Higher than predicted: a shocking $450 million!

By now, everybody interested knows the Leonardo da Vinci painting sold for a shocking $450 million. Who bought the painting remains a mystery at the moment. More has come to light why the painting’s former owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, might have decided to have da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ auctioned.

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Should this be news?


Perhaps, I shouldn’t have, but the article’s content really irked me. The Guardian’s columnist Hadley Freeman today posted a “stirring” piece. Usually, I skip the Guardian’s opinion articles. Unfortunately, the headline caught my eye, so I read the piece.

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Leonard Cohen

Of course, as stated before, Leonard Cohen should have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote beautiful, impressive poetry and songs for decades. If he had been awarded the prize, bet he wouldn’t have behaved as badly as the present silly Laureat at that.

Missed choice. Missed chance. Missed everything else.

As reactions pour in and obituaries are published, I came across the Guardian’s list of 10 best songs by Leonard Cohen. Such lists are personal, of course. You will have your preferences, I have mine. The complete output of Cohen was staggering.

l-cohen-01My first introduction to him, his songs and music, his writing, was of course “Suzanne”. Either sung by him in English, or in translations by other artists, it remains a haunting song forcing you to listen to its poetry or a haunting poem forcing you to listen to the music.

Other favourites include “Marianne”, “Hallelujah” and especially “Dance me to the end of love” with its link to Nazi horrors.  But also more recent poems which are darker and include ones dealing with getting older. Yes, he could have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and would have been a far more acceptable choice than its jury made earlier this year.

As someone twittered: “as if the week could not get any worse.”

Guardian Leonard Cohen
YouTube Leonard Cohen performing “Dance me”

Let’s hear it for the oldies!

Some claim life is over after you turn twenty-one. Others claim the best time of your life starts once you turn forty. What about your seventies or eighties – provided you make it?

Some folks moan about grey hairs, wrinkles, sagging bodies once they’re past thirty and others are simply unstoppable. Each decade seems to have its perks, but not many mention many, once they’ve turned eighty-something … yet:

“I can’t remember the title … I can’t remember a lot of things these days, except I can remember my lines! … I’m creeping up to 90 and feeling like a million dollars because I’m in London” a very happy Angela Lansbury stated.

Guess you’d feel like a million dollars too, if you won an Olivier Award while you’re just eighty-nine. Or you might be content just visiting London right now – regardless what age you are.

On the other hand, the sad news today is, that Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass died. His last novel, the slim “Crabwalk” or “In Krebsgang” impressed me very much and made me think hard about the issues it raises. Nevertheless, it’s understandable, that such an author causes controversies in certain circles with his books, plays, and other artistic creations.

Just how controversial some of his books were, becomes clear when one reads his books were burnt or shred to pieces by fellow countrymen who disagreed with him. But though such behaviour seems so medieval to some of us, we should remember that in some parts of the world whole archeological sites are destroyed because they do not fit zealots’ ideas of a country’s or people’s history and present religion.

One may disagree or agree with some of Grass’ views: at least he was open about his past, while so many others denied theirs. He did not shy away from stating his ideas and opinions, even if this caused countries like Israel to ban him from entering. Raising controversial ideas and opinions enables these to be discussed – something which is impossible in far too many countries already.

Unsurprisingly, Günter Grass supported Edward Snowden and others who showed how internet was and is still being used to snoop upon everything and everybody. He wisely steered clear of Facebook – calling it “crap” – long before its tax dodging and breaches of privacy laws hit the headlines. As he stated, while showing support for Snowden:

“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.”

In this day and age, we not only need people like Angela Lansbury showing us that life need not be over once you’re past your sixties, seventies, eighties. We’re also in desperate need of more people like Günter Grass.

Guardian: Angela Lansbury reigns
Guardian: Günter Grass dies

How to create community tension and blow up community cohesion

There you are: living in a quiet backwater of England. It’s a few weeks before England’s secret services get rapped across their claws by their own watchdog, because a few of their activities are in breach of Human Rights.

It may be a backwater, but of course, you know what happens in the rest of the world. You’re shocked by recent events in Paris. You hear the stricken magazine will print a special issue.

Extra copies will be dispatched throughout the EU, including your country. Charlie Hebdo’s commemorative issue will be available at the local post office and newsagent in your peaceful Sleepy Hollow.

And then it turns into a nightmare. For your friendly Bobbies lean on the local newsagent and post office. The Boys in Blue order them to jot down personal info of every person who dares buy the commemorative Charlie Hebdo issue.

