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November 27, 2006

Westminster's map

[Update: I finally got round to adding legends to the maps]

Which countries get talked about in parliament? With data from They Work For You, I've put together these maps of where MPs like to talk about. Here's the number of mentions a country has had in parliament recently, adjusted for population:

<- Few mentions_________________Many mentions->

Looking at this, I'm actually surprised at how globally-minded Parliament is. Sudan (pop. 34.2 million) gets 2,302 mentions; Germany (pop. 82.5 million) has only 3,695 mentions in parliament.

Far from being ignored, Africa actually gets mentioned well beyond its economic importance to the UK. South America, on the other hand, is basically ignored.

Then there's the size bias: small countries get more mentions than big ones, once you adjust for population. Look at Mongolia: Westminster, it seems, finds Mongolians immensely more important than Chinese. The bias can partly be discounted as a problem with measurement: parliament is prone to lists of foreign relations and trade issues, for instance, which mention every country regardless of how small it is. Also, it's possible MPs talk about areas within China or India, which I wouldn't have picked up on.

But there's more to it: larger countries really do get short-changed in the attention we give them. China has a population perhaps 150 times larger than than of Bolivia - but we don't hear anything like 150 times as much news from China. We're all biased by imagining a world made up of nations, and giving the same weight to nations of all sizes. Small islands got discussed an incredible amount - particularly places in the news, like Tuvalu and the Pitcairns, but others as well.

Here's another map, adjusted for landmass rather than population. There are less surprises here: heavily-populated parts of the world get talked about more. It just demonstrates what we knew already: size doesn't matter, it's how many people you cram into it.

<- Few mentions_________________Many mentions->

Finally, for the sake of completeness, here's a map of the raw data. No adjustments, just what's hot in parliament:

<- Few mentions_________________Many mentions->

The details

The figures for how many times a country is mentioned come from scraping They Work for You. I tried using their API, but it wouldn't let me count mentions without slurping down the text of every statement containing the search term. I counted mentions of the country name, and common variants (e.g. United States and USA). Long-winded names were shortened down to the shortest couple of words that would uniquely identify the place: 'St. Pierre and Miquelon' becomes 'St. Pierre' (or 'Saint Pierre'). I believe the data indexed goes back to 2001, but I'm not entirely sure about the details.

Colors on the maps go from blue (few mentions) to yellow (many mentions). Countries shown in white on the map are where the different tables I was using for country names, population, and land-area didn't match up; they could be easily fixed with a little tweaking, but I'm too lazy for now. There are also a few problems with ambiguous names: one reason Georgia seems so much mentioned is that it shares a name with a US state.

The world map, population and area figures are from UN data for 2002. I put it together with the python interface to mapscript: for some reason, none of the Web 2.0 mapping sites seem to make it easy to make density maps.

Here are all the numbers in one file.

November 22, 2006

Countries mentioned in parliament

Since My Society have made data on what's happening in parliament so easily available, I figured somebody should poke at it. Here is a first shot: a table of how often each of the world's developing countries has been mentioned in Commons and Lords debates. The plan now is to look at what gets a country mentioned in parliament - i.e. (very roughly) what foreign policy issues MPs and Lords care about. So far I've only looked at the GDP of the countries, which doesn't make a great deal of difference (R²=0.45), but I'm currently trying to find data for trade with the UK, human rights, and so on. The one surprise so far is how closely the number of mentions in the Lords and in the Commons match each other (R²=0.97) - I'd expected them to get excited about different topics. The lords cared more about Burma, and less about Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but not greatly.

Anyway, I'll keep on tinkering with this for a while, and see what else I can find.

November 21, 2006

Hersh for the lazy

Seymour Hersh's latest piece on Iran isn't one of his greatest hits, but there are still some fascinating nuggets...

In the past six months, Israel and the United States have also been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan. The group has been conducting clandestine cross-border forays into Iran

Having this run as a military rather than a CIA operation apparently reduces the need for the US administration to report on it. But most of the article isn't about covert ops so much as it's about showing how crazy the people in power are:

many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq.....They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq--like doubling your bet. It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.

um. Iran is at least somewhat democratic - imperfect, but certainly more appealing than a US puppet imposed by force. So here's another idea for saving Iraq:

The White House believes that if American troops stay in Iraq long enough-with enough troops-the bad guys will end up killing each other, and Iraqi citizens, fed up with internal strife, will come up with a solution.

