating what is a very sorry tale.

It appears that Nelson, former chief of Manitoba's Roseau River Anishinabe, and Pashe, former chief of the Dakota Tipi First Nation in Manitoba, had hared off to another country to air their human rights grievances against Canada. That country?

That bastion of human rights, Iran.

In fact, Nelson and Pashe were on Iranian Press TV in Tehran on Sunday, October 7, describing First Nations reservations and stating unequivocally that "The reservations were originally more or less concentration camps." He also drew a parallel with Iran, saying that First Nations peoples were also subject to "economic sanctions".  Pashe went even further, stating "It's part of the ongoing effort by the Canadian government to exterminate us."

It was at this point that I recalled Dana Carvey's portrayal of the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live and her acid observation: "Well, isn't that precious!"

Now a word about chief Terry Nelson. An independent audit of the Roseau River Reserve found that between 2003 through to 2005, while being administered by a federal manager, the band was in surplus. When Nelson took over, however, from 2006 to 2008, the Reserve managed to accumulate a deficit of $!.5 million. Moreover, as Lorne Gunter of The Toronto Sun Reports,* "The auditor had also questioned about $567,000 in loans and advances made to six current and former employees that were not recorded in the financial statements, including money that went allegedly to Nelson's daughter for a gas station she operated on the reserve."

In 2011, he was removed as chief by his band's council, by a 9 - 1 vote. As Council spokeswoman Linda Roberts put it, the Council was concerned about Nelson's "failure to accept requests to update the Council on finances, activities, and other band governance issues."

I'll bet they were concerned. And to think that the Canadian Federal Government gives every man, woman and child upon reserves some $35,000 to $45,000 per year, as well as monies to be devoted to infrastructure, schools and housing. Where does all the money go to? Not to the women and children, that's for sure.

Mind you, those two clowns Nelson and Pashe were right about one thing -- the reserves for the most part are a total mess,** particularly in the North. They really should go, along with the Indian Act itself. To go into just how this might be accomplished is beyond the scope of this particular post, although allowing property rights would be a good start.

And one final observation. How did these two get to Iran? In that Iran itself is enduring heavy economic sanctions, I cannot see the lunatic religious leaders presently in power paying to bring infidels to come and visit. I strongly suspect that once again Federal dollars have been used to make the trip possible.

As readers will know, I am not of a religious bent, but here I sum up my feelings with the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35:

"Jesus wept."

*The Toronto Sun, October 12, 2012, p. 21

** Not all reserves fail. The Gibson Reserve in Muskoka, for instance, serves its populace well through their cranberry franchise. Less healthy, perhaps, but still economically viable, is the casino on the Rama reserve.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Real Terror

The Compte de Rienville was staying at the Manor for a few days, and in between bouts of ...well, never mind...we had some good conversations. One in particular stands out.

After an excellent dinner, we were enjoying some warmed Brie on Henri's fantastic home-baked crackers while sipping a forty-year-old Port brought from the Compte's cellar in his Chateau. For some reason, we were discussing what really terrifies people. I, for instance, am frightened of people with 'Causes'; I mean, if you argue with a reformer, you are always wrong. The Compte confessed to a fear of a world without electricity, and he has a point. Were the global grid to collapse suddenly, well, just imagine, and a marketable skill in such a world would be how good you were with a bow and arrow.

This was proving an interesting subject, and we thought of a number of groups, and just what they would be most frightened of. At some point, I mentioned the Taliban, and we both realized that one thing that terrified that ghastly lot were fourteen-year-old schoolgirls such as Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai. She had been shot by a member of the Taliban, and was, at the time of this writing, in critical condition in a hospital in Peshawar. The Compte put forward a thesis as to why the Taliban had acted so savagely.

In his view, the Taliban were adamant that no girls should receive any education other than a home reading of the Qu'ran, and then only appropriate suras. Girls are, after all, chattel, and what's the point of teaching chattel? It would like training a goat to sing. It can't be done, and more importantly, it would annoy the goat.* Girls are there to serve the patriarchy, and follow the precepts of vani.

"The what?" I asked at this point.

"Vani. This is the custom by which girls are handed over as child brides to settle blood feuds. In fact, just last month in Pakistan's Balochistan province 13 girls aged 4 to 16 were so used by a tribal council to settle a conflict between two clans of a major tribe over the murder of a man."

"How the hell did you know that?"

"I was there. So was your colleague Matilda Hatt. We got three of the girls out, not one of our more successful missions. Difficult to work in that area. But you would know that."

I nodded. The Compte went on to explain that a girl, once even partially educated, became extremely difficult to manage, and in at least a few incidents, had either killed their husbands -- or, as the girls state, their owners -- or killed themselves. Education of girls, then, has to be nipped in the bud. Hence that attack on the unfortunate Malala.

The Compte said, "There is, however, a bright spot in all this. For perhaps the first time, there were nationwide protests across Pakistan, denouncing the barbarity of the act. Admittedly, these were held by women. The men seem to only protest silly film footage or Danish cartoons. But it is a start."

All this was getting pretty heavy, and a change of topic was in order. So we both helped ourselves to more Brie, crackers and Port, and began to discuss who REALLY got married at the Biblical feast of Cana.

* De Rienville is, I think, referring to a remark once made by NFL quarterback Ken Stabler, who referenced a pig in this regard. The Compte well realized that a goat would be a better exemplar than a pig -- a observant Muslim wouldn't go near such a creature. --ed.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Annual Transportation of Wood

Very late with this posting, but this sort of thing happens when you go off to the Emp's estate on a Haliburton lake. A fine group gathered to aid in the transportation of firewood from the mainland to the island, an annual and much looked forward annual event. All present contributed in various ways -- I commemorate the event in poetry -- and the job was done.

The group is an eclectic one. Bohdan, the manager of my sugar beet holdings, was there, and was looking well even if his job was a constant struggle against various and sundry bureaucratic attacks against my plantation launched by that fuckwit Viktor Yanukovych. (I refuse to talk to him until he releases Yuliya Tymoshenko from prison. Asshole). Also attending was Sir Peter Crapp, who indicated that his boss (and mine), Sir Harry of MI6, was trying to get in touch with me about a (very quiet) deal I had made with Bibi Netanyahu involving a number of Syrian farmers who had fled to Israel and, at my suggestion, assumed the identity of displaced American tourists. I will tell Sir Harry that when a thing is working well, it's best not to fix it.

Also attending was the Earl of Murphy, whose geographic knowledge of the world is considerable. Indeed, his nickname is 'World'. A later arrival was my Chief Financial Officer, WDM, who ensures that the financial gains from both the late Lord Strunsky's estate and the sugar beet enterprise do not go amiss. And they don't, although he does comment that my donations to the atheistic nuns, the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain, are a bit of a drag on profits. I counter with the fact that the money is well spent, particularly in the number of women rescued from domestic abuse, and certainly those from Muslim or Hindu homes that are fundamentalist in nature. Which may account for the large number of fatwas against yours truly, but if you walk in the woods, you must feed mosquitoes.

