Authors behaving badly

January 29, 2012

In my piece about Bobby Fischer last week I alluded to the fierce rivalries in chess. An example of this is the relationship between Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Fischer famously accused Kasparov and Karpov of choreographing their world championship contests. Such feuds have always fascinated me. In the world of books such rivalries are also frequent. I will not be limiting myself to literary authors as historians and philosophers are also great value for money: Here are four of my favourite examples.

Words fail him

American writers Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal enjoyed a relationship of mutual hatred. As we shall see time and time again a bad review was behind it all. The book in question was Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex. This work of non-fiction attacked a number of the sacred cows of feminism including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer. In a review for The New York Review of Books, Vidal argued that Mailer’s anti-feminist tract “read like three days of menstrual flow.” What’s more he famously grouped Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson as part of “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women. Things got worse after they appeared together on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Here is a transcript of part of that show.

Mailer: We all know that I stabbed my wife years ago, we do know that, Gore. You were playing on that.

Vidal: Let’s just forget about it.

Mailer: You don’t want to forget about it. You’re a liar and a hypocrite. You were playing on it.

Vidal: But that wasn’t a lie or a hypocrisy.

Mailer: People who read The New York Review of Books know perfectly well — they know all about it, and it’s your subtle little way of doing it…

Vidal: Oh, I’m beginning to see what bothers you now. I’m getting the point.

Mailer: Are you ready to apologize?

Vidal: I would apologize if — if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.

Mailer: No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.

Vidal: Well, I must say as an expert, you should know about such things.

In the green room after the show, Mailer headbutted Vidal. And six years later, at a party given by the journalist and publisher Lally Weymouth, Mailer threw a drink at Vidal, and punched him. Even lying on the floor Vidal was able to get in one of his trademark ripostes: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”

If you can’t say anything nice…

This is a tale of rivalry among Sovietologists. Orlando Figes from Birkbeck College is the author of a number of books about Russia including Natasha’s Dance: A cultural History of Russia and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. But he came unstuck a couple of years ago. Once again negative reviews were at the centre of the dispute.

It is April 2010 and the talk in publishing circles is all about an anonymous Amazon reviewer with the nom-de-plume Historian who has been trashing works by fellow Sovietologists Professor Robert Service and Dr Rachel Polonsky. The latter had history with Figes – she had written a very hostile review of Figes’s Natasha’s Dance in 2002. And Figes was particularly scathing about Polonsky’s book, describing Molotov’s Magic Lantern, as “dense“, “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published“. The anonymous reviewer was more positive about Figes’s work: “Beautifully written … leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted … a gift to us all,”

Matters came to a head when Polonsky read the reviews on Amazon. She knew immediately that it was Figes; she discovered that the reviewer shared the same home address as Figes. She saved the Amazon pages on her hard disk, printed them, scanned them, and sent the link to Service. Service contacted Figes, who after first suggesting that the two could mend their relations, decided that the best defence was to go on the attack. He threatened Service with legal action for having suggested that he was the author. On April 17th 2010 Figes, sensing that he had been rumbled, tried to suggest that his wife, the barrister and academic Stephanie Palmer, had written the poisonous reviews. One week later Figes finally confessed.:

It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm.

After the case was settled Rachel Polonsky released this statement:

I hope it will be clear to everyone (despite some misleading headlines and news reports) that our cause of action was not the pseudonymous Amazon reviews themselves. Our objectives in pressing this case were to recover the considerable costs we had incurred in fending off Professor Figes’s legal threats to Robert Service; to gain a contractual undertaking from Professor Figes not to use fraud, subterfuge or unlawful means to attack or damage us or our works in the future; and to require Professor Figes to circulate a formal apology and retraction to all the recipients of his email of 15 April.

The worst review of all time

Throughout the ages philosophers have reflected on the meaning of life. However there is one question that has proved beyond even the greatest thinkers – how to respond to a bad book review. This particular spat features American-born Ted Honderich, a professor emeritus at University College London and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Colin McGinn, an English professor, who works in the States. This particular spat began after a scathing review by McGinn of Honderich’s book “On Consciousness”. It could be considered the worst review of all time. Here is how McGinn’ begins:

This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed.

And he concludes:

Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous (to use a term he is fond of applying to the views of others).

But for me the best part is the note he adds to the review:

The review that appears here is not as I originally wrote it. The editors asked me to “soften the tone” of the original; I have done so, though against my better judgment.

I would love to see the original! According to Honderich, McGinn is motivated by personal animus. The bad blood goes back to when the two professors were colleagues at University College London more than a quarter of a century ago. Honderich maintains that Mr. McGinn has never forgiven him for calling an ex-girlfriend of his “plain.”

They should write a book together

In 1988 Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, his fourth novel. The novel would provoke a furious reaction in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were its blasphemous references. As the controversy spread, the book was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. Then in February 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, issued that infamous fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie. Apart from the fatwa Rushdie also felt he had not been supported by a number of prominent writers. This is when his feud with David John Moore Cornwell, AKA John Le Carré, began. Le Carré recommended that publication of the book be postponed to avoid the loss of lives. The feud flared up again in 1989 when Le Carré complained that he was the victim of a witch hunt by zealots of ”political correctness” in the United States, where he was accused of anti-Semitism. The issue had first come up in a 1996 New York Times review of his book The Tailor of Panama. The reviewer described his principal character, Harry Pendel, as the embodiment of the idea of the Jew as traitor who betrays for money.

Rushdie did not feel too sympathetic towards Le Carré’s plight. The stage this time was the letters section of The Guardian:

In 1989, during the worst days of the Islamic attack on The Satanic Verses, Le Carré wrote an article (also, if memory serves, in The Guardian) in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.

It would be gracious if he were to admit that he understands the nature of the Thought Police a little better now that, at least in his own opinion, he’s the one in the line of fire.

Le Carré responded immediately:

Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. I never joined his assailants. Nor did I take the easy path of proclaiming him to be a shining innocent. My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.

Rushdie was not impressed:

I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be. He claims not to have joined in the attack against me but also states that “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”

A cursory examination of this lofty formulation reveals that (1) it takes the philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist line that The Satanic Verses was no more than an “insult,” and (2) it suggests that anyone who displeases philistine, reductionist, radical Islamist folk loses his right to live in safety.

Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Private Eye dislikes both authors:. ”As I have a low opinion of both of them and can’t bear to read either of their works, I must say I think they are both as bad as each other. Perhaps the solution is they should both sit down and write a book together.’‘ In fact, this is what two France’s most famous public intellectuals have done. These two rivals, novelist Michel Houellebecq, and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, have come together to produce Public Enemies, a book in which, according to the two men “lock horns on everything, including literature, sex, politics, family, fame and even – naturally – themselves.”  What an excellent idea.

So there you are. I could have mentioned the dispute between V.S. Naipaul and. Paul Theroux. The two writers fell out in 1996 when Theroux discovered through a bookseller’s catalogue that one of his own books, which he had lovingly inscribed to Naipaul and his first wife, was on sale for $1,500. Unfortunately they have now made up. I could also have mentioned the bust-up between Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who punched the Colombian novelist. What made their dispute personal was Márquez’s interest in Llosa’s wife. The most recent feud is between two historians Niall Ferguson and Pankaj Mishra. After a negative review of his book Civilisation,Ferguson threatened to sue Mishra for allegedly portraying him as a racist. I enjoy reading Ferguson, but I think it would be a mistake to go to the courts- he should try Norman Mailer’s tactics.

So remember if you have any negative opinions about my blog, keep them to yourself. I bear grudges and you really wouldn’t want to be headbutted by me.

The Etymologicon

January 29, 2012

I learnt about this book, thanks to a fellow teacher. The origin of this book, by the journalist Mark Forsyth, is popular blog The Inky Fool. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language is a book for those of us who love QI. Forsyth looks at the unexpected connections between words. Here are some of my favourites:

Sausage Poison in Your Face

The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.

Sausages may taste lovely, but it’s usually best not to ask what’s actually in them. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was a sausage-maker who disposed of the body. In nineteenth-century America, the belief that sausages were usually made out of dog meat was so widespread that they started to be called hotdogs, a word that survives to this day. Sausages are stuffed with pork and peril. They don’t usually kill you, but they can.

There was an early nineteenth-century German called Justinus Kerner, who when not writing rather dreary Swabian poetry worked as a doctor. His poetry is now quite justifiably forgotten, but his medical work lives on. Kerner identified a new disease that killed some of his patients. It was a horrible malady that slowly paralysed every part of the body until the victim’s heart stopped and he died. Kerner realised that all his dead patients had been eating cheap meat in sausages, so he decided to call the ailment botulism, or sausage disease. He also correctly deduced that bad sausages must contain a poison of some sort, which he called botulinum toxin.

In 1895 there was a funeral in Belgium. Ham was served to the guests at the wake and three of them dropped down dead. This must have delighted the undertakers, but it also meant that the remaining meat could be rushed to the University of Ghent. The Professor of Bacteria studied the homicidal ham under a microscope and finally identified the culprit, little bacteria that were, appropriately, shaped like sausages and are now called Clostridium botulinum.

This was an advance because it meant that Kerner’s botulinum toxin could be manufactured. Now, you might be wondering why anybody would want to manufacture botulinum toxin. It is, after all, a poison. In fact, one microgram of it will cause near-instantaneous death by paralysis. But paralysis can sometimes be a good thing. If, for example, you’re afflicted by facial spasms, then a doctor can inject a tinsy-winsy little dose of botulinum toxin into the affected area. A little, temporary paralysis kicks in, and the spasms are cured. Wonderful.

That, at least, was the original reason for manufacturing botulinum toxin; but very quickly people discovered that if you paralysed somebody’s face it made them look a little bit younger. It also made them look very odd and incapable of expressing emotion, but who cares about that if you can remove a few years’ worth of ageing?

Suddenly sausage poison was chic! The rich and famous couldn’t get enough of sausage poison. It could extend aHollywoodactress’s career by years. Old ladies could look middle-aged again! Injections of Kerner’s sausage poison were like plastic surgery but less painful and less permanent. Sausage poison became the toast of Hollywood.

Of course, it’s not called sausage poison any more. That wouldn’t be very glamorous. It’s not even called botulinum toxin, because everybody knows that toxins are bad for you. Now that botulinum toxin has become chic, it’s changed its name to Botox.


Heckling is, or once was, the process of removing the knots from wool. Sheep are notoriously lackadaisical about their appearance, so before their wool can be turned into a nice warm jumper it must be combed.

It’s easy to see how combing wool and teasing out the knots could be used metaphorically for combing through an oration and teasing the orator, but the connection is probably far more direct and goes to the Scottish town of Dundee.

Dundee was a radical place in the eighteenth century. It was the local centre of the wool trade and was therefore overrun with hecklers. The hecklers were the most radical workers of all. They formed themselves into what today would be called a trade union and used collective bargaining to guarantee themselves good pay and perks. The perks were mostly in the form of alcohol, but that was to be expected.

They were a political lot, the hecklers. Every morning while most of them were busy heckling, one of their number would stand up and read aloud from the day’s news. They thus formed strong opinions on all subjects and when politicians and dignitaries tried to address them, their speeches were combed over with the same thoroughness as the wool. Thus heckling.

Wool is everywhere in language. If you possess a mobile phone you are probably wooling your friends every day without even realising it. You are, after all, currently reading wool.

Or had you never noticed the connection between text and textile?

That you send woolly messages on your telephone and read wool and cite wool from the Bible is all down to a Roman orator named Quintilian. Quintilian was the greatest orator of his day, so great that the Emperor Domitian appointed him as tutor to his two grand-nephews who were also his heirs. Nobody knows what exactly Quintilian taught them, but Domitian soon sent them both into exile.

The two lines of Quintilian that interest us are in the Institutio Oratorico, a gargantuan twelve-volume work on absolutely everything to do with rhetoric. In it, Quintilian says that after you have chosen your words you must weave them together into a fabric – in textu iungantur – until you have a fine and delicate text[ure[ile]] or textum tenue atque rasum.

It’s the sort of thing we say all the time. We weave stories together and embroider them and try never to lose the thread of the story. Quintilian’s metaphor lasted. Late classical writers took up text to mean any short passage in a book and then we took it to mean anything that was written down and then somebody invented the SMS message.

