Sunday, December 24, 2006

Rise of the Machines - Closer Than You Think?

Private Eye magazine (essential reading) reports in Issue 1173 that the British army is establishing a new worldwide satellite-based communications system called Skynet. To anyone who has seen the Terminator series of movies (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger before he switched from acting to a less reputable profession), this will either be an extremely disquieting omen, or an indication that someone in Whitehall has a wicked sense of humour.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Rich: Not All Greedy Bastards

Slate has a list of the 60 largest American donations to charity in 2005. There are several interesting things about this list.

While there are plenty of familiar names - Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner of CNN, Oprah Winfrey, the odd Rockefeller and Ford - quite a few of those listed are much less well known. This suggests that their money is probably inherited ("family wealth" as the list delicately puts it) rather than earned through any newsworthy current ventures of their own.

Also noticeable is the absence of many other enormously bloated individuals who could easily spare a few million bucks: no Warren Buffett, no Larry Ellison, no Steve Jobs, none of Sam Walton's heirs (of course they could appear further down the top 100 list, and some have made big donations in the past). Essay question: compare and contrast with the Forbes rich list.

Another observation is that many of the donations are to already massively wealthy institutions: MIT, UCLA, Princeton, Stanford, Wellesley College, (probably most of these are the alma mater of the donor), the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library - rather than the less glamorous but infinitely more vital needs like clean water supplies and childhood vaccination in the Third World, medical aid for war victims (no shortage of those thanks to America's foreign policy), rainforest preservation and [name your own cause here].

Final note: much as I admire the work of the Gates Foundation, which does address some of these causes, I can't help feeling that the best service Gates and Allen could do for the world would be to provide more reliable software at a more affordable price!

Geography Lessons

Bash a broadcaster Part 3 - in fact several broadcasters this time.

ATV News reported the big storm in the Pacific Northwest of the US a couple of days ago against a graphic of a US map showing a hurricane approaching Florida. Well at least they got the right country, even if they're 3,000 miles off course.

Then TVB Pearl's news summary last night reported that Hong Kong Electric was applying to increase its prices, while showing on screen the head office of China Light and Power, Hong Kong's other electricity supplier, which serves the opposite side of the harbour. (To be fair, their full news later used this clip to contrast HKE's prices with those of CLP - they are already 35% higher, which may help explain why major shareholder Li Ka-Shing is Hong Kong's wealthiest man. And to be fair to HKE, they have reduced their emissions of pollutants by switching from coal to greater use of cleaner but more expensive natural gas.)

Finally this morning a DJ on RTHK Chinese language radio introduced Enya as a Scottish singer (she's Irish) singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" in Italian (it was Latin, "Adeste Fideles"). Close enough, I suppose - two Celtic nations, and two languages from the same location separated in time, in fact one descended from the other.

Am I the only one pedantic enough to notice this stuff?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hey, that's no way to say goodbye

Bash a broadcaster part two:

Listening to the car radio (Chinese RTHK) this morning. With unusual good taste, they're playing a Jennifer Warnes version of a Leonard Cohen song. So I'm just getting into that Cohen mood of mellow melancholy, when they abruptly switch to the next item by way of a fusillade of gunshots. Ever heard of gradual transitions, you insensitive idiots?

Accountants of the Serengeti

I was behind a jeep going into the Tate's Cairn Tunnel this morning that had a sticker on the back saying Hunter on Board. Yeah, sure, in urban Hong Kong where just about every animal species is protected by law except the rat.

Or maybe Hunter is the driver's surname....

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Good, The Bad and The Brainless

It's not often that I have two opportunities in one week to praise Hong Kong's politicians, but last night's TV news reported that the Legislative Council passed a bill increasing the maximum penalties for cruelty to animals. Good for them!