So the logs all found a home on the island, and the mission was completed. The Emp was pleased, and all were glad. His hospitality was a wonderment, with superb food, fine wine, and sparkling conversation. Also, the Emp's ability to find chinks in one's psychological armour (he is very good at this) was much less evident, a kinder, gentler approach if you will. Not completely, mind you; one always had to be on guard for an unexpected verbal jab or poke. But this is part of the Emp's charm.

A culmination of sorts was an impressive bonfire in the fire pit, something dear to the heart of WDM. Yes, he is a brilliant financier, but underneath that exterior lurks a pyromaniac. (I hasten to add that the fire danger in the area was low). I acted as supervisor, an acknowledgement of my delicate and fragile condition,* and scanned the skies seeking out any water bombers from the Ministry of Natural Resources that might suddenly appear.

The only lacuna in the whole thing was a somewhat unaccountable lack of reference to the fair sex. I mean, all are getting on, but still.....As Marvell put it in his poem, 'To His Coy Mistress', "The grave's a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace."

Too true, and it is a very good thing the Compte de Rienvelle is shortly expected at the Manor. Can't happen soon enough.

All for now.

*This is rubbish. It was not that long ago when Simone had a wee tussle with an Al Qaeda operative on the north face of the Eiger. Later, the body was found in a deep crevasse. This was initially thought to be a mountain climbing accident until the bullet hole in the forehead came into view, setting off an Interpol investigation in three Alpine countries, and gave Sir Harry a severe headache.. Delicate and fragile? As I said, rubbish. --Ed. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dealing With Deutschland

The German ambassador had gotten in touch, and requested a short meeting. I suspected this was to forward thanks from Angela Merkel for a small gift I had sent her. I had done the German Republic a small favour, and Dr. Merkel had sent me two tickets for next year's Ring at Bayreuth. Since these tickets are scarcer than hen's teeth, I was grateful, and in return, knowing her background in physics, had forwarded a photo, never released to the press, of the Higgs Bosun. It does pay dividends to have a son working at CERN.

I was partly right.

I had prepared for the meeting with some care. The ambassador had been invited to tea, and I had ensured that all was in order -- the tea brewed, the scones freshly made (my cook Henri excels at this sort of thing) and plenty of wild raspberry jam available. I had also taken care with my appearance, aware that the ambassador was somewhat of a connoisseur in the area of feminine pulchritude. Hence I had selected a white silk blouse to go with a smashing beige hemp jumper designed by my son Sebastian. I then slipped on a Gianfranco Ferre belt, complete with gold buckle. And since the ambassador was on the short side, I stayed away from my stilettos and went with the Roger Vivier sandals.

Yes, I was taking care, but I also wanted a favour from the ambassador.

He arrived, and was duly appreciative of both the tea and scones as well as overlong glances at yours truly from time to time. I knew the man was happily married, but I also knew that his wife didn't much care where he got his appetite, as long as he ate at home.

We then got down to business.

"First," began the ambassador, "I must commend your command of German. Excellent."

"Danke schoen" I replied.

"Of course, the time you spent in the DDR, and that incident with the Stasi --"

"Perhaps best forgotten --"

"All forgotten of course. Secondly, Dr. Merkel was delighted with the photograph from CERN. A truly spectacular discovery. She also has a small request."

Here it comes, I thought.

"Apparently," the ambassador continued, "the libation we make from your sugar beets is proving very popular, and demand has begun to exceed supply. We would like to negotiate for more."

"You're talking about Zuckerruben-Sirup."

"Yes. Many have come to think that it prolongs life."

"Well," I said, "I would certainly love to supply more, but we are at capacity now. However, I do hold certain rights for land expansion, but cannot exercise them. If I could, I would be able to increase supply with no difficulty."

"What is the problem?"

"The rights were negotiated with Yuliya Tymoshenko, who, having lost an election to that twit, Viktor Yanukovych, was immediately hurled into prison. In my attempts to expand, he blocks me at every turn. If he could be brought to see reason...."

"What are you suggesting?"

"It is possible that Dr. Merkel could play a small role here. I understand she has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin."

"That is so," replied the ambassador.

"A word, then, in Putin's tinted ear on the matter might carry some weight. He then could 'persuade' Yanukovych to release that land, and we would be off to the races. An added bonus would be to release Yuliya herself, but that might be asking too much. He really is a bastard."

"I will take the matter under advisement, and see what can be done."

After that the meeting was mostly pleasantries, although I did press the ambassador somewhat on the 'long life' aspect of Zuckerruben-Sirop. He at that point mentioned a news item he had seen out of China, involving a man who had lived 122 years. When asked how he had accomplished this, he said that he had stayed away from tobacco, women and alcohol. Shortly after, he died, and his last words were telling: "I think I've made a huge mistake."

You think?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Islamic Straw Dogs

Here we go again. An ill-made rather pathetic little video is released that is unkind to the Prophet Mohammad, and the Middle East erupts in an orgy of burning and killing. The West sucks it up and proffers apologies. Even Hillary Clinton, who should know better, felt the need to denounce the video. (I suspect she was pressured into the stance.) In any event, these actions did not stop the carnage, which is still going on as I write these words.

It is, of course, nonsense.

In 1979, Saudi fanatics (and that's saying something) attacked the Ka'aba in Mecca. The result? A retaliatory attack was immediately launched against the American Embassy in Islamabad, an action that gives an entirely new meaning to the term 'non-seqitur'. A new strategy begins to surface --  any slur against Muslims is to be laid at the door of the West, and particularly Israel and the United States.

Sometimes, of course, given the deranged activities that jihadists get up to, this is not possible, and, amazingly, Muslims are not offended. Fourteen thousand dead and disappeared youth in Pakistan-occupied Baluchistan, and not a murmur. 500,000 Muslim Darfuris killed by the Arab janjaweed, well, these things happen. The blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban shrugged off without any protest whatsoever, other than thinking, "boys will be boys". And 20,000 dead Syrians you would think would cause an attack on Iran's Embassy. You would be wrong, and yet.... and here comes the crunch: a minor, mediocre video causes all hell to break loose, and an American ambassador killed. This almost, I say almost, creates a wish for the return of George W. Bush.

You see, to borrow from T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, the objective correlatives are all wrong. The real causes of all the mayhem have little to do with silly films, and everything to do with the power struggle between fundamentalist and moderate Islam. Illiterate youth are urged to focus on America, and under this aegis create the mayhem that allows sundry self-appointed imams, mullahs and ayatollahs to obtain power. It worked in Iran. Why not elsewhere?

Once in power, of course, the leaders immediately clamp down on any form of protest save one that focuses on the horror of Israel or the U.S.A. The leaders are there to 'protect' the populace, not unlike Oliver Cromwell's actions during his dictatorship. Indeed, Cromwell himself was termed "a Lord Protector" and this brought to mind a line from a book on English royalty whose title escapes me*: "Lord, protect us from Lord Protectors".

Devoutly to be wished.

