27 January 2006

Sure enough: Hamas it is

BerlinBear avatarThe reports were indeed accurate. With the final vote count in and confirmed, Hamas has won a victory so resounding in the Palestinian elections that even Hamas' own leaders appear to have been taken by suprise.

Reuters reports that, after an overall voter turnout at a very respectable 78%, Hamas has taken 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature. Fatah, the party of Yassir Arafat, which had long been dominant in Palestinian politics, won just 43 seats. Hamas is said to be seeking to form a coalition government, though Fatah's leaders have said they do not wish to be involved in a Hamas-led coalition.

Further analysis of this result from me will have to wait until I've had a chance to read some more and form a clear opinion. It may even have to go into the 'too hard' basket. In particular, I wait with interest to see the following:
  1. Whether or not Hamas will be successful in forming the coalition government it seeks
  2. Whether or not, now that it finds itself in power, Hamas will disband its armed wing and soften its stance on the destruction of the state of Israel, as Western leaders were quick to stress the necessity of after the results were announced today
  3. Whether or not the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, will find himself forced to resign if Hamas derails his fledgling peace efforts, and if so, who will replace him
  4. How Israel, the US and the EU will react if Hamas do indeed disarm.
Until I've had a chance to observe those developments and broaden my understanding of the various implications of this election result, I think I shall reserve judgement. It's not difficult to fathom why many Palestinian voters have chosen to support Hamas with what must to a large extent be considered a protest vote. That said, I confess that this result causes me considerable concern, and leaves me rather less hopeful for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than I previously was. Time will tell.

Seeing a result such as this come out of an apparently free and fair dmeocractic election, I can't help thinking of Winston Churchill's famous quote about democracy as a political system:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.


26 January 2006

Hamas win outright majority in Palestinian elections(?)

BerlinBear avatarWatch your news media outlet of choice in about an hour and a half, when the official results of the Palestinian elections are due to be announced. It's going to be BIG.

Indications so far are that Hamas may have won an outright majority. This is a result that no one appears to have been expecting. Hamas were expected to do well, yes, and maybe even to gain a majority of seats, but no one I know of was picking an outright majority. This would theoretically allow them to govern alone, rather than in a coalition government - though it remains to be seen whether Hamas will exercise that option or seek to build a coalition anyway. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei, of the Fatah party, has already resigned. This would, of course, seem to indicate a very decisive Hamas victory.

This result, if confirmed, will throw the politics of the region into turmoil. It will make the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon seem like an insignificant ripple. Both the US and Israel had previously announced that they would not deal even with a Hamas-led coalition government, so the chances of their dealing with a Hamas-only government, should such a government be formed, would appear to be non-existent.

I need some time to digest the news reports, read around what's being said, and gather my wits on this issue. It is problematic, to say the least. I hope to be able to post something coherent on it later this evening.

At this point, I can't help wondering what the US response will be. The Bush administration will be in a bind. It's all very well to go throwing your weight around in an effort to bring freedom and democracy to the rest of the world, but what happens when you don't like the results of the democracy you helped to bring? Can you object, obstruct and refuse to recognise without looking completely and utterly hypocritical? That's the thing about democracy you see: the people decide, and you never quite know what they might do, given the chance.

More, I hope, later.


24 January 2006

2007 Tour de France to start in London

BerlinBear avatarExciting news for British cycling fans today: it has been announced that next year's Tour de France will start in London. In fact, London will host not one, but two stages. The prologue (a very short time trial which takes place the day before the first proper stage) will be in central London, while Stage 1 will start in London the following day and head South out of the capital through Kent.

The official Tour de France press release is short and to-the-point:
Amaury Sport Organisation announce today, Tuesday 24 January 2006, that London has been chosen to host the Grand Depart of the 2007 Tour de France.

Full details of the routes will be given at the official launch which will take place on Thursday 9 February 2006 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London.
The BBC Sport website goes into a bit more detail, including details of the two previous times the Tour has visited Britain (though never London) and some hints as to which landmarks the London stages might take in.

To those in the know, this will not be a surprise, but will be welcome news nonetheless. It has been rumoured for at least the past two years that the 2007 Tour de France might begin in London. It's nice to know that this has now been confirmed. I'm sure London will do a great job of hosting the event, and it'll be good practice for the London Olympics.

Might be worth a trip.


Shoddy headlining

BerlinBear avatar Note: I dislike the terms "mainstream media" and "MSM" and the way they are bandied about on blogs as if they were swear-words, but I'm going to have to use MSM in this post. Just this once. Apologies in advance.

One of the things that bugs me about the MSM is shoddy headlining. I've lost count of the number of times I've read articles whose actual journalistic content bears little or no resemblance to the headline above the story. What particularly bugs me is when headlines make factual errors or give misleading information which the articles themselves do not. That bugs me for two reasons: 1) because good, accurate work by the journalist is being undermined by a headliner who cannot do his or her job properly; and 2) because I know that in many cases the headline is all that people read, so they never get to the actual facts, but just internalise the pithy, distilled, nonsense version.

So it is in this week's Guardian Weekly, when it comes to reporting on the inauguration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President of Liberia. The headline of this article, which was originally published in the Guardian on 17th January and is reproduced in the Guardian Weekly, reads:
Africa's first elected woman leader pledges to end cycle of violence
Sadly for the Guardian, that is bollocks. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is Africa's first elected woman President. She is also Africa's first elected woman head of state. But she
is not Africa's first elected woman leader.