The shop owners are blackmailed into complying with this Stasi-like order. They’re told it’s all “in the name of community cohesion”. They’re told it’s an act of “vigilance”. These law-abiding citizens help “assess community tensions”.

You think I’m fibbing? You think I’m pulling your leg?
The victims thought it was a hoax as well.

There are at least four people in Wiltshire, who recently received an apology from their police force. Police confirmed they had deleted names and addresses of all buyers of the commemorative Charlie Hebdo issue from police databases.

So in theory, these buyers of Charlie Hebdo are no longer registered as criminals or terrorists. For after the post office and newsagent closed, police collected their lists and entered the collected personal info with an accompanying note in police crime and intelligence databases.

At first, the victims were totally unaware of what had happened. But then, one of the victims – well into her seventies – , wrote a letter to the Guardian. What had occurred in Wiltshire became public and only then did police delete “the accompanying intelligence note”.

And only after journalists of the Guardian and Independent started asking questions, did Wiltshire police dispatch an apology and stated the gathered information had been deleted. As if dispatching an apology after such acts, takes the sting out of created community tensions. As if such police behaviour improved community cohesion.

I’m highly sceptical. As my former IT colleagues used to crow gleefully in such cases: “Yeah, sure: deleted from their police system and databases. Oh – oopsie, forgot: not from the database exports accidentally filed on USB sticks or illegally burned on DVDS; or spinning on a family member server ; nor from the daily and weekly and monthly backups. Cheers!”

For the complete story:
Guardian UK Police forces and Charlie Hebdo buyers
Guardian UK Police Force apologises
Independent Police officer asks details Charlie Hebdo buyers


Book review: the panopticon we live in and the wistleblower who took a stance

Last week, a EU state-owned television station showed a documentary three times. It was shown during different time-slots. It was shown on different days. They must have aimed at reaching as many viewers as possible.

The documentary focussed on one person who was also interviewed. But it also showed parts of interviews with the person’s father, journalists, lawyers, and even US officials.

The same week, articles appeared on various UK newspaper websites. They were linked to this documentary and a book. The articles reported rulings by a secretive court of a EU member state.

You may have missed the articles. You were unable to watch the documentary. You may not have read the book about the case – yet. Nevertheless: you know the person’s name.

In 2013, he became one of several – yes several – whistleblower who tried to take on the panopticon we live in. One of his reason’s to blow the whistle is printed at the top of page five of the book: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded …”

He is Edward Snowden. The book’s title is “The Snowden Files”. It’s written by award-winning correspondent Luke Harding and was first published in 2014. It’s available in many languages.

The book starts with a prologue. Journalist Greenwald is on his way to a hotel in Hong Kong. he is going to meet a dubious source. By now we now, it would become a major scoop, a man hunt, and upset quite a lot of governments and politicians.

After about 10 pages, the first of fourteen chapters starts and it flashbacks to 2001. This is how the chapters of this book work. You will not only read about the events, but also be told about their background and history. The first few chapters introduce you to the main subjects: Edward Snowden, Greenwald, Miranda, Pointras. But they are not the only people caught up in events. There are politicians, writers, ordinary people, as well as newspapers, agencies, whatnot.

Chapter four “Puzzle Palace”, goes into why and how the surveillance and spying became so total. It describes how and why the NSA was created. It describes how and where information is gathered and with which countries, including yours, it is kind of shared.

At the end of this chapter, parts of an interview are cited. It was an interview by journalist Ackerman with Senator Wyden in 2011. The Senator states: “… We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says. …” Of course, despite Wikileaks and the Snowden Files, that gap never closed.

The book reads like an extraordinary spy-novel. It is better than any James Bond or other thriller, for this really took place. It really happened and involved real people. Though at times technical, even these technical or legal parts are easy to understand. The pace and tension are high, while the book is highly readable and informative.

Revelations are sometimes pretty shocking, even if events took place in 2013. In a few cases, watching the Panorama documentary actually brought home more forcefully what the US government and its various agencies permitted themselves.

Reading what happened to a President’s for instance, is one thing. To see it happen again, makes one cringe with shame. It is truly unbelievable how EU governments caved in to US pressure. Forcing a President’s airplane to land and searching it, was illegal and a declaration of war. It is horrifying to know and read, that this was just one of many dubious acts which took place.

What took place at the Guardian’s London office is not only highly upsetting, but also pathetic and hilarious: policemen and secret service staff destroying hard disks and pcs. Then there was the illegal arrest and detention of mr Miranda at Heathrow.

