Leadership and language

This week BBC 4 broadcast a two-part documentary entitled Holidays in the Axis of Evil. To quote the web site blurb:

The Bush regime claims that North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and Cuba are part of an “axis of evil”. In a remarkable two-part travelogue, reporter Ben Anderson, armed with a hidden camera and a tourist map, visits all six rogue states and tries to find the reality of life in some of the most repressive regimes in the world.

Anderson was asked what possessed him to make such a potentially dangerous trip:

“The idea evolved after the second Axis of Evil speech when they added Syria, Libya and Cuba to the list. There’s no evidence so far to link the six countries and not one of them is linked to 11 September. When you say axis it suggests some kind of link and the only thing we found was that you could travel to all six countries on a tourist visa. So that’s what we decided to do. We were looking for links.”

Such a quest struck me as potentially fascinating. It might be possible to learn something interesting and valuable about these rogue nations. Unfortunately, these regimes turned out to be so repressive that Anderson and his female producer had a hard time interviewing many ordinary people and were prevented from filming any politically sensitive sites.

Nevertheless, my response after viewing part one of this programme was an overwhelming sense of the pathetic. It’s pathetic that the leaders of North Korea and Iraq are so insecure that they keep their citizens in ignorance of the rest of the world; it’s pathetic that their citizens are so accepting of their state’s propaganda and its constraints on their freedom; and it’s equally pathetic that, in the case of Iraq at least, the response from the West is regular and frequent bombardment. You would think we could come up with something better than crude brute force by now.

Of course, the phrase “axis of evil” was obviously a crude simplification from the start, and I’ve been haunted by thoughts of it ever since I discovered that it was coined by a Canadian named David Frum.

Frum, who was employed as a speechwriter at the White House, became widely known last year as the author of that phrase, when his wife sent an email to friends boasting of her husband’s accomplishment. Unfortunately for them, the email fell into the wrong hands and was published on the web. A few days later the White House announced Frum’s resignation, although it claimed his departure had been planned a month previously. Once the mainstream press picked up the story it became well-known news around the world (see Proud wife turns ‘axis of evil’ speech into a resignation letter).

The significant point about Frum is that, like most Canadians, I knew his mother. Or at least I thought I did. Barbara Frum was a celebrity in Canada throughout the 1970s and 80s, as a result of hosting at least two ground-breaking news programmes for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). To quote from the CBC’s web site titled The Life and Times of Barbara Frum:

From her CBC Radio days as a national presence on As It Happens from 1971 to 1982, to her highly successful 10 years at the helm of CBC-TV’s flagship show The Journal, Frum had a huge following. She spent 18 impassioned, hectic, pioneering years in Canadian broadcasting. On any given weeknight, 1.3 million Canadians tuned in to watch The Journal, where Frum hosted approximately 2,600 shows. From the great to the ordinary, she maintained the same standard of integrity, honesty and toughness of mind. Her thousands of interviews included people from every walk of life – presidents, prime ministers, world leaders?the unemployed fisherman. Each and every interview was different and revealing.

That description is no exaggeration. Barbara Frum was tough, honest and fair. There was rarely any hint of her own views or beliefs in any of the interviews she conducted. The Middle East was a hot topic then as now, and Frum must have covered the subject countless times, but I listened to As It Happens for years without ever realising she was Jewish. Barbara Frum never let her personal prejudices affect her investigation or communication of the events of her day.

That’s why it’s so difficult to understand the partisan and ill-judged behaviour of her son. How could a child of Barbara Frum coin a phrase as arrogant and simplistic as “axis of evil” and then take pride in it? To be more specific (and fair), David Frum apparently wrote “axis of hatred”, but according to the Los Angeles Times “his boss, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, changed it to “axis of evil” to match the theological language Bush had adopted after the terrorist attacks”. Nevertheless my point remains, why would anyone admit, let alone publicise, their association with such an arrogant, provocative and misleading phrase?

Well, obviously they would only do so if they didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, and as the LA Times article explains (see ‘Axis of Evil’ Rhetoric Said to Heighten Dangers) Bush’s words were intended to incite only the domestic audience. The effect on the rest of the world was not considered important, or perhaps not considered at all.

Such naivety and arrogance in the use of language is breathtaking, and makes me wonder if the developed world really needs such ham-fisted leaders anymore. Doctors would be more appropriate. At least they would be familiar with Hippocrates’ advice:

“Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these acts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things: to help, or at least to do no harm.”

A frequently asked question

Friday is the deadline for filing your 2001/02 tax return here in the UK and as usual I’ve left it to the last minute. Well, almost the last minute. I filed my return today using the Inland Revenue’s on-line filing service for the first time.