In their defence, although the optimism is misplaced, getting the army out of Iraq's cities isn't a bad start. Back to Iran, and another example of the American tendency to exaggerate Sunni-Shia differences:

A nuclear-armed Iran would not only threaten Israel. It could trigger a strategic-arms race throughout the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt-all led by Sunni governments-would be compelled to take steps to defend themselves.

And finally, yet another reason why bombing Iran is a very stupid idea:

the C.I.A.'s assessment suggested that Iran might even see some benefits in a limited military strike-especially one that did not succeed in fully destroying its nuclear program in that an attack might enhance its position in the Islamic world.

When Hu meets Musharraf

When Hu Jintao finishes in India, he's going to move on to Pakistan. Below the cut is a quick summary of what he's going to be talking about with Musharraf.

Boats, trains and trucks

China is building a lot of infrastructure in Pakistan, with the two biggest projects being the Karakoram Highway and development of the port of Gwadar (see my earlier post. China needs these not so much to improve relations with Pakistan, but so they can conduct trade with, and ship oil from, Iran and Central Asia. Plus, a Chinese naval base at Gwadar would give them control over the Arabian sea.

Even though they're footing the bill for most of this, the Chinese are having to fight to keep some of these projects from being shelved. Gwadar in particular is under threat from the US, which pushed Pakistan to raise the amount of money they were demanding from China.

They'll also likely talk about various pipeline projects, an area where senior Chinese officials could act as useful go-betweens for the South Asian nations.

Guns and bombs

Then there's the military side. China has traditionally provided much of Pakistan's military equipment, including nuclear technology.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has found it much easier to buy weapons from the West. This makes them less dependent on the cheap, low-quality Chinese weaponry that was formerly a mainstay of their army. The Chinese delegation will need to convince Pakistan that China is a less fickle friend than than Western countries (which are likely to reimpose sanctions on military goods in a few years' time, when Pakistan becomes less strategically important). No doubt Tony Blair was pushing the opposite position on his visit to Pakistan this weekend.

There has been speculation about a nuclear deal, although I find that unlikely after the Pakistani and Indian missile tests last week. China's past nuclear assistance to Pakistan - which includes the technology behind earlier versions of the rocket tested last week - infuriates India. China is currently more interested in India than in Pakistan, and Indian opposition has previously almost scuppered a Pakistan-China nuclear deal (without tests going on at the time) - so my guess is there won't be any statements on the nuclear industry.

November 20, 2006

The US lifts some restrictions on uclear cooperation with India. Yes, I know this looks like some kind of proxy war, where the US backs India and China backs Pakistan - but it isn't. China is far more pragmatic than that - they want trade, they want oil, and they aren't interested in petty power politics. So they don't have a problem supporting India and Pakistan. No doubt Hu's visit to India today will lead to the announcement of some big industrial project or other - and then he'll move on to Pakistan and do the same again.

November 17, 2006

Okruashvili: Russian reaction

Quick summary of what the Russian press & blogs are saying about Okruashvili, before I leave it for tonight.

Gazeta explains this as a result of his humiliation by the president, and expects him to go into opposition:

For a country in Georgia's position, Minister of Defence is a key position. But Minister for Economic Growth - that's the equivalent of somebody "retreating to his Dacha" in Soviet times

There hasn't yet been all that much Livejournal comment yet (that I've found), but this seems typical:

"Essentially, he understood that nobody shines in the post of Economy Minister. Winter is on its way and energy relations with Russia are shit. And he decided to jump ship, which is reasonable"

And the news sources are only now getting over the idea that it might all have been an elaborate bluff, an idea fuelled by Okruashvili being out of the country.

Meanwhile the Georgian opposition are already swarming around Okruashvili as a potential leader. Levan Berdzenishvili of the Democratic Front, wonders if Okruashvili is going to move into opposition, saying "It's too early to call, everything depends on Okruashvili himself". That's about as blatant an offer to join him as you can get, and I imagine there will be a lot more Georgian politicians coming out with something similar.

What is Okruashvili up to?

