Main

November 25, 2008

It'll all be clear in hindsight...

I told myself I should write something about the economic crisis, to clarify my bewildered head. There's no shortage of detailed news from the front lines, but this feels like one of the rare cases where understanding the detail doesn't lead to understanding the whole. Or maybe that's just my lack of a finance background speaking.

Last week, for , I read through a series of Esprit articles on the subject, economists and intellectuals lining up to fit it into their schemas. Day by day, I read newspaper articles on the latest twists and turns, listen to the podcasts from NPR. Each level makes a sort of sense in its own terms (there's much I'm sceptical about, but I'm too ignorant to join in the arguments at a higher level than parroting the last thing I read). But somehow, I can't fit both the details and the big picture into my head at once.

Probably that's good: in a few years, the party lines will have been retrospectively drawn up, we'll all know who to label heroes and villains. For now, we're all as baffled as each other.

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.

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 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 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 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]

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

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]

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.

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 28, 2006

IHT makes LJ look calm

Wow. The International Herald Tribune wades into the fray over Six Apart's deal with Sup over Russian livejournal, and comes down firmly on the side of paranoia:

What's so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media.

The argument is that Sup is a Kremlin hack (dolboeb, "a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's spindoctor"), backed by an oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut), and that therefore they are obviously going to turn the abuse team into politicial censorship. Therefore, "the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered".

Well, the IHT has certainly managed to make bloggers look like a picture of reason and calmness, compared to foreign correspondents in the MSM. Much better commentary by Veronica at Global Voices, and Bradfitz' list of complaints about the deal is alternately sad and hilarious.

Dariga

Off on a different tangent today - dynastic politics in Kazakhstan. Nathan Hamm and Sean Roberts are far better informed on the nitty gritty of Kazakh politics than I am. But there's one bit that's just too much fun to leave to the professionals: Dariga.

Dariga Nazarbayeva is the President's daughter. She's had a privileged life, and she's run with it. Degree in history from MGU, PhD in politics, speaks four languages, even moonlights as an opera singer (how well is open to question). Yes, it's easy to go overboard in singing her praises, and she can only do it because of daddy - but when did you last hear anything about her sisters, who have had lives just as charmed?

Anyway, the past few years Dariga has been managing her rise to power - with a lot more panache than most can muster. You're never sure quite where she's going to come from next. She started with the media, when daddy put her in charge of state media company Khabar. She's no longer officially in charge, but there's no doubt that a lot of journalists will do what she tells them to.

The reason she's no longer officially running Khabar is that it conflicted with her move into politics. In December 2003 she founded the ASAR party. Different folks have different views on how much this was her decision, and how much she was playing puppet to her father. She claims

'I was not forced to found this party....but there comes a moment when just to observe is dull because there is a a self-satisfaction in the pro-presidential camp which can turn to stagnation. The business and political elite is in crisis. 'My father tried to convince me not to do this....But when I discussed with him my vision of his party, I told him: "I will be dealing with your team." I want to take away this piece of cake from his party. The new party will involve real people, not state officials.'

But one pundit said at the time:

Big politics do not like impromptu actions, and any initiative not coordinated with political partners is punishable. Therefore, if the daughter is in the Asar party, then the father is also present there, but his presence is hidden! Asar is not a whim of the president's daughter, it is a project of the whole Family, dictated by the need for new methods of retaining power.

Either way, her party was doing really rather well. It's growing success made it likely that Dariga would eventually become Speaker of parliament - a position open to the head of the largest party, which carries with it the chance to replace the president if he dies. Then daddy decided to close down her political adventure, and arranged for her party to be merged into his own Otan party. Since then, she's seemed desperate for some other route into the centre of politics.

What's next? Her current fantasy seems to involve painting herself as a democratic reformer. She's got the media nous to fake it to the West - look at her spot-on approach to the Borat affair (making a point of getting the joke), or the article "Deja Vu" that she wrote in March which combined revelations from the inner sanctum of Kazakh politics with the kind of angry rhetoric you'd expect from Craig Murray or a Western journalist.

And she's making more substantive moves. And, as Sean Roberts reports, she is becoming a champion of trades unions, supporting a group of striking miners. Then there's her involvement in a 'commission for democratization'. But, again, nobody can tell how much this is Dariga, and how much it's her father trying to paint a rosy picture of a reforming Kazakhstan.

In the end, everything Dariga does comes down to a question mark about her relationship with her father. He clearly gets his way when he wants to - witness the way he had her political party merged into his this summer. But the rest of the time, she can more or less get away with stirring things up (the 'Deja Vu' article is a good example).

One explanation is that Nursultan Nazarbayev wants Dariga to be powerful, but only as one person within a balance of power. This strategy makes sense given the political situation. The President's power is pretty much unassailable - partly because of the constitution (Nazarbayev was re-elected for six years last december), but mostly because Nazarbayev is one of the smarter leaders in the region, and he's made the GDP rise by something like 9% a year. If he can keep it that way, his position remains secure and the bloody battles move down a rung.