In fact,
Africa currently has two other elected leaders who are women: Maria do Carmo Silveira, Prime Minister of Sao Tome e Principe, and Lusia Diogo, Prime Minister of Mozambique. Both are women, both head a democratically elected cabinet, both are African. Neither is head of state, as both Sao Tome and Mozambique are republics whose head of state is a President (both men), but both are indisputably political leaders of their countries.

The article itself actually gets it right, though no mention is made of Silveira or Diogo:
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in yesterday as Liberia's new president, making history as Africa's first elected female head of state and pledging a "fundamental break" with the west African nation's violent past.
In other words:
Journalist Hans Nichols: tick, A+
Anonymous headliner: cross, F (Find another job, or do your current job properly).

Any clown can find this information with a simple Google search. There is no excuse for factual inaccuracies from people who do this for a living. It just isn't that hard.

/media rant


23 January 2006

Something to do in Berlin

BerlinBear avatarThis sounds like a barrel of laughs: PowerPoint Karaoke.

On Wednesday 25th January in the "nbi" (Schönhauser Allee 36), the inaugural Berlin PowerPoint Karaoke championships will be held. Here's how it works: the PowePoint Karaoke team have plucked a series of riveting PowerPoint presentations on such gem topics as "Service as a success factor in dental laboratories" and "Innovative methods in chemical dry cleaning" off the web. Contestants will be asked to attempt to give an appropriate talk to accompany the PP presentations. A panel of judges will liven things up by making the contestants' lives as difficult as possible.

So, if you're in Berlin and at a loose end this coming Wednesday evening, and especially if you, like me, find PowerPoint presentations pretty darn tedious and regularly abused, I reckon you could do a lot worse than getting yourself down to nbi to check it out. I'd be there with bells on if I were in Berlin this week.

[Hat-tip: Die Zeit: Berlin-Journal]


Germany in the deep freeze

BerlinBear avatar The artic temperatures which have been making Russians' and other eastern Europeans' lives a misery for the past week have now reached Germany. As I write, it's -13 degrees C in Berlin, and that in the middle of the day. Overnight termperatures in various parts of Germany plunged deep into the -20s last night and are predicted to go even lower tonight. In Bavaria, for instance, weather forecasters are warning that the mercury could sink below -30 tonight. Thankfully, I'm not in Berlin at present, but rather Trier, where it is a comparatively balmy -3. Long may it last. That said, looking at the satellite weather picture, I'm not especially hopeful:

[Source: accuweather.com]

The icy temperatures have already claimed numerous lives in Russia, Poland and the Baltic states, but last night they proved fatal in Germany too. Deutsche Welle reports:
Two people have died here in Germany as a result of freezing temperatures as low as minus 24 degrees Celsius. Police said a 74-year-old woman froze to death in the eastern town of Wolfen while the frozen body of a 48-year-old man was found in a field in Salzwedel, also in the east. The snap of extremely cold weather moving westwards from Russia has killed at least 20 people in Poland. There have also been a number of deaths in the Baltic Sea states. Forecasters said temperatures could plunge to minus 30 degrees Celsius in the southern German state of Bavaria on Monday.
The death of the 74 year-old woman was a particularly tragic case. According to radio reports, she fell yesterday evening while trying to go to her letterbox. She was unable to get to her feet after the fall and, since noone heard her cries for help, she froze to death over night. Pardon my French, but what a bloody miserable way to die!


Close but no cigar

BerlinBear avatar If you ask me, this is pretty harsh: it is being reported today that Mehmet Ali Acga, the gunman who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, has been returned to prison in Turkey, where he will remain until 2010. This comes just eight days after he was released from prison after serving what he thought was his full term for that crime and for the prior murder of a Turkish journalist.

After all the hoo-ha in the international media the week before last about the deceased Pope's would-be killer being released from prison, it would seem that the Turkish authorities have had a change of heart. BBC News reports:

Last week Turkey's top court had ruled that Mehmet Ali Agca had not spent enough time in jail for killing a Turkish journalist in 1979. He was released earlier this month, but was returned to jail after eight days.

He has spent nearly 25 years in Italian and Turkish jails but has never revealed why he tried to kill the Pope.

Prosecutors say Agca, 48, must now stay in prison until 18 January 2010, the Anatolia agency reports.

Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek had appealed against his release earlier this month, arguing that cuts in his original jail term had been miscalculated. Mr Cicek said Agca should serve a full 10-year term for the 1979 murder of left-wing Turkish journalist Abdi Ipekci, as well as two bank robberies.

While I'm fully in favour of criminals serving their rightful sentences, I does strike me as pretty cruel to release someone from prison only to re-arrest them just over a week later. Presumably, Acga must have thought he was a free man after almost 25 years behind bars and must have just been beginning the task of re-adjusting to life outside prison, only to be told "No, sorry mate, there's been a mistake, four more years for you." Couldn't the Turkish authorities have got all this palaver sorted out before releasing Acga, thus sparing him what I imagine is a pretty traumatic "close but no cigar" glimpse of freedom? What a shambles!


