Thursday, May 29, 2003

Bob Geldof, Fiscal Policy Expert

For a small country, Ireland has a lot of variation in accents. And we draw a lot of conclusions from people's accents. And for that reason, many of us Irish could always tell from Sir (or is that Saint?) Bob Geldof's accent, that he was full of you know what. Here's a quote from him, gleefully being picked up by Andrew Sullivan because of its pro-Bush anti-Clinton slant:

You'll think I'm off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical - in a positive sense - in its approach to Africa since Kennedy

Bob needs to be told that with this administration, there are some fine speeches, but the fine details are a Great Song of Indifference. Here's the truth about the Bush AIDS package with which Bob is in love (via Eric Alterman via Brad DeLong):

"Bush's budget for next year would devote $2 billion to the AIDS initiative, instead of the $3 billion first installment directed in the law. Similarly, his 2004 budget would channel one-fifth of the $1 billion specified in the law to a fledgling international AIDS fund." Moreover, "the White House has recommended cuts in funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, a major source of payment for HIV/AIDS services, and that federal aid to state programs that subsidize AIDS therapies has not kept pace with the demand."
Now we know what Dubya and Bertie talked about

We had wondered a little while back what the much hyped Belfast summit between Dubya, Tony, and Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern had achieved, other than using Northern Ireland as a prop for the Iraq war buildup. But yesterday's questions to Bertie in the Dail (Irish parliament) revealed that Bertie has acquired a very negative view of Congress's role in approving nominees for federal positions, which is the basis of his opposition to allowing the Dail a role in approving irish government nominees. Given that Dubya has been ranting recently about the difficulty of getting (two of) his judicial nominees confirmed, maybe he unloaded on Bertie about his problems. Here is the exchange where Bertie was being extremely frank about his views of the US process:

The Taoiseach: I do not agree with bringing [nominees] before committees. As I said yesterday, we find it difficult enough to bring legislation before committees, never mind establishing a Star Chamber such as that which operates in the United States where somebody is brought before a board and a crowd of backwoods people spend about a year trying to dig up something on the nominee to try to ridicule the nominee. I do not agree with this.

Mr. Boyle: Is the Taoiseach saying [Irish] Members are backwoodsmen?

Ms McManus: What does the Taoiseach mean by "backwoodsmen"? He should clarify what he means.
The Taoiseach should withdraw that comment.

Ms McManus: I do not think he should withdraw it before he clarifies what he means by "backwoods" person.

The Taoiseach: I am glad to explain. What happens in the US and it is well know is that when someone is before a board people working for the political system spend an endless amount of effort in trying to get something to throw at the person so that they can have a Star Chamber that goes on for weeks. Most of the time they end up appointing the person anyway.

Mr. G. Mitchell: The FBI does it for them.

The Taoiseach: I would not like to see this happening in Leinster House, ever.

Can a complaint from the US ambassador to Ireland be far behind? But wait, there is no ambassador.
Dis-United Kingdom

There's a piece of conventional wisdom about how to run post-war Iraq that had us wondering from the moment we heard it. It's that British troops are well placed to administer a restive civilian population because of their experience in Northern Ireland. This was such a dubious piece of conventional wisdom that the debunking cycle worked even quicker than usual. Here's an article making some pretty obvious criticisms -- but it's characteristic of the Bush administration to have some head-scratching justifications for policies out there, so the obvious criticisms have to be made (and duly ignored). We'd like to add just one basic point in addition to the pretty tarnished record (collusion, Bloody Sunday) to which the article draws attention. Whatever one's opinions about national boundaries, Iraq was a sovereign independent country invaded, for good or ill, by the US and the UK. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom -- or when the spouters of conventional wisdom make these analogies, do they have in mind that Northern Ireland is really not part of the UK? Even the vast majority of us in Ireland whose ability with the Irish language is terrible know how to translate the old IRA slogan, Tiocfaidh ar la. Our day will come. But how does one say Our day is already here?

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Style this!

Pity the New York Times. But not because of the Blair fiasco. Or the Bragg scandal. Or even the Miller-Burns spat. No, what's got us talking is how the paper of record recently found itself doing backflips trying to define certain terms not normally seen in its pages. While we're all for modesty and propriety here at BOBW, in these particular instances we can't help but note that the incognoscenti would have had no idea what the writers were talking about.

Both stories were printed on May 23. The first was a piece by Kefela Sanneh about a new female rap band, and in particular their hit song "Cameltoe."

Cameltoe [he writes] is slang for a fashion faux pas caused by women wearing snug pants; the term suggests a visual analogy.

We assume that Mr. Sanneh would have used a term like "front-wedgie" had the Times style police allowed it. He does note that the band is more explicit than he can be:

The song's lyrics explain the condition more forthrightly: 'Girl, that gotta hurt, take some time and adjust/ Can't you see people staring and making a fuss?'

