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Archive for April, 2009

I have finally been driven to the brink of despair in the Susan Boyle affair, and I have vented my rage in that most British of ways; I have written a letter.

The final straw came when the International Herald Tribune (IHT) devoted a good chunck of the editorial page to Ms. Boyle, in the form of an article by Tom Bergeron (who incidentally presents the US version of Strictly Come Dancing), advising the Scottish scream-a donna to run for safety as apparently “the kind of love she’s getting isn’t a tenth as genuine as he pussycat’s purr”.  I felt compelled to write to the editor.

In the letter I penned I didn’t  comment on the various debates that focus on Susan Boyle, whether or not she can sing, whether she should have makeover, nor whether Simon Cowell should release her from the contract all contestants are bound by such that she can try to make a go of her career whilst the public is momentarily rapt. I silenced my view that programmes such as Britain’s got talent (where contestants are shown off the stage the moment the audience is bored with their performance), rot the brain with the short term nature of their narrative; each to his own, it might just be a harmless diversion.

What I did allude to was that I am horrified at how much  I know about this woman. I do not read the tabloid newspapers, I do not watch Britain’s Got Talent or any show of that ilk, I do not look for such things on youtube.com etc. Traditionally if I were to pick up the Guardian, The Times, the FT or an international paper such as the IHT, and leave on the shelf the Star, the Daily Mail, or (heaven help us) the Mirror, I would be blissfully unaware of such trivial nonsense as the saga of Susan Boyle.

Not so anymore. First we had the Guardian debating the social implications of giving Susan Boyle a makeover, then the Telegraph, and finally the IHT along with all other major news outlets. In some ways the coverage these papers provide is more pernicious than the tabloid coverage, as they feel compelled to dress up the story into an examination of our reactions as a society to ugliness and beauty; or into a story about the nature of fame; or in a twist that could only have come out of California – a story of how we should all have the courage to dare to dream.  But the truth is the story is nothing but gossip and does not belong in a serious news journal. For goodness sake, we only need to look to the mess that is our own government to get an unhealthy daily dose of drama, gossip and sleaze, so please leave Susan Boyle out of it.

The letter I sent is set out below:

Dear Sirs,

 

I refer to the editorial “Run, Susan Boyle, Run” published on 29 April 2009. The inescapable fact about the story this contributor refers to, is that no matter how many aggrandizing aphorisms are deployed (“we need the courage to believe that stirring voices can be found in unlikely places”), or attempts to discover social norms (“people are willing to overcome their prejudices and see the world anew”), it is and will remain tabloid trash.

 

The reason that I and many others choose to read the IHT is that it is free of the gossip, innuendo and irrelevance of the “news” press we have developed in the UK. Nowhere is there available such a wealth of impartial international business and current affairs news as in the IHT. It is a disservice to your staff, your ethos and your readers to churn out editorials based on a British talent show whose primary aims are to induce laughter at the self-deluded and to increase the bank balances of Mr. Simon Cowell. Please leave such writing to the tabloids, they are more than capable of providing enough coverage of such matters.

 Yours sincerely,

Rory Creedon, 24, London UK

 

Do i expect the letter to be published? No. Do I think that all of the above makes me a self-righteous and pompous windbag? Quite possibly.

The worst thing about this whole sordid mess is that I have, by writing about Susan Boyle, fallen prey to the disease I diagnosed in re-hashing some trash, when really I should have moved on and forgotten the whole espisode. You win Simon Cowell, well done.

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Clay Coppice – April 26 2009

From Hollis Hill, turn left at the old Manor, and follow the ancient route that King Charles II took when he was in flight having been defeated at the battle of Worcester. The path begins to sink into the ground as the hedge rows grow ever taller on either side, looking down on you as they may have looked upon the fleeing Monarch.

At the crest of the hill you enter into Clay Coppice, a fact you might not be aware of at any time of the year other than spring when this unassuming woodland is ablaze with colour. Take the lower path, and waves of flowers seem to tumble down the banks trying to break onto the verdant green fields whose allure slides in through the outer branches. The camera lens is flooded with colour and the air takes on a violet hue.

Bluebell blizzard

Through the Trees

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The following is an article published this morning in the Herald Tribune. Some analysis be my follows the article :

April 23, 2009
News Analysis

Interrogations’ Effectiveness May Prove Elusive

 

 

WASHINGTON — Even the most exacting truth commission may have a hard time determining for certain whether brutal interrogations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency helped keep the country safe.

Last week’s release of long-secret Justice Department interrogation memorandums has given rise to starkly opposing narratives about what, if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, wall-slamming and other physical pressure to shock and intimidate Qaeda operatives.

