November 28, 2007

A phrase I never expected to read: seat-of-the-pants jurisprudence

October 12, 2007

Burma, BBC, UNSC

The UN Security Council has issued a statement on Burma. OK. a statement is better than nothing, but it's basically just meaningless words that will be ignored by the Burmese junta.

But you wouldn't get that from the BBC report. They say:

The statement - which, unlike a resolution, requires the consent of all 15 council members to be adopted - was issued by Ghana's UN Ambassador Leslie Christian, the council's president.

Yep, they totally skip the detail that a resolution actually, well, resolves something. Reading this report, you could easily get the idea that a statement is more significant than a resolution (it's unanimous, right? that has to count for something...). Aren't journalists supposed to cut through all the bureaucratic, procedural crap for us, so that we can have an idea of what's going on without having to understand diplomatic doublespeak?

October 1, 2007

Sy Hersh is supposed to have incredible knowledge and attention to detail, right? Writing about "the newly elected government of Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown" must really help that reputation.

August 25, 2007

The Yorkshire Ranter is well worth reading, for the incidental comments as much as for the main thrust of the posts. His Review of a history of the AK-47 nicely explains:

Mikhail Kalashnikov's background as the son of kulaks exiled to Siberia, and his running away to join the engineers - he fled the penal colony and jumped a train, eventually landing an apprenticeship in the Turk-Sib railway yards. This is something a lot of people fail to realise about the Soviet Union; as well as a bureaucratic tyranny, it was (especially up to the 1940s) a continent on the move, full of transients and orphans and bastards and geniuses.

February 6, 2007

Finally, I'm now back with broadband, a room of my own, and enough free time to read the news. There might actually be another post here inside the next couple of months.

I'm now in Berlin, tryng to learn German and drifting around Kreuzberg. I'm here for at least the next three months, although I might extend that if Berlin continues to rock as much as it has for the week I've been here.

October 28, 2006

This medieval bestiary feel very much like the etymologies in Sanskrit works like Yaska's Nirukta. Both of them shift between what we'd now think of as etymology (i.e. finding plausible historical roots for words), and a more alien sense that the word, through etymology, somehow captures the entire nature of the thing described. I suppose in the West this goes back to the "Platonism without Plato" that drives medieval scholasticism, and there is something pretty similar in India.

The he-goat is a wanton and frisky animal, always longing for sex; as a result of its lustfulness its eyes look sideways - from which it has has derived its name. For, according to Suetonius, hirci are the corners of the eyes. Its nature is so very heated that its blood alone will dissolve a diamond, against which the properties of neither fire nor iron can prevail.

Also, like all these books, it is a very pretty thing.

October 12, 2006

Child abuse, Skinner style

Wow. Drop what you're doing, and go read this article:

The only thing that sets these students apart from kids at any other school in America - aside from their special-ed designation - is the electric wires running from their backpacks to their wrists. Each wire connects to a silver-dollar-sized metal disk strapped with a cloth band to the student's wrist, forearm, abdomen, thigh, or foot. Inside each student's backpack is a battery and a generator, both about the size of a VHS cassette. Each generator is uniquely coded to a single keychain transmitter kept in a clear plastic box labeled with the student's name. Staff members dressed neatly in ties and green aprons keep the boxes hooked to their belts, and their eyes trained on the students' behavior. They stand ready, if they witness a behavior they've been told to target, to flip open the box, press the button, and deliver a painful two-second electrical shock into the student at the end of the wire.

Now, this is already astoundingly nasty stuff. The justification is that these are severely disabled children who would otherwise be locked up, drugged to the eyeballs, or killing themselves. I can't accept it - because I wouldn't want anybody to have that power over anyone, certainly not in such a regimented system - but at least I can see the defence. Only, read on and it gets far worse:

Sometimes, the student gets shocked for doing precisely what he's told. In a few cases where a student is suspected of being capable of an extremely dangerous but infrequent behavior, the staff at Rotenberg won't wait for him to try it. They will exhort him to do it, and then punish him. In these behavior rehearsal lessons, staff members will force a student to start a dangerous activity - for a person who likes to cut himself, they might get him to pick up a plastic knife on the table - and then shock him when he does.

And worse:

New York state inspectors concluded that "the background and preparation of staff is not sufficient," that JRC shocks students "without a clear history of self-injurious behavior," and that it uses the GED "for behaviors that are not aggressive, health dangerous, or destructive, such as nagging, swearing, and failing to keep a neat appearance."

[crossposted from my livejournal]

October 3, 2006

I'm temporarily turning off comments on this blog, because of the ridiculous amount of comment spam I'm getting right now. No promises about when they'll come back; probably when I'm sorted out enough to put a bit more content around here.

August 26, 2006


Long time no show.