Note too that the female rap band that sings the song "Cameltoe" is named "Fannypack." (Translation for our readers across the pond: this refers to an strange American fashion choice, not a strange American sexual practice.)

But even less clear was this line, in the very same issue, found in a review of "Tipping the Velvet," a rather silly, though fun, BBC miniseries (based on the terrific book by Sarah Waters):

'Tipping the Velvet'' takes its title from a Victorian term for a sexual act common among lesbians...

well, sure, and some non-lesbians, too... but does that really narrow it down?

Oh for the innocent days when New York Times style gymnastics related mostly to a certain rotund pomp rocker: Mr Loaf.

Ireland's war on booze

Forget the war on terrorism or the halcyon days of the war on poverty: the Republic of Ireland is in the midst of a crisis about the demon drink. Despite the long-standing stereotype, the trends show fairly clearly that what brought alcohol consumption to crisis point was the dramatic gain in wealth over the last 15 years. Symbolically, the crisis has therefore arrived just as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development declares that the Celtic Tiger boom that brought it about is dead. And we are not going to engage in any kind of contrarian nonsense (there really isn't a problem, it was always like this) -- Ireland really does have a drink problem. It's just not clear what the problem is.

The symptoms are clear -- the main street of any Irish town can be an edgy place after midnight, when the pubs empty out, and hospitals treat inordinate numbers of drink-related cases. Of course, these wayward tendencies interact with a culture where drinking is accessible, socially acceptable, and still fairly cheap. And yet closing times are still restrictive by Continental European standards, and Irish beer has lower alcohol content than in many other countries. Indeed the latter feature (shared with Britain) explains why even the Irish lager lout with some degree of self-discipline finds himself getting drunker than he expected on those overseas holidays. So there's a sense in which we just can't handle the booze the way other people can. Then again, the yout (sic) of Ireland could be forgiven for the mixed messages, because our Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern's favourite prop for his "man of the people" pose is a pint.

Anyway, the government's response to the sense of crisis is a fairly predictable step-up in enforcement of hours and age restrictions and a broadside against alcohol sponsorship of sports teams. But they are really trying to stop the tide on that one because the alcohol = sport message will still beam in undisturbed from the UK. It's not clear that they are really getting at what it is in the Irish character that (in some cases) makes for these fairly sudden transitions from reasonable and well-behaved to alienated and aggressive. We don't have any bright ideas about this problem either.

Monday, May 26, 2003

It's not trash, it's European

Anyone trying to argue for the superiority of European to American popular culture has to deal with the difficult obstacle of the Eurovision song contest, about which we posted last week. Monday's New York Times has an accurate US perspective on the proceedings. This is no different from American Idol, except with an overlay of nationality (and by extension, national history). Which perhaps is what keeps it a little more interesting. The contest itself sprang a few surprises: Russian shlock duo Tatu sang fully clothed, and drew boos from the Latvian crowd -- whether for the presence of their clothes, or the more prosaic matter of the 50 year colonisation of Latvia by Russia, we don't know. And the contest was won by Turkey, represented by an established local pop star, going against the western trend of selecting unknowns via reality TV shows to represent the nation. But getting back to the trash factor, maybe the reason the Eurovision is able to rise above it is the ability to invest it with some deeper cultural significance. And this year it surely became emblematic of western european fears about what a new eastward orientation would make europe look like: staged in Latvia, dominated in the run-in by Russia, won by Turkey.

At least the mainland was able to unite around the objective of putting the boot into the Brits, whose entry finished last with no points from any other country. The poor showing was attributed to widespread resentment at Britain's prominent role in Iraq, and its reticence over joining the single currency -- but possibly also to the fact that they were completely out of key for their entire performance. Nevertheless, this apparent uniting of popular sentiment against the UK will surely give the British another reason to be wary of proposals now floating around for a stronger elected federal component to the European Union. British commentators are already dubbing a putative directly elected European Union president the new Holy Roman Emperor, although we doubt the previous occupants of that position envisaged a world where their successors would be selected by reality TV shows and text messaging -- don't rule out the possibility of those wacky Europeans finding other uses for all that Eurovision infrastructure.