Psychoanalysis and the Release of the Butterfly

With this in mind one can imagine Sigmund Freud sitting in his study in Vienna and considering Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul and mystical butterfly. That’s what he was analysing (with the stress on the first two syllables), so he decided to call his new invention psychoanalysis. Analysis is Greek for release. So Freud’s new art would be, literally, the liberation of the butterfly. How pretty!

Ciao Slave-driver

The word slave comes from Slav, and though it varies between Western languages the poor Slavs were everybody’s original slave. The Dutch got slaaf, the Germans got Sklav, the Spanish got esclavo and the Italians got schiavo.

Medieval Italians were terribly serious fellows. They would wander around solemnly declaring to each other ‘I am your slave’. However, being medieval Italians, what they actually said was Sono vostro schiavo.

Then they got lazy and shortened it to schiavo. In the north, where they were lazier still, this got changed to ciao.

Then, a few centuries later, the Italians got all energetic and tried to join in the Second World War. British and American troops were sent to tick them off.5 These Allied troops picked up the word ciao and when they got back to their own countries they introduced it into English. It was considered a rather exotic new word. But be wary when you say ciao: however dashing and Mediterranean you may think you’re being, you are, etymologically, declaring your own enslavement.

Ciao has an exact opposite, in the greeting Hey, man. In the United States, before the Civil War had finally established the idea that slavery isn’t completely compatible with the Land of the Free, slave-owners used to call their slaves boy.

The Battle of Gettysburg freed the slaves and produced a memorable address, but it didn’t, unfortunately, come with a socio-economic plan or a new language. Slave-owners weren’t allowed to own slaves any more, but they continued to be rather nasty to their ex-slaves and kept calling them boy in a significant sort of way that annoyed the hell out of the manumitted.

All over America, infuriating white people would address black men with the words ‘Hey, boy’. And it grated. It really grated.

That’s why, in the 1940s, black Americans started taking the fight the other way and greeting each other with the words ‘Hey, man’. The vocative was not inserted for the purposes of sexual identification, it was a reaction against all those years of being called boy.

It worked. White people were so confused by ‘Hey, man’ that the sixties happened and everybody, of whatever race, started calling each other man, until the original significance was lost. This is an example of Progress.

Insulting Names

It’s a funny thing, but Hitler wouldn’t have called himself a Nazi. Indeed, he became quite offended when anyone did suggest he was a Nazi. He would have considered himself a National Socialist. Nazi is, and always has been, an insult.

Hitler was head of the catchily-named Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). But, like the Cambridge University Netball Team, he hadn’t thought through the name properly. You see, his opponents realised that you could shorten Nationalsozialistische to Nazi. Why would they do this? Because Nazi was already an (utterly unrelated) term of abuse. It had been for years.

Every culture has a butt for its jokes. Americans have the Polacks, the English have the Irish, and the Irish have people fromCork. The standard butt of German jokes at the beginning of the twentieth century were stupid Bavarian peasants. And just as Irish jokes always involve a man called Paddy, so Bavarian jokes always involved a peasant called Nazi. That’s because Nazi was a shortening of the very common Bavarian name Ignatius.

This meant that Hitler’s opponents had an open goal. He had a party filled with Bavarian hicks and the name of that party could be shortened to the standard joke name for hicks. (Incidentally, hick was formed in exactly the same way as Nazi. Hick was a rural shortening of Richard and became a byword for uneducated famers.)

Imagine if a right-winger from Alabama started a campaign called Red States for the Next America. That’s essentially what Hitler did.

Hitler and his fascists didn’t know what to do about the derogatory nickname Nazi. At first they hated the word. Then, briefly, they tried to reclaim it, in roughly the way that some gay people try to reclaim old insults like queer. But once they got to power they adopted the much simpler approach of persecuting their opponents and forcing them to flee the country.

So refugees started turning up elsewhere complaining about the Nazis, and non-Germans of course assumed that this was the official name of the party. Meanwhile, all the Germans who remained in Germany obediently called them the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, at least when the police were listening. To this day, most of us happily go about believing that the Nazis called themselves Nazis, when in fact they would probably have beaten you up for saying the word.

So it all goes back to the popularity of the name Ignatius. The reason that Ignatius was such a common name in Bavaria is that Bavaria is largely Catholic and therefore very fond of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were set up in the seventeenth century to combat the rise of Protestantism, which had become the state religion of England. They soon gained a reputation for being very clever indeed. But as the Jesuits’ cleverness was largely directed against the Protestant English, English Protestants took their name, made an adjective – Jesuitical – and used it to describe something that’s too clever by half, and that uses logical tricks at the expense of common sense.

This is a tad unfair on the poor Jesuits, who have been responsible for the educations of some of the most famous men in history: Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, Charles de Gaulle, Cardinal Richelieu, Robert Altman, James Joyce, Tom Clancy, Molière, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury, René Descartes, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, Spencer Tracy, Voltaire and Georges Lemaître.

And if the last name on that list is unfamiliar, it shouldn’t be. Monsignor Georges Lemaître was one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. His great idea, proposed in 1927, was the theory of the Primeval Atom, which of course you haven’t heard of.

That’s because the theory of the Primeval Atom, like the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, is a name that never made it. It vanished, usurped by an insult.

The theory of the Primeval Atom asserts that the universe has not been around for eternity, and that instead it started off 13.7 billion years ago with all matter contained in a single point: the Primeval Atom. This point exploded and expanded, space cooled, galaxies were formed, et cetera et cetera.

Many people disagreed with this theory, including the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. He thought that the universe had always been around, and decided to undermine Lemaître’s theory by calling it something silly. So he racked his brains and came up with the silliest name he could think of. He called it the Big Bang Theory, because he hoped that Big Bang captured the childishness and simplicity of the idea.


I will be coming back to this book in the future.

The Bobby Fischer enigma

January 21, 2012

I have recently finished reading Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady. This is one of the reasons I love reading non-fiction. What author could invent a character as compelling as this Chicago-born chess player? Whenever I read a book, I like to do background research -. it makes the reading experience more complete. So I also saw the HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World.  I will now tell the story of the descent into madness of Bobby Fischer, the man who made chess sexy.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943.. His birth certificate listed his father as Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, who had been married to Fischer’s motherRegina. Some sources imply that Paul Nemenyi, a Hungarian Jewish physicist, may have been Fischer’s biological father. Whoever the father was, Bobby grew up without one, sharing his early life with his mother and his older sister Joan. They had moved about in his infancy, but in 1949 they settled in Brooklyn. It was here that Fischer began playing chess at the age of six, using the instructions from a chess set bought at a candy store below their flat.