I've now had some time to read the reports on Okruashvili's resignation. Most are brief, and the only attempt at explaining his reasons is this fairly implausible comment from Itar-Tass:

Some reports said he intends to give up politics and turn to business, while other reports said he wishes to continue his education abroad. Also worth reading is Molly Corso's rush-job analysis at Eurasianet, which summarises the background nicely, but doesn't explain what's happening today.

But what's he up to? I can only imagine that Okruashvili has decided to split the United National Movement, the party which contains both him and Saakashvili, and form a more nationalist opposition.

If so, it's not a stupid move. After the president, Okruashvili is the most popular politician in Georgia. He could plausibly bring the opposition together into an anti-Saakashvili coalition. The country is littered with small parties which have little hope of making it by themselves. Most of them are driven less by ideology than by pragmatism and the personalities of their leaders, so it should be possible to get them into bed together.

The only thing I don't understand is why Okruashvili has made this announcement from abroad. Perhaps that's a sign that he hasn't lined up supporters yet, and is hoping that being away from Tbilisi will give him more time to do deals before making a public statement when he returns to the country?

That Georgian defence minister who got shunted off to 'economy minister', and was replaced by a 28-year-old? He's just resigned, which presumably means he's going to take on Saakashvili. Drama on its way...

November 16, 2006

Slamming just says "let's not fight"

When Radio Free Europe report that "Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze today slammed the Commonwealth of Independent States", they're missing the point slightly. The news isn't that Georgia dislikes the CIS (we know that already), but that they aren't doing anything about it. 'Slamming' is a de-escalation, not an escalation, compared to their other options.

If Georgia wanted to cause trouble, they would be trying to leave the CIS. That's what the opposition want, and what Russia is afraid of: this summit was due to be held last month, at the height of Georgian-Russian anger, but Russia arranged a postponement to avoid a rash pullout by Georgia.

Leaving the CIS is one of the few weapons Georgia has against Russia: the organisation represents the last vestige of Moscow's control over its 'near abroad', but is being held together with chewing gum and bits of string. To the East it's being eclipsed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and to the West by GUAM. Since these can fulfil most of the functions of an international talking shop, nobody except Russia has an interest in keeping the CIS running. If Georgia left, it could plausibly bring down the whole house of cards.

But the Georgians are being smart. If they actially leave the CIS, they lose a barganing chip and don't gain much beyond the joy of watching Russia suffer. Much better to turn up, refuse to pay membership fees, grandstand about Russia's crimes, and keep that threat on the table:

"We are here to make sure once again if we have any reasons to stay in the organization, or it has no future," Burjanadze announced.

Along with the recent replacement of the Defence Minister, this seems to be part of a very sensible pattern of de-escalation by Georgia.

November 15, 2006

A babe in arms

The latest surprise in Georgian politics is...a substitution. Out goes defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, in comes Davit Kezerashvili, a 28-year old neophyte whose main claim to fame is as chief tax inspector.
What's going on here? Is it because Okruashvili has been shooting his mouth off, backing Georgia into a corner by talking tough at Russia? Molly Corso at Eurasianet writes:
According to analysts, Okruashvili, infamous for his blunt, anti-Russian rhetoric, became a liability as Georgia strives to fight Russian attempts to portray Tbilisi as the aggressor in the bilateral row. "In Russia and the United Nations, Okruashvili was identified with war," said Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst with the Tbilisi-based International Center on Conflict and Negotiation.
I'm not convinced. Yes, he has made a few awkward comments - but that hardly seems fair when other ministers are accusing Russia of ethnic cleansing and the like, and aren't being fired.

If this is about Russia, it's only via Ossetia. Okruashvili said he wanted to spend the New Year in Tskhinvali, capital of the South Ossetian region which, with Russian support, is trying to separate itself from Georgia. He was born in Ossetia, and is pretty determined to bring it back under Georgian control. So, the argument goes, Saakashvili is trying to calm down the tensions over Ossetia, and avoid some embarrassing PR over the new year.

