Crystal meth in Tehran

June 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Crystal meth is increasingly popular in Iran, reports the Guardian

Meth production in the country has been expanding at an astonishing rate
Research carried out by the State Welfare Organisation shows that over half a million Tehranis between the ages of 15 and 45 have used it at least once.

Meth is apparently less socially constrained than other drugs. Cocaine is for the rich, ecstasy is for teenagers, opium is for the elderly — but crystal meth is for everyone.

Clean blogging in Russia

May 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Russia’s crackdown on bloggers includes an obscenity ban. From August, Russian blogs will be banned from using хуй (‘cock, prick’), пизда (‘cunt’), ебать (‘fuck’), and блядь (‘whore’). From the New York Times:

“We feel like we are back in kindergarten again when they said, ‘Don’t pee in your bed and don’t eat with your hands and don’t use that word,’ ” said Viktor V. Yerofeyev, a popular writer. “On the one hand, the Russian government says the Russian people are the best. On the other hand, it doesn’t trust the people.”

[via Language Hat]

Teaching Ovid, rape and all

May 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Liz Gloyn worries how to teach the rapey bits of Classics — especially given that, statistically, it’s likely that some of her students will have been affected by sexual violence:

I have a pedagogical duty to frame those texts in ways which do not diminish them, do not side-line them or pretend they are not there. Ignoring the uncomfortable bits is not only lazy – it’s also potentially dangerous, because it does not challenge narratives which a feminist pedagogy should. It does not challenge students to read this material with a critical eye, to see what is actually going on in them – which is a skill we would expect them to demonstrate when reading any other text. Incidentally, it does also not require us to judge the ancient texts anachronistically. We are not asking the Romans to share our standards. What I am asking is that my students appreciate just how different these texts are from what we would see as socially acceptable, and to read them with that in mind.

Russia’s ‘defensive’ invasion

May 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Tony Wood in the LRB argues that the catastrophe in Ukraine comes down to Russia acting defensively:

For Russia, the basic goal has until recently been a symmetrical pushback: to keep Ukraine out of Western security and economic structures, at the very least as a neutral state, if not as an active member of a ‘Eurasian Union’ dominated by Russia.

With Yanukovych ousted and his Party of Regions crumbling – 77 of its 200-odd MPs deserted before February was out – Moscow no longer had any political leverage in Kiev. At this stage, its goals correspondingly shifted: to force the US and EU to take Russian interests into account, and ideally agree on a new government for Ukraine that it found more congenial.

I agree with one strand of this. Russia’s aggression is defensive. Annexation is just a means of reclaiming influence that Russia had, and believes it deserves. Nobody expects that, when the storm passes, Russia will have more influence in Kiev than it did last year. The past — a mostly unified state mostly subservient to Russian needs — was ideal for the Kremlin. Now they are just hoping to cobble together some inferior replacement for that power, through federalism and rebellion.

I disagree, though, that the West is Russia’s primary antagonist. Far from cunningly establishing control through Soft Power, Western policy has mostly run on autopilot and disinterest. Yes, there are wonks still playing out strategies of Cold War geopolitics. But real attention and resources have only turned up at times of crisis, namely the Orange Revolution and today. Eurocrats seem as nonplussed as anybody to see EU flags turn up as symbols of protest.

And if the West is only half-heartedly pulling Ukraine into its sphere of influence, those ‘pro-Western’ Ukrainians seem far more interested in escaping Russia’s influence than in joining the EU’s. The real drive — and Putin’s real fear — is a truly independent Ukraine.

Why are Depeche Mode’s awful lyrics so compelling?

May 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I discovered Agata Pyzik because of her recent book on Eastern European politics and culture, which I’m still making my way through.
Meanwhile that has led me to her blog, which includes this outstanding post on the atrocious-yet-compelling lyrics of Depeche Mode;

The power of Depeche Mode’s lyrics lay in a perfect combination of vagueness and a resemblance to agitprop, ending up somewhere between the political sloganeering of the falling Communist bloc and the promises of the Big Capital offered by the West.

