Friday, October 30, 2009


40 Years Old Already...

An internet that speaks to you

Progress towards making the net more multi-lingual is welcome says Bill Thompson.

It is 40 years to the week since the first data packets were sent over the Arpanet.

That was the research network commissioned by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) to see whether computer-to-computer communications could be made faster, more reliable and more robust by using the novel technique of packet switching instead of the more conventional circuit switched networks of the day.

Instead of connecting computers rather as telephone exchanges work, using switches to set up an electric circuit over which data could be sent, packet switching breaks a message into chunks and sends each chunk - or packet - separately, reassembling them at the receiving end.

Late on October 29 1969 Charley Kline sat down at a computer in the computer laboratory at UCLA, where he was a student, and established a link to a system at the nearby Stanford Research Institute, sending the first data packets over the nascent Arpanet.

This will finally allow users of these domains to have a domain name that is entirely in characters based on their native language, and marks an important point in the internationalisation of the whole internet.
Bill Thompson

Later in the year permanent links were made between four sites in the US, and over the following years the ARPANET grew into a worldwide research network.

Arpanet was one of the computer networks that coalesced into today's internet, and the influence of the standards and protocols established there can still be seen today, making this anniversary as important for historians of the network society as July's celebration of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing is for those who study space science.

Technology does not stand still, and over the years the way computers communicate with each other has changed enormously. Early Arpanet computers used the Network Control Protocol to talk to each other, but in 1983 this was replaced with the more powerful and flexible TCP/IP - the transmission control protocol and internet protocol.

Today we are in the process of migrating our networks from IP version 4 to IP version 6, which allows for more devices to be connected to the network and is more secure and robust, but work continues to improve and refine all aspects of the network architecture.

One area that is changing is the domain name system, DNS. This links the unique number that identifies every device on the internet with one or more names, making it possible to type in "" and go to the right web server without having to remember its number.

Designed by engineer Paul Mockapetris in 1983, DNS is a vital component of the network as well as the web, including e-mail and instant messaging. Every time a programme uses a name for a computer instead of a number, DNS is involved.

However DNS, like so much of the network's architecture, was developed by English-speaking westerners, and its original design only allowed standard ASCII characters to be used in names.

ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, is a way of representing letters, numbers and punctuation in the binary code used by computers, and was originally based on old telegraphic codes.

It works really well for English, but had to be extended and updated to cope with other alphabets, and has now been replaced by the much more powerful and capable Unicode standard, able to represent non-Latin languages as well as those based on the Latin alphabet.

Being able to write in your own language is one thing, but it's also important to be able to have e-mail or website addresses that use it. Unfortunately the design of DNS meant that key aspects would not work with anything other than ASCII, making it impossible to simply add in Chinese or Arabic characters to domain.

Work has been going on since the mid 90's to change this and provide what are called "internationalized domain names", and many organisations are now able to have websites and email addresses that include Chinese, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic and many other alphabets.

The process took a significant step forward this week when Icann, the international body that looks after domain names, fast-tracked a proposal to provide internationalised versions of two letter country domains, such as .uk and .jp.

This will finally allow users of these domains to have a domain name that is entirely in characters based on their native language, and marks an important point in the internationalisation of the whole internet.

It has taken a long time to make this happen, but the problems of re-engineering such a key part of the network infrastructure without breaking anything are enormous, and anyone who reads through the technical documentation will see just how complex the process has been.

And it was definitely necessary to do it properly - the fuss over the recent retuning of Freeview boxes in the UK was bad enough, but trying to persuade a billion internet users to update their software to support a new form of DNS would have been impossible.

Over the next five years the majority of new internet users will come from the non English-speaking world. It's good to see that those of us who have helped build the network so far are making it more welcoming for them.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

21st Century Revolution

Try to think back to your life at the end of the last century. What was it like? Do you remember listening to music on CDs? Owning a phone primarily in order to make phone calls? Going to a library to search for information? Buying a map when embarking on a journey? Now compose a list of 10 ways in which your life has changed since. Here are mine:

1 Google In 2002, this was still a bunch of visionaries without a business plan. In just under four years, it went from earning nothing to earning $20bn a year. It accounts for 70% of all searches for information in the world. In October 2006, it splashed out $1.6bn for YouTube, another company without a business plan that was itself barely 18 months old. YouTube now notches up 1 billion searches a day. During the first nine years of the 21st century, American newspaper revenues declined by roughly 50%. Google is on a grandiose journey to digitise just about every word, painting, note, street, mountain, stream, ocean, book, newspaper, animal, insect, photograph and email that ever existed. "Google" passed into common parlance as a verb in around 2002. You google, I google, we all google. It is the most revolutionary word of the decade.

2 Wikipedia How do I know that the first recorded use of the verb "to google" was 8 July 1998, and that Google itself initially used lawyers to discourage the use of the word-as-verb? From Wikipedia – the half-baked, crazy idea of Jimmy Wales (and others) launched in January 2001. How could such a stupid notion – an encyclopedia written by anyone and everyone – ever work? Whatever next? Short answer: the English-language version now has 3 million articles and 1 billion words (which is – according to Wikipedia – 25 times the size of Encyclopaedia Britannica).

3 Twitter Another really stupid idea. As if anything worth saying could possibly be said in 140 characters. Who are these sad people who want to know that some other sad person is waiting for a bus or has just changed a nappy? OK, so there are roughly 18 million of them, but what on earth do they talk about? Yes, people still write/say that. Smarter people recognise that Twitter is one stage on from Google – applying human intelligence and recommendation to the ordering of information… in real time. It makes algorithms look so 1990s.

4 Comment Is Free A plug for the home team here. Launched in March 2006, CiF inverted the traditional model of newspaper comment. That model went as follows: a small number of columnists opined on politics, culture and events. The readers responded by letter or email: a tiny proportion of that response saw the light of day. This assumed if you were, for example, a New York Times reader, that Thomas L Friedman was the one voice you wanted to hear on Venezuela, the Middle East, Russia, Rwanda, Italy, China and Afghanistan. Comment Is Free started from the assumption that – with intelligent editing and moderating – there were thousands of people with voices and opinions worth hearing and that something powerful, plural and diverse could be forged from combining a newspaper's columnists with those other voices. Millions read it every month; around 100,000 actively take part. Work in progress, but it's difficult to imagine ever going back to the old model.

5 BBC iPlayer Launched at the end of 2007 and – again – already it's impossible to imagine life without the ability to view, or listen to, programmes in your own time. And, of course, that leads to the really radical thought that one day anyone will be able to access any BBC content created at any point in the last 70 years via the iPlayer… for free. Unless James Murdoch has really got David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt in some kind of headlock, in which case you'll have to pay for it. Assuming the BBC still exists in any recognisable form.

6 iPhone Launched in June 2007. Can you remember the moment when you first held one? The involuntary gasp as you saw what it could do? The touch screen, the rotating screen, the zooming screen! The satellite street view, the maps, the iPod and phone all in one slick sliver of beauty. And that was just the start. Jonathan Zittrain, the enormously brainy Oxford-and-Harvard web guru, denounced the original iPhone as "sterile" – on the basis that it was a device that only Apple could improve or change. That was way back in June 2008, since when 1 billion iPhone apps have been downloaded and the only limit to what a mobile phone could become is human imagination itself.