19 January 2006

British English test

BerlinBear avatarI have largely stopped posting those light-hearted tests from OKCupid, Blogthings and the like. However, given the subject matter of my last post, I couldn't resist posting this one:

You Know British English 100%
Well your result says it all really. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
under 35% ugly.... under 60% Bad .....61% to 100% good

My test tracked 1 variable How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 91% on variable 1
Link: The American English Translation Test

Incidentally, this test gets a couple of things wrong. There are several questions where the British tend to say either none of the possible answers, or more than one of the possible answers. As you can see though, you can get away with educated guessing.


Practice makes perfect

BerlinBear avatarPart of my job here in Trier involves being able to tell people how British and American usage differs. Since I've not had to concern myself with that topic since I briefly went to an American elementary school at age 9, it has been a fairly steep learning curve. I had always subscribed to the belief that, apart from the -our vs. -or spellings, one different name for a letter (z), and quite a lot of pronunciation differences, the two varieties were largely identical. Well, more fool me!

I'm in the lucky position of having several American colleagues I can check these things with as and when they arise. And boy do they arise frequently! Scarcely a teaching day goes by that I am not alerted to some minor, but important, difference between British and American English.

Last week, for instance, I discovered that Americans really do spell skilful and wilful with two ls in the middle. This, after I had spent the last year coming across those words spelt skillful and willful in comments and blogs and just assuming that the authors couldn't spell. Wrong. They were just playing by different rules.

It has also come to my attention recently that in American CVs, sorry resumés, the word reference is used to denote not only the thing which a person writes to support your application, but also the person who writes it, rather than using reference for the former and referee for the latter, as in British English. I'm still a bit sceptical (Oops, there's another one! Sorry, skeptical) about that one - it just sounds a bit far-fetched to me - so if any of my American readers could confirm or deny that, I'd be most appreciative.

Another one I've recently discovered is I couldn't care less and its variants. Over the course of the past year or so, I had seen several instances of Americans writing I could care less to express the same idea of not giving a damn about something. Whenever I came across that, I just raised my eyebrows and moved on quietly, wondering how the writers in question thought that phrase could mean what they were using it to mean. When you think about it, I could care less should really only mean that you don't care at all if you say it with a great big dollop of sarcasm, thus making clear that you mean the opposite of what you're saying. But now I discover that in American English, both I couldn't care less and I could care less are acceptable, with identical meanings. Make of that what you will.

The use of couple as a determiner instead of a quantifier is another American usage that I have real trouble accepting, even though modern dictionaries tell me I'm going to have to get used to it. In case you're wondering, the determiner usage is this one:
In a couple weeks, my friends and I are going camping
as opposed to the quantifier usage, which is this one:
In a couple of weeks, my friends and I are going camping
In American English, both are acceptable. (Ugh!) In other Englishes, only the quantifier usage is correct. Of all the differences I've discovered in the past few months that I was previously blissfully unaware of, this is the one which really gives me the heebee jeebees. It just looks and sounds so utterly wrong, damnit. I can't help thinking to myself "Yeah, I know you can say it like that, but I do wish you wouldn't!"

And now, to top it all off, I have learned that in American English there is no orthographical distinction between the noun practice and the verb to practise. Americans spell both with a c, as in:
At soccer practice, we practice dribbling, tackling, passing and running into space. (US)

At football practice, we practise dribbling, tackling, passing, and running into space. (Brit.)
In fact (I nearly wrote in practice), many British speakers do the same thing. But at least when they do it, it's wrong, and is a result of not having got their heads around the rule, or indeed not being able to tell the difference between a verb and a noun. (You think I'm joking, don't you?!) Now I find that when speakers of American English don't distinguish between the noun and verb forms, they're right to do so. Oh, woe is me!

As you can see, the very fundaments of what I thought I knew about the language are being shaken here. And I haven't even mentioned different than yet. I have enough trouble accepting that different to has become common usage, so accommodating different than may take me a wee while yet.

You'd be forgiven for thinking, after all that, that I am on some sort of crusade against American English. You'd be wrong. I'm not at all. Obviously, given that New Zealand English is closer to British English than American English (NZE has its own quirks, but that's a topic for another post entirely), and that I lived in the UK for quite some time, my own usage tends to lean heavily towards British English rather than American English. But that doesn't mean I can't accept the validity of another national variety's idiosyncrasies and individualities. I can't bring myself to like them all, and I won't be incorporating them into my own language use any time soon, but I can live with them. Instead, what I try to preach to my students is consistency. I don't care whether they choose to write British English or American English, as long as they are actively choosing to write one or the other. A somewhat unfamiliar national variety I can handle, a confused mish-mash, I cannot. Of course, in order to be able to handle said unfamiliar national variety, I have to familiarise myself with it. Hence the steep learning curve, and hence this post.

I wonder how long it will be before someone makes the (political - it's always political rather than linguistic) decision to classify British and American English as two different languages? It can't be all that far hence, though I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime. Just a thought.


18 January 2006

A grammar lesson for the Sugababes

BerlinBear avatar The Sugababes are very popular in Germany at present. (Go figure!) Their most popular song is currently "Push the Button". As a consequence, even though I only listen to the radio for a couple of hours a day, scarcely a day goes by in which I don't hear this song at least twice. I don't actually even mind the song - though I'd never buy it - so all would be well and good, if it weren't for a grammar error in the lyrics which is so bad as to make my teeth hurt.

