"There’s a sameness to the plight of dying towns" Villisca Iowa

I nod because yes, I’ve never been here before, but in many ways I feel like I have. There’s a sameness to the plight of dying towns.

Note: I have employed this same introduction on the post below.

Just a word or two about the source for today's two posts.

Although I don't receive anything like the number of daily emails that I once did, down to half a dozen from probably three times that number, but retaining such old faithfuls as, Information Clearing House, Truthout and Democracy Now! It must be said however, as the world slides inevitably towards chaos, both ICH and Truthout have become mainly sources for only the most extreme news items.

But it is the addition, perhaps a year ago, of one source that has really trumps, that being AlterNet.org, and I quote: Syndication service and online community of the alternative press, featuring news stories from alternative newsweeklies, magazines and web publications.

And it is that very business model that makes it such a great source for stories that are just off, or far off in some cases, the main stream, the very things that I like to blog about.

As an obscure blogger I see little point in parroting the big and sensational stories of the day, sources for such being manifold and accessed at the click of a mouse. That is not to say that I won't cover a main-stream story with vigour. One such story, and although I haven't updated it recently, I have been keeping my eye on it, and that is the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Something I shall rectify over the next day or two, because let's face it, our planet is undergoing an ecological disaster of epic proportions and it seems all but ignored (or buried) by those that are charged with keeping us informed on such events, but failing with the same epic proportions, the main-stream media. Now updated here and here.

But for the moment, the second of two stories offered up today, courtesy of AlterNet.

I thought this article a great piece, giving us a slice of America past and present, although the only thing that is perhaps notably different from the era of the setting for the first part of the story is the decay surrounding this 'small town America.' But that's not to say the story is without interest by any means.

What passed for justice in those days certainly hasn't changed much, nor for that matter I don't suppose, religions bigotry: “Yeah, there was a time when a Presbyterian kid wouldn’t play with a Methodist kid (because of the murders.”)

Taste seems to be pretty constant, because let's face it, there's no taste like bad taste, just as there's no getting away from it. Why else would anyone want to visit the site (museum) of a hundred year old axe murder, or for that matter, any of the "attractions" that I have underlined below.

And no house where the grisly slaughter of an entire family took place would be complete without the batshit crazies, the equally ghoulish, the Paranormal Investigators. ($400 a night)

“They’re indicators of energy,” she explains. Her friend Bobbi is a young quiet woman, otherwise unnoticeable, who plans to sleep in the basement, whereas Connie, a redhead the same age as Tracy, carries flowers for the ghost of Sarah Moore.

As you do.

Let me skip the gruesome details and give you instead, a taster from page three.

Dig deep enough into any town’s history and surely you’ll find a good murder. Even the little town in the Adirondacks where I’m soon to be married — a perfect postage stamp called Inlet, N.Y. — was where Chester Gillette was arrested in 1906 for drowning his pregnant girlfriend in a case that inspired folk songs, ghost stories and “An American Tragedy.” But there’s no such as thing as an INLET DROWNING the same as the VILLISCA AX MURDER. The murder has become Villisca’s brand (789,000 search results for “Villisca Ax Murder” on Google) just as Dyersville has a field of dreams and Madison County has covered bridges, a bad novel and a good film. One hundred years after the murders, Iowa is a state begging to be visited, with plenty of Americana to offer. Hence the World’s Largest Cornstalk. The World’s Largest Strawberry. The World’s Largest Bullhead Catfish. The World’s Largest Swedish Coffee Saucer. Even the World’s Largest Cheeto. And the Midwest’s most gruesome unsolved murder, now a guest host for ghost hunters, who pay hundreds of dollars to bring a sleeping bag and set up on the old hardwood floors.

After an hour of emptiness on this third-rate highway, amidst brown and eerie hills on an unseasonably cold, gray spring afternoon, the sign appears like a beacon. “The Olson-Linn Museum and Ax Murder House.” I turn onto U Street, where off to the side I see the Villisca Elevator (the only elevator in Villisca is a grain elevator), and down a few bridges and bumpy roads that turn to gravel and back to concrete, and suddenly I find myself in the town square. There are a few well-kept houses, a new-ish playground, a war monument, children playing baseball and a mother wearing a T-shirt from the local high school that last year graduated 28 kids.

The windows of the Olson-Linn Museum are cloudy. It’s a white building of cracked bricks and rain-damaged shingles and a brilliant red door. A sign with changeable letters says:





A note says the owner is out: “I am at the J B Moore house 508 E. 2nd Ave.”

Minutes later a 74-year-old man pulls up in a rickety sedan.

“Hi there,” he says. He wears overalls, a ball cap, a plaid shirt and a blue nylon coat.


Blood, Gore, Tourism: The Ax Murderer Who Saved a Small Town

100 years ago, someone killed 8 people in an Iowa home. Can unsolved brutality revive a dying town?
By Nick Kowalczyk
April 29, 2012 Go to page 1

Not to forget the, Official Site of the Villisca Ax (sic) Murder House. Take the tour, buy yourself a Tshirt or some haunted dirt, only twenty bucks.

Today The Presidents Word is Death: Barack Obama

Just a word or two about the source for today's two posts.

Although I don't receive anything like the number of daily emails that I once did, down to half a dozen from probably three times that number, but retaining such old faithfuls as, Information Clearing House, Truthout and Democracy Now! It must be said however, as the world slides inevitably towards chaos, both ICH and Truthout have become mainly sources for only the most extreme news items.

But it is the addition, perhaps a year ago, of one source that has really come up trumps, that being AlterNet.org, and I quote: Syndication service and online community of the alternative press, featuring news stories from alternative newsweeklies, magazines and web publications.

And it is that very business model that makes it such a great source for stories that are just off, or far off in some cases, the main stream, the very things that I like to blog about.

As an obscure blogger I see little point in parroting the big and sensational stories of the day, sources for such being manifold and accessed at the click of a mouse. That is not to say that I won't cover a main-stream story with vigour. One such story, and although I haven't updated it recently, I have been keeping my eye on it, and that is the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Something I shall rectify over the next day or two, because let's face it, our planet is undergoing an ecological disaster of epic proportions and it seems all but ignored (or buried) by those that are charged with keeping us informed on such events, but failing with the same epic proportions, the main-stream media.

But for the moment, one of two stories offered up today, courtesy of AlterNet, a look at, and let me call a spade a spade here, a nation, the man himself, and his office, that of the President of the United States of America, all gone rogue.

Today, the president’s word is death just about anywhere on the planet and he exercises that power with remarkable frequency.

How Did Obama Become Our Most Imperial President?

If Obama is the president of next to nothing on the domestic policy front, he has the powers previously associated with the gods when it comes to war-making abroad.
By Tom Engelhardt
April 29, 2012

He has few constraints (except those he’s internalized). No one can stop him or countermand his orders. He has a bevy of lawyers at his beck and call to explain the “legality” of his actions. And if he cares to, he can send a robot assassin to kill you, whoever you are, no matter where you may be on planet Earth.

He sounds like a typical villain from a James Bond novel. You know, the kind who captures Bond, tells him his fiendish plan for dominating the planet, ties him up for some no less fiendish torture, and then leaves him behind to gum up the works.

As it happens, though, he’s the president of the United State, a nice guy with a charismatic wife and two lovely kids.

How could this be?

Crash-and-Burn Dreams and One That Came to Be

Sometimes to understand where you are, you need to ransack the past. In this case, to grasp just how this country’s first African-American-constitutional-law-professor-liberal Oval Office holder became the most imperial of all recent imperial presidents, it’s necessary to look back to the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Who today even remembers that time, when it was common to speak of the U.S. as the globe’s “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” the only “sheriff” on planet Earth, and the neocons were boasting of an empire-to-come greater than the British and Roman ones rolled together?

