Thursday, September 29, 2005

M. Scott Peck (1936-2005)


It is with some sadness that I note the death of M. Scott Peck, the American writer and psychologist, at the age of 69.

A somewhat ungenerous obituary in the Telegraph seems to be based entirely on an interview conducted with Peck by Andrew Billen for the Times in 2001. The consensus between the writers of both pieces is that Peck was a self-deluded man who preached a self-restraint and altrusim which he was not himself prepared to practise. They draw attention to his womanising, his smoking and drinking, his difficult relationships with his family. He comes across as a hypocritical crank.

It seems we cannot accept imperfections in those who may have an insight into wisdom or the truth, yet leave themselves open to ad hominem dismissals of their message. It became too easy to dismiss Robin Cook's recipes for socialist government after his very public break-up with his wife. Gary Hart, one of the most promising presidential candidates found by the Democrats before Clinton, suffered from a similar personal failing. Those who wanted to poke holes in Mother Teresa's charitable efforts pointed to her opposition to abortion (which was only indirectly relevant to her work).

As a writer of books containing a lot of wisdom about human suffering and prescriptions to remedy it (they were not 'self-help' books of the Feel the Fear variety), Peck produced a stream of deeply felt meditations on the modern human condition. His belief that delaying personal gratification was an important aspect of maturity is now accepted by the psychological mainstream. His dismissal of what he called 'rugged individualism' now reads like a diatribe on American society. His writing avoids over-simplification and makes no false promises to lure the reader. Indeed, he positively discouraged simplistic answers to moral questions. His introduction of a spiritual dimension into issues of personal psychology put many people off, yet it was a logical extension into an area which has become diminished amongst modern humanity. That the message became more and more overtly Christian over time is unfortunate, but he was never less than sincere.

Perhaps my main reason for admiring him is the help and insight his books provided me at a difficult time in my own life. Thanks to what I learned from him, I was able to throw off the constrictions and assumptions that had held me back since childhood and embrace a more progressive and less introspective attitude. I know thousands of others benefited in a similar way. It is the nature of journalists to see people and issues through the black-tinted spectacles of cynicism. That Peck was far from perfect should not be allowed to obscure the penetrating insight he had into human misery and happiness.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Another gap in transmission, I'm afraid

There will be yet another hiatus in this blog while I go to Switzerland for a few days. Ma-in-law's 75th.

I do hope nothing important happens in the meantime, like a German government coming into being (who's actually running the country at the moment?), or a British minister taking responsibility for something.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Angela, Pamela, Katrina and Rita


Hurricane Rita is heading for Texas. The first boy to say the words 'poetic justice' will be given detention.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Blogs brought to book


No, sorry, that's a really crap title for a post, isn't it? How about 'Buy this book, it's going to be great'?

Seriously. Tim Worstall is bringing out his book about British blogs soon, and if you don't want to buy it, well, what are you doing reading this?

Click on the box in the sidebar for more info.


Monday, September 19, 2005

Was passiert?


Sorry I've been away for so long. I think the cricket went to my head too much.

So, what on earth's going on over there?

(PS I have no idea if my German is correct or not.)

(PPS Mrs Wildebeest, a competent German speaker, assures me it is.)

[EDIT: Alex at Fistful of Euros sheds some light on the whole business. Not enough light for anyone to have a real clue what's going to happen, but that's not his fault (link via NoseMonkey). Anyway, it looks like the next German Chancellor will either be the same old buffoon or his rival, the absolute harpy. Or - most likely - the whole question will be thrown back to the increasingly weary electorate in a month's time. Hasn't this sort of thing happened before?]


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Fallen comrade


I am horrified to discover that John B has closed down Shot By Both Sides. I don't know exactly why this has happened, but it seems he bowed to the pressure of shit-stirring types trolling his comments. It's a sad loss. Annoyingly, he seems to have taken his archive with him.

There was some bloody good stuff there, and it's a shame that a genuinely assertive free-thinker has felt the need to move on. John took no prisoners, and he didn't feel the need to qualify his invective with long-winded justifications. And he had a sense of humour, which is more than can be said for a lot of us on the Left.

Let's hope someone fills the breach!

[UPDATE: Many have commented on the falling of John B and the reasons behind it. For those still seeking clarification, John wrote a post (link may not work) in which he called for the British Board of Jewish Deputies to be gassed. Not because they were Jewish, but because
they had reported Ken Livingstone for comparing a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concetration camp guard. John also called for the gassing of people who wrote to the BBC to complain about Bob Geldof saying 'fuck' on national television.

