Monday 31 March 2008

Mutant Rodents Attack Mutant Teenagers!

No, this is not a billboard for a new science fiction movie. It's advertising a story in the Oxford Mail about how some rats have developed a resistance to certain poisons. Bad news if you happen to have these hardy rats living at the bottom of your garden or inside your house. ("He's inside the house! He's calling from inside the house!")

The real story last week, though, was English indignation over a Time magazine article on Britain's feral youth. "Britons are frightened by their own young," writes Catherine Mayer, before listing the ways British teens are even scarier than mutant rodents: They get drunk more often and younger than other European youngsters, get into more fights and have sex earlier. "Small wonder, then, that a 2007 UNICEF study of child wellbeing in 21 industrialized countries placed Britain firmly at the bottom of the table," writes Mayer.

I've blogged before about Britain's feral youth and how they prowl even the streets of Summertown (for the Yanks among you, that's Oxford's Chevy Chase, or at least its Bethesda). My Lovely Wife seems to regularly encounter the "fuck-off" brigade. The other day a bunch of boys were languidly tossing stones at her as she walked down the street. Lovely. We blame the parents. But England also seems to suffer from an excess of "I don't want to get involved"-ism. There are no busybodies anymore, people willing to confront a young stranger and say, "Hey you, knock if off."

Ruth was on a train from London the other day on which a young man had his iPod turned up to a deafening level, the sound of the music reverberating through his empty head and filling the carriage. Ruth could tell she wasn't alone in being annoyed; one gentlemen even changed seats to avoid the aural blast. Finally Ruth could take no more and so she walked down the aisle to confront the youngster, who was slouched against the window "asleep." "Excuse me," she said, tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention, "would you please turn your iPod down?"

"Would you please get your hand off me?" he spat back. But he did turn it down. No one on the train thanked Ruth or even acknowledged her. Before and after she made her stand they studiously avoided eye contact.

Of course, intervening can get you your head kicked in. But where's that Blitz spirit that defeated Jerry? And anyway do you really want to live forever? Or die without making the front of the Daily Mail?

These are just anecdotes, useless in terms of larger social policy. But we fight anecdote with anecdote, and so the British papers this weekend were full of righteous indignation that Time magazine could dare to criticize the fair youth of Albion. Typical was the column in the Sunday Times by Rachel Johnson. I'm pretty sure she must be one of the models for Private Eye's "Polly Filler," the ridiculously self-centered "yummy mummy" columnist who goes on about how great her children are and how hard it is to find good help. In her column, Johnson describes how active she is in her kids' lives (table football in the barn of their country house!) and extrapolates from there that today's young generation has never had so much parental involvement. Like most of the columnists refuting the Time story, she has to include little caveats, including the fact that 27 teenagers were murdered in London last year and innocent people seem to keep getting stomped to death by 15- and 16-year-olds. However, she writes, "such atrocities are still--mercifully--rare."

Not rare enough, I'd say.

Blossom Time
It wasn't all gloom and doom yesterday. In fact, weatherwise it was a day that suggested spring might actually come. I know that Washington's cherry trees are a blaze of pink around the Tidal Basin and I'm sad I can't walk among them, tripping over Japanese tourists. But Oxford's University Parks provided some solace yesterday, a few cherry trees putting on their own show for a homesick Washingtonian:

I hope I didn't embarrass Charlie too much by making him pose for me in a bed of daffodils:

Play Ball!
I wondered if the new ballpark would really be ready in time for the Washington Nationals season opener. But it was, and so far the baseball team is undefeated in its new home. The tone of the coverage I've read has been nothing short of fawning, but a sour note is struck in today's Washington Post by architecture critic Phil Kennicott. A "colossal symbolic failure with national and international import," he says.

I found the artist's conceptions a little underwhelming myself. The ballpark doesn't ape traditional styles, as so many new stadiums do, nor does it mesh with Washington's monumental architecture. Does it look a little too much like a Best Buy? But even in his criticism, Kennicott admits that seeing games at the park is a transporting experience. It's a building built to showcase the efforts of the players on the field. For most people, that will be enough. I can't wait to see it myself. Maybe a mid-July series against Arizona or Houston?

Friday 28 March 2008

Upper Class Twitter

I've done something I swore I'd never do: I've joined Twitter.

The fact that I don't know if the correct expression is "joined Twitter" or "signed up for Twitter" or just "Twittered" shows how unhip I am. (I do know that in the future every word will be a noun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb: "I Twittered the Twittery Twitter Twitterly.)

For those unfamiliar with it, Twitter is an application that lets users answer the question "What are you doing" by sending brief messages in just about any format: Web page, e-mail, instant message, phone text message. I've been skeptical about Twitter (do we really need to be more connected than we already are?) but decided to give it a try. I can see some benefits already. It's a good way to broadcast information that doesn't rise to the level of an e-mail or a blog post.

(I met Twitter co-founder Biz Stone at an event in Oxford last year. He's a Silicon Valley wunderkind and people wanted to touch the hem of his garment as he walked past.)

If you're a Twitterer you can find me at JohnKelly. And for a really good introduction to Twitter, check out a new(ish) blog that's part of PBS. It's called PBS Engage and it covers social media. Clicking there will take you to a link to a nifty YouTube video that explains Twitter.

As Patrick McGoohan might say, "Be Twitting you."

BritNews RoundUp
What can one say, really, about David Batchelor, the Scottish man charged with indecent exposure after walking down the street with his thong on backwards? For starters, it's not a surprise he's not only named Batchelor, he is one. The 58-year-old had left his house to feed the pigeons, not understanding that wearing a backwards thong might startle passersby, which included some schoolgirls. Not that Batchelor felt sexually attracted to them. If he'd really wanted sex, he told police, "I would just go down town and get a whore."

Feeding the pigeons. In a backwards thong. In Scotland.

Speaking of whores, The Post's Kevin Sullivan had a nice story this week about a Brit denied entry into the United States on the grounds of "moral turpitude." Sebastian Horsley is an artist, reformed drug abuser, frequenter of prostitutes, and general all-around debaucher. When he arrived in Newark to celebrate the American publication of his book "Dandy in the Underworld" he was questioned by U.S. authorities and put on a plane back to Blighty. "I'm an artist," Horsley said. "Depravity is part of the job description."

The news media here has been full of stories about French president Nicolas Sarkozy's state visit. It's an excuse to write about his wife, the lovely Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, whose Italo-Gallic pout and letter-opener cheekbones have been gracing front pages everywhere. The contrast with Britain's rather stodgy first family has been telling. The Browns are Weetabix to the Sarkozy's sugar-dusted crepes suzette. Sarah Brown has been described as "matronly" but she comes off better than poor Gordon, whose awkward attempt at a European cheek kiss is deconstructed in the Daily Mail, complete with close-up photos of the maneuver. Gordon resembles a blind grouper trying to swallow a fishing lure, or as the Mail's Robert Hardman puts it, "Mr. Brown looked like a man walking into a lamppost while checking his watch."

And finally, a New Zealand man has been charged with wasting police time after calling authorities to say he was being raped by a wombat. He said he suffered no ill effects from the assault except that the experience left him speaking with an Australian accent. As you know, the wombat is a marsupial native to Australia but not found in New Zealand. My suggestion for getting his accent back? Get real friendly with a kiwi bird.

Gargoyle of the Week
There was little doubt where I would get this week's gargoyle: Canterbury Cathedral, of course, where we were for Easter services.

This fellow looks like he's really proud of his teeth and wants to be sure everyone can see them.

The rain is beating against the windows here, which must mean I'm in England. I think a trip to the library might be in order. Whatever you're doing this weekend, enjoy it.

Thursday 27 March 2008

The Digital Divide, or: If the Glove Fits...

Over the last few months I have been photographing lost gloves and mittens that I find in the street and on the sidewalks of Oxford. This is the sort of behavior that worries my family. It embarrasses them but it also frightens them, since it seems just one more stumble upon the slippery slope that ends with me not able to remember who's president or discern a wristwatch from a tea kettle.

But to those who would ask me "Why do you photograph lost gloves?" I can only give an answer that echoes that given by Mallory when he was asked why he wanted to climb Everest: "Because they're there."

Lost gloves are the inevitable byproduct of winter. This particular English winter, I'm told, has been mild. And yet it's affected me greatly. Frustratingly inconsistent, it's been blustery and biting one minute, sunny and pleasant the next. Just yesterday we had every form of microclimate it's possible to experience in one 12-hour period, including an uncharacteristically hard-driving rain, glorious sunshine that made me sweat, and hail. It's no wonder I feel slightly schizophrenic.

Of all our articles of clothing, we have the closest relationships with our gloves. They protect our hands, the structure of which separates us from our nearest mammal cousins. Every time we slip them on we recreate that most intimate of acts. Whether leather or fabric, expensive or cheap, gloves fit us like, well, like a glove. Gloves are metaphors for connection, a connection not just with their owner, but with another glove. Every glove is a twin, sharing the secret language that twins share.

And so every one of these errant accessories--soggy and forlorn on the pavement--has a story, a past: where they were bought, when they were worn, and culminating in that awful moment when all relationships were severed. Running for the bus, pulling out the change, answering the mobile. One minute you had two gloves and then you had one.

But you don't figure that out until later. "Where's my glove?" you wonder.

It's on the ground, looking like the victim in a crime-scene photograph. Or it's on a wall or fence, propped up by a passerby who thinks such a display will increase the chances of a reunion.

But it rarely does. Like a good friend snatched too soon that glove is gone. Oh well, you think, I can always buy a new pair. And besides, spring is on the way.

Here is my gallery of lost gloves:

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Journalistic Check-Up

If you are interested in the state of journalism in the United States and have a few hours to kill you should click on over to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's web site and dive into its State of the News Media report. Or you can just read my blog entry, in which I try to hit the highlights of the massive opus.

The report says a lot of things you would expect: "News" is less and less the product of a specific day's newspaper or evening's TV broadcast and more a sort of ubiquitous gas that can be plucked at will from the very ether. "Audiences are moving toward information on demand, to media platforms and outlets that can tell them what they want to know when they want to know it," write the report's authors.

While specific newspaper audiences--people who subscribe to or read a newspaper--are shrinking, thanks to the web total audiences are growing: "Seven in ten Americans have used the Internet for news — a number that has not changed in five years." You have to wonder about those last three Americans. What do they use the Internet for?

The PEJ's annual report is always a chance to chide U.S. news outlets for ignoring the rest of the world, and the group's content analysis bore this out. Iraq and the presidential elections comprised about a quarter of total news coverage but other issues garnered just a fraction of that: Afghanistan (0.9%), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (0.5%), nuclear negotiations with North Korea (0.4%), the violence in Darfur (0.2%) and deteriorating U.S. relations with Russia (0.2%). Those numbers are astonishingly low.

Pew criticizes the media for not writing more about foreign issues, then admits that the public isn't all that interested in them. Of course, might readers/viewers be more interested in those stories if there were more of them?

Interestingly, news web sites--or at least aggregators such as GoogleNews and YahooNews--have more foreign stories in the mix: "Not only did coverage of foreign policy and geopolitics make up almost half of the online newshole in 2007, but the leading broad topic category also featured international events that did not primarily involve the U.S." The World Wide Web: "World" is our first name.

Domestic stories don't do that well, either. According to the report, government was covered less last year than in previous years (just 5% of stories on the three nightly news broadcasts in 2007 versus 16% in 2003). Issues such as education, transportation, religion and development/sprawl also get increasingly shorter shrift. These are things that sort of muddle along without too much drama, able to be improved but never totally fixed. They are, say the authors, stories that "bend" rather than "break."

As for "citizen media": "Despite the proliferation of blogs, survey data suggest most Americans have yet to accept them as significant news sources. According to a winter 2007 Zogby Poll, blogs were the lowest on the list of 'important' sources of news, coming in at 30%, well after Web sites (81%), television (78%), radio (73%), newspapers (69%) and magazines (38%). More Americans, 39%, chose friends and neighbors over blogs as an important informational source."

Readers seem to turn to blogs for entertainment, not news. As for those blogs--and citizen journalism sites--most of them are just as stern gatekeepers as the traditional media, making it difficult, for example, for users to post original content.

Still, journalists who were surveyed see value in involving the audience: "The vast majority now see great value in having a place on the Web site where users can post comments. Smaller majorities say that citizen-started Web sites are a good thing. (Print journalists are slightly more accepting of the practice than TV and radio journalists.)"

And what does the public think of the press? Yes, many believe the press is venal, biased and inaccurate. In 1987 55% thought the media got facts straight and 34 percent thought stories were often inaccurate. Those figures have practically reversed in 20 years: 39% and 53%, respectively, in 2007. And yet what the public seems to dislike is "the media" as opposed to any specific newspaper or news broadcast. It's a little like the way many citizens think "all" politicians are crooks but they happen to like their own representative.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the public viewing the press with suspicion. You should probably view everything with suspicion. That's a healthy, useful attitude to have. It's one that journalists have, so why shouldn't our customers? We just have to continue figuring out ways to earn their trust--and their business.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Petard-Hoisting, Plus: 'Lark Rise--The Sequel'

The Bard of Avon's name has been spelled in numerous ways over the years and there was incredible variation even within his own lifetime. However, I'm pretty sure this was not among the versions:

The temporary yellow sign adorns a roadsign near the Cutteslowe Roundabout and advertises a "Shakespreae" production by the Creation Theatre Co. Thank goodness they're not doing "Omelet."

Lark Rise: What Happened Next?
This next item will make no sense to anyone who hasn't been watching "Lark Rise to Candleford," BBC One's treacly Sunday night costume-drama. Set in the late 19th century, the show revolves around the post-mistress of a small market town and the modest tensions between the town folk of Candleford and the rural inhabitants of Lark Rise. It's based on the memoirs of Flora Thompson, who grew up in Oxfordshire.

Last night was the final episode and while a few loose ends were tied up it wasn't the satisfying conclusion I had hoped for. In fact, there wasn't much character development over the course of the 10-part series: spinster postmistress Dorcas Lane stays unsatisfied in love, spunky teen postmistress-in-training Laura Timmins stays spunky, fecund welfare cheat Caroline Arless keeps being a pain in the ass. And yet we planted our butts in front of the TV every week.

In an effort to give a sense of closure, here's my guess as to what happened next:

Assistant gamekeeper Philip White catches Alf Arless poaching pheasant on Sir Timothy's land and kills him with a single blast of his shotgun. Philip hopes this will endear him to Laura Timmins, for whose affection he has competed with Alf. But Laura is horrified by his act. In a strange twist, Philip marries Alf's mom, the rotund Caroline, when it turns out she was never legally married to the seafaring husband she's spent the whole series waiting for.

Last seen moving to London, Sir Timothy Midwinter and Lady Adelaide return to Candleford to show off their baby. Or, rather, babies: She has given birth to conjoined twins and they have joined a traveling circus, entertaining itinerant laborers with an act called "The Royal We." The body of Zillah, Dorcas Lane's cantankerous cook who died at the end of episode 10, is sold to Sir Timothy to exhibit as part of the circus under the name "The 1,000-Year-Old Woman."

Despite numerous offers from willing suitors, Dorcas never marries. She sublimates her passion by wearing increasingly tighter and tighter corsets until one day she simply disappears. The busybody Pratt Sisters take over the Post Office. Their first act is to order that all correspondence be handed over in unsealed envelopes so that they may read them before delivery.

Laura's parents, Emma and Robert Timmins, are found dead in their Lark Rise cottage in what is apparently a murder-suicide. Authorities cannot determine who killed whom and finally decide it doesn't really matter.

Teetotaling head postman Thomas Brown moves with his new bride, Margaret the minister's daughter, to the Isle of Wight where he invents a non-alcoholic wine spritzer and starts a cult.

And what of Laura Timmins, the 16-year-old girl through whose eyes the story is told? She marries Twister the crazy old beekeeper after his wife, Queenie, dies from anaphylactic shock. Laura gives birth to six children in the five happy years that she and Twister have together.

Hey, I'd watch it!

Monday 24 March 2008

The Canterbury Tales, or: Easter Charade

Where better to spend Easter Sunday than inside the hallowed confines of Canterbury Cathedral? Wait, don't answer that. There are probably plenty of better places, most of them involving sun, sand and fruit-based alcoholic drinks. But we weren't in one of those places yesterday. Instead, we'd made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, where Archbishop Rowan Williams was set to give the Easter sermon.

If you weren't in the cathedral you can be excused for not really knowing what it was the archbishop spoke about. "Archbishop warns 'greedy' nations" reads the BBC's web site. "The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned in his Easter sermon against nations' greed for oil, power and territory," the story began. While Williams did mention that, it was in the context of a sermon about death (and resurrection, the themes of Easter), not a sermon about greed and avarice.

Williams started his sermon talking about how fingernails and hair are the only things that keep growing after you're dead and buried. Kinda gross, but attention-grabbing. He was at pains to point out that death is real: "It is a full stop to human growth and response, it is night falling on everything we value or understand or hope for."

He did say that some people grasp at material goods as a way of taking their minds off death, and that this doesn't do any good, but it was just one observation in a sermon that to my ears (and those of the rest of my family) was more about death than greed. And yet every radio, TV and newspaper article about the sermon that we've encountered since then has stressed the filthy lucre angle. Why? I thought of a few reasons:

Journalists didn't want to confront their own mortality. Unlikely.

They were making a political point, highlighting an aspect that fit with some kind of agenda. I hope not.

They were following talking points provided by the Church of England without reading or watching the sermon. Probable.

They simply didn't understand the sermon. This is entirely possible. I grasped some of what Williams was saying--we die, it's final, I get it--but he was short on specifics. Easter is full of symbolism--rebirth, fecundity--but symbols don't pay the bills. After we die, what then? Is there a heaven? Are we reunited with old family pets? Can we finally play the piano? Is there broadband?

Williams seemed to be saying that the only thing that survives death is god: "When we look at death, we look at something that can destroy anything in our universe -- but not God, its maker and redeemer." Well good for Him. The rest of us are screwed.

It could also be that I didn't understand the sermon. Still, I know the angle I would have taken if I'd been covering it: "'We're All Gonna Die,' says Archbishop." A little depressing, but at least it'd be accurate.

Easter Parade
Actually, I'm glad we spent Easter where we did. The English do pomp and circumstance very well. It was snowing (!) as we entered the cathedral an hour before the 11 a.m. service and found seats with a good view of the pulpit. At about 10:50 local dignitaries trooped in, an amazing assemblage of cloaks and frock coats, breeches, tricorn hats, powdered wigs, brocade, military uniforms, medals, ceremonial staffs, chunky gold mayoral necklaces.... It was like being on Main Street in Disneyland for the costumed-character parade. (I was this close to Goofy!)

I mean that in a good way; it was wonderful. And this was all before the ecclesiastical posse came in: choirboys in stiff, high-collared shirts and purply-red robes, tented-finger prelates, the Archbishop himself with his pointed hat and shepherd's crook.

Williams's sermon was delayed by two protesters who waited till then to pull out signs reading "No to Sharia Law" and "Support the Persecuted Church" and stand under the pulpit. They were hustled away and charged, I learned this morning, with violating an 1860 law which makes it an offense to disrupt a cathedral service. I wonder how many crying babies that's been used against.

I shook the archbishop's hand on the way out.

Friday 21 March 2008

They Love You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

On Wednesday night Oxford experienced Bootleg Beatlemania. It wasn't nearly as manic as the original Beatlemania, but then again the crowd had a lot of gray hair, bad hips and extra flab. Still, I love a good Beatles tribute band and the Bootlegs are big business, complete with multiple costume changes, projected images and four extra musicians (adding French horn, cello, fire extinguisher, etc.).

I think that just as there are Elvis impersonators who are better at early "That's All Right Mama" -era Elvis, and Elvis impersonators who are better at late "In the Ghetto"-era Elvis, so too Beatles tribute acts excel at different stages of the Fab Four's career. The Bootlegs' first set was a little wan. Most of the early hits dragged, except for "She Loves You," which was almost the burst of energy it must have been when people first heard it more than 40 years ago.

Where they were really good, however, was with the post-"Rubber Soul" Beatles. As the hair lengthened and the clothes got more colorful, the evening got more interesting. These were songs the Beatles never did live, of course, so it was cool to see how to pull it off. Kudos, especially, to "Ringo" and "George."

"Paul" and "John" were good too, though "John" looked haggard (it was the last gig of a long tour) and "Paul" had the slightly scary visage of a professional McCartney impersonator. It looked as if he'd gone under the knife and emerged as the permanently boyish Sir Paul, never able to take that bemused-cum-astonished look off his face. They all traded snarky repartee. After the four classical musicians played the Indian-tinged "Within You, Without You" "George" came onstage and said "Fancy a curry?" "John" said, "I fancy a Japanese," then added, "Yoko can't be here. She's playing with her origami."

They did a bunch of songs I wouldn't have expected, from "Do You Want to Know a Secret" to "Your Mother Should Know" and "Across the Universe." But I love the Bootleg Beatles for a song they didn't play: I can't tell you nice it was not to hear "Yesterday."

BritNews RoundUp
What would you do if you heard an ATM was giving out double what you requested? Try to withdraw a hundred bucks and it would give you two-hundred. If you were one of dozens of people in Hull, you would line up and hope you'd get to the front of the queue before the machine ran out.

I am on record as saying I wish we could laminate our dog, Charlie. It would solve his biggest annoyance: the mountains of hair he sheds every day. If only I was as creative as Beth Willis, who has knit woolly jumpers from the hair of her beloved (and now dead) dogs. I wonder if she has fleas.

Gargoyle of the Week
Sitting next to me at the Bootleg Beatles and lustily singing along was my fellow Reuters Fellow Abel. He tells me that one of the best Beatles tribute bands--The Beats--comes from his country, Argentina.

Abel gets around, spending almost every weekend in another city or country, making the most of his time in this hemisphere. Knowing my affection for grotesque carved stone, when he was in Wales last weekend he snapped a few animals adorning Cardiff Castle:

Those last ones look like raccoons in pajamas. Do they have those in Wales?

Muchos gracias, Abel! And have a great weekend everyone.

Thursday 20 March 2008

Busted: Iraq, Five Years Later

The thought of looking into George W. Bush's mind is a scary prospect but I wonder if someone had been able to that in 2003 what they would have found: Would the president honestly have thought the war in Iraq would still be raging five years after it started? While even the biggest optimist couldn't have honestly expected a "quick and surgical" war, most of us probably hoped for something other than what we have: a "long and drawn out" one.

But yesterday Bush again declared victory, or rather, said the recent troop surge "opened the door" to victory. The door's open, but it seems to be jammed with a lot of corpses.

My own newspaper's editorial board has never quite abandoned its support for the war or its belief that Bush is doing the right thing, as in today's editorial. Contrast that with this editorial from the Guardian, the first sentence of which lets you know what it thinks: "The invasion of Iraq was a monumental miscalculation, whose dimensions are still coming into focus five years to the day after it began."

Both papers agree on one thing: We're presented with a lot of bad options and the trick now is to pick the least bad one. Of course, an anniversary is a time for looking back as much as for looking ahead. So what can we say about the last five years?

I'm reminded of an experience my father told my brother and me about when we were boys. He was a young Air Force pilot about to go TDY, which meant taking his plane on a cross-country trip. He and his navigator were going to a base in Nevada, putting them close to Las Vegas, whose casinos they planned to visit. Before they left, they hatched a "plan": They did a little homework on winning at blackjack and brought a modest stake. In my childhood imagination I see them parking their plane on the runway and heading straight to the casino still in their flightsuits, but I'm sure they changed before they went. However they were dressed, they headed to the blackjack table and quickly lost almost their entire wad. Chastened, they decided to regroup. They went to the craps table, hoped for the best and were quickly rewarded: With a few rolls of the dice they got back nearly all their original stake. At which point they went back to their blackjack "plan" and promptly lost all their money.

I don't know if my dad told us this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of gambling. It's more likely he just thought it was a good story and didn't mind coming off badly in it. The biggest impression it made on me, though, was to foster the belief that blindly sticking to a pre-conceived plan is sometimes the worst thing you can do.

Okay, at least Dad had a plan, which seems to be more than can be said of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others who prosecuted the invasion. I'm willing to believe they believed they were doing the right thing. It's just that they've botched it every step of the way since then that is inexcusable. And the worst thing of all is that some--Cheney mainly--still insist that the war in Iraq has something to do with 9/11 and the war on terror. (Afghanistan did, remember, and that war doesn't seem to be going any better.)

Reading all the Iraq war coverage can be fatiguing. And except for the fact that Americans--and Brits, and Iraqis (mainly Iraqis)--are still dying one would be tempted to just turn the page. But that would do a disservice to all those who have lost their lives there. I recommend this Iraq anniversary package from Reuters. The five-minute introductory movie is ostensibly about how dangerous it is for journalists working in Iraq (seven Reuters staffers have died there, the vast majority killed by U.S. troops) and yet how vital it is for them to be there. But the film also shows us the horrors of war, horrors that in their specificity don't often make it to our front pages. It's also a sobering reminder of the great toll taken on the Iraqi people. Broken by Saddam Hussein they may have been, but it's hard to see how the last five years has
helped them heal.

And what of the next five years? Blackjack or craps? Or just walk away from the table?

Wednesday 19 March 2008

All Apologies...

More on the Express apologies to the McCanns (see next item):
Guardian media critic Roy Greenslade has examples of offending headlines, useful now that the stories have been removed from the papers' web sites.
Greenslade also unloads with both barrels, writing that "A rogue proprietor and his rogue editors have done further damage to the credibility of our trade."
Charlie Beckett of the London School of Economics did a long deconstruction of media coverage of the case in January. Today he wonders whether the Express and Star case could mark the moment when the "tide turns against recent tabloid excesses."

I'm Sorry, So Sorry, Please Accept My Apology...

But journalism is blind, and I was too blind to see....

That's an updated version of the Brenda Lee song that the owner of the Daily Express and the Daily Star is singing today. This morning press baron Richard Desmond's two titles printed "unprecedented" front page apologies for their coverage of Madeleine McCann, the 3-year-old British girl who went missing last year in Portugal. Her parents had sued the papers, arguing that the Express and Star had basically convicted them of killing their daughter then covering up her death.

Of course, it's still possible that they did exactly that. But what both apologies say is that Kate and Gerry McCann are "completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance."

The papers' apologies sound like one of those "corrections" in Private Eye: "Like every other English paper, The Daily Bastard may have given the impression that Kate and Gerry McCann were necromancers who had killed their child in a fit of Satanic bloodlust and supped upon her still-warm corpse. We now realise they are, in fact, wonderful, loving parents who only wanted the best for their daughter and that they should be hosting a BBC family holiday travel program. The Bastard regrets the error."