Fischer is said to have had an IQ of 180, but he generally seemed to find school a waste of time. One of the academic institutions he attended was the Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where he would stay until he dropped out at the age of 16. Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond were also students at this time. He seemed unaware that Streisand had a secret schoolgirl crush on him. She remembered that ““Bobby was always alone and very peculiar. But I found him very sexy.”

He may not have been an academic star, but Fischer put in his 10.000 hours of practice. This idea was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success. Throughout the work Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, He claims that be successful in any field you need to practise honing your skills for a total of around 10,000 hours – mostly during childhood. Fisher certainly put those hours in. He became the youngest U.S. Champion in history two months short of his 15th birthday. He played in eight United States Chess Championships, each held in New York City, winning every one. His real obsession though was to win the world title. It would take him more than a decade to reach his objective. He complained that the Soviet players were colluding against him. There was definitely a lot of psychological gamesmanship. The Russians used the fact that he had dropped out of high school to taunt him for being nyeculturni – unschooled and uncultured. My favourite was when they asked Fischer if he was A Benthamite. I think football could learn from chess. Mourinho should get Pepe to ask Messi if he agrees with Kant’s categorical imperative or ask him to outline the principal weaknesses in Feuerbach’s critique of religion.

By the early 1970s Fischer dominated his contemporaries to an extent never seen before or since, as he had notched up 20 consecutive wins against the world’s top players. He was now ready for his assault on the champion Boris Spassky. There were the usual disputes over prize money. He actually went two down in the match after a howler in the first game and dispute over lighting in the second. But Fischer would go to win comfortably. He was now champion of the world.

Bobby Fischer was twenty-nine and in his prime and he finally had the fame and fortune he had always known he deserved. Fischer returned from Reykjavík with more than the world championship. He was now a media superstar. Young, famous, rich, and on top of the world. Unprecedented offers rolled in for millions of dollars in endorsement deals, exhibitions, basically anything he was willing to put his name or face to. He turned all of it down. He didn’t play in the first year after he won the title. This sabbatical lasted into a second year and then a third one. Meanwhile his challengers were fighting it out for the right to play him in 1975. The former champion Spassky was out, destroyed by a young Soviet upstart Anatoly Karpov. Thief match between Fischer and Karpov promised to be a fascinating contest. But then the wrangling began. Fischer, surprising no one, had many strong ideas about how the event should be run, including returning to the old system with no limit to the number of games. In the end no agreement was reached and Fischer’s reign, which he had hoped would last 20 years, was over in just three. Karpov was champion by default.

Ever since Fischer gave up the title his actions have been subject to fevered speculation and armchair psychoanalysis. I don’t think that it is a case of Fischer chickening out. There had been similar shenanigans before the 1972 clash and Fischer had gone on to win comfortably. Karpov indeed considered Fischer the favourite, rating his own chances of victory at 40 percent. Brady’s argues that on the board Fischer feared nobody. However, former champion Garry Kasparov points out that Fischer’s problems were always in getting to the match. He believes that Fischer was a perfectionist who simply couldn’t countenance failure, and Karpov would have put his invincibility at risk. Fischer had not played any chess in three years. Of course this is one of those classic sporting counterfactuals which we will never know the answer to.

These are Bobby Fischer’s wilderness years, when he slipped out of public consciousness. Just when it seemed that he would never play again Fischer came out of retirement to face Spassky.. Of course Fischer would not do anything in a conventional way. It was his first match in twenty years with a $5 million prize fund paid for by a shady banker and arms dealer, Jezdimir Vasiljevic. Fischer insisted that the organizers bill the match as “The World Chess Championship“, although Garry Kasparov was the recognized FIDE World Champion. Fischer, bearded and with a few more kilos, claimed he was still the true World Champion, and that all the games in the FIDE World Championship matches, involving Karpov, Korchnoi, and Kasparov, had been fixed. The venue was war-torn Yugoslavia a country about to self-destruct. Fischer was breaking sanctions and he received a notification from theU.SState department, which he publicly spat on in an infamous press conference. Fischer won again, but despite his protestations that this was the real world championship, it does seem to have been something of a sideshow.

Fischer now began a career as a shock jock characterised by his virulent anti-Semitism and his attacks on his country of birth. Remember that his mother and possibly his father were Jewish. There is a term, self-hating Jew, used to describe Jewish people who hold anti-Semitic beliefs or engage in anti-Semitic actions. This seems to be a perfect description of Fischer. He blamed a Jewish conspiracy for taking away his world title. On September 11, an obscene rant of his celebrating the attacks was broadcast on Philippine radio and then around the world on the Internet. In July 2004 he was arrested in Japan for having a revoked passport and held in captivity for eight months until the granting of Icelandic citizenship allowed him an escape route. Fischer was hero in Iceland and this would be where he would live out the rest of his days until his death in 2008 from kidney failure. He had of course refused medical treatment.

Fischer’s life was ultimately a terrible waste. How could someone with so much talent fall so far? Fischer was a victim of celebrity and his outrageous talent. Brady does not try to justify Fischer’s excesses, but prefers to remember his genius. He compares Fischer to Wagner. The fact that he was an anti-Semite and Hitler’s favourite composer does not prevent us from listening to him. We can separate the man from the art. Brady had to come to terms with this before embarking on this biography. Here is how Brady concludes the biography:

And what, then, will be the inheritance bequeathed by Bobby? For chess players, and for people who followed the story of Bobby Fischer’s rise to become what many say is the greatest chess player who ever lived, his legacy for his heirs and the world alike may simply be the awe that his brilliance evoked.

Bobby Fischer – a life in quotes

January 21, 2012

Here is a selection of Bobby Fischer quotes I found, mainly from Wikiquote:

All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.

