4:41:47 PM

That’s not cricket. This is cricket.

Hi there,

There are some expressions which flourish far from home in a foreign language even though they have perished in the mother tongue. I gather that no one in France knows what R.S.V.P. means, even though we sprinkle it willy-nilly over our correspondence.

Something similar happens with the expression “It’s not cricket”. By this Americans mean that an action lacks fairness and decorum. They imagine a sport in which moustache-twirling men dressed in white languidly sip cups of Earl Grey tea as they saunter around a manicured playing field.

In countries which actually play cricket, however, the expression vanished long ago. Cricket, or at least test (international) cricket, is less sport than war – although more like the War of 1812 than World War II. In the summer of 1932-1933, the English players were so horrid that Australian diplomats protested. In 1981 the infamous mullygrubber incident almost ruptured ties between New Zealand and Australia.

Passions run high, both in the field, where sledging (uncomplimentary remarks about the mother of a rival player even if she does not happen to be playing) is common, and in the press.

By the time you read this, the third Test between England and Australia in Perth may be over. England’s captain suffered the ignominy of a golden duck – out on the first ball – and the Australians are exultant. “Mental disintegration? More like mental obliteration,” gloated one Aussie journalist. “Even Australia's cricketing bosses have been astonished by England's dark and ugly implosion.” As another sneered, there is no mercy rule in cricket. Or in reporting the cricket.

Americans ought to look into cricket, as contrarywise to their anachronistic expression, it would appeal to their martial instincts. The one impediment is its length. International cricket matches run for a maximum of five days, often ending in the frustration of a draw. But the five-day rule is a relative novelty. Not so long ago, matches were timeless, that is, they continued until there was a clear result. The longest ever took place between South Africa and England in March 1939 and went for ten days of scheduled play. The result? A draw. Now that’s cricket.

Yes, I know that Christmas is around the corner and as the day approaches, we will slowly become more festive. In this issue, we explore the origins of the Christmas tree, along with less festive topics like our love affair with the Middle Ages, same-sex marriage and polygamy. Enjoy!

Michael Cook,

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  4:55:04 PM

A boy, a bird, and a bicycle

On Tuesday morning I was walking home from an early errand when I met two people on a narrow walkway that crosses one of the little streams that drain to the river estuary. I stopped to let the down traffic pass and a woman hurried by on her way to the main road and the bus or train. I was looking up against the light so did not notice at first that a boy on a bicycle was waiting for me to proceed.

When I did, I thought, “How polite,” and as I drew near I smiled and thanked him. It was only then that I saw the bird cradled in his left hand. It was a young pigeon, looking quite at home there. “It’s hurt and can’t fly,” the lad, who looked about 12, explained. He showed me where the tail feathers had been damaged.

“You are on your way to school, “ I said. “What will you do with the bird?” He had some idea of a safe place to leave it near the train station – perhaps with the idea of picking it up on his way home. I am sorry to say that I did not volunteer to take it off his hands; tending a wounded bird was not on my agenda for the day.

In any case my young friend seemed quite attached to the creature. In fact, his gentleness with the bird and his keenness to share his experience with a strange adult without any shyness or sign of wanting to press on was as unexpected as it was charming. My general impression of children – boys, anyway -- starting high school is that they are already so worldly wise and peer conscious that they would not be seen dead talking to female person of slightly advanced years -- or showing tenderness to a bird.

But there was an innocence about this boy that was a revelation to me. James Joyce might have called it an epiphany; a small one, anyway. For all I know the neighbourhood might be swarming with youngsters who are both sensitive and spontaneous, but I regard that little encounter as gift, and a reassurance that, despite every attempt of crass utilitarian forces to spoil the simplicity of youth, it survives. I feel very grateful to the bird boy’s parents.

Speaking of crass utilitarianism – read Michael Cook’s report on what the Belgian euthanasia brigade have given the nation’s children this Christmas. What is wrong with that country? And then there's a rather sobering decision on marriage from Australia's High Court.

On a lighter note, we have some reflections By Dan Hitchens on that new digital genre, the selfie -- given the ultimate vote of confidence this week by Obama and friends in a moment of levity at Nelson Mandela’s long farewell.

Some readers will be specially pleased to see that we have rounded out our commentary on Mandela’s legacy with a piece by Christopher Szabo, a fellow South African. It’s true we have gone a bit overboard with Pope Francis, but what else can you do when Time magazine makes him their cover boy?

Happy reading,

Carolyn Moynihan,
Deputy Editor,

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  3:54:35 PM

If only Dr Strangelove had known about this!

Hi there!