7 Craigslist Until 2000, this classified advertising database existed only in San Francisco. Come the new millennium, it expanded into nine more US cities. It is now in nearly 600 cities in more than 50 countries (thank you, Wikipedia). I remember a Guardian Media Group board meeting when one of our in-house digital gurus patiently explained its business model – essentially, free to both advertiser and reader. It then operated from a small building in San Francisco and had 17 employees. I sat there thinking, "This is the beginning of the end for local newspapers." Nothing has happened since to change my mind.

8 Facebook All the silly things people say about Twitter (see above), they said about Facebook. And still do. What a pointless waste of time! Who are these people with empty lives? Etc etc. It is so pointless that there are now more than 300 million people active on the site, doing their pointless things. But, really, to think that, you would have to think it was pointless to want to connect, to create, to share creativity or thought, to discuss, to collaborate, to form groups or to combine with others in mutual interests or passions. If you can't see the point of any of those things, you will not see the point of Facebook.

9 iTunes U Launched in May 2007 and still relatively unknown. The theory is that every university in the world – most of them benefiting from significant public funding – can share all their course lessons, lectures, language classes and laboratory demonstrations with everyone else. For those who haven't discovered it, you find it through iTunes itself. Tap in any search term you want, and it will deliver you content from all the partner universities, which you can then carry around with you on your iPod or iPhone (see above) to listen to on buses, at airports, on long car journeys or (if you are insomniac like me) throughout the night. Take the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and the Open University, and multiply by 10,000.

10 Spotify Launched generally only eight months ago, Spotify is even more life-changing than iTunes, with a library of six million tracks, including a remarkable amount of really quite esoteric classical music. It is – at least at the time of writing – all free, providing you don't mind putting up with the occasional advertisement. Was there really a time when, in order to listen to a particular concerto or symphony, you had to either buy it or scan Radio Times to see if Radio 3 had scheduled it? Incredible to think of those dark ages. Now – so long as you don't mind not "owning" music – you can listen to more or less anything more or less any time. A small Eee PC, hooked up to your sound system, will cost no more than a mid-price tuner. A lifetime of musical exploration beckons.

I make no claims for all of these being the most significant developments in communication over the last decade. They are simply 10 of the inventions and launches that have most affected me. I would find it hard to imagine returning to a life without any of them. Between them they have created the greatest explosion of democracy; access to information; potential for creativity; and the ability to connect and communicate the world has ever seen. They are, each of them, profoundly disruptive and revolutionary, and with consequences that will ripple on through time future. Some (most?) may be transitory, to be replaced by even more transformatory innovations; some more permanent. In just under 10 years they – and millions of developments, technologies and websites like them – have changed the world profoundly.

by Alan Rusbridger

Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Praise Of... Up

Say it's a tradition. Explain to your children – or your nieces or nephews or grandkids – that half-term must, as a matter of faith or ancient custom, include a trip to the cinema. Say whatever you have to or, if that fails, then go alone. Just make sure you see Up.

It's the latest animated feature from Pixar, the studio with a claim to being one of the more insightful chroniclers of our times. There's plenty there for kids to enjoy – some nice gags and wonderful pictures – but that does it little justice. Yes, it's sentimental, but it's also elegiac, touching and oddly brave. It is a film that reveals the gaps in the rest of popular culture, exposing those areas where others fear to tread.

For Up has the unlikeliest of protagonists, a grumpy, lonely widower, Mr Fredricksen. It deals, matter-of-factly, with questions that rarely arise in any movie, let alone one aimed chiefly at children. So within the opening few scenes, we have not just the solitude of the elderly but the pressure on them to give up their independence and move into old-age homes. This is not ground covered in High School Musical.

Admirable though it is to raise issues normally confined to the pages of the Guardian's Society section, Up digs deeper. The film starts by showing Mr Fredricksen as a little boy, walking the 1930s streets of his neighbourhood, then staring wide-eyed at the black-and-white newsreels that brought word of Charles F Muntz, the Lindbergh-style heroic explorer who soared above the globe in an airship. This simple act of recollection sends a powerful message: it says that the elderly of today once had their own pop culture, their own celebrities, their own "new media". They are not just old people, those we might brush aside. They were children once, too.

There are regular, often acerbic, observations of the way we live now. The small, charming wooden house the old man has lived in for most of his life is under threat from developers, men in Matrix-style suits and shades, who are surrounding it with looming steel-and-glass skyscrapers. When Mr Fredricksen decides he's had enough, tying his home to a thousand balloons and heading for the skies, he is joined by a young boy scout whose father has given him all kinds of electronic gizmos – he has given him everything, in fact, except time.

Some will detect hypocrisy in a US entertainment giant such as Disney – which owns Pixar – making a target of both corporate greed and the marketing of consumer electronics to kids. But these are asides in what is a much larger story. Up deals with themes that are timeless and universal. In the most outstanding sequence, a wordless montage follows Mr Fredricksen and his childhood sweetheart from their infancy to adolescence, marriage and eventually her death. Silently, and movingly, we see the disappointment of childlessness and the deferral of dreams – in this case a long yearned for voyage to Venezuela – because reality always intrudes. Up shows us the truth of John Lennon's pithy observation: life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

This is becoming typical of Pixar. Its last feature, Wall-E, asked whether waste and rampant consumption were choking our planet, so that eventually human beings would have to find somewhere else to live, while telling an eternal story about the need for companionship. The protagonists of their most recent films – a rat, a rusty robot, a curmudgeon – are not designed with one eye on the merchandising product line. Pixar is instead doing the work of great storytellers, holding up a mirror to the world even as it reminds us of those fundamental traits, and needs, that make us human. And Pixar manages to do all that while telling a funny, exciting yarn that appeals to the widest possible audience. How many of our literary giants can say the same?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mexico Spied On Gabo

Mexico´s intelligence service spied on the writer Gabriel García Márquez for decades and considered him a Cuban agent, it emerged this week.

The defunct DFS agency bugged the Nobel laureate's phone and monitored his movements from 1967 after he moved to Mexico with his family. The authorities suspected the Colombian author of One Hundred Years of Solitude because of his leftist sympathies and friendship with Fidel Castro. Declassified documents published in the newspaper El Universal revealed the DSF kept a bulging file at least up until 1985, after which documents remain secret. It was era of the "dirty war" waged by rightwing Latin American governments against suspected subversives.

In a tapped conversation with the director of Cuba's Prensa Latina news agency, Jorge Timossi, Márquez mentioned he had made over the publishing rights for his book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, to Cuba's communist government.

"The above proves that Gabriel García Márquez, besides being pro-Cuban and pro-Soviet, is a propaganda agent at the service of the intelligence agency of that country," a DFS document said in 1982. The same year he won the Nobel prize for literature.

The agency closely monitored the author's mediation between leftist movements and the French president, François Miterrand. It also kept tabs on Mexican writers such as Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel prize in 1990, and Salvador Novo.

Márquez, 82, affectionately known as Gabo throughout Latin America, divides his time between Mexico City and Cartagena in Colombia. He still visits Havana and has maintained his friendship with Castro.