The culprit is this two line section, which - as sod's law would of course have it - appears thrice:
After waiting patiently for him to come and get it
He came on through and asked me if I wanted to get with him
What the Sugababes mean is this:
I had been waiting patiently for quite some time to see if he'd finally get up the gumption to make a move. Eventually, he finally came over and said "Get your coat love, you've pulled."
But what their lyrics actually say is something different entirely. A third person, a man, has been thrown into the equation, thus:
Man 1 had been waiting patiently for quite some time to see if man 2 would finally get up the gumption to make a move (either on me or indeed on man 1 - that's not clear). Eventually (either:) man 1 gave up on waiting for man 2 and came over to me and said "Get your coat love, you've pulled!",( or:) man 2 came over to me and said "Get your coat love, you've pulled!" (thus leaving man 1 standing at the bar like a sad and oddly desperate voyeur.)
This is a classic misrelated participle, or hanging modifier. And it hurts.

After waiting ..
. is a participial phrase. Though it is possible for a participial phrase at the beginning of the sentence to have an explicit subject of its own (e.g. Her voice [subj. of part. phr.] breaking with emotion, Angela [subj. of main cl.] spoke of her son's battle with cancer), the Sugababes' participial phrase doesn't have an explicit subject. The subject is implied. That is, the participial phrase inherits its subject from the the main clause which follows. Since the subject of the Sugababes' main clause is manifestly 'he' and not 'I', this renders their lyrics utter nonsense.

The rule is so simple:
A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject of the main clause, unless the participial phrase contains its own explicit grammatical subject.
The truly frustrating thing is that in this particular case, the Sugababes could get around their grammatical mangling and have their lyrics actually make sense without even altering the rhythm or number of syllables. If their lyrics ran:
I'd been waiting patiently for him to come and get it
He came on through and asked me if I wanted to get with him

then all would be well with the world and my teeth would be spared. Of course, then I'd have nothing to complain about, would I?


17 January 2006

Slow slow music

BerlinBear avatarCall me a heathen. Say I don't understand anything about art. Tell me I don't appreciate true genius, but this is a crap idea. A piece of music played so slowly that it last 639 years? Oh please, don't waste my time.

Incidentally, I wonder what the musical symbol is for a rest which lasts a year and a half?


The First Goose

BerlinBear avatar Have you heard about Doretta, Germany's "First Goose"? No? Shame on you.

Doretta is a goose who was adopted by the former Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. He paid for her upkeep, thus ensuring she would not become Christmas dinner. This was after Schröder's step-daughter kicked up a big fuss when she discovered that Doretta had been personally selected for the Schröder's Christmas dinner table after the Chancellor paid a visit to a goose farm. The step-daughter won that particular family argument, and Doretta was spared.

I say 'she', though actually Doretta is a 'he'. At the time Schröder adopted Doretta, they thought he was a goose, but no, he was actually a gander. But, thought Schröder, what's good for the goose, is good for the gander, and dutifully kept paying. This, incidentally, may be the first time that that saying has ever been applied literally.

Anyway, that's the background. The subsequent story goes something like this: when Schröder lost the election, it was announced that the goose payments would cease as they only applied while he was Chancellor. So it came to pass that one of the first questions the media asked Angela Merkel when she became Chancellor was whether or not she would be taking over from Schröder in supporting the First Goose, Doretta. The answer came back that Doretta was not a subject with which Germany's first woman Chancellor would be concerning herself. In other words, Doretta was on his own. In other other words, it was probably only a matter of time before Doretta ended up on a Christmas dinner table after all.

But no! After being made redundant as First Goose, Doretta got himself a proper job. And no, it was not in one of Berlin's many drag clubs. He had probably heard that the changes to Germany's unemployment benefit system meant that he had little chance of ever staying above the poverty line and keeping his head off the chopping block. So now it has been announced that Doretta will in future be gainfully employed with the Berlin organisation Leben mit Tieren, which uses animal-assisted therapy to help people in need improve their social, emotional and cognitive functions through interaction with animals.

How nice! The former Chancellor has gone on to become a media consultant and gas tycoon, while the First Goose has become a social worker. I guess Doretta must have taken the "Du bist Deutschland" campaign, calling for more solidarity and social commitment well and truly to heart.

Deutsche Welle has the whole, weird story.

Now don't say that The Capital Letter doesn't keep you informed about the real issues!


Interview with Michelle Chatelet

BerlinBear avatarI have no idea how they managed to get to speak to her so quickly, as I'm sure she's in great demand, but the Berlin-based newspaper Der Tagesspiegel today contains an interview with the President-elect of Chile, Michelle Chatelet. Obviously, it's in German, but for those of you who can speak German, it's worth a read. I did not previously know, for example, that Bachelet had lived in exile in the GDR for four years.

The most interesting bit of the interview is this section:

Mrs. Bachelet, women politicians are making inroads in Latin America. What particular advantages do women bring with them to the job?

We are just as capable as men and can run a country just as well. We women are efficient and sincere. We are prepared to fight for the things we believe in, with all our strength. And perhaps we are more likely to be able to give politics something of a human face. [My translation]
Interesting thoughts. I'm not sure that those qualities either a) can only apply to women, or b) apply to all women, but I certainly think she has a point regarding putting a human face on politics.