Dariga, along with her husband, is one of the blocs of power. (see this analysis for a rundown of the rest). If she gets too powerful, she'll be cut down to size. If she falls, she'll be picked up. So she does what anybody would in those circumstances: she experiments.

More information: Wikipedia, Dariga's own site, Taipei Times, and some semi-official profile.

October 17, 2006

I've joined Global Voices

Since I've been reading so many Russian livejournals recently, I figured I should do something useful with it. So I've got involved in Global Voices, a blog translation project. The plan is that I'll post occasional snippets from Russian blogs, once a month or so. Here's my first post, translating a Georgian post about the treatment of Georgians in Russia.

October 16, 2006

Serbia and Georgia

If Russia decides to escalate the dispute with Georgia, one option is for it to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. Abkhazia is pushing Russia to do just that.

What makes this a plausible scenario is Kosovo. From Russia's perspective, the situation of Abkhazia within Georgia is parallel to that of Kosovo within Serbia: regions enjoying de facto autonomy within hostile states, and pushing for formal self-determination. In Putin's words:

"If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians?"

The implied 'someone' is the UN, where glacial negotiations are moving towards the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. Russia is unlikely to let this through the UN without demanding a similar decision on Abkhazia. It might not even wait for Kosovo to come up at the UN - ten days ago, for instance, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the "logic of international development may lead Russia to a situation in which we will have no other choice but to recognize Abkhazia"

October 14, 2006

Russia has made a point of maintaining transport links to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite the blockade of Georgia. It's something that Georgian politicians have complained bitterly about. Now they're driving it home by sending a train to South Ossetia loaded with $741,000 of humanitarian aid. Behind this is Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is even more energetic than Ken Livingstone in maintaining his own foreign policy agenda. Luzhkov calls the train "a symbol of Russian assistance to South Ossetia, which wants to live independently and not to obey those, who have subjected these people to genocide,

October 13, 2006

Russia puts on its best face for the UN

Russia has made some apparently conciliatory moves towards Georgia this week - notably a promise of early withdrawal of the Russian troops based in Tbilisi.

Is this an olive branch to Georgia? No - it's shrewd international politics. The UN has just passed a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN observer mission in Georgia. Had Security Council members agreed with the EU's (obviously correct, but politically awkward) assessment that "Russia is not a neutral participant in the peacekeeping arrangements", they could have produced a resolution limiting Russia's role in Georgia. So, Russia keeps them sweet by making a concession - but notice that it is a concession that doesn't require any immediate action. By the time it comes to remove the troops from Tbilisi, everybody except the Georgians will have forgotten what Russia promised.

Update: According to Saakashvili,Russia was aiming for - and failed to get - two items included in the resolution:

The first is unconditional denunciation of the Georgian police operation in the upper Kodori gorge that would have a serious legal force, and the second, restoration of the status quo, which existed in the gorge prior to this operation. It would have meant the withdrawal of the legitimate Abkhaz authorities from the Kodori gorge and renaming of the Kodori gorge,

More on Russian anti-Georgian events.

I tried to write a post on the high politics of the Russia-Georgia dispute, but I got sidetracked into the stuff that actually matters: the social impact of it all. There will be another post on Putin and Saakashvili throwing their toys at each other, but first, have something about the real people:

The politicians and pundits are talking up how bad things are. Saakashvili (Georgian president) calls it "a form of ethnic targeting not seen in Europe since the Balkans in the 1990s", and to Bezuashvili (Georgian foreign minister) it is 'a mild form of ethnic cleansing'. At Georgia Online, a columnist collects a list of recent anti-Georgian Russian headlines and comments "Replace 'Georgian' with 'Jew', change the date 2006 to 1933, and we fall back to Nazi Germany."

Certainly, things are bad. Newspaper Novaya Gazeta (employer of Anna Politkovskaya) has printed copies of letters Moscow police sent to local schools, demanding lists of Georgian students. The information required includes:

Relations of children of Georgian nationality with other pupils, cases of hostile relations between children, and such [hostile] relations toward them [i. e. Georgian children], facts about disobedience of Georgian children to teachers, facts of antisocial activities, and unlawful acts.

All this is "For the purpose of securing law and order and abidance of the law, the prevention of terrorist acts and aggressive feelings between children". Sean has full translations and commentary.

But, there is some good news. Many Russian bloggers are still trying to counter the anti-Georgian prejudice - the "I am Georgian" site is one of many examples. And it is striking that the anti-Georgian events in Russia haven't been mirrored by anti-Russian events in Georgia. At Radio Free Europe, Jimsher Rekhviashvili interviews ethnic Russians living in Georgia. And finds...nothing. No mirror of the anti-Georgian sentiment in Russia. One says " I continue to receive warmth and love, the lack of which I have never experienced from the Georgian people.". Another says her friends in Russia " call and ask us not to believe what we're hearing. We are by your side, they say. We love Georgia and Georgians."