However, most cruel treatment to animals in Hong Kong (and even more so on the Mainland) more often reflects ignorance and failure to understand their needs than deliberate nastiness. For example, a vet told me on Monday of someone who keeps three large dogs (Labrador Retrievers) on a small rooftop and never takes them out for a walk.

Anyone who doubts that many Hong Kong people need more education in this area obviously failed to watch TVB's Beautiful Cooking (美女廚房) contest a few weeks ago (22nd October). The audience laughed when some brainless bimbo clumsily dropped a live octopus on the floor twice, and again when another octopus, obviously distressed, was thrashing around wildly trying to escape another brainless bimbo who was attempting to lift it out of a tank.

Don't bother commenting that "brainless bimbo" is not a PC term - I know. But the octopus is an intelligent creature that can feel pain; the only dumb animals on this show were the contestants.

Making It Better:
There are many dedicated people campaigning for better treatment of animals in Hong Kong; here are a few:
- Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong)
- Animal Earth
- Hong Kong Dog Rescue - this site also has a useful list of other animal welfare organisations in the territory

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Listening to the people

In a rare departure from its usual practice, the Hong Kong government actually listened to the people for once, and announced that it is scrapping the proposed goods and services tax (GST).

Just about everyone opposed this tax: ordinary people because it was regressive and would transfer part of the tax burden from the rich to the poor; the business community because it would impose a heavy administrative overhead on every company in the SAR; retailers because it would hurt sales; the tourism industry because it would make Hong Kong more expensive to visitors, and therefore a less attractive destination.

Nevertheless, the problem that the tax was supposed to solve remains: the government's narrow tax base and over-dependence on revenue from property transactions. So here's a suggestion: listen to the people some more. Public concern about environmental issues in Hong Kong has never been stronger, particularly with regard to the filthy smog-laden air we have to breathe. So how about a pollution tax, or rather a targeted set of environmental taxes?

Tax retailers for giving out unnecessary free plastic bags that end up in landfills. Tax minibus operators that have not yet converted their vehicles to run on cleaner LPG. Tax the power companies for every unit of pollution they emit until they fit more efficient emission controls on their generating stations. Tax transport operators that don't fit new cleaner engines to their vehicles within a reasonable time. Tax excessive packaging. And so on...

You get the idea. Raise public revenue while hitting polluters in the pocket, until they find it cheaper to clean up their act than to continue dirtying the environment, thereby killing two birds with one stone. How about it, Mr Tang?

Making It Better:
- Clear The Air
- Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Empty Promises

Hong Kong's Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee was quoted on local television a few days ago as saying that the Hong Kong government would do all it could within the one country two systems framework to assist the family of jailed journalist Ching Cheong. Which means they will do nothing.

Of course there are limits to what Hong Kong can do to influence the Beijing authorities, but as a minimum, the Hong Kong government could at least tell the Chinese government that no one in Hong Kong, even among the "pro-China" crowd, believes for a moment that Ching is guilty.

Too Much Monkey Business

An interesting fact from singer/songwriter Tom Robinson's website: "A download on iTunes costs [in the UK] 79p per track. The Performer gets 7%, the Writer 8%, Credit Card company 9%, Apple 15%, and Record Company 61%". As Tom says, go figure.

Furthermore, the greedy record companies are always moaning about their supposed losses because of illegal downloads, but they can't even be bothered to make music they already own available to those of us who are actually willing to pay for it. There is plenty of good stuff that has never even made it on to CD: to name just a few, two albums by Loudon Wainwright III, one by Vivian Stanshall, two by Dory Previn, and one by Kate and Anna McGarrigle are only available if you are prepared to pay inflated prices on eBay for the original LPs or get someone who has them to run off a CD-R for you. (Obviously I'm giving away my musical tastes here.) Even one Bob Dylan album (admittedly his worst) has only made a brief appearance on CD, and is currently only available on cassette!

Viv Stanshall's widow and a group of his fans have been campaigning for years to get his album Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead reissued on CD. To sign an online petition to Warner Brothers Records for this, go here.