On a related topic to all this talk of women in power, the Spiegel English site has an article entitled The women of the World: Liberia and Chile elect female leaders, which is an interesting read. In it, the journalist notes that whereas Angela Merkel has been at pains not to 'play the woman card', other women leaders see it as an advantage and use it explicity as a way to mobilize the female vote. The article also looks at the Finnish president's upcoming battle to win re-election, and speculates as to whether a woman might also win the Peruvian presidential election in April.
Der Spiegel, I note, counts only 11 women political leaders in the world. They are overlooking - or perhaps choosing not to count - the Chief Islander of Tristan da Cunha, Anne Green. This is perhaps fair enough, since the CIA World Factbook tells me that Tristan da Cunha (St. Helena) is an overseas territory of the UK, and makes no mention of her. Perhaps I should revise my total of 12 downwards?


16 January 2006

Women World Leaders

BerlinBear avatar In two recent posts in the light of the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Michelle Bachelet as presidents of their respective countries, I've made references to the (very low) number of women in leading political roles around the world. Given that, and since there are only a handful of them anyway, I thought it might be worth stating who the lucky few women leaders are.

It should be noted that the list below does not include ruling Queens, of which there are three - Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom Great Britain and Northern Ireland and all Her Other Realms and Territories; Queen Margrethe II of Denmark; and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (unless of course you count the Maori Queen
Te Ata-i Rangi-Kaahu Koroki Te Rata Mahuta Tawhiao Potatau). Nor does it include woman Governors-General, those representatives of Queen Elizabeth in Commonwealth countries, of which there are four - Dame Silvia Cartwright, Governor-General of New Zealand; Michaëlle Jean, Governor-General of Canada; Dr. Dame Ivy Leona Dumont, Governor-General of the Bahamas; and Dr. Dame C. Pearlette Louisy, Governor-General of St. Lucia.

That said in advance, here is the list of current world leaders who are women:
  1. Mary McAleese, President of the Republic of Ireland. (Incidentally, Ireland is the only country in the world to have had two consecutive woman presidents - McAleese's predecessor was Mary Robinson. Furthermore, in the 1997 presidential election in which McAleese was elected, there were five female candidates and only one male. He finished last.)
  2. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia
  3. Tarja Halonen, President of Finland
  4. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Executive President of the Philippines
  5. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia
  6. Michelle Bachlete, President-elect of Chile
  7. Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor of Germany
  8. Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand
  9. Begum Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
  10. Luísa Días Diogo, Prime Minister of Mozambique
  11. Maria do Carmo Silveira, Prime Minister of São Tomé e Princípe
  12. Anne Green, Chief Islander of Tristan da Cunha (St. Helena)
In addition to that select list, the following women fill the top political posts in their respective dependent overseas territories:
  1. Nassimah Magnolia Dindar, President of the General Council , Réunion (French Overseas Territory)
  2. Marie-Noëlle Thémereau, President of the Government, Nouvelle Caledonie (French Overseas Territory)
  3. Deborah Barnes Jones, Governor, Montserrat (British External Territory)
Last year, briefly, Yulia Tymoshenko was the Prime Minister of Ukraine, but she only lasted 8 months before her entire government was sacked by President Viktor Yushenko.

As you can see, it's pretty slim pickings. Just to put it all in perspective, the United Nations has 191 members. Even if we were to work on the assumption that each of those member states had only one top political post (which is clearly not the case, as many member states have both a President and a Prime Minister, or some similar arrangement), then the twelve women listed above occupy just under 16% of top political posts in UN member states. That, if you don't mind me saying so, is a rubbish proportion. You can't tell me that men are that much better at running countries; I just don't buy it. Personally, I'd like to see more competent women in charge. And while I'm about it, I must confess to feeling a touch of pride at the fact that New Zealand is the only country which appears twice in the listings above, with both the Governor-General and the Prime Minister being women. (Actually, we could add to that the Chief Justice, the Speaker of the House of Parliament, and various cabinet minsters, all of whom are women in New Zealand).

If you're interested in learning more about the leaders listed above, or about past women leaders, try either of the following links:
ZPC Collections
Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership

[Update: I've found another good site with biographies of women world leaders: Der Spiegel (in English).]


A country code curiosity

BerlinBear avatar It is a quirk of the internet country code system (ISO 3166) that South African websites have the two letter country code .za. This came to my attention yesterday as I was hunting for Thabo Mbeki's web presence. Until now, whenever I saw the country code .za, I had always assumed it referred to Zambia, but it doesn't at all. In fact, Zambia has the country code .zm.

Does anyone know why this is? From this list of country codes, I see the reason that South Africa couldn't be
.sa, namely that Saudi Arabia has that code. What I don't understand is how come South Africa got the .za code over Zambia, which would seem to me to have a more logical claim to that particular digraph. And why would South Africa be assigned that abbreviation anyway? Does the 'z' in .za stand for South in some other language, such as Zulu or Xhosa, perhaps?

Can someone who knows more about internet history and the assignment of country codes than I - not hard, since I know nothing about it whatsoever - enlighten me as to how and why this anomaly came about? I appreciate that it's not exactly an issue that moves the world, but I'd be really interested to know.


Make that twelve

BerlinBear avatar In yesterday's post about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, I wrote that she was one of only 11 woman heads of government in the world. You'd better make that twelve because I see this morning that Chile has just elected its first woman president.