Senior Bush administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheneyand cheered by many Congressional Republicans, are fighting a rear-guard action in defense of their record. Only by using the harshest methods, they insist, did the intelligence agency get the information it needed to round up Qaeda killers and save thousands of American lives.

Even President Obama’s new director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, wrote in a memorandum to his staff last week that “high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used,” an assertion left out when the memorandum was edited for public release. By contrast, Mr. Obama and most of his top aides have argued that the use of those methods betrayed American values — and anyway, produced unreliable information. Those are a convenient pair of opinions, of course: the moral balancing would be far trickier if the C.I.A. methods were demonstrated to have been crucial in disrupting major plots.

For both sides, the political stakes are high, as proposals for a national commission to unravel the interrogation story appear to be gaining momentum. Mr. Obama and his allies need to discredit the techniques he has banned. Otherwise, in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators.

But if a strong case emerges that the Bush administration authorized torture and got nothing but prisoners’ desperate fabrications in return, that will tarnish what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have claimed as their greatest achievement: preventing new attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.

Within the agency, the necessity, effectiveness and legality of the interrogation methods have been repeatedly subject to review. The agency’s inspector general, John L. Helgerson, studied the program in 2004 and raised serious questions. According to former intelligence officials, that led to separate reviews by an internal panel headed by Henry A. Crumpton, a veteran counterterrorism officer, and by two outsiders, Gardner Peckham, who had served as national security adviser to Newt Gingrich, and John J. Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary.

Their conclusions remain classified, but that could change now that the intelligence agency’s techniques have been made public. In a twist this week, Mr. Cheney, a fierce defender of secrecy as vice president, called for the release of more classified memorandums that he asserted prove the effectiveness of the coercive techniques.

The second-guessing of the C.I.A.’s methods inside the government began long before Mr. Obama’s election. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the government agency with the greatest knowledge of Al Qaeda in 2001, chose not to participate in the C.I.A. interrogation program after agents became uneasy about the earliest use of harsh methods in 2002 on Abu Zubaydah, a long-sought terrorist facilitator.

In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, the F.B.I. director since 2001, Robert S. Mueller III, was asked whether any attacks had been disrupted because of intelligence obtained through the coercive methods. “I don’t believe that has been the case,” Mr. Mueller said. (A spokesman for Mr. Mueller, John Miller, said on Tuesday, “The quote is accurate.”)

That assessment stands in sharp contrast to many assertions by Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who on Fox News on Sunday said of the methods: “They did work. They kept us safe for seven years.”

Four successive C.I.A. directors have made similar claims, and the most recent, Michael V. Hayden, said in January that he believed the methods “got the maximum amount of information” from prisoners, citing specifically Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief 9/11 plotter.

Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks.

But which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.

The Justice Department memorandums released last week illustrate how difficult it can be to assess claims of effectiveness. One 2005 memorandum, for example, asserts that “enhanced techniques” used on Abu Zubaydah and Mr. Mohammed “yielded critical information.”

But the memorandum then lists among Abu Zubaydah’s revelations the identification of Mr. Mohammed and of an alleged radiological bomb plot by Jose Padilla, the American Qaeda associate. Both those disclosures were made long before Abu Zubaydah was subjected to harsh treatment, according to multiple accounts.

On Mr. Mohammed, the record is murkier. The memorandum says that “before the C.I.A. used enhanced techniques,” Mr. Mohammed “resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, ‘Simply noting, ‘Soon, you will know.’ ”

But the same memorandum reveals in a footnote that Mr. Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was waterboarded 183 times that month. That striking number, which would average out to six waterboardings a day, suggests that interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long before escalating to their most extreme tool.

Mr. Obama paid his first visit to the agency this week, and his reference to the interrogation issue made for an awkward moment in which he sounded like a teacher gently correcting his pupils.

“Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “That’s how we learn.”

It strikes me that this misses the point somewhat:

On the morning of January 22 2009 Obama signed the executive orders which pledged to close Guantanamo Bay and  end the practice of using “enhanced techniques”. As an aside, that is one of the most menacing euphemisms I’ve heard! Nothing makes the use of physical violence by the state more sinister than the bureaucratic terms coined to describe it. So, when Obama signed these orders he said he was doing so in order that the US might reclaim “the moral high ground”. In other words, in the opinion of the new US administration, the use of enhanced techniques, torture to you and me, eroded the moral position of the United States, and affected its ability to fight a war on terror “in a manner that is consistent with our [US] values and our [US] ideals.”