The music industry, movie studios and software companies also try to make you feel sorry for them by inflating their losses due to copyright piracy. The figures they quote assume that everyone who acquires a pirated copy would otherwise buy a legal one, which is clearly nonsense.

Update: (August 2013). The LW3, Dory, and (finally) Viv albums are now available on CD. But that still leaves other masterpieces like Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson (a whole story in itself) largely unavailable. And I've done a later story on the missing Dylan CD.
Disclaimer - I get a small commission from Amazon UK if you buy the brilliant Stanshall CD through the picture link here.

Annoying Programme Interruptions (APIs)

I turned on TVB's English channel soon after 8am this morning and found it relaying CCTV Channel 9 news. Switched to ATV, and they were carrying exactly the same programme.

Now I have nothing against China Central Television. The days when their "news" programming consisted largely of happy red-scarved peasants celebrating bumper rice harvests thanks to the all-encompasssing wisdom of Chairman Mao are long gone, and while I wouldn't trust their impartiality on topics like the Dalai Lama's latest speech or the pros and cons of Taiwanese independence, most of their English language news coverage is as professional as anyone else's.

But if Hong Kong is going to license two terrestrial broadcasters, shouldn't they make some effort to carry different programmes? Otherwise why do we need more than one?

However, that's not the most irritating thing about Hong Kong television. Nor, annoying though it is, is TVB's habit of giving away the key plot points of films in the trailers they show. (At least it saves you having to spend time watching the actual movie.)

No, that distinction belongs to the so-called "Announcements of Public Interest" (APIs). Now some of these carry perfectly harmless and even useful public information, like reminders to register for upcoming elections, or that it's your age group's turn to change your ID card for the new smart card.

What pisses me off are the fuzzy pointless ads that tell you things everyone with half a brain doesn't need to be told: "be a happy family" or "be good to your children". Is it really necessary to spend the taxpayers' money on this kind of stuff? Does the government imagine that someone watching this will experience a sudden epiphany and think, "Oh, I should really be good to my kids - I never realised that before"?

Where do they think this is - Singapore?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

What did you expect, Mr Bush?

The Washington Post reports that the Bush regime is increasingly blaming the Iraqis themselves for the violent chaos their country has descended into.

So, Mr Bush, you blunder with overwhelming force into a complex and fractious country and culture you don't understand for stated reasons that turn out to be totally phony; you bomb the hell out of its infrastructure; wipe out its functioning system of government; capture its (admittedly brutal) leader and put him through a blatantly unfair show trial; wreck the country's economy; set up a weak new government that has little public support and is riven by internal disagreements; refuse to listen to advice from either the country's neighbours or your own intelligence experts; and insist on "staying the course" when it has long been clear to everyone with any sense that you are steering straight for disaster. Then not only do you wonder why your illegal and uninvited invasion is not greeted with open arms, but up to 650,000 deaths later you blame your victims for their plight.

How much longer do we have to swallow this crap?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Fried(man) from Poverty

I have been reading with interest the adulatory tributes (such as this one in today's Hongkong Standard) to the recently deceased economist Milton Friedman. Certainly Friedman is worthy of note for his technical contributions to his field, which won him the Nobel Prize.

However, a far more dubious part of Friedman's heritage is the ideological underpinning his free market obsessions provided for the worst excessses of the Thatcher/Reagan era (which still lingers today), when greed, previously regarded throughout human history as a sin, was instead elevated into a virtue. The road to the Enron scandal essentially originated from the Economics Department of the University of Chicago.

Also dubious was Friedman's frequent citation of Hong Kong as the chief exemplar of the success of the free market. Certainly no one who lives here can fail to acquire a healthy respect for the merits of entrepreneurism, but I strongly believe that the biggest single contribution to the prosperity Hong Kong enjoys today has been the government housing programme, which over the last half century has lifted millions of people out of insanitary and dangerous squatter huts into clean, safe and affordable public housing. Today a third of the population still lives in public housing; at one time it was more than one half.