*Didn't escape me. The book Lady S. refers to is an excellent work entitled Kings and Queens, by E. Farjeon and H. Farjeon. It has pride of place on my library shelf, next to Sellar and Yeatman's brilliant 1066 And All That. --Ed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

He Ran, She Ran, We All Ran From I...Ran

On the world stage, Canada traditionally plays a cautionary role, a kind of Galapagos turtle, given to making small, almost imperceptible movements when it thinks no one is looking.

Every now and then, however, Canada startles. Think the discovery of insulin. Think the Avro Arrow.* Think (although here I push things a bit) Justin Bieber. And this brings me to the closing of the Canadian Embassy in Iran, and the subsequent booting out of all Iranian diplomats from their Canadian Embassy.

Now such actions are never taken without a great deal of thought, resembling if you will the burning of bridges a la Cortez in Mexico. A line has been drawn, and a point made crystal clear.

What on earth prompted such an action?

The Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird, trotted out the usual reasons. Iran was a rogue state, determined to drive Israel into the sea, and determined as well to possess nuclear power. Moreover, the country was ruled by unhinged maniacs who have torn to pieces what once was a reasonable religion -- if, indeed, any religion can be termed 'reasonable'. Finally, both the American and the British embassies had previously come under attack, and readers will no doubt remember Canada's role in rescuing American diplomats from becoming hostages.

All true, but all known, and this begs a question, what was different this time?

This intrigued me, and I called in some markers by colleagues in The Trade. I knew that the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, attending an Asian Conference in Vladivostok, had extensive meetings with Vladimir Putin of Russia, Ju Jintao of China, and Hillary Clinton of the U.S.A. My sources also indicated a lengthy telephone conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. In terms of what was released to the public, there was the usual references to trade, the ghastly situation in Syria, and the parlous state of the world economy. Nothing new there, and there was nothing untoward to be found in cyberspace. (After the Julian Assange fiasco, really hot information is now almost totally verbal.)

Yet it was directly after after these meetings that Baird made his announcement with respect to the closure of the Embassies. And, folks, you can be sure that Baird did not make such an announcement on his own. This had to have been ordered by Harper, who runs a very tight ship indeed.

Further investigation led to a certain conclusion. After a check with Sir Harry, my superior in MI 6, I was told in no uncertain terms to shut up. All I can tell you, dear reader, is that October will be a very, very interesting month.

Interesting in the Chinese sense of the term.

* With the Avro Arrow, Canada had the temerity to create a jet fighter miles ahead of any other at the time. This startled the world. It also startled the United States, and  the President,John Kennedy, immediately made the Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker an offer he couldn't refuse. The Arrow was then scrapped. An uptick here was the fact that a goodly number of the aeronautical engineers at De Havilland, who had developed the plane, were hired to work at Cape Canaveral with that All- American scientist, Werner Von Braun, and became instrumental in paving America's way to place Neil Armstrong on the moon. So it goes.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Putting It To Putin

What on earth is going on with Vladimir Putin?

I ask this upon learning from my sources (very reliable) within Moscow who inform me that his latest venture involves dressing as a Siberian Red crane and, piloting a glider, attempting to teach these cranes how to reach winter nesting areas. This from a man who throws any opposition politician into prison at a moment's notice, or has it in for female rockers who upset the Russian Orthodox Church. This, of course, begs another question: when did such an avowed atheist become a good son of the Church? Finally, his actions encourage others, and so Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine can take heart and throw his own opposition leader into prison. Poor Yuliya Tymoshenko, she who helped Putin secure a very favourable gas contract. It really is true -- no good deed goes unpunished.

I mean, could you imagine Stephen Harper dressing as a Canada Goose and leading the flock to God knows where.* Or Angela Merkel donning the habit of a crow and leading the flock out of Germany?** I think not.

Putin, of course, is the President of Russia. Now in a normal country, the role of President is largely ceremonial. The person offered this position by a Prime Minister is usually of the Great and the Good, and is appointed to bring stature, stability and a certain amount of gravitas to the whole legislative edifice.  In this regard, the best example would be that of constitutional monarchy, and Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. would be the perfect exemplar. In terms of ceremonial Presidents, Germany and Austria come to mind. Putin, however, has iron control of the reins of power, and hence the Prime Minister -- in this case Dmitri Medvedev -- is very much cabin'd, cribb'd and confin'd by such a mis-use of the Presidency.

(An aside. The U.S. President operates under an entirely different arrangement, with an emphasis on the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. As can be seen, this can lead to gridlock, but what did you expect? The whole kit and caboodle was developed in large part by the political philosopher the Baron de Montesquieu, who was French. Enough said.)

Perhaps Putin is simply bored, and needs to hunt grey whales, to explore the depths in scuba gear, and to face down tigers. I have no problem with that, but not if he is to be an effective President. So I have fired off a letter, urging him to seriously consider retirement, when he could fly cranes ALL THE TIME.

But he is Russian, and I conclude with this observation from The Economist: '"if only Russia were different, it could be a wonderful country' is a lament the country's greatest writers have been proclaiming  for two centuries -- and in better prose."


* Possibly to Quebec. They can be a nuisance there.

** Lady S. had originally used the proper term for a group of crows, a 'murder'. In that the term is not that well known, and that Dr. Merkel might take offence, I altered it, although not without thinking that were she to actually lead the crows, she would undoubtedly aim straight for Greece. --ed.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Unconventional Convention

I was looking forward to watching the Berlin Philharmonic and my daughter Isolde in a performance of Sibelius' violin concerto, scheduled on the Public Television Network. (Commercial TV does not carry this stuff.) I was, then, mightily upset when I found out that the performance had been pre-empted by the Republican National Convention. This was akin to expecting a filet Mignon steak and getting hamburger helper.

Worse, I got hooked for a bit in listening to some of the speakers at the convention, amazed at their ability to hold two ideas directly opposite to each other, and somehow bring them forward as a unified whole. Let me explain.

Now I well realize that to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time is possible -- religious leaders do it all the time, as they acknowledge (begrudgingly) scientific reason while maintaining the validity of their particular superstition. Yet politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, and I was flabbergasted to hear speaker after speaker hold forth on two such opposing ideas.

The first idea propounded by the speakers was that government is far too large, and must be cut back severely, almost to the point of emasculation. The second idea was that leadership of this government was all-important, and that Mitt Romney would be the one to lead such a renewal. But to lead...what?  The government being proposed was to be a shell of its former self, and surely the hallmark of  leadership is to strengthen, not to weaken, forces at his command. Or hers, but it will be some before Republicans go down this particular road again. Step forward, Sarah Palin.

This awkward dichotomy extended to the audience, where two delegates sat side by side. One hoisted a sign from time to time that stated "WE NEED LESS GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS!" The other raised a sign exclaiming "DON'T YOU TAKE MY MEDICARE!" But Medicare is a government program, and hence.....oh, forget it. Finally, there was an unrelenting attack on taxes, with frequent reference to the 'fact" that this was God's will, and that such tax cutting would lead to some sort of fiscal heaven. My comment here is that Republicans appear very keen on the 'what', but not so hot on the 'how'.