I’m not as soft or as generous a person as I would be if the world hadn’t changed me. Interview with Ralph Ginzburg, 1961

I’m not afraid of Spassky. The world knows I’m the best. You don’t need a match to prove it. Interview by William Lombardy, 1972

Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi have absolutely destroyed chess by their immoral, unethical, prearranged games. These guys are really the lowest dogs around, and if people knew the truth about them, they would be held in more contempt than Ben Johnson, the runner, and they’re going to know the truth when I do this book! Press Conference, September 1 1992

What is going on is I am being persecuted night and day by the Jews, for telling it like it is. They want to put me in jail, they’re robbing me of everything I have, they’re continuously lying about me. I’ve had enough of this shit. The latest thing they’ve done is I had some stuff in storage back in Pasadena for 12 years, spent a fortune on storage fees, a fortune on safes… and these God-damn Jews in America have just gone and grabbed it all. Radio Interview, January 13 1999

My main interest right now is to expose the Jews. This is a lot bigger than me. They’re not just persecuting me. This is not just my struggle, I’m not just doing this for myself… This is life and death for the world. These God-damn Jews have to be stopped. They’re a menace to the whole world.  Radio Interview, March 10 1999

America is totally under control of the Jews, you know. I mean, look what they’re doing in Yugoslavia. Radio Interview, May 24 1999

I studied that first Karpov-Kasparov match for a year and a half before i cracked it, what they were doing, and discovered that it was all prearranged move-by-move. There’s no doubt of it in my mind. Radio Interview, June 27 1999

I object to being called a chess genius because I consider myself to be an all around genius who just happens to play chess, which is rather different. A piece of garbage like Kasparov might be called a chess genius, but he’s like an idiot savant. Outside of chess he knows nothing. Radio Interview, July 6 2001

I was in Japan a couple of months ago, I saw a preview for the movie Pearl Harbor. And they showed the Japanese airplanes coming in to bomb Pearl Harbor, and I applauded. Nobody else in the theater applauded. Radio Interview, July 6 2001

Look at all I’ve done for the US. Nobody has single-handedly done more for the US image than me, I really believe this. When I won the World Championship in ’72, the United States had an image of, you know, a football country, baseball country, but nobody thought of it as an intellectual country. I turned all that around single-handedly, right? But I was useful then because there was the Cold War, right? But now I’m not useful anymore, you see, the Cold War is over, and now they want to wipe me out, steal everything I have, put me in prison, and so on. Radio Interview, September 11 2001

Look at the history of the (United States). The history of the country is basically what? Get something for nothing, right? Take, kill. They invaded the country, they robbed the land of the American Indians, they killed almost all of them off… That’s the history of the United States. A despicable country. Radio Interview, September 11 2001

I was going to do a book about the first prearranged Karpov-Kasparov match, ’84-’85. But the God-damn Jews have stolen my entire file on that. Radio Interview, January 27 2002

The United States is an illegitimate country, just like Israel. It has no right to exist. That country belongs to the Red man, the American Indian… It’s actually a shame to be a so-called American, because everybody living there is a usurper, an invader taking part in this crime, which is to rob the land, rob the country and kill all the American Indians. Interview en-route to Iceland, March 24 2005

What’s in a business name?

January 15, 2012

Lexicon Branding was founded in 1982 with a single mission: To create extraordinary brand names. Names that get attention, names that generate interest, and names that tell the relevant consumer something new. From the company website

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare


In 1996 Larry Page and Sergey Brin two Stanford computer science grad students began collaborating on a search engine which they called BackRub.  Two years later they decided that this name just wasn’t right. Following a brainstorming session they came up with Google, a play on the word “googol,” a mathematical term for the number represented by the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros. They wanted to reflect the search engine’s mission to organise the vast swathes of information on the internet. And the rest is history. Would BackRub have come to dominate the market like Google has done? We will never know the answer to that question. In 2001 Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture. This word is said to derive from accent on the future. The name emerged from an internal competition and was submitted by Ken Petersen, a Danish employee from the company’s Oslo office. The name change proved fortunate when the Enron imploded. It enabled them to distance themselves from Arthur Anderson, which was effectively dissolved as a result of its unfortunate role in the scandal. And Philip Morris has sought to change its image as a purveyor of addictive carcinogens with the name Altria, designed to evoke images of altruism. And for me the most was when Procter and Gamble callously killed off Mister Proper replacing it with the insipid Don Limpio.

Lexicon Branding, Inc., which was founded in 1982 by a UCLA political science graduate, David Placek is perhaps the most prestigious firm in the world of company names and brands. This firm, which is based in Sausalito, has been responsible for 15 billion-dollar brand names, including BlackBerry, PowerBook, Pentium, Scion, and I have mentioned the tech ones because these are the most famous ones in global terms, but they are in many other sectors. Sales of products with Lexicon-created brand names now total more than $100 billion.

How do they come up with these names? After meeting the clients they have different teams coming up with thousands of potential names. The names are gradually whittled down. They normally present the client with between 25 and 50 words. They use multiple strategies to generate names: free association, mind maps. Linguistics plays an most essential role for Lexicon. They have a global team of 77 Ph.D. linguists from around the world who evaluate the pros and cons of each name. They don’t just worry about the meanings of the words, but they have conducted extensive research into how sound symbolism affects our perception of brand names. The sound cl as in cluster, clamp, or close, signifies ‘togetherness’. So you get the name Clio for a small but cosy car. Lexicon’s team of linguists found that names starting with the consonants V, F and S sounded the fastest, while names starting with B, D and P suggested dependability.

What makes a successful brand name? It should be memorable. Successful names can often be incredibly simple. Leonardo put it very succinctly: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” A short name is good, but it is not essential. The name has to be available. I heard one estimate that 98% of the words in a typical dictionary have been registered as dotcom domains or trademarks, leading to a glut of fabricated names such as Diageo or Verizon. The drawback with having these meaningless names is that you have to spend millions to make them mean something. A name that will travel well is also useful. The internet is full of stories about brand names not working well internationally. I’m never sure how much truth there is to them, but here are a few examples:  A famous French mobile company’s slogan – The future’s bright … the future’s Orange –  did not go down well with the Catholic population in Northern Ireland The Mitsubishi Pajero translates as tosser in Spanish and in Germany a latte is an erection

I heard Placek talking on the radio about what his company does. He believes that it is a mistake a brand name too descriptive. The hotel chain Budgetel was struggling. The name, which sounded a bit cheap and cheerful – wasn’t attracting customers. Lexicon suggested that they change it to Baymont Inn & Suites and the company has gone from strength to strength. Intel were the first microprocessor company to brand their microprocessors.. Pentium takes the Greek word for five with the Latin suffix ium which evokes strong powerful elements such as titanium. Lexicon wanted to create an image of speed, power and innovation.

