SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

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CULTURE

Free speech continues to be squashed in Britain as a teenage Twitter user is arrested for sending mean-spirited and hurtful tweets to British driver Tom Daley. In a wonderful piece of journalism, the BBC neglect to tell us the precise wording of the tweets in question, saying only that “the 18-year-old received a message telling him he had let down his father”. Unhelpful, BBC. They go on to report: “A 17-year-old boy was arrested at a guest house in the Weymouth area on suspicion of malicious communications”. Apparently this is a crime in Britain, now. It goes without saying that mocking an Olympic athlete and making insulting reference to his late father is reprehensible and in very bad taste; equally it should go without saying that it should not lead to arrest, criminal charges or incarceration

Email may be king for most of us these days, but in Japan the humble fax machine is still alive and well, and in frequent use, both in the workplace and at home. This is partly attributable to the aging population – with one in five Japanese being over 65 years of age, many of these older citizens are more comfortable with the familiar fax technology. Also a factor is the perceived impersonality of the email as a medium for communicating with valued clients, or sending time-critical messages.

An extremely valuable Stradivarius violin was left on a train in Switzerland by an absent-minded musician. This makes me feel slightly better about losing my bank card last month.

At the conclusion of his Beethoven symphony cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the BBC Proms, Daniel Barenboim gave a moving impromptu speech thanking the audience and the organisers for the opportunity. In his remarks, he said: “Our gratitude to the BBC who gave us this wonderful, unique opportunity to be here and play all the Beethoven symphonies – and in every concert one, and sometimes two, works by Pierre Boulez – and have all that televised. Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, we travel a lot, there is no country in the world that would do that for music and for culture”. Barenboim is not my favourite musician in the world, but the work that he is doing here is priceless.

Following the sad death of author Gore Vidal at age 86, The Guardian has assembled a selection of 26 of his most memorable quotes. My personal favourite: “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television”. Or perhaps: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise”.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

The BBC reports that many disabled people feel that media coverage about benefit cheats has worsened attitudes toward them. The article states: “When asked what could be contributing to such hostility, 87% singled out people claiming disability benefits to which they are not entitled. And 84% highlighted negative media coverage about benefit cheats”. Based on these numbers, you might be forgiven for thinking that the thing that would make the most improvement for genuine claimants would then be to crack down harder on illegitimate claimants. But apparently 84% trumps 87%, and what we actually have to do is have the government tone down its rhetoric about fraudulent claims, and have the media stop reporting about it. Who knew?

The Labour Party was forced to apologise and disassociate itself from comments made by supporters, eagerly anticipating the death of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The Telegraph reports: “Last night, Louise Mensch, the backbench Conservative MP, called on Labour to respond after being sent a message by a follower who claimed to have worked for the Party inviting her to a party following Lady Thatcher’s death”. Labour responded, saying “Language like this has no place on politics or civilised society. No one should be wanting to celebrate the death of anyone.”

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

We have it all wrong, according to Rush Limbaugh. Mitt Romney’s overseas trip to the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland was actually not a complete disaster. We just think that it was because the US press pool travelling with Romney are deliberately harassing him (by this, I think he means asking him questions at press conferences) and trying to trick him into making mistakes. Like Sarah Palin’s famous “gotcha questions”. Says Limbaugh: “They’re trying to create gaffes. They’re working on behalf of Barack Obama. They are attempting to carry forth the meme that Romney’s foreign trip is a disaster, that it’s one gaffe after another. They’re trying to do this in the mainstream. And the fact of the matter is Romney is having a home run of a trip”. Well, that’s good, then. Insulting your best ally on day 1, fawning to appease the views of one particular Israeli party (despite promising not to create new foreign policy as a candidate travelling abroad) and being rebuffed by the Polish Solidarity movement are all good things, in Limbaugh’s world view. Of course, if you want to make the argument that these things don’t matter because the only important thing is the perception of the trip back home, as Romney’s aides are trying to do, it might help if the candidate actually spoke with the US press pool that are travelling with him.