If after pop art, everything could be important for 15 minutes, the pop lyric makes sense only during the provisional three minutes of a single. The words hold meaning within the context of this magical moment, and nowhere else. It’s a metaphorical space of transformation, where temporary unions and associations can form. A pop utopia.

She also captures something of their iconography, that odd blend of high futurism, coldness and romaticism:

Depeche could appeal to both Soviet Bloc and America, because aesthetically and lyrically they consciously flirted with both sides of the Curtain: heavy industry, Red Army, red stars, looming nuclear catastrophy and Potemkineqsue battleships for one side and lust, orgies, stock market, Eastern Tigers, money, high contracts and cocaine binges for the other.

Chocolate-throwing satanic lesbians

May 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The exorcism business is booming, reports the Washington Post, under a Pope who is a fervent believer in the power of Satanic forces. Demonic possession is all about the growling, explains one expert:

“Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.

Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”

Clearly I lack Rev. Truqui’s Proustian sensibilities, having no idea of the smell of my first Margherita.

The rest of the article is good, but seems determined to contrast Francis’ progressive reputation with his “old school” views of the devil. Perhaps it’s my near-total ignorance of Catholic doctrine, but I don’t see the problem here. There is little interaction between how you see the devil and how you deal with poverty, homosexuality, etc.

Bruno, again

May 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Chris Baldwin’s Bruno was my first great webcomic love. The eponymous Bruno was a depressive twenty-something struggling to find the plot of her life. For eleven years the strip followed its protagonist’s ups and downs, with a wordy style that gave Baldwin space to get under the skin of his introspective heroine.

But the internet moves on fast. Bruno wound up 7 years ago, and has now dropped silently down the memory-hole. I thought it was worth flagging up this appreciation of Bruno, along with the rest of Baldwin’s work:

A typical Bruno strip consists of a single long panel of characters talking over coffee, sprouting a half-dozen word balloons crammed with conversations about philosophy, sex, wine, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Beyond Bruno’s circular quest for fulfillment, there’s virtually no plot to speak of, to the point that in one sequence Bruno climbs out of the strip, demands that Baldwin make something happen, then hangs out in his apartment for several weeks. In the mid-1990s, an era of webcomics based on Star Trek and anime references, Bruno stood apart, the cutting-prone hipster in a crowd of AV club geeks.

UK/USA intelligence collaboration

May 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Last year’s annual report of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee doesn’t mention Edward Snowden. It does, though, offer a few hints about the relationship between the NSA and its UK counterparts — a relationship which has always been extremely close, and which the leaks suggest may have involved GCHQ helping the NSA sidestep some of the legal restrictions it faced.

While the USA is not mentioned directly, it’s clear that Britain’s intelligence services are coming to accept the UK’s role as a secondary partner, specialising in particular roles, but unable to cover its entire function without American help. According to the head of SIS:

countries will play to their strengths and the joy of partnership, as we all know, is that two people or two organisations bring different strengths to a partnership and the total is more than the sum of its parts and that is what we are trying to create…

Intelligence priorites, also, are very much dictated by US priorities. Significant effort is being spent chasing Islamists without any real links to the UK. This, of course, fits snugly with American proccupations:

The trend that we noted last year for an increasing amount of counter-terrorism work to feature an ‘upstream’ element has continued (‘upstream’ refers to aspects of an investigation such as attack planning, preparation or direction occurring outside the UK, and terrorist groups with little or no presence in the UK). In the first three months of 2012/13, a significant proportion of the Security Service’s ICT investigations “ were focussed on upstream threats which did not have a substantial UK footprint”. This has driven closer working with SIS and GCHQ, who are able to collect intelligence and pursue disruptions overseas in support of these investigations.

Corporate hacking in the UK

May 9th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

When corporations have their computers hacked, they generally don’t talk about it. It’s awful publicity, and in most cases there is no legal requirement to disclose attacks. So sweeping it all under the carpet generally looks like the best response.