I had had enough. Yet I was still in the mood for some TV, and then a happy thought occurred. There was a show that I always PVR, and turn to when I want to hear people who really know what they're talking about.

I refer, of course, to The Antique Road Show.

May all have a lovely week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Critiquing Criticism

My eldest daughter, Isolde, called me from St Petersburg in a rage. She is a top-ranked violinist, and had just read a scathing review of her work in some state-owned press organ.

"Mum, the reviewer thought I was playing Brahms. It was a Bartok concerto, for God's sake! You'd think the clown would have at least read the program!"

How did the audience receive it?"

" a standing ovation", she stated in a more subdued voice.

"Then that's your critical review. Now stop whining and move on."

She did so, but I was curious. Russians can be incompetent at many things -- legal transparency comes to mind, along with throwing female rockers into prison for praying to the Virgin Mary -- but they do know their music. What was this all about? After a few strategic phone calls to some friends in St Petersburg I had met over the years, the picture became clear. Apparently a crony of Putin, who previously had managed an extensive pig farm, was getting on in years. A sinecure was found for him at a St. Petersburg state-owned paper, and it seemed the only position vacant was one of music critic. Enough said.

Still, the whole incident got me thinking about critics and criticism, and evolving one iron clad rule: KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. Northrup Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, makes this point well when he writes: "When a critic meets St. George the Redcross Knight in Spenser, bearing a red cross on a white ground, he has some idea what to do with this figure. When he meets a female in Henry James' The Other House called Rose Arminger with a white dress and a red parasol, he is, in the current slang, clueless."

Now I have a background in English Literature, and Frye's comment is spot on. The reverse of the medal would be me criticizing an economic proposal to deal with stabilizing the European bond market. My take on economics is a simple one: always ensure there's more money coming in than is going out. Yet things are a great deal more complicated than that, what with collateralized debt options, derivatives, swaps, and the complexity of futures trading. To say nothing of the LIBOR mess. For this area, I turn to my financial advisor, WDM, who does know what he's talking about. It's something I (and my sugar beets) have never regretted.

Now I well realize that there is a key difference between formal criticism and the expressing of an opinion. Just imagine a dinner party under the conversational stricture of knowing what you are talking about. The silence would be deafening. It is for this reason that the weather is such a popular topic. No one really understands it, and meteorologists have been known to throw up their hands when a hurricane unexpectedly veers into an area where no one thought it would go, or a normal little rainfall turns into a raging flood, with people screaming, "Why weren't we told!" To this end, weather predictors turn for help to a Latino and a Latina ocean current,  El Nino and El Nina respectively. As Marshall McLuhan well knew, naming is numbing, and everyone feels better. Mind you, this bringing forth of figures that ease one's mind doesn't always help, as the writings of Joseph Smith and a semi-insane Arab merchant well attest. But I digress.

It is, of course, not easy being a critic. But if you know your stuff, you can elucidate and even illuminate the piece being criticized so that greater understanding emerges. In film, for example, critics such as Pauline Kael, Jason Alexander and Roger Ebert do their job well, and in literature, well, it's hard to top old Northrop. Of course, few accolades are ever tossed a critic's way, and I conclude with these words from the composer Jean Sibelius: "Always remember, there is no city in the world which has created a statue to a critic."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lauding The Laconic

My daughter Victoria was spending a few days with me at the Manor. She needed time to recover from receiving a number of bumps and bruises from her various roles as a 'stunt victim' in a number of films and TV shows. She is also a first rate historian, but this is not a highly paid profession, and she does like her Guccis and Louis Vuittons. Hence the (considerable) supplementary income.

One of the bruises, on her left forearm, was particularly nasty.

"And that one," I said, pointing to her arm, "just how --"

"Oh, that happened on a cool British show called 'Strike Back'. It was a mistake."

"No kidding."

"Really," Victoria replied, and took a moment to gather her thoughts.

"You see," she began, "I was tied to a chair for an interrogation, the thumbscrews were ready, when one of the soldiers -- real SAS guys helping out -- accidentally tipped the chair over. I fell on my arm, it hurt like blazes, and I screamed bloody blue murder. Everyone was apologetic as hell, and the director immediately offered a $10,000 bonus. Said it was one of the best shots he had ever filmed. And the soldier felt so bad he took me to dinner that night at the Savoy. It was a great night out -- who's Bella Abzug?"

Victoria had noticed an article I had been reading.

"Bella Abzug," I explained, "was a fine New York Congresswoman who expressed herself in very brief but incisive manner, in a laconic way, if you will. She also had a way with hats, maybe not quite the paragon that the late Queen Mum was, but not bad at all."

Victoria ignored the comment about hats, but was curious about my use of the words 'brief' and 'incisive'.

"I'll give you an example," I said. "Ms Abzug had no use for the term 'housewife'."

"Why ever not?"

"Because she said it implies that there's another wife or wives somewhere else."

"Hmmm. Pretty laconic," said Victoria. "And somewhat coincidental."

"How so?"

"Turns out that I am currently co-authoring a paper on Sparta's role in the Peloponnisian Wars. Another name for Sparta was Lakedaemon, and their use of terse, to the point writing gives us the word 'laconic'. So we have the memorial at Thermopolae where Xerxes' Persians were held up long enough that Greece could get its act together. All it states is 'Go stranger and to Lakedaemon tell, / That here, obeying her behest, we fell.'"

"Your point is made," I stated. Girl did know her history.

"Oh, I can do better than that," said Victoria. I remember reading somewhere** that Phillip of Macedon sent a threatening letter to the city officials, the ephors, of Sparta, which stated 'If I enter Lakedaemon, I shall raze it.' The ephors sent a one word reply, an 'if'." Can't beat that, Mum."

No you can't.

** Victoria really must have been bounced around a bit. She usually is very accurate in naming her sources. The "if" example is cited in Norman Davies' fine text Europe, Oxford University Press, (London, 1996) p. 133. -- ed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of This And That

Last night saw the arrival of the Compte de Rienville, who had had quite enough of overseeing French security at the London Olympics. After a fine dinner a small party occurred, involving the Compte, my minder Irving, his computer whiz colleague Rachel, and yours truly. For some reason, all felt like a sing-song, so nothing would do but gather round the piano and let loose with a number of oldies and goldies from the Spanish Civil War.

This choice had come about with the Compte's observation that corruption still was too much in evidence at the Olympics. I made the point that it was at least better that when old Juan Samaranch was in charge, the man who insisted on being called "His Excellency". I mean, really. And this was the guy who was Education Minister under Franco -- hence the draw of the Spanish Civil War.

Later in the evening, the Compte having noticed that I was somewhat subdued, I admitted that my two daughters weren't on good terms with me at present. Both Victoria and Isolde had somehow obtained tickets to various Olympic events. Earlier in the day they had called me, expressing outrage about some goings on at a soccer match, and an insane (their term) result of a boxing bout. They sought my opinion, looking for support.

They didn't get it.

