Main

September 28, 2010

Islamophobia

This is a goodish article on anti-Muslim discrimination in the US. One aspect I find particularly incomprehensible:

"In America right now, there are intense concerns about many issues -- immigration, the faltering economy, the interminable wars" and the erroneous belief, held by many Americans, that the first nonwhite president is Muslim, said Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University.

Do people really feel increased hatred of a group when a (supposed) member is in a position of authority? Why? Wouldn't it make equal sense to believe that, if a Muslim is running the country, they can't be all bad? Or is Obama evidence that a vast Islamic conspiracy is poised to overrun the US, enslaving Christians and probably eating their babies?

April 22, 2009

The land grab of 2008

GRAIN reports on what happens when a food crisis meets an economic crisis, and is given a healthy shove by government policies:

On the one hand, “food insecure” governments that rely on imports to feed their people are snatching up vast areas of farmland abroad for their own offshore food production. On the other hand, food corporations and private investors, hungry for profits in the midst of the deepening financial crisis, see investment in foreign farmland as an important new source of revenue. As a result, fertile agricultural land is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated.

They've also been obsessively collecting news clippings to back up their case.

March 21, 2009

Prayers to San Precario

One of the really spot-on things to come over the past decade from the European left, and Mayday protesters in particular, was their focus on 'precarity' - the trend of work to move from big corporations towards agencies, and freelancers, and short-term contracts. Acclaimed by many, with some justification*, as liberating workers from grey Fordist hierarchies, it is now leaving them high and dry without any security. Which, of course, was totally predictable - but it's noteworthy that people did predict it, and devote their energies to campaigning around it**.

It's a safe bet that precarious work - ranging from short-term contracts, through various degrees of informality, through to the outright illegal - is going to continue expanding across the economy in the next couple of years. There's a strong argument that this is good and progressive, with informal work providing at least some safety net for the unemployed. Even the Wall Street Journal has been describing the informal economy as "one of the last safe havens in a darkening financial climate".

Considerably more interesting, though, are the stories being collected by Robert Neuwirth. Neuwrith is one of desperately few people with a genuinely global outlook, and responsible for the excellent squatter city blog (and book). He's now turning his attention to the informal economy.

Maybe it's taking things to far to talk about informal work as being the poor's best response to the collapse of capitalism, and to ask governments to find ways of accommodating the legally grey. Still, I prefer it to the usual assumption that the world's poor should grow up to be obedient salarymen, and I have no doubt that Neuwrith will come out with a more nuanced version at some time in the future.

* I write all this as somebody self-employed, with minimal job security and few fallback plans, earning considerably less than I did when fully employed. I wouldn't want it any other way, however tough things get through this recesssion. On the other hand, I can be relatively relaxed about all this because being a skilled worker my options are somewhat more appealing.

** Yes, this is me saying nice things about Hardt and Negri. Pay attention, it doesn't happen often

December 26, 2008

Opening up a tax haven

Panama is still one of the biggest and most important tax havens. As well as its absurd tax regime, its corporate disclosure regime means it is very difficult to get information about Panamanian companies.

Or rather, it was. Panama recently put online their company registry. You can now retrieve the names of the current directors of every Panamanian company, as well as all the company's filings themselves (minutes of company meetings, details of shareholdings, ownership, certificates of incorporation etc. etc.).

Nice, but you can only search by the name of the company. If you want to find somebody who is dodging tax or doing something else dubious, you really need to search by director's name.

This tool fixes that problem. I've scraped all 600,000 company records, going back 30 years, and indexed by directors.

Now you can, for instance, look up recently-arrested arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar, and you find a couple of companies. Looking through the records, you find the company's current treasurer is Hans-Ulrich Ming, chairman of Swiss firm Pax Anlage. Previous directors include Enrico Ravano, president of Contship, the Italian company that controls the Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro. A Feb 2008 report for the Italian parliament accused Ravano of complicity in cocaine smuggling by the Calabrian mafia through Gioia Tauro - the report cited Italian estimates that 80% of all Europe's cocaine is smuggled through Gioia Tauro. Ravano's connection to al Kassar could help to stand up accusations (which al Kassar has always denied) that al Kassar was involved in drug trafficking as well as weapons trafficking; and helps to undermine Ravano's recent denials that he's had anything to do with any trafficking of any sort. [This set of connections was in fact found manually, by Global Witness, and was part of the inspiration to build the search]

Or take Nadhmi Auchi: Iraqi-British billionnaire, companion of Saddam Hussein in the '50s, convicted of fraud in France (but appealing). I've not yet looked through the records of companies held by him and his friends - but there are plenty of records there, doubtless including some interesting connections.