It's time to put my own views on paper (well, virtual paper). Mrs Wildebeest is the daughter of a concentration camp survivor who lost most of his relatives in the death camps. Neither she nor I found Livingstone's remarks particularly offensive - nothing that he said was overtly anti-semitic. He might have been guilty of hyperbole, but it is Livingstone's style to blurt first and think later. That wouldn't have excused a genuinely offensive remark, of course, but Ken was clear that the journalist was indulging in a hate campaign against him and was 'only following orders' - the same defence offered by concentration camp guards. We thought this was the right side of the line.

Now, John, in his turn, is also someone whose humour is delivered with a blunt instrument. Again, it's his style. Sometimes it works, occasionally it doesn't. It should have been obvious to anyone with a modicum of intelligence that his remarks were not to be taken literally. After all, there are plenty of people in the country (and the world) who would quite happily gas the British Board of Deputies in real life. John knew that, and he knew that his remark would have an extra edge as a result. It was clumsy humour, perhaps - even lazy humour, you could argue. It was mildly offensive - it was meant to be. It was aimed to hit the target of his satire in its most sensitive spot (some would contest that this is the very job of good satire). The key point is: was John calling for the gassing of Jews? No. Was he making a deliberately offensive joke, in order to offend Jewish readers? No. Was he using the cruellest possible metaphor, in order to express his derision and anger at the actions of a minority of over-sensitive individuals? Yes. Should he have been asked to apologise? Perhaps. Should he have been blackmailed into closing his blog down? Of course not.

People tell Nazi jokes all the time, and if we can't get around that then we might as well give up living. There is a line between genuine hatred on one hand and humour on the other. Some humour can cross over that line. It depends entirely on the person utilising the humour, his motives, his intended audience and his own level of integrity. If Bernard Manning (say) had made the same remark as John, it would have been in a very different context with a very different intention.

If John was guilty of anything, it was a lack of subtlety. But that was the style of his blog. Like him or loathe him, the blogworld is a poorer place without him.]

[FURTHER UPDATE: Pop over to Talk Politics for more. And, while you're there, read the excellent post about Holocaust Memorial Day.]


Trafalgar Square: I was there


Twenty-five thousand people stood in the blazing sunshine in Trafalgar Square yesterday lunchtime, and welcomed the victorious England teams (men's and women's both) who had recaptured the Ashes after a wait of eighteen years (a staggering forty-one years in the case of the women's team).

I was one of them. It was magic.

(More photos at Corridor of Uncertainty.)


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fifth Test: Match drawn




More on this to follow, as I am too excited (and exhausted from Trafalgar Square) to write more at the moment.

NEXT DAY: Right, I think I can make a start, but I may have to write this post in stages. What has just happened has been a sporting triumph that I've been waiting for for almost twenty years.

Younger and non-British readers may struggle to understand the immensity of this moment, so some context may be necessary. The last time England won the Ashes was in January 1987. Thatcher was still on the throne, oops, I mean in power. Mobile phones were only just beginning to feature in life. There was no internet worth speaking of. I was eighteen years old.

Australia have won every series since then, often by brutal margins: 4-0 in 1989, 3-0 in 1991, 4-1 in 1993, 3-1 in 1995 and 1999, 4-1 in 2001 and 2003. Their team has come to dominate the world, beating every other country both at home and away. They have had searing pace bowlers, the world's greatest ever spinner, two wicket keepers of scintillating brilliance, and batsmen who plundered runs in the safe knowledge that any shortcomings would be put right by their bowlers.

Every serious cricket watcher had long ago come to the conclusion that this period of invincibility would only end when the seemingly superhuman players (McGrath, Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting) retired, and lesser players took over to level the playing field. It was simply a question of waiting for that time to come and hoping we could snatch a series off them before the next generation of cricketing gods took over.

Instead, what happened was that the New Invincibles were hiding flaws and weaknesses among them that were horribly exposed when England revealed that they had been busy since the last defeat - busy honing a team that didn't accept failure, busy working on the key skills necessary to begin their own spell of world domination, busy studying the weak points in their opponents' defences and exploiting them, busy developing a self-confidence that matched that of their old enemy. When the two met again, it was the ageing complacent Goliath which was undone by the unyielding, talented David. Except that this David was armed with rather more than a mere catapult.