I find that a lot more plausible. Saakashvili himself has a basically mainstream attitude to South Ossetia - that is, something which looks over the top to outsiders. He knows the voters like the idea ofdefeating the separatists, made that a plank of his presidential campaign in 2004, and has let things escalate to armed scuffles both in August 2004, and in July of this year. So if Ossetia is behind this, it's not because of a fundamental difference of opinion. But right now, when Georgia is trying to look like the innocent victim of Russian aggression, it's probably best to keep this conflict on the back burner. And that's especially true after last week's South Ossetian referendum (the people voted heavily for independence, surprising nobody but ratcheting up the tension), which makes this an even trickier dispute to handle. The new defence minister's won't be going overboard on Ossetia: his protestations that he isn't soft on South Ossetia just demonstrate that he is seen as softer than his predecessor.

But, by itself, that's not enough to explain putting your defence policy in such inexperienced hands. Granted, Kezerashvili's previous job as head tax inspector is a lot more macho than it sounds - in this part of the world tax evasion is closely linked to organized crime, and the financial police have a reputation for dramatic, heavily-armed raids. But that's a long way from running the army - the opposition are branding him "a deserter...with no clue about the army". And Kezerashvili has been forced into making a fairly laughable attempt to prove his military creds:
Like most Georgians, I also like weapons.... I have a favorite sword.
If it was just about foreign policy and PR, couldn't Saakashvili just have told Okruashvili - and old ally - to keep his mouth shut for a few months?

So if foreign policy can't explain it, what about the domestic angle? It can't quite be a case of Saakashvili putting his men in charge, since the old defence minister was already a close ally of his. But if Okruashvili was an ally, Kezerashvili is entirely Saakashvili's creation: a peon in the Justice Ministry until Saakashvili grabbed him as a personal assistant, and helped him into ever-grander jobs. There's an element here of grooming Kezerashvili to become a major political player (being made minister at age 28 isn't bad going, even in a country with a population of 4 million), combined with the knowledge that for now he's going to follow Saakashvili's lead.

But however competent and loyal Saakashvili expects Kezerashvili to be, he's also relying on him not being one of the big guns. Okruashvili was getting hard to push around: in a recent poll, 90% of Georgians considered him to be Georgia's second most powerful politician. There are suggestions that the president thought Okruashvili was planng a coup, but even without going so far, it's very likely that Saakashvili wants to be the dominant figure in foreign policy right now. And he's probably managed it in the short term - but at the cost of turning a powerful ally into an enemy

Extreme pornography

I can't put it better than Emarkienna

As much as I might like to hear the Queen say words such as "pornography" and perhaps "necrophilia", I really hope tomorrow she doesn't.

[Good explanation of problems with the proposed ban on extreme pornography here, old news reports here and here]

November 14, 2006

A mandala is a memory palace

Maṇḍalas and memory palaces: that's the theme of something I might have written, had I managed to stay in the academic world. The idea is that the intricate visualisations peformed by a Tantric adept during a ritual work as keys to remembering doctrine, in the same way as Roman orators and renaissance scholars used 'memory palaces' to organise their knowledge. And because all these groups relied on their memories more than we do, they were immeasurably better at putting them to good use.

A lot of Buddhists, modern and ancient, would have a hard time understanding the point of a ritual like this one, where they visualise a kind of hideous monster:

terrible indeed, roaring 'PHAT', adorned with skull ornaments, with sixteen legs, naked, ithyphallic, left legs extended, with a great belly, with hair standing upright, causing great fear, roaring 'pheṃ', with thirty‐four arms and holding a fresh elephant skin [From the Vajrabhairava Tantra]

But when you read the commentary, all this is explained in terms of traditional Buddhist doctrines:

he is ornamented with skull ornaments because he is born from the sphere of dharmas...his sixteen legs are the complete ascertainment of the sixteen emptinesses...he is naked because he understands without obscuration all dharmas....he is ithyphallic because he becomes the great bliss...his left legs are extended because all dharmas are individually penetrated by emptiness...His hair standing up is a sign of his freedom from suffering....The thirty-four arms are the complete ascertainment of the thirty-four aspects of bodhi

Yes, some of the connections are a bit dubious (the usual argument is that the commentators were taking bizarre, transgressive rituals and trying to make them seem orthodox) ‐ but the principle is clearly there: visualise something colourful, and it'll help you remember what`s going on.

In fact, this isn't new. Buddhism was designed from the start to be easy to remember. Why do you have four noble truths, a noble eightfold path, five aggregates, and so on? Because lists are easy to remember, and when you're a wandering monk with only a bowl and a robe for company, you need to keep things in your head.