In those first high-flying years after 9/11, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and their top officials held three dreams of power and dominance that they planned to make reality. The first was to loose the U.S. military -- a force they fervently believed capable of bringing anybody or any state to heel -- on the Greater Middle East. With it in the lead, they aimed to create a generations-long Pax Americana in the region.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was to be only the initial “cakewalk” in a series of a shock-and-awe operations in which Washington would unilaterally rearrange the oil heartlands of the planet, toppling or cowing hostile regimes like the Syrians and the Iranians. (A neocon quip caught the spirit of that moment: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) This, in turn, would position the U.S. to control the planet in a historically unique way, and so prevent the rise of any other great power or bloc of nations resistant to American desires.

Their second dream, linked at the hip to the first, was to create a generations-long Pax Republicana here at home. (“Everyone wants to go to Kansas, but real men want to go to New York and LA.”) In that dream, the Democratic Party, like the Iraqis or the Iranians, would be brought to heel, a new Republican majority funded by corporate America would rule the roost, and above it all would be perched a “unitary executive,” a president freed of domestic constraints and capable -- by fiat, the signing statement, or simply expanded powers -- of doing just about anything he wanted.

Though less than a decade has passed, both of those dreams already feel like ancient history. Both crashed and burned, leaving behind a Democrat in the White House, an Iraq without an American military garrison, and a still-un-regime-changed Iran. With the arrival on Bush’s watch of a global economic meltdown, those too-big-not-to-fail dreams were relabeled disasters, fed down the memory hole, and are today largely forgotten.

It’s easy, then, to forget that the Bush era wasn’t all crash-and-burn, that the third of their hubristic fantasies proved a remarkable, if barely noticed, success. Because that success never fully registered amid successive disasters and defeats, it’s been difficult for Americans to grasp the “imperial” part of the Obama presidency.

Remember that Cheney and his cohorts took power in 2001 convinced that, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, American presidents had been placed in “chains.” As soon as 9/11 hit, they began, as they put it, to “take the gloves off.” Their deepest urge was to use “national security” to free George W. Bush and his Pax Americana successors of any constraints.

From this urge flowed the decision to launch a “Global War on Terror” -- that is, a “wartime” with no possible end that would leave a commander-in-chief president in the White House till hell froze over. The construction of Guantanamo and the creation of “black sites” from Poland to Thailand, the president’s own private offshore prison system, followed naturally, as did the creation of his own privately sanctioned form of (in)justice and punishment, a torture regime.

At the same time, they began expanding the realm of presidentially ordered “covert” military operations (most of which were, in the end, well publicized) -- from drone wars to the deployment of special operations forces. These were signposts indicating the power of an unchained president to act without constraint abroad. Similarly, at home, the Bush administration began expanding what would once have been illegal surveillance of citizens and other forms of presidentially inspired overreach. They began, in other words, treating the U.S. as if it were part of an alien planet, as if it were, in some sense, a foreign country and they the occupying power.

With a cowed Congress and a fearful, distracted populace, they undoubtedly were free to do far more. There were few enough checks and balances left to constrain a war president and his top officials. It turned out, in fact, that the only real checks and balances they felt were internalized ones, or ones that came from within the national security state itself, and yet those evidently did limit what they felt was possible.

The Obama Conundrum

This, then, was what Barack Obama inherited on entering the Oval Office: an expanding, but not yet fully expansive, commander-in-chief presidency, which, in retrospect, seemed to fit him like a... glove. Of course, he also inherited the Bush administration’s domestic failures and those in the Greater Middle East, and they overshadowed what he’s done with that commander-in-chief presidency.

It’s true that, with President Truman’s decision to go to war in Korea in 1950, Congress’s constitutional right to declare war (rather than rubberstamp a presidential announcement of the same) went by the boards. So there’s a distinct backstory to our present imperial presidency. Still, in our era, presidential war-making has become something like a 24/7 activity.

Once upon a time, American presidents didn’t consider micro-managing a permanent war state as a central part of their job description, nor did they focus so unrelentingly on the U.S. military and the doings of the national security state. Today, the president’s word is death just about anywhere on the planet and he exercises that power with remarkable frequency. He appears in front of “the troops” increasingly often and his wife has made their wellbeing part of her job description. He has at his command expanded “covert” powers, including his own private armies: a more militarized CIA and growing hordes of special operations forces, 60,000 of them, who essentially make up a “covert” military inside the U.S. military.

In effect, he also has his own private intelligence outfits, including most recently a newly formed Defense Clandestine Service at the Pentagon focused on non-war zone intelligence operations (especially, so the reports go, against China and Iran). Finally, he has what is essentially his own expanding private (robotic) air force: drones. Go to page 3

Have I Got News For You Leveson Edition


Sarah Palin All-American Wingnut

Were it not for Tina Fey featuring on a program I watched yesterday evening, Frost on Satire, UK only, I probably would have sailed past this brief, but right on the money perception the world of Sarah Palin.

Back in 2008, I used to argue that Sarah Palin didn’t really exist — that she was actually an incredibly elaborate Tina Fey performance art project, an Andy-Kaufman style hoax. Because, seriously — Palin was so staggeringly vapid that it stretched credibility that she could be for real. It almost seemed more likely that she might be an over-the-top parody of a certain kind of blissfully idiotic, all-American wingnut, than that she was an actual person. And the rest of it is a post about Romney.

Nuff said?

From the same program, and by all accounts it is true: "The problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur." -George W. Bush Bushisms


Jack Cafferty.

The real thing, ten minutes.

You Are All Suspects Now. What Are You Going to Do About It? John Pilger

Quintessential Pilger.

You Are All Suspects Now. What Are You Going to Do About It?

By John Pilger
28 April 2012

You are all potential terrorists. It matters not that you live in Britain, the United States, Australia or the Middle East. Citizenship is effectively abolished. Turn on your computer and the US Department of Homeland Security's National Operations Center may monitor whether you are typing not merely "al-Qaeda," but "exercise," "drill," "wave," "initiative" and "organization": all proscribed words. The British government's announcement that it intends to spy on every email and phone call is old hat. The satellite vacuum cleaner known as Echelon has been doing this for years. What has changed is that a state of permanent war has been launched by the United States and a police state is consuming Western democracy.

What are you going to do about it?

In Britain, on instructions from the CIA, secret courts are to deal with "terror suspects." Habeas Corpus is dying. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that five men, including three British citizens, can be extradited to the US even though none except one has been charged with a crime. All have been imprisoned for years under the 2003 US/UK Extradition Treaty which was signed one month after the criminal invasion of Iraq. The European Court had condemned the treaty as likely to lead to "cruel and unusual punishment." One of the men, Babar Ahmad, was awarded 63,000 pounds compensation for 73 recorded injuries he sustained in the custody of the Metropolitan Police. Sexual abuse, the signature of fascism, was high on the list. Another man is a schizophrenic, who has suffered a complete mental collapse and is in Broadmoor secure hospital; another is a suicide risk. To the Land of the Free they go - along with young Richard O'Dwyer, who faces ten years in shackles and an orange jump suit because he allegedly infringed US copyright on the Internet.

As the law is politicized and Americanized, these travesties are not untypical. In upholding the conviction of a London university student, Mohammed Gul, for disseminating "terrorism" on the Internet, appeal court judges in London ruled that "acts ... against the armed forces of a state anywhere in the world which sought to influence a government and were made for political purposes" were now crimes. Call to the dock Thomas Paine, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela.

What are you going to do about it?

The prognosis is clear now: the malignancy that Norman Mailer called "pre fascist" has metastasized. The US Attorney General, Eric Holder, defends the "right" of his government to assassinate American citizens. Israel, the protégé, is allowed to aim its nukes at nukeless Iran. In this looking glass world, the lying is panoramic. The massacre of 17 Afghan civilians on 11 March, including at least nine children and four women, is attributed to a "rogue" American soldier. The "authenticity" of this was vouched by President Obama himself, who had "seen a video" and regarded it as "conclusive proof." An independent Afghan parliamentary investigation produced eyewitnesses who give detailed evidence of as many as 20 soldiers, aided by a helicopter, ravaging their villages, killing and raping: a standard, if marginally more murderous, US Special Forces "night raid."

Take away the videogame technology of killing - America's contribution to modernity - and the behavior is traditional. Immersed in comic-book righteousness, poorly or brutally trained, frequently racist, obese and led by a corrupt officer class, American forces transfer the homicide of home to faraway places whose impoverished struggles they cannot comprehend. A nation founded on the genocide of the native population never quite kicks the habit. Vietnam was "Indian country" and its "slits" and "gooks" were to be "blown away.

The blowing away of hundreds of mostly women and children in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968 was also a "rogue" incident and, profanely, an "American tragedy" (the cover headline of Newsweek). Only one of 26 men prosecuted was convicted and he was let go by President Richard Nixon. My Lai is in Quang Ngai Province where, as I learned as a reporter, an estimated 50,000 people were killed by American troops, mostly in what they called "free fire zones." This was the model of modern warfare: industrial murder.

Like Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan is a theme park for the beneficiaries of America's new permanent war: NATO, the armaments and high-tech companies, the media and a "security" industry whose lucrative contamination is a contagion on everyday life. The conquest or "pacification" of territory is unimportant. What matters is the pacification of you, the cultivation of your indifference.

What are you going to do about it?

The descent into totalitarianism has landmarks. Any day now, the Supreme Court in London will decide whether WikiLeaks' editor, Julian Assange, is to be extradited to Sweden. Should this final appeal fail, the facilitator of truth-telling on an epic scale, who is charged with no crime, faces solitary confinement and interrogation on ludicrous sex allegations. Thanks to a secret deal between the US and Sweden, he can be "rendered" to the American gulag at any time. In his own country, Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has conspired with those in Washington she calls her "true mates" to ensure her innocent fellow citizen is fitted for his orange jump suit just in case he should make it home. In February, her government wrote a "WikiLeaks Amendment" to the extradition treaty between Australia and the US that makes it easier for her "mates" to get their hands on him. She has even given them the power of approval over Freedom of Information searches - so that the world outside can be lied to, as is customary.

What are you going to do about it? johnpilger.com

Beyond Ötzi: European Evolutionary History and its Relevance to Diet. Part I

In the previous post, I explained that Otzi descended in large part from early adopters of agriculture in the Middle East or nearby.  What I'll explain in further posts is that Otzi was not a genetic anomaly: he was part of a wave of agricultural migrants that washed over Europe thousands of years ago, spreading their genes throughout.  Not only that, Otzi represents a halfway point in the evolutionary process that transformed Paleolithic humans into modern humans.

Did Agriculture in Europe Spread by Cultural Transmission or by Population Replacement?

There's a long-standing debate in the anthropology community over how agriculture spread throughout Europe.  One camp proposes that agriculture spread by a cultural route, and that European hunter-gatherers simply settled down and began planting grains.  The other camp suggests that European hunter-gatherers were replaced (totally or partially) by waves of agriculturalist immigrants from the Middle East that were culturally and genetically better adapted to the agricultural diet and lifestyle.  These are two extreme positions, and I think almost everyone would agree at this point that the truth lies somewhere in between: modern Europeans are a mix of genetic lineages, some of which originate from the earliest Middle Eastern agriculturalists who expanded into Europe, and some of which originate from indigenous hunter-gatherer groups including a small contribution from neanderthals.  We know that modern-day Europeans are not simply Paleolithic mammoth eaters who reluctantly settled down and began farming. 

Read more »

Chen Guangcheng 'safe' in US embassy

It can't be much fun living in China whether you have a conscience or nae, not with such a state apparatus permanently in place it can't.

Chen Guangcheng 'safe' in US embassy

Blind campaigner evades about 100 guards to escape from six-year detention but fears grow for family and supporters
Jonathan Watts Beijing
27 April 2012

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and friend and fellow activist Hu Jia taken at an undisclosed location this month. Chen, an inspirational figure in China's rights movement, slipped away from his well-guarded village this week.

A blind Chinese rights activist who made a daring escape from extrajudicial detention was on Friday under the protection of the US embassy in Beijing, according to a friend, as concerns were growing about possible retribution against his family and supporters.

After more than six years of jail and house arrest, Chen Guangcheng was said to have fled under cover of darkness, evading eight checkpoints and close to 100 guards who have been watching his home in the Shandong province countryside.

A photograph released on Friday night shows him with a friend and fellow activist, Hu Jia, who said Chen was under US protection. "It is my understanding that Chen is in the safest place in China. That is the US embassy," said Hu.

If confirmed, the incident could overshadow a planned trip to Beijing next week by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner.

It would be the second case this year of a high-profile figure seeking refuge at a US diplomatic office in China. In February, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu claiming his life was threatened because of his investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.

That incident led to a 36-hour standoff during which Chinese security personnel surrounded the consulate until Wang was turned over to an official from Beijing.

The US government neither confirmed nor denied claims that Chen was seeking asylum. An embassy spokesman, Richard Buangan, told reporters that "he did not have any information at this time."The British embassy also said Chen's whereabouts were a mystery. "We have followed Chen Guangcheng's case over a long period of time and have made representations publicly and privately to Chinese authorities. We have seen today's reports and will be following events closely," said a spokesman.The mainstream Chinese media had not reported the escape, but in a video recording apparently made after his release, Chen issued an open call for the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to investigate his case.

He said between 90 and 100 people were involved in his illegal detention, which included savage beatings that left his wife with broken bones and the harassment of his children. Those who tried to visit him – including lawyers, journalists and the actor Christian Bale – had been either roughed up or driven away.

The accusations throw a harsh light on a Chinese government already reeling from a corruption and wire-tapping scandal sparked by the death of Heywood.

Chen blamed his treatment on local officials and the Chinese state's obsession with maintaining stability at all costs. He said his greatest concern was that the authorities would carry out "insane retribution" on his family, several of whom have already been placed under arrest.

Chen confirmed reports about his maltreatment that have appeared online over the years. "The truth was even worse," he said."

Human rights campaigners expressed delight that Chen – whose case has drawn international attention – was no longer in the hands of the authorities, but concern about revenge attacks on his wife, child, brother and human rights activists who helped him gain liberty.

According to the US-based human rights group China Aid, Chen was "100% safe" in Beijing. But it said the activist He Peirong, one of the people who helped Chen flee, had been arrested at her home in Nanjing on Friday morning.

He, who is said to have been in close contact with the Chen family, had earlier told CNN that Chen's hands were trembling, but his spirits were high. She said he was injured in the escape.

It was not clear how Chen evaded the officials, police and plainclothes thugs who have been camped in and around his home in Linyi since his release from prison in 2010. But activists said it was not an individual, opportunistic bid for freedom.

"To escape from a place with so many guards must have taken a great deal of planning," said Phelim Kine, of Human Rights Watch.

Chen was believed to have used the cover of darkness, in which his blindness – he lost his sight at the age of five – gave him an advantage over his captors. He previously attempted to dig a tunnel.

"I would say the fact that he successfully escaped is a miracle," said Hu. "It's like a real Chinese version of The Shawshank Redemption. I heard he got through eight security checks."

If Chen is caught, he faces the risk of severe extra-legal punishment from his guards. Several people close to Chen have already been rounded up, prompting fears of retribution.

According to the NGO Human Rights in China, Chen's brother Chen Guangfu was taken away from Dongshigu village on Thursday. His nephew, Chen Kegui, was also in hiding after using a kitchen knife to defend his mother from intruders led by the village chief.

Local public-security bureaux were not picking up their phones.

"The wife [Yuan Weijing], children and mother are on the extreme edge of vulnerability," said Kine. "They have already been brutally victimised for merely trying to get outside the compound for food or medical attention, so it is quite likely that the plainclothes thugs will react quite brutally to his escape. It is our hope that all diplomatic missions will make strong representations for their safety."

Chen has suffered the wrath of officials in Shandong since 2005, when he exposed a programme of forced abortions to reach targets linked to China's one-child policy. Although he was released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, he and his family continued to suffer detention and beatings.

Associates say they fear for his health, which has deteriorated during his detention."I don't know if he is safe now and I am worried about him," said lawyer Teng Biao. "Chen was not given freedom after being released from prison and he was sick and did not have a chance to see a proper doctor. I am worried about him." Gruniad

Strauss-Kahn Affair: 'Perhaps I was naive'

I don't know how interesting a whole book would be on DSK's downfall, but if this article, and the tales of skulduggery that we know already are anything to go by, pretty interesting I would have thought.

There is an embedded video in the original article, you may want to view that prior to reading the thing. But in the meantime, a taster.

If the name Cyrus Vance rings a bell, it is, obviously, Cyrus Vance Jr.

Strauss-Kahn affair: 'Perhaps I was naive. I didn't believe they'd go that far'

Ex-IMF chief tells investigative author Edward Jay Epstein that he thinks furore over sex attack case was created by opponents
Edward Jay Epstein
27 April 2012

The Pavillon de la Reine is a luxury hotel in the heart of the Marais in Paris. It carries an air of a 19th-century establishment, with its crisp and elegant decor designed to attract globetrotters in their quest for a quiet and discreet place of rest.

It is here, on Friday 13 April, that I arranged to meet Dominique Strauss-Kahn for his first major newspaper interview since his downfall. For a man who has spent years operating at the highest levels of French and global politics, he clearly retains an ingrained habit of punctuality, arriving precisely at the appointed time – 11am – walking over and shaking hands with a firm grip. "Thank you so much for your interest in this case," he says.

Strauss-Kahn is much smaller than I had expected, about 1.7 metres (5ft 7in). Impeccably dressed, he was wearing a dark suit and loafers, and an open-necked blue shirt that showed off a deep tan set against white hair and deep set eyes. Though I'd never met him before, he was instantly recognisable. We sit in sofas in a corner of the hotel lobby, and for the next two and a half hours, over double espressos, we discuss what amounts to one of the most public and extreme falls from grace of any major public figure in recent times.

Eleven months earlier, on 13 May 2011, Strauss-Kahn had stepped out of a yellow New York cab in front of the Sofitel, another high-end hotel, in midtown Manhattan. CCTV footage that I have obtained and studied in the course of writing a book on the Sofitel scandal, Three Days in May, shows him entering the hotel, sporting a rain coat and pulling a black suitcase behind him.

At that moment, he was a man at the very top of his game. He was one of the most powerful and respected politicians and economists in the world. A former French economics minister, he was presiding over the 178-nation International Monetary Fund. The next day he would be departing New York on his way to Berlin to see the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to try and enlist her support for a plan he had devised, codenamed "Comprehensive", to head off the impending disaster of a Greek default on its sovereign debt default. "If Germany backed it, the other European governments would follow," he explains in our interview. Otherwise, the crises "would quickly spiral out of control and spread to Spain, Italy and other Eurozone countries."

He was also poised to announce his candidacy for the French presidency. "I planned to make my formal announcement on 15 June and I had no doubt I would be the candidate of the Socialist party," he says. Nor were there any doubts in his mind about his chances of winning the election, as he obtained his key card for the Sofitel's aptly named presidential suite. (He had not solicited the upgrade to the $3,000-a-night suite but it was the sort of royal treatment he had received from the hotel before and to which he had become accustomed, entitled even, paying only the $525 rate for an ordinary room.) Polls at the time suggested he was nearly 20 points ahead of the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and he had more than a fighting chance to replace him as occupant of the Elysée Palace. more
Previous from the Guardian sidebar: DSK: New York sex scandal orchestrated by political opponents

Flu Fridays: Flu vaccine safety

Not only is it our favorite day, Flu Friday — it’s also World Immunization Week.

In general, vaccines are one of the best tools in medicine: The World Health Organization reports that 2 million to 3 million lives are saved every year thanks to vaccines.  

Vaccines also have lower rates of complication than most medications. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there is about a one in 1 million chance that someone will have a severe reaction to common vaccines like MMR (aka, measles, mumps, rubella) or hepatitis B.  

What about flu vaccine safety? CDC recently released a video about the safety of the influenza vaccine that answers a lot of common questions, such as safety of the flu shot for young children, pregnant women and people with egg allergies.

(Spoiler alert: Yes, the flu shot is safe for almost everyone!)  

Check out the video below to find out more.

The Beautiful Mind of Professor Richard Dawkins

I suppose I should be content, that thanks to an upload by TheAikenHead I can offer the recent BBC production, Beautiful Minds - Professor Richard Dawkins to those of you outside the UK.

That discontent only brought about by being unable to bring you under similar circumstances, an embedded version, of a similar beautiful mind, that of Professor Andre Greim.

Consequently I can only offer a link, viewable only in the UK unfortunately, to Beautiful Minds Series Professor Andre Geim.

But that said, let it not detract for a moment, the pleasure of watching sixty minutes of the beautiful mind of Professor Richard Dawkins.

View below or with BBC iplayer.

And now it falls on me to watch the first program in the series.

Jenny Clack recounts how she overcame setbacks before she found and described a fossil which offered new evidence of how fish made the transition onto land. link

~ ~ ~

Professor Richard Dawkins reveals how he came to write his explosive first book The Selfish Gene, a work that was to divide the scientific community and make him the most influential evolutionary biologist of his generation. He also explores how this set him on the path to becoming an outspoken spokesman for atheism.

Just five minutes of Andre Greim's acceptance speech at the Nobel dinner.


