Thursday, January 29, 2004

The UN wants to send an international peacekeeping force to Ivory Coast. This is in response to a peace agreement signed in France last year signed by the government and main rebel groups. The agreement called for disarmament of the rebels and their integration into the national army. A UN Security Council already authorized a French-led mission (which was invited by all the main parties to the war), now France wants a Security Council resolution to broaden the mission. The French-sponsored resolution is being delayed by the US ambassador ostensibly because he wants verification on numbers. Let's hope it's only that.

The situation in Ivory Coast constitutes a continuing threat to the peace, security and stability of the West African region [to use the same phrasing as Resolution 688 concerning Iraq]. This is indisputable. The war in Ivory Coast has had grave repercussions in neighboring countries like Guinea, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Liberia. In fact, the Ivorian government is widely suspected of aiding the Liberian rebels who helped engineer the downfall of that country's dictator Charles Taylor. Given President Bush's stated intent to "work with the UN Security Council to meet our common challenge" posed by Iraq, one should expect similiar cooperation regarding the Ivory Coast situation.

After all, since Congress gave the president the authority to "use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to... enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq," surely the president would wish to apply the same standard to a similiarly non-threatening country like Ivory Coast whose lack of stability jeopardizes the entire region, most of whom are US allies. Particularly since the Ivory Coast mission could be achieved (and almost certainly would be done) without the involvement of any US soldiers.

"Had we failed to act, Security Council resolutions on Iraq would have been revealed as empty threats, weakening the United Nations and encouraging defiance by dictators around the world," President Bush declared in this year's State of the Union speech. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that the present international mission in Ivory Coast, authorized by the West African regional group ECOWAS, is beset by lack of financial resources. Given his professed concern for the reputation of the United Nations, President Bush should help the international mission enforce Security Council resolutions by assisting it financially. This can be likely be done for an infintesimal fraction of that which is being spent in Iraq.

"America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman," the president also said during the State of the Union. Surely the dignity and rights of every man and woman also apply to Ivorians, Mr President? Or will they suffer, sacrificed on the altar of petty anti-French snivelling, as some might have it? Only time will tell if the president does the right thing by the Ivorian peoples and by his own expressed principles.

Sources: State of the Union quote and Congressional resolution excerpts

Monday, January 26, 2004

If society insist on standardized tests, can't they at least test stuff that's actually going to matter? In middle school, I was taught parts of speech diagrams (in English) and how to manually calculate the square root of a number (in math). To me, these are classic examples of how to waste time and brain cells.

Parts of speech diagrams were foolish because they didn't help you learn parts of speech any better. You were more concerned about trying to remember what goes on diaganol lines and what goes on straight lines or something like that. I don't remember exactly. Which is exactly the point. I'm a writer and I still think it was useless.

Manually calculating the square root of a number was even more pointless. Anyone who ever uses the square root in their profession will determine it via a calculator or computer. I actually obtained a bachelor's degree in math and I never manually calculated a square root in university. If I had, I'd never have finished any of the exams. No engineer or mathematician is ever going to do this by hand!

This is what's called make work. If you taught you how to think or deduce or gave you brain flexibility or anything other than simply memorizing something you'll never need after the test, it might be worth something. But state administrators need to fill up a syllabus so stuff like this gets thrown in.

Instead of wasting brain cells and energy on nonesense like manual square roots, why not hammer home stuff kids will actually use? For example, mathematical skills related to balancing a checkbook.

A big one is that people should know rules concerning apostrophes. This is a pet peeve of mine. Perhaps because my mom was an English teacher so stuff like this got hammered into me when I was young. The use of apostrophes is careless. But it's also an example of pretensiousness.

Being wrong because you're trying to be pretentious is more annoying more than simply being wrong. The latter is merely an error of omission; the former, one of commission.

Many people say "I feel well" when they almost always mean "I feel good." Or they'll say "Between you and I..." when they really mean "Between you and me." And they do so because it SOUNDS more educated. "I feel good" sounds uncultured to the ear. But it's gramatically correct unless referring to your sense of touch.

Mis-use of apostrophes is one of the most common causes of grammatical errors, but one of the simplest to avoid.

I was at the YMCA yesterday and there was a flyer advertising a basketball league. The text read something like "League fee's are due by Jan. 28." Worse, I was at my local high school. The new addition had bathrooms but they hadn't yet put up permanent signs identifying them. So one of the doors had a hand-written sign that read "Boy's room." It's bad enough that someone (presumably someone in authority) made this mistake. But after four months, no one has bothered to fix it. It's pretty embarassing.

So here is a simple primer to the use of apostrophes.

Apostrophes are used for two primary reasons.

a) To indicate a contraction
b) To indicate possession

These are used to indicate a shortened form of (usually) something else. For example, "isn't" is a contraction of "is not". "I'll" instead of "I will." These are fairly straight forward except sometimes when the conjugation "is" is involved. "John's going to the library" really means "John is going to the library." It does not indicate...

Possession is usually indicated by the apostrophe s combination. "John's book" means "the book that belongs to John." Most people simply put an apostrophe if the noun in question is plural. "The Cubs' game." [Some people insist on adding an 's even to nouns ending in an s, such as "James's shoes." This is generally considered less preferable but not flat out incorrect]

The position of the apostrophe is very important and this is what often leads to confusion. "My brother's room" means something very different than "my brothers' room." The key is to note what comes before the apostrophe. "My brother's room" means "the room of my [one] brother." Whereas "my brothers' room" means "the room of my [multiple] brothers." One little space can make a big difference. That's why "boy's room" was wrong, unless it was specifically reserved for one guy in particular.

"It" is the most often butchered word when it comes to apostrophes. So here's the simple explanation

"It's" means "it is." ex-It's a shame what Bush is doing.
"Its" indicates possession. ex-The dog wags its tail.

The word its' does not exist. If you want to show possession, use its.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Now the BBC is reporting that Secretary of State Colin Powell has conceded that Iraq may not have possessed any stocks of weapons of mass destruction before the war last year. Well that's useful to know now.

Friday, January 23, 2004

At first, the suggestion that Iraq wasn't really a threat to America was made primarily by warmed over 60s hippies and other long-haired freaky people. So it was easily dismissed by people who "knew better", who insisted we should simply be quiet and trust our president. He knew what he was doing.