Friday, May 23, 2003

A Baltic showdown

A reader reminds us that we have inexplicably failed to blog about Europe's finest cultural event, the Eurovision song contest. We think it's a sign that Ireland has matured a bit that we don't anchor our national self-esteem to the winning and/or hosting of this contest anymore. But there was a time when a more demoralised nation used our bizarre success in the Eurovision as a collective upper. This tendency was evident with the years of euphoria following the victory of Rosemary Scallon, Member of the European Parliament, in 1970. She was not a MEP at the time, and was known as Dana -- a name since confusingly coopted by a transexual Israeli pop star. Ireland then embarked on a seemingly effortless streak of victories in the contest beginning in the mid-1980s -- and since the winner in one year hosts the next year, the national broadcaster RTE came to curse our success. Nevertheless, fortunes were made from the hosting years, most notably because the intermission show one year was used to showcase a then novel act called Riverdance. The rest is (some kind of) history. Anyway, this year's proud host is Latvia, and in a brilliant PR stunt, the contest has attracted much needed controversy via the Russia entry, the supposed teenage lesbian duo called Tatu. They are favourites to win. Indeed, as the BBC says,

Tatu's manager had asked whether the girls, 18-year-olds Lena Katina and Julia Volkova, had to wear clothes while playing their song in the 48th Eurovision Song Contest.

I don't think he cared what the answer was.
Add the half cent to the cent

There once was a time when one left Ireland, a land of few jobs and correspondingly low prices, for other countries with lots of jobs and higher prices knowing at least that you'd have good purchasing power on the occasional trips home. Well, for the Irish emigrants in the USA, this upside to being abroad is well and truly dead. We were already counting the squeeze induced by the ever weaker dollar and now comes an Irish government report confirming what we already suspected -- that the Republic has the highest consumer price level within the eurozone countries. That qualifier eurozone is important because of course our nearest neighbour, the UK, is not included. In fact, it's the relative familiarity of Irish people with UK, and only UK, prices that has sustained the illusion within the Republic that it is a still a cheap place to live. Like just about everyone, we experience monstrous sticker-shock on those trips to London and all of a sudden Dublin seems like a bargain. But head east rather than west from London, and it's a different story. Somehow the Irish have an image of Paris prices derived from visions of fabulous historic apartments, tailored shirts for corrupt former prime ministers, and urban legends of a friend of a friend who once paid 5 quid for a glass of coke. But whether one considers the tourist-friendly activities like eating out, or social services like education and health, France is not that expensive. It's the 3 things we just mentioned where Ireland is the bad boy of the eurozone, price-wise. Nevertheless, the weak dollar is not Ireland's fault. We wonder at what point the parents will start sending remittances to us.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

The ultimate argument against globalisation

Perhaps in the same way that Chinese people are likely bewildered by what is sold as "chinese food" around the world, the Irish Guinness drinker could well be horrified at some of the experiments the once Irish company is conducting with the nectar of the Gods -- in the safety of other countries. In today's Wall Street Journal -- not standard fare in Dublin's autentic (sic) bars, I know -- we learn the following:

That Guinness experimented with FastPour technology in English pubs, to get the process of pulling a pint of stout down from 2 minutes to 25 seconds. In what must be seen as a tribute to the English pubgoer, the drinkers were very unimpressed, and bar owners were not too keen either:
Bar owners felt [the 2 minute pour] creates some theater in the bar. [Guinness spokeswoman]

By which I don't think they were referring to the fights that break out after excessive consumption. But that doesn't mean that other attempts at marketing to infidels will be shelved:

Guinness is in the midst of a three-month trial in Tokyo of a new system dubbed Guinness Surger. With Guinness Surger, a bartender pours a pint from the bottle [i.e. it's not draft] and places the glass on a special plate, where it is zapped with ultrasound waves that generate the characteristic head.

The horror, the horror.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Mad politician disease

It looks to us like the Canadian government has already managed its first blunder following the news that a cow in Alberta was found to have mad cow disease. Check out this picture of PM Chretien eating beef, in a step to assure Canadians and the world that beef is safe. Frankly, Chretien is a bit odd looking anyway so even on that basis we're not sure this was the right way to go about it. But more seriously, we've never understood the chain of logic we're supposed to be following here: politican eats beef therefore beef is safe? If mad cow disease does transmit to humans, the process takes years, if not decades. It's not like these guys are working as our tasters and will develop the human version of the disease instantaneously. And to everyone in Britain, a photo of a politician trying to get everyone enthusiastic about eating beef is going to recall only one thing -- the disastrous pictures of then Agriculture Minister John Gummer forcing his reluctant daughter to bite into a hamburger in 1990. His daughter wisely demurred but he chomped away. It made for dreadful footage even at the time, and we now know that there were many human cases still in the pipeline when this pathetic display was going on. The French experience has shown that the only way to convince people that beef is safe is to assure them that you can trace each piece of beef all the way back to the grassy meadow from which it came, with no weird feedstuffs entering the chain in between. Political stunts won't do it.