Tim Stanley, writing in his Daily Telegraph column, comes late to the Chick-fil-A party but essentially agrees with the view taken by Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, many others and myself, that attempts by local politicians to bully Chick-fil-A by withholding permits to open new outlets as punishment for the views of their executives is unseemly, unwise and unconstitutional. He does close with a good point though, aimed at Rahm Emanuel: “Someone should explain to Rahm Emanuel that gay rights was supposed to be about guaranteeing privacy, abolishing legal discrimination and defending the dignity of the individual against the prejudice of the mob. It wasn’t supposed to be about creating a new standard of acceptable opinion and enforcing it with the muscle of the state. Liberalism without a profound respect for difference is just fascism by another name.”

Mark Oppenheimer, writing in The Nation, has an interesting profile of Canadian/American conservative thinker and former Bush Administration aide, David Frum. I’m quite an admirer of Frum’s (though we would disagree strongly on some issues), particularly since he penned the famous “Waterloo” piece criticising the Republican tactics opposing US healthcare reform, which got him fired from one of the jobs that he held at the time. This long-form piece looks in some depth at the evolution in Frum’s thinking, showing the areas where he has moved (gay marriage, tax policy) and those where he has definitely not moved (foreign policy). In an interesting aside, the author characterises David Frum’s new position thus: “Frum has found a new synthesis, according to which a moderate welfare state stabilizes the United States so that it can remain internationally strong. A little liberalism at home helps keep us neoconservative abroad.”

 

MISCELLANEOUS

What happens when an electricity grid failure knocks out power for half the population of one of the most populous nations in the world? Well, apparently, the story gets buried deep down at the bottom of the BBC News homepage. I did not know that it was possible for a technical fault or excessive consumption to cause such a widespread failure, but given that it is, I hope that the British and American governments are taking suitable precautions to guard against a similar failure, perhaps caused by malicious intent rather than technical fault.

In another bold signal of intent, China has announced plans to land an unmanned probe on the surface of the moon next year, as part of their wider project to land a man on the moon at an unspecified time. China has already achieved significant milestones in terms of human spaceflight, recently including their first spacewalks, first manual docking manoeuvre and first female astronaut.

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A Milestone Passed

The Telegraph reports today on a scientific and technological milestone about to be passed by the human race – Voyager 1, the NASA space probe launched in 1977, is due to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system, the Milky Way:

Scientists launched Voyager 1 in 1977 on what was meant to be a five-year mission to Jupiter and Saturn, however 30 years later the vessel has continued towards the boundary of our solar system 11 billion miles from Earth.

Once the spaceship crosses this border it will enter interstellar space – the void between our solar system and the rest of the universe – becoming the first man-made object to venture beyond our solar “bubble”.

In the newspaper’s own comments section, many readers have been responding with the sentiments either of nostalgia (look what we could do as a species when we put our mind to it in that era) or with happiness (how nice to see a positive story in these difficult times, etc.). One reader, identified only as Hardeep_Singh, summed it up best for me:

“Extraordinary a glimpse of when anything was possible compare that to today’s mindset, ‘fairness’, protest, ‘lessons must be learnt’, etc.”

I know that I am in a small and diminishing minority of those who believe that even in these recession-hit, austere times, we should continue to dream grand dreams, and implement the ambitious programmes to make them possible. But it is my view that our societies cannot be built of just hospitals and schools and roads and bridges and the utilitarian things that bind us to the present; there must be room also for the arts, for medical research, scientific exploits and human-inspired voyages that perhaps don’t have a pre-determined goal in sight (Voyager 1’s mission after Titan was made up on the fly, the craft was not expected to remain functional for so long) but which generate new knowledge and bring back riches for us all nonetheless. I hope that our leaders will remember this, and that it will not fall exclusively to China and the developing world to explore these new frontiers and pass these milestones.

On a much more lowly, terrestrial scale, this article also happens to represent a small milestone in itself – the 100th piece that I have uploaded to this blog. Many thanks to you all, frequent and occasional readers alike, for your time, your comments and your support.

And God speed Voyager 1 on its journey.