But go back to that odd Tantric visualisation, because things get even more interesting here. It isn't just many-armed gods that were being pictured here, but maṇḍalas with intricate patterns of lines and symbols. One of the underlying themes is the one known in the West by the tag "as above, so below" and in India by "tat tvam asi": i.e. that the maṇḍala represents the world as a whole. And by meditating on aspects of the maṇḍala, you can recall what you have been taught about the universe.

Apart from the Buddhism, this isn't so different from something similar in Europe. Cicero used this 'ars memorativa' to remember his speeches, but the most detailed surviving source is Quintilian, who describes a memory method based on placing symbols of things to be remembered around a home. It's quite similar to the Indian method, except based around a real building not an imagined maṇḍala, and aimed at the law-courts not at religion. It all fits far too comfortably into stereotypes of practical Rome and the mystic East, doesn't it?

This 'art of memory' dribbles on through the centuries, and gets a shot in the arm in the Renaissance, as it's picked by by people like Robert Fludd (who develops a memory palace possibly based on the Globe theatre) and Giordano Bruno (who was famous as a mnemonicist long before the Church burned him as a heretic). These people were still talking about 'memory palaces', but they were moving them away from Quintilian's real buildings and closer to the imagined spaces of Indian rituals.

Now, although I did find one tantilising suggestion of contact between Indian and European mnemonicists, I don't think they're sharing ideas. They've independently come up with similar techniques, because they work.

And that's partly why I'm so fascinated: this is one of the few areas where the modern world lags massively behind the great cultures of history. The mnemonics we retain are laughable shadows. Libraries, computers and cheap paper function as our outboard brains so we don't need onboard brains in the form of maṇḍalas and memory palaces.

In turn, that makes this one of the few areas where humanities scholars can justify their existence. Bringing back these old techniques, and combining for the first time the memory techniques of India, Europe, and anywhere else, is a project that would contribute something useful to the knowledge circulating in our culture. I almost wish I'd stayed in a university, so I could do it.

Mnemonics East and West: I don't seriously think that there was any direct interconnection between Indian and European mnemonic traditions, but I did find this intriguing line in the Ars Memorativa, a memory guide printed in Germany in 1490:

There are some masters who use loci other than doors. Such as chairs, benches, tables, bridges, windows or villages. But they recognise that the door is the easiest to know. Those from India paint in their loci like in a book, like birds, animals, fish. First they have an eagle, then a sparrowhawk, thirdly a hawk, etc. Some from Chaldea use all sorts of strange things. They paint sheep, birds, carts, wheels, horses....

Almost certainly, the author here (who, to be honest, seems to be something of a hack) is just using 'India' to mean 'some wacky far-out place'. But you never know, I could be wrong.

Quintilian: He wrote a full chapter on the art of memory, going through his method in detail. Summarising the crucial bits:

Some place is chosen of the largest possible extent and characterised by the utmost possible variety, such as a space house divided into a number of rooms. Everything of note therein is carefully committed to the memory...
The next step is to distinguish something [to be remembered] by some particular symbol which will serve to jog the memory....
These symbols are then arranged as follows. The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living-room; the remainder are placed in due order all round... and entrusted not merely to bedrooms and parlours, but even to the care of statues and the like. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details

November 9, 2006

How Pakistan wins in Central Asia

Pakistan is quietly setting itself up to do very well out of Central Asia, slightly underneath the radar. Despite being a significant power it itself, militarily and population-wise, Pakistan's playing the typical game of the small state. It's piggybacking on the aspirations of China, America, and even India, being bankrolled and supported by them without ever quite becoming a client state.

China and the oil

China is famously desperate for oil, and Pakistan is doing well by helping it get at what's in Central Asia. At the core of this is Gwadar, a fishing village that Pakistan is furiously turning into a port and transport hub - funded by over $400m of Chinese money. It might be a grim place to visit, but it's also the site of a fascinating convergence of superpowers.

Remember the oil pipeline through Afghanistan - the one some people claimed was behind the US invasion of Afghanistan? That was going to end up in Gwadar - and still will, if it ever goes ahead. It might end up being extended at both ends, to Azerbaijan and India, with Pakistan sitting happily in the middle taking transit fees. If that pipeline doesn't come off (building anything through Afghanistan seems pretty dubious), there's another one waiting in the wings: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas route - which would again go through Gwadar.