A "new map" of breast cancer, which identifies 10 distinct disease subtypes based on gene activity, will revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, say researchers.
The findings, published online April 18 in Nature, come from the largest global gene study of breast cancer tissue ever performed.
"This research is 'ground-breaking' indeed," said world-renowned breast cancer expert Martine Piccart, MD, PhD, from the Jules Bordet Institut in Brussels, Belgium. "The current classification of breast cancer is overly simplistic and results in suboptimal treatment selections for our patients," she told Medscape Medical News.
"I am not at all surprised that breast cancer is not 4 diseases but at least 10…and I do believe that this discovery will lead to the better management of patients…although this will probably take another 10 years," Dr. Piccart said.
Researchers in the United Kingdom and Canada analyzed nearly 2000 tumor samples taken from women diagnosed with breast cancer 5 to 10 years ago. They integrated tumor-sample copy numbers and gene expression with data on long-term clinical outcomes. They concluded that the samples could be divided into at least 10 distinct subtypes on the basis of common genetic features that correlate with survival.
The next step is validation in clinical trials, but the ultimate aim is to target treatment to the precise "genetic fingerprint" of each tumor type, said colead author Carlos Caldas, MD, FMedSci, from the Department of Oncology at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, and senior group leader at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute.
"Our results will pave the way for doctors in the future to diagnose the type of breast cancer a woman has, the type of drugs that will work, and those that won't, in a much more precise way than is currently possible," he said.
"This landmark study will completely change the way we look at breast cancer," according to Cancer Research UK, which provided much of the funding for the study. The charity highlighted the study at a press conference held in London, United Kingdom.
Current Pathology Subtypes
Currently, breast cancer is classified by pathologists into 4 subtypes, Dr. Caldas explained. This is based on testing for the estrogen receptor (ER), which if positive indicates responsiveness to hormonal therapies, and for HER2, which if positive indicates responsiveness to trastuzumab (Herceptin).
By far the largest proportion of breast cancers (70%) are ER-positive/HER2-negative, about 7.5% are ER-positive/HER2-positive, and about 7.5% are ER-negative/HER2-positive. The remainder are the so-called triple-negative breast cancers (ER-negative/progesterone-receptor-negative/HER2-negative), which are aggressive, do not benefit from any targeted therapy, and are treated with chemotherapy, he said.
However, in the 70% of breast cancers that are classified as ER-positive/HER2-negative, there is a tremendous heterogeneity, Dr. Caldas explained, with some patients having a much better prognosis than others.
The researchers found that 7 of the 10 newly identified disease subtypes are in this category. There is a wide variation in prognosis by subtype; at 15 years, the best shows 80% survival and the worst shows less than 40% survival. "We are getting more separation in this largest subgroup of breast cancer. This is very important. We have been on a quest to find better markers in this group of patients," Dr. Caldas said at the press briefing.
The new classification identifies very robust HER2-positive tumors, whether they are ER-positive or ER-negative, he noted. "All previous molecular tests have failed to do this properly," he added. This might increase the number of patients classified as HER2-positive, who could benefit from treatment with trastuzumab, the researchers write.
Another of the new subtypes, known as cluster 10, coincides fairly closely with the triple-negative subtype, although not exactly, Dr. Caldas said.
The largest of the new subtypes identified, known as cluster 4, accounts for about 16% of the total and is "very interesting," he continued. This subtype has fewer copy number gains and losses, and shows a significant infiltration of inflammatory cells, suggesting an activation of the immune system. This subtype comprises patients with ER-positive, with ER-negative, and with triple-negative tumors, and "would be missed in any other classification system that relies on sequencing," he said.
The researchers also discovered several new genes. Some of these, such as kinases and phosphatases, are very attractive targets for new drug development, he said.
"We have produced a completely new way of looking at breast cancer," Dr. Caldas said. "It is very robust because of the number of samples that we looked at," he explained.
When asked by Medscape Medical News how this novel molecular stratification of breast cancer fits with other tests that are already available, such as Oncotype DX and MammaPrint, Dr. Caldas explained that the evidence suggests that neither of those tests add much to the subtypes that are identified by high-quality pathology. "The United Kingdom leads the world with regard to pathology, especially in breast cancer," he said. In this setting, neither Oncotype DX nor MammaPrint add much information, he said. In fact, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence deemed that both are not cost effective, he added.
Another expert told Medscape Medical News that this work is in its early stages. "This is very exciting work that will significantly advance the field of personalized medicine and could potentially have important therapeutic implications. However, I would caution that the findings are not ready for prime time yet, and need validation in prospective clinical studies before they can be incorporated into clinical practice," said Aditya Bardia, MD, MPH, from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.

Private Prison Corporations Are Modern Day Slave Traders

Private Prison Corporations Are Modern Day Slave Traders

By Glen Ford
April 25, 2012

The nation’s largest private prison company, the Corrections Corporation of America, is on a buying spree. With a war chest of $250 million, the corporation, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, earlier this year sent letters to 48 states, offering to buy their prisons outright. To ensure their profitability, the corporation insists that it be guaranteed that the prisons be kept at least 90 percent full. Plus, the corporate jailers demand a 20-year management contract, on top of the profits they expect to extract by spending less money per prisoner.

For the last two years, the number of inmates held in state prisons has declined slightly, largely because the states are short on money. Crime, of course, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years, but that has never dampened the states’ appetites for warehousing ever more Black and brown bodies, and the federal prison system is still growing. However, the Corrections Corporation of America believes the economic crisis has created an historic opportunity to become the landlord, as well as the manager, of a big chunk of the American prison gulag.

The attempted prison grab is also defensive in nature. If private companies can gain both ownership and management of enough prisons, they can set the prices without open-bid competition for prison services, creating a guaranteed cost-plus monopoly like that which exists between the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

But, for a better analogy, we must go back to the American slave system, a thoroughly capitalist enterprise that reduced human beings to units of labor and sale. The Corrections Corporation of America’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission read very much like the documents of a slave-trader. Investors are warned that profits would go down if the demand for prisoners declines. That is, if the world’s largest police state shrinks, so does the corporate bottom line. Dangers to profitability include “relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws." The corporation spells it out: “any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them." At the Corrections Corporation of America, human freedom is a dirty word.

But, there is something even more horrifying than the moral turpitude of the prison capitalists. If private companies are allowed to own the deeds to prisons, they are a big step closer to owning the people inside them. Many of the same politicians that created the system of mass Black incarceration over the past 40 years, would gladly hand over to private parties all responsibility for the human rights of inmates. The question of inmates' rights is hardly raised in the debate over prison privatization. This is a dialogue steeped in slavery and racial oppression. Just as the old slave markets were abolished, so must the Black American Gulag be dismantled – with no compensation to those who traffic in human beings. ICH

Toddler Terrorist: TSA Threatens Lockdown Over 4-Year-old Girl

Toddler Terrorist: TSA Threatens Lockdown Over 4-Year-old Girl
April 25, 2012

The much-maligned Transport Security Authority (TSA) is once again in hot water after it accused an innocent four-year-old girl of attempted gun smuggling as she hugged her grandmother in the security zone.

­In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, Michelle Brademeyer describes the story of her family being detained as potential terrorists by the TSA on a flight out of Wichita, Kansas. The TSA is responsible for screening passengers as they board and disembark from planes.

Brademeyer was passing through security checks with her mother and her small daughter, Isabella. When the older lady triggered the metal detector, and was told to go for a pat-down, Isabella ran over to and briefly hugged her grandmother.

The TSA immediately said Isabella would now also have to undergo a pat-down, in case the grandmother passed contraband to her during the hug.

When the child shouted “I don’t want to,” the TSA declared Isabella a “high security threat,” and said that they would close down the airport if she moved.

Afterwards, the by-now-hysterical four-year-old was taken to a separate room, and told to stop crying. When she could not, the officers called for backup – saying “the suspect is not cooperating.”

Once the girl calmed down enough to be patted down, Brademeyer claims the transport police repeatedly stated that the girl might be carrying a weapon, as they had previously “seen a gun in a teddy bear.”

Neither the grandmother, nor the child had anything illegal on their person.

Eventually, Isabella and the rest of her family were allowed to board the flight.

The TSA has not questioned Brademeyer’s version of events, but refuses to apologize.

“TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper current screening procedures in conducting a modified pat-down on the child,” said an official statement.

Recent controversial TSA security procedures have included patting down a wheelchair-bound boy, making a woman with a “cute figure” repeatedly go through the body scanner, and forcing a mother to produce a bottle of her breast milk for inspection, before allowing her breast pump onboard.

Brademeyer’s Facebook page has been flooded with hundreds of comments of support from outraged passengers who also claim to have suffered at the hands of over-zealous TSA agents. ICH or more in depth, The Mail

Lessons From Ötzi, the Tyrolean Ice Man. Part III

There are two reasons why I chose this time to write about Otzi.  The first is that I've been looking for a good excuse to revisit human evolutionary history, particularly that of Europeans, and what it does and doesn't tell us about the "optimal" human diet.  The second is that Otzi's full genome was sequenced and described in a recent issue of Nature Communications (1).  A "genome" is the full complement of genes an organism carries.  So what that means is that researchers have sequenced almost all of his genes. 