Then the contention that Iraq could launch its alleged weapons within 45 minutes was rubbished. Even when a former cabinet secretary claimed Pres. Bush was looking for a reason to conquer Iraq from day one of his administration, apologists whined that it was sour grapes or just a guy who wanted to hype his book. When evil UN weapons chief Hans Blix cast doubt on accusations of Iraq having a WMD program, he was shredded by the US foreign policy establishment and yapping heads. But this allegation by outgoing AMERICAN head of inspections, a man appointed by Pres. Bush himself, is particularly damaging. No one can accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about, though expect the White House to try. This is perhaps the biggest breach in the house of cards yet revealed.

I usually don't post articles from other sources in their entireity, but I will make an exception here...

Source: Reuters

Ex-Arms Hunter Kay Says No WMD Stockpiles in Iraq

By Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - David Kay stepped down as leader of the U.S. hunt for banned weapons in Iraq on Friday and said he did not believe the country had any large stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.

In a direct challenge to the Bush administration, which says its invasion of Iraq was justified by the presence of illicit arms, Kay told Reuters in a telephone interview he had concluded there were no Iraqi stockpiles to be found.

"I don't think they existed," Kay said. "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last (1991) Gulf and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the nineties," he said.

The CIA announced earlier that former U.N. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, who has previously expressed doubts that unconventional weapons would be found, would succeed Kay as Washington's chief arms hunter.

Kay said he believes most of what was going to be found in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been found and that the hunt would become more difficult once America returned control of the country to the Iraqis.

The United States went to war against Baghdad last year citing a threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. To date, no banned arms have been found.

In his annual State of the Union on Tuesday, President Bush insisted that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had actively pursued dangerous programs right up to the start of the U.S. attack in March.

Citing a report to Congress in October, Bush said Kay had found "dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the United Nations."

"Had we failed to act," Bush said, "the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day."


And on Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States had not given up on finding unconventional weapons in Iraq. "The jury is still out," he said in a radio interview.

Kay said he left the post due to a "complex set of issues. It related in part to a reduction in the resource and a change in focus of ISG," he said referring to the Iraq Survey Group, which is in charge of the weapons hunt.

ISG analysts were diverted from hunting for weapons of mass destruction to helping in the fight against the insurgency, Kay said.

"When I had started out I had made it a condition that ISG be exclusively focused on WMD, that's no longer so," he said.

"We're not going to find much after June. Once the Iraqis take complete control of the government it is just almost impossible to operate in the way that we operate," Kay said.

"I think we have found probably 85 percent of what we're going to find," he said. "I think the best evidence is that they did not resume large-scale production and that's what we're really talking about."

Kay said he was going back to the private sector.

In a statement announcing Kay's departure, CIA Director George Tenet praised Kay for his "extraordinary service under dangerous and difficult circumstances."

Duelfer, 51, a former deputy executive chairman of the U.N. Special Commission that was responsible for dismantling Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, had previously expressed doubts that unconventional weapons would be found.

"I think that Mr. Kay and his team have looked very hard. I think the reason that they haven't found them is they're probably not there," Duelfer told NBC television earlier this month.

But in a statement included in the CIA announcement, Duelfer, who will be based in Iraq and as CIA special adviser to direct the WMD search, said he was keeping an open mind.

"I'm approaching it with an open mind and am absolutely committed to following the evidence wherever it takes us," he said.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

As mentioned in the previous entry, retired Gen. Roméo Dallaire is testifying before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. And Dallaire's new book, Shake Hands With the Devil, was recently published. The book details his dealings with the Hutu extremists who wanted to undermine the peace process that begin in 1993 and ultimately planned the genocide that occured the following year.

A guy named Robin Philpot savagely attacked the book in the Montreal paper Le Devoir (if you know French, it's here. Philpot is the author of Ca ne s'est passé comme ça à Kigali, which translates to "It didn't happen like that in Kigali" (the Rwandan capital). That book purports to give a different view of the widely held account of how the genocide happened.

The attack on the book provoked a strong reaction (see here and here). The backlash was all the more because Dallaire is widely considered a tragic hero in his native Canada, as well as by anyone familiar with the genocide. The latter of the above pieces accused Philpot of the "negation of a genocide." A reply by Philpot angrily denied this. The nonsense contained in this reply urged me to write a letter myself to the paper.

Below is a translatation of the letter I wrote. I included slight additions in [] to make things more clear since I won't dignify Philpot's crap with a translation.

Robin Philpot says he never "denied that there were massive killings, sometimes even of an ethnic character" in Rwanda, while at the same time "rejecting categorically the abusive use of the term genocide." These writings, as well as his inflammatory critique of Gen. Romeo Dallaire's book, demonstrate his ignorance of international law.

The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide could not be more clear. According to this document:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

During the massacres, Radio Mille Collines, nicknamed Hate Radio, read the names of Tutsis to be killed by the masses. Two heads of the Hate Radio were recently condemned to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda [ICTR]. The tragedy was planned, not according to the "instant historians" [who Philpot derided], but according to international justice.

[Philpot suggests] The use of the word genocide during a conflict somehow renders innocent the other warring party? How exactly?! The Allies surely committed certain war crimes during the Second World War. Does this prevent us from talking of a genocide against the Jews?

The 'revelation' of the political aspirations of the Rwandan Patriotic Front is presented as some how disproving the fact of genocide. [The RPF was the rebel group fighting the army of the genocidal regime. The RPF is now in power]

Yet, no genocide in history has taken place without any political aspect. Genocide is very much a political act. Inventing a scapegoat serves to distract people who live in misery. Hate is sometimes good politics. In Rwanda, in the Balkans, in the 3rd Reich, the list is not short.

Philpot would like us to believe that the majority of Rwandans were seized by a spontaneous madness, an angry that appeared out of nowhere. That hatred between neighbors and friends is the natural state of things... at least over there, where the savages live.
In fact, the extremist Hutu leaders of the ex-regime were ferociously opposed to power sharing with the Tutsis, even if the majority of Hutus wanted peace and tranquility.

This genocide, like all others in history, was not born in a vacuum. It was provoked by a small clan of people who cared about nothing other than protecting their own privileged position, which was under threat by the winds of change.

Mr. Philpot, it's this malicious mafia that we are demonizing, not the majority [he tried to create the contemptable strawman diversion that the world was blaming the Hutus as a whole people]. Contrary to the genociders, the international community doesn't preach a policy of collective guilt. This is why the ICTR is going after the architects who planned the genocide.

Philpot accuses members of the former rebellion of having committed crimes against humanity [as though this cancels out the genocide]. If so, then drag them before the ICTR too. Justice demands it.

Regardless of what the FPR did, a genocide against the Tutsis, in the PRECISE usage of the term, did take place.


[Incidentally, Philpot also approvingly quoted former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, without mentioning that he's defending a man accused before the ICTR.]
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is finally making progress. Last month, they convicted three journalists for incitement to genocide during the 1994 tragedy. They worked at the infamous Radio des Mille Collines which read out lists of names of people to be slaughtered. At the trial, several emotional witnesses, including employees of the media outlets, compared the role of the media to that of fuel on a fire. Phrases such as "go to work" and "the graves are not yet full" were read by radio disc jockeys during the spring of 1994. A newspaper called on citizens to exterminate the "cockroach Tutsis.", noted a Washington Post article.

Today, A former Rwandan education minister has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of genocide. . He was accused of personally leading militias to slaughter ethnic Tutsis sheltering in a church and a school, according to the BBC.

Now, the former head of UN troops in Rwanda is testifying against Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, the presumed mastermind of the genocide. "I had a very tense meeting with him and he threatened me with a pistol, saying that next time we met he would shoot me," General Dallaire told the ICTR.

It should further discredit the claim of a few revisionists that what happened in Rwanda wasn't planned and wasn't really genocide.

You can also read a review of Gen. Dallaire's new book Shake Hands With the Devil.

For a condensed version of the events leading up to and during the genocide, check out the extremely informative article Bystanders to Genocide which ran in The Atlantic Monthly in September 2001.

The best account of the genocide is the stunning book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It remains the most powerful book I've ever read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

"Our founders dedicated this country to the cause of human dignity, the rights of every person and the possibilities of every life."
-Pres. George W. Bush, State of the Union 2002

"Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, without regard for the will of the people and their elected representatives. On an issue of such great consequence, the people's voice must be heard. If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process."
-Pres. Bush, State of the Union Address 2003

The problem, of course, is not the activist judges but federal and state constitutions. The US Constitution has a provision guaranteeing the equal protection of the law for all citizens. Most states have similar clauses. Those "activist" judges are merely insisting that Congress and state legislatures respect the relevant constitution. Constitutional rights can’t be taken away by 50%+1 of a legislature.

Imagine if the majority in a bunch state legislatures passed laws saying that blacks couldn't marry whites. And then a few of "activist judges" decided that these laws were unconstitutional. Of course, this isn't imagination but history. Was the US Supreme Court right to strike down Jim Crow laws, laws which were an expression of majority will in the respective states?

The president spent huge chunks this year’s State of the Union address saying how wonderful we were to liberate Iraqis and Afghans. To give the oppressed people their freedom. To give women and minorities fair treatment and equality under the law. Then he threatened not to only legalize, but to constitutionalize, obligatory discrimination against a group of law-abiding American citizens.

Shame on you, Mr. President. In addition to being morally repugnant, this is not the message we need to be sending to Iraqis and Afghans as they attempt to build a better society.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Our local paper runs Bill O’Reilly’s column on Monday. That day, they run O’Reilly and Cal Thomas, two hyper-conservative columnists. On Tuesday (I think), they run Molly Ivins and Ellen Goodman. Goodman’s an ordinary liberal. Ivins proves that left-wing women can be just as shrill as right-wing men. Strike a blow for equality of the sexes!

Anyway, in yesterday’s column, O’Reilly gave some tips to the Democratic Party. I usually don’t read that junk but my breakfast took a little longer to eat than usual.

O’Reilly took his usual shots against the “far left” who opposed the Iraq war and against the “radical” grassroots organization

Interestingly, MoveOn already has 1.7 million members in only two (?) years. That number is a little less than half the 4.3 million claimed by the National Rifle Organization, which has been around since 1871. If O’Reilly calls for the “radical” NRA to disband, then maybe he can do the same to MoveOn.

O’Reilly also sniffed about a video contest sponsored by MoveOn. It sollicited ads criticizing President Bush’s policies. A few of the entries compared the administration to Nazi Germany. Now, these entries weren’t judged worthy of the time of day by MoveOn, but that didn’t stop O’Reilly and other conservatives from stomping their feet loudly. If I submit a “bin Laden kicks butt” piece to the patriotism contest sponsored by the local American Legion, will that “discredit” the Legion?

O’Reilly also made fauning references to MoveOn supporter George Soros (“one far out character”). According to O’Reilly, Soros is moaning there isn’t enough ‘income redistribution’ in the world. Maybe that’s because the Soviet Union collapsed.

Of course, from this smear you’d think Soros loved communism more than anything else in the world. That must be why Soros moved away from Hungary after it fell under the Soviet boot, made a fortune in the investment markets (a great haven for capitalism haters) and established foundations through Eastern Europe to promote “open society through the support of a variety of educational, cultural and economic restructuring activities.”

But what’s most amusing is O’Reilly’s conclusion. I am sending a final warning to the Democratic Party, which my family belonged to for more than one hundred years. Wise up before it's too late. People judge you by those with whom you associate.

O’Reilly’s love and concern for the well-being of the Democratic Party is well-documented. I’m sure all Democrats will trust his advice enough to follow it. He only wants what’s best for them. Really!

Sources: George Soros bio -- Bill O’Reilly column

Monday, January 19, 2004

Two weeks ago, Gov. Howard Dean was annointed by the punditocracy to be the Democratic presidential nominee with only Gen. Wesley Clark having a chance to stop him. Before a single vote was cast by an Iowan, let alone anyone else, Sen. John Kerry was floundering and Sen. John Edwards was irrelevant. Or so deemed the "experts." Thus it was so.

Regardless of what I think of the individual candidates, there's something mildly refreshing to know that voters still actually matter. To know that citizens still have a part in the process no matter who's on the cover of Newsweek how many times.

Basically, the yapping head class make it their job to discuss everything but the issues. And surveys are too often a crutch the media uses instead of reporting on real news. So anything that screws up the polls and the pundits is fine with me.
The small arms traffic is one of the most evil trades in the world. It perpetuates continuous conflict, by making war a lot cheaper and by increasing the number of potential soldiers. This is directly responsible for poverty, health troubles and generalized underdevelopment in dozens of countries around the world. Countries in which a tiny group of maniacal thugs can easily hold the overwhelming majority hostage.

An article in the British paper The Guardian reports that charities say 500,000 people are killed each year by small arms. The trade has exploded since the beginning of the war on al-Qaeda, according to the paper.

"A new urgency has been created by the so-called war on terror," said Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International. "This is fuelling the proliferation of weapons rather than combating it. Many countries, including the US, have relaxed controls on sales of arms to allies known to have appalling human rights records... In the past two years, the US has increased arms sales to [such states] and Britain has followed suit. British arms sales to Indonesia rose from £2m [US$3.4 million] in 2000 to £40m [$68 million] in 2002."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the death toll from small arms "dwarfs that of all other weapons systems, and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms could well be described as weapons of mass destruction - yet there is still no global non-proliferation regime to limit their spread".

The US is one of the leading opponents of attempts to regulate trade in small arms, because it violates the US Constitution's 2nd Amendment. This treaty would, of course, interfere with free trade as well, which others object to. The Bush administration is likely to actively "lobby" other countries to scrap the treaty as well. The US is the world's leading weapons' exporter.

Critics of gun regulations argue that if more people had guns, there would much less violence. Guns are a deterrent to violence, they insist. Not even considering the shining example of Somalia, The Guardian notes In June [2003] there were 24m guns in Iraq, enough to arm every man, woman, and child. They could be bought for $10. And we know how little violence there is in Iraq as a result of all these "deterrents."

One of the insidious results of lighter and more mobile small arms is the increased phenomenon of child soldiers. The BBC notes that [t]he use of child soldiers in war is continuing around the world and in some African countries it has increased, human rights groups say. Countries like Ivory Coast, Liberia, Burma and the DR Congo are particularly hard hit by this scourge. These groups call on the United Nations to take the lead in ending the flow of weapons to those recruiting children, placing travel restrictions on leaders who use children in their armies and ending military assistance to them.

The flood of small arms didn't invent violence, war, civilian casualities or destruction. But it sure made those things exponentially easier.

[Radio Netherlands' English service has a number of dossiers on the child soldier plague including one on young boy combattants in Sierra Leone and another on ones from Liberia]

Friday, January 16, 2004

UN-haters ask me why I'm such a big fan of the organization. The General Assembly has a lot of autocratic members as does the Security Council and various specialized commissions. This is certainly regrettable, but I'm not sure what can be done. There are a lot of Americans who are despicable twits (racists and homophobes spring to mind) but we don't strip them of the right to vote. The Security Council gives each of members a unilateral veto over decisions (US, France, Britain, China and Russia, not coincidentally the winners of World War II); this is undemocratic but none of the five are rushing to give up that power.

One main difference (of many) is that the UN-haters see the UN as comprising solely its pseudo-legislative organs: the General Assembly (GA), the Security Council (SC) and the commissions. Frankly, there's not a heck of a lot about these organs that makes you want to wave a power blue UN flag.

The GA is run democratically but has no power; given its membership, I'm not sure I'd want it to have power. The SC has some power but is run undemocratically. The commissions are divided up geographically and seats rotate within a region. So we get the farcical spectacle of Libya chairing the Human Rights Commission or the US chairing the Disarmament Commission. Though there is something to be said for states venting their spleen at the talking shop of the General Assembly instead of going to war. It does lead to certain injustices, like the utterly disproportionate targeting of Israel by GA resolutions; the idea of Egypt or Saudi Arabia lecturing anyone on human rights is laughable. This is why I'm glad the GA has no real power. But again, better a talking shop than war.

Still though, the American press treats the UN as the totality of these legislative bodies. Having lived abroad, I see the UN differently. To me, the UN is also the World Health Organization organizing anti-polio vaccination campaigns. It's UNAIDS supporting HIV education. It's the Food and Agriculture Organization offering advice to struggling farmers. It's the UNHCR offering food and sanctuary to tens of millions of refugees around the world. It's UNICEF supporting girls' education programs or supporting efforts to demobilize 12 year old boy soldiers with kalashnakovs.

The UN is hardly perfect. And a great many of its weaknesses were consciously built in by those who wanted it to be weak; others are inherent to any multinational bureaucracy. But if you're going to judge the UN, at least be fair enough to judge it in its totality, not simply because the Security Council refused (one time) to carry water for the administration in Washington. UN agencies help millions of people around the world. And although very few of those helped are Americans, I still think it's a pretty good thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Here are a few articles that have caught my attention recently...

-ETHIOPIA: Bumper harvest but food aid still needed. The UN's IRIN service notes perversely the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) also noted that the 13 million tonne bumper harvest of cereals and pulses raised fears that crop prices could collapse, thereby adversely affecting rural farmers. It added that providing farmers with seeds and fertiliser had helped boost the harvest, but that action to stabilise prices being affected by oversupply was now vital. The FAO accordingly called on the international community to use "local purchase as the main tool for securing cereals and pulses for food aid programmes" as a means of forestalling a collapse in prices.

-A great column in The New York Times wondered about The God Gulf in America. The columnist predicted So expect Republicans to wage religious warfare by trotting out God as the new elephant in the race, and some Democrats to respond with hypocrisy, by affecting deep religious convictions. This campaign could end up as a tug of war over Jesus. And then pointed out how a christmas card by Vice-President Cheney quoted Benjamin Franklin out of context to "demonstrate" God's support for the American empire.

-The Atlantic Monthly ran a review of a biography of H.L. Mencken, the American journalist. I was reminded of Ralph Nader's comment that American schools "teach students to believe rather than to think" when reading this quote attributed to Mencken concerning the newspapers of his time (early 20th century). "It is hard for the plain people to think about a thing, but easy for them to feel. Error, to hold their attention, must be visualized as a villain, and the villain must proceed swiftly to his inevitable retribution. They can understand that process; it is simple, usual, satisfying; it squares with their primitive conception of justice as a form of revenge...." The more things change...