Thanks to the internet, I have lots and lots of friends, though most of them not so palsy-walsy that they will lend me a hundred bucks without asking a few questions about repayment dates and so on.

So you can imagine how I feel when I receive emails asking for a thousand bucks from a cold and hungry friend stranded in a remote village in Scotland where he was visiting for his grandmother’s funeral when his wallet was stolen…

Invariably, three days later, the same friend will send an email explaining with great chagrin that his account has been hacked and he hadn’t really been in Scotland after all. It’s embarrassing and frightening, and there, but for Gmail’s two-step verification, go I. A good password gives more self-confidence than a good mouthwash.

So I was amazed to discover this week that in the 1960s and 1970s the password for launching American Minuteman ICBMs loaded with hydrogen bombs was 00000000. In the movies, before pressing the button for mutually assured destruction, the guy in a Strategic Air Command missile silo waits for a complex code from the President which is being toted around in a briefcase handcuffed to a Secret Security agent.

In real life, the Air Force decided that the President might not be available to send the codes, or maybe that the key to the handcuffs might get lost, so they changed the code to a weird combination of numerals that no one would ever dream of in a thousand years, like 00000000.

During the Cold War, the public was told that cracking the security on nuclear weapons was (in the words of an expert) “about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end”. But it turns out that the authorities were using the same password as my suitcase. Like so many reassurances from the government, it was a lot of bluster.

That’s probably small consolation to my friends whose alter egos are stranded in Scotland. But it ought to motivate you to strengthen the password on your accounts. The fallout could be immense!

Michael Cook,

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  8:58:18 PM

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Hi there,

Nelson Mandela has died – may he rest in peace – and the world is paying its last respects and tributes. I have written a few thoughts but have spent much longer today reading about a man, a good and great man, whom I have seen more of than read about before.

Mandela’s face is part of the political imagery of the 20th century – and what a wonderful face it is. I have commented on his smile, and you only have to Google up a page of images to see how consistently he wore it, and how naturally his face seemed to crease into those good-humoured, relaxed lines. All leaders try to smile, but not all succeed in convincing us that all’s right with the world. What a blessing Madiba’s personality and his forgiving character have been for South Africa, and for the world.

One thing I didn’t mention in my article but has often occurred to me in recent times is the amazing fact of Mandela’s longevity. The hardships of his 27 years in prison, part of it at least spent in hard manual work, did not shorten his life. It is tempting to use the cliché, What doesn’t kill you… , and it does seem to be true of Mandela that suffering made him stronger. Today’s wisdom is that suffering must be avoided at all costs, and somehow it seems to be making us weaker.

True to form I am running very late with this newsletter and in danger of turning into a pumpkin. Time to sign off, then, hoping you enjoy our smorgasbord of articles covering everything from the latest PISA rankings to the Pope.


Carolyn Moynihan,
Deputy Editor,

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  9:53:03 PM

I love the smell of spam in the evening

Hi there,

It is rather late and I have run out of puff. No ideas. At all. When this happens, I open the comments page and delete our accumulated spam.

Most spam has a purpose. Comment spam contains links to websites. These vary in odour from you-know-what to insurance, holidays, and even grammar checkers. The more of these backlinks a site has, the higher it ranks in search engines and the more traffic it will get.

It’s always easy to sift comments from spam because spammers have far too much to do to compose thoughtful observations. The lazy ones just bang in a word like “nice” or flattering remarks like “I love this blog” and hope that it passes the moderator.

The harder working ones seek to be relevant without actually reading the article. There is a certain talent required for this and I think that it needs to be acknowledged. Tonight’s honourable mentions among the deletions range from the baffling to the hallucinatory:

Many great ideas go unexecuted, and many great executioners are without ideas. One without the other is worthless. 

Thanks for the post. The obvious things are the ordinary things, and we have forgotten them. The modern world that we have created. Keep up the good work and keep posting. You are doing a superb job. Body piercing jewellery.

Wish on everything. Pink cars are good, especially old ones. And stars of course, first stars and shooting stars. Planes will do if they are the first light in the sky and look like stars. Wish in tunnels, holding your breath and lifting your feet off the ground.

I thank God I don’t have to wade through this stuff, and you should, too, if you are addicted to reading our comments. And I also thank our comment editors, Tim Lee, here in Sydney, and Sue Alexander-Barnes, in England, for their patience and gimlet eyes.


Michael Cook,

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  6:36:06 PM

A letter from the NZ Government

There’s a letter from the New Zealand government sitting on my desk awaiting a reply. To be precise, it is from the Electoral Commission and is actually just a voting paper prefaced by some simple instructions. I am invited to tick Yes or No to the question: “Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?”