And there are plenty more interesting names to look up. Most satisfyingly, it's already proving useful in figuring out the activities of various currently-active arms dealers...

Want the raw data? Here is a database dump.

October 3, 2008

Exporting surveillance

When Naomi Klein explored the Chinese surveillance industry earlier this year, she touched on the idea that Chinese companies are now trying to sell their surveillance equipment to the outside world.

True enough, but as she was writing for Rolling Stone she concentrated on possible exports to America. That's a sideline: the US, with its own massive surveillance industry, needs no foreign assistance to spy on its citizens. The more interesting story is China's growing exports of surveillance know-how to the developing world.

Thanks to Chinese technology even the smallest, poorest and most politically isolated nations are gaining the ability to conduct sophisticated electronic monitoring and censorship. That means above all Africa, but also perhaps Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc.

Some specific cases have already been identified: Chinese knowledge has helped with internet censorship in Belarus and radio-jamming in Zimbabwe. Like there is more that goes unreported, both because of the secrecy involved and because there is no obvious Western angle for the english-language media.

More broadly, look at Chinese government documents. The primary official statement of its Africa policy is this document from 2006:

China will cooperate closely with immigration departments of African countries in tackling the problem of illegal migration, improve exchange of immigration control information and set up an unimpeded and efficient channel for intelligence and information exchange. ... In order to enhance the ability of both sides to address non-traditional security threats, it is necessary to increase intelligence exchange, explore more effective ways and means for closer cooperation in combating terrorism, small arms smuggling, drug trafficking, transnational economic crimes, etc.

I don't think I'm being too conspiratorial if I read into that an ambition to supply the backbone for surveillance across Africa.

June 4, 2008

Gated Communities

Bangalore's government has an excellent solution to the social problem of gated communities: simply abolish them by fiat.

It is noticed that several layouts within the old BMP area and the erstwhile CMC area have established barricade preventing entry of vehicles and pedestrians and have also put up boards mentioning that entry is restricted.. They have even posted guards to prevent people from using the road. Such layouts generally call themselves as "Gated community". It is hereby brought to the public notice that under the Town and Country Planning Act, there is no such concept of a "Gated Community". Once when any layout is formed, the roads in the said layout automatically come under the jurisdiction of the respective municipal corporation the general public has free access to use the roads within the layout. Hence, establishing barricades and preventing general public from using the internal road of a layout is against the law.

It makes me sad that this kind of thing is unimaginable in Europe or the US.

[via the sarai urban-study list]

May 10, 2008

The main export is furious political thought

Nobody except me will like this rant by Nataša Velikonja, but I'm going to post it anyway:

Europe is boring. Boring for its self-sufficiency, among its own boundaries; Europe is a jail of virtual affluence and credit standard in which migrants without asylum, lesbians without lovers, intellectuals without mass media, and the homeless without comrades are wandering around. Europe is boring for its “white” conviction that it is better than the others, as it is supposedly the cradle of education, culture and literature. It is boring in its perpetual ecstasy with its fat kisses and broken glass on our lips. It is boring with its perpetual integration, which is being swallowed as a sacrificed young body, while images of hatred, slaughter and genocide are whirling in its eyes. Europe is boring because of its ritualized oblivion and ritualized machines of desire that never stop their craving.

Incidentally, why are there so many excellent Slovenian writers/activists/theorists these days? Is it just that when your main export is Slavoj Zizek, you at least have somebody interesting to kick against? Or that small nations have to synthesize foreign culture, not having enough local production to be tediously inward-looking? Or just the result of decades buffeted by Tito, Austrian Social Democracy, and Italian radical theorists?

March 22, 2008

Victor Bout and the military-typographical complex

Mother Jones' account of the Victor Bout arrest is good, but it's more fun reaing the DEA's charges against him. Not for the facts - Mother Jones summarises most of the interesting bits - but for the sheer semiotics of the thing.

Just look at the document: Monospaced Courier 12 in numbered paragraphs. Badly reproduced text, lines sloping up the page. Government stamps and signatures. It fits so perfectly into nostalgic stereotypes: typewriter keys clattering in a nondescript government building, as a sweating government agent writes up his report.