His masterpiece Love in the Time of Cholera was made into a film but an effort to film his most recent novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, was derailed by objections to its alleged promotion of underaged sex.

La Tour D´Argent, Paris (Est. 1582)

established 1582

Happy 90th Birthday!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Window Into The 7th Wonder?


The installation process took over an hour, but once up and running Windows 7’s advantages were impressive. Gathering information from 168,941 user files, settings and “programs” was time consuming for the automated installer, and so was expanding 2340mb worth of files. Google’s new Chrome browser installs in seconds, and while that is not an operating system, Microsoft will be aware that everybody’s impatient for their computers to be faster in all respects. However, at least the process was clearly saying what it was doing, and made it obvious that it hadn’t in fact crashed midway through.

Homegroups and touchscreens

Essentially, this is the operating system Vista should have been – it starts up relatively quickly, drivers already exist to make peripherals such as scanners and printers work with it, and it does clever things that XP, the version of Windows most people still use, just doesn’t.

The two facets that are at the heart of that are based around the “Homegroup”, and new ways of inputting and viewing information. The Homegroup means that you can group together a number of things, from MP3 players to other computers, and so as soon as you join a network, you can instantly see everything you’ve seen before. Music, films and files really are available immediately. This idea is certainly not new, but the breakthrough comes in simplifying the sharing process to accommodate the countless videos, digital pictures and albums that people have taken using digital technology. Windows Media Player, too, now supports far more file formats.

The new ways of dealing with information, meanwhile, mean that touchscreens are much better supported – in the future they will need to be – and that forthcoming applications based around combining television and the internet will slot in neatly, too. The same integration applies to online services such as social networking site Facebook, and, for instance, Windows Live with its shared picture galleries.

The icons here are bigger, too, but they don’t look patronising. The idea is that fat fingers should be as useful as the tiny pointer of a mouse. Shaking individual windows can be used to activate certain features, as well, which could be a natural move with a finger on a touchscreen, but not with the mouse.

Vista’s desktop, improved

On many machines, Vista’s desktop quickly seemed to run slowly. Software updates fixed some issues, but at least three computers I’ve used didn’t seem to respond very effectively. Vista separates its gadgets out from the bar that previously occupied the right-hand side of the screen, and consequently feels considerably more friendly. The difference isn’t huge, aesthetically, but functionally it’s significant.

From netbooks to desktops

Another crucial improvement for Windows 7 over Windows Vista is that 7 will run on a range of machines, from low-specification netbooks to high-powered desktops. On our mid-range Studio Hybrid, 7 was certainly more impressive than Vista, although there were the bugs that are acceptable in a test beta version, especially to do with the anti-virus programmes that are currently still very specific to Vista.

Micorosoft say that the operating system will be happy on, for instance, an Asus EeePC. Given that the EeePC sometimes struggles to run its cut-down version of Linux, that’s quite some claim, and I’d be eager to see how true it really is.

Intelligent power management

There are substantial improvements in power management, too, with ports being turned off when they’re not in use, and so this is an operating system that does what it should: unlike Vista, it shuts up, and keeps things going while you, the user, can get on with whatever it is you need to be doing. Batteries will live longer, but the programme learns from your behaviour too. If the display is set to dim after 30 seconds and you move the mouse immediately it does, then you’ll get significantly longer before the computer dims its display again. So there’s time, say, to read something quite lengthy on screen without constant irritation.

But should you really go and download a beta?

Senior people at Microsoft say they’ve been using the current build of Windows 7 on their main machines for a few days now and that there have been no problems. Indeed, it is certainly true that the developer community is making surprisingly positive noises about Windows 7, especially when compared to Vista. So people will be taking the plunge in droves, right?

Geeks will, indeed. But does Windows 7 do anything you need so much it’s worth the risk? The answer is almost certainly no.

It offers impressive connectivity, it looks slick to the (Apple?) core, but, for instance, persuading it to ignore warnings about McAfee’s Security Centre being incompatible with this new version of Windows was difficult and annoying. For some unknown reason, too, web access sometimes just ground to a halt and crashed Internet Explorer. No computer or wifi network is perfect, but a consumer should be able to know that such problems are not in their browser, and with a beta you simply don’t have that kind of certainty.


Microsoft has learnt a lot from Vista. The PR for Windows 7 is already better, and the company, more than in the past, is keen to constantly remind users that Friday’s release is only of a test version. It helps, of course, that in truth Vista is now the operating system it should have been when it launched. People aren’t desperate for an upgrade, as they were in the last days of XP.

What Microsoft has realised primarily, though, is that Windows 7 needs to make everything easier – playing music, joining networks, sharing photos should all feel simpler than they do currently. The good news is that with this beta they already do; if Microsoft can really deliver on that vision in the full release, then Windows 7 should be a formidable programme indeed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama Year (almost) One

At an election night party during the primaries last year I made a throwaway comment disparaging those who believed Barack Obama's mixed-race identity gave him a unique understanding of America's racial problems.

"It does," said one woman.

I explained that I was joking. She was not. "It really does," she continued. "He knows how black people think and he knows how white people think."

"If that's what it took then Tiger Woods [whose father is of African American, Chinese and Native American descent and mother is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent] should be president and Nelson Mandela should have stayed in the Transkei," I said.

"So why's he doing so well?" she asked. I suggested it was probably his stance on the war, the state of the economy and a desire to move on from the Clinton-Bush duopoly combined with his grassroots organising experience and use of new technology.

"There's more to it than that," she said. "It's him."

It is almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Obama. The problem isn't that people come to him with baggage. Everyone comes to everything in politics with baggage. It's that they refuse to check it in or even declare it. Any conversation about what he does rapidly morphs into one about who he is and what he might be.

In New Jersey more than a third of the conservatives literally think he might be the devil. A poll last month revealed 18% of the state's conservatives know he is the antichrist, while 17% are not sure. In Oslo, where he was last week awarded the Nobel peace prize, they think he might be Mother Teresa. A peace prize for a leader, nine months into his term, whose greatest foreign policy achievement to date is to wind down one war so he can escalate another, is bizarre to say the least.

Obama's particular biography, sudden rise and unflappable manner have certainly accentuated the contradictions between how different people understand his record. But the problem goes far wider than that. An obsession with celebrity, the cult of presidential personality and a culture of individualism (all of which long predated his election) have made understanding western politicians primarily within their political context a relative rarity.

We talk instead of "great men", who as Thomas Carlyle claimed, made history independent of the society and cultures that produced them. So tales of their moods, thought processes, psychological flaws and idiosyncratic genius become paramount. The emphasis shifts from policy to personality: their inability to trust, failure to lead or willingness to compromise become the questions of the day. The fate of the world lies not so much in their hands as in their gut and mind. Whether they take tablets or not sparks national conversation.

And so for all his individual talents, the fact that Obama is the product of a certain political moment and system, and therefore represents both its potential and its limits, is lost.

Nonetheless, the potential is not difficult to see. At home his election brought together a new coalition to transform the electoral landscape. He won the vote of 97% of black Americans, 67% of Latinos and white union members, 66% of those aged between 18 and 29 and 63% of Asian Americans. Black people voted in greater numbers by 14%, Latinos by 25% and young people aged between 18 and 29 by 25%. On his coattails came substantial Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress.

