It’ll all be clear in hindsight…

November 25th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Appreciation of marketing

January 7th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Westminster’s map

November 27th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

[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](http://www.theyworkforyou.com), 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.

» Read the rest of this entry «

November 20th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

Slamming just says “let’s not fight”

November 16th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

When [Radio Free Europe](http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2006/11/678c546b-425c-450c-ae5a-cfd9879a166d.html) report that “Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze today slammed the [Commonwealth of Independent States](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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](http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=13874), 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](http://mosnews.com/news/2006/10/10/cissummit.shtml) 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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization), and to the West by [GUAM](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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](http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=10988607&PageNum=0), grandstand about Russia’s crimes, and [keep that threat on the table](http://www.regnum.ru/english/740070.html):
>“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.

How Pakistan wins in Central Asia

November 9th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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](http://www.time.com/time/asia/2004/journey/pakistan.html), but it’s also the site of a fascinating convergence of superpowers.
Remember the [oil pipeline through Afghanistan](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Afghanistan_Pipeline) – 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](http://pakobserver.net/200609/04/news/topstories12.asp?txt=Gwadar-China%20oil%20pipeline%20study%20underway) 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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karakoram_highway), have already [built](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makran_Coastal_Highway) 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](http://www.guardian.co.uk/pakistan/Story/0,2763,984792,00.html), with [weapons](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A800-2005Mar25.html), with a [trade deal](http://www.bilaterals.org/article.php3?id_article=282) 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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inter-Services_Intelligence). 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](http://www.tribuneindia.com/2006/20060422/main6.htm)
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](http://www.iags.org/n0115042.htm) 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](http://www.india-defence.com/reports/1056) $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](http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2006/RAND_MG440.pdf):
> 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](http://www.jang.com.pk/thenews/apr2005-daily/29-04-2005/business/b2.htm) 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.

History of printing

November 8th, 2006 § 0 comments § permalink

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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangut_Empire). They were printing in a [language](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tangut_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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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

November 8th, 2006 § 3 comments § permalink

You’ll only find [one article](http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/11/03/wkryg03.xml) 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](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurmanbek_Bakiyev) and Prime Minister [Felix Kulov](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Kulov).
I love watching the role of blogs in all this. [Edil Baisalov](http://baisalov.livejournal.com) the protesters’ unofficial spokesman, is posting frequent (Russian) updates on Livejournal – from a yurt outside the parliament building. Meanwhile Yulia at [New Eurasia](http://kyrgyzstan.neweurasia.net/) 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: