Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Palm Sunday March

A large number of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem, accompanied by Israeli and international supporters and a horse and a donkey, tried on Palm Sunday to exercise their right to march peacefully to Palestinian East Jerusalem, armed only with palm branches. They managed to get through the fearsome gate before it was closed behind them, leaving them trapped between it and the Israeli police, who arrested many of them including the horse and the donkey. Watch it on YouTube:

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Popes and lost hopes

The Catholioc Church is again deeply mired in sexual scandals, but how can it be otherwise when it is run by a large number of celibate men? Could anybody suppose that all of them would stifle their sex instinct completely? Anyway, there is nothing in the gospels to require priests not to marry, indeed there is no clear requirement to have priests at all; Jesus got on very badly with the Jewish priesthood. Unfortunately there is an economic problem: how would the Church pay adequate salaries to men with families?

The answer seemed available in the 1940s, with the worker-priest movement; priests with jobs could have supported themselves, but that was squashed by the hierarchy. Pius XII, who was Pope from just before the World War till 1958 was not a liberal man. Indeed his attitude towards the Nazis seems suspect. But then came John XXIII. It is easy to forget now that there was, in living memory, a pope who was respected and indeed loved by non-Catholics. His warmth and openness made everything seem possible.

Dear old John lasted only five years, and then came Paul VI, who put the lid back on, and John-Paul II, who despite all his qualities was an extreme conservative. There was a glimmer of hope when Church of England ministers were allowed to become Roman Catholic priests and keep their wives. But now we have Benedict, who brings back memories of Pius XII... It all seems rather hopeless really.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Daylight saving

Why must we wait so long to start saving daylight? When we put the clocks back on 31st October there were only 9 hours 45 minutes from sunrise to sunset (on the latitude of London). Tomorrow, 28th March, there will be 12 hours 40 minutes - nearly three hours more! 31.10 was only 51 days away from midwinter, tomorrow will be 80 days away.

It gets stranger. Evening sunlight, which is what we are supposed to be increasing, ended at 4.36 GMT on 31.10. Today it ends at 6.26, which will become 7.26. Part of the difference is because our clocks do not follow sundial time. True noon today (when the sun reaches its highest point) is at 12.6 by the clock; it was at 11.43 on 31.10. So the shifting of noon has already added 23 minutes to the afternoon since the clocks went back.

These odd dates were fixed by some committee many years ago, and now they are just adjusted each year to make them fall on a Sunday. Meanwhile the climate has changed, and March is warmer than it used to be (though this year cold weather lasted longer than usual), so please can the committee meet again and throw light on this matter?

Friday, 26 March 2010

BBC science

I had been thinking that BBC science programmes had got considerably better lately when up came a monstrous blooper. In 'Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds' on Tuesday, he informed us that if the electromagnetic spectrum were represented as a piano keyboard, with light as one octave, you would need a keyboard stretching to the sun.

One octave means one doubling of frequency, or one halving of wavelength. Taking one attometer (the upper limit for the size of a quark or electron) as the minimum wavelength and 14 billion light years as the maximum (absurd!), that gives a size range of 44 orders of magnitude or 146 doublings or halvings. Piano keyboard equivalent about 24 metres - less than to the end of my garden!

It is ridiculous even to do a calculation. It doesn't need two seconds thought. So how could the BBC let such a gross error through? More improvement needed!

Thursday, 25 March 2010


No, I am not going to crow over the snubbing of Netanyahoo (mis-spelling intended!). It was only what he deserved after decades of snubbing Pelestinians. But I hope Obama will stand his ground. The last U.S. president to stand up to the Israelis was George H Bush, and look where that got him!

What was intersting was that it came the same day that Britain announced the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the use by Mossad of forged British passports. How many other fake documents are out there, with the attendant risk to their true holders?

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Espionage and subversion must be just about the only industry that has grown steadily through all the recessions of the last eighty years.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Pi Day

I was interested to see from Facebook that a lot of British people have adopted 14th March as Pi Day. This is yet another bit of American cultural invasion. I wonder whether social networking is going to complete the takeover, with all these young people addressing each other 'Hi hon!' 'Hey you guys!'

In Britain we give the day before the month, and there is nothing special about 14.3 (nor about 9.11, the 9th of November). Logically we should write the numbers in the order of the size of units, just as we say first the millions, then the thousands, then the hundreds, tens and ones. So today is 2010.3.20. In fact the British reverse the order: 20.3.2010. Americans put the units in the middle, which doesn't make sense: 3.20.2010.

Actually, what a pity we are stuck with the Gregorian calendar! The length of its months are in crazy disorder and the year begins on a day of no astronomical significance. It is very accurate in relation to the sun, but it leaves the poor old moon completely out of account. We should go back to the good old Babylonian and Jewish calendar, with months that follow the moon.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

New intifada

Palestinians are feeling abandoned and betrayed after Hillary Clinton's latest speech, responding to Israeli plans to build 1600 homes for Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem with talk of America's 'unshakable bonds' with Israel and their 'shared values'. Any hopes raised by Obama's election and his Cairo speech seem to have vanished into thin air.