When the rest of my family saw the apologies this morning (after first berating me for buying those papers) each one said, "Oh, so they found her then?" They assumed there had been some resolution to the case. How else would the papers feel so confident to go to press with such a statement (completely innocent)? After all, according to Portuguese authorities the couple are still official suspects.

I'm not saying the McCanns did it, or even that I think they did it. Just that a newspaper should only say as much as it's confident it can say. Of course, if the Express and Star had done that from the start they wouldn't have had to shell out $1 million in damages, money that is going to a "find Madeleine" fund. I don't know what the specific articles that the McCanns complained about said, though I can imagine. There are parts of the British press that exist almost in another universe, newspapers that take a tiny shred of reality and construct a fantastical carapace around it. I admit it's entertaining, and I don't want to sound like one of those prudish press critics who writes as if afflicted with permanent heartburn, but the downside to such sensational coverage is apparent from what is on the front pages of those tabloids today: a total about-face based on no evidence due to the fact that their earlier stories were based on no evidence.

Shaned and Named
I'll write some time soon about a trip I took last week to the impressive offices of the Daily Telegraph. Impressive because of the total integration of Web and newspaper but also because of the physical layout of the newsroom. It's a bit like a zeppelin hangar combined with a Bond villain's lair: huge video screens display the web site, the top Telegraph web stories and various news channels. Desks are arranged in "hub and spoke" fashion. (Here's a YouTube tour.)

Shane is the Telegraph's communities editor, which means he keeps track of the multitude of reader contributions to the web site. The Telegraph has gone into this in a big way and on his blog Shane describes how he got his title.

Let the Sun Shine In
A bunch of great stories today about the McCartneys' divorce settlement, in which we learn that getting $50 million hasn't made Heather Mills any less crazy than she was before she got it. The best headline is in the Sun. Playing off the facts that Heather "Mucca" Mills once posed for nude photos and that the judge called her a liar, the Sun offered an elegant one-word head: "Pornocchio."

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Ted Nelson: Crackpot or Genius?

And so yesterday to a lecture at the Oxford Internet Institute by a man named Ted Nelson, the guy who either "invented" the World Wide Web years before Tim Berners-Lee could tie his own shoelaces or who is a tragic joke, destined to forever claim that the paradigm-shattering software he's been working on for four decades is just around the corner.

Nelson went to Swarthmore and Harvard, where he trained as a sociologist. The story goes that his severe attention deficit disorder raised in him a wish that he could organize all his thoughts and the countless pieces of paper on which he scribbled notes. Early on Nelson saw the potential of computers and he envisioned a system that would not only link documents but maintain their connections. When a writer moved paragraphs around in a document, there would be still be a version of the original document. When a writer quoted from another writer there would be a pathway to that other work. When another work was cited, a royalty micropayment would somehow wing its way to the copyright holder.

Nelson coined the word "hypertext" to describe these interconnections and he called the project Xanadu, after the pleasure palace in Coleridge's poem. (It's an actual place, too, the summer capital of Mongol emperors. Nelson showeds a Google Earth image.) He wrote several influential books that, among other things, outlined his vision.

But Nelson seemed better at describing things that had yet to be made rather than actually making them. He was not a computer programmer himself and he enlisted the help of a rotating cast of characters who have been working on Xanadu since the 1960s. (Nelson hates this Wired story from 1995 describing the so-far ill-fated project.) Despite the fact that he was a visiting fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, I was prepared to write him off as a crackpot. I mean, the guy showed up to his lecture dressed in a tuxedo, claimed to have written the world's first rock musical, sang three songs and recited a poem.

But perhaps he does have something to teach, after all, more as an inspiration than as a creator. He said he wanted to invent Xanadu because if he didn't, "the techies would screw it up. And that's exactly what happened." Word processing programs replicate the worst aspects of paper while ignoring some of the best. He despises "cut and paste" because it doesn't actually do that. "Hide and plug" is what he calls it, since the action makes your text disappear before showing up when you press ctrl V. The web, he said, is limiting, not liberating. He bristles when people talk about things like "Windows technology." There's precious little technology involved, he argues. Software is just a collection of conventions, most of which we've got wrong.

He showed a demo of Xanadu: Eleven long, thin documents were arranged behind two working documents. Everything floated in three dimensions, with lines and triangles of different colors showing various connections. It was a confusing hodge-podge but it hinted at a certain power. Perhaps it was a graphical representation of Nelson's mind.

"It always seemed to me that things would be so much better if they were different," Nelson said. I'm not sure he's right about everything, but he's probably right about a few things. Too often we allow ourselves to fall into ruts, doing things the way we've always been done them just because that's the way they've always been done. We don't push ourselves to not only think outside the box, but think outside the store that sold us the box. Visionaries should be allowed to be crackpots, if a few of their visions turn out to be right.

Monday 17 March 2008

Look at That Stupid Girl/Writer/Leprechaun

The British love a nice "depravations of teenagers" story, especially one involving a trashed country house. Sarah Ruscoe put posters up at her school inviting "everyone" to her 18th birthday party, little understanding that the word "everyone" was sufficiently vague as to allow more than 500 partygoers to descend on her family's Devon manse. The result: "smashed furniture and beer-sprayed walls." Perhaps a sedate tea party would be more appropriate to celebrate her 19th.

Like all journalists, I think I have a book in me, probably lodged somewhere between my duodenum and jejunum. But how to get it out, short of a scalpel? Stuart Jeffries provides the answer in today's Guardian: Spend precisely 365 days doing some thing. He mentions such titles as "The Year of Reading Proust," "My Year Inside Radical Islam" and ""My Year of Living Biblically." I don't know what I could do every day for a year, short of brushing my teeth. I don't think "My Year of Reading the Guardian" wouldn't shift many units.

I promise I'm not the sort of blogger who throws up any old tripe that lands in his e-mail inbox. And yet here I am doing exactly that: This is a video of a leprechaun. A PR company in Alexandria, Virginia, sent it to me. I have no idea why. It's so corny you may need to floss your teeth after watching it.

But it does remind me to say "Happy St. Patrick's Day." Of course, I'm the worst kind of Irish American. I have no idea where "my people" came from and feel only the most tenuous connection to the Motherland. I do like Guinness, though, and I suppose I'll raise a pint tonight.

Friday 14 March 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Drink Up Edition

Britain's new budget is out and starting Sunday a pint at the pub is going to be more expensive. Yesterday Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling announced an increase in the alcohol tax, a move he says is designed to stem the tide of binge-drinking.

Binge-drinking is a popular topic for the media here; newspapers are full of stories about plastered teenagers and vomiting shop assistants. I'm not out on the streets when the clubs close so I don't see the worst of it, but there are enough empty cans of cider and bottles of vodka in the park when I walk my dog each morning that I believe it's an issue. I don't see how this tax is going to address that, though.