Michelle Bachelet, a 54 year old socialist, who is a former Defence Minister and was imprisoned and tortured under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, won 53.5% of the vote in the final round run-off against opposition candidate Sebastian Pinera. Pinera conceded defeat with some 97% of the ballots counted. Bloomberg has a more detailed article about the Chilean electoral race and Bachelet's victory.

So twelve female heads of government, eh? It's a veritable trend. How wonderful. The steady rise of left-wing politicians throughout South America is starting to look remarkably trend-like too. GWB won't like that one bit.

[Hat-tip: Just Left]


15 January 2006

African leaders finally speak up on Zimbabwe

BerlinBear avatarGiven my interest in, and frequent posts about, Dictator President Robert Mugabe's atrocities in Zimbabwe, I can't believe I missed this item when it first made the news. The leaders of Africa, under the auspices of the African Union, have finally spoken up about the lack of respect for human rights in Zimbabwe. About time too!

I have lamented on previous occasions that African leaders, first and foremost South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki, have stood by and watched as Mugabe perpetrates appalling crimes against his own people and destroys the economy and infrastructure of the country once considered the breadbasket of Africa. Now it would seem that African leaders are at least prepared to start talking the talk. Whether or not that will be followed by actually walking the walk remains to be seen.

The Guardian reports:
President Robert Mugabe's human rights record has been condemned for the first time by African leaders, significantly increasing pressure on the Zimbabwean leader to restore the rule of law and stop evicting people from their homes.

The unprecedented criticism comes from the African Union's Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, meeting in Banjul, the Gambia, which had until now been silent about the growing evidence of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

The commission's report, obtained by the Guardian, expresses concern over "the continuing violations and the deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, the lack of respect for the rule of law and the growing culture of impunity".

The meeting in question was the 38th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, which was held in Banjul, the Gambia from 21st November to 5th December 2005. Unfortunately, the website of the Commission does not have the details of the Zimbabwe resolution. It has a final communique from the 38th session, which notes that resolutions were adopted regarding the human rights siutation not just in Zimbabwe, but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopa, the Darfur region in Sudan and Uganda. What is does not have, however, is a detailed report for download which contains the wording of these resolutions. A shame, really.

Clearly, it should be considered a positive development that African leaders are finally having stern words about what Mugabe is up to Zimbabwe. It has taken them much, much too long to get to this point, but better late than never, I suppose. I would like to see this rhetoric now followed up with real, concrete action to force Mugabe to shape up or (preferably) ship out. Telling a megalomaniacal psychopath that he has been a Bad Boy and that he is being watched just does not seem to me to cut the mustard.


Africa's First Lady

BerlinBear avatarWay back in April of last year - on my old blog, but now moved to my archives here for convenience - I wondered: Is George Weah the answer for Liberia? At that stage, the Liberian presidential elections were still six months away, and the election campaign was not yet in full swing. In the event, when the elections finally did come around in October, it was not George Weah who won, but Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67 year old mother and grandmother with vast international financial and economic experience and over 30 years' involvement in Liberian politics under her belt.

Initially, Weah protested over what he claimed were irregularities in the election and even went as far as filing a legal challenge. He subsequently dropped that challenge in December after violent clashes between his supporters and police, in the interests of helping "
the Liberian people achieve durable and genuine peace." That decision cleared the way for Johnson-Sirleaf to be inaugurated just over a week ago now, on January 6th.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not just Liberia's first woman president. She is also the first elected head of state in the entire African continent. Ever. She joins a select club of just eleven current political leaders worldwide who are women. (The tenth preceded her into office by just a month or two: Germany's Angela Merkel.) It is one of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf's stated aims
"to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency" as a way of healing the wounds of war. Good luck to her.

On the day of Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration last week, Cameron Doudu published a comment and opinion piece in the Guardian entitled Africa's First Lady, in which he gave details of her background in Liberian politics, outlined the tasks at hand and the challenges she will face, and assessed her prospects for success in hauling Liberia out of the mire of abject poverty and the after-effects of a crippling civil war. Doudu reaches an optimistic conclusion:

Can she do it? I believe so. She is 67 and has six grandchildren whom she adores and whose presence will always be a reminder that her country can't be plunged into another political debacle that could threaten their young lives.

Wouldn't it be great if he were right?


I must have been wrong about Sharon

BerlinBear avatarSo it would seem that I got it wrong on Ariel Sharon, suggesting as I did a week ago that he was already dead. To the best of my knowledge, doctors do not tend to perform tracheotomies on corpses. I must try to curb these conspiracy theory urges of mine.


08 January 2006

Out of here

BerlinBear avatarAfter a lovely and relaxing break in Berlin, Trier is calling. A seven hour train journey lies ahead. Oh joy!

My next post will be from the other side of the country.

06 January 2006

More on Sharon

BerlinBear avatarHmmm, I'm now a little unsure about my assumption that Ariel Sharon is already dead. I still suspect that he is, but I am confused by the news agencies' and the Israeli authorities' consistency and thoroughness in following through with their story about his 'stable' situation. I am, however, apparently not the only one who thinks he's already dead: Israelinsider agrees.

The official line today seems to be that Sharon is still in an induced coma and that he will be kept in that state for the next 48 hours at least. His vital signs, apparently, are all stable, but Israeli politicians are now working on the assumption that he will never recover enough to return to work.