This referendum on the Government’s asset sale programme was initiated by the Left who got over 327,000 Kiwis to sign the petition to Parliament after the sell-down was started. As someone who bought a few shares in a powerco during the first float of publicly owned assets a while back, I don’t feel in a strong position to oppose this round. Also, with government debt growing by billions every year, we the people either have to invest more or be taxed more and, personally, I’d rather have a choice of how to spend my spare cash.

The whole thing, by the way, is a very expensive ($9 million) opinion poll because the results are non-binding and the Government has already said it won’t change its policy. Of course, if the No's win, it at least means that they can throw the results back in the face of John Key and his mates for ever after.

On that basis, the referendum I really wanted to see was on the same-sex marriage bill sprung on us by the lefties last year (unlike the asset sales policy, which was part of National’s election platform), but without the political parties’ organisation and coffers to draw on we could not get enough signatures. The need for a referendum was actually debated in Parliament but the politicians promoting gay marriage were dead against the populace having a say -- and they are the very ones who want a popular vote on who owns the power stations and so on. As if the price of electricity were more important than the future of marriage. 

We’ve got some great ordinary blokes (and blokesses) in NZ, though – like Dale Williams, who as mayor of a small town called Otorohanga turned a situation of youth unemployment, crime and flight to the cities into one of virtually full employment in a few years. Watch the video of his TED talk on the front page.

Three of our featured articles today deal with the family from various angles. Robert Carle affirms the rights of teens and their parents to access psychological counselling that accords with their own values. Paediatrician Michelle Cretella points out that family ties and not condoms protect young people from sexual misadventure. And Ignacio Socias writes about the efforts of a large group of family organisations around the world to ensure that the family is, at last, given the recognition it deserves in national and international politics.

There’s lots more to enjoy as well.                    

Carolyn Moynihan,
Deputy Editor,

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  3:57:53 PM

Lincoln on Thanksgiving

Hi there,

Having been raised in the United States, I have fond memories of Thanksgiving, which Americans will be celebrating on Thursday. Most of these revolve around food, lots of food. The more love, the more food, was the watchword. What distinguished our Thanksgiving cuisine was not so much turkey as vast numbers of pies. This was something that visiting Briton Hilaire Belloc noted in one of his poems:

In Massachusetts all the way 
From Boston down to Buzzards Bay 
They feed you till you want to die 
On rhubarb pie and pumpkin pie, 
And horrible huckleberry pie, 
And when you summon strength to cry, 
"What is there else that I can try?" 
They stare at you in mild surprise 
And serve you other kinds of pies.

Does this tradition continue? I hope so.

Anyhow, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the first nationally proclaimed Thanksgiving Day. In the middle of Civil War President Abraham Lincoln found eloquent and heartfelt words to “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Thanksgiving for what, you might reasonably have asked at the time. Thirteen weeks before, the Battle of Gettysburg had ended with 50,000 casualties. It was a Union victory and the beginning of the end, but that was hardly clear at the time. Two weeks before, the Battle of Chickamauga had ended in a Confederate victory at the cost of 35,000 casualties. They were days of great sorrow.

So, while Lincoln acknowledged “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, he went further and gave thanks to his God for the chance to do “humble penitence”. “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things,” he wrote in the proclamation. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

The other day President Obama described his predecessor as “this quintessentially self made man”. I wonder if Lincoln would have recognised himself in this phrase. He knew better than anyone that it is not the “striving spirit” alone which has made America great. As he said in his First Inaugural Address, it is “intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land”.

Let President Obama take note: Thanksgiving only makes sense if there is someone to thank for the food and fellowship.

We’ve posted quite a few stories so far this week. Here are some highlights.

Margaret Somerville has been attacked in recent days as “simply a mouthpiece for the Roman Catholic Church”. She disagrees, strongly, and explains why. I’m not impressed with a cockamamie plan dreamed up by some Oxford academics for solving disastrous romances.

Natalia Churikova reminds us of the Holodomor, the ghastly Ukrainian holocaust, which happened 80 years ago. And Lorna Tilley, an Australian archaeologist describes how a group of Neolithic Vietnamese cared for a severely disabled young man thousands of years ago. They put some of us to shame.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Michael Cook,

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  6:35:09 PM

Where were you on Nov 22, 1963?

Hi there,

It’s “Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated?” time again – and with a certain solemnity on this fiftieth anniversary of the shocking event. It is a question Baby Boomers love to ask as it takes us back to our youth and is a chance to show that we have not been overtaken by Alzheimer’s yet. Those born yesterday will have to be patient with us; eventually that question will die a natural death.