-Howard Dean's candidacy is compared by Republicans and pouting Democratic establishment types to Sen. George McGovern's ill-fated 1972 run. It's instructive, incidentally, that the 1972 vote was the only election in history in which both winners resigned as a result of corruption and abuse of power scandals. Anyway, I've said that Dean's insurgency could be compared to 1972, but it could also evoke another campaign. This other candidate mobilized the rank and file against what he portrayed as the compalency of the party establishment. This other candidate was criticized as reckless and inexperienced by his opponents. This other candidate was "unelectable" and "sure to go down to a landslide" to the incumbent just like [another of the party's candidates some years before]. A columnist for The Christian Science Monitor also sees parallels to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. Although diminishing, the voters still have a small say in who is and isn't "electable." Though Ariana Huffington thinks the appropriate analogy for Dean is to Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 effort. [For those not aware, Reagan was compared to Barry Goldwater who lost in a landslide in 1964 to Lyndon Johnson]

-The same paper carries a piece on Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council member. This key supporter of regime change in Iraq, now says White House engaged in "creative omissions' about WMD. While agreeing with the strategic aims of the invasion, Pollack said that the Bush administration's "justifications and explanations for war were at best faulty, at worst deliberately misleading." ran an essay entitled Winning the battle against terror, losing the war of ideas, which began The Bush administration is good at bombing terrorists back to the Stone Age, but terrible at bringing Arabs and Muslims into the modern age.

-A BBC analyst wonders Is the US Army big enough? In the Pentagon, nobody now disputes that the US Army is really stretched at the moment. The latest evidence of this are the new plans to tell thousands of troops that they must put retirement plans on hold, and big new financial inducements the US Army is offering troops to re-enlist. Now, I've heard it reported (and I wish I had retained the source) that the US alone accounts for 50% of all defense spending in the entire world. So if one nation spends as much on defense as the other 200 countries in the world PUT TOGETHER and the one nation's army is still stretched too thin because that country still feels menaced, then, regardless of one's political stripe, then a serious and comprehensive re-think of foreign and defense policy must be in order.
I've often said that the political extremes are closer to each other than to the center. Many dictatorships start out with some sort of ideology but prolonged autocracy almost inevitably degenerates into a corrupt, ideology-free state whose sole purpose isn't to advance their alleged ideology but to perpetuate the power of those in charge. Take Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe. He was a Marxist, then a pan-Africanist. His latest incarnation is that of the anti-colonialist. Tony Blair, you see, is responsable for all the problems in Zimbabwe. Economic collapse? Blair's fault. Social tension? Blair's fault. Lack of any goods in the shops? Blair's fault. The drought? London ordered that too.

Naturally, autocrats aren't fond of those who point out such hypocrisy and Mugabe's no exception. His war on what's left of the free press is quite strident. "Opposition" (ie: independent) newspapers find their editors regularly arrested, their offices raided, even their printing presses bombed. Recently, editors of the Zimbabwe Independent, the country's most influential weekly, were arrested and charged with criminal defamation. They reported that Mugabe had "commandeered" an airliner from the cash-strapped national carrier, Air Zimbabwe, for a jaunt in Asia.

Defamation is normally a civil crime, which means the aggreived party can file suit and, if successful, receive monetary damages but the defamer doesn't go to jail. Criminal defamation means jail time.

The editor of the Independent noted, "Criminal defamation is a nasty law, a relic of empire used by governments to deal with critics."

Appropriate that the anti-colonial Mugabe who rails against alleged British imperialism should use a relic of the British Empire to repress those who aren't his sycophants.
The Nobel Peace Prize winning non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders (more known by its French acronym MSF) issued its annual report on the Top 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories of 2003.

The unlucky winners...

-Tens of thousands seek refuge in Chad from fighting in Sudan and Central African Republic

-Ongoing oppression of Chechen civilians

-Unrelenting violence in Burundi

-Massive displacement and isolation in Colombia

-War and neglect in the Democratic Republic of Congo

-Malaria death count soars

-Punishing cycles of violence in Somalia

-Repression of North Korean refugees

-Trading away the health of millions

-Collapse of health care in western Ivory Coast

To learn more, please click here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

At my work place, the vending company is promoting new king size candy bars. There's a sticker on the vending machine hyping that king size is "Great value! 33% more candy!" Gee wow!!!

Only problem is that by doing basic math, you realize that the price for these bigger bars is in fact 78.5% higher.

You'd have been better off buying two regular candy bars. That way you get 50% more candy than king size for only 12% more money.

Except, apparently aware of this little triviality, the vending company has REPLACED regular sized bars with king sized ones (rather than complimenting them).

So the solution is to go to the supermarket and buy a bag of carrots to nibble on.
I am a big believer in the social concept of 'informed consent.' What this means is that you give people the information and let them make their own decisions... and let them accept the consequences for that decision. For example, you tell them that eating Big Macs is not good for your heart. They can still choose to eat Big Macs if they want... but they won't (or shouldn't) get a penny from McDonald's to pay for their heart surgery.

'Informed consent' is the reason I oppose the 'fat tax' proposed by a legislator here in New York state. This is why people should be allowed to smoke cigarettes (so long as I'm not forced to breathe their smoke). This is why I oppose mandatory seat belt laws for automobile drivers/passengers and mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists... even though I always buckle up when I'm in a car and wear a helmet when I'm on a bicycle. It's my choice.

However, 'informed consent' is why I supported food labelling. Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, the US Food and Drug Administration insisted upon standardized food labeling. They made it so serving sizes listed on labels had to be reasonable. Before, a bag of Lays' might list the serving size as '2 chips.' I think this change was incredibly important.

I read on Deutsche Welle that the German government has ok'd the labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

'Informed consent' is also why I strongly support labelling of GM foods. After all, what is 'informed consent' without the INFORMED part?

Now, the big biotech corporations will say that such labelling is unnecessary because GM food is much safer than its critics contend. I think the goodness or badness of GM foods is irrelevant to the issue of labelling.

The bottom line is that citizens have the right to know what they're ingesting. They may not care, but give them the info and let them make their own decision. If they have the right to put something into their body, they have the right know what that something contains. Period.

If GM foods are going to be legal, then they must be labelled. By all means, the biotech industry can launch a campaign to convince people that God himself would eat GM foods, if he'd thought of it. In fact, the biotech corporations argue that GM foods are actually BETTER than non-GM food because mutated crops don't need pesticides. Great.

If biotech companies think GM foods are the best, then they should SUPPORT labelling, as it would help people choose the allegedly superior product.

If the government shouldn't decide what we eat, then why should Monsanto? Label GM foods as such and let people decide for themselves.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Ok so the president convinces us that it's our Christian duty to engage in a holy Crusade to selflessly liberate the Iraqi people.

And supposed Protestants and Catholics kill, maim and brutalize each other in Northern Ireland to protect their warped version of Christianity. Fans of the two biggest soccer teams in Scotland recreate this sectarianism every time they play each other, singing of Fenian scum and rivers of blood.