President Obama stated that there is no basis, legal or moral for the use of torture.

What we have seen in the last week is a subtle shift in the debate, one that moves the focus from the moral basis of torture to the informational value of the information gathered whilst using these enhanced methods. Former Vice President Dick Cheney spearheaded the hawkish drive to reset the terms of the discussion, when he appeared on Fox News and called for the declassification of  two documents he contends would show that harsh interrogations produced useful information.

Now we find ourselves reading articles such as the one posted above. There is no discussion of whether it is right to use torture as a means to extract information from terror suspects, because now what we are concerned with is whether torture “works” or not. Some operatives claim that useful information was gathered, some of which was used to foil plots and save lives. Others such as Ali Soufan (a former FBI Supervisory Agent) hotly dispute this and claim that regular interrogation methods are just as effective (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/23/opinion/23soufan.html?ref=opinion).

Who cares if it works?

It seems that we have been cleverly sidetracked by the right wing into contemplating the efficacy of torture as it is a debate that conveniently does not revolve around the fact that in 1948 the UN adopted the Universal Declarion of Human Rights. Article 5 of that declarations states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Nor does it confront The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which states in Article 2 that “Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction” and furthermore “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Both these sets of International Law are silent on whether torture works and thus have no place in the Cheyney debate.

However, what they are not silent on is that torture is illegal. 

Thus, the use of torture undermines the quality of the justice that is metered out in response to terrorist actions. When the state breaks the law, the Rule of Law (the basis for Western society) is eroded to the extent that the dividing lines between counties such as ours, and those in which exist the oppressive regimes we oppose, are blurred.

When it comes to eroding the founding principles of our society, ends do not justify means; the usefulness of information gathered under torture does not justify it’s use and is totally irrelevent, for even if it was reliable there is no legal or moral basis for the use of “enahnced techniques”.

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In this second extract from The Corsair, we hear the corsair’s love, Medora, singing whilst he (unbeknownst to her) listens on from the bushes.

As background, although the corsair (a pirate) is “lone, wild, and strange” and stands “exempt/ From all affection and from all contempt” and is quite happy to prey off the weak (he “spurns the worm, but pauses ere he wake/ The slumbering venom of the folded snake”), he has one humanising and tender quality:

 

None are all evil – clinging round his heart,

One softer feeling would not yet depart;

Oft could he sneer at others as beguil’d

By passions worthy of a fool or child –

Yet ‘gainst that passion vainly still he stove,

And even in him it asks the name of Love!

So basically he is a rugged, handsome, fearsome brute, yet soft and squishy on the inside. One would never of guessed that Byron was a fan of that unspeakable sin of the Greeks would you? Now for Medora’s song:

 

 

 

Deep in my soul that tender secret dwells,

Lonely and lost to light for evermore.

Save when to thine my heart responsive swells,

Then trembles into silence as before.

 

There in its centre – a sepulchral lamp

Burns the slow flame eternal – but unseen;

Which not the darkness of despair can damp,

Though vain its ray as it had never been.

 

Remember me – Oh! Pass not thou my grave

Without one thought whose relics the recline;

The only pang my bosom dare not brave,

Must be to find forgetfulness in thine.

 

My fondest – faintest – latest – accents hear:

Grief for the dead not Virtue can reprove;

Then give me all I ever asked – a tear,

The first – last – sole reward of so much love.

 

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This is the first of two extracts from Lord Byron’s The Corsair, a poem about life on the high seas.

“O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,

Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,

Far as the breeze can bear, the billows foam,

Survey our empire, and behold our home!

These are our realms, no limits to their sway –

Our flag the sceptre all who meet obey.

Ours the wild life in tumult still to range

From toil to rest, and joy in every change.

Oh who can tell? Not thou luxurious slave!

Whose soul would sicken o’er the heaving wave;

Not thou vain lord of wantonness and ease!

Whom slumber soothes not – pleasure cannot please –

Oh, who can tell, save he whose heart hath tried,

And danc’d in triumph o’er the waters wide,

The exulting sense – the pulse’s maddening play,

That thrills the wanderer of that tackless way?

That for itself can woo the approaching fight,

And turn what some deem danger to delight;

That seeks what cravens shun with more than zeal,

And where the feebler faint – can only feel –

Feel – to the rising bosom’s inmost core,

Its hope awaken and its spirit soar?

No dread of death – if with us die our foes –

Save that it seems even duller than repose:

Come when it will – we snatch the life of life –

Let him who crawls enamoured of decay,

Cling to his couch, and sicken years away;

Heave his thick breath; and shake his palsied head;

Ours – the fresh turf, and not the feverish bed.