UPDATE: we think, but are not sure, that PM Chretien gets the idea that his eating beef is far from definitive proof that beef is safe:
"The prime minister of France will have beef today -- Canadian western beef," Mr. Chretien told reporters. "I had it yesterday and look how healthy I am this morning."
Weird Iraq war postscript

By general consensus one of the rhetorical highlights of the Iraq war was provided in the speech given by Tim Collins to his Royal Irish Regiment troops headed to southern Iraq. The contrast with the ineloquence of some of the speeches coming from politicians was noted. But now comes the unsettling news that Collins himself is being investigated for war crimes. Apparently the investigation follows a complaint from a US officer who observed some incidents between the RIR and Iraqi locals. Collins is denying everything and at least one journalist who was with him for much of the war is backing him up. But with the lustre already fading from the victory, this is not what was needed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Another crazy British court case you'll soon hear about

A while back we posted about the bizarre Millionaire scam trial, in which a threesome was alleged to have coughed its way to the top prize on the quiz show. Now there's an even stranger case featuring that Powers-esque number of one million dollars. A rich businessman is suing a rabbi who he says spread the false rumour that the businessman had offered the said one million dollars for another man's wife. (Maybe it's not coveting if it's followed up with an offer of purchase). The case hasn't started yet but is in the news because it previously had very un-American reporting restrictions, but the businessman successfully applied to have those restrictions lifted. Needless to say, the media simply can't resist the real-life Indecent Proposal angle so the unrestricted reporting will be a godsend for them. We need to do some more research on this tech-boom businessman, Mr Brian Maccaba, because the English media say he's English, the Irish media say he's Irish, while both agree he is a convert to Judaism. We don't know if he had the Israel-friendly surname before he converted.
Simon says, but Niall gets bashed

Trendy Scottish historian Niall Ferguson must feel like a lightning rod for American sensitivity about starting a new empire when he reads the letters to the editor after one of his articles appears, as in this example responding to a recent New York Times magazine piece. But what exactly is Niall's controversial neo-imperialist opinion? Basically, that British history marks a victory of solid instincts even as mistakes were made, the Empire wasn't all bad, the world can use the "right" kind of foreign interventions, but Americans may not have the fortitude for empire building, and apparently not the willingness to put up the requisite cash (at least under the current president). Even allowing for the controversial aspects of this, it's not much different from trendy English historian Simon Schama's view of the world, and yet Simon doesn't attract the same kind of hostility. Check out this interview with Simon from the London Times, containing the following highlights:

A bid for Private Eye's Pseud's Corner
[asked for historical parallels to Iraq war]
"The widening of the Atlantic rift in terms of the historical memory in Europe began as an exercise in cautionary pessimism. I mean Thucydides, the trajectory of it, leads you towards Syracuse, you know, and the debates over Syracuse because Alcibiades and Nicias which are just . . ."
[interviewer calls a halt at this point]

[justification for the Iraq war]
I do believe there were horrible things lurking in Iraq even if we haven't found them, and I do think the pond needed to be drained. It was entirely likely that they would get into the hands of people like al-Qaeda -- and even if they hadn't, it was absolutely clear that Saddam, over a period of time, wanted to be the extortionate lever in that part of the region.

[on Bush fiscal policy]
No, not in terms of the war, but of what we are up for now: that it may be a little difficult to have however many tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand, people policing and stabilising this part of the world over the next five years while you cut every single tax you can think of and fund social security and prevent Medicare from completely collapsing. There's an amazing Wizard of Oz craziness about basic sums...Whether you can finance that and be an empire is deeply moot. It's traditionally what breaks all empires

[getting more Fergian now....]
America is deeply about tourism, going there and coming back to air-conditioning. Britain wasn't. The Victorians were willing to build Tunbridge Wells in Simla [victorian India resort]

Maybe if Niall was just a little bit sillier, his opinions wouldn't raise quite so many hackles. Perhaps that's the plan.

Monday, May 19, 2003

So funny we don't know when to laugh

On NBC's Saturday Night Live, there are those unfunny skits that go on for another ten minutes, as Krusty the clown would say. And then there are the unfunny skits that go on for another ten minutes that they inexplicably bring back for more performances. And so it is with "Top O' The Morning,", a supposed morning TV show on RTE 2 (bizarrely specific, that little detail) that we have now seen twice on SNL. In the most recent performance, the two hosts of the show, the Fitzpatricks, were joined by the father of one of them, also a Fitzpatrick, played by Dan Ackroyd. Fitzpatrick Snr had 19 kids. The kids were drinking. The hosts were drinking, and fighting, and punching holes in walls. It's not even that this stuff is offensive -- we think most Irish have stopped caring about these stereotypical portrayals, because there was no visible sign that they were actually doing the country much harm, and readers of the Irish news on any given day might think that there is really something to that drinking and fighting stereotype anyway. But we're still lost -- are we supposed to be laughing at the simple phsyical comedy, at the over-the-top Irishness, or at the irony of a comedy routine based on century old images of Irish people? Is one of the players acting out their own little grudge against Ireland -- perhaps arising from dealing with an overly glib flight attendant on Aer Lingus on his flight over? (we'd understand that, having experienced that species ourselves). Or is the audience just cracking up (as they seem to be doing) because they know that, after all, it's SNL, it must be funny? We really want to know.
If they're against it, we're for it

An interesting article in Saturday's New York Times discussed the thesis that modern anti-semitism finds ritual denunciation but sneaking approval amongst European elites because of the post 1945 European disgust with nationalism. Thus the Jewish people had the poor timing (in the view of the chattering classes) to be seeking their own state based on identity -- and projecting the power of the state in very traditional fashion i.e. war -- at precisely the time that Europe lost faith in this model. Or as the article says,

Israel's nationalism, its military and its particularism offend Europe's left-wing universalism and anti-globalization sympathies and recall the catastrophic past.