China has been considering building another pipeline on from Gwadar into China - and even if that doesn't happen, they'll be able to ship oil out by sea. Meanwhile the Chinese are building one railway to connect Gwadar to the Karakoram Highway, have already built a road linking it to Karachi, and are looking at linking it to Iran.

So, China gets a little more energy security, Pakistan gets road, railways, a new port, earnings from transit fees, and Chinese interest in keeping Pakistan stable.

America and the Taliban

Then there's America - an even clearer case of Pakistan selling off its foreign policy, but getting a good proce for it. In September 2001 Musharraf managed to spin Pakistan's foreign policy 180 degrees, abandon the Taliban, and let the American army use Pakistan to invade Afghanistan. And boy, were they rewarded - with money, with weapons, with a trade deal and with general support for the regime.

India

Pakistan can't use quite the same approach to dealing with its greatest enemy - but even here there are pragmatic elements. It's just that here Pakistan's deal-makers are competing with the populists and the nationalists, and they only come out on top some of the time.

Let's take the populists first. India-bashing always goes down well, and if there's an election coming up the politicians will say some nasty things about India. But this isn't all that important: sometimes politicians get boxed in by their rhetoric and forced to do something, sometimes talking tough affects the situation by itself - but in general, the grandstanding doesn't amount to much.

More important is the body of nationalistic, paranoid, anti-Indian opinion which dominates Pakistans army and intelligence services. These are the people who got Pakistan involved in supporting the Taliban to provide 'Strategic Depth' - that is, having friendly space for Pakistan's army to regroup in the face of an attack from India, and avoiding India and her allies encircling Pakistan. These people get nervous when they see India stationing a dozen MiG-29 fighter planes in Tajikistan

But then there's the third group, who want to cut the same kind of deal with India as they've made with China and the US. That is, let India use Pakistan as a route to Central Asia (and Iran, in this case), and on the back of that get money and an Indian interest in keeping Pakistan stable. The big avenue for this is a proposed gas pipeline running from Iran to India, through Pakistan. From that idea, it's only a short step to getting India a share of what comes off any pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. When gas is involved, even the arch-enemy can be turned into a friend.

Keeping everybody happy

It's not easy keeping three superpowers in bed together, but Pakistan is navigating through the straits pretty well. The US didn't like the look of China's involvement in Gwadar - they saw it as a listening post and a way for China to project naval power into the Arabian sea. So they leant on Pakistan to push China out of the deal. What did Pakistan do? They raised the price of Chinese involvement, demanding $1.5bn per year from Beijing. So Islamabad turns a conflict into a win: either China coughs up and they're in the money, or they back out and the US takes over Gwadar (which they'd find useful for browbeating Iran and for supplying trops in Iraq) When Pakistan chooses to defy the superpowers, it can, because every power involved has an interest in propping up the Musharraf government. Most obviously, the US is still relying on their support in the War on Terror. But nobody wants to see a nuclear power in civil war, and both China and (especially) India know that a disintegrating Pakistan is infinitely worse than a stable Pakistan.

Going it alone?

Apart from being everybody's accomplice, is Pakistan getting involved in Central Asia? Well, they've tried a little, but not enough for anybody to care much. According to RAND:

In the early 1990s, many Pakistani firms and the Bank of Pakistan moved into the region expecting rapid liberalization and acceptance of their services. After attempting to conduct business in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for several years, many firms re-sorted to looking for an exit strategy.1

Pakistan's government has made a few attempts at promoting business in Central Asia, but it's mostly trivia. In 2003-4, Pakistan's exports to Central Asia and the Caucasus amounted to just 1.2bn rupees - or slightly over US$20m!

There's no much worth mentioning militarily, either: Pakistan's army may be the 7th largest in the world, but it's pointed entirely at India. The ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service) reputedly has agents all over the region, but they don't exactly do a great deal. In the past they were accused of stirring up Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, but that was mostly a by-product of what was happening in Afghanistan - and has stopped since 2001 in any case. It doesn't matter much, because Pakistan is doing far better from helping superpowers than it could do by itself.

November 8, 2006

History of printing

This post is brought to you by the awestruck feeling of finding yet another underexplored bit of world history....