This comes the day after Channel Four showed a heart-rending film about the children of Gaza, still living amid ruins, mourning lost family members (a boy of nine shot through the head, a beloved father), talking pathetically of growing up to be engineers though deprived even of proper schools since Israel won't allow the import of building materials for reconstruction.

These Gaza children spoke chillingly but understandably of revenge and of killing Jews, when the only Jews they have ever seen were spraying their homes and schools and hospitals with bullets and white phosphorus. Meanwhile the Israeli ' Defense' Force has been declaring prohibited areas around Bilin and Nilin and Beit Sahour to stop peaceful protests against the occupation, now in its 43rd year with no hope in sight.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Big Issue issue

Do Big Issue sellers upset other people? I have got to the point where I cross the road rather than walk past one. It's not because the last time I bought one the bloke snatched it back saying 'Hey, don't take it; it's my last one!' Nor is it because the previous one I bought turned out to be second-hand and out of date. No, it's because they make me feel powerless to help. I can't walk past without looking a vendor in the eye, and I don't want to buy a magazine that I don't have time to read.

The Big Issue has been going for twenty years and during that time governments have done little or nothing to cure the problem of homelessness. On the contrary, houses have become increasingly a speculative asset. The replacement of the rates by council tax lightens the burden on people who own houses without occupying them, and grotesque increases in house prices give speculators an incentive to hold out for a profit.

It is all part of the growing inequality in our society, and I am sure there are cures for that. We should send a mission to find out how they do things in Scandinavia; I'm sure they don't have tens of thousands of people sleeping rough in the snows of Norway or Sweden. But which MPs are going to take a lead on that? They all seem to have second homes anyway.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Operation Iraq Liberation (O.I.L.)

Remember the mystery of General Jay Garner, appointed Governor of Iraq in April 2003 and replaced by Bremer a few weeks later? Well I have at last seen the explanation, given in Armed Madhouse by investigative journalist extraordinary, Greg Palast. The problem was not that America had no plan for post-invasion Iraq but that they had two. Plan A, favoured by the State Department and Big Oil, was for immediate elections and quick withdrawal, leaving the Iraqi economy and administration intact. Plan B, coming from the neo-cons and the Pentagon, was to do a 'Pinochet', sell off all state assets, especially oil, to international corporations, and only then have elections. Jay Garner was sent to execute Plan A, then removed by the proponents of Plan B.

Plan B was in fact lunacy, and Bremer more than anyone else was responsible for setting off first insurrection, then civil war. In a year of decrees, binding on all subsequent governments of Iraq, he demobilized the army, sending all the soldiers home with their weapons, destroyed the civil service by sacking all Baath Party members, ruined the economy by selling much of it off to foreigners and by removing all protective tariffs and quotas, and offended both Sunni and Shia communities.

George W. of course snoozed through all this, and there is no evidence that he understood at any point what was going on. It was left to Cheney to direct the response from the White House, and he was in favour of parts of both plans; as an oil man he wanted the oil policy of Plan A, but as a neo-con he wanted the Pinochet part of Plan B. In the end it was Big Oil and James Baker III who decided what should be done with the oil: keep it together as a state asset, firmly under the control of American 'advisers' who would hold production down to enable Saudi Arabia to keep OPEC prices up, to the benefit of the international oil corporations.

As for General Garner, the story was put about that he was sacked because he was incompetent. In fact he had long experience of Iraq, was popular with the Kurds and Shiites and was sympathetic to the Sunnis. He was probably better fitted than any other American to steer Iraq quickly to a peaceful and prosperous solution. But then of course, the interests of the Iraqis were of no consequence in Washington or Texas. The only Arabs who counted were the Saudi princes.

Monday, 8 March 2010

The democracy money can buy

If anybody was surprised to learn last week that Lord Ashcroft, major donor to the Tory Party pays next to no income tax in Britain, they have not been following the news for the last thirty years. The buying of political influence has been becoming more and more flagrant. If anything it got worse under the Blair-Brown-Mandelson regime. There is now little to choose between the US and us.

The sad truth is that corporations have taken over the world. Ministers and civil servants are increasingly just the front men - and women - for their operations, conveniently changing laws or failing to change them, and deflecting criticism to suit them and their shareholders. Tiny Blair was caught at it in the very first months of his reign, exempting formula one racing at Silverstone from a ban on tobacco advertising, in gratitude for a donation to New Labour by its owner Bernie Ecclestone. Blair told us he was 'a regular kind of guy' and handed back the money, so Ecclestone had his cake and ate it. Having swallowed that scandal, it was clear that the public would not choke on anything.

That's why people can't be bothered to vote. Smooth Mr Cameron and his Etonian friends sound as devoid of principles and policies as Blair at his worst. In fact many people might in the end decide that they prefer gruff Mr Brown, not that he is any less susceptible to corporate pressure. But either way the corporations will continue to rule, and they will pay the money needed to win over the few tens of thousands of floating voters in marginal constituencies who will decide the election result.