I think we shouldn’t make too much of all this. A company will be successful because of what they do rather than what they are. General Electric, I.B.M and Singer sewing machines don’t strike me as particularly inspiring but that didn’t stop them enjoying success –they did this on the basis of what they achieved , rather than what they were called. You can have the best name in the world, but if there is nothing behind it, the product will surely fail. Lexicon came up with Zune for Microsoft’s MP3 player. It was supposed to be their iPod killer but in the end the it was beaten hands down by the Apple device. I am not really an Apple fan, but they have captured a really important sector. One has to ask oneself if iPad is such a great name. When it came out people were joking about sanitary pads. But it doesn’t seem to have held it back very much. Anyway if you want to find any more about this subject, I suggest you BackRub it.

More ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar

January 15, 2012

I have already the featured the spEak you’re branes blog, which features the ignorance, narcissism, stupidity, hypocrisy and bad grammar taken from the Have Your Say section of the BBC website. Here is a selection:

All atheists are anarchists by nature; and all anarchists are parasites by design that enjoy feeding off the misery endured by the vulnerable. The vulnerable of course are all those Religious individuals who wouldn’t wish their worse fears on anybody else. All anarchists should be asked the simple question :- ” when did you decide to be born “. Catch-42, Macclesfield, England

Geoff #5 Spell checker on word does not teach you vocabulary , it often results in extremly poor grammer as word does not really perform grammer checks. People do a brain dump and then only look at individual words in spell check and leave it at that which often leads to extremly poor grammer  Stick to TV mate  Cam

Has anyone else noticed that ‘Dawkins’ spelt backwards is ‘snik wad’, eh? I think that tells us a lot. errrrr

Cease sex education immediately. What a lot of absolute tosh! In this world full of left wing do-gooder, liberal pansies, what do we need this nonsense for. We never had such a waste of time when we were at school, 50 or so years ago, and we found out what to do, as did the early cave men! We will be telling them how to use toilet paper next! Teenagers deserve what they get, as they have no moral scruples whatsoever, following in the footsteps of their parents. Don’t treat them on the NHS, but let them pay privately for their disease. Why should precious resources be diverted from real, and genuine sickness, to deal with the likes of some teenagers who, with their “sex education”, should know better!  grumpovian

I shake my head in wonder and sadness at our readiness to sacrifice our beautiful and precious talent on the alter of political correctness that will not allow even the mention of alternative cancer treatments in the public venue, in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence that some of them work very well. think

This will most likely get moderated and yet it should be considered because it is relevant. Consider: Female President of the USA+ THREAT + PMT = Armageddon Peter Buck

Speed in relation to what? Is the speed of light supposed to be absolute or relative to its immediate surroundings? Remember the test route is travelling in space due to movement of the earth. Maybe the calculations need to include speed of rotation of the earth, rotation around the sun, and movement of our solar system in space. Or maybe Einstein’s theories were incomplete. Mike Solomons

And the reason Rhianna’s gig sold so many……well, personally I think that white people are becoming a minority in this country…..enough said!!!  Jessica Hulme

A mass sterilisation programme is what is needed in these places, never mind poring money into them. I am sick and tired of seeing TV reports of people unable to provide for themselves, living in poverty in squalor but manage to reproduce without an ounce of responsibility. Reg

Red meats PERMANENTLY change the DNA of the bowel. Research it! We should only eat animals which we can kill with our hands (as our teeth witness). Humans only eat cows and pigs because we developed tools, but they are not our natural foods and we should not eat it. Listen to the scientists. They spend their lives researching such things. The masses rely on gut reaction. zrzavy

So a Parrot can learn Urdu as well as English while a bloke in Pakistan gets his wife to sue the British Government because HE refuses to learn English, and unless he does we won’t let him migrate here. It sort of puts things in perspective dosn’t it! Marshian, Romney Marsh

Have the Labour Party just elected as leader a man who has only been an MP since 2005, who is living with someone their child, but who isn’t married, and is the son of a Jewish Marxist Communist theorist? I ask only because surely this ticks every box in the PC wish list …. how will this play in the Muslim community? Desiderius Erasmus

Libyan mothers crying? Only for the cameras. Muslims are incapable of human feelings (being zombie-creatures, human corpses animated by demons from Hell), neither for their little terrorist-larvae nor anything else. It is your humanity which is suspect, since you seem to believe Muslims share it. Are you going to call me a Kraut now, bigot? Your comments are very dull and boring. Nearly everyone on the forum is far smarter and more educated than you are. You write like a 70-year-old farmer. As I have already explained, if you had the IQ to understand the concept, no American is going to tell the truth to a stranger over the phone who knows their full family name and home address, when the American is asked his opinion of Jews. Anyone with an IQ of 70, the legal retardate level, would know this without being told, because he would be born and raised in the US, surrounded by Jews all his life. The American would know to keep his mouth shut about what he honestly thought, and just tell the pollster whatever the pollster wanted to hear. The Galluppoll is pure propaganda, worse than worthless as factual evidence, and everyone in the world knows it. Except you, apparently, because of your low IQ. It’s not surprising that you don’t even know what the word ‘bigot’ means, or that you are one. FirstAdvisor

I would have liked to help stop the thuggary but I did not want to get arrested, sued, breach their human rights, get fined by “no win no fee” solicitors, get a criminal record, lose my job. It looks like the law/police/goverment is on the side of the thugs, blindfolding common sence. If the the law is incapable then take away all their money including their family who shelter them. david jones, walsall uk

More people get cancer because their parents survive cancer due to advanced medicine. So the cancer causing genes are being passed on more than ever. And the medicine/care for these cancer patients is escalating costs massively. We are hindering the Darwin Principle. If we stop cancer victims having offspring or ensure the offspring don’t have the cancer genes, this would be better for our future! Neo