We all know Gutenberg wasn't the first person to experiment with movable type; it had been tried in China before. What I hadn't realised was just how international the world was first time round. One of the first examples of movable type comes from the Tangut Empire. They were printing in a language unrelated to Chinese, written in a script inspired by Chinese characters - but with a set of 6000+ totally different logograms. And some of the first texts that they tried to print like this were buddhist text translated from Sanskrit (possibly via Tibetan).

So: this culture created a writing system inspired by the Chinese, a religion from India, and out of them developed movable type 400-odd years before Gutenberg. Impressive, no?

But, there's a flaw. Movable type makes a lot less sense with 6000 characters than it does with an alphabet of 30-something. So for the most part, they just printed by carving wood-blocks, one per page. So when they created a Tangut version of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptural canon, they used 130,000 blocks. Most of them are now in London or St. Petersburg, having been raided by people like Aurel Stein. Here are some papers on Tangut history and language.

[The picture is a fragment from a written Tangur text of the Platform Sutra, taken from the British Library]

Who are the Bishkek protesters?

Rather than another blow-by-blow accoutn of what's going on in Kyrgyzstan, I thought it might be more useful to do a 'who's who' of the protesters. I've also tried to touch-up/create bios for some of them over at Wikipedia. Beware: the below is neither comprenensive nor fully checked...

  • Almaz Atambaev. Social Democratic Party Businessman, failed presidential candidate in 2000, briefly minister for Industry, trade and tourism
  • Omurbek Tekebaev. Speaker (former speaker?) of the Kyrgyz parliament, presidential candidate in 2000. Is his brother, Asylbek Tekebayev, also involved?
  • Edil Baisalov: NGO-wallah, blogger, victim of an assassination attempt earlier this year. No formal party affiliation, as far as I know.
  • Roza Otunbayeva, former Foreign Minister. Founder of the small Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party. She was banned from standing in the 2005 elections because she hadn't been resident in Kyrgyzstan for five years (she had been serving as ambassador to the US!)
  • Isa Omurkulov. Former minister of railroads.
  • Timur Sariev. Being quoted a lot, but I can't find anything about him, except that he's a member of parliament.
  • Kubatbek Baibolov - leader of the Union of Democratic Forces
  • Melis Eshimkanov. Deputy chair, social democratic party, and former presidential candidate.

Yurt-blogging

You'll only find one article on it in the British broadsheets, but Kyrgyzstan has spent the past five days in the middle of massive, peaceful anti-government demonstrations. The protesters are principally calling for a change in the constitution to reduce the power of the president, but they also want to get rid of the President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Felix Kulov.

I love watching the role of blogs in all this. Edil Baisalov the protesters' unofficial spokesman, is posting frequent (Russian) updates on Livejournal - from a yurt outside the parliament building. Meanwhile Yulia at New Eurasia is keeping up a commentary from the opposite side, very critical of the opposition and worried that repeated coups will turn the country into a banana republic. Even Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress has turned to livejournal: they were having trouble keeping their site up, so they set up a livejournal and started posting reports up there.

If you want to follow what's going on in English: here are news updates, analysis from people outside the country here and here. Currently Eurasianet is reporting that things have started to turn violent - here's hoping for a compromise of some kind.

November 7, 2006

Blogging about blogging (sorry!)

Interesting bits from David Sifry (of technorati)'s annual state of the blogosphere post:

  • "About 55% of all blogs are active, which means that they have been updated at least once in the last 3 months" Really? I find that extremely hard to believe
  • World political events cause major posting spikes. That seems to suggest a lot of people write about political things.

Memes: toxic in China

Remember the Free Hugs meme? Somebody in Australia started hugging people in the streets, it spread to Russia, Italy, Taiwan, Korea, Poland, and pretty much the rest of the world.

Then, some people in Shanghai tried it - and were promptly arrested

Shanghai Free Hugs

Before the arrest, presumably

The huggers were released after a couple of hours, but still: a big 'meh!' to the Chinese police

[cross-post from livejournal]

Glassy Essence

John Updike reviews Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Reading about the Glass family, like reading about the Bagthorpes or watching The Royal Tenenbaums, is a guilty pleasure tinged with recognition and wish-fulfilment. Updike says much the same:

Of Zooey, we are assured he has a "somewhat preposterous ability to quote, instantaneously and, usually, verbatim, almost anything he had ever read, or even listened to, with genuine interest." The purpose of such sentences is surely not to particularize imaginary people but to instill in the reader a mood of blind worship, tinged with envy.