October 11, 2006

Paranoid conspiracy theories: not an American monopoly

I'm not sure how much this(RUS) is tongue in cheek, but it made me laugh:

Livejournal is spying on you!
American spies have developed a special search engine. It rummages through all livejournal posts, including locked ones, and adds politically dissident authors to a special list.
All personal information which you entrust to livejournal can be subjected to a political search.
Do you oppose interference of the secret services in personal life?
Do you oppose the illegal opening of internet postings?
Be sensible...don't use Livejournal!

Seems the CIA aren't content with running Facebook,and having the NSA fund research into scraping social software sites ;)

Oh, and before anybody says it: yes, I'm sure the CIA do search through anything you put on LJ or anywhere else on the web. That is their job, isn't it?

October 10, 2006

Web hosts get in on the Russia-Georgia fight

Oh, now this is getting silly...

Russian hosting company Garanthost is closing down the accounts (RUS) of Georgian customers, and refusing to serve Georgians.

Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, Hostovik is offering discount hosting for anybody who will display an "I am Georgian" logo on their site.

[via webplanet and kbke]

just because you've got a rose, doesn't make you a revolutionary

Warning: cynicism ahead...

It seems that now Saakashvili has won his elections, he knows he can stop ratcheting up the rhetoric, and grovelingly offer (RUS) to meet Putin anywhere for talks.

Back home, the Industry will save Georgia party are making a pretty futile shot at copying the imagery of the colour revolutions. Roses in hands, they held a march in protest at alleged election fraud last week - and would doubtless have been totally ignored, except that somebody decided to take some potshots at them

UNSCR RSS plz

You know what would be useful and doesn't exist? An rss feed (or similar) for UN Security Council resolutions. Anybody found one hiding somewhere in a corner of the internet?

October 6, 2006

respect

From the comments of an Abu Aardvark post: "Subjectively speaking, I think we (the US) had a lot more respect for the Soviet Union than we do for Islamists and their allies"

This rings true. I can't work out what it proves, but I'd love to be able to. I would have expected al-Qaeda to get a lot of respect, through being caricatured as an comic-book evil genius. Instead, it seems the stereotype has stuck to evil, without any of the genius.

Why? Do the powers that be have less respect for non-state actors? Is it because nobody reads Arabic, so we can't understand their cunning plans? Have we got so hung up on the 'they hate us because we're free' angle that we're blind to the Cunning Plans they do have? Is it objectively true that the leaders of al-Qaeda are less cunning than the old men in the Kremlin?

And what are the consequences of this different stereotype on how the USA (and Britain, by extension) behave?

Also: yes, I know I'm posting a ridiculous amount today. I had one of those moments where I did a word count on my 'notes too shoddy to put anywhere', and decided that 400,000 words of notes kept to myself is utterly useless. I apologise to my lone reader for inflicting all this on you - I still have a vague hope that one day I'll find the right balance between hoarding information and inflicting all my crap on people.

Hungary: because I'm here, not because I know anything

Quick news from Hungary: the Prime Minister is keeping his job. There are protests going on outside Parliament at the moment: I'll waddle over in an hour or two, but judging by Sunday it's unlikely to amount to much.

The next date for things to happen is Revolution Day in a fortnight's time.

Skippable rant: consequences of talking tough

Just as al-Qaeda (*) love prolonging the war in Iraq, so they must be overjoyed every time Blair or (usually) Bush go on some belligerent, over the top rant about Iraq. Then, it becomes so much easier for them to paint as evil megalomaniacs.

So, whenever Bush ramps up the rhetoric about Iraq, what he's doing is putting domestic party politics above the fight against al-Qaeda(*). In other words, helping his country's enemies to score a few political points.

Yes, this point has doubtless been made better elsewhere. But obviously it still hasn't got through.

  • no, I'm not happy boiling 'The Enemy' down to one sinister cartoon organization. Nor do I much like world politics being a 'fight' against anybody - but it'll do.

October 3, 2006

Conference reloaded

How can you develop a service without sharing a language with your users?

Holed up in Budapest, my head too messed up to do any proper work (eep! the doom she is a-coming!), I've been listening to danah Boyd's keynote at the blogtalk conference that's just winding up in Vienna.

She touches on the fact that the creators of Orkut don't have the faintest idea what their Portugese or Hindi-speaking users are doing. I'd always vaguely assumed that there would be a fair few Portugese-speakers within the Orkut development team, for instance. But obviously not.

It'd be a nice little project for a journalist or an anthropologist, to work out how much the developers of these sites know about their users.

July 1, 2006

Gotham, Pakistan

Karachi politics:it's all about town planning. This time, riots over the power supplies. More usually, riots over minibus accidents.

Why is it that I hear so much more about rioting in Karachi than in other giant cities? Could be just me paying uneven attention, but I get the impression that Karachi is creaking more than most under the strain of its growth.

In any case, it holds some kind of gotham-like fascination - and wouldn't you want to be mayor of a city like Karachi?

June 14, 2006

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting "all but closed down" Shanghai. Huh? This is a city of 10 million people - surely it's crazy to interrupt all that for five days?

Extraordinary Rendition

Nothing here that you couldn't better read elsewhere; summary for my own amusement under the cut

Continue reading "Extraordinary Rendition" »

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.