Given that, it's particularly interesting to see that two separate telephone polls published in Israeli newspapers today both show that support
Kadima - the new political party recently set up by Ariel Sharon, upon his defection from the right-wing Likud party - remains almost as high without Ariel Sharon as with him.

One of the surveys, published in Yedioth Ahronoth, indicates that were elections in Israel to be held immediately, Kadima under the leadership of Sharon's right-hand man Ehud Olmert would perform better than many might have expected:
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party headed by Finance Minister Ehud Olmert would win 39 Knesset seats were elections held today, with Labor winning 20 seats and the Likud trailing behind with 16, a survey commissioned by Israel's leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth revealed Friday.

The survey, conducted by the Dahaf Institute, also revealed that Shas would win 9 seats, the Arab parties would receive 7 seats, Meretz - 6 and Shinui - 4.

The survey also examined the public's favorite choice to replace Sharon as Kadima's leader, if the prime minister is unable to return to political life following his massive stroke Wednesday night.

Shimon Peres received the most support with 23 percent, followed by Olmert with 21 percent. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni received 14 percent, while Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz trailed behind with only eight percent.

The second survey, published in Haaretz today, contains similar findings. In fact, they are even more positive for Kadima:

Ariel Sharon's party, Kadima, would win 40 Knesset seats if elections were held as of Thursday and the party were to be headed by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Should Tzipi Livni step into Sharon's shoes, Kadima would get 38 Knesset seats. Were Vice Premier Shimon Peres to take over leadership of the party, Kadima would win 42 seats - exactly the number of seats it would have garnered four days ago, when Sharon was still healthy.

The results are from a special survey conducted yesterday for Haaretz and Channel 10 by Dr. Camil Fuchs's polling company, Dialog.

The survey covered 650 people representing the general public, and was conducted less than one day after Sharon suffered a severe stroke. The Haaretz-Channel 10 survey also checked the response to two more party leadership candidates  Shaul Mofaz (36 Knesset seats) and Meir Sheetrit (28). With Olmert - considered the leading candidate - heading Kadima, Labor loses one seat and drops from 19 seats to 18, as does Likud, which drops from 14 to 13.

As the Haaretz article notes, both of these surveys were conducted in the immediate wake of the news of Sharon's ill-health and therefore are not necessarily accurately indicative of how voters would actually vote in a general election. At least some of the support for Kadima expressed in the polls is most likely to be simply an expression of sympathy for and solidarity with Prime Minister Sharon, as he fights for his life.

However, even bearing that in mind, those involved with Kadima will be very pleased with these results. They would seem to indicate, to some extent at least, that what was assumed to be a party built around Ariel Sharon, for Ariel Sharon, and consisting of little more than Ariel Sharon, actually has a bit more to it, and a broader base of support for its policies - rather than just for Sharon himself. How long that support will hold and whether or not it can be maintained through until the election, remains to be seen.

One last point on Sharon, before I move on to something else in my next post: isn't it interesting how fast and how completely the story about Sharon and his family being under investigation for fraud and illegal campaign financing, to the tune of $3 million, has disappeared from the headlines since the stroke? I'm not suggesting for a moment that Sharon's ill health is an elaborate hoax to bury an uncomfortable story, but both the timing and the efficacy are remarkable, aren't they?


05 January 2006

Is it just me?

BerlinBear avatarPerhaps it is just me, but does anyone else have the strong suspicion that Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of Israel, might already be dead?

It's not that I'm wishing that on him, or anyone else for that matter, but have you noticed that in many of the news reports, people are talking about him as if he had already passed away? And then, every once in a while, the interviewees or the news announcers catch themselves and hurriedly add something along the lines of "if indeed Mr Sharon does not recover from this stroke, and I hope that he does."

So far on CNN and BBC I've seen speculation about what happens poltically in Israel "now that Sharon is gone", and discussion of "Sharon's legacy." I even saw one interviewee asked to sum up how he would remember Ariel Sharon. It's those sorts of things which have made me think that Ariel Sharon might well already be dead.

Also, when you think about it, the official description of the state of his health, namely "in a very severe but stable condition", could also apply equally well to a dead person, could it not? What, after all, is more stable than death?

For what it's worth, I personally reckon that Ariel Sharon has already died and that the Israeli authorities are trying to prevent this news from coming out until they have clarified a few things, and sorted out what happens next. Furthermore, I reckon that the news agencies know this, but are playing along for now. I could be completely wrong, of course. It's happened before.

If I'm right, isn't there an intriguing parallel to the death of Yassir Arafat last year? Odd.


04 January 2006

Watch your step

BerlinBear avatarAll this snow we've been having in Germany recently is not just a scourge for motorists you know. Spare a thought for the petty thieves and burglars, who have to be much more careful in covering their tracks. Unless, that is, they forget, like these two muppets in Höntrop, and lead the police all the way to their front door. D'oh!


Report from the front

For those of you who can read German, and I know there are a few at least, here is a treat. Over at Die Zeit's blog Berlin Journal, Jörg Dahlmann filed what he called a 'Frontstadtbericht' in the lead up to New Year's Eve. It's a barrel of laughs and well worth a read. If you've ever spent a New Year's Eve in Germany, and especially if you've ever spent one in the centre of Berlin, you will no doubt identify. Some of the things he describes are so similar to my New Year's celebrations this year it's frightening.
My two favourite bits from Dahlmann's piece are these:

Beobachte, wie meine Nachbarn von gegenüber aus den Bleigussexperimenten der letzten 15 Jahre versuchen eine Scud Rakete zu basteln.