We think this is an interesting idea, but we're not sure it has all the loose ends taken care of. Can France be characterised as a state disillusioned with nationalism? Je crois que Non! And then the thesis should have some predictions, like attitudes to Israel might be different in parts of Europe where nationalism is still accepted currency (e.g. Ireland, the Basque country, the Balkans) from parts where it is not (e.g. Germany). Or at least we'd expect an understanding amongst the former groups that Israel and the Palestinians are both fighting for a national identity -- and don't simply form another convenient element to the uninformed sloganeering about Zapatistas (or is it Baristas?) that passes for dissent in some of the protests we have witnessed. Anyway, in Ireland, the mapping of our local difficulty into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complicated. For a long time, Irish nationalists were willing to share our claim as Most Oppressed People Ever with the Jewish people. But there's been a definite trend over the last 30 years to view the Palestinians as the victims and therefore the state of Israel as the oppressor. But where does that leave the Unionists? In almost comic fashion, extreme Unionists have not hesitated the draw the logical conclusion and hitch their wagon to Israel. This article from the Observer last year provides a sample of the resulting thinking:

Rebel, Adair's [loyalist extremist] pet Alsation, has become the latest member of the Ulster loyalist community to display support for Ariel Sharon's assault on the West Bank and Gaza. Last Monday afternoon the UDA commander's four-legged friend was seen being taken for a walk along Belfast's Shankill Road with the Star of David flag wrapped around its body.

Sadly for the Belfast chapter of Likud, Adair is now in jail and his followers fled to Scotland after being on the losing side of an internal feud with other loyalists. We don't know who got the dog.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Rick Santorum is angry at numbers

Friday's Wall Street Journal
... "We are fixated way too much in this Congress on numbers,"
-- Sen. Rick "Beavis" Santorum, in a committee exchange over the impact of tax cuts on U.S. deficits.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Conrad and Tony, hire some editors

It doesn't quite rank with the inconsistent stories coming out about British intelligence activities aimed at the IRA, but there's an incredible sloppiness to the way the Irish Independent and the Daily Telegraph handle their big analysis pieces on Freddie affair. Both papers are owned by rich guy press barons: Tony O'Reilly owns the Independent, and perhaps aspires to be more like Conrad Black, who owns the Telegraph, amongst many other publications. Both today carry a seemingly identical article by Ed Moloney, an expert on the IRA. Nothing wrong with that, there's not big overlap in readership and one assumes that each newspaper knew the article would be flogged to the other. But the Telegraph article informs us that most people are spelling Freddie's codename wrong; it should be:

"Steak Knife" (as he was first nicknamed - the erroneous spelling "Stakeknife" is a later mistake that has crept into the national press)

Fair enough. But disconcertingly, the Telegraph spells Moloney's own name incorrectly in the summary of the article. Meanwhile, the Independent does manage to spell Ed's name right, but the codename is now written as Stakeknife all the way through. The possibilities here? We'll leave that as an exercise. It does seem odd that someone who has studied the IRA for so long would not have been on top of such a basic spelling issue from the start. It's perhaps an overactive imagination, but the way we read it, he's dropping some hints there's an even bigger informer still to be unmasked. Someone with a beard.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

If using the word Crusade is considered dicey....

Remember how Dubya briefly spoke of the need for a Crusade in the Middle East following 9-11 before the negative connotations of that word were pointed out? There are other words like that. Over at the increasingly poisonous and hysterical OpinionJournal, they lead off with this:

Will May 12 bring about a Saudi epiphany the way Sept. 11 did for America?

[they repeat the usage in the May 15 and May 16 editions]

Let's go to the dictionary:

1. Epiphany
A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.
January 6, on which this feast is traditionally observed.
2. A revelatory manifestation of a divine being.
3a A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.
3b A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization: "I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself" (Frank Maier).