Could private enterprise have achieved this without government intervention? I doubt it.

And incidentally, the claim in a number of the obituaries that Friedman coined the saying "there's no such thing as a free lunch" should not go unchallenged. Certainly Friedman popularised it, but there is another claimant to its origination: science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein. There is no clear evidence as to which of the two used the phrase first; maybe it predates both.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Lame Ducks, Orangutans and Albatrosses

America's long national nightmare will not be completely over for another two years, but much of the world will sleep more soundly now that the Democrats have captured the House of Representatives.

At the time of writing, the Senate race is still undecided, but there is a chance that the Repugnants will also lose control of the upper house, leaving Bush a lame duck for the last two years of his presidency (though no doubt still quacking loudly). I fervently hope so.

Meanwhile, there seem to be a lot of animal stories in the news today, most of them bad news. Sadly, the illegally started forest fires in Borneo appear to have claimed the lives of many orangutans. Meanwhile, illegal fishing threatens the albatross.

Even the human animal species is threatened by the greed and stupidity of the human race, with unregulated use of chemicals causing brain abnormalities. Why are we so damn foolish?

What the Fox...

Fox hunting with hounds was banned in Britain in 2004. So why are the huntsmen still riding out in 2006?

As Stephen Moss says, "I don't want to see a hare torn to pieces, or a fox. But maybe I could stomach some other quarry for the handsome, hard-working hounds. The parliamentarians who, it has been calculated, devoted 700 hours to debating hunting and only seven to Iraq..."

One thing I've never understood about fox hunting (apart from the obvious question of why so many people find cruelty to animals entertaining): rabbits eat crops; foxes eat rabbits. Why do farmers consider the fox a pest, when it rids them of an animal that really is a nuisance?

Instant Karma

A man who caught a mouse in his house threw the living creature onto a fire, whereupon the flaming mouse ran back into the house, setting it on fire and completely destroying it.

My sympathies are entirely with the mouse.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One Small Step for Mankind

Our American friends will go to the polls today for the mid-term congressional elections (and you would have to be very naive to think that the timing of Saddam Hussein's conviction and death sentence, following a manifestly unfair trial, had nothing to do with that fact).

The Founding Fathers of the United States were not perfect - they shared many of the prejudices of their age in matters such as slavery and the treatment of native Americans - but they were intelligent men who recognised their own imperfections. Politicians themselves, they understood that politicians were dangerous and should be treated with profound distrust. In a young nation populated by many fleeing from tyranny in Europe, they had no wish to establish a new tyranny in their new land.

In their wisdom, these men devised a Constitution under which the political system was cleverly designed to ensure that no one individual or group would wield too much power. The federal government was given limited power over the states, and at both state and federal level, power was distributed widely. Legislative, judicial and executive powers were separated, with each of the three branches expected to act as a check on the other two. Later amendments such as the Bill of Rights and the introduction of a term limit on the Presidency further extended these safeguards.

This worked pretty well for a couple of centuries, but however brilliant the Founding Fathers were, they were not fortune tellers. They could not foresee that political parties would evolve from loose agglomerations of like-minded individuals into two fiercely partisan fundraising and vote-getting machines, both of them conspiring to keep independent candidates off the ballot. They could not know that economic power, localised in their own day, would become concentrated in the hands of enormous national and global corporations, enabling the federal government to regulate more and more aspects of American life on the grounds that they were interstate matters. They were unable to predict the ever-increasing power of what the last decent Republican President dubbed "the military-industrial complex", and the influence it could wield through lobbying and massive campaign contributions. They did not anticipate that a small number of mass media outlets would have the reach and power to convince millions of Americans that lies were truth. They certainly could not have known that advanced technology would one day enable the government to spy on the movements and communications of the entire population. And they did not expect that those charged with overseeing elections would abuse their position to gain unfair advantage for one party over another. or that Americans would record their vote by means of machines with negligible security provisions and no audit trail, most of them supplied by a corporation owned by a dedicated supporter of George W. Bush. Last but not least, the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen that the fear and panic engendered by 9/11 would cause many normally sensible people to abandon reason and logic for hysteria.