He is now turning out to be the most progressive president in 40 years. The agenda he has set out of raising taxes on the rich, reforming healthcare, withdrawing from Iraq, softening the sanctions on Cuba, and boosting the number of student grants marks a far bolder vision of what government is for than either Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did.

Internationally, he remains incredibly popular, not least for who he is not – George Bush. A poll released last week revealing which country is most admired around the world showed America leaping from seventh to first. "What's really remarkable is that in all my years studying national reputation, I have never seen any country experience such a dramatic change in its standing as we see for the United States in 2009," explained Simon Anholt of the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index. This is about as good a result as the left is going to get out of an American election.

But the limits are also all too apparent. Being the most progressive American president in more than a generation is not the same as being progressive. It's all relative. He has escalated the war in Afghanistan, continued rendition and maintained many of the most noxious presidential prerogatives that Bush claimed for himself.

The fact that Democrats have sufficient majorities in both houses of Congress to pass whatever they want but are struggling to pass anything that would make a decisive and conclusive break with the past suggests the problem in Washington is not "partisan politics". It's a political system and culture so crowded with corporate lobbyists, that it is apparently incapable of fulfilling the wishes of the people even when – as with a public option in healthcare – that is what they want.

The fact he is a product of that system does not mean he is not necessarily dedicated to reforming it. But we cannot measure his dedication, only his achievements. And so far those achievements have not been great.

Meanwhile, he has precious little to show for his global popularity. Nobody wants to increase troop levels in Afghanistan or take in Guantánamo Bay prisoners. By the time his climate change efforts emerge from Congress they are unlikely to impress the international community. "The problem is he's asking for roughly the same things Bush asked for and Bush didn't get them, not because he was a boorish diplomat or a cowboy," Peter Feaver, a former adviser to Bush, told the New York Times recently. "If that were the case, bringing in the sophisticated, urbane President Obama would have solved the problem. Bush didn't get them because these countries had good reasons for not giving them." That's not quite true. He is asking for less and prepared to give more. But the fact remains that he wants similar things and his concessions seem insufficient.

Put simply, he doesn't seem to have the numbers to implement change on a scale necessary to relieve the pain of people and the planet. This risks great cynicism and even the possibility of a backlash. People will say we reached out and nobody reached back; we tried to reform healthcare but nothing much changed. Predicting these disappointments, from the left, has taken no great insight. Given his own politics and the range of institutions in which he is embedded, the limits have always been clear. It is the potential for overcoming them that has been an open question.

This should neither absolve Obama of his responsibilities nor ignore his considerable abilities, but simply place meaningful criticism of him here on Earth – as opposed to in heaven or hell. The fact that he is pushing the country in the right direction does not mean he is able to push it fast or far enough.

It seems the world may need more for its future health and wellbeing than what US politics can produce right now. His best may just not be good enough.

by Gary Younge

Sunday, October 11, 2009

George according to Patrick

I always thought there was something funny about England. When I was a child in Ireland, we would watch That's Life! on the BBC on a Sunday night and see the locals roar with laughter at funny-shaped vegetables or dogs that said the word "sausages". I'll be honest: we laughed too.

And then Esther Rantzen's tone would darken. Without warning, we would be plunged into the miserable lives of children growing up in damp public housing, watching parents who filled their children's bottles with fruit juice and rotted their teeth being shamed or – the one I'll always remember – hearing the heart-wrenching story of an elderly couple duped out of their life savings by a travelling con man. On that particular occasion, Rantzen showed us a photo-fit. "Maybe you've seen him," she said, staring straight down the lens. "Maybe he approached you, maybe you saw him at a petrol station, a pub or a restaurant. Look around you. Maybe he's sitting in the room with you right now."

I looked around. The only people in the room were my parents and my sister. I tried to imagine a chain of events that would lead to a complete stranger being wedged on the couch with us. Furthermore, what would induce us to sit down, a family and this stray we'd taken in, to watch That's Life!.

Was this how people lived in England? Did strangers often drop by on a Sunday night to watch your telly? Did you all live communally? Were there only a few televisions?

It made England seem like the most foreign place imaginable, a place where groups of strangers clustered together round a flickering light, like survivors in a disaster movie. And in one of these huddled communities, a con man was looking at his own face, drawn in pencil from a pensioner's description, doing a long, fake yawn and going "Is that the time?" before getting ready to run. England was strange.

Of course, many years later it would become my home, and even though I have seen almost every inch of this country after spending the last decade criss-crossing it from theatre to theatre, England still manages to surprise and bewilder and amuse. I've been watching you for a while now, and here's a brief sample of some of the conclusions I've so far been able to draw. Please don't take them too personally.

First to go in disaster movies

Great cities have a gravitational pull. For me, there are basically four of them – New York, Paris, Tokyo and London – and they exist to distort the space around them. They draw the population in, usually young and ambitious and willing to endure shitty houseshares in the city's endless warren of sub-divided houses.

England plays host to London, much like it plays host to the Premier League. It used to be yours, and now it belongs to the world. You want proof of London's international iconic status? In any Hollywood science-fiction movie, when they show that montage of all the alien attacks from around the world, London always gets flattened first. I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen Big Ben flooded, zapped or struck by a meteor. That's how you measure global brand-reach.

If the English were to be glibly summed up as pragmatic but a bit moany, though, then this is the perfect capital city for them. The city is massive, and Londoners negotiate daily a ludicrously complicated transport system, by underground, overground, bus and boat. This gives them endless opportunities to complain, but it also forces them to perform route calculations of astonishing complexity, usually without even looking up, for fear they might make eye-contact, or show weakness, or share a human moment with a fellow commuter, which is not the way things are done in London.

My favourite-ever joke (of my own) is about Londoners and their gift for re-routing. It was about the response to the bomb attacks on 7 July 2005. This is the joke:

The media reacted as if the attacks would, or should, be greeted like 9/11 had been in New York. Of course, the attack was nothing like 9/11, and besides . . . this is London.

They've had the Blitz and then there was the IRA . . .

In fact, the response in London to the attacks was much more:

"There's been a bomb on the Piccadilly line!"

(Long, thoughtful pause and then, like a problem being solved . . .)

"Well, I can get the Victoria line . . ."

They're not that bad, honest

Attacking the English rail system may be a national sport, but it's a pleasure denied to me because of how bad the Irish rail system is in comparison.

For example, if you want to travel between Manchester and Birmingham, the country's second and third largest cities, there are three trains an hour, two of them direct.

If you want to make the same journey between Cork and Galway, cities of the same relative status in Ireland, you take a bus for four hours. The only way to do this by train is to make a giant V; you take the train to Dublin, on the other side of the country, get off in the capital and take a train back to the other coast again.

Unfortunately, the myth of how terrible the trains are here has become so endemic, and so pleasing, that even as I write these last few paragraphs, I can see you all putting your fingers in your ears and going, "La la la la, I'm not listening, I'm not listening."

Obviously, this is because of the magical trains they have in continental Europe, which glide silently and punctually from town to town while, at the front of the Virgin Pendolino service to Stockport, a dray-horse wheezes and heaves.