The system worked well for me, despite receiving some bad press earlier in the year regarding its security. I was able to complete the tax return form quite easily and more quickly than in previous years because the system only asked me questions that are relevant to my tax situation. I didn’t have to read the entire form in order to work out which bits apply to me. Also, it calculated my tax bill immediately, which inspired a degree of confidence that didn’t exist in the past. Previously it was difficult to know if you had completed the return correctly simply because there was no way of checking it without consulting a tax professional. Now, it’s checked and the numbers crunched in a matter of seconds, and when it turns out as you expected, it’s all very reassuring.

Although the deadline for filing is January 31st, the tax year always ends on April 5th in the UK, and a few weeks ago I wondered how this odd year-end came to be. Thanks to the Internet, I found out. The Notes & Queries section of the Guardian once asked the same question, and Luke of Birmingham had an interesting reply:

The calendar year used to start in March. Hence “September” (7th), “October”, “November” (9th) and “December” (10th). Perhaps the first month of the year was set aside for producing accounts, end of year reconciliations, business plans, mission statements and blue-skies thinking – all important elements of a successful Roman business. Quis enumerabit ipsos fabarum enumeratores?

However, the definitive answer must be that of the Inland Revenue itself, which much to my surprise includes the question on its FAQ:

7. Why does the tax year start on April 6?

The reason for the tax year running from 6 April to 5 April is primarily historical and has its origin in the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
It had been calculated in the 16th Century that the Julian calendar had lost 9 days since its introduction in 46 BC. Most of Europe changed to the new, more accurate, Gregorian calendar in 1582, but this country continued with the old one until September 1752 by which time the error had increased to 11 days.
These 11 days were ‘caught up’ by being removed from the calendar altogether – 2 September was followed by 14 September. In order not to lose 11 days’ tax revenue in that tax year, though, the authorities decided to tack the missing days on at the end, which meant moving the beginning of the tax year from the 25 March, Lady Day, (which since the Middle Ages has been regarded as the beginning of the legal year) to 6 April.
The dates were adopted for income tax on its re-imposition in 1842 and have not changed since.

Monegasque jailbreak

Monaco is a very strange place, and now it looks like the Monegasque authorities can’t do anything right. Ted Maher, the American nurse who admitted setting the fire that killed his employer, the Lebanese-American billionaire Edmond Safra, escaped from Monaco’s prison yesterday.

A few years ago (before the Safra affair) the chief of police in Monaco was dismissed because there had been a huge increase in serious crime in the principality - it had suffered three bank robberies and one murder.

The prison warden had better revise his CV. For more, see : Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Nurse who set fire to billionaire saws his way out of Monaco jail

Hang onto your plastic wallet

I received a new driving licence today, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) included the following note:

Important Notice
Plastic Wallets

DVLA no longer issue plastic wallets with photocard driving licenses. This decision was taken primarily to help minimise the administrative costs of issuing licenses to the public. The Agency has also received numerous complaints from members of the public about the size of the plastic wallet [my emphasis]. Consequently, many drivers discard the wallet and use a different way of protecting their licence.

Please note: Old plastic wallets sent in to the Agency cannot be returned.

Who on earth would go to the trouble of complaining about the plastic wallet supplied with your driver’s licence? If you don’t like it, discard it by all means, but complain? Why? Do you really think the civil servants working at the DVLA care whether you like it or not? What a complete waste of time.

Who said the British don’t like to complain? Clearly that’s not true anymore.

P.S. - I’m pleased to say I didn’t return my old plastic wallet, so I still have one; but please don’t tell the DVLA!

Finland’s senile dog problem

My Sudsy Dame and I both have mobile phones, and on a couple of occasions we’ve been forced to call one another in order to track each other down. Once, when we’d agreed to meet at London’s Elephant and Castle (that’s a large intersection, not the pub) we had to phone one another after both waiting 20 minutes without finding each other. On another occasion Sudsy Dame called for help to get out of London’s notorious Barbican complex.

Benefon Esc! GPS Mobile PhoneIt wasn’t long before I could see the benefit of combining a mobile phone with a global positioning system (GPS), and after a little research I discovered that they already exist.

Today’s Guardian reports on a new application of this idea - Finns can now home in on their hounds thanks to location-based services (see Guardian Unlimited | Online | Dog and bones):

Dogs wear a small mobile device and the hunters carry a Benefon mobile phone with built-in GPS and software from Pointer Solutions. If the dog goes missing, its exact position, bounced off a satellite, will be displayed on a map on the mobile’s screen. The hunter can also listen to the dog, which could be up to 100 kilometres away.