While gasp by gasp he faulters fourth his soul,

Ours with one pang – one bound – escapes control.

His corpse may boast it’s urn and narrow cave,

And they who loath’d his life may gild his grave:

Ours are the tears, though few, sincerely shed,

When Ocean shrouds and sepulchres our dead.

For us, even banquets fond regret supply

In the red cup that crowns our memory;

And the brief epitaph in danger’s day,

When those who win at length divide the prey,

And cry, Remembrance saddening o’er each brow,

How had the brave who fell exulted now.”

 

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Seahorses

I am considering writing a short story about something that happened in the Summer of 2008, in South East London, in a musuem that has a fabulous collection of seahorses. As such, i have decided to do undertake a little diligence concerning those of genus Hippocampus.

I’m not entirely sure how biologists decided how to name the species they discovered, or mapped, but Hippocampus seems an intiguing construct. Hippo appears to be Latin for Horse, or at least is related to Horse for Hippodromus was a horse used in hippodrome racing, Hippocentaurus is a centaur i.e. half man half horse.  

Hippolytus featured in Greek myth as the son of Theseus. His name means “liberator of horses”, so perhaps in fact Hippo is of greek origin and was borrowed by the Romans. Antiquity is not my forte, and indeed I am no polymath (I used refernce books for all of the above)  so don’t feel either alienated nor that I am trying to maliciously trick those who innocently stumble accross and are foolish enough to read some of this blog, into thinking that I am the next Clive James. I am not Clive James. I am not Australian.

Back to Hippolytus, if you will indulge me for one minute more. He now lies in a watery grave thanks to a very peculiar and ugly trait demonstrated by the young man – that of not being disposed toward a sexual relationship with one’s stepmother. That’s right, Phaedra, Thesus’ second wife, was looking to trade in her husband for a younger model, and not being one to venture far from the marital home, she thought it would be a good idea to try to seduce our young hero Hippolytus.  However, he was a good and faithful son, not overly prone to Oedipal (by marriage) relationships – he is surely to be applauded. WRONG. Phaedra in fact sauntered up to Theseus, lifted her veil, breathed warm sweet air on his neck and told him that his son had committed the ultimate sin against her – rape! Theseus was blinded with rage and used one of the three wishes Poseidon (one of Thesus’ fathers!) gave him to put a curse on Hippolytus. This curse manifested itself when Hippolytus was out one day riding his horses, who were startled by a sea monster and in their fright dragged Hippolytus to his watery grave in the Aegean Sea.

Now I am wondering if those biologists knew more than I first gave them credit for. Here we have myth of a man whose name means “horse liberator” being taken into the sea by his own horses. Perhaps when they saw the lovely seahorse, they linked it with this myth. I am certain that the truth of this matter could be found if I tried hard enough: maybe im right; maybe the truth is they named the species Hippocampus simply becasue they look like horses and the Latin/Greek for horse is hippo.  Anyway, what my myth theory does not explain is the appearance of the word –campus which seems to mean nothing much more than an open playing field type space.

I have been on a diversion of epic proportions. Back to my searhorse facts which might be of some use for a short story. I am specifically looking for ways to link them with the humans around them (in the story:

  • Seahorses live in calm, protected environments. The story is actually set in Dulwich, South East London, so that works quite nicely
  • They swim poorly as they have no Caudal fins and small Dorsal fins, hence why they prefer the shades of the seagrass as compared to the rapids of the open ocean. Potentially the protagonist could have some sort of limp, if that is not too tacky.
  • The males carry the fertilised eggs to term. I’m not sure how useful this one is for my purposes, i’m not looking to re-create dolly the sheep in prose.
  • When a male finds his female, they engage in courting over a period of several days. As part of what is known as the pre-dawn dance they might lock tails and promenade over the seagrass.
  • When the females eggs are ready to be released the true courtship dance begins. Here the male pumps liquid through the egg sack he has at the front of his body. This allows light to shine through the skin, and greatly arouses the female with its emptiness. The two creatures lock snouts and start to drift upwards out of the grass spiralling toward the light above. It is at this point the magic of creation happens and the eggs are transferred to the male and fertilised before both animals sink back to their stations in the seaweed. This is potentially loaded with symbolism and metaphor.
  • During gestation, the female visits the male for 6 minutes per day. Scientists are unsure why.

So these are the things I will be thinking about when writing the story (if I ever do it). I have a time, a place, a setting, and a plot. At this point I am unsure of the meanings present in my tale and how best to link them. I shall think further on that point.

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