Even if they say they are relying on 3a or 3b, without the christianity, there is still a sense of an epiphany being positive. And we don't think 9-11 was a positive event, right?
He's not done yet

Things are getting odder in the Freddie affair. A minor point of confusion concerns the spelling of his alleged British intelligence codename: Stakeknife or Steakknife? But there's also the larger the question of where he is. Those unnamed sources we posted about yesterday had him at a secure location in England -- perhaps keeping an eye on those weapons of mass destruction that Iraq used to have. But today Freddie has confounded these stories by popping up in his solicitor's office in Belfast, although the reports we've seen so far are a little ambiguous about how much he said and how much was a statement read by his solicitor. Nevertheless, the BBC story has a picture of him, looking somewhat older than the other pictures that had been circulating. It does seem clear that the extent of media spin surrounding this case would put even the Bush White House to shame. The media line yesterday was very dismissive of the Sinn Fein version of events, viewing it as a panicked response by the IRA, trying to downplay a devastating blow to their morale. But now, unlike Osama and Saddam, the mystery man has decided to speak for himself. By the end of this affair, a favourite Sinn Fein word, securocrats [where administrators and shady domestic law enforcement meet], could have made its way to popular usage.

Update: Ed Moloney, who knows a lot about the IRA, writes in the Daily Telegraph (reg. req.) that the correct spelling is Steak Knife.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Some end of season football wisdom

Here at BOBW, at least one of us is seething at the pathetic end to Liverpool FC's season, in which they finished 5th in the English league and in doing so put themselves out of the prospect of playing in places like Madrid and Turin next season, and into the prospect of playing in places like Arnhem and Zurich. But at least the team decided to leave us with some wise words (in the Liverpool Echo) for the summer.

MIchael Owen, on being a new dad:
I've watched Louise [the new mother] changing nappies and I've been trying to get the hang of it. It looks a bit technical for me at the moment, but after a few viewing sessions I reckon I'll be ready for it.

Manager Gerard Houllier, incisively analysing the reason for the team's poor season:
We conceded too many goals and we could have scored more.

The manager again, expanding on this brilliant insight:
I am a great believer that when you keep a clean sheet you will win the game.

Where's Freddie?

Just a brief followup post today about Alfredo "Freddie" Scappaticci: lots of people want to know where he is. What makes it curious is that there is no "official" account of what happened; the UK government side of the story is being told by unnamed sources. But their version of events remains as we posted yesterday: That Freddie was spirited to England when it became clear that his cover as a British agent in the IRA had been blown, and that he is currently under heavy guard at a military base in an old monastery building haunted by nine ghosts. However, there is no actual confirmation of any of this (not even the ghosts) and Irish PM Bertie Ahern was given the runaround when he asked the British government about it, or at least that's what he told the Irish parliament today:

he was not sure the British political system has any particular information about the matter, as it seemed to be a British Army operation.

In that same story to which we just linked, you will see that there is another version of events, being put out by Freddie's representatives and Sinn Fein: that he never left Belfast, he was not a spy, and that someone is out to get him. This suggests another theory arising from a standard trick that we see on the detective shows when the police have a suspect in custody but they can't prove he did it. So they say to him "all right, we're letting you out, but wouldn't it be dreadful if word got out to your criminal buddies that you had sung like a canary while you were in here -- not that we would do anything like that." Suspect confesses. So maybe the security forces are putting the heat on Freddie to get him to confess to something, or more cynically still, to protect an even higher placed mole in the IRA. Hmmm.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Don't go against the family

It was inevitable that as the conflict in Northern Ireland wound down, some of the dirty details about what went on over the last 35 years would start to come out. And so it is that the IRA and British governments have been stunned by the naming of a British double-agent at the heart of IRA operations since the late 1970s. He was named by an obscure website on Saturday and several Irish and Scottish papers printed the name on Sunday. Prior restraint of the media is much easier in England and so those papers seem to have held off printing the name until Monday; it is also in Monday's New York Times. In a weird Godfather echo, he is Alfredo "Freddie" Scappaticci -- and defying the stereotype of IRA activists as products of family where resentments of British oppression in Ireland have been nursed for generations, he is the son of Italian immigrants. Freddie seems to have held just about every important operational position in the IRA, most damagingly as head of their internal investigations division. On the police shows, those IAD guys are always good for a bit of bureaucratic skullduggery against our frontline heroes. But falling afoul of the IRA's version of IAD usually meant serious injury or death. It seems certain that Freddie and the British cultivated some false informer leads to protect themselves, leading to the deaths of innocent people.

Needless to say, Freddie's future will be spent in a witness protection program. He was hurriedly moved to England over the weekend when his name was revealed [but see update]. And there is a very old piece of IRA lore that may give Freddie some sleepless nights. 121 years ago this week, an IRA predecessor group, the Invincibles, assassinated the two senior civil servants in Ireland. Several suspects were arrested, and one of them, James Carey, became a prosecution witness against the others, who were executed. Carey was provided with a new life in South Africa. But another member of the Invincibles, Pat O'Donnell, tracked him there and killed him on a boat between Cape Town and Natal. O'Donnell was of course himself executed and memorialised in a song. We suspect that the tune is being rehearsed in a few Belfast bars this evening.