I explained that I don't watch any event that involves interpretation on the part of judges or referees. I also avoid like the plague anything that has the word 'synchronization' in it. I stick to timed events, and am quite content watching swimming races (but not diving) and all activities related to track and field. These allow an athlete to compete as themselves, without some incompetent (or worse, corrupt) official throwing a spanner into the works. Yes, timed events have supervisors, but these people are there to ensure fairness-- starts, sticking to the prescribed lane, or measuring the distance of a throw or jump. In other words, such officials ensure a level playing field. Referees and judges too often tilt the field itself.

The girls did not accept my stance on this issue, wanting me to join them in some heartfelt wailing and bemoaning at whatever injustice had affected them. This to me was getting close to whining, something that I will not countenance under any circumstances. The call then ended abruptly, and I was left feeling not a little remorse.

Irving had listened to all this, and was spurred to remark, "You know, Simone, this will happen again and again."

"Well, that's comforting," I responded gloomily. "And just how do you know this?"

"The Talmud."

"Oh, of course. The Talmud. And just how does that ancient text speak to this issue?

"Very well," replied Irving. "Quite simply, it states, 'Do not attempt to understand your children. They were born in a different time.'"

I will have to ponder that for a bit, but it was in a way.......comforting.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Olympic Oddities

I didn't expect to be writing on the 2012 London Olympics -- why add to what amounts to a verbal torrent of prose --  but then certain things stood out that irritated me enough to  alter my purpose. These are as follows:

The Shameful. Aside from the Opening Ceremonies, where the main stadium was packed, all venues, including the main stadium, featured large gaps where no one was seated.  Those who wanted a ticket were told that all were sold out. Turns out that these huge 'seating gaps' were reserved for and had been distributed to, Olympic VIP's (read: Various Idiotic Prats). Obviously, such VIPs had much more important things to attend to then actually watch an Olympic event. As I say, shameful.

The Bizarre. We go now to fencing, where a young South Korean girl was in a close match. As the clock wound down, she scored a go-ahead point, but with one second remaining, THE TIMER STOPPED. No big deal, you might say. I mean, all the girl had to do was back up on the ramp (or piste, as it is termed) and she would advance. Hell, even a non-fencer would succeed in such a case. But, oh no. The officials hemmed and hawed over the machine, a process that took some 25 minutes, with a now crying athlete forced to stay on the piste when all this was occurring. Finally, these paragons of athletic justice made their decision. The timer was re-set, and the match began all over again. Needless to say, the South Korean girl, now an emotional wreck, lost the match. This, then, a lovely example of common sense being trumped by bureaucratic paranoia.

The Gutsy. The bone-jarring, sinew-straining sport of badminton now comes to our attention. Owing to a somewhat insane of match grouping, it can and did result in teams finding it more profitable to lose a match, in order to face a weaker opponent later on. Badminton itself is wildly popular in South-East Asia, where most of the officials come from. As two matches of this ilk took place, the crowds in attendance (minus, of course, those VIPs referred to earlier) rained down their disapproval. I fully expected their displeasure to be ignored. After all, the teams, from China, South Korea, and Indonesia were from the "home" area, as it were. Lo and behold, however, badminton officials, as did Lady Macbeth, "put their courage to the sticking place" and turfed the teams right out of the competition. As well, they vowed that from this point on, there would be blind cross matches to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Well bowled, guys!

The Ridiculous. I will give the Saudis some credit for allowing two women to participate in the Games (although not without some severe arm-twisting by Olympic chief Jacques Rogge). I will give them no credit at all for insisting that one of the women, entered in the Judo competition, wear her hijab. At no point, of course, did we hear her views on the matter. When the appropriate Judo officials indicated wearing a hijab was forbidden for safety reasons, something the Saudis would have known in advance, they objected, and threatened to withdraw their women from the Games. Unlike the badminton officials referred to above, these officials caved, and the woman was allowed to wear a 'specially-designed' covering. Now I know from experience that Judo is a fabric-gripping sport, and wearing any kind of fabric around the head or neck make strangulation a very real possibility. This appeared to worry the Saudis not at all. I mean, we are talking about a woman here......

The Petty. Some of the VIPs have let it be known that the opening ceremonies went on too long. All those countries joyously marching in and all. You'd think that the athletes were the most important aspect of the Games. Silly thought.

The Awkward. The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius -- fastest, highest, strongest. There seems, however, to be a recent addition to these three: the prettiest. In some events, it is not just that you have performed an athletic feat, but how good you looked while doing it. Synchronized swimming is perhaps the best example, but gymnastics and platform diving also fall under this rubric. Thus we move from a performance per se to an interpretation of that performance. I wonder what Baron de Coubertin would have thought about all this?

So there. And I will now make myself a martini, a drink that, in a certain competition some years ago, I received my very own gold medal from the bartenders at the old Gollywog Lounge at New York's Taft Hotel. Have a nice weekend.

Friday, July 27, 2012

On The Unpredictable

At the request of Sir Harry, I had been asked to review the security arrangements for the London Olympics. After a rather intensive review, I signalled that all seemed to work, save for the completely unexpected. Sir Harry, in his usual gruff way, asked just what the hell I meant.

So I told him.

I indicated that the problem had been best put by Donald Rumsfeld, in one of the few statements he had made that made sense: his reference to "unknown knowns and unknown unknowns". It is here, in my opinion, that the real security issue lies, and we have good evidence for the premise.

To wit: Marc Lepine, who took it upon himself to murder fourteen women at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique. No one saw this coming, and it was only through later research that his hatred of women came to light. Before the act, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Thus King Duncan's observation in Macbeth about the betrayal of the Thane of Cawdor (and something instinctively known by every successful poker player): "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face / He was a gentleman upon whom I placed an absolute trust." And at this point Macbeth enters....but I digress.

To wit: The attack on the World Trade Center. Here things get a bit complex. The attack was certainly unexpected, but unlike the Lepine situation,  there were some clues, not the least of which was the pilot training programs that the 9 / 11 Saudis enrolled in. Their only interest was in learning take offs and mid-air flying -- landing was of no interest whatsoever. This was noticed by several FBI field agents, and the warnings forwarded to their superiors in Washington. Of course, given that such information was sent by lowly field agents, the 'experienced' superiors ignored these warnings. (I have often wondered what happened to these agents. Probably counting ice worms in Barrow, Alaska, or hunting down gator poachers in The Everglades. We should be told.)

To wit: The massacre in Aurora, Colorado at the theatre showing the new Batman film. It is this type of situation that should worry Sir Harry and all others in charge of security at public events. No indications whatsoever were given. The perpetrator, one James Holmes, was an 'A' student in the field of neuroscience, and seen as industrious, clean-cut, and an all round good guy.

The only tip off would have been the number of guns he had purchased, but this raises no flags in the land of the free and home of the brave. So aided and abetted by five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, who could not get their pointy heads around the ablative absolute embedded in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ** (to say nothing of the pernicious effect of the National Rifle Association lobby) Mr. Holmes road to carnage was open.

It is only now that we are finding out that not all was as it seemed, given Mr. Holmes relationship with a psychiatrist. This, of course, is typical, and, if security is your profession, the stuff of nightmares.