Lets face it BBC, you are really not interested in what people have to say, unless of course it agrees with yourselves. I subscribe to many national newspaper comment sections which are far less restricted then HYS, and at least allow people to have a view. I really do hate political correctness, and lets face it, the BBC is extremely politically correct. Being the voice of the political Liberal Left will always rule the BBC, and anyone who doesn’t agree with your views will always be excluded. It is a sad show of democracy when our national broadcasting company is so undemocratic, but unfortunately the state of our big brother society which tells all UK citizens what they should believe, how they should be anti-Christian, pro Europe, anti British culture because we MUST fit in with our immigrant population and not fly any British flags, must call Christmas, Winter Festival, must not use Christian prayer for anyone, I mean heaven help us all if we believe in God, we are considered freaks. I feel extremely sad that the BBC has become what they are today….slaves to the popular policially correct society, instead of actually having a mind of their own. Thankfully, there are still organisations out there, including many national newspapers, who still have some guts and stand up for the people. KnightShift

What a sad world we are becoming. It was once thought that technology especially computers would be a slave to man, a tool to ease his burden and give him greater leisure time but it seems to me that man is becoming the slave to technoogy with people spending every spare minute glued to their computer.  If that’s living then its your choice and your welcome to it personally I would much prefer to go for walk in the country and stop and chat with people in the flesh. Don’y get me wrong, social networking sites have their place in society and are brilliant for the less abled bodied person although experience tells me that many of the so called less abled bodied people would benefit from a walk in the country.  RonC

Mr Hawking, you have a brilliant mind, but you and others like you are flawed. I shall attempt to point out the flaws:

Take the amoeba. The amoeba is the most complex single celled organism in existence. The amoeba is also unique, because, it has been proven that it perceives and recognizes that there are forces/life outside of what it knows. If you apply heat or cold, the amoeba reacts. It knows it did not generate the heat or cold, but it recognized it and adapted accordingly. The amoeba recognizes others of its kind, and even other single celled organisms. It reacts and adapts accordingly. The amoeba recognizes light and dark, and adapts accordingly.

The reasons I post this is that humans are like the amoebas. We are the most complex of organisms, we recognize other organisms, and we develop our own mechanisms of dealing with life inside and around us. We also ‘know’ that there are a higher set of powers/environments out there, forces yet to be ‘discovered’, etc etc, but we still adapt and overcome.

For you to deny the existence of God or saying ‘God is not needed for our environment’ is like the amoeba wagging one of its tentacles at us, the humans, saying the same thing. This logic by association is exactly the reason why God 1: is real and exists and 2: determines ‘our Judgement’ when we die. Does the pietry dish get flushed? Does the amoeba who dies gets ‘reborn’?

To say that the “Big Bang” happens without God’s hand, is like saying “we humans didn’t put amoebas in the pietry dish”. Going by your argument that ‘gravity exists, therefore, Big Bang occurred’, means there had to be a set of environments and objects in place for gravity to happen. And, another counter-argument to your gravity farce, if this is in any way shape or form true, explain to me what a Black Hole is, what it does, and what happens to ANYTHING that gets pulled by a black hole?

For all we know, the black hole could be a vacuum cleaner going through and sucking up everything out of the pietry dish. Now, does that mean that the Bible is ‘word’? That, depends on the interpretation of each person and the faith of each person. It may not be perfect, since it is of mortal design, but it IS the best we got so far. Until some evidence comes along that can be explained in a calm, rational, justifiable manner, then, I guess “God” is the best we got (and the only one that makes sense). hause

Quotes of 2011

January 7, 2012

Here is my selection of quotes from last year:

A poet once said, ‘Life can be a challenge, life can seem impossible, but it’s never easy when there’s so much on the line”  Ex US Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain quoting  the Donna Summer song,  The Power of One, the theme of the 1999  Pokémon movie

We are the 99 percent. The Occupy movement

All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for, to go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for, to beg for food from places they don’t want to pay for, to obstruct those who are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park, so they can self-righteously explain they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything. That is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country, and why you need to reassert something by saying to them, ‘Go get a job right after you take a bath. Newt Gingrich

But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. Hillary Clinton’s assessment of the situation in Egypt in the final days of the Mubarak regime on January 25, two weeks before Mubarak fell from power.

There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reform. Hillary Clinton once again shining.

They love me … They will die to protect me, my people. Muammar Gaddafi in March.

I am on a drug. It’s called ‘Charlie Sheen.’ It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body. Charlie Sheen

Well, what I want them to know is just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that’s the kind of spirit that I have, too.  Michele Bachmann, whose hometown is Waterloo, Iowa claiming John Wayne for her hometown. Unfortunately the John Wayne connected to Waterloo was not the Duke, but notorious serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978.

Nobody should believe that another half century of peace and prosperity in Europe can be taken for granted. Therefore, I say that if the euro fails, Europe fails.  Angela Merkel, German chancellor

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow. The last words of Steve Jobs, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy.

A stag night? I’ve been having a stag night for the past 50 years. Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, 85, before his wedding to Crystal Harris, 24. She later called it off

A pretty boy with no brains. Model Nereida Gallardo, on her former boyfriend, footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

A lazy, feckless, flatulent, oaf with a moustache leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat. Top Gear’s Richard Hammond comparing  Mexican cars to the country’s people.

 I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. Another Top Gear presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, has a drastic solution to the public sector strike in December.

This is one of the most humble days of my life. Rupert Murdoch before a parliamentary committee hearing on the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

I loved Michael too. I’m as much of a fan as any of the others. To be blamed for his death has not been an easy thing. Dr Conrad Murray

She’s a pop music legend, and the industry would not be the same without her. I used to hang pictures of her on my wall and touch myself when I was in bed. Lady Gaga introducing Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards.

This has all been invented by porn-obsessed prosecutors. It’s all the work of their fevered imaginations. My roots are strengthened by Christian values that have been with me since I was growing up. Can you imagine if I would allow any sort of blasphemous behaviour in my house?”  Silvio Berlusconi

When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said, ‘Yes’, while the other 70% replied, ‘What, again?‘”  Silvio Berlusconi.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire friendly Congress.  Warren Buffett arguing for a higher tax rate for America’s super-rich.

He’s a musical genius. It’s like living with Picasso. Gwyneth Paltrow about her husband, Coldplay’s Chris Martin.

It has been a really tough weekend. Harold Camping, doomsday prophet two days after the Rapture failed to occur on May 21; Camping’s other prediction on Oct. 21 did not come true either.

Quite simply, we lost our way. News of the World, in editorial that ran in its final edition. The 168-year-old British tabloid closed in July in wake of phone-hacking scandal.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales … are grim indeed. Antonin Scalia, US Supreme Court Justice, in court’s decision allowing sale of violent video games to minors. Scalia was comparing these games to gruesome fairy tales.