Apart from getting ready to leave Cambridge and become a hobo, I seem to have spent a lot of the past few days squeeing over steampunk. There's Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age on the one hand, and Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky on the other.

I adore the almost Heath Robinson aesthetic of massive machines patched together from scraps of metal. It makes everything seem functional, compared to the gleaming, polished steel of most futurism.

The thing that bugs me is: where on earth does the 'punk' come in. Cyberpunk as a genre stripped out all of the politics and most of the rebellion, but there was at least a glimmer of connection between the cyber and the punk. But what politics there is in steampunk is a hearkening-back to empire, occasionally scattered with a bit of affection for the people being destroyed by it. Steampunk made with real punk: there's something I'd enjoy reading.

June 6, 2006

Unsorted links

Last week, I planned to force myself into writing daily updates here, and it just isn't working. It's a pity, because I'm sure I'd be a lot happier if I forced myself to do something every day. When I'm in a foul mood I tend to gnash my teeth at politics, and I need a bit more coherence to write about anything else. It does help to know that nobody's reading, though!

Anyway, today has been a crappy day and so I'm taking the coward's way out: a collection of interesting links, with no theme beyond the usual focus on Iraq and the former Soviet bloc.

In the Atlantic, Fred Kaplan has a subscription-only article about Enduring Bases in Iraq - nice to see that meme gradually picking up steam, and moving into the mainstream.

Chernobyl means 'wormwood' in Ukranian. That gave an apocalyptic flavour to the disaster, because Revelations says:

"And there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

Much talk of Russia using energy sales for political ends; so what's new? Ditto for Uzbekistan closing down NGOs

New Eurasia is doing cross-regional commentaries on HIV and on Islam as a political force

And that's it. Now I'm going to post this, crack open a can of beer, and mope!

May 9, 2006

Bridge-city of Zeugma

Zeugma is such a fantastic name for a city; I'm disappointed not to have run into this one before. Ho-hum, yet another mostly-ignored corner of the ancient world then.

Also, the BBC finds underground pyramids in Bosnia, including one with a 2.4-mile-long underground tunnel. That's pretty huge, no?

April 16, 2006

Technical woes

As Francis has helpfully pointed out, large chunks of this blog are defunct - including comments, individual entries, and all the archives. I've not worked out why yet, but bear with me and eventually things will be back to their usual semi-functionality.

UPDATE: I'm still not sure what was causing this, but I've turned off dynamic publishing and now things are mostly working. if you find things still broken.


March 28, 2006

A plan

I'm reading far too much in English, and far far too much of that is the standard boingboing/slashdot/oreilly/bbc stuff. It's interesting, but each day it's the same few dozen pages as every other geek in the western world is poring over. That needs to change, or I'm going to end up with the same stunted, arrogant, inane perspective as everybody else on teh interweb.

So now I'm throwing my cap over the wall. I'm going to spend tomorrow cruising round the web, one country at a time. I'm going to look for the funky weird shit that would be slashdotted to hell if it was in English, and I'm going to blog about it. Who knows, I might even learn something.

Before that I intend to spend tonight dancing, drinking, and chatting entirely in English with the assorted goths of Cambridge. I may even find it in my heart to say some nice things about the Christians, who are currently being bullied by the rest of the goths in a disturbingly playground style.

March 7, 2006

Movable Type

After far, far too much wrangling, I'm pretty much done with the rejigging of this site. In brief: Wordpress is enticing, but for some reason hellishly buggy with my setup. Movable Type gives me scary-looking licenses to accept at every turn, feels like a lumbering corporate monster, and lacks any kind of grace - but it works. Works, that is, apart from when you want to import old posts from somewhere else. A few comments are gone, but I can live with that.


  1. I'll no longer be updating the old blog on Blogsome. It's a good service, but I needed something that I could integrate with the other bits and pieces here, and that I could customise. Not being able to add in custom themes and plugins was a big downside with Blogsome, even if it made total sense in terms of security and stability
  2. I have started up a little side-blog, so I have somewhere to put things that don't deserve a full post to themselves. When things drop off the front page sidebar here, you'll be able to find them here
  3. Also for things that don't deserve a full post, I've put recent links from [my page]( on the left. is something I've found continually useful over the past year, and I find my links there more interesting than most of what I've actually blogged.
  4. I'm going to look for a way to get my rough notes back up here, possibly as a wiki. There's some useful stuff there amidst the dross.
  5. I'll try to resist the tempation to fiddle and tweak, but it is so tempting. I'm sure there'll be trendy things appearing and vanishing from the sidebars every now and again, and perhaps I'll even adjust things so they work better. You never know.

March 5, 2006

The Washington Post has had

The Washington Post has had a clutch of good articles on Iraq recently.

On the aftermath