I have sat on the Eurostar when they announce in Kent that the train is now travelling at 186mph; and the English people roll their eyes as if to say, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

Bingeing on beer is in your DNA

The nature of English drinking has always been a subject of debate in the country, with a certain aspirational tendency which presumes that, with just the right tweak in the licensing laws, an eruption of cafes will occur and it'll be just a couple of glasses of chardonnay before the match. With the perfect piece of legislation, you'll all go Mediterranean.

This is never going to happen. Your drinking is all about binges and serious drunkenness, more in keeping with the Germanic and Nordic (and Irish) attitude to alcohol. People don't drink as heavily in warmer climates because it's hotter there, and hot and drunk don't mix. And they drink wine in hotter climates because that's where grapes grow; in northern climates we grow grain.

It's become the norm for English people to think that they are drinking at unprecedentedly high levels. But, as Peter Haydon, author of An Inebriated History of Britain, has pointed out, today's English "are rather poor drinkers compared with our ancestors". Before there was a plentiful supply of clean water, beer and ale had been staple, healthy parts of the English diet for hundreds of years. In the 16th century, it's estimated that the average person in England consumed around 850 pints of beer a year.

As with many heavy drinkers, it wasn't until Britain switched over to shorts that the trouble started. By the last years of the 17th century, it has been estimated that consumption stood at 24 pints of gin a year for every man, woman and child in England. In 18th-century London, where two pints of "mother's ruin" were consumed per person per week, gin was cheaper than milk. I'm not sure which part of that last sentence is more striking. Is it "two pints per person per week" or "gin was cheaper than milk"?

To you, this gin-epidemic episode might be old news. But we aren't taught a lot of English history in Irish schools. So you can understand my glee at discovering the gin epidemic. We get a lot of grief, the Irish, about being heavy drinkers, but you . . . had a gin epidemic. Oh sure, we like a pint now and again but . . . you had an epidemic . . . of gin. This is like finding out that your disciplinarian stepfather actually has a teenage police record for possession of marijuana.

Sorry, you didn't invent it

Preston football club's ground, Deepdale, is home to the National Football Museum, where I once spent a large chunk of an afternoon marvelling at the sheer brass neck of whoever had collected the memorabilia inside. The depth of exhibits is quite astonishing and 95% of them could be prefixed with the words "the actual". There are the actual balls from the 1930 and 1966 World Cup finals, the actual replacement Jules Rimet trophy (after the original was stolen) and, most impressively, the actual jersey worn by Diego Maradona in the 1986 "Hand of God" match. The thrill of seeing that jersey in a case in front of you can only be a fraction of the emotion that Maradona must have felt when he received a letter from an English football museum requesting it. He must have turned to whoever was standing beside him and gone: "No way! You're shitting me, right? This is a gag, isn't it?" To the best of my knowledge, there is no glass case in Hastings containing the arrow that killed Harold.

The museum should lay to rest one old chestnut, though. The English didn't invent football. They codified it, which is a different thing altogether, and a less emotive thing to shout about when you next fail to qualify for the World Cup. You didn't invent football because you didn't invent the ball, or kicking, or fields. We should only be grateful that the Victorians didn't gather together in a room and write the first rules for the use of the wheel, or fire, so that you can claim credit for them as well.

Villages have been dragging, pulling, kicking and running against each other for millennia; you just happened to be the ones with an empire when the upper class took an interest.

It was Cambridge University who initiated the first rules, in 1848; a further 15 years passed until the formation of the FA, and even then the game was sufficiently unrecognisable from the modern version that one of the delegates, from Blackheath, lost a vote to retain shin-kicking and the club promptly left to turn their schism into rugby instead.

And I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but I'm telling you this for your own good. Almost 150 years later, whenever an English team is beaten, the line bemoaning, "This, in a sport we invented", still gets trotted out.

You've got to snap out of this. It's like you want to pour vinegar into the wound. It's a bit like having Maradona's jersey in the middle of the national football museum. Had to pile on a fresh layer of pathos, didn't you? Couldn't just enjoy a nice day out at the football museum. Had to have a little bit of disappointment in the middle of it.

You like them more than people

England, which is a largely urban, industrialised nation, pining for an illusory rural past, treats the animal kingdom with an astonishing amount of sentiment. Just look how many of the classic animal stories are primarily concerned with the idea of a natural idyll under threat from modernisation: Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, Tarka the Otter, Watership Down – even Born Free.

George Orwell was smart enough to place his allegory of communism on a farm, since he knew the English reader would instinctively side against his own species. It's the same reason that the dog is the real brains of the Wallace and Gromit operation. Gromit is also the public face of the Kennel Club's "Good Citizen Dog Scheme", the largest dog-training scheme in the United Kingdom. It says a lot that the Kennel Club suggests that one of the main questions the course will answer is: "How do you learn to live with your new dog?" There's no suggestion that a dog-training course might teach the bloody dog to live with you.

Consider also the English ability to emphasise the tragedy for animals even amid horrendous human events – the horrified reaction to the IRA's bombing of the Horse Guards in 1982, or the hoax bombing of the Grand National in 1997, as if somehow targeting horses was a new low, rather than of relatively limited importance given the human damage inflicted. When one of the horses that survived the Horse Guards bombing died in June 2004, he got his own story on the BBC and this tribute from his commanding officer: "[Yeti was] the epitome of a grand old gentleman, increasingly frail but never losing his zest for life and never, ever forgetting his manners." It's as if the English have projected on to their animals the values they fear are disappearing from their own society.

The RSPCA is one of the largest charities in England and was the first charity of its kind in the world. It was founded in 1824 by a group that included anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, and became "Royal" when Queen Victoria lent her authority to it in 1840. Here again there is the odd juxtaposition where at the same time England was involved in widespread barbarism in the name of empire, she was taking time out to tell people to be nicer to animals.

Patron saints
Learn the lesson of Paddy's Day

In the last few years, there has been a campaign to re-launch St George's Day, in an effort to find a few non-sporting occasions for self-celebration. It was in part another expression of that bizarre section of England that likes to perceive itself the victim of a terrible injustice. How can the Celts have their day? Why has everyone heard of Paddy's Day and not of brave St George? Where are our parades?

There are a couple of simple reasons why St Patrick's Day is a massive global success story and St George's Day is not. Obviously, there's the drinking, the parades and the enormous Irish diaspora, which clung to the festival as a celebration of home and developed it into the cavalcade of Guinness and green that it is today.

England can have none of this. You have a diaspora, of sorts, in the sense that you have expats all over the world. This is fundamentally different to Ireland, however, in that your diaspora is mainly in Provence, where they moved of their own accord. In the tragic tale of Irish emigration, very rarely was anyone overheard on the coffin ships saying: "Well, we've just always wanted to run a small hotel in the Dordogne. The kids have reached that age, so we said, what the hell, let's go for it."

It also doesn't help that St George never even set foot in England. There are no historical sites to venerate, because he was never here. This is similar to the never-ending English devotion to the hymn Jerusalem, despite it being a long feedline to a very curt and obvious punchline:

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green? No.

And was the holy Lamb of God On England's pleasant pastures seen? Nope.

And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? Still a big nooo, I'm afraid.

And was Jerusalem builded here Among those dark Satanic mills? No. It wasn't. Sorry about that. (And it's "built", by the way.)