And the text plays up to every cliche. The boilerplate allegation that Bout "affected interstate and foreign commerce". The long, oft-repeated list of aliases (VIKTOR BOUT, a/k/a "Boris," a/k/a "Victor Anatoliyevich Bout," a/k/a "Victor But," a/k/a "Viktor Budd," a/k/a "Viktor Butt," a/k/a "Viktor Bulakin," a/k/a "Vadim Markovich Aminov"). The whole document is begging to be stuffed into a brown paper envelope and sent to Bob Woodward or Fox Mulder.

Since I don't spend much time reading US legal documents (maybe I should?), I have no idea how standard all of this is. Apparently a lot of US court documents really do still have to be produced in this format. Intentional or not, though, the layout makes it all seem like part of a great cloak-and-dagger Cold War adventure. I'd like to believe that somebody in the US goverment has figured this out, reasoned that it gives people the impression they have mountains of secret information, and decided to stick to Courier.

Oh, and the content? Still reasonably entertaining. Bout's henchman Andrew Smulian comes off as a complete muppet, calling Bout on a phone the DEA had given him. It looks like the main problem with arranging the sting was that they couldn't do it in Moscow, but had to entice Bout out to more US-friendly Thailand. Mostly, though, I'm just reading for the typography.

March 2, 2008

You thought nobody would read your PhD?

Getting your PhD into the national press is pretty impressive. But getting two articles devoted to it (one on the front page) before you even submit, must mean you're on to something. Alternatively, perhaps you have a journalist friend who doesn't mind writing the same article twice.

Today's Observer devotes much of its front page to a report by Anushka Asthana, beginning:

Damning new evidence that faith schools are siphoning off middle-class pupils can be revealed today, as research shows they are failing to take children from the poorest backgrounds nationwide.

This 'new evidence' is, of course, a complete revolution compared to the last time Asthana wrote this article, back in September. That one only made page 2:

Faith schools are 'cherry picking' too many children from affluent families and contributing to racial and religious segregation, according to the most extensive research of its kind...

[OK, there are some differences. For a start first article only covers London, the second is nationwide. But the articles don't take much trouble to explain what's actually new. Besides, how can I concentrate on the technicalities while distracted by visions of the Heath Robinson contraption which will 'cherry-pick' the affluent, and 'siphon off' the merely middle-class?]

What about the research papers on which the articles are based? Neither has been published or peer-reviewed. Neither is the work of a notably eminent scholar. Neither has sent shock-waves through the social science community. And - they're both the work the same PhD student, Rebecca Allen, who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of London's Institute of Education. The first was an conference paper (the online version is marked 'draft paper - please do not cite'; blasting it at 450,000 Observer readers clearly doesn't count as citing). The second I can only guess is Allen's PhD thesis.

So, how did Anushka Asthana spot this academic rising star, assess her work, and decide that it was a matter of national importance? I'd like to think she spends her days poring over conference proceedings and hustling preprints out of postdocs. But I'll go with circumstantial evidence - and the way everything in the British media works, and put it down to Oxbridge cliqueyness. In this case, Anushka Asthana (the journalist) and Rebecca Allen (the PhD student) were contemporaries at Cambridge, on the same Economics course in 1999. Slanderous as the accusation may be, I think I'll chalk this one up to the old girl's network.

[FWIW, I do think that class segregation of schools is a Bad Thing, and probably should make the news. I'd prefer that news reports are based on academic research rather than think-tank lobbying. But I don't trust 'evidence' that isn't publicly available, I don't trust journalists who sensationalize everything and put nothing in context, and I wish journalism - and politics - didn't always come down to looking after your friends]

January 7, 2008

Appreciation of marketing

This is the only article I've read on the US presidential elections which hasn't been a waste of time. Briefly, Obama is more fond of behavioral economics than Clinton. Therefore she wants small targeted changes that have the most effect cheaply; he is suspicious of policies which rely on everybody being a rational actor, fully informed about government policy. Why hasn't anybody else mentioned that?

On a vaguely-related topic, I find it fascinating watching the campaign idly from afar, and so being on the outer reaches of massive, smart media campaigns. They twist everything I read so thoroughly hat I end up with firm feelings about the candidates, without (barring the article above and maybe two or three others) having the faintest idea what they stand for. The only thing that comes close is Apple's marketing, which is perfectly capable of convincing me that I need an iWhatever even when the rational part of my head knows it's overpriced rubbish.

December 18, 2007

No coherent comment, just rage

Missed this one last month in the UK: a woman was convicted for "possessing records likely to be used for terrorism", whatever that means. As far as I can see, she had downloaded some documents on guns and bombs (like, er, just about every teenage boy in the country), and written some angry poems about killing people.