Now, the guy who stabbed to death Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said he was told to do so by Jesus.

I was once approached on the street by a Baptist who asked me if I was interested in having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus was a pretty good guy. So I'd rather read what he actually said (or was recorded to have said). Strangely enough, his approach to life and society was much different than the approach to life and society of many of those who say they admire him or claim to base their actions on his teachings.

Monday, January 12, 2004

It's a good thing gays can't get married or else they'd disgrace the sacred institution of traditional marriage.

The latest show on Fox....


After months of ordinary TV weddings, the real fun is just beginning when FOX rings the wedding bells to sound off the ultimate practical joke on MY BIG FAT OBNOXIOUS FIANCÉ. In this unscripted series, a beautiful “bride-to-be” introduces the most horrific “fiancé” to her family and friends when she announces her shocking and surprising wedding plans to them in the series premiere [on date and time.]

Over six episodes, Steve, the big fat obnoxious “Prince-not-so-Charming” and his obnoxious “family” will test the limits of his recently engaged girlfriend’s family and friends through shocking behavior. Our “bride,” Randi, a 23-year-old first grade teacher from Scottsdale, Ariz., must make it all the way through the wedding ceremony and final “I do’s” in order to win a million dollars.
This hybrid of a scripted and reality series will cover all the wedding events leading up to a climactic ceremony, including the engagement party, the wedding planner visits, the best friends and family introductions, the bridal shower, the rehearsal dinner and the walk down the aisle – all within the framework of the world’s biggest practical joke.

But the joke is also on Randi, because she thinks that Steve is also a reality show contestant duping his family into believing the same charade. In actuality, Steve and his TV family are professional actors, putting their improv skills to the ultimate test.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill charged that President Bush was looking for an excuse to invade Iraq within a few days of coming to office. This, of course, comes as no surprise to us America-hating, anti-troop, terrorist-loving, unpatriotic chicken littles. But when the criticism of the president comes from a man he personally handpicked to be in his cabinet, maybe it'll have a little more resonance with the skeptics.

Mr. O'Neill, who was sacked because he didn't support one of the president's tax cuts, also made the allegation that the president was unwilling to engage in debate. This charge shocks approximately no one but again the news is not what was said but who said it.

Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, a Bush ally, raged, "Not since Julius Caesar have I seen such a blatant stab in the back - et tu, Mr O'Neill?" Maybe this is the kind of loyalty the president's leadership style engenders.

While it's true that a treasury secretary is not likely to receive the most classified national security intelligence, it's telling that no one's yet denied O'Neill's charge. CBS News' reports that the White House neither confirmed nor denied when planning for a war with Iraq began.

The BBC now reports that the US Treasury Department has called for an investigation into whether [O'Neill] leaked secret documents in his new book.

100 bucks says they complete this investigation faster than the inquiry into who criminally leaked the name of that CIA agent.

The pre-war critics who thought the Iraq invasion was imposed for reasons other than national security are looking increasingly prescient. Not that they ever looked otherwise.

Those around the world who really mistrust (or worse) the United States have just been given yet another rational justification for that mistrust. How this strategy fights extremism is beyond me?

During President Clinton's reign, Republicans furious with Clinton's personal conduct demanded indignantly, "Where's the outrage?"

Given that the current president's controversial conduct is anything but personal, the same question is even more pertinent today.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Inter Press Service did an interesting piece on the annual report by ADT Research of New York. ADT studies all the news reports from the nightly news programs of the three main US networks for content.

Not surprisingly, the Iraq story drowned out all others, alone getting over 28% of network news’ air time. The top non-Iraq story, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, received less than 2% of air time.

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is directly or indirectly responsible for over 3,000,000 deaths in the last five years, received 0.03% (5 minutes) last year.

The AIDS crisis, which claimed some 3,000,000 lives in 2003 alone, got 0.27% of all coverage (39 minutes).

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election to California’s governorship was the top purely domestic story with 1.6% of all airtime.

Surprisingly, the article made no mention of stories on Michael Jackson or Kobe Bryant, which surely dwarfed most of the others.

STORIES LISTED IN THE ARTICLE (14,365 total minutes analyzed)
Iraq-related stories* 4047 network news minutes in 2003
Israeli-Palestinian conflict 284
California recall 239
Domestic terrorism preparedness 205
Columbia disaster 198
SARS in Asia/Canada 178
Blackout 165
Hunt for al-Qaeda 132
Afghanistan 80
Liberia 72
President Bush’s trip to Africa 18
Violence in Colombia 18
Repression in Cuba 18
Global warming 15
Terrorist attacks against tourist sites in Kenya 8
Civil war in DR Congo 5

*-invasion and combat stories, fall of Saddam’s regime, reconstruction, pre-war UN weapons’ inspection controversy

This article deals with network news coverage. But the irony is that proponents of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News (sic) Channel claimed that 24 hour news' channels provide viewers access to a wider variety and breadth of stories. In fact, they simply offer orgy-level coverage of issues (and non-issues) that are already thoroughly reported on by the networks.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

DANGER OF IRAQI WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION TO THE US... described by the administration before the invasion was:

a) blatantly misrepresented
b) based on faulty intelligence, possibly because someone(s) believed the dictator's own propaganda
c) wrong, regardless of the motive

One might debate about the merits of a or b, but the answer which is undeniable is c, according a Washington Post article entitled Iraq's Arsenal Was Only on Paper: Since Gulf War, Nonconventional Weapons Never Got Past the Planning Stage.

For the record...

Barton Gellman, The Washington Post, 7 January '04, investigation on Iraq's weapons' programs...

A review of available evidence, including some not known to coalition investigators and some they have not made public, portrays a nonconventional arms establishment that was far less capable than U.S. analysts judged before the war. Leading figures in Iraqi science and industry, supported by observations on the ground, described factories and institutes that were thoroughly beaten down by 12 years of conflict, arms embargo and strangling economic sanctions. The remnants of Iraq's biological, chemical and missile infrastructures were riven by internal strife, bled by schemes for personal gain and handicapped by deceit up and down lines of command. The broad picture emerging from the investigation to date suggests that, whatever its desire, Iraq did not possess the wherewithal to build a forbidden armory on anything like the scale it had before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

David Kay, who directs the weapons hunt on behalf of the Bush administration, reported no discoveries last year of finished weapons, bulk agents or ready-to-start production lines. Members of his Iraq Survey Group, in unauthorized interviews, said the group holds out little prospect now of such a find. Kay and his spokesman, who report to Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, declined to be interviewed.