If keeping track of your spouse in this way sounds a little too manipulative and invasive, think again:

Tracking services such as this are among the more successful location-based services, according to Jeremy Green, head of wireless research at London-based consultancy Ovum. KTF of South Korea offers child-tracking and OAP-tracking
[Old Age Person]. Of its 5,000 customers, 20% have senile dementia.

So that’s what’s wrong with Finnish dogs - they’re all senile! I wondered what was wrong with a little old-fashioned obedience training.

Sudsy Dame has yet to develop senile dementia (I think), but the GPS phones could come in handy for the growing sport of Geocaching, of which we are both becoming fans and which I may write more about later.

The Minky Dishjet Powerpad

Click to view a larger image.I’d like to introduce the latest entry in the battle of the dishmatiques, the Minky Dishjet Powerpad!

Credit must once again go to my wife for spotting this new rival to the classic Easy-Do Dishmatique in our local Sainsbury’s (you may remember that she was the first to find the Easy-Do Bathmatique), and there can be no doubt that it also qualifies as a true dishmatique since it meets Jonathon’s specification:

  • a handle that is filled with liquid detergent; plus
  • snap-on replaceable sponge heads.

In fact, the packaging boasts that “Refill heads include brush, non-stick and tough scourer”. It has an on/off switch built-in to the handle so that although it “Dispenses Liquid As It Cleans”, it also “Saves Washing Up Liquid”. It has a screw cap at the end of the handle, so unlike the Dishappointing Dishmatique Flex, washing-up liquid can’t leak out. We’ve been using it for a week (in great secrecy) and can attest that it holds up well when compared with the original Dishmatique. It’s a little shorter, but stouter, and feels more durable. However, only time will tell.

It’s produced by Minky Homecare Vale Mill (Rochdale Ltd), who’s website address is given as http://www.minky.co.uk, and I must admit that I’d never heard of the company before this discovery, which is perhaps a telling admission because…

Royal Warrant on Minky packaging … Minky holds H. M. The Queen’s Royal Warrant for cleaning and laundry products. This is the Dishmatique that Prince Phillip uses at Buckingham Palace! Now, wouldn’t he be a great addition to the Sudsy Studs Calendar? Just think what it could do for sales.

Serious snoring

Hypochondriacs should take note of the following unsolicited e-mail I recently received:

Are you snoring yourself to DEATH?

Snoring is often a precursor of serious upper airway disorders such as OSA (the closing of the upper airway while asleep).

Twenty-four percent of adult men and nine percent of adult women are estimated to have some degree of OSA!

‘When persons with sleep apnea fall asleep, their tongue falls back into their throat, blocking their airway. As they struggle for breath, their blood pressure soars,’ Dr. Arthur Friedlander, an oral surgeon who worked on the study, said in a statement. ‘We believe that this rise in blood pressure damages the inner walls of the carotid arteries lining the sides of the neck,’ he added. ‘Cholesterol and calcium stick to the injury sites and amass into calcified plaques, which block blood flow to the brain. The result is often a massive stroke.’

There is help! Click Here to Find Out More!

There’s a well established snoring tradition in my family, but I’m not aware that it’s ever proved fatal - at least not to the snorers. As far as their spouses are concerned… well, that’s a different question.

Just whistling in the snow…

It’s been unusually cold and wintry in London the last few days (cold is relative - around here it means 0°C). In fact, we woke to a light dusting of snow yesterday morning, but it had all gone by the end of the day. This morning it snowed quite heavily for a couple of hours and there is now an inch and a half collected on the ground and in our garden.

As I watched the midday news on television, I noticed something that struck me as very odd when I first moved to the UK ten years ago. One of the reporters taped his report while the snow was falling at its heaviest, and he was pictured holding an umbrella above his head while speaking. He’s not the first person I’ve seen behaving so strangely. What makes the British think that an umbrella is appropriate protection from all types of precipitation?

To a Canadian, fending off the snow with an umbrella just looks ridiculous. After all, snow doesn’t make you wet unless it melts, and that doesn’t happen until you go inside a warm building. Besides, blowing snow easily circumvents any umbrella, making it useless. Think about it. When was the last time you saw pictures of any Inuit (aka Eskimos) carrying umbrellas? You didn’t, because they don’t. Umbrellas are pointless in the snow, and the fact that the British attempt to use them just shows you how unprepared they are for real winter when it occasionally hits them.

[Update – Various news organisations have reported that the snowfall in London today was the heaviest for nine years.]