There is no doubt we have killed Osama bin Laden. The fact of the matter is you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again. US President Barack Obama 

Gadaffi was too nice: The Dictator’s Handbook

January 7, 2012

I have recently finished reading The Dictator’s Handbook by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. They are not the first to attempt to give this kind of advice; in Renaissance Florence Niccolo Machiavelli, an out of favour Florentine statesman wrote The Prince, a book which eschewed pious platitudes Machiavelli’s work is now considered a masterpiece. Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, have produced their own unapologetically cynical version of how politics works for the 21st century. They actually claim to have improved on Machiavelli, which is a rather a bold assertion. I won’t go into that, but I will try to give you a flavour of this book.

The Dictator’s Handbook is designed to popularise Bueno de Mesquiita and Smith’s more technical and maths-laden research academic research. The book looks at a number of questions that I’m sure we have all wondered about. Why do leaders whose dismal economic policies wreck their countries keep their jobs for so long? Why are resource-rich lands so often badly run? Why are very unpleasant leaders given vast sums of foreign aid, and what are the effects of this economic assistance? The authors’ starting point is that all politicians set out to gain and maintain power; national interest is not a factor; leaders are interested only in themselves.

The rigid dividing line between democracy and dictatorship is for them a convenient fiction. What differentiates these systems is the most efficient way to stay in power. A ruler has to distinguish between:

  1. The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables. This includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader.
  2. The second level is the real selectorate or influentials. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.
  3. The most crucial of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that comprises a winning coalition or the essentials. These are the people without whose support the leader could not survive in office.

We need to bear in mind that no leader, be they Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe, can do exactly what they want. What differs is the number of people you depend on. When coalition is small it is good to favour the few; corruption rent-seeking and bribery are the most efficient ways to perpetuate yourself in power. You need to dole out private goods to your key supporters. If you try and help the general population and forget about these supporters, you may well find yourself out of a job. On the other hand in a system with a large number of people in your coalition it is impossible to bribe everyone –it would have to be divided to thinly. You need to provide public goods that benefit society as a whole.

Dictators are vulnerable when they first come to power, have a serious illness and when they are old. This is because this is when their supporters are most worried about whether the leader will be able to deliver in the long run. And then there is the fundamental question: how do some autocrats manage to stay in power for so long? To give you a flavour of the book here is an extract from he book where the authors give their five rules for staying in power:

Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures. Bravo for Kim Jong Il of North Korea. He is a contemporary master at ensuring dependence on a small coalition.

Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced. Bravo to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin for introducing universal adult suffrage in Russia’s old rigged election system. Lenin mastered the art of creating a vast supply of interchangeables.

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy. Bravo to Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, estimated to be worth up to $4 billion even as he governs a country near the world’s bottom in per capita income.

Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Remember, your backers would rather be you than be dependent on you. Your big advantage over them is that you know where the money is and they don’t. Give your coalition just enough so that they don’t shop around for someone to replace you and not a penny more. Bravo to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who, whenever facing a threat of a military coup, manages finally to pay his army, keeping their loyalty against all odds.

Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. The flip side of rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your “friends” will be gunning for you. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow you, so don’t worry about them. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving you in deep trouble. Bravo to Senior General Than Shwe of Myanmar, who made sure following the 2008 Nargis cyclone that food relief was controlled and sold on the black market by his military supporters rather than letting aid go to the people—at least 138,000 and maybe as many as 500,000 of whom died in the disaster.

The authors talk about the resource curse. Having a large supply of oil enables autocrats to pay off their supporters and accumulate enormous personal wealth. It is tragic that while oil revenues provide the resources to deal with these countries’ problems, they actually create the political incentives to make the situation worse. And foreign aid tends to serve a similar function. There is a fascinating chapter about this aid. It is dispersed not to mitigate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence. The authors cite the famous FDR quote from 1939 about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza García: “He’s a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.” And it is much cheaper for a democratic regime to purchase a dictator. Autocratic aid recipients will often be prepared to make unpopular domestic political decisions provided that they receive enough benefits to give out goodies to the loyalists who sustain their power. The classic example of this is Egypt’s rapprochement with Israel – a policy not popular with Egypt’s masses. The Egyptian media then attacks Israel so that the government can extract even more aid for implementing unpopular policies.

There are also some interesting curiosities. Dictatorships often have good records in primary education. They need to have workers with basic labour skills like literacy and numeracy. Universities are dangerous, as they can be focal points for dissent. The authors point out that excepting China and Singapore, no nondemocratic country has even one university rated among the world’s top 200.* Despite China’s vast population, the top ranking Chinese university, Peking University, comes in 46th place. The highest ranking Russian university, the Lomonosov Moscow State University, is 112th. By contrast, relatively small countries like Holland, Norway Canada and Israel have several universities ranked among the top 200. Autocrats want workers to have basic labour skills like literacy. However, they are only interested in higher education for their own children who are often educated at elite foreign universities. Kim Jong Un was educated in Switzerland.

Highways to airports are straighter in dictatorships than democracies. They calculated the ratio of driving distance to the distance as the crow flies from the major airport serving each national capital for 158 countries.10 A low ratio means a fairly straight road; higher ratios, more curves. Of the thirty lowest ratios places where the driving distance is closest  to the distance as the crow flies—only two,Portugal and Canada are democracies. The former has the world’s thirteenth lowest ratio and the latter is twenty-eighth. The countries with the ten lowest ratios -Guinea, Cuba, Dominica, Colombia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Equatorial Guinea- are hardly a who’s who of democracy.

2011 was a complicated year a dictators. Gaddafi was a successful leader, who outlasted sevenU.S.presidents, surviving for nearly 42 years. But his complacency led him to ignore Rule 5. He was just too nice. He allowed too much press freedom and educated his people too much. Given the oil revenues he controlled, this was totally unnecessary. It has also been a tough year for democracies, especially here in Europe. Democracies have followed policies that do not seem to have served the public good. Leaders may share the same motivations to remain in power, but democracies create better incentives. This is not a romantic vision of politics. It is not a ringing endorsement. Democracy and dictatorship are not absolute categories. You can’t beat that Churchill quote: democracy is the worst system except all the others.

*Not counting universities in Hong Kong, which were established under British rule before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997.