The Match

Michael Vaughan has not often won three tosses in a row. In fact, I'm not sure that he ever has. So it was all the more surprising when Ponting called wrong and the coin came down in England's favour. How the hearts must have sunk in the Australian dressing room! The Oval has a reputation as being a batsman's paradise and it was not long before England were capitalising on the flatness of the track, putting on 82 for the first wicket at rapid pace. It was then that Trescothick, motoring on 43, edged Warne behind and Hayden took a brilliant catch. At this point, the wheels began to fall off England's batting in a way that looked all too familiar. Vaughan, continuing his policy of gifting wickets, spooned one up to mid-wicket. Bell, who has hardly ever looked comfortable since his huge century against Bangladesh, bamboozled by Warne's spin (or lack of it). Pietersen, feeling for one, watching his off stump fall. It was at this point that one began to feel that Pietersen's early promise was never going to be fulfilled.

Thank God for Andrew Flintoff. If Shane Warne has been the Australians' talisman throughout the series, the one player who kept their hopes alive, fighting when all around him were struggling, then Flintoff has performed the same role for England. He joined Strauss, the most elegant and (arguably) most talented of the England upper order, and they proceeded to add 143 for the fifth wicket. From a position in which Australia were firmly in command, England had clawed their way into contention. When they were dismissed all out for 373, it looked like an inadequate total (just as every one of their first innings totals this series - with the possible exception of Trent Bridge - has looked, in isolation, inadequate). But that was reckoning without the England bowlers.

Of course, one of those bowlers, Simon Jones, had missed the cut because of his ankle injury. Suddenly, England's line-up didn't look so threatening. Australia finally found the form they had been missing all summer. With Langer and Hayden making centuries and a first-wicket partnership of 185, it looked like the good old times had returned to Australian cricket. People began speculating on the size of Australia's first innings total - 450? 500? Could Gilchrist come in and make the most of conditions, perhaps pushing them towards 600? Were England about to be humiliated?

The Australians had reckoned without two things. The first was the English weather. I can't say whether they'd seen it and didn't believe it, or whether they just didn't factor it into their plans, but on the second day Langer and Hayden, both looking in fine touch, were offered the light and took it, to the absolute jaw-dropping astonishment of every spectator. The opportunity to pile on runs and put pressure on England was squandered. In that decision, Australia had jeopardised the strongest position they had held since Lord's. While their reasons look justifiable (they didn't want to lose a wicket or two in fading light), hindsight will make them shake their heads in disbelief at their own timidity.

The second match-winning factor was that man Flintoff again. With little play possible on Day Three because the light was so awful, Australia came into the fourth day needing to amass a huge total so they could bowl out England cheaply - or, alternatively, declare behind, bowl England out and then reach a manageable total. The weather was improving. The latter tactic was obviously dismissed as too un-Australian. They continued to bat. Then Flintoff came on to bowl. Eighteen overs later, his breath failing him and his body aching, he had taken five top-order Australian wickets, and the visitors were demolished. Speculation as to how huge their first-innings lead would be now looked stupid. They were all out for 367, six runs behind England's score.

So, England came into bat, needing to survive four sessions against the best spin bowler and the best seam bowler in the world. It all looked bad when Strauss, the centurion of the first innings (and the only player on either side to score more than one hundred), bat-padded a catch with only one run to his name. Then the weather kindly intervened again. The umpires, eccentric throughout the match, first decided that Australia could only bowl spinners. Then, shortly afterwards, they decided that no bowling of any kind was acceptable, and brought the players off. (Umpire Billy Bowden later explained that the light had fallen well below the level at which it had been offered to the Australians. Since the regulations have now changed so that the umpires have more reason to take the players off for light, they felt they had no choice but to give the same opportunity to both sides. While the logic was impeccable, it made a mockery of the spirit of the game.)

The last day dawned, with the Ashes in Englad's grasp if they could only bat out the day. Vaughan and Trescothick started well, making good use of the fast outfield, to hammer one four after another. Then McGrath, still a potent threat at 35, got Vaughan to edge one behind. With his very next ball he repeated the trick with the all-at-sea Ian Bell. On a hat-trick, he got the next ball to rise to Pietersen. Pietersen's head and bat flinched back, the ball rose in the air and was caught in the slips. The Australians were exultant - the umpire unmoved. The ball had hit Pietersen's shoulder, not his bat. It was to be the firest of many reprieves for the ex-South African.