What the book does not highlight but the documentary did, was the fact that US agencies tried Snowden’s father to go to Moscow. It was one of those tactics used to get hold of certain people in let’s say Afghanistan, to ensure they ended up in another part of the world – controlled by the US.

In short: the book also shows how the laws of every country were misused, bent, shoved aside and bulldozered over for as long as it pleased the US government and its agencies. It is chilling to realise that this situation has hardly altered.

The book ends with an epilogue, describing what those who were caught up in “der Shitstorm” are doing now. It was published before Edward Snowden won the alternative Nobel Peace Prize 2014.

As we are all living under 24/7 surveillance and are being spied upon day and night, this book is a must read. You may claim, you have nothing to hide. But it’s not only about what you may or may not have to hide.

With all the information gathered, it is easy for governments to use this information. Imagine you end up in the situation a few decent people found themselves in: their identity stolen by a foreign agency and used by its agents to commit murder.

And before you start clamoring that it’s all done to enhance your security and safeguard your life: why do you think the real leaders of terrorist groups for instance do not use mobile phones and use dispensable lackeys to access the internet?

As for that very secret court: “… The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the secretive court that was created to keep Britain’s intelligence agencies in check, said that GCHQ’s access to information intercepted by the NSA breached human rights laws.

The court found that the collection contravened Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a private and family life. It also breaches Article 6, which protects the right to a fair trial. …”

For articles on this ruling:
Independent: GCHQ spying on British citizens was unlawful, secret court rules in shock decision. 
Guardian: US-UK surveillance regime was unlawful

“The Snowden Files, Luke Harding, pp 350, Vintage Books 2014. The book is available in many languages and as hardback, pocket, Ebook.

Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, contends for a 2015 Oscar. The Guardian organises a special event in London, on Monday 2nd of March 2015.


Nous sommes Charlie, but where’s Charlie?

The first edition of Charlie Hebdo after the atrocities, went on sale in various countries. People queued for it in France and elsewhere. A few were lucky and obtained a copy.

Charlie Hebdo 2A week later, I wanted to have another look at the back issues in the window of the second-hand bookshop in my village. (See “Salouer la gueule“.) But before I reached it, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of the local newsagent.

The shop is frequented by locals, expats, and tourists. It stocks copies of national and international papers and magazines. You want a copy of a national or international one, you tell staff. They will do their utmost to find and save a copy for you. Regulars can collect such issues after offices have long closed.

What stopped me were the shop windows. Flabbergasted, I looked at each window on either side of the newspaper’s entrance. Their slick glass panels, usually advertising wild national lottery schemes and impossible gains, advertised something else.

Each was completely covered with black and white notices in all sizes, stuck at all angles – even upside down. In various languages, the message read the same. “Nous sommes Charlie: Charlie Hebdo not available!”

It was clear staff had grown tired of having to disappoint customers. One did not even have to enter the shop. Only thing for it, was to download the apps or search for the Charlie Hebdo website.

Thank heavens, this isn’t Ireland. There, according to the UK Guardian, Charlie Hebdo may just no longer be sold. Ireland’s blasphemy laws are now used by Muslim organisations to ensure the magazine will be banned. (See Guardian: Sale of Charlie Hebdo in Ireland.) So much for “nous sommes Charlie” and freedom of speech.

Which made me wonder: what is Ireland going to do? Imitate China and similar totalitarian regimes by forcing google and other search engines to make sure Charlie Hebdo apps, website, and links are inaccessible?

Click here to read the Guardian’s article with info about the Charlie Hebdo Apps.
Click here for the Charlie Hebdo website.


Nous sommes Charlie: cracks and coverage

Barely two days after the French unity marches, it is upsetting to read on various news websites that cracks are already surfacing. While victims have either just been buried, or their funerals still have to take place!

First, I came across a picture of Sunday’s Paris march on the UK Daily Telegraph website. It showed the world leaders at the front of this march. But not as I remembered them walking. Where had Angela Merkel gone? Well, at least one paper seems to have found it necessary to photoshop the pictures. All female world leaders have been photoshopped out of their version. Ah yes: this is of course a men’s world … For the article:Telegraph.

Then there was the article on the Independent website. The partner of Charlie Hebdo’s editor may not be at his funeral. Not because she doesn’t want to be there. No! It seems his family do not want her there: see Charlie Hebdo editor’s girlfriend, The Independent website.