So, basically, she's been fantasizing about being a jihadi rather than fantasizing about being James Bond.

For this she's already been in jail for 5 months, and has a 9 month suspended sentence.

October 15, 2007

Controversial

Can we please ban journalists from using the word 'controversial' as a substitute for explaining the issue. Passages like this from the Independent make me want to throttle somebody:

Candidates rarely talk about reducing the country’s vast appetite for fossil fuels for fear of being attacked as anti-business. In recent weeks public pressure has seen both Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama discretely sign up for carbon ‘cap-and-trade’ systems for industry. The Democratic candidates are far more comfortable talking up renewable energy and hybrid cars and most give their support to controversial ethanol and "clean coal" projects.

The only reason the Democrats are pushing ethanol and clean coal is that they aren't controversial among politicians. Bush has supported both. The 'controversy' is just everybody playing their roles as usual: politicians of both parties like ethanol and clean coal, because they would help farmers and the mining industry. Environmentalists (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc) think they're expensive and still release too much pollution. In short, they aren't the best solution, but they're probably the best solution with a snowball's chance in hell of being enacted.

Also: has anybody else noticed how people used to say "Climate change is as big a problem as X", but recently they've taken to saying "X is as big a problem as climate change"

October 12, 2007

What's wrong with popularity contests anyway?

I'm often irked by economists' love of applying crude statistical techniques in situations where institutions seem far more important. Don't think I dislike statistics; the kind of hoops Chris Lightfoot was able to do are inspirational, almost magical. And I'm all in favour of using whatever techniqe provides the most useful result. But something feels wrong in fiddling with the data you have until you find a pattern that seems to make reasonable predictions, without even thinking about the underlying mechanisms.

Greg Mankiw's tips for the Nobel prize in Economics trigger this worry. He predicts Eugene Fama, Robert Barro or Martin Feldstein for the prize- on the basis that they're the most-cited economists who aren't already Nobel laureates:

[A]s a purely predictive matter, highly cited economists usually get the prize eventually. In this old citation ranking, the top five most cited economists are all Nobelists. As of today, the prize has gone to more than half of the top 30 (and some of the others may win it in the future).

Mankiw admits this is a pretty crude measurement. It doesn't say anything about the tendency to split Nobel prizes between economists with related work, and is probably more effective at predicting 'people who will eventually win the prize' than 'people who will win the prize this year'.

But it works, so it'll do. And we don't need to worry about how the Nobel committee actually make their decision; it all comes down to a popularity contest.

Incidentally Cosma Shalizi dipped his toes into this area a few months ago. Being Cosma, he skipped past the obvious debate, worried about the differing citation patterns in different areas, and then described a measure of journal popularity that sounds very similar to PageRank. He points to eigenfactor, a project which does just that - and with pretty pictures to go with it.

October 10, 2007

Stealth nationalization

My biggest unresolved question about New Labour is whether they're betraying the left, or stealthily implementing leftish policies in a way that doesn't infuriate the right. This is one point for the latter: persuading independent schools to join the state sector. [via Crooked Timber]

June 27, 2007

Samantha Power on Iraq

"Humanitarian intervention - the nonconsensual use of force - is dead. It had a very short life - September 1995 to the summer of 2003 - and it's been killed for the next decade. America is the only power than can do it and, after Iraq, we would just be recruiting fodder for this apocalyptic nihilism."

Samantha Power, quoted in the NYT

I'm sure there are hundreds of articles elsewhere, making the same point in more depth. It is sad in a way, but I've never been all that convinced by military intervention. Not only is it always twisted by the political ambitions of the great powers, but it is almost never economically worthwhile. If we could channel all the enthusiasm for military intervention into education and healthcare, we might actually improve the world.

Not a party man

That sums up Blair nicely. Just watched his last Prime Ministers questions, where he praised everyone but the Labour party, and did nothing to transfer goodwill from himself onto Brown and the party.

Edit: Also, the Labour party line seems to be that sentencing Chemical Ali to death is an unequivocally Good Thing. Including Ann Clwyd. So much for a moral stance against the death penalty.