The 4 pence increase on a pint of beer will probably be absorbed by supermarkets, where a pint averages 99p. The cost is unlikely to go up. Pubs are skating on thin ice, though. In a pub a pint costs 2.60. I expect that will rise. With their wafer-thing profit margins, pubs can't afford to eat it the 4p.

Just as frequent as binge-drinking stories are pub-closing stories. I don't sympathize with publicans who blame the smoking ban, but I do feel sorry that the new tax will hit them. I'd rather see store-bought alcohol get taxed more, with tax breaks for pubs. The government should encourage people to drink in the warm, lovely atmosphere of a pub, rather than on a park bench.

BritNews RoundUp
In her last movie, "The Golden Compass," Nicole Kidman's character had a "daemon," the animal manifestation of her soul. It was a nasty little monkey, but according to Britain's best-selling paper, the Daily Mail, another animal might be more appropriate. According to the paper, Kidman has used so much botox that she has the face of a bat. The Mail thoughtfully includes a pair of photos for comparison. That's Kidman on the left. (And if Kidman's daemon should be a bat, Britt Eklund's should be a trout, as this Mail story from a few months ago suggests.)

Poor Daily Mail. Lisa Marie Presley is suing the paper for calling her fat in an article last week. The story was really quite bitchy, illustrated with photos of Presley chowing down in a mall food court and featuring a faux "we're concerned she's eating herself to death, the way her father did" tone to it. I'd link to the piece but it's no longer on the paper's web site. I think that sort of screams guilt and I don't know why they're backing down. Presley is fat, but she has reason to be: She's pregnant.

If her strange prenatal cravings include asparagus, she might consult Jemima Packington, Britain's only "asparamancer." She uses stalks of asparagus the way others might use goose entrails or the I Ching. According to the Daily Telegraph: "Ms. Packington, from Worcester, throws the asparagus spears onto the floor and makes her predictions based on how they land." I predict you will watch this BBC video of her at work. I hope it doesn't make your pee smell funny.

Last month's news from Italy was that Italian men are no longer allowed to touch their genitals for luck. This month comes news that Italian women who commit adultery are allowed to lie about it. That was the ruling from Italy's highest court, who said that a 48-year-old woman referred to only as "Carla" did not make a false statement when she told police she did not lend her mobile phone to her lover. She was only protecting her honor. I love this line from the BBC's story: "She had lent her telephone to her secret lover, Giovanni, who then used it to call Carla's estranged husband, Vincenzo, and insult him." And Giovanni was probably making rude hand gestures while he was doing it.

The Mirror is looking for Britain's "sexiest fish and chip shop girl." I'm sure all that grease does wonders for the complexion.

I'll be spending today in London, or as participants in a survey by the TripAdvisor web site describe it: Europe's dirtiest and most expensive city.

Gargoyle of the Week

Okay, this isn't a gargoyle. It's a human face that seems to emerge from a house in Wolvercote, just north of Oxford. It's an odd little architectural feature, one of two visages that peer out of the light blue house:

To be honest, the faces are a little creepy, and I would worry that late at night, a little tipsy, they might give me a start. Of course, I can barely afford to get tipsy these days, let alone drunk.

But don't let that stop you. Have a great weekend and don't forget to tip your waitress.

Thursday 13 March 2008

The End of the Affair(s)

Eliot Spitzer resigns and Michael Todd kills himself. Those are two different outcomes from alleged bouts of infidelity. Both are just plain sad.

Spitzer is the New York governor caught up in a high-class prostitution ring, though one wonders how a prostitution ring can be said to be "high-class." "High-price" maybe, given how much the Emperors Club V.I.P. charged. Todd was a high-ranking English police chief, head of the Greater Manchester force. He was found dead halfway up a Welsh mountain, a half-empty bottle of alcohol beside him. He may not have meant to kill himself, but the Daily Mail suggests he was distraught that an alleged affair with a "high-flying married mother-of-two" was about to be exposed. (What is it with the "high-" prefix lately? Can no one or nothing just be normal any longer?)

Spitzer apparently dithered over resigning. It would have been interesting--or at least novel--to see him argue for keeping his job. "You know what," he could have said, "I behaved like a jerk. I may have broken the law. But I think I'm a pretty good governor and, after chemical castration, I will go back to doing the people's business." But, no, that really wouldn't have worked. The alleged scale of his subterfuge was just too much. (Slate has a great video showing the different ways politicians 'fess up to their indiscretions.)

And for those who might argue that Spitzer was wrapped up in a victimless crime, just read about "Kristen," the call girl who serviced Client 9. Ashley Alexandra Dupré sounds like the sort of fragile, damaged person you'd expect would end up a hooker, not the self-actualized feminist that some TV producers serve up. Spitzer's conversation with his teenaged daughters--the oldest not much younger than Dupre--must have been the most uncomfortable of his life.

And what of Chief Constable Todd? I wonder whether exposure of his alleged affair really would have ended his career. It wasn't illegal. (I also wonder who he worried would expose it. Which tabloid was poking around?) It sounds as if he may have suffered from depression, which could have made him feel that walking up a Welsh mountain in a storm with a bottle of gin was the only recourse he had left.

I'm not sure there any any lessons to be learned from either of these events. It's not like anything new happened. As I said, it's the shamed politician who doesn't resign that would be the real story, man bites dog instead of man behaves like dog. For as Nick Lowe sang:
All men, all men are liars;
their words aren't worth no more than wornout tires.
Get rusty pliers to pull his tooth,
Cause all men are liars and that's the truth.

Wednesday 12 March 2008

Just Desserts: Pictured Around Oxford

This is a tasty British dessert. Can't quite make out the name? Here it is:

"Fru Fruity Puds." Even knowing that the last word is pronounced like "poods" as in "pudding" rather than "pudds" as in..., well, let's not go there, does not ameliorate the unease I felt upon consuming my zesty lemon cheesecake.

Tickets, Please
If you park illegally in Oxford you may find your windshield adorned with a brightly-colored plastic bag with a ticket inside:

Your first reaction upon getting an expensive ticket may be to wish the whole thing would just go away. That would be unwise, for as the plastic bag warns:

It's like they read my mind. Luckily, I don't have a car in England, so it's nearly impossible to get a parking ticket.

Nor do I have much in the way of a lawn, so I don't have to worry about mole infestation. Lest you think that moles are random creatures, take a look at this, near Godstow Abbey:

I love the sinuous perfection of that mole's work.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Lust Potion #9, or 'Spitzer? I Don't Even Know Her'

I imagine not much work got done in New York yesterday, except for in the newsroom of the New York Times. The rest of the state, and much of the country, was obsessed with the amazing public downfall of New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Early headlines on the Times' web site made it sound as if Spitzer was perhaps running a call girl ring, and that seemed more believable than the crusading former attorney general as a customer ("involved" with the ring? "linked to" the ring? what did that mean, I wondered). But, no, Spitzer was apparently a client of the Emperors Club V.I.P. escort service.