Thirdly, The Independent had finally clogged on to what I mentioned in one of my first blog posts about the events (see my Nous sommes Charlie). Five days after me writing about it, The Independent “breaks” the news that the Dutch Rotterdam Mayor, mr Aboutaleb, had reacted strongly against the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

As I remarked in my post: mr Aboutaleb was livid and very outspoken in this television interview. Interested in the Independent article: Muslim Mayor of Rotterdam Aboutaleb, Independent. I certainly hope, him being so outspoken does not earn him a place on extremists’ death lists.

At least the UK Guardian kept things kind of subdued. Like many of the French papers, Le Monde for instance, the Guardian concentrates on the funerals. It is also one of the few English papers which website contains an article about what the gunmen’s actions meant for their unsuspecting family members. (Guardian)

So if the coverage of Sunday’s march already left me with mixed feelings, the apparent photoshopping of pictures and other headlines increased these.

As for tomorrow’s Charlie Hebdo issue: though it will be available in various countries, I doubt I will be able to buy it. But as stated on the Guardian website, there will be web editions available: Charlie Hebdo to produce three million copies in many languages.


New year new website urge

With just a few days to the new year, my favourite news  websites seem to have been bitten by a bug to launch  new websites, or at least the urge to revamp their present ones. The focus is no longer on real news. The focus is on slick looks.

So instead of a few big headers, followed by lists of news items you might like to browse, there are advertisements at the top, to the side, bottom, even hidden inside the news webpages you are reading. While scrolling to read a decent news article, suddenly a window appears and you’re stuck to watch an ad you simply do not want, which tries to sell you a) a new car, b) a holiday – anything you do not want and don’t have the money for.

Or there are advertisements at the top, the side, and no longer decent headers and articles, but pictures with a caption underneath.

Of course, as a serious daily reader of English, French, Spanish, Dutch, German newspaper websites, I’ve not been consulted. Neither have you, of course. Guess that, contrary to the fact that quality newspapers are under threat and loosing readers, the papers have money to burn. So they spent their bucks on hiring some slick website developing company which in turn decided what should please the reading public.

So instead of reading quality news from my favourite UK Guardian website, I now prefer to browse the websites of papers which are my second best or worse.

No, I don’t particularly like the UK Independent website. No, its news quality is definitely not as good as the UK Guardian’s. The UK Independent website just has not changed much – so far. It simply has the look and feel I prefer.

The new Guardian website currently runs a poll to justify its change into an all pics and two-word caption ado. Guess they think their readers are dimwits who can hardly spell or string more than two words together. Or that everybody on this world reads their website on tiny tables, or IPhones?

Regardless of how many times I take part in the poll created by yet another company, to vent my dislike, the new website is here to stay. Such polls are just to give the public the idea they are being involved into something brilliant. The conclusions are forgone, the money far gone, me as a reader just gone.

Interested in this new “life-enhancing” improved website? Want to take part in the Monkey poll? Feel free to have a look at the new Guardian website.

No: no need to contact me to tell me I’m a morose.
And no: I’ve no intention to revamp the look and feel of my blog.

The continuing Thalidomide scandal

End of the week: I’d had it with the serious news. Time to browse the web. Surely something funny would pop up, like the “Lost in Translation” series? No: on the Guardian website, something caught my eye. It was not the kind of flimsy news I was after. Quite the opposite: it was heart-breaking.

Whenever the medicine Thalidomide hits the news, it captures my attention. I have two acquaintances who are victims of this poison.

One has the outward marks of a Thalidomide victim. Her right arm stops just above the elbow, there is no hand, there are three stumps instead of fingers. Meeting the other one, you would be surprised to hear she is another victim. Her body is damaged on the inside. Though they are among the “lucky” victims, of course their lives have been deeply affected.

So the header “Justice evaded: Thalidomide” made me click the Guardian link. Surely, this scandal had been settled by now? Weren’t victims already receiving compensation?

The Guardian link landed me on the page of an article by Harold Evans titled “Thalidomide: how men who blighted lives of thousands evaded justice”. It is a very long article. The involved pharmaceutical firms have been evading justice for over fifty years. They are still fighting victims. They fight extremely dirty.

A few victims and their families have received a paltry compensation. The majority of international victims have not. The article mentions this poison is actually still prescribed, sometimes under new names.

Will my two acquaintances ever hear about this article? Will they learn about the latest scandal surrounding the thalidomide case? Like many victims the world over, they only speak their own language – not German, nor English. Like many victims, they do not earn the kind of money to start yet another court case.