UPDATE: Freddie may still be in Tahoe I mean Belfast.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Bend the truth like Beckham

It would appear that the relentlessness of Manchester United in winning domestic championships has now been extended to their ability to generate favourable publicity in the US media. For following on the heels of the Washington Post tribute, there comes an article in Friday's USA Today about David Beckham. Some parts of this article are just plain weird. We're not sure what to make of the discussion of him being "an idol of gays, teens and mothers alike. And gorgeous, to boot." Speak for yourself.

For now let's focus instead on something the article has in common with the Post piece: being only dimly aware of the existence of the world's most famous football club, Real Madrid. We think there's a simple explanation for this -- for many US media outlets, covering any international story means covering stories in or about England -- it's easy, and a nice trip for the journalist. But it's going to leave you pretty poorly briefed if you try and flog this stuff in those rather significant parts of the world where English is not the first language. We ask you to picture the blank stares you would get in Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, or Turin if you held forth on how Manchester United was the world's best club.

In fact, more inquisitive readers should have had the sense that something just doesn't add up in these articles. It's mentioned that Becks is the biggest star on the best club, but, by the way, there's a rumour he might leave for Real although Real say that they are not interested. So wait a minute: if he's on the best club, why would he want to leave, and if he's such a great player, why would a lesser club like Real not be interested? The truth: Real are a better club with so much talent that Becks would spend much of his time on the bench, if the deal ever went through. There was no better symbol of the gulf in talent than the champions league tie between the two clubs, the one where Becks did score two goals. This was a game that Real didn't need to win, posessing a two goal aggregate lead and a tiebreaker. They were without one of their stars, the fabulous Raul, and the manager basically decided not to bother playing a defence. And they still put on a show. P O'Neill watched this game and after one of their goals, a spectacular individual effort from Ronaldo, one could see the looks on the faces of the MU fans: it was the same look as on Princess Leia's face when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan.

Let's finish with another weird line from the USAT piece, supplied by Liverpool and Ireland old boy Mark Lawrenson, who really should know better:

"He's just got this amazing universal appeal," BBC pundit Lawrenson says. "The men all want to be him, and the women all want to either shag him or be his mum-in-law."

We're still trying to get our minds around both clauses of that sentence.

UPDATE: At the New York Times, they have a soccer reporter who, like, knows something about soccer! The opening line from an article in Sunday's sports section:
MADRID, May 10 — It was chilly and overcast on Thursday as fans lined up to buy tickets to watch the world's best club soccer team, but the unseasonable weather did little to darken their mood as they hurried down the hill with Zinedine Zidane, Raúl and Ronaldo on their minds.

However, Real will have to wait till next year for the tenth trophy.

Friday, May 09, 2003

Flecte Compar Beckhame

A hilarious item from the London Spy column in today's Daily Telegraph (reg. req.); it speaks for itself:

David Beckham's occasional visits to the tattoo parlour never fail to excite interest in the dusty world of academia. This week, he had the Latin phrase "ut amen et foveam" (that I may love and cherish) tattooed on his arm. For exegesis, it's over to the renowned classicist Peter Jones:

"The phrase is actually from the Book of Common Prayer, written in 1549 by Thomas Cramner in English," he says. "Beckham must have chosen to have the phrase translated into Latin, so one must conclude he was desperate to engender a sense of intellectual kudos."

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Out with the old, in with the new

As many people know, the Republic of Ireland has undergone a massive transition in the last 15 years from Europe's economically depressed periphery to Europe's economically booming periphery. Today's Irish Times carries two stories that are perhaps symptomatic of the rapidly disappearing old Ireland and the emerging priorities of the new one. First, in a theft not quite up there with the Baghdad looting (at least as the latter was originally reported) someone has stolen the capstones (link may require subs.) from the church used for some outdoor scenes in The Quiet Man, the 1951 John Wayne -- Maureen O'Hara film that underlies many older Americans' image of what the west of Ireland is like. The church was already in severe disrepair but the disappearance of the stones is considered the final insult. Indeed, the facts about the church show that traditional rural Irish society was more complicated than the stylised images of Catholic peasanty would suggest: it was a Protestant church. Dwindling congregations have made these churches very difficult to maintain.

But if it's Goodbye John and Maureen, it might be Hello to Kurs, Billy, and Plonkt (OK, I made up the last one) because Ikea wants to open a store in Ireland (link may require subs.). The problem is that they want a 300,000 square feet store, and Irish planning regulations cap store size at 65,000 square feet. But the government is anxious to oblige Ikea, as they are in the midst of a fit of outrage about high retail prices in the Republic, many Irish shoppers are taking their furniture business to Ikea stores in Glasgow and Chester anyway, and most of all -- Ikea has the option of setting up across the border if Dublin doesn't play nice with them. There's no word on whether there'll be parking spaces for horses and carts, which of course we all still use in Ireland.