Read more »

Be “a force of nature” and help others learn about severe weather preparedness

April 22-28 is the first Severe Weather Preparedness Week in the U.S. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are calling on you to “Be a Force of Nature” and spread the word about preparedness in your community.

How can you be a force of nature? There are three simple steps:

  1. Know the severe weather risks in your area.
  2. Make a plan to be prepared. Visit http://www.ready.gov/ to take the Preparedness Pledge and make your plan.
  3. Tell others what you’re doing to get ready.

Don’t forget to check out our Get Ready fact sheets, which can help you get ready for all kinds of severe weather and are available in both English and Spanish. You can also watch this short video from FEMA and NOAA for more information:

Leave a comment on our blog and tell us what you’re doing to become a force of nature for severe weather preparedness in your community!

"Dominate. Intimidate. Control." The Official Mantra of The American Police State

It's not unknown on occasion that one dismisses a headline out of hand; the type that fall into the 'don't be silly' category, the 'Freddie Star ate my hamster' kind of thing. Equally it was all too easy to dismiss the alleged motto of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as just another silly headline.

Can one really be expected to believe that a security organisation, an official agency of a western industrial nation, actually boasts above its portal, the words, "Dominate. Intimidate. Control." Expect or believe what you wish, unfortunately however it appears to be true, a quick search of the web verifying just that.

"Dominate. Intimidate. Control." It's the kind of business model one might borrow from Heir Himmler's organisation, not quite the Gestapo as yet, I suppose that is to come shortly, but for now let us settle for the Ordnungspolizei, the Order Police. A description that fits the TSA rather well I think.

Heinrich Himmler's ultimate aim was to replace the regular police forces of Germany with a combined racial/state protection corps (Staatsschutzkorps) of pure SS units. Local law enforcement would be undertaken by the Allgemeine-SS with the Waffen-SS providing homeland-security and political-police functions.

Homeland Security, now there's a thing, fancy that popping up.

I have read much this morning, after all, there is much written about the TSA; but for ease I shall keep it to a minimum and keep it to three general topics. The first being the original Guardian article, with just two links featured out of the many in the full piece.

The first link deals in the main, with just how intrusive these searches are on the person. For example:

The ACLU maintains an ever-growing database of these indignities, many so graphic they're illegal to broadcast over public airwaves. Actions that violate FCC standards are embraced by the TSA. "Mary in Texas" reported:

The TSA agent used her hands to feel under and between my breasts. She then rammed her hand up into my crotch until it jammed into my pubic bone ... I was touched in the pubic region in between my labia ... She then moved her hand across my pubic region and down the inner part of my upper thigh to the floor. She repeated this procedure on the other side. I was shocked and broke into tears.

A woman named Chris said:

"In the four times she explored the area where my inner thigh met my crotch, she touched my labia each time, and one pass made contact with my clitoris, through two layers of clothing. I told her I felt humiliated, assaulted and abused ... In my work as a nurse, if I did what the TSA did against a patient's will it would be considered assault and battery, and I did not see how the TSA should have different rules."

The second link takes us to what we would like to dismiss as silly, but unfortunately, truth disallows us that privilege. "Dominate. Intimidate. Control." The sorry record of the Transportation Security Administration is just that, a monumental record of a monumental clusterfuck, the TSA.

Of the last, and independent link, I will say a few words below.

The TSA's Mission Creep is Making the US a Police State

The out-of-control Transportation Security Administration is past patdowns at airports – now it's checkpoints and roadblocks
By Jennifer Abel
April 21, 2012

Ever since 2010, when the Transportation Security Administration started requiring that travelers in American airports submit to sexually intrusive gropings based on the apparent anti-terrorism principle that "If we can't feel your nipples, they must be a bomb", the agency's craven apologists have shouted down all constitutional or human rights objections with the mantra "If you don't like it, don't fly!"

This callous disregard for travelers' rights merely paraphrases the words of Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who shares, with the president, ultimate responsibility for all TSA travesties since 2009. In November 2010, with the groping policy only a few weeks old, Napolitano dismissed complaints by saying "people [who] want to travel by some other means" have that right. (In other words: if you don't like it, don't fly.)

But now TSA is invading travel by other means, too. No surprise, really: as soon as she established groping in airports, Napolitano expressed her desire to expand TSA jurisdiction over all forms of mass transit. In the past year, TSA's snakelike VIPR (Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams have been slithering into more and more bus and train stations – and even running checkpoints on highways – never in response to actual threats, but apparently more in an attempt to live up to the inspirational motto displayed at the TSA's air marshal training center since the agency's inception: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control." More the Guardian

And lastly, what it is really all about, conditioning and control: .....The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d’etat, with battering rams and marauding militia. As we have experienced first-hand in recent years, it will creep in softly, one violation at a time,

VIPR Searches and the American Citizen: 'Dominate. Intimidate. Control.'
By John W. Whitehead
July 05, 2011

“They’re trying to scare the pants off the American people that we need these things... Fear is a commodity and they’re selling it. The more they can sell it, the more we buy into it. When American people are afraid, they will accept anything.”—Kate Hanni, passengers’ rights advocate

“Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government…Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart.”— Justice Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials

.....The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d’etat, with battering rams and marauding militia. As we have experienced first-hand in recent years, it will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall.....

.....TSA and VIPR searches also indoctrinate children to accept pat-downs, full-body scans, and the like, as a regular component of the relationship between government and its citizens. In this way, police state tactics will gradually grow in acceptance as simply “the way things are.” A child who has been molested by government officials since before he could read is unlikely to question such activities as an unjustified exercise of authority when an adult.... The Rutherford Institute

An Interview With David Starkey

Love him or loathe him, and since his recent forthrightness on Question Time, probably quite a few new additions joining the ranks of the loathers.

No matter, Starkey is one eminently watchable historian, giving me as he has, hours of learning and genuine enjoyment via any number of his renowned historical documentaries. Not only that, how can you not love a man who describes our present Monarch as 'a housewife who lacks a serious education?'

That said, I have to say in all honestly, that I didn't know the first thing about the man; not that he was born with two clubbed feet or for that matter, his sexual orientation. Little wonder then, that I found this interview between Starkey and Rachel Cooke of the Observer, of particular interest.

David Starkey: 'I can be a bit harsh'

LinkWhen Rachel Cooke went to meet historian David Starkey, often called the rudest man in Britain, she expected it to be war. But that was before she started laughing at his tales of a first date in the Beaver's Retreat
Rachel Cooke
22 April 2012

Tales of the river: Starkey at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where he is curating an exhibition on Thames pageantry.

In the afternoon of 3 June, the Queen will mark her diamond jubilee by sailing the Thames from Hammersmith to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich aboard the royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell. In her wake will travel a flotilla of 1,000 boats decorated in streamers and flags, their crews resplendent in their finest rigs. There will be ancient boats and modern boats, rowing boats and sailing boats, steam boats and motorised boats, musical boats and boats spouting geysers. Most amazingly of all, the flotilla will be led by a floating belfry of eight bells, the largest of which, named for Queen Elizabeth, will weigh half a tonne. Its peal will be answered by the bells of churches all along the river and theirs, in turn, echoed by others up and down the land.

"Yes indeed," says David Starkey, distinguished constitutional historian, pressing the tips of his fingers together carefully. "The idea of a set of church bells on the river… I don't think that has ever happened before. Thames river pageants have always been a mixture of the grand and the loony, and this one looks like it is going to have elements of complete lunacy. It will certainly be interesting to see what the, er, sonic effect is." Starkey pauses and then, unable to resist, adds: "My guess is that the whole thing is just going to go straight over."

"Plop!" I say quietly.

"Plop?" A look of purest delight spreads across his face. "Ha ha ha! I think it will be rather more than a plop!"