And what of James Holmes now? Well, if you compare his 'before' pictures with those taken after the shooting, it's hard to believe they're the same person. A good looking young man is now a haggard shell, and brings to mind a statement upon which I will conclude: If you dance with the devil, the devil won't change.

But you will.

** The Amendment gives the right to bear arms only to the militia (now the armed forces and the states' National Guard.) This was crystal clear to the Founders, who knew their Latin, but not clear at all to the majority of Americans, who don't.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The War On Drugs. Not

My friend from the CIA, Matilda Hatt, got in touch the other day, and relayed an interesting anecdote. Apparently Tilly was given the task of delivering a package to a source in Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez to be exact. Just what the package contained was none of my business, and I refrained from asking. Professional courtesy, you understand.

The drop off was not far from the border at El Paso, so Tilly decided to walk back. Reaching a small city square, she espied a fruit stand. The peaches looked particularly good, and Tilly decided she wanted one. As she was paying the rather scruffy fruit stand attendant, she became conscious that all had gone very quiet. She heard the attendant mutter some curse, and saw him withdraw an AK 47 from underneath the stand. Then a shot rang out, and the attendant fell forward, shot through the head.

Tilly next saw four men approaching, armed to the teeth, with one brandishing a machete. Tilly, being not exactly unaware of these things, assumed the machete was to enable beheading, the classic calling card of the Zeta drug gang. Well, thought Tilly, not this time.

She grabbed the AK 47, checked that it was loaded, and as the men neared poked the weapon out from behind some cantaloupes and opened fire. The machete bearer went down, followed by two other gang members. The fourth, seeing his compatriots writhing on the ground, ran away, instantly realizing that he had other things to do, other places to be, and other people to see.

Tilly also decided that it would be best to get the hell out of there, her actions being a tad off the CIA reservation. She wiped the rifle clear of her prints, dropped it by the (late) fruit stand attendant, and took off. She did, however, remember to grab a peach, which she later informed me was delicious.

All this caused me to think of the phrase 'War on Drugs' as a massive misnomer. I mean, you declare war on a group, a country, a nation -- entities that are at least animate. The phrase could even be stretched a bit to include malarial mosquitoes or the elm bark beetle. (Torontonians, I know, would dearly love to have a war against raccoons officially sanctioned).  Calling something a war on drugs, however, is akin to declaring war on flagpoles, catch basins, buttons, or whatever.

Furthermore, it a strange war indeed where the ones at war are the very people giving enormous sustenance to the enemy. In North America, the biggest market for drugs is the U.S.A., who came up with the "War on Drugs' phrase in the first place. This is madness.

The way out of this morass is, of course, legalization, something only brave little Uruguay is seriously considering. In my view, I would start with marijuana, then, if this approach is successful, work up to heroin and cocaine (although not the crack variety). Amphetamines, ecstasy and other chemical concoctions would, however, be a bridge too far. Besides, law enforcement personnel have to be left with something to do. No point in swelling the unemployment rolls.

The current drug gangs could actually form a real cartel, along the lines of OPEC. I would also encourage the drug producers to consider IPO's and list on the world's stock exchanges. Thus public reports would become the norm, and if there were any hostile takeovers, these would occur in the boardroom using legal writs rather than bullets in the town square. Thus I can envision investing in such entities as The Zeta Corporation, or Guzman and Sons, or MaryJane Unlimited. It's all good.

As for profits, governments should tax heavily as done with alcohol and cigarettes, with the proceeds broken down as follows: 30% to general revenue; 30% to deficit reduction; 30% to rehab sites; 10% to administration.

Yet as long as the drug trade remains illegal, and as long as the U.S. and other countries remain heavily addicted, the carnage will continue, not the least of which occurs in Mexico. In this regard, the words of a former President of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, are worth citing: "Poor Mexico. So far from God and so close to the United States."

Well bespoke, Porfirio.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Southern Exposure

My daughter Victoria loomed large this week.this week.

Now Vicky is a first class historian and supplements her income by acting as the occasional 'victim' in various and sundry horror films. She was in the town of Belmont in North Carolina, and had been asked to give a lecture on some aspects of North Carolina history to the local Rotary Club. This was odd, and I could only surmise that there was some member of the Rotary Club that had caught her fancy. This proved to be the case -- "Oh, Mum, he's gorgeous!" -- and I was gratified to know that my mother's instincts in this type of situation still rang true.

Vicky's lecture topic had been well chosen: 'North Carolina Regiments in the Civil War: A Synonym for Bravery'. When all the graduates of American high schools had figured out the meaning of 'synonym', they surged to the lecture hall, and the event was a huge success. All this was good to know, but what was really interesting was what occurred when Vicky made her way back to her hotel, the Hampton Inn.

There she ran into a host of police, including a fully-kitted out SWAT team. Apparently a man had barricaded himself in his room, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to remove him. The SWAT team were negotiating, and were fully aware that the man might be heavily armed, given the U.S. Supreme Court's inability to discern the ablative absolute used in the Second Amendment to the American Constitution. They had reached a point in the negotiation where the man was making demands.

He wanted a pizza, which was at least a somewhat reasonable request, and encouraged the negotiator that a solution might be found. This approach, however, was blown out of the water when they received his second request -- that Paris Hilton be brought to him so that they could be married. This immediately indicated that the man was mentally unbalanced on a number of levels, not the least of which was his choice of bride. The negotiator threw up his hands, out came the pepper spray, and shortly after that the man, one Fredrick Denny, 61, was apprehended and sent off to jail and a much needed mental evaluation.

I thought Vicky's account of what happened was a bit cruel to Paris Hilton, who to my knowledge has never threatened to shoot anybody, but then young women in this regard resemble Arabs; they profess solidarity, then invade Kuwait.

Have a nice week.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Arma Higgsque Cano

I was happily plowing through Virgil's Aeneid when my physicist son Mark called from Switzerland, all agog about determining the existence of the Higgs Bosun. Hence the title of this report -- the 'arma' will become clear in a moment.**

I congratulated him and the other scientists at CERN, while at the same time a memory suddenly flooded into my mind. After he had rung off, still all excited, I recalled one of the first times the search for this elusive particle had focused my attention.

Now Peter Higgs had hypothesized the existence of this particle in 1964, on the grounds that if it didn't exist, there would be no mass to any other particle, hence no electrons, no atoms, no us. This approach to the universe is known as the Standard Model, and the Higgs Bosun is absolutely critical to its being taken seriously. All of which was in a sense germane to what happened in Mississippi about a decade ago.

Matilda Hatt of the CIA had asked for my help in uncovering an arms ring operating in Mississippi, and Sir Harry, my immediate boss in MI 6, had sanctioned this (wonder what he got in return?) so I was off to the Deep South. Now the CIA cannot operate within the U.S.A., and therefore Tilly had been seconded to the FBI for this operation. How this came about Tilly would dearly love to know to this day -- the two organizations operate within a Hatfield / McCoy context -- although she has her suspicions. Apparently there were rumours of sexual shenanigans in the CIA, and the FBI had found out some of the details. But she isn't sure, and after all, rumour is a bloodstain on silk.