[that's right. I'm not dead. I've just not been paying enough attention to the world around me to say anything coherent about anything. This may - or may not - change in the future]

March 24, 2007

The Trap

If only I were in the UK, I wouldn't miss documentaries like Adam Curtis'The Trap: what happened to our dreams of freedom?:

The central argument in The Trap is that modern society is based on a bleak view of humankind hatched during the Cold war, when US military tacticians studied game theory in an attempt to predict what the Russians would do.
The result was years of terrifying détente. But this beat a nuclear holocaust, so game theory seemed to work. It brought stability. And it was then applied to mankind as a whole: the belief grew that we're fundamentally selfish creatures concerned only with our own interests - and that, paradoxically, this very selfishness should be encouraged, since the end result is widespread economic stability.

More academic treatment of the same idea is in Philip Mirowski's book Machine dreams: economics becomes a cyborg science (on the great pile of worthy tomes I may read one day). Also perhaps some of Deirdre McCloskey's writing covers similar topics.

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.

Continue reading "Westminster's map" »

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 15, 2006

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 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?]

October 18, 2006

LJ is civil society

Do you ever get the feeling of this is where it's at? That's what I've been feeling as I start following Russian livejournals more closely. Every time I look, I find another embryonic political or social movement, full of potential to change Russia - and being largely ignored by the outside world.

Take the debates. Run by the youth movement "Democratic Alternative(*)" Every few weeks in Moscow, some of the leading lights of Russian livejournal get together for a public political debate. They're judged by the audience, and by a panel of popular bloggers.

The audience at an earlier debate
Many photos from yesterday's event here

Their latest event was yesterday, pitting nationalist Dmitri Rogozin against economic liberal Boris Nemtsov. The debate was about Georgia, and Rogozin won, but the transcript of the debate hasn't been posted yet.

Also, this blog doesn't seem to like cyrillic much. I wonder if it's Movable Type in general, or my setup, or what?

*: I'm not sure who funds them or what their background is, but they feel less astroturfed than most Russian 'youth movements'

September 7, 2006

Schadenfreude

I hate the amount of pleasure I got from seeing Blair looking so hunted and powerless on this evenings news. I mean, I don't really have any reason to personally hate him. But seeing the smugness gone is so satisfying - even if it's only because he has worked out that he'll survive longer by looking humble.

I feel as though I should be donig penance for thinking things like this.

August 26, 2006

Look for me in the whirlwind

This is one of the best justifications I've seen for naming a blog. I love posts like this, picking apart the history of a phrase you'd otherwise barely notice - from rap back to the Black Panthers and then to black activist Marcus Garvey

July 1, 2006

You keep on reading about political situations so bad they force large numbers of people to kill themselves. Here's one about indebted Indian farmers - but there are others about Russia and, saddest of all, two small islands near Australia.

And I don't know what conclusions to draw. Has anybody investigated how to stop so many of these people killing themselves? Is the solution to sort out the economy, or could we get away with putting prozac in the water?

April 3, 2006

Blogs with content

I'd like to point you all towards a few blogs with real content, written by people who know what they're talking about. I'm biased about all three: I'm a contributor to the first (and member of the group running it), I was taught by the author of the second, and the driving force behind the third is a close friend who I spent a year sharing a house with. Despite that, they're all great!

First, the Iraq Analysis Group have just launched their new blog. This is one of the most awesome groups of people I've ever worked with. They've been campaigning and thinking about Iraq since the 1990s, first as the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq, and then as this group after sanctions were lifted. They (OK, we) have accumulated a large collection of resources to learn about Iraq. It isn't yet comprehensive, but it's probably the best listing of it's kind on the web. I strongly recommend this site: of the project I've been involved in, this is one of the few that I believe in 100%, and I'm continually impressed by all the people involved.

Then there's sarasvatam cakshuh, a blog about Sanskrit written by Somadevah Vasudeva. The focus is on primary texts, so this probably won't be your thing unless you read Sanskrit. That that doesn't stop me squeeing about it, I'm afraid. There's a good amount of snarkiness aimed at people who write about Sanskrit based on translations and small selections of original texts. Totally justified snarkiness: Somadevah is one of the few who has read immense amounts of Sanskrit literature. Some of it he's committed to memory, and the rest is stored on his Mac, with copious annotations and some weird geek-fu that lets him instantly find any reference. Reading this blog makes me very aware of how little I know, but it also spurs me on to look at more Sanskrit texts.

Finally, another blog on the borderline between research and campaigning. This one is from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which has been pluggin away at its issue for some 30 years, has kept going through thick and thin, and has a great body of expertise on the basty bits of British foreign policy and corporate nastiness. As with anything focussed on content rather than memes, this might be heavy going if you don't care about the issues.

March 29, 2006

Czech Republic

Next stop is a country I can't help thinking of as Czechoslovakia - and yes, I understand I deserve a slap for that.