Me, my blog, 2 May '03, conjecture on Iraq's weapons' programs...

Let me examine the three possible scenarios...

a) Saddam didn't had WMDs

b) He used to have WMDs before but sanctions made them impossible to maintain or made them useless

c) He had effective WMDs but decided not to use them

In case a), then the administration's case for war was most obviously based on a sham.

Case c) is almost impossible to believe. The idea that he would hold back for some inexplicable reason, against the evil Americans, is mind boggling. I've heard it advanced that he didn't use them so as to embarass Bush. One thing has been clear during his reign, Saddam will do anything, ANYTHING, absolutely anything to maintain himself in power. The only thing he cares more about than hating Bush is preserving his own power. He's a selfish dictator first, not a suicidal ideologue.

Case b) is the one I tend to believe, if by process of elimination. a) is unlikely and c) is inconceivable.

The convention of Israel's Likud Party, the formation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, revealed deep divisions. Haaretz reports that the head of government told party members "The prime minister is the one ultimately who must decide," adding, "It is my responsibility to consider all the factors, to hear all the opinions, and to make the decisions. Together with the other elected representatives, I decide and I must act."

The liberal daily reported a close aide of the prime minister condemning as "blatantly unconstitutional" proposals made by representatives of the far right in the party - calling for the government and Knesset [parliament] to be subject to the decisions of the Likud Central Committee and preventing Likud MKs [members of parliament] and ministers that vote against central committee decisions from running again for Likud positions.

The aide, a member of Sharon's center-right party, fumed "This is exactly how the Nazis came to power in Germany... With various bills that passed one after the other, they totally hollowed out the central authority. It's a phenomenon that repeated itself in other fascist regimes in Europe."

Scary to think that Ariel Sharon is part of his party's moderate wing.

Haaretz also ran a column on one of the Israeli military's (IDF) "refuseniks": soldiers who conscientiously refuse to serve in the occupied territories. One lieutenant colonel spoke of the IDF's conduct and actions in in the territoires, "Human life has lost its worth and values we were raised on, such as purity of arms, have become a bad joke."

The refuseniks are praised by the columnist. But the writer also wonders where are the Palestinian refuseniks. What I would like to know is why there is no one on the other side crying out against the Palestinian Authority's policy of hatred and bloodshed... Where are the Palestinian refuseniks who object to the murder of women and children? How come, when civilians are accidentally killed in one of our military operations, everyone clamors right away for an investigation, while their suicide bombers have no qualms about boarding a bus packed with children or entering a crowded restaurant and blowing themselves up, fully aware of who they are taking with them? Not only are they not denounced, but their families are treated with respect and showered with perks and pensions.

Although I've sympathized with the desires of Palestnians to have their own state (and heaped scorn on Sharon), the hypocrisy underlined by the writer seriously undermines their cause. Palestinians' refusal to condemn terrorism as a society has only strengthed the resolve and influence of Israeli hard liners. There are an increasing numbers of Israelis who question their military's tactics and actions in the occupied territories. If the Palestnians applied the same self-scrutiny, who knows what might happen?

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Reports indicated that pop star Brittney Spears tied the knot this weekend to a childhood friend Jason Alexander at a marriage drive-thru in Las Vegas. Unhappy with the product, she demanded a refund (annulment) a few days later. Hours after tying the knot, she reportedly said, "Oh my god, what have I done?" She then hugged her new husband, telling him, "I'm so sorry. This was such a stupid idea. It's all my fault."

One newspaper noted But an unnamed source close to singer told the website that the wedding was a joke that went too far. [emphasis mine]

It's a good thing we don't let gays get hitched. We wouldn't want those fairies to desecrate the venerable institution of marriage held in such obvious reverence by heterosexual America. I mean, homosexuals might not take the commitments of marriage as seriously as heterosexuals like Spears and Alexander.

Why does straights-only marriage need a constitutional amendment when it has such upstanding advocates as Miss Spears, er Mrs. Alexander, er the artist formerly, and perhaps still, known as Brittney Spears?
Apparently not everyone is impressed with Charley Hustler's recent mea culpa. After reading excerpts of Pete Rose's autobiography published in Sports Illustrated, former baseball commissionner Fay Vincent told the Associated Press, "There's no sense of regret, no sense of shame, no sense of the damage he did to baseball. I guess I'm really disgusted. I think the whole thing is a sordid, miserable story. It's sort of like turning over a stone -- you see a lot of maggots, and it's not very pretty.''

Vincent is probably referring to the part where Rose writes: I've consistently heard the statement: `If Pete Rose came clean, all would be forgiven,' Well, I've done what you've asked. The rest is up to the commissioner and the big umpire in the sky. In other words, I've intoned the required script, now give me what's rightfully mine.

Charley Hustler also insisted in his book that he never placed bets on baseball from the clubhouse. Yet, the Associated Press reported: Thomas Gioiosa, who used to share a house with Rose and ran bets for him, contradicted Rose on Tuesday, saying he did place bets from the Reds' clubhouse. "I was there, and we did it every day," Gioiosa said.

Roger Kahn, who worked with Rose on the player's first autobiography, fumed, "I feel he has embarrassed me. I must have asked Pete 20 times, `Did you bet on baseball?' He would look at me, blink his eyes and say, `I didn't bet baseball. I have too much respect for the game.'''

Perhaps accidentally slipping out of martyr mode, Rose does make one germaine point that baseball should consider. [If I] had been an alcoholic or a drug addict, baseball would have suspended me for six weeks and paid for my rehabilitation. I should have had the opportunity to get help, but baseball had no fancy rehab for gamblers like they do for drug addicts. If I had admitted my guilt, it would have been the same as putting my head on the chopping block -- lifetime ban. Death penalty. I spent my entire life on the baseball fields of America, and I was not going to give up my profession without first seeing some hard evidence (as though he needed outside evidence to prove he bet on baseball???). Right or wrong, the punishment didn't fit the crime -- so I denied the crime, he continued.
People often criticize Fox News (sic) Channel for their conservative, hyper-"patriotic" reporting. But for less overtly partisan outlets in the corporate media, bias invades in more subtle ways. Last night, I caught a bit of NBC News with my parents, which I don't typically watch. Now unlike FNC, NBC News generally tries to fair-minded. Whether they succeed or not is an open question, but it's their ideal. I concede that bias, and perception of bias, is very subjective and that outlets like the networks are always criticized for slanted reporting by partisans of all sides.