Trescothick and Flintoff fell. England were five wickets down, and it wasn't even lunch yet. Were we going to be robbed of our rightful prize at the last moment? It was at this point that Pietersen decided he had had enough. Launching into the Australian attack, throwing the advised caution to the winds, he lashed out. With Collingwood providing low-scoring but dogged defence at the other end, Pietersen hammered seven sixes (a record for an Ashes innings, beating Botham's) and brought up his first ever Test century. Collingwood and Jones couldn't stay with him, but Ashley Giles - not for the first time - came and filled in the defensive position, adding some vital runs of his own. At tea, Pietersen was still in. England had now lost only seven wickets, and had a lead of 227. The match was as good as dead.

After tea, Pietersen continued to enjoy himself, reaching 158, the second highest individual innings of the series. Giles also reached a personal landmark, making it to 59 - his highest Test score. When Harmison edged a catch off Warne (bringing the leg-spinner to twelve wickets in his last match in England), England were 335 all out and there was no point in playing any further. Indeed, someone worked out that even if all the remaining overs were to be bowled (which would have been impossible, given the time of day) Australia could have won if they scored at the rate of nineteen per over - over three runs per ball. Not literally impossible, but as close to it as makes no odds.

Australia came out to bat, since this is what the regulations require. You would have expected them to have a bit of fun - free runs were up for the taking in a hopeless situation. But after only four balls the light was offered to them. The muddy thinking that had affected Langer and Hayden in the first innings clouded their minds again. Once again, they took the light. Everyone left the field. For twenty minutes, there was confusion. There was no possibility of an improvement in the light. There was no possibility of any result other than a draw. And there was no provision in the rules for a situation such as this. Eventually, Ponting went to the England dressing-room and conceded defeat. The umpires, in a comically improvised charade, went to the middle and took the bails off the stumps. The crowd roared.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Wonderful spam, glorious spam


I have been visited lately by spambots, as some of you will be aware. 'Spambots' sounds like lovely little miniature robots working in a processed meat factory, doesn't it? Anyway, in an attempt to counteract this irritation I have had to introduce 'word verification' (which doesn't sound half so cuddly) for comments. Whenever you leave a comment, you'll have to type in the letters which appear in wibbly-wobbly form in the box. Sorry for the inconvenience, but that's technology for you.


The land of the free and the home of the brave (but insane)


Searching for something to write about (hey, it's summer), I've been trying to avoid doing New Orleans because, on the whole, everyone else is doing it. However, my eye was caught by a link from Blood & Treasure to this response to the disaster from one of the more imbalanced of our cousins across the water.

Sample quotations, both from the poster and from the comments:

The ongoing meltdown in New Orleans, though not entirely surprising given the corrupt, inept nature of Louisiana State and New Orleans’ local governments, respectively, is astounding to the degree and extent of incompetence [...] Of note is the fact that the Democratic Party has dominated Louisiana’s politics since at least 1880.

No politician has the stones to call for and actually have implemented a policy of overwhelming, crushing force to destroy what is now a thuggish insurgency of Fifth Column urban criminals. The public is terrorized, police are shot dead, children are raped [or are they?], ordinary folks are murdered, robbed, raped, beaten, their homes broken into, businesses looted, and yet the primary concern is one of fear that National Guardsmen or police shooting down these thugs will engender cries of racism, class oppression, and other seditious nonsense from the usual corners of the racial grievance and shakedown lobbies, leftist professors, self-loathing white liberals, and Gramscian-inspired communist activists.

A WMD attack must be coordinated and launched against two distinct targets, preferably East and West (Left) Coast cities [...] A Hobbesian “war of all against all” will emerge as the criminal, opportunistic, and seditious elements strike out. Expect heavily armed and infuriated conservatives to launch a cleansing war against the traitors.

The purpose of the media’s focus on the worst cases in New Orleans is to demoralize Americans.

My friends, the good news is that the Average Joe can still go out, buy a couple of firearms, and have them ready, just in case he needs them to protect himself, his family, his neighbor, etc., during such worst case scenarios.

The government should militarize the borders (both north and south). But I do not think that’s going to be enough to stop a nuclear terrorist attack within America. Russian nuclear suitcases have already said [sic] to be on U.S. soil prior to the Fall of the Berlin Wall. But militarizing the border might reduce the risk of a nuclear terror attack; it won’t stop it from happening since there might already be suitcase nukes in the U.S. already.

It's a good job nobody believes this rubbish, isn't it?

(UPDATE: Lenin has more on the carnage that wasn't in New Orleans.)


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Weather we win or draw...


In case any of you think it'll make a difference: Raindance For The Ashes!.


The real thong


Some stories are just too good to be true.