The fact is, you can't reverse-engineer something like Paddy's Day. And you probably don't want to. Are you ready to put aside your ambivalent attitude to religion and force the entire country to convert to Catholicism and then give the Church hierarchy unfettered access to the reins of power? We know you don't want it and I didn't move to England to sit through that again.

Face it, England is the victim of its own success. You can't gobble up other nations, absorb them into your flag, and then whine that your original flag doesn't get the attention it deserves. This is what you wanted with the empire; suck it up.

Moreover, it might be worth asking if there isn't a bigger price to pay for the kind of cultural success Paddy's Day has achieved. There isn't an Irish person alive who hasn't cringed at the sight of Guinness hats and leprechauns being bandied about like That's Who We Are.

Every year, we see the footage of drunken American kids wearing "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-shirts and getting hammered in our honour. Even at home, the day has always been a bit of an underage drinking festival. I appreciate the craic as much as anyone; I just dislike the entire nation being reduced to a caricature. All those campaigning furiously for a St George's festival might be wise to ask themselves if they want to see England narrowed down to a man in a cartoon dragon costume running down Fifth Avenue. "Tally-ho!" they'll shout, in a Dick Van Dyke English accent. "Tally-ho!"

by Dara O Brian

Friday, October 09, 2009

1 in 4 is Muslim

Islam may be most closely associated with the Middle East, where it emerged in Arabia in the seventh century, but today the region is home to only one in five of the world's Muslims, according to a study of the religion's global distribution.

The world's Muslim population stands at 1.57 billion, meaning that nearly one in four people practise Islam, according to the US Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which published the survey. This compares to 2.25 billion Christians.

The top five Muslim countries in the world include only one in the Middle East ‑ Egypt ‑ behind Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in that order. Russia, the survey shows, has more Muslims than the populations of Libya and Jordan combined. Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon. China has a bigger Muslim population than Syria.

The work, the largest of its kind, was the result of three years of research examining data from 232 countries and territories.

The portrait it provides of Islam's distribution could have a profound influence on public policy in the west, and on attempts by the US, British and other governments to reach out to Muslims.

Extrapolating the figures from the survey, the Islam that is largely practised around the world, particularly in large swaths of Asia, is more moderate and integrated than its stereotypical characterisation as an often militant and intolerant faith.

The reality, as described by Mapping the Global Muslim Population, is that two out of three Muslims are Asians, while the 38 million Muslims in Europe, if treated as a separate group, would be the ninth largest in the world, behind Turkey, with a population of 71 million, and ahead of Algeria, with 34 million.

Pew Forum, in consultation with nearly 50 demographers and social scientists at universities and research centres around the world, analysed about 1,500 sources, including census reports, demographic studies and general population surveys, to arrive at their figures.

The research is the first step in projecting growth trends in the world's Muslim population, and a similar survey is planned by the Pew Forum on the distribution of Christians.

"This whole idea that Muslims are Arabs and Arabs are Muslims is really just obliterated by this report," said Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.

"There are these countries that we don't think of as Muslim at all, and yet they have very sizeable numbers of Muslims," said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research for the Pew Forum, naming India, Russia and China.

Islam had a huge geographic reach ‑ from the Atlantic coast to central Asia ‑ within a century of the prophet Muhammad's death, but until now its modern global profile was based on rough estimates.

The Pew Forum study depicts the world's second largest religion as complex and nuanced, challenging the notion that its trajectory is defined by a minority of Islamists.

Significantly, one in five of Muslims now lives in a country where they are represented as a religious minority, with three-quarters of that number concentrated in five countries: India (161 million), Ethiopia (28 million), China (22 million), Russia (16 million) and Tanzania (13 million).

The survey also attempted to quantify the relative sizes of the two main branches of Islam - Sunni and Shia - but came up against the difficulty that many national demographers did not distinguish between the two. It ended up suggesting that Shias, concentrated largely in four countries including Iran and Pakistan, probably made up between 10 and 13% of Muslims.

Brian Grim, one of the researchers, said: "We started on this work because the estimates for the number of the world's Muslims ranged so widely, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion. For people who do this kind of work, perhaps the figures are not surprising but there are a lot of highly educated people who do not know that one in four are Muslim."

Grim believes that the methodical demographic nature of the survey, identifying each Muslim population, may help to challenge preconceptions and prejudices about Islam. For Grim, one of the most surprising figures to emerge was just how many of the world's Islamic population is living as a minority.

Maha Azzam, an associate fellow of Chatham House and an expert on Islam, said : "I think the survey is excellent and does help with the understanding of Islam. It is still associated for too many people with politics and conflict ‑ issues such as Palestine and Iraq and more recently Afghanistan and Pakistan. What it shows is that Islam exists in many countries but crucially across many different cultures ‑ some where it is tolerated and some where it is not.

"The sheer scale of the world's Muslim population and its spread should encourage people to ask more questions about why so many people are Muslims and what they really believe. It shows there are Muslims in societies and areas that people don't immediately think of. But there are still many people who assume the majority of Muslims are Arabs."

She cautioned, however, saying: "I feel that any report can be alarmist in the minds of some people. They see the numbers and see how many there are of 'them'. It depends on the reader."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Lila Downs

Poem Of The Day


by Andy Young,

September 2009

El Salvador, 2008

A poet in a busload of poets,
I write the name of the town
the tour guide offers: Aguacayo.
Travel books give it brief mention,

alongside Guazapa, the sleeping
volcano we drive up to get here,
past holes in its side guerillas gouged
to shoot from, past a bookshop

guarded by a man with a machine
gun, small shacks of cinderblocks,
shells of buildings grown through
with weeds. “The army never gained

control of it,” the guide grins.
There is the talk of friends, uncles
disappeared, impossible to translate
because in English one disappears,

is not disappeared. This morning
we climbed a pyramid, a heap
of stone and scrub, dedicated
to the Great Flayed One, where

enemies’ skins were worn inside
out after sacrifice. We take turns
snapping photos of each other
at the top, then on to Sochitoto,

where we find a postcard heart,
huge and veined, jutting up
as a church spire. In the park
I shoot a shrine: the tail

of a helicopter brought down
by snipers, its missile fixed
below it, prey in a taloned claw,
always about to, but still not

dropping it over this pristine,
colonial town, where kids giggle
at dogs fucking, locked together
as they strain to come unstuck,

while a thin girl swings a Kermit
the Frog doll. Here in Aguacayo,
no town, no tourists, just a few men
leaning in thresholds and us poets,

scribbling notes. Ivy outside
of what was a church refuses
to root inside, three decades
after a bomb flattened all

who took shelter. Only the floor,
bits of wall, remain, the elevation
of what must have been the altar.
A camera flashes in the ash

of twilight. The men look up
from their card game, the deck
thick with dust. I turn away
to stop them from watching me

watch them, framed by debris,
and look back at my daughter
who tries to walk through the ruins,
but wobbles, plops—not quite grown

enough to balance. She bends
forward, pats the ground
with her palms, taps her dirt-
covered fingers to her tongue.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Dali & Picasso (400th!)