Nevertheless, Andrea Mitchell (wife of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan) did a report last night on the tape apparently issued by Osama bin Laden. In it, she noted that bin Laden called for jihad against against moderate Arab regimes, notably Saudi Arabia.

Now, the transcript of this particular report is not on their website (only a version which combines Mitchell's info with wire services) but this is what I remember. I was flabbergasted by Mitchell's comment.

Saudi Arabia is a country where women can't drive, thieves have their hands chopped off, zero political opposition to the monarchy's kleptocracy is tolerated and is one of the most closed societies in the world. When did this become a "moderate" regime, by NBC News' standards?

What's next, a piece on the "enlightened Kim regime" in North Korea?

Monday, January 05, 2004

A rare sports entry...

Apparently, Pete Rose has admitted to betting on baseball. This comes after more than a decade of consistent denials on the part of the former Cincinnati Reds' player and manager. He was banned from baseball in 1989 because of this, although in the agreement he signed, he did not officially admit to betting on baseball. Betting on the sport is strictly prohibited by baseball's rules and this ban is made known to every player and manager.

As a result of the ban, Pete Rose became ineligible to enter the Hall of Fame. Most believe that the admission is designed to facilitate his rehabilitation into the sport. My guess is that Major League Baseball will make him serve a probation period of a few years and then let him be eligible to join the Hall of Fame. I have no love for the man or the player. He always thought he was bigger than the game itself and that persisted even after his explusion. But his rehabilitation will satisfy those who think that he should've been excused for his actions because... he was, after all, Pete Rose.

If he'd held his hand up and said, "Yeah, I bet baseball. I screwed up and I'm sorry." He probably would've been slapped on the wrist, maybe suspended for a year or two. But most fans would've accepted it bad judgement. People realize that athletes aren't saints, any more than any other person.

But what made many fans, including myself, become so anti-Rose was his arrogant attitude to the whole thing. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Rose consistently denied betting on baseball. Even worse, but he savagely attacked the integrity and motives of anyone who would question the purity of his. After years of this, now...

His new autobiography notes how baseball commissioner Bud Selig asked the former Red if he bet on baseball. Rose replied, "Sir, my daddy taught me two things in life -- how to play baseball and how to take responsibility for my actions. I learned the first one pretty well. The other, I've had some trouble with. Yes, sir, I did bet on baseball."

Maybe, just maybe 14 years in the wilderness has made Pete Rose learn how to be the tiniest bit humble. If so, then for once, I might even tip my cap to him.


Yesterday, Louisiana State beat Oklahoma to win college football's national title. Or at least, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) national title. The Associated Press national title goes to Southern California. Or I should specify, this refers to Division I college football. So there is a split national champion in college football, something the BCS system was designed to combat. The BCS system combines various human polls and computer rankings and other statistical information to churn out a table. At the end of the year, the top two teams in the BCS meet. This year, however, there were three teams with similiar records after the regular season; of course, only two could play in a game. There's been much remonstration and hand-wringing.

Pious arguments made by apologists for the present system include...

-"Hey, it's not perfect but it's the best we can do." This argument suggests that in order to revise the system, the wheel would have to be re-invented and a radical, risky new system would have to be adopted. Yet every other level of college football (Divisions I-AA, II and III) has a playoff. No wheel re-inventions necessary.

-"A playoff would add too many games and would distract [hold hand over heart] student-athletes during final exams." Football players from smaller schools in the lower divisions are able to juggle playoff games and finals. And since few of them will ever make the NFL, they are much closer to the NCAA's mythical 'student-athlete' than someone from a football factory. Furthermore, the big time Division I schools have far more resources to help their players do this balancing act. So this is a lame excuse.

-"No matter how many teams you have (2 or 4 or 16), someone will cry about being excluded." This is true. The Div. I college basketball tournament invites 65 teams and someone always complains about being left out. However, the point of any such tournament is to determine who is the best team in the country. In this year's college football, #3 (at the end of the regular season) had the same record as #2 and #1. A college basketball team that says they're really #65 not #66, doesn't make a compelling case that they'd win it if they were in it. [This is the same lame argument European soccer countries use about them deserving more spots in the World Cup]

Simply put, there is absolutely no reason why every other level of college football (and every other level of every other college sport) can have a playoff but not Division I. Except money.

And the hypocrisy is what bugs me. The NCAA speaks piously about student-athletes, blah blah blah. Most students are student-athletes. Because there is not huge money to be made in professional water polo or field hockey. But in big time college football or basketball (and to a lesser extent hockey and baseball), it's a different story.

My opinion is that NCAA should drop the academic pretense for Division I football and basketball teams and players. Let them simply be athletes and give them a living allowance. By all means, if they want to study academic subjects, they should be able to do so. But they shouldn't be required. Or otherwise, make athletics an academic major. If they are apprentices who hope to become professional athletes, then drop the pretense of making them take Dick and Jane 101... although having them take business and finance courses might not be a bad idea. Friends of mine went to school to study engineering because they wanted to be engineers. Why is professional athletics any different? Drop the pretense.
Last week, I listened to an interesting documentary on the English service of Radio Netherlands. A Dutch woman explained her involvement in small development projects in West Africa. In the last decade, she has set up over 15 projects in the Casamance region of southern Senegal and in The Gambia. From building a health center, to putting a new roof on a school, to providing running water, to giving poor women mills to grind rice and maize (corn). She has also set up cultural exchanges between Senegal and The Netherlands. She's been lauded by the Senegalese government for the way she involves villagers in every phase of her projects.

One of the most intriguing things for outsiders is, as Radio Netherlands notes, that the woman and a Senegalese partner set up a lodge on the coast of the Casamance. It's a fairly rustic place with only solar electricity and well water. But the surroundings are idyllic, with the warm waters of the Atlantic, palm trees and lush vegetation.

"It's more than a lodge," observes the woman. "It's a cultural centre. We organise many activities to highlight African culture, such as workshops on African dance, drums, music, batik-making, sculpture and drawings. All the workshops are taught by local artists."

Guests are also taken on excursions to the villages in the surroundings to get a better feel for life in that part of West Africa.

So if you've ever thought about a vacation in West Africa and want to do so in a way that benefits local people, check out