Chips with everything ... and everyone


In case anyone thought the campaign against ID cards had fallen asleep over the summer, we're treated to a forthcoming speech by University of East Anglia researcher Dr Emily Finch. She says that fraudsters will not be daunted by the introduction of ID cards, but will simply adapt their methods when they are introduced. Far from reducing crime, the introduction of the cards may actually lead to an increase in identity theft.

'Chip and PIN' has not reduced fraud, apparently. Not only is it painfully easy to see someone's PIN being typed onto a keypad, but sales assistants do not even attempt to verify the identity of the person offering the card. Dr Finch used a card with a man's name on it and was never challenged. Furthermore, criminals are applying for credit cards using other people's details by means of the terribly sophisticated method of going through their rubbish to find out such details.

The problem is not, Dr Finch argues, one of increasing the information held on the cards, but of encouraging those people who have to do the verification to be vigilant and not just rely on the technology to do the job for them.

Dr Finch's speech is being given at the British Association's festival in Dublin tomorrow (7 September). I await the government's reaction with interest (actually, no I don't, because it's totally predictable).

[EDIT: Don't rule out compulsory use of the VeriChip a generation from now.]


Monday, September 05, 2005

Rising floods of hysteria


Following a link to A Tangled Web from Tim Worstall's British Blog Round-up (yes, I confess it was the bestiality one, even though it led to a story I'd heard weeks ago), I was intrigued to go to this post referencing a Steve Bell Guardian cartoon. Like a fool, I then started reading the comments under the post. It's the usual left-vs-right bashing of the hysterical type that inevitably sets forth as soon as the name 'Bush' is introduced into conversation. I got about halfway down before my eyes rolled out of my head. See if you get any further.

[UPDATE: My thanks to Curious Hamster for directing my attention to Bush's excellent umbrella.]


The truth shall set you free (subject to availability)



In a surprise move, a guest star at a televised concert was allowed to tell the truth to a shocked audience of millions.

A spokesman for NBC, which broadcast the concert, said: "We are sorry that the Truth was transmitted on our channel. We are only too aware that Truth is liberal propaganda conjured up by black people and other dangerous elements in our society. We apologise if this has in any way upset the white, middle-class complacency of our viewers."

George W Bush was unavailable for comment, as per usual.


Friday, September 02, 2005

No more silence in court


In the misery and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the chilling video pictures of Mohammed Sidique Khan, it's easy to lose sight of significant news developments on the home front which could have repercussions for generations. One of these may or may not be the government's move towards allowing the families of murder and manslaughter victims to make statements in court before sentencing of a guilty party.

The government is on a roll, in its perceived invincibility on starting a third term, in its quest to bend the judiciary to its will and ensure that, basically, independent people like judges do not tiresomely get in the way of enabling ministers to order us all to do their bidding. In the form of 'victim statements' it has hit on a lucky combination: it can rob the judiciary of a smidgen of its independence whilst at the same time bowing to the most populist, emotion-driven element among the public.

Let's be clear - no one likes to be a victim of crime. My stepmother was (somewhat gently) mugged recently; my mother was on the receiving end of abuse from kids as young as ten near her home; my partner's car was broken into. All of these things have a terrible impact on the victim and I'm sure all of us can recount a personal experience which leaves us feeling at best troubled and at worst with nightmares and a feeling of having been violated. How much worse it must be to have a loved one murdered (or 'manslaughtered'). Moreover, nobody who has any personal experience of crime can deny that the victims are the ones who are often forgotten or feel sidelined, even when the police and support groups make an effort to console them.

But it's hard to see what benefit to the victims' families these statements in court may have. In a murder case, what is the statement likely to be? "We are all devastated by the loss of a beloved father/mother/brother/sister/son/daughter (delete as applicable) who wanted nothing more than to live a peaceful life and who, if he/she had lived, would have had so much more to give to his/her family and the world." Any judge worth his salt (and, granted, there are some who are not) would likely as not include such sentiment in his summing-up. There are only two purposes which could be served by the introduction of such statements:

(a) a feeling of catharsis for the grieving relatives (though it is debatable whether they would really feel any satisfaction from this), and
(b) greater pressure on the judge to pass a sentence which is more retributive than sensible (because by that stage every person in court will be burning with hatred for the villian in the dock).

Again, in the second case, it is doubtful that most judges will bow to this pressure at the present time. The trouble is that murder cases are necessarily high-profile and the more exposure (and implied legitimacy, given that they will be made as part of the trial) granted to such statements over time, the more there is a risk that judges will be seen to be even further out of step with the public mood. In such circumstances, it is likely that the judiciary will find its discretion curtailed as there is a public clamour (real or fabricated) to "stop these old fools letting people off".