With a little help from Picasso

How Dali cracked the Morse code

by Robert Waterhouse

It’s not quite a Mediterranean setting. St Petersburg on Tampa Bay, Florida, has a whiff of the tropics, with balmy Gulf of Mexico tides home to the manatee and the pelican. But the Salvador Dali Museum, built to house the magnificent collection of the American industrialist A Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor Reese, is at least as important to the Dali legacy as the renowned Theatre-Museum in his home town of Figueres, Catalonia, where the artist is buried. This, simply, is the most complete Dali representation anywhere, displayed with true American flair for clarity and accessibility.

Though the present museum is just 25 years old, work began last December on a new $35m gallery relocated to St Pete’s cultural waterfront, where a 50% increase in floor space will allow permanent display of the collection’s 96 Dali oils, together with a much wider selection of its many other Dali works and artefacts. More importantly, the collection will become storm proof. In a region ever more prone to hurricanes, architect Yann Weymouth’s (1) concept is centred on a reinforced concrete cube, a so-called “treasure box”, with all the priceless artwork located on the third floor, above the floodplain, reached from the foyer by an open staircase intended to echo Dali’s fascination with the spiral enigma. The façade is wrapped by a geodesic glass bubble (also storm-resistant), enclosing non-gallery spaces.

How St Pete can afford to continue with this project in the current economic climate isn’t hard to explain – it cannot afford not to. Dr Hank Hine, the museum’s director, notes that $25m has already been raised from private and public sources. He’s confident that the final $10m will be reached in time for the proposed opening early in 2011. As things stand, the collection feeds an estimated $50m annually into the local economy via the 100,000 visitors who come to the area specifically to see it.

On money matters, both “Avida Dollars” and his enigmatic wife-muse Gala knew good patrons when they saw them. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse met the couple by appointment in the Old King Cole Bar of New York’s St Regis Hotel in 1943, shortly before they made their first acquisition, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope! (2). The Morses, an upright Mid West couple, were newlyweds at the time. The story goes that Gala, having made her usual play at a member of the opposite sex and been stuffily rebuffed, never much took to Reynolds Morse. But she was happy to negotiate sales of some 100 major works. The collection grew so strongly that in 1971 a whole wing of Morse’s injection moulding factory at Beachwood, Ohio, was converted into a Dali gallery.

A long friendship

Whatever the ups and downs of their friendship over the years, the Morses were far too serious a couple to lionise the artist. If anything, it was the other way round. Dali persuaded Morse to accompany him on a 1952 lecture tour entitled Selling Nuclear Mysticism. A photograph shows the stolid Morse standing in support as his exotic companion holds forth. Another, much later, shows them lecturing together in front of The Hallucinogenic Toreador, Morse’s final acquisition (3).

The beautifully produced and printed museum catalogue (4) with colour reproductions of all the oils introduces a note of caution, however. Its author, Robert S Lubar, argues that Dali became the victim of his own publicity – and a “flamboyant martyr to the culture industry”. His most original act was to “hold a distorting mirror to the aesthetic and political ideals of his generation”.

Is this a slightly sombre appraisal of one of the 20th century’s great magicians? The answer perhaps lies in Lubar’s need, as an independent front-rank academic and critic, to distance himself from earlier publications by none other than Reynolds Morse. During the 1970s, with his own Dali museum established, Morse issued a series of privately printed pamphlet-catalogues exploring his personal fascination with his client-friend. Eleanor played her part by translating French and Spanish texts. Morse’s interventions are hardly triumphs of objectivity, but then interesting criticism rarely is.

I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Morse’s 1973 work Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, Similarities and Contrasts (5) on the St Pete museum bookshop’s remaindered counter. Morse starts from a questionable viewpoint that the two Spaniards will be remembered as the only artists of substance in a century disembowelled by war. He then attempts to show “the ultimate harmony in the parallels and opposites of Picasso and Dali.” He says: “One can only admire the restraints the two famous Spanish artists have shown in relation to each other. One can only be thankful that they have been so relatively untainted by the equalisation of their times.”

Well, up to a point. The relationship, as his book illustrates, was largely one way. Dali, some 23 years’ Picasso’s junior, was faced with an established Spanish genius to whom he felt he must react. Picasso, on the other hand, played the courteous uncle-figure, showing polite interest in the progress of his talented young compatriot. Of course, it was not quite like that: Picasso secretly loved Dali’s showmanship while Dali despised Picasso’s politics but envied his fame.

Qualified pride

Facsimiles of Dali’s lecture “Picasso and I”, given at the Maria Guerrero theatre in Madrid on 11 November 1951, are reproduced by Morse in full beside Eleanor’s translations. The tone is set by the two opening stanzas:

As always, the honour of the maximum in contrasts belongs to Spain; this may be seen in people like the two most antagonistic painters of contemporary painting


your humble servant
Picasso is Spanish
So am I
Picasso is a genius
So am I
Picasso is probably about 72 years old
And I am about 48.
Picasso is known in all the countries
of the world
So am I
Picasso is a communist
Neither am I

Dali goes on, with qualified pride, to place the Cubist revolution firmly at the door of Picasso and Juan Gris, his fellow countrymen, then to explain to his learned audience how he himself will lead the way forward:

As my own name of Salvador explains
I want to save modern painting from
sloth and chaos, I wish to integrate
the cubist experience with the divine
proportions of Luca Pacioli
and sublimate the last residual atheist
surrealism of the dialectic materialism
in the great tradition of the mystic

(at which point a slide of Dali’s painting Christ of St John of the Cross was projected).

Picasso, for his part, had less exalted feelings about Dali. Bearded in his Paris studio by Brassai, Morse recounts, Picasso sat through a story of how the celebrated Hungarian photographer absent-mindedly placed two eggs in his trouser pocket only to have them crack and the yolk ooze down his thigh while idly watching a wedding at Saint-Sulpice.

Picasso: You should tell that story to Dali. He has held the world monopoly on eggs ever since Christopher Columbus gave it up. Omelettes, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, soft-boiled eggs – Dali has used them for everything.

Brassai: At the opening of one of his expositions in New York, the director of the gallery held out his hand to him and Dali was holding an egg in his. The collision was inevitable – it must have been a horrible handshake.

Picasso: People in the United States seem to love that kind of joke. And since Dali revels in them, he has found his promised land. Someone once told me that the host at a very elegant reception had garlic rubbed over every doorknob in his apartment. It wasn’t long before all the gilded and perfumed ladies began to smell garlic everywhere. When they discovered that the source of the odour was their own hands you can imagine what happened.

Does one detect a tang of old-world sourness on the subject of rich Americans, the same curmudgeonly jealousy that allows no mention of current St Pete museum plans – let alone the Reynolds Morse bequest – on the Figueres Theatre-Museum website? At least Dali’s dollar-lust was consistent. That worked out well all round. And the Morses endowed their collection firmly in the name of the artist himself, unlike the Whitneys and Guggenheims of this world.

Eleanor Morse chaired the museum board until recently. As for Reynolds, who died in 2000, art history would be an altogether less interesting subject without his observations: “On 3 November 1971 at 8.35pm Mr Dali remarked about his large canvases. ‘Now is necessary expline one other aspect of les masterworks. Quand myself am paint dees verks, is no one question of choice (choosing) one subject apres les udder. Is no one random apparition. On le contrary les masterworks is represent le ultimate manifestation of le Continuité Dalienne, parce que each is relate avec le udder, et each is involvéd some new discovery que y yam make’.” (6).