A venue had been identified as a hangout of some of the perpetrators, a rather seedy bar on the outskirts of Biloxi. We needed some of the bar patrons to open up about the logistics of the arms operation. Tilly had rented a semi, with 'Tara Cotton Inc.' emblazoned on the side. We wore jean shorts and had on our T-shirts with the message 'Truckers For Christ'  prominently displayed. Tilly eased the big rig into the parking lot, and we entered the dimness of the bar, confident that we would be welcomed.

This proved the case, and the guys were generous in buying us several what they termed 'B and B's', to wit: local beer with a shot of bourbon. Both Tilly and I knew how to appear to drink without actually doing so, and no, not possible to relay the specifics -- the technique is still in use today in The Trade.

There was a TV set over the bar, and that's when a news item mentioned Peter Higgs, CERN and the search for the Higgs bosun. Elmer, one of our bar mates, asked the barkeep to turn the volume up, but the  news item had gone, to be replaced on the latest pork belly prices.

"I knew him, you see," said Elmer in words that were somewhat slurred.

"Knew who?" I asked.

"Billy Bob Craig," he replied. "He was the boatswain on the U.S.S. Higgs. I wonder why he, the Higgs bos'un, made the news?"

Tilly and I were dumbfounded, but let it pass. We still had work to do. When we had found out what we needed to know, we left, but the incident sticks in my mind. Oh, and shortly after, the FBI conducted a very successful raid, putting paid to the whole arms ring.

As for the Higgs bosun, I note that another name for it is 'the God Particle', and again I fail to understand that when anything that is of scientific interest, religion has to stick its barnacle-encrusted oar into it. On the other hand, the particle conceivably have links to existence itself, and I recall from my days at Oxford a quote from one of the Dons:

"I exist!" the man exclaimed to the universe.

And the universe replied, "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't feel any sense of obligation."


** The Lady's title is a play on the opening line of the Aeneid, Arma virumque cano -- 'I sing of arms and the man.' --ed.

Friday, June 29, 2012

MY Nobel Nominations

An interesting contretemps occurred during a trip to the airport (of which more later) that got me thinking of those processes that contribute mightily to making life easier, processes that I think that I think the Nobel Committee should give more consideration to. I am not so much concerned with a specific inventions here, although there's no denying that inventions such as zippers, can openers, intermittent windshield wipers and the like have facilitated things no end. Rather I was thinking of processes that do much to enhance social life.

Two instances come to mind.

1) The Nobel Committee should have sought out the person, group or organization who first conceived the 'one queue leading to many'. Now it has been many years since I have lined up at a bank (I mean, why else have staff?) but I can remember when I wore a younger woman's clothes never failing to pick the one line that never seemed to move. Others advanced well, but not mine, as a senior citizen simply had to discuss with the teller the trials of her Aunt Maud and those pesky bunions. Now, however, and given a similar situation, what I call the 'Prime Line' feeds into a number of secondary lines. To be sure, one line will be slow, but not all will, and life can go on. This process also has made airport baggage check-in easier, although its efficiency has been trumped by security examinations that edge on the pornographic.

2) The Committee should also unearth whoever saw the efficacy of adding a left hand turn lane to an intersection. Prior to this, one person making a left turn (or right turn in the UK) had it in his or her power to hold up everyone. Now the left-turners simply slide into their own lane while the non-turners can continue on their way. Good stuff, and a great diminisher of road rage.

Speaking of road rage, this was prominent in the incident that started this train of thought in the first place. I was in the backseat of the Bentley, Ahmad my driver was in charge, and we were in a long line of traffic leading to an up ramp to the expressway. To our right was a lane that was clearly marked, and had been from a fair distance, indicating that this was for right turns only, with no access to the ramp, and led to a street that went north from the up ramp.

We were close to the ramp, patiently waiting for the light to change. It did, and the line started forward. At this point, two cars, a Jaguar and BMW to be exact, had cheated by zooming along the near empty right hand lane and now made an effort to insert themselves into the ramp line. This enraged all those that had been patiently waiting in the line, and they were denied. The Jag came to an abrupt halt, and the BMW careened into it, although from my point of view no damage to either car was caused. Instantly two persons, best described as 'ladies who lunch', got out and began screaming at each other. This little scene brought everything to a halt, along with not a few comments from now trapped drivers along the lines of "You go, girls!"

I wasn't overly worried about violence with these two -- their hair-dos looked way too expensive to be put at risk, and their make-up was 'just so', although it looked like it had been put on by power tools. The invective continued, and was growing stronger. Maybe things would get nasty after all. Then the cops arrived, and attempted to establish order out of chaos. They weren't happy about this, and the expression on their faces indicated that perhaps they should have just done a FIDO.**

Soon all got straightened away, and the cars were directed up the street, which is where they should have gone in the first place. All of which told me that another 'process' was needed. It would, for instance, be entirely possible delineate the lane in question (via a prominent flashing light) by constructing a concrete barrier, a kind of Herman Kahn approach, if you will. This would make it impossible to turn in any direction but right. To be sure, this would cause pain when one realized that the ramp was not viable, but pain leads to learning, a Good Thing. (All we learn from pleasure is the principle of repeatability).

Or, in the words of Hermann Hesse, "Experience is a good school, but the fees are high."

** The good Lady again assumes too much. FIDO is cop-speak for "Fuck it. Drive on." -Ed.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sympathizing With Svetlana

A bit late with this post, but things happen. To be precise, my Russian colleague in The Trade, Svetlana Marinskaya,  dropped in unexpectedly, and we spent last evening going through two bottles of superb Chardonnay that she had 'obtained'  in Ukraine. Lana, you see, is a soccer nut, and had been swanning about Poland and Ukraine watching the matches. Until she wasn't.

Now Lana and I share a history. Indeed, in Vladivostock, we had spent some time trying to kill each other. Yes, we were together in The Trade, but on opposite sides. Astute readers will suss out that we were unsuccessful in this endeavour, in that we were now happily drinking together some ten years later. Nothing personal in this, you see.

Mementos of this tussle are still with us -- a bullet scar on my right shoulder and a similar scar on Lana's inner thigh. If I had aimed a bit higher, any child bearing on her part would have....well, enough of past battles. It all goes to show that bullets and real estate share something in common: what matters, in the words of Phil Spencer and Kirstie Alsop, is "location, location, location."

Given last night's tryst with the Chardonnay, my memory of what transpired is a bit hazy in spots, but I think I remember the gist. Lana had a great time bouncing around the various stadiums in Poland, but much less so in Ukraine, although she had visited my sugar beet plantation and was impressed. Not so much with the sugar beets, but more with my Ukrainian supervisor, Bohdan.

"He's kinda cute," she said. "And don't get me wrong," she stated. "Like Bohdan, the average Ukrainian was always very kind and helpful. There was, spot of trouble occurred when I came into conflict with the elite."

"The cronies of Viktor Yanukovych."