That means we have no idea how much sensitive data is being stolen from companies, or how many websites are paying protection money to avoid DDoS. The issue is somewhere on a spectrum between “significant worry” and “undiagnised catastrophe” — but, short of more mandatory disclosure laws, we can only speculate precisely where.

We can get a few hints, though, from the annual report of a committee overseeing the UK intelligence services. Perhaps through hosting “information exchanges” of companies involved in critical infrastructure, they have gathered some knowledge of the problem.

[One company] concluded that they had lost at least £800 million as a result of *** cyber attacks, and that’s quite a lot of money, even for a major company. But it’s very helpful, because otherwise you are just saying, ‘Well, some information has gone. So what?’

They also note a trend to getting sensitive information indirectly by hacking the “soft targets” represented by lawyers, accountants and other professional service firms.

Turkish guns in Syria: an update

May 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

A few months ago, I helped Hurriyet’s Tolga Tanis demonstrate that Turkey had exported weapons to Syria. The government had been furiously denying this, but our report finally backed them into admitting that they had allowed the sale of “non-military” weapons.

With a few months’ more trade data now available, we can see that the reality was worse than even this admission. In December, even as the politicians reluctantly confessed selling “sports guns” to Syria, their clerks were recording unambiguously military sales. Turkey-Syria export figures for that month include “munitions, components, and parts of bombs, torpedoes, mines, missiles”

This all comes with the usual disclaimer that trade data is rarely 100% accurate, and that in military terms these amounts of weaponry are pretty insignificant.

Tales of Swiss money-laundering

May 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Annual reports of the Swiss Money Laundering Reporting Office (MROS) are slightly more entertainig than you might imagine. In particular, they have a section full of vignettes from the past year’s prosecutions.

the foreign client had indicated that incoming funds transferred
to the account would come from the sale of protective vests. However, it turned out that the payments related to the sale of tanks and high-calibre weapons
Particularly suspicious were undated contracts signed with the Ministry of Defence of an African country as well as other documents. The bank could not exclude the possibility that these contracts had been falsified and, given the close ties that the client maintained with African government officials, that the client was also involved in corruption
[MROS] concluded that the beneficial owner of the account was involved in extensive deliveries of weapons to Africa

They have plenty more — the 2012 report includes everything from “Brothel in the Caribbean”, to “Graft and cronyism in the South American energy sector”


May 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink


Khipu, or Quipu, are a method of recording information in knots, which was used in South America during the Inka empire in the 15th century. Ancient Scripts explains:

The main content of quipus are numbers, which are expressed by knots on a section of rope. Unlike our “Arabic” numbers which uses ten different symbols for each digit (0 to 9), quipu makers tied multiple knots in a tight sequence represent a “digit”. Digits can range from no knots (empty space) representing zero, to nine knots representing nine. For example, seven knots in a sequence equals the digit 7.

Multiple sequences of knots represent “digits” that make up a number larger than ten.

Sofia’s new satellite city to be built by a convicted briber

April 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

You have to admire the chutzpah of Hong Kong billionnaire Steven Lo Kit-Sing.

He has just been sentenced to 5 years in jail in Macau for bribery and money-laundering. According to the verdict, which he is appealing, Lo was involved in securing land opposite Macau International Airport.

But while Lo was on trial for bribing a government official in a real-estate deal, he was seemingly busy negotiating with other government officials to set up another real-estate deal. This time in Bulgaria, where he is investing in a €50 million project to build a satellite city near Sofia, with luxury hotels, apartments, and an “indoor sea”.

Incidentally it’s unlikely that Lo will ever serve his 5 years in the slammer, regardless of whether his conviction is upheld. Macau has no extradition treaty with Lo’s native Hong Kong, despite occasional mutterings about the possibility. And if Hong Kong does arrange an extradition deal, I’m sure Lo would be able to move to Bulgaria.