As a matter of fact I do remember. It was Saturday morning and we were having breakfast at our small convent boarding school when the mother superior came in and solemnly relayed the news. I won’t pretend that I recall any more than that, but it’s likely that we felt genuinely sorry. President John F Kennedy was not only the Most Powerful Person in the World, he was a Catholic and RCs the world over basked in his reflected glory. Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Pope John XXIII – all were eclipsed by the handsome president and his lovely wife, the perfect family, in the White House. Camelot.

The intervening decades have cast various lights over that idyllic picture and the character of JFK. No-one is perfect. I have read a couple of articles today that still cast him in a heroic light, but Alistair Nicholas in MercatorNet makes a rather different assessment. In fact, two writers who died on the same day as Kennedy in 1963 may have left more lasting legacies.

As Michael Cook points out, Aldous Huxley warned us graphically about the people we have collectively become, while C S Lewis, writes Michael Coren, “has converted numbers beyond counting to Christianity and continues to be read by millions.”

I hope you enjoy our November 22nd anniversary trilogy -- and the rest of our varied bill of fare. 

Carolyn Moynihan,
Deputy Editor,

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  12:25:13 PM

Dress for success


It is overcast, drizzling, and damp at the moment, but last week I could have sworn it was summer. The tell-tale signs were there on the City streets: cicadas, Christmas tinsel everywhere, no one wearing a tie, and saffron-robed devotees chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, as they danced in a conga line down George Street.

I was on my way with a friend to a lunchtime talk on power dressing and I started brooding that Hare Krishna clobber is a far better fit for Sydney summers than pinstripes.

It was less stressful than I expected. Roger Shamoun, the creative director at Zimma Tailors, has a very sensible philosophy: “There are no rules. Try it and if you like it, do it.” In question time, I told him that my fashion icon was Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook. A cloud passed over Roger’s face and he said that Silicon Valley was a blight on the fashion industry. 

Anyhow, it wasn’t a waste of time: I learned that polka-dot ties don’t go with striped shirts. I’m afraid that power dressing is a galaxy far, far away for me. The other day, when I was in church, an elderly Chinese fellow tapped me on the shoulder with some helpful information: “Your coat. Bird crap.” I quickly peeled it off and he was spot on. Or rather I was. The theme of the lunchtime talk was dress for success: I had scored a bullseye.

There’s lots of good reading below. Browse/click/read. But an essential feature is The New Asian Tiger can cope, by Filipino economist Bernie Villegas. After the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, the impression you get from the media is that the Philippines is a basket case. Not so: with a 7.5% growth rate and a renaissance in manufacturing under way, the Philippines is a rising economic star.


Michael Cook,

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  6:35:21 PM

A nasty contrast

Hi there,

Sometimes the unfairness of the world is too much. This week, while Filipino survivors of Typhoon Haiyan were dying because relief could not be got to them, plutocrats were bidding at auctions in New York and Geneva for two paintings and two gems that sold, collectively, for US$365 million. That was far more in cash terms than the world’s governments had pledged by day six of the Haiyan calamity.

I know that access has been the problem in getting help to the suffering Filipinos this week rather than money, and that the country’s rickety political system, is partly to blame; but the contrast between luxury trophy trading in the world’s glamour cities and the desperation of millions of homeless, hungry, sick and dying victims of Haiyan made me angry. It strikes me as symptomatic of the way of the world in general.

Tying up hundreds of millions of dollars in art works -- or, shall we say, in artefacts of dubious merit (Francis Bacon weirdness and Andy Warhol pop art) -- and jewels is just plain wrong in view of the extreme poverty that still afflicts so many of our brothers and sisters in the global village. Think of the local infrastructure and self-help schemes $300 million could fund in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Yes, there’s corruption to contend with in the poorer countries, many politicians and officials syphoning off public funds to line their own pockets, and others following suit. But when it comes to me-first behaviour the templates all come from the rich countries. Philanthropy is all very well, but it would be better to give the developing world models of personal restraint, fair business and wages, fair trade and an ethic of genuine public service – and not build up fortunes to squander on ugly fashion items in the first place. (For a fine critique of the cult of Francis Bacon see this essay in The New Republic.)

Having got that off my chest I want to highlight, the wonderful Tale of Two Survivors of Haiyan featured on our front page. In the teeth of the typhoon, a man and boy survive, because they have each other. Let’s continue to do what we can for all those suffering in the aftermath.

Carolyn Moynihan,
Deputy Editor,

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