Starkey and I are hidden away in a back room at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where he has guest curated an exhibition tracing the history of Thames pageantry. So far most of the advance fuss about this has centred on the fact that it will include Canaletto's The Thames on Lord Mayor's Day, a painting not seen in London since its completion in 1747. But it would, I think, be unmissable even without this astonishing centrepiece, taking the goggle-eyed visitor all the way from Anne Boleyn's coronation procession in 1533 to the Great Stink of 1858 and beyond. Among the 400 precious relics on display will be the earliest-known copy of Handel's Water Music, Bazalgette's original contract drawings for the construction of the Thames embankment, and a flag flown on the Apothecaries' barge at the funeral procession of Lord Nelson.

The Tudor and Stuart kings, of course, used their ever-more-elaborate Thames processions as a distraction, drawing public attention from such sticky matters as the fact that the king would persist in remarrying (awkward to crown Henry's numerous women in the traditional way) or, in the case of James II, that he was a Catholic (ditto). Would it be fair, then, to characterise our own dear queen's procession as yet another distraction? "I suppose if one was being terribly disloyal, the whole jubilee is a bit of a distraction," says Starkey. "But perhaps that's one of the essential purposes of the monarchy. As Walter Bagehot said: it's the dignified part of the constitution. It casts a veil of popularity over the efficient. Or, er, not. His words, rather than mine. But equally, whatever else one thinks of the Queen, time has gilded her. Only once she's gone will we really be forced to confront the changes that have gone on in Britain during the period of her reign. She has acted as a kind of facade."

So, if this isn't too indelicate a question, are we looking at a case of "après moi, le déluge"? No. "What is striking is how the reputation of the monarchy has gone up and down in my lifetime. It was untouchable until the 1970s. Then the younger members of the family… actually, it seems to me that they didn't behave particularly badly. After all, they're typical members of the post-1960s generation, and the idea that you sit on your private unhappiness and suffer in marriage, that no longer washed. But anyway, there was the annus horribilis and all that – and then this extraordinary reversal. The team kept going. William has had the sense to marry a girl who's naturally conventional. The important point, though, is that all this is set against the failure of our other institutions: parliament, the civil service and – please don't think me rude – the press. The monarchy has risen serene above a general wreck.

"If we address the future, we [the British] are driven by two principal forces: inertia and sentimentality. Monarchy benefits from both. I can see a more general political collapse ahead, though. It seems to me that it's 50:50 at best whether the United Kingdom survives. Alex Salmond is a malign genius and David Cameron is utterly without imagination or any idea of what he wants to do."

As for the Church of England, of which the sovereign remains Supreme Governor, it's a hopeless mess. "The church made a lethal mistake when Michael Ramsey was appointed archbishop by Harold Macmillan. It rediscovered Christianity, and that was fatal. Until that point, the archbishops had been the high priests of English Shinto: in other words, the church's job was really just to [enable us to] worship the monarchy and, by extension, ourselves. That was sensible. But then it gets cluttered up with all this nonsense about Christianity. The absolute disaster will be if someone like John Sentamu [the doctrinally conservative archbishop of York] is appointed. Catastrophe! The church has got to choose between being a national church or an international communion. It can't be both."

Should gay men be priests? A coy (or coy-ish) smile. "It's not for me to say. It's for the church to say." To gay marriage, though, Starkey is implacably opposed – and he remains bewildered, or so he insists, by the concept of civil partnerships. "There was a piece in the paper the other day about gay divorce." A moue of disgust. "What are gay people doing inflicting these horrors upon themselves? Get a civil partnership, and the moment things go wrong, the person who will determine your financial future is some incompetent, uncomprehending heterosexual! For God's sake. How mad can you be? Why would you want to drape yourself in the trappings of marriage? To voluntarily put your head in that noose!" Crikey. His disappointment – lofty, comical and haloed with his own somewhat old-fashioned brand of gay pride – is, if you ask me, as extravagantly theatrical as anything you will find on display in the gallery.

Thanks to recent appearances on Question Time and Newsnight, it is popular – righteous, even – to loathe David Starkey. When I tell friends I'm going to meet him, they grimace and roll their eyes. And I must admit that, en route, I prepare myself for combat. The rude pig! I think. The bigot! Naturally, my expectation is that he will be disdainful of me, a nice little liberal, and impossible to interrupt. I fantasise wildly about arriving at Greenwich on a golden barge or, better still, in an Elizabeth I outfit… That would shut him up. But playing to an audience of just one, I must report – don't all howl at once – that he is mostly (emphasis on the mostly) delightful: funny, interesting and courteous. I disagree with him passionately about the cause of last summer's riots. But unlike many of the men of his age and reputation I interview, he treats me as if I might have a brain. Amazing. Which leads me to wonder: are his antics on the telly an act? Or is it that, overexcited and prone to showing off, he sometimes backs himself into a rhetorical corner? He casts me a look. If he were a cat, he would now be purring. "Yes, I am quite charming and kitten-like, aren't I?" he says. And then: "My dear mother, 1,000 years ago, told me: 'Your tongue will be the ruination of you.' Well, in fact, it has proved to be rather the opposite. But she was 50% right, as mothers tend to be."

Mostly, though, he is keen to point out that when he is on television, he is merely doing exactly what the producers of these programmes want him to do. "What people have to understand – and this is why most politicians are so catastrophic on Question Time – is that it is a bear pit. It's a Colosseum. On Moral Maze [the Radio 4 programme which, when he joined it in 1992, earned him the title 'the rudest man in Britain] the producer was a brilliant impresario. Michael Buerk would be there, trying to calm things, and behind him, through the window, I could see the producer mouthing the words: 'Fuck the bugger!' at me. I've never, ever said anything that I didn't basically believe. But you dramatise and you personalise. It's a mixture of soap opera and wrestling."

Does he ever feel awful afterwards? "Of course! You wake up in the middle of the night, and you think: 'Why did I say that?'" So when he said of last year's riots, on Newsnight, that "the whites have become black", did he at least regret the hurt he caused? (He doesn't regret the remarks themselves, as he has said repeatedly.) "I'd want to put it the other way round. It's precisely because I do care [about the feelings of the black community] that I made them. It seems to me that this pussyfooting around and pretending that every problem blacks have in Britain is because of wicked whites is what is destroying them. I care desperately about the incidence of black murders. But more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. So there is clearly a problem.

"The one thing I valued about my Quaker upbringing was the insistence on calling things by their proper names. Unvarnished truths. This terrible sentimentality… people have to be told the truth even when truths are very painful. It's the only way anything gets any better. The great Victorian improvers were fearless. They didn't respect feelings. Wilberforce didn't respect the feelings of slave owners." It seems not to occur to Starkey that it is always members of your own community who are most likely to be violent towards you, whether you are white, black or Asian. Nor, apparently, does it strike him that comparing the sensitivities of 19th-century slave owners with those of black people everywhere is both utterly ghastly and muddle-headed. But perhaps he does register my disquiet, because he moves on from this point rather quickly and begins talking about George Galloway instead. And, on this, we do agree: the man is shameless.

Starkey was born in 1945, in Kendal, Cumbria – "a right tight little town", as he once put it. His father worked as a factory foreman, his mother was a char, and their only son was born with two club feet and infantile polio. Not an easy start, and yet Starkey lays all of his confidence, and all of his success, pretty much at its door. "This is going to sound shocking, but being born with two club feet was quite a good beginning. If you pull through that, you're very unsentimental. My earliest memories are of really agonising pain." He points at his brown deck shoes, which look a bit odd with his navy suit, tie and pocket square. "I've had some work done lately, because the surgery I had as a child hasn't lasted. That's why I'm wearing these. Anyway, I was about four. I was in the surgical ward at Westmorland General Hospital on Kendal Green, and it was agony. Every bone in the foot had been broken and reset. It was a general male ward, so I was told to shut up, not to disturb other people. So if I sometimes appear a bit harsh…" His voice trails off.