Book Review: The Boss, by Abigail Barnett. 50 Shades with less abuse, more fun

February 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We all understand the reasons to hate 50 shades of grey, right? It idolizes a relationship that is abusive to a mind-blowing extent, both physically and emotionally, and does so under cover of BDSM. The fact that Christian Grey’s behaviour can be seen as socially acceptable, even romantic, deeply unsettles both the kinkster and the feminist in me.

Many people have said the same, more eloquently, and at greater length. My favourite is by Cliff of Pervocracy, whose on-blog readthrough began with humour, but turned into sheer horror as she realised the depth of abuse in 50 shades.

Abigail Barnett has taken a different tack. Her novel The Boss is, among other things, a riposte to the nightmare that is 50 shades. She has taken the same setup: a young woman starts a kinky relationship with an older man, powerful and unimaginably rich. But in Barnett’s hands this is a sane, consensual relationship. They talk. They negotiate. They deal with the power imbalance in their lives, with their commitments to other people, with their plans for the future. And — anathema to EL James — they actually enjoy each other’s company, joking and chatting and generally having fun. It’s a rare romance — let alone a kinky romance — that you can read without constantly running up against misogynist assumptions. The Boss manages it, though, and it’s a joy to sink into comfort reading without the constant need to mentally rewrite the rapey bits.

Ian Bicking leaves python

February 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the big beasts of Python has left the building. Ian Bicking created pip (an installer), virtualenv (an environment manager) and WebOb (an HTTP library at the core of Pyramid and several other web frameworks). Besides that, he’s been a major community presence. I, like many others, have long looked to his code as an example of solid principles combined with a focus on getting stuff built.

But now he has announced something that has been coming for a while: he has moved away from python, and will be focusing on Javascript from now on.

The announcement is full of the kind of incidental insight you would expect from Ian. Some of it is about personal process — and this is a pattern I can certainly identify with:

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly excited about an idea, like really excited, I have to take a break. I need to calm down. Try to wrap my head around the ideas, because I know if I push forward directly that I’ll just muddle things up and feel disappointed. No, I don’t know that is true: maybe I don’t want to have to confront, in that moment, that the idea is not as cool as I think it is, or as possible as I think it is. But often I do step back into the problem, with ideas that are more mature for having thought more deeply about them.

He also talks about the development of libraries, from avant-garde to mainstream. You start with a groundbreaking idea. Nobody quite understands it, even the creator, so the thing ends up not quite working. It is only when another developer builds a second generation that the idea can bloom and reach wide acceptance. So pip was the second generation for easy_install and eggs, which, and SQLObject laid the ground for SQLAlchemy:

SQLObject explored a lot of metaprogramming concepts that were quite novel in the Python world at that time. At the same time maintaining it felt like a terrible burden. It took me far too long to resolve that, and only once interest had died down (in no small part due to my lack of attention) did I hand it over to Oleg who has been a far more steady hand. This would be a pattern I would unfortunately repeat. But if SQLObject helped the next generation be better that’s good enough for me.

Bicking is now at Mozilla, working with Javascript. He’s building togetherjs, a real-time collaboration library that’s one of the most exciting things happening at Mozilla. I know I’m itching for a chance to try it out, and my faith in the library is doubled by the knowledge that Ian Bicking’s wisdom is going into it.

Book Review: Redshirts (John Scalzi)

February 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Scalzi’s Star Trek spoof is a superficial romp, but a very enjoyable one. The crew of the starship Intrepid have come to realise that something is seriously wrong on their vessel. Crew assigned to expeditions alongside senior officers are liable to die in unexpected ways, while the Captain manages some risky and implausible escape. Officer Kerensky is hideously injured every other week, only to find himself fully recovered a few days later. On-ship technicians rely on a device called “The Box”, miraculously able to almost-solve a problem in the nick of time, but always requiring some obscure detail to be put right by the Intrepid‘s chief scientist. Officers have a tendency to speak rousing monologues while staring into the middle distance, and suffer strange compulsions to indulge in stupid — but dramatic — behaviour.