So who was the real eccentric?

Mad Elephant...

There was what President Obama likes to call a teachable moment last week, when the International Olympic Committee rejected Chicago's bid to be host of the 2016 summer games.

"Cheers erupted" at the headquarters of the conservative Weekly Standard, according to a blogpost by a member of the magazine's staff, with the headline "Obama loses! Obama loses!". Rush Limbaugh declared himself "gleeful". "World Rejects Obama," gloated the Drudge Report. And so on.

So what did we learn from this moment? For one thing, we learned that the modern conservative movement, which dominates the modern Republican party, has the emotional maturity of a bratty 13-year-old. But more important, the episode illustrated an essential truth about the state of American politics: At this point, the guiding principle of one of our nation's two great political parties is spite, pure and simple. If Republicans think something might be good for the president, they're against it whether or not it's good for America.

To be sure, while celebrating America's rebuff by the Olympic committee was puerile, it didn't do any real harm. But the same principle of spite has determined Republican positions on more serious matters, with potentially serious consequences in particular, in the debate over healthcare reform.

Now, it's understandable that many Republicans oppose Democratic plans to extend insurance coverage just as most Democrats opposed President Bush's attempt to convert social security into a sort of giant 401(k). The two parties do, after all, have different philosophies about the appropriate role of government.

But the tactics of the two parties have been different. In 2005, when Democrats campaigned against social security privatisation, their arguments were consistent with their underlying ideology: they argued that replacing guaranteed benefits with private accounts would expose retirees to too much risk.

The Republican campaign against healthcare reform, by contrast, has shown no such consistency. For the main line of attack is the claim based mainly on lies about death panels and so on that reform will undermine Medicare. And this line of attack is utterly at odds both with the party's traditions and with what conservatives claim to believe.

Think about just how bizarre it is for Republicans to position themselves as the defenders of unrestricted Medicare spending. First of all, the modern Republican party considers itself the party of Ronald Reagan, and Reagan was a fierce opponent of Medicare's creation, warning that it would destroy American freedom. (Honest.) In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich tried to force drastic cuts in Medicare financing. And in recent years, Republicans have repeatedly decried the growth in entitlement spending that is largely driven by rising healthcare costs.

But the Obama administration's plan to expand coverage relies in part on savings from Medicare. And since the GOP opposes anything that might be good for Obama, it has become the passionate defender of ineffective medical procedures and overpayments to insurance companies.

How did one of our great political parties become so ruthless, so willing to embrace scorched-earth tactics even if so doing undermines the ability of any future administration to govern?

The key point is that ever since the Reagan years, the Republican party has been dominated by radicals, ideologues and/or apparatchiks who, at a fundamental level, do not accept anyone else's right to govern.

Anyone surprised by the venomous, over-the-top opposition to Obama must have forgotten the Clinton years. Remember when Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton was a party to murder? When Gingrich shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those Medicare cuts? And let's not even talk about the impeachment saga.

The only difference now is that the Republican party is in a weaker position, having lost control not just of Congress but, to a large extent, of the terms of debate. The public no longer buys conservative ideology the way it used to; the old attacks on "big government" and paeans to the magic of the marketplace have lost their resonance. Yet conservatives retain their belief that they, and only they, should govern.

The result has been a cynical, ends-justify-the-means approach. Hastening the day when the rightful governing party returns to power is all that matters, so the Republicans will seize any club at hand with which to beat the current administration. It's an ugly picture. But it's the truth. And it's a truth anyone trying to find solutions to America's real problems has to understand.

by Paul Krugman

Elections Throughout Europe

In voting George Papandreou's Socialists back into power, Greeks bucked a Europe-wide trend currently favouring the political right that is likely to be capped by a Conservative victory in Britain next year. But in terms of issues that most influenced voter choices, Greece's general election seems to have largely followed the pattern of other European polls.

The common picture conjured by recent elections in Germany and Portugal, by Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and by June's European parliamentary elections shows national electorates alarmed by international economic storms raging beyond their control. Their response, broadly speaking, has been a vote for stability and familiar faces – and the least amount of financial pain possible.

Greece's expected deficit this year of 6% of GDP, its ballooning national debt, and rising joblessness mirrors, in only slightly exaggerated form, the problems facing many of the EU's 27 member states. The Socialists' promises to raise taxes on the better-off, protect jobs and launch a €2.5bn stimulus package were preferred to the outgoing government's insistence on tough austerity measures.

Nor can Papandreou be easily portrayed as a fresh face wielding a new broom. A former foreign minister, he hails from a political dynasty reaching back generations; his father served two terms as prime minister. His big idea for dealing with Brussels, which views Athens as a chronic offender of eurozone rules, is an old-fashioned sounding three-year plan that will supposedly balance the books.

Last month's elections in Portugal saw another centre-left leader, prime minister José Socrates, fighting less successfully to stem the rightward tide. Although the Socialist party chief held on to power, voters clipped his wings, leaving him heading a minority administration. Their expectation appears to be that he will steer the country through a deepening crisis in the public finances without taking undue risks.

As in the EU parliamentary elections, and in past national elections in the Low Countries and eastern Europe, militant fringe parties did well in Portugal, at the expense of the larger, more established groupings. Big winners were the rightwing Popular party, which came third overall, and the Left Block, an alliance of former Marxists recalling Germany's Die Linke (the Left).

Portuguese apathy also reflected pan-European trends. Disillusionment with a lack of policy choices from main parties led 40% of the electorate to stay home.

Angela Merkel's powerful showing in last month's German election, and the collapse in support for the centre-left Social Democrats, suggested to many analysts that voters, primarily interested in stability and continuity at a time of global uncertainty were inclined to invest greater confidence in conservative politicians. In short, capitalism's crisis was best dealt with by pro-capitalists. At grassroots level there was no real stomach for a fight and no ideological base from which to mount one.

In France, where a rightwing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, dominates and the divided Socialist opposition is in disarray, author and thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy rattled cages last summer by declaring the end of socialism. Asked if the French Socialist party could survive, he said: "It is already dead. No one, or nearly no one, dares to say it. But everyone, or nearly everyone, knows it."

A key factor in the advance of the right is said to be the way, like Tony Blair, it has stolen its opponents' political clothes and launched a determined occupation of the centre ground where most voters live. To this end, centre-right parties such as Merkel's Christian Democrats endorse "socialised" healthcare, welfare benefits, industry bailouts, and environmental causes, while simultaneously promising prudent, cost-effective governance and lower taxes.

Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform said that, broadly speaking, Europeans primarily wanted "economic competence" in their leaders. But this did not necessarily translate into support for the right, she said. "People are not in revolutionary mood, but at the same time, they have no particular trust in any particular party or political force … there is a sense of realism about what is possible. If somebody promises more, they don't believe it. They're looking for the tried and tested."

As usual, EU holdout Norway seems impervious to continental trends. In polls last month its Labour party leader and prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, won a notable re-election victory. His achievement may be linked to Norway's oil and gas riches. In Oslo, it seems, their biggest problem is what to do with the $400bn surplus currently stuffed in the nation's offshore piggy-bank. Now there's a dilemma.