Many of the stories are online here

November 5, 2006

The moral majority don't care

This US opinion poll analysis is interesting: apparently religious whites have basically the same political priorities as everybody else. They "do not tend to list moral or values issues as their top priorities at all".

November 3, 2006

Georgia, still

In lieu of content about Georgia, here's some of what other people have been saying...

The News

  • Russia's anti-Georgia measures have cost Georgia 1.5% of its GDP, and 17% of its export markets, according to the Georgian Prime Minister. That's including the wine ban earlier in the year - but presumably not including the remittances sent home by Georgian workers in Russia, which would push the figure much higher.
  • The media always faithfully reports diplomatic visits like the time Georgian foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili spent in Moscow this week, but I find it pretty hard to get excited about them. Anyway, Putin refused to meet Bezhuashvili, who in turn went on the radio and threatened to veto Russia's WTO entry.
  • Russia is threatening to double the price of gas supplies to Georgia (RFE/RL,BBC)
  • Eurasianet reports on Georgia's attempts to accommodate the deportees
  • Foreign policy carries a surprisingly lightweight article from Jon Sawyer. He argues that the US "has helped to fuel this crisis: by showering Georgia with cash and praise, by extending the promise of NATO membership, and by standing silent as Saakashvili and his government made ever rasher attacks on Russia"

The blogs

Vilhelm Konnander had an excellent post on Georgia a fortnight ago. He turns up a recent opinion poll saying that 61% of Russians consider Georgia "a bandit state".

Registan also has plenty of posts on Georgia, and DJ Drive is still at it, blogging both in English and Russian. This translation from Kommersant seemed particularly interesting:

The Kommersant Daily speculates that Andrei Illarionov, ex senior advisor and an outspoken critic of Putin's economic policies (which include arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky), might become the next economics advisor for the president of Georgia.

Illarionov, who recently has been hired by Cato Institute, a US libertarian economics think-tank, visited Tbilisi a few days ago to participate in "Freedom, Commerce & Peace: A Regional Agenda" international conference and, according to Kommersant, was invited for a dinner with president Saakashvili.

Nice bit of linguistic trivia/hearsay: mandarin and shaman are ultimately derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit mantrin (advisor, counseller) gets adopted by Malays (because India was historically almost as good at exporting pundits as the USA is now). The Portugese pick it up from the Malays, and apply it to the Chinese (who don't use the word mandarin themselves) - and we take it from the Portugese.

Better yet, how about shaman. Old Mircea Eliade is responsible for this one, getting it from a Russin version of the Tungus sâman. That comes from a Mongolian word for a Buddhist, which in turn came from China, and ultimately from Sanskrit.

Lingustic history taken unquestioningly from here

November 2, 2006

Defending the Russian nation

DJDrive points out this wonderful satire on the Russian crackdown on Georgian immigrants:

Georgia's treachery almost took Russians by surprise. To prevent that from happening again, Vlast analytical weekly has prepared a guide to Russia's neighbors and methods of combating them...There are recommendations for every country that will minimize their evil influence no less effectively than canceling the performances of dace ensembles and expelling schoolchildren whose last names end with –dze and –shvili.

Their suggestions include:

  • Lithuania: Stop using words that end in the Lithuanian-like –as (Honduras, for example).
  • China: Make popularizing feng shui a misdemeanor
  • Finland: Charge sauna users with immoral behavior.
  • Japan: Revive article 219, part 1, of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, which made studying karate a criminal offense.
  • USA: Discover that the bubbles in American soft drinks do not conform to the laws of nature.
  • Poland: Finance research on the negative effects on the public of having twins in high government positions
  • Norway: Prohibit Nobel Peace Prize winners from entering Russia
  • Uzbekistan: Declare plov inedible
  • Turkmenistan: Infiltrate Turkmenistan with illegal operatives who will give the local population gold teeth and karaoke machines, both of which are prohibited in Turkmenistan. [too easy, this one, isn't it?]