Angeblich sollen über 500.000 Menschen vor dem Brandenburger Tor stehen und bei -7 Grad zusammen feiern. Das wäre doch eigentlich ein schönes Ziel für die gutausgebildete Piloten der Al-Quida. Aber die sind schlau, und machen das nicht, weil sie wissen, dass eine Horde Menschen, die schwer bewaffnet, angetrunken, großteils deprimiert und mit Nikolausmützen bewehrt eine größere Gefahr für den Staat darstellen, als es die Al-Quida je sein könnte.

So accurate, on both counts. Read the whole Frontstadtbericht here.

[Hat-tip: Hauptstadtblog]


03 January 2006

Weird news roundup

BerlinBear avatarEver since I first started blogging, one of my staple sources for weird and wacky German news stories that are worth sharing has been Deutsche Welle's regular feature entitled From the Fringe.

I've just spotted that the Deutsche Welle website has published a roundup of the best From the Fringe articles from 2005. If you've been reading The Capital Letter for a while, and especially if you followed me here from tBlog, then you're likely to recognise a few of the stories. In any case, there are some truly weird and wonderful tales in there.

I look forward to bringing you a selection of similarly off-the-wall German exploits in 2006 and I fully expect From the Fringe to provide me with some of the fodder I need in order to do so.

Tags :

Stay out of Yemen

BerlinBear avatarWith the Yemeni tribesmen who have kidnapped five Italian tourists now threatening to kill their hostages if government forces storm their hideout, and with the German family previously held hostage there only just having returned home yesterday, I can't help wondering how it is that there are any tourists left in Yemen to kidnap. In the past six months, there have now been four separate kidnapping incidents involving Western tourists. First it was Swiss tourists, then Austrian tourists, then the Germans, and now it's Italians.

But why on earth are these tourists there in the first place? All the government consular websites I've checked have some sort of travel warning for Yemen. They range from New Zealand's "Extreme Risk - We advise against all travel", to the United States' "The Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to consider carefully the risks of traveling to Yemen. The security threat level remains high due to terrorist activities in Yemen, and Americans are urged to exercise caution and take prudent measures to maintain their security." Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, which are the ones I've checked , all have some sort of travel warning for Yemen which falls somewhere between those two examples above. I presume that the same is true for most other Western countries.

Given that, I wonder why Western tourists are still travelling to Yemen at all. You'd have to be mad, wouldn't you, to head somewhere on holiday where your government (and numerous others) strongly recommend you don't go, and where there's a fair chance you'll end up a pawn in someone else's negotiations? So far, the recent spate of kidnappings of Western tourists has thankfully not involved any bloodshed. But who knows how long that will last?

For now, I'd have thought the message to Western tourists was crystal clear: Yemen is not the place to be. Go somewhere else.


Fancy a snake(s)?

BerlinBear avatarIf you're looking for a new pet for the new year, you could do worse than this guy (or should that be these guys?). But he'll set you back a fair bit. Albino, two-headed rat snakes don't come cheap you know.

The World Aquarium in St. Louis is looking to auction their two-headed rat snake, named We, [that is a genius name for a two-headed snake, ed.] on EBay. The Aquarium hopes We will fetch around $150,000, which will be used to fund education, conservation and research programmes. If the snake did fetch that price, it would represent a pretty tidy return on the $15,000 the Aquarium paid for We.

EBay, for their part, are looking to stop the World Aquarium from listing We, because auctioning live animals is against EBay's rules. Fair enough too. I'm not at all sure I can condone an aquarium auctioning a live animal over the internet, even if it does make for an interesting news item. Even if they need the money, you'd have thought that an aquarium would also have to have the welfare of the animal in mind, wouldn't you? And I just don't see how they can ensure that in an anonymous online auction. Maybe I'm wrong and they have a cunning plan. Who knows?

In any case, I'm not in the market for a rat snake, two-headed or otherwise. Snakes terrify me, even with only one head. They always have. I'd never be mad enough to invite one into my house.


02 January 2006

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

BerlinBear avatarA couple of days ago, I wrote that this year I wanted to put some more language and language-learning related stuff on my blog. Only two days into the year, and my good friend HB has emailed me perfect language-related fodder. It's light-hearted nonsense, rather than serious, heady linguistics stuff, but it's hilarious and it seems like a good way to start blogging about language.

Follow the link below to a .wmv file that is guaranteed to make you laugh:
Do you speak English?


01 January 2006

It's not rocket science

BerlinBear avatarThis is trivial and light-hearted, but cool nonetheless. Besides, it's about all I can muster today. At hetemeel.com there are a handful of so-called dynamic images, which you can alter to include text of your choice. My favourite by far is the Einstein image. I've been having a bit of a play with it today. The results are below. Enjoy.

As you can see, I enjoyed myself. You can have your own crack at putting words in Einstein's mouth here, or try it with Dumbledore, or a television newscaster, or even create your own dictionary entry. The possibilities are practically limitless.

[Hat-tip to Span]