[Sorry folks, I don't have time today to dig out the links for all this stuff, but a few minutes with Google and you'll find abundant evidence.)

All of which has led us to today, when an evil, greedy and dishonest Republican administration with majority support in both houses of Congress and a generally compliant Supreme Court has been able to disembowel the Constitution, eviscerate human rights guarantees, sweep away restrictions on the kidnap and torture of anyone they consider an enemy, start an illegal war that has cost over half a million lives, devastate the environment in the pursuit of profit, and further enrich the already wealthy while making life ever tougher for the poor. (I could go on all afternoon with a long list of Bush's crimes, but that'll do for starters...)

I have no great hopes for the Democratic Party, which has been frankly feeble in opposition, but even the loss of a majority in one house would lessen George W. Bush's ability to stomp all over the liberties of the American people and the world. And that would be one small step back towards civilisation from the moral morass in which the USA is now sinking, dragging the rest of the world down with it.

This is one election that really matters.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!

A Happy Halloween to all my readers! (all 6 of them...)

I was thinking of wearing a George W. Bush mask tonight, but on second thoughts maybe I don't want to scare the kiddies that much.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Spammish Inquisition

Like all Internet users, I frequently get irritated by the constant flow of spam that invades my mailbox. However, some of these messages are really quite entertaining. My favourite is the messages offering instant degrees from "prestigious non-accredited universities". If they're so prestigious, how come they can't get accredited?

Cleric's Catty Comments Decoded

Australia's most senior Muslim cleric is reported as suggesting that women who dress "suggestively" invite sexual assaults, saying that, "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

Apart from its insulting equation of women with meat, this argument implies that men are animals as much ruled by instinct as cats, instead of rational beings with intelligence, self-control, and the knowledge of right and wrong. By the same logic, one could blame supermarkets for shoplifting because they put their products on display. It is all too common for weak-willed people to blame their victims, rather than recognise their own faults.

Looking at the psychology behind Sheikh al-Hilali's remarks, I suspect that what those who call the loudest for censorship of pornography or for women to dress "decently" are really afraid of is their own sexual urges. While claiming to be motivated by protecting society from the impact on unnamed others who supposedly cannot control their sexual desires, what they really want is to abdicate their responsibility for controlling their own libido by forcing everyone else to avoid any action or behaviour, however innocent, that may risk turning them on.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Nappy Dread

Attending a trade show at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre recently, I happened to notice that the men's washrooms are equipped with baby changing tables - not something you would have found twenty years ago. Great, I thought, a sign that sexual equality is really making progress.

Not everywhere, though - I mentioned this to a female colleague who has a son between one and two years old. She informed me that her husband has never changed the boy's nappy (diaper to American readers) even once, assuring her that he would throw up if he had one of those smelly things under his nose. Yeah, sure, good excuse....

Incidentally, the HKCEC is a welcome exception to the general rule that all modern architecture in Hong Kong has to be boring.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lunar Tick

Is there no limit to George W. Bush's hubris? Not content with getting a bill passed that effectively gives him the power to detain and torture anyone without trial, and seeking through his aggressive foreign policies to dominate the rest of the earth, he now claims dominion over space as well.

In fact, it appears that the colonisation of Bush's new realm has already begun. If Vice-President Dick Cheney really believes that things in Iraq are going well, he must be living on another planet.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Whale Forward

According to a new scientific study, whales and other large marine creatures play a vital role in bringing cold water from the ocean's depths to the surface, a movement which forms a key part of the earth's climatic patterns. "Humans might be inadvertently affecting this important ocean 'biomixing' through their decimation of whales and big fish populations, the researchers say."