Read Headlines With Care

Princeton Think Tank Gets Harvard's Gates*

The star professor, not the gates to Harvard Yard.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Baghdad = Lagos

One of the answers to all that pesky carping about the so far invisible WMDs in Iraq has been along the lines of: we got rid of Saddam, surely the Iraqi people will wind up better off? Fine, if by better off one means ending up like Nigeria. In other words, an oil rich country with an oil production enclave and 95 percent of the population on the outside looking in. Warning sign: why is an oil producer importing oil?

Saunders [USAID] said KBR [Halliburton] is buying oil from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to meet desperate shortages, especially in Baghdad, where there recently was only a five-day supply of gasoline.

It happens in Nigeria all the time.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Read Headlines With Care

Banana Republic President Resigns*

*the clothing retailer, not Dubya

Monday, May 05, 2003

The legend continues

Helped along by much self-inflicted drama (will the manager quit, will the stars leave?), Manchester United are busy acclaiming their clinching of the English Premiership as their best championship yet. This in a season where they yet again had a premature exit from the European Champions Cup. For those of you happy not to trust the Washington Post to determine where quality football is being played, we strongly recommend that our American readers get themselves in front of a TV with ESPN2 on Tuesday afternoon, as Real Madrid meet Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final. The same Real Madrid with 7 more champions cup titles than Man Utd, the same Real Madrid that put 6 goals past Man Utd in the quarter-final stages, and to make it nice for the fans, let Man Utd score a few of their own. We strongly doubt that the Spanish and Italian fans of these two fine clubs give a hoot about another domestic title for England's winningest team.

Friday, May 02, 2003

Legends in their own minds

We now return to exegesis of the Man Utd love-in that appeared in Thursday's Washington Post. The following claim is made:

United won the Premier League title seven times, the FA Cup three times and the European Champions Cup. They won all three crowns in 1999, known as a prestigious "treble" -- which had never been done.

Notice the omission of the word 'once' after the Champions Cup reference -- a word that usually attaches, for instance, to descriptions of the Atlanta Braves' achievements over the last 10 years. Furthermore, the validity of this claim depends on what you mean by 'never.' It had never been done in England. But just across the border in Scotland (and therefore in the United Kingdom), Glasgow Celtic did not just a treble, but a grand slam in their legendary 1966-67 season. They entered four competitions: their domestic league, Scottish league and FA Cups (knockout competitions for all league clubs, and all clubs, respectively) and of course the European Champions Cup, the same elite competition won by Real Madrid seven more times than "the world's winningest club.". And Celtic won them all. A tribute site is here, and a description of their European campaign is here; check out the history of a truly trailblazing season.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Rage against the machine

We anticipate making multiple posts on this one because the first sight of this Washington Post homage to Manchester United Football Club is driving us mad. Let us be upfront -- we are Liverpool fans, which puts us part of that Anyone But United group descibed in the article (although while we hate Man Utd, we expect to like X-Men Utd). But let's also put some facts on the table. Consider the following claim:
Manchester United, the English soccer team, is probably the wealthiest, winningest, most popular professional sports team in the world.

Now consider the number of times various clubs have won Europe's elite club competition, the Champions Cup. Real Madrid 9; Liverpool 4, Ajax (Amsterdam) 4; Nottingham Forest 2 and the world's winningest team, Man United? Er, also 2.
More thoughts to follow.....
A summit about nothing

We've previously expressed mystification at just what exactly was discussed at the glorious Belfast summit a few weeks ago between Bush, Blair and Bertie (Irish PM). Because no discernible positive outcome can be traced to it. No-one probably recalls that one supposed purpose was to boost the Northern Ireland peace process, but it now appears that whatever roadmap was discussed for that should have come with the classic Irish disclaimer on directions "I wouldn't start from here if I were you, Sir."

Today comes the news that the British government has postponed elections to the devolved NI assembly, which were supposed to be held at the end of May. Their basic complaint is that the IRA has not stated clearly enough that the war is over, even though there's a feeling on the nationalist side, north and south, that within the usual parameters of Sinn Fein wordgames, the IRA have been reasonably positive.

Furthermore, the British government is displaying some strange priorities today, because their other major NI activity was to arrest a journalist, the NI editor of the Sunday Times, for being in possession of those embarrassing tapes we posted about yesterday. And finally, there is the evidence that the Brits perhaps need to focus a new source of terrorism, with the news that the bombers of the pub in Tel Aviv were UK citizens. The IRA has been shown up by revelations of apparent cooperation with other terrorist groups, notably in Colombia. But suicide bombing is not in their repertoire.