That name has a certain resonance. Do men willing to pay $5,000 for a prostitute consider themselves modern Caesars, able to flout the law with impunity?

This is no doubt a tragedy for Spitzer's family, but it's the sort of story journalists love: a total bombshell that can be gleefully picked apart over the coming weeks. Eventually we will know more about Eliot Spitzer's sex life than we know about our own. (But pity the poor reporters who have to nibble the less interesting aspects of the story, such as this article from the Globe and Mail on how the scandal will affect the troubled bond insurance market. Who cares? Tell us why Client 9 was "difficult"! Did he like to keep his socks on or hum the "Good Times" theme song?)

The Post's Hank Stuever has a nice essay about the appeal of the hotel room to men. "Men lose their minds in hotels." Hotel rooms are like mini-Las Vegases: What happens in Room 871 stays in Room 871.

Unless you're a politician.

When will politicians learn that they will always get caught? Is it only politicians that we care about? If a Hollywood exec or a corporate CEO were to be revealed as an Emperors Club customer, would we expect him to resign? Then again, it's the hypocrisy that bugs us. If you're charged with prosecuting prostitutes don't use them.'s Mary Ann Akers points out that Washington's prostitutes apparently weren't good enough for Spitzer. He preferred to order one from New York. Not only did that increase the tawdry transaction's carbon footprint--the train, the taxicabs--it was just more disrespect for my birthplace. First we can't get a voting representative in Congress or a commemorative state quarter and now this....

It seems to me that British political sex scandals have cooled off lately. We Americans used to find them so entertaining, especially since they involved Soviet spies and riding crops. The tabloids here are still full of illicit sex but it's usually about footballers or pop stars. The gutter press seems to want photogenic people for their scandals, not pasty-faced politicos. Being under an under-secretary just doesn't sell like it once did.

Spitzer has to resign, right? There's no way he can govern after this. He doesn't strike me as the kind of man to do a full Oprah: tearfully confessing and begging forgiveness on national TV. I think he'll silently slink away. And we'll await the next politician who thought he could get away with it.

Monday 10 March 2008

A Death in Goa: Who's Responsible?

In a perfect world you would be able to give birth to nine children, live on public assistance in a ramshackle caravan park in rural England, take your kids out of school for six months to travel to the drug-filled Indian resort of Goa, let your 15-year-old daughter have a 25-year-old "boyfriend," leave that daughter in the care of a "tour guide" while you and your other offspring headed off on your own tour in-country, and not end up with your daughter raped and murdered on the beach outside a sleazy bar. But we don't live in a perfect world, though it seems as if Fiona MacKeown still doesn't know that.

MacKeown is the mother of Scarlett Keeling, the 15-year-old from Devon whose suspicious death last month--the police originally said she had drowned--has now been ruled a murder. Scarlett's not the first Briton to be murdered in Goa. MacKeown says she should have been warned it could be a dangerous place: "The police really need dealing with as well because this is an ongoing thing, it has happened before many times and if they had dealt with it in the past, Scarlett may still be alive today."

Or perhaps, Fiona, if you hadn't taken her to Goa, or left her alone, or if you'd been able to convince her not to drink and drug to excess (a witness said Scarlett told him she had taken three drops of LSD, two Ecstasy pills and then snorted cocaine), Scarlett might be alive today.

There can be few things worse than being the parent of a murdered child, and of course the ultimate responsibility for Scarlett's death rests with her murderer. But being a parent means doing all you can to protect your child and I don't see how Fiona MacKeown can argue that she's anything other than a bad mother, eager to blame others for her own bad decisions.

I thought much the same thing when I read about a 14-year-old girl who almost died from downing a quantity of vodka outside a skate park not far from Oxford. An ambulance crew, confused by two similar-sounding town names, went to the wrong skate park. There's a legitimate fear that consolidating emergency services loses some local knowledge, but a 14-year-old girl chugging vodka? Did she have her parents' permission?

The English like to criticize Americans for our supposed victimology and the way we employ it to shift blame--"I was abused as child, that's why I'm not guilty of murder"--and yet they seem just as eager to embrace that mindset. Something bad happen to you? It's anyone's fault but your own.

Friday 7 March 2008

Friday Grab Bag: BritNews RoundUp

It's been a while since we've had a sex-with-inanimate-object story (to recap: bicycle, fence, Victoria Beckham) so I'm pleased that the Sun was on top of this: A Polish worker at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital was discovered in a compromising position with a Henry hoover. In-vacuum delicto, you might say. According to the Sun, "The shameless builder later told bosses he was vacuuming his underwear – 'a common practice in Poland.'"

Remind me never to loan my beloved Henry vacuum to a Pole.

Talk About Shrinkage: Naked Antics 1
A priest in Scotland is upset that an adventure tourism company filmed three men surfing in the nude on his remote island. The island, Barra, is reachable only via a beach airstrip usable at low tide. Some passengers had just arrived when the nekkid surfers (hanging 11?) strolled by.

"Many people were there and they were outraged," said the Very Rev Angus John Provost MacQueen. "Would you like people going stark naked running down your runway?" I think the only possible answer to that is, no.

Going Commando: Naked Antics 2
Eight British commandos training in the Arctic were sent home from Norway after allegedly stripping and urinating on one another in a nightclub. According to the Independent: "The soldiers were arrested in the town of Harstad ... after removing their clothing, making lewd comments to women in the Sfinx Bar, and urinating on each other."

I wonder if that's part of their training, like being able to rappel down a sheer cliff face or kill a man with a spoon.

What Before Wicket? Naked Antics 3
Continuing our theme: A man who ran naked onto a cricket pitch in Australia got more than he bargained for when he was flattened by one of the players at bat. The cricketer, Andrew Symonds, may face disciplinary action since players are told not to interfere with spectators--nude or otherwise. To save you having to Google "naked," "Symonds" and "cricket," here's the link from YouTube.

WWW.Whoops... was a tourism site for the English town of Mildenhall. Mildenhall happens to be home to an American Air Force base. That explains why Gary Sinnott, the man behind, kept getting e-mails intended for That wasn't such a problem when the messages were harmless stuff: stupid viral jokes, spam. But when they included plans of a presidential visit, the Air Force took notice.

You have to wonder about the safety of our country if our military can't tell the difference between .com and .mil.

Gargoyle of the Week

I know it's not a real gargoyle. It's not even a grotesque. But I like this terra cotta dragon atop a house Lonsdale Road in Summertown. It looks like a protective force, guarding the house and all its occupants.

Have a great weekend and may the force be with you.

Thursday 6 March 2008

Power to the Press?

Just how powerful is the British media? Not that powerful, when you get right down to it. That's what journalist Dominic Lawson said at a Reuters Institute seminar yesterday.

Lawson wasn't saying that the press had no power, just that its ability to influence politics and policy--feared by politicians and touted and tutted-over by journalists--is grossly exaggerated. The belief that the press can push the buttons and jerk the levers stems, he said, from the 1992 British elections. That's when the Sun printed its famous "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." The red-top tabloid claimed to have turned the electorate away from Labour and towards the Tories.

Not so, said Lawson. The Sun was following its readers, not leading them. But it scared Labour enough to cause it to obsess about courting the media and spinning it. In 1997, when Labour took over, there were 300 press officers in government, Lawson said. Today there are close to 3,000, with more than 200 in the Ministry of Defence alone.

Lawson said that the press does have power when it comes to fact, to the revealing of information. But newspaper leaders--what Americans would call editorials--are read by people who want to confirm their views, not challenge them.

Power, we are reminded, corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what about perceived, but non-existent power? Lawson might argue that it ties the government up in knots it needn't be tied up into. I'd add that it distorts in readers' minds the reach, ability and obligations of the press.

Lawson quoted former Express editor John Junor's belief that journalists aren't corrupted by power, but by friendship. Or rather, by the odd simulacrum of affection that passes for friendship between journalists and their sources. Can you be quite as objective and pitiless in your reporting when you socialize with the people you cover? Can you, if necessary, plunge the knife quite as deeply, or twist it?

It's not necessarily a bad thing for politicians to feel intimidated by the press, Lawson said, if the alternative is for the press to feel intimidated by politicians.

In the Dominic of Time
Lawson is an interesting character: son of a former chancellor of the exchequer, Oxford educated, brother of pneumatic TV chef Nigella, former editor of the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph, married to someone whose first name, according to Wikipedia anyway, is "The Honourable," and whose brother invented something called the "eternity puzzle."

No wonder some people find U.S. newspapers boring in comparison to U.K. newspapers. Our journalists are more boring than theirs are.

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Don't Spare Me the Lecture

When I saw the name of the event published in the University Gazette I knew I had to attend: "The Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester Lecture." The lecture could have been on cuticle growth in South American ungulates or the economic ramifications of medieval shipbuilding techniques and I would have been there. After all, how often do you get to hear someone say the word "Bapsybanoo"?

Held last week in the Examination Schools, the Bapsybanoo Marchioness of Winchester Lecture is one of those annual endowed lectures that universities such as Oxford are rife with. Someone dies and leaves a pot of money to serve two purposes: 1. to further knowledge on a particular subject and 2. to keep alive the donor's name.

And what a name! Born in India in 1902, Bapsybanoo Pavry was the daughter of a Zoroastrian high priest. She moved to Britain as a young woman and, according to bits and pieces I gleaned from the web, was quite the society beauty. Among her acquaintances was the 16th Marquis of Winchester, four decades her senior. It was not until 1952, when she was 51, that she married the 90-year-old Marquis and earned her title. (As you are no doubt aware, a marchioness falls between a countess and a duchess in the leader board of British aristocracy.)

The union was not to last, however, for just a few weeks after the nuptials, and before the marriage had been consummated (at least according to the subsequent divorce case), the Marquis left the Marchioness for another woman. That the other woman happened to be Eve Fleming, the mother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, adds a nice touch to the story.

Before she died in 1995, Bapsybanoo endowed at least three things: the Oxford lecture, an annual academic prize and a community center in Winchester. The community center, it is speculated, was prompted by her disappointment at not being greeted by children waving flags and banners when she alighted at some public event. A 500,000-pound bequest was made but the building still hasn't been put up, since Bapsybanoo's stipulations were very specific. The truth is, the city says it doesn't really need a community center, at least not where Bapsybanoo wanted it. So the money just sits in the bank, earning interest.

But the lecture, launched in 1996 and meant to address international relations, lives on. The title of this year's was "Islamic persuasions: pathways to change in Islamic norms," delivered by Washington University's John R. Bowen.

As 5 o'clock rolled around there were 10 people in a room that the fire marshal said could accommodate 100. "We'll give them a few more minutes," I heard the convenor say to Dr. Bowen. "They've got to find their way upstairs."

"It's the worst possible time to have a lecture," the convenor added in explanation. "Thursday of Seventh Week. Lord Rees is speaking. Edward Mortimer is talking about the U.N. There's someone lecturing on Virginia Woolf.... Mind you, you're probably not competing with all of those."

"Well, Virginia Woolf I'm not," Dr. Bowen noted dryly.

Three or four more people drifted in and Dr. Bowen began. "I'm happy to have such a distinguished audience," he said good-naturedly. "Which is what you say when it isn't a large one."

The lecture--on how different Muslim communities adapt, or try to adapt, sharia law to their particular places--was rather interesting. I'm sure Bapsybanoo the Marchioness of Winchester would have approved.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

To the Moon, Marion

So Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard thinks maybe the 9/11 attacks weren't the work of terrorists, after all. Perhaps, she told an interviewer, the Twin Towers were deliberately downed because it would have been too expensive to "re-cable" them. Her remarks are just another reminder that you shouldn't stick a microphone in an actor's face unless you've given her a script to read.

Some are defending Cotillard's remarks, saying it is a healthy intellectual exercise to be skeptical. Governments do lie, after all. But there's a difference between being skeptical and being stupid. When al Qaeda takes responsibility for the attacks, one has to wonder how Cotillard could think it was the work of overzealous real estate developers. (And why the Pentagon?)

Cotillard's lawyer--perhaps imagining the evaporation of his 10 percent fee as American producers hunt around for Audrey Tautou's number--retracted her remarks. But I didn't see him quoted on another bit of intelligence the actress passed on in her interview: "Did a man really walk on the Moon?" she wondered.

Yes, Marion, a man really did. Several men, in fact. They also hopped on the Moon, steered little rovers on the Moon and drove golf balls on the Moon. NASA magic-- or, as JFK put it, the process of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth"--is even more amazing than Hollywood magic.

My older daughter has been studying something called theory of knowledge, or TOK, a part of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. It's an exploration of how we know what we know. The Moon landing was one of the events students in her class discussed. A sizable minority--nearly a third--think the United States faked the whole thing.

I'm convinced some of that disbelief stems from the fact that many of the students at her international school come from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Twenty years after the Cold War ended, there is still residual distrust of anything American, dismissal of American accomplishments. And relations between Russia and the U.S. (and the U.K.) are just as frosty as during the bad old days.

Then there's the way many people think of America seven years after the attacks that Cotillard is skeptical about. Where were the Iraqi WMDs George Bush promised us? Though, if you think about it, shouldn't a nation that can fake a moon landing and kill 3,000 of its own citizens in a deadly fit of urban renewal be able to plant some nerve gas and atom bombs?

I'm all for skepticism, for questioning the line that elites feed us, but swallowing the half-baked notions of a few wigged-out conspiracy theorists is just as dangerous.