If confirmed this finding will, I hope, provide additional ammunition in the continuing battle against Japan's slaughter of these beautiful and intelligent creatures for the table under the cloak of so-called "scientific research".

Not that Japan is the only offender - a recent Guardian article analyses why Iceland has shamefully decided to resume commercial whaling, even though it has large stocks of unwanted whale meat already; the third culprit is Norway. The article also shows how few whales are left even after hunting of some species has been banned for decades: the Northern Right Whale, protected since 1935, is down to about 350; the Grey Whale has less than 30,000 remaining.

Making It Better:
- Greenpeace
- Sea Shepherd

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One Death at a Time

Following on from what I wrote last time, I think the reason individual cases affect us more is that we can empathise with another individual more easily than we can relate to a whole mass of people. So while I should feel shocked (though hardly surprised, given the escalating body count in Bush's war) by today's news headline that 60 more mutilated bodies have been found in Baghdad, I was actually more saddened by this story of a single cruel and unnecessary death (you don't have to agree with the article's political slant to sympathise with the victim).

In case it wasn't obvious, I was only joking when I wrote a couple of posts ago about Aussies being nuts - after all, they are officially entitled to call me a pom. But after reading this case, I have to conclude that some of them - both police and politicians - barely qualify as human beings.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Banzai, You Mean Bastards

It would be nice if I could, just once, read the day's news without becoming hopelessly angry, but it's impossible. It's not so much the big intractable issues - the Iraq War, global warming, terrorism, North Korea's alarming nuclear test - as the small daily injustices perpetrated against innocent people everywhere that get me wound up.

One of my personal heroes, the late Jack Edwards, who was for a time a neighbour of mine, devoted his life after World War Two to fighting for adequate recognition and recompense for the Far East Prisoners of War who suffered appallingly inhumane treatment at the hands of their Japanese captors. His 55 years of effort were finally rewarded with apparent success in the year 2000, when the British government set up a £167m compensation fund for the surviving FEPoWs and their dependants (by then many had already conveniently died, often prematurely as a consequence of their wartime experiences; indeed a quarter of them did not survive their captivity).

So, a belated happy ending for once. Except it now turns out that, even in the midst of their apparent generosity, the British government shamefully decided that 2,400 of those who were imprisoned for the crime of being British were not quite British enough to benefit (presumably on account of the same racist stupidity that saw the great comic genius Spike Milligan stripped of his British passport even though he was wounded fighting in the British Army in the same war, but that's another story).

As 83-year-old Diana Elias eloquently explains , "Despite me being British all my life, despite my family's details being handed over to the invading Japanese troops in 1941 because we were all British, despite us being interned in Stanley Camp for four years because we were British, despite me facing the consequences both in the camp and for the rest of my life because I was British, I was not, and I am still not, quite British enough in the eyes of the Ministry of Defence. That is because I do not have what it calls a 'bloodlink' to the UK. I do not have a bloodlink because I was not born here [Elias was born in Hong Kong but now lives in Britain] and neither were my parents or my grandparents. If you have no bloodlink, then you are another type of British. A second class type of British. A type of British whose suffering and rights do not matter one bit."

All I can say is I hope Diana Elias wins her court case, and I really hope that the relentless spirit of Jack Edwards (who passed away earlier this year) will haunt every last one of the mean-minded bureaucrats who denied her, and others in the same position, what they should have received years ago.

And don't even get me started on present day Japan's continued refusal to face up to its past atrocities...

A Depressing Statistic?

According to the Hongkong Standard, only one percent of doctors in Hong Kong are psychiatrists, compared with ten percent in Australia. The article suggests that, with an estimated ten percent of Hong Kong adults suffering from depression, this indicates a lack of resources for mental health. Then again, it could just indicate that more Aussies are nuts.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Maybe cancer is good for you...