Rumours and wild theories abound on board, and everybody has some plan to make somebody else serve as the captain’s expendable sidekick. But a few raw recruits have the smarts to go further, and delve into the mystery of what is really happening on the Intrepid.

It’s a pitch-perfect take on the Space Opera. It’s entertaining enough even for a reader like me, who is far from steeped in the genre. The plot is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t stop the journey being great fun, and it’s short enough that you don’t mind.

60 million children left behind

February 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

A fifth of Chinese children — that’s 60 million kids — are living in villages, while their parents are in the city. According to the Washington Post:

the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.

The BBC claims these children are disproportionately victims of sexual abuse:

School children in rural areas are particularly vulnerable if their parents happen to be migrant workers who spend a long time working away from home. They often don’t get to visit regularly and the children are left to be looked after by relatives, such as grandparents.

Release the Bats!

February 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The US once tried to firebomb Japan with bats. The surreal plan was the brainchild of an American dentist, who had enough sway on Eleanor Roosevelt to get his plan trialled by the US.

The bat-bomb would explode mid-air. It would scatter dozens of bats, each individually packed, and tied to a small incendiary charge on a timer. The idea was that the bats would scatter to roost in the wooden rafters of Japanese buildings. After a while the charge would alight itself, and the building would burn down — bat and all.

The concept, which gloried in the name of Project X-Ray, was abandoned after some test bats got loose and burned down an Air Force hangar.

More: Wikipedia, The Atlantic, American Psychological Association

Pakistan and Kautilya

February 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m currently reading Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink, a depressing political survey of the last few years of the country’s history. It’s grim how much of Pakistan government policy is determined by a very crude geopolitical version of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

The Pakistan army’s main concern is India. A strong, independent Afghanistan would be a potential ally for India, allowing Pakistan to be attacked from two sides. So Afghanistan should be kept as a subservient hinterland, unthreatening and potentially even providing space (“strategic depth”) for the Pakistani army. And that weak government should be Pashtun, like the powers-that-be in Pakistan, even if it means preferring the Taliban over the Northern Alliance.

Everything is abstract, geographical, military, with a dash of ethnic favoritism. There’s absolutely no idea that people might be defined by more than tribe and location.

It all reminds me a bit of the Arthashastra, the book in which Kautilya (“India’s Machiavelli”) laid down the rules of statecraft around 300BC. Kautilya looks at international relations geographically; location is what matters:

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.
The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

That pretty much sums up Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Kautily then spins off into one of those overly systematic arrangements so common in Sanskrit texts:

In front of the conqueror and close to his enemy, there happen to be situated kings such as the conqueror’s friend, next to him, the enemy’s friend, and next to the last, the conqueror’s friend’s friend, and next, the enemy’s friend’s friend.

In the rear of the conqueror, there happen to be situated a rearward enemy (párshnigráha), a rearward friend (ákranda), an ally of the rearward enemy (párshnigráhásárá), and an ally of the rearward friend (ákrandására)

By the time he’s finished we have “four primary Circles of States, twelve kings, sixty elements of sovereignty, and seventy-two elements of states”. Phew! But sometimes it seems there is more nuance and insight in Kautilya than among his epigones in the Pakistan Army.

Building for the web checklist

January 31st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Here is a good checklist of what to think about when designing for the web. Some highlights:

  • Assume that people won’t read the instructions.
  • Redundancy is a useful design technique. Labels+icons, color+width, etc.
  • Use loading indicators for XHR requests, even if they’re likely to be very fast. You never know how slow or broken it might be for a user. They should know if something is missing.
  • Don’t give someone 20 equally interesting things to do right off the bat. Give them a more focused presentation upfront before turning them loose.
  • Get live data into your visualization early. If you can’t, use historical data or something else a little bit representative. Visualizing random test data will lead you astray.
  • Clean and transform your raw data stepwise. Make it a repeatable process. Use Makefiles or shell scripts if you can.
  • Assume your page will be one of user’s dozen open tabs. Use short, descriptive page titles and a favicon.
  • Have a recovery plan, and test it.