The blogs and the wires are talking about floods, floods and more floods. No doubt if Prague floods again we'll see it on British TV. There's plenty about bird flu as well; again something that gets international attention wherever it happens. News I would otherwise have missed is the legalization of same-sex marriages

There are a few English-language Czech blogs around, mostly personal diaries of Prague residents - with all the holiday snaps and personal trivia that implies. Gazing into the Abyss at least has a useful list of East European blogs, categorised by country.

This blog is apparently part of a Prague city-guide website. It has frequent news updates, and this charming excursion into exports of Czech children's TV. Cartoon characters "Pat and Mat" have gained htemselves fansites in Switzerland and Japan

Hmm....that country turned out a lot less interesting than Mongolia and South Korea, but nonetheless I think now is a good time to move my spodding somewhere else. Who knows, maybe I'll return to stories from Prague some other day.

South Korea

Next stop, South Korea. An easier one this, because there's so much going on in the country, and in many ways they're way ahead of us.

Famously, there is OhmyNews, which got the attention of the net pundits a couple of years ago and sparked the craze for 'Citizen Journalism'.

Then there's gaming - the world of Korean MMORPGs is so far ahead of ours that it's embarassing. A top player like Lee Yunyeol can earn $200,000 a year, and is on television daily. Gaming/Internet cafes called "PC Bangs" are gradually being replaced by playing at home over a broadband connection, and so the national addiction continues to grow.

South Korean pop culture is taking over East Asia, in a trend given the moniker 'Hallyu', or 'Korean Wave'. The anti-Hallyu backlash in Taiwan and Japan has made governments there consider restricting Korean-origin broadcasts on national television, and some have even demanded that Korean television broadcast programs from other countries. Currently trendy Korean exports include the film Oldboy and the singer Rain (Ji-Hoon Jung. But I wonder if the whole 'Korean Wave' is a storm in a teacup; in 2004 the revenues from foreign sales of Korean TV were only $71.5m

Global Voices doesn't cover Korea as well as I'd expected, but it does at least point to Asian pages, the diary of a foreign worker in South Korea.

Unlike with Mongolia, this has been all pop-culture and no politics. Korea is important enough that we get to hear about the bigger political stories anyway. Recently, the news has been how the Prime minister forced to resign because he was playing golf rather than dealing with a rail strike. He's been replaced by South Korea's first female Prime Minister. And we all heard about the cloning scandal, because that had sex and science and scandal, all rolled up together.

So, that's enough of Korea. On to the next country...somewhere East European this time, I think.

Mongolia

Let's start with one of those proverbially obscure, remote countries: Mongolia.

Did you notice the political crisis there earlier this month? No, neither did I. The BBC's narrative is: Prime Minister starts anti-corruption drive. The main party, the MPRP, pulls out of his government. There are protests in favour of the Prime Minister and his party. By the time the dust settles, we've all lost interest.

For general political commentary, Nathan at Registan has been churning out Mongolia posts, and his del.icio.us linklist points to some of the more interesting news coverage of Mongolia. East Asia Watch has some posts about Mongolia, and Shards of Mongolia has a lot more.

At NewEurasia, a Mongolia blog got going in the past few days, and it's going through the initial posting-splurge of any new blog. The author has the advantage of living in Mongolia, and he's coming up with some interesting things.

Mongolia's only non-government news TV station, Eagle TV, is expanding broadcasting to 16 hours a day. The man behind Eagle TV, Tom Terry, has his own blog. From that site, it looks like Eagle TV has a strong Christian slant, as Terry tries to bring to Mongolia "Faith and Freedom". In his book of the same title he argues, according to one Amazon reviewer, that "(Christian) faith and human freedom are so inextricably connected that no culture can for long have one without the other". Well, I'd rather have missionary TV than no non-government media, and at least there are rumours of a second news station starting up in competition. Multiple news stations in a country with a population under 3 million isn't bad!

On more cultural topics, he talks about attempts to reintroduce the traditional Mongolian script, and about the preservation of Buddhist artfacts.

The Mongolian Matters blog has a series of posts on th idolisation of Genghis Khan: a Japanese film, Ulan Bator's airport being renamed Chinggis Khaan. Plans are even afoot to create a 40-metre statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, with a golden whip.

Places to look for more: global voices links to the blogs, flickr collects pretty pictures. There is a Mongolian State News Agency. Most of the other Mongolian news websites just reprint stories from the international press. The UB Post seems has substantially more original content.