"Precisely. Can you imagine? There I was, having paid top ruble for a seat in the Kiev stadium. Just before the game started, I was told to vacate the seat. Some nephew or other had suddenly decided to attend. I was escorted out of the stadium by two "government officials". Bloody thugs, actually. In the passageway leading out of the stadium, the two nodded in deference to the nephew who was just entering. I mean, REALLY. What was a girl to do?"


"The three of them wound up in some hospital or other, and are now tending to various broken arms and legs. At that point I decided to get the hell out. No point in joining poor Yuliya in some godforsaken prison."

"Speaking of Yuliya," I put in, "what I cannot understand is why Putin hasn't resolved that situation. After all, it was she who made that oil and gas deal with old Vladimir, from which Russia has profited handsomely."

"Ah," said Lana, a touch of sorrow in her voice, "Vladimir is not the man he was. He wants to be loved and adored by the people, and the fact that a slew of people are rather vehemently protesting his policies (or lack of them) well, it grates.  He is, in my opinion, beginning to choke. Just like the Russian soccer club did. Unless there is some kind of epiphany -- "

"And pigs will fly," I interrupted.

Lana stared. "What on earth do flying pigs have to do with it?"

We had been talking in Russian, save for that last bit. Lana's English wasn't bad, but idioms are tricky. I explained the reference, and, after thinking for a moment, declared, "So, as we would say, 'And the Volga will flow no more.'"

"You have it."

At this point Lana launched into a detailed description of the various soccer matches she had attended. All of this is ill remembered -- the Chardonnay -- but one thing stuck in my mind, the perfect name of a professional athlete. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Bastien Schweinsteiger.

Auf Weidersehen.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Conversing With A Colleague

Sir Peter Crapp dropped in to the Manor on his way back from Beijing, where he had been on assignment. He had yet to report his findings to Sir Harry, so I took it as a compliment to be in on the ground floor, so to speak. We hared off to one of my favourite pubs, The Libidinous Leek, and were soon ensconced with pints of Best Boddington and awaiting the arrival of sustenance. The pub's Ploughman's Lunch was, as I knew from past experience, excellent, and it came with a bowl of leek and Stilton soup that was simply superb. So Voltaire: "Apres tout, le monde est passable."

"And how," I began, "are things in The Forbidden Kingdom?"

"We'll get to that," Sir Peter replied, "but before I forget, Wei Ling sends her regards. She still feels much in your debt for your help in what we now call The North Korean Incident."

"Good Lord, that was six, no seven years ago. As you know, it was a bit of nip and tuck, but Miss Wei certainly did her part. Very good with a knife, as I recall. Do let her know that I appreciate the remembrance. I learned a lot from her."

"So did the North Koreans. They still have a contract out on both of you."

I shrugged. "Well, they'll just have to get in line. Now what really is going on there?"

"A number of issues," Sir Peter replied, "but two in particular stand out. First, the machinations and intrigues involved in the coming change in leadership are vicious, and totally shrouded in mystery. Even some of the highest officials are at a loss in terms of predicting a winning faction. Sir Harry will be displeased."

"Too bad. Sometimes the magic doesn't work. And the second issue?"

At that point the soup arrived, and conversation ceased. A good leek and Stilton soup will have that effect.

All too soon, all was consumed, and Sir Peter raised the second issue irritating those in Cathay.

"The ruling elite," he said, "are very, very upset with the West over the carnage in Syria. They are taking their lumps at the U.N. Security Council, and they think the West's position is not well thought out. To their mind, and given some Muslim difficulties on their northern border, it is the enemy killing the enemy, and the term 'collateral damage' doesn't signify. In addition, Chinese action in support of rebels against the authority of the state....well, do the math.

"That 'collateral damage' you mention involves a great many women and children."

"We are talking Chinese realpolitik here," Sir Peter countered. "Remember, they hold figures such as Metternich and Bismarck in high regard. Hell, they thought for a time that Henry Kissinger was one of them."

"So they will not likely sanction any armed intervention."

"That's what I will report to Sir Harry."

At this point I reached into my purse and withdrew a small book entitled From The Heart by someone with the improbable name of Bull Taco. "And will you also be reporting on this poetry book?"

"How did you....oh, never mind. Someone somewhere was going to make a connection. I should have guessed that you would be one of the first. Yes, the poems are mine and -- "

"And they're quite good, my friend. And the heart has reasons --"

"I know the quote.** But enough. Our plowman's lunches have arrived. I must say, they look really --"


And so they were.

** These two are more widely read than is good for them. The quote is from Blaise Pascal's Pensees, and is as follows: The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. Ed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Brouhaha At Bilderberg

I had accepted an invitation to attend the Annual Conference of the Bilderberg Group, and, accompanied by my minder Irving, travelled to Chantilly in Virginia, where the Conference was being held that year. I arrived early and, given the town's name, went in search of some French lace. Greeted by storekeepers with blank stares, I gave up this quest, and retired to the hotel venue of the Conference, the Westfields Marriot.

This gathering of the great and the good was by invitation only, and it was a chance to exchange views with those people who had the power to actually do something if a situation warranted action. I had also been asked to present a paper on the current mess that is global finance, and suggest a possible way out. Since a solution to all this fiscal sturm und drang was (at least to me) glaringly obvious, I was pleased to comply.

My thesis was a simple one. I began by indicating that globally there was more than enough cash floating around to solve, not just the current crisis (Greece et al) but any others that might rear their dandruffy heads. Billions of Dollars, Euros, Yen, Pounds, Yuan, and numerous other currencies are in play. They are, however, locked in the frozen sea of nationalism, and hence extraction is difficult.

"Therefore gentlemen," (there were few ladies present) "I would posit that the next saviour of the world will not come from religion, but will come from that person or group that solves the problem of EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION. Not easy, but given the excellence of the minds gathered here, a solution surely can be found."

This statement received a stony glare from two Divines that were present, but this was not the time or place to debate religion. The problem was a real one, and imaginary friends would be of little help.

"There will," I continued, "be several difficulties, not the least of which are the objections by people described by former Secretary of Labour,Willard Wirtz, as 'those who want by the yard, but try by the inch, should be kicked by the foot.' So," I said, looking right at the Divines, "along with prayer, there is effort."

"The second difficulty lies in perception. The world now is seen as a pastiche of separate entities. This is rubbish, as Marshall McLuhan well knew. It has become a global village, and must be dealt with as such. At present, what I am hearing all too often are voices screaming at each other, "Your end of the boat is sinking!"

"Finally, and I leave you with this conundrum, there is a monumental amount of work that needs doing, and yet we have unemployment on a ridiculous scale. Why the disconnect? A question for bright minds, and I would suggest that it is high time we get to answering that conundrum."

The address received only half-hearted applause. To be expected, I guess; after all, I was asking them to work for a better world, not profit from the existing one. Considering this, and to relay to readers that I don't hold religious belief in total contempt, I recall words from a Jesuit teacher who, after I had not done well at something or other, said, "Simone, God doesn't ask that you succeed. He simply asks that you try."

Fair enough.