His mother, thwarted in her own efforts to attend teacher-training college, was determined and encouraging, and there were various teachers – he can still remember each of their names, and even their handwriting – who spotted him early on, with the result that he became a prize-winning pupil. "Of course I was the lonely, swotty child. But I was also the crippled child. I wore special boots at a time when boys wore shorts. So they were bleeding obvious. Sport was impossible. I was, though, too big to bully. I got into fights and I pounded the other person." His hands curl theatrically about an imaginary neck. "I had an uneasy transition between primary and secondary school, and I had a kind of nervous breakdown aged 13. People thought I'd sink to the bottom of the class, but I resumed where I was before. My school had honours boards and I decided my name would be up there. I always, I suppose, dreamed dreams. It was a cold, wet, northern town, and there was absolutely no spare money, and I decided that didn't suit me."

He won a scholarship to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, bagged a first and, having completed a doctorate supervised by Geoffrey Elton, eventually became a fellow. In 1972, he joined the LSE. In 1998, however, he abandoned academic life: his television career was beginning to take off – in 2002, he signed a £2m contract with Channel 4 – and he was finding it increasingly desiccated. He will bristle, though, if you ask him if he misses the life of the scholar. "Without wishing to sound pompous, I do more research now than ever. I'm working on a second volume of Henry VIII, and I've come up with some astonishing stuff on the crucial changeover from Henry VII that is going to revolutionise our understanding of his reign." Happily, the public is able to separate the snarling Starkey of Question Time from the serious historian, and his books are well-regarded, and sell in vast quantities. Commissioning editors also know the difference. His deal at Channel 4 will end shortly with a film about the Churchills, and then he is to make a BBC series about the royal courts.

It was when he moved to the LSE that he truly discovered gay life. Hampstead Heath, as he doesn't mind telling you, was a kind of sylvan sweetshop so far as he was concerned, a Swizzles lolly behind every tree. "Oh, yes. Exquisite." Did he ever worry about picking up the wrong man? "I only had one unpleasant experience, when I was stupid enough to pick up someone in a loo at Piccadilly. I'd been to the Reform Club for dinner. I'd had a run-in with this dreary professor at the University of London, and dinner at the Reform was his peace offering. He was teetotal and I decided to punish him by ordering the most expensive claret on the list. So I was a bit tiddly and I finished up in this loo with someone threatening to beat me up."

I remark that he was never much of a marcher for gay rights. But, no, I'm wrong. "I did actually go on one march. Yes! It is hard to imagine. Though it's even harder to imagine what I was wearing." Oh, go on. Tell. "Well, it was the early 70s. Flares, 3in soles, my arms conspicuously wrapped around Jamie Gardiner's bottom, no doubt. He was the man who lured me into all that stuff. What was particularly ludicrous was that the march was in Great Malvern." So would he have been more keen on civil partnerships then? "No! We didn't campaign for equality. We knew we were superior. We were campaigning for the right to do whatever we wanted. I remember Jamie saying: 'We've got to establish that having sex is like having a cup of coffee: all that matters is whether you want milk or sugar.' Wonderful! I'm a libertarian, you see."

How did his parents respond when he came out? "My mother was… it effectively destroyed our relationship. My father. Dear dad. His reaction to every problem was the same: he went out and bought a book about it. He was the classic working-class autodidact. He solemnly read a book about it and then he solemnly talked to me about it. Of course, that was excruciating for me, but he was completely wonderful and it was through that that we really got to know each other, because my mother had been fiercely possessive."

His cruising days are, of course, long since over. He has shared his houses in London and Kent with James Brown, a publisher, for the past 18 years. How did they meet? A puckish grin. "Oh, nobody ever believes me when I tell them this. It was in a bar at the LSE called [cue dramatic pause]… the Beaver's Retreat." He waits while I recover myself – this takes a while, if I'm honest – and then he says, with mock seriousness: "The beaver, you see, is on the LSE shield. It's a symbol of hard work."

He knew this relationship was going to be different right from the start: "You could tell it was high romance because we didn't fuck each other on the first night." So what's their secret? For a moment, he falters, and I wonder if I am about to be told to get knotted. But, no. On he goes. "I suppose, finally, that it's two things. There has to be a high level of mutual tolerance and a thorough enjoyment of each other's company. It's got to combine love and friendship, but also, you can't be captious. The reason so many relationships run aground is that we're a spoilt generation used to having everything exactly as we want it. But I'm afraid that if there are two of you together, there will be lots of occasions where neither party has exactly what they want. The best is the enemy of the good. Human life isn't about ideals. It's a compromise, and occasionally it's boring. We spoke very seriously. We had a sort of honeymoon in Bologna, and we made a series of promises to each other. I won't tell you what they were. But we weren't too ambitious and I think we've both stuck to them." His voice is suddenly soft, almost gentle, and I think, not for the first time: if only the politicians who avoid him in the Question Time green room could see him now. Observer

Just a small taster for those whom Starkey is a stranger.

UK Security Services Colluded With Libyan Agents

MI5 'gave Libyan spies details of dissidents in Britain'

Libyan agents were reportedly greeted at Heathrow and given mobiles and a safehouse in Knightsbridge on 2006 mission
22 April 2012

Jack Straw, who faces legal action over claims that he personally permitted the illegal rendition of a Libyan dissident in 2004.

The details of some of Muammar Gaddafi's opponents who had fled to Britain were given to Libyan spies by MI5, it has been reported.

Documents uncovered from archives in Libya reveal that agents for the British secret service supplied the confidential information to Gaddafi's intelligence officers, according to the Mail on Sunday.

It is claimed that in 2006 two Libyan agents were greeted at Heathrow airport and given a safehouse in Knightsbridge and secure mobile phones.

It was revealed on Wednesday that the Libyan military commander Abdel Hakim Belhaj is taking legal action against Jack Straw following allegations that the former foreign secretary personally permitted his illegal rendition.

His lawyers confirmed that legal papers had been served on the Labour MP after reports suggested he had signed documents that allowed the rebel to be sent back to his homeland in 2004.

Belhaj, 45, claims he had been living in exile in Beijing, China, before being detained with his wife Fatima while en route to the UK where they were trying to seek asylum.

The Conservative MP David Davies said the revelations unearthed from the archives suggested MI5 was involved in "peculiar" activities towards Libyans in the UK.

He said: "The operation which led to Mr Belhaj and others being extradited to Libya by the Americans was not the only operation we carried out in conjunction with the Libya security services.

"This is two years later. It involves people who have come to Britain, presumably cleared to live in Britain, being put under pressure to deal with the security service, which seems rather peculiar if this is realpolitik rather than protecting the security of the country."

Margaret Beckett, who was foreign secretary at the time, said the level of co-operation between Libya and the UK described in the files "didn't ring any bells with me".

She said it sounded like an "operational issue" and added: "If it's MI5 it's nothing to do with the Foreign Office."

The documents, classified "UK/Libya Secret", are reported to reveal that Libya was told its targets could be threatened with deportation if they failed to co-operate.

According to the minutes of one meeting between agents, a member of British intelligence staff said: "The target person has the right to make a complaint or seek police protection.

"British intelligence must be careful how they approach a target because this individual could call on human rights or the press and cause a security scandal that exposes the co-operation between British and Libyan secret services."

Close ties between Tripoli and London were also revealed in other confidential papers which document how MI6 and Libyan intelligence chiefs set up a radical mosque in a western European city to lure al-Qaida terrorists, according to the Sunday Telegraph.