Few things are less conducive to health and beauty than smoking. So why does Asia's (self-proclaimed) leading health and beauty store chain sell cigarettes? This makes about as much sense as serving meat in a vegetarian restaurant.

An afterthought: why do so many big chains (Watsons, Boots, Woolworths) eliminate their apostrophe? Is there a big pile of abandoned apostrophes somewhere? McDonald's is one of the honourable exceptions here.

Doing the Right Thing in the Wrong Place?

Today's Guardian has a story on a new movie, Jesus Camp , about a children's camp for evangelical Christians, where the little dears are either, depending on your point of view, brainwashed into mindless Bushite Christian fanaticism or taught to "stand up, stand up for Jesus" against the devil and all his works. What amused me was the camp's location: Devil's Lake, North Dakota.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sub-headline of the Day

From The Guardian: People who want to look like Victoria Beckham may be unsuitable for plastic surgery, doctors warn .

With her fake breasts, fake tan and fake hair, I can't imagine why anyone would want to look like Victoria Beckham. One of her is quite enough.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Impeccable Timing; Peccable Judgement

Wonderful timing: three days before my planned holiday in Thailand, the military decide to pull off a coup there after 15 years of relatively stable democracy. At the time of writing, it is not yet clear how things will work out, even whether the whole of the army is behind it or only a disaffected faction. Anyway, so far it looks as if, in true Thai fashion, tourism will not be significantly disrupted (and as Spike has noted, may even benefit from the lifting of some of the Thaksin government's more puritanical restrictions, like 1 am bar closing). The falling baht, as investors get nervous, can't hurt tourism either.

There are certainly plenty of reasons why Thaksin should be kicked out: quite apart from the doubtful business dealings and tax evasion which have enormously enriched his family, there is his egregious violations of human rights, like his complicity in the shooting without trial of alleged drug dealers by the police; his contribution to George Bush's cowboy adventures in the Middle East by sending Thai troops (now withdrawn) to join the illegal war in Iraq (oops, I initially mistyped this as Iran - that's next month); and his grossly insensitive mishandling of Muslim grievances in the southern provinces, which has inflamed low key unrest into open warfare, as seen in the Hatyai bombing.

But there are also reasons why all my Thai friends vote for Thaksin: he has introduced a low cost medical scheme for the poor, improved roads and rural communications, and encouraged the development of village industries. Not surprisingly, these positive measures have ensured him an overwhelming share of the rural vote.

Two aspects of the coup are surprising: firstly, why go to all this effort to get rid of Thaksin now, when he is only caretaker PM following the fiasco of the last election in April, and will face a fresh election in a few weeks - one he may well lose anyway, especially if the Muslim insurgents in the south spread their bombing campaign to the rest of the country?

More disturbing are the rumours that the King may have given his support to the coup move. In his long and sometimes tumultuous reign King Bhumibol has hardly put a foot wrong - no monarch in the world is more respected by his people - and the statements from the coup leaders predictably asserted their loyalty to him. But he has always been careful to stay well above the murky details of Thai politics, enabling him to knock heads together as a neutral arbiter when things seem to be getting out of hand.

If it is true (and I stress that the rumours are currently unconfirmed) that he supported the coup, even if only tacitly, this would be a very dangerous development. Involvement in overthrowing the Prime Minister they regard as a great benefactor could seriously dilute the reverence in which the King (and the monarchy as an institution) is held by the rural poor, leaving the country less stable in the longer term. One need only look at Nepal to see how quickly a monarchy can lose popular support. This could be the first sign that advancing age is clouding the Thai monarch's once impeccable judgement.

Of course, I wouldn't risk saying this in Thailand!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Well, here we go...

My very own blog... and my very first post. Why Private Beach, you may ask? Well I like the idea - and I enjoy skinnydipping. But that's not really what this blog will be about. I may write about anything I feel like, but primarily I want to cover the craziness of the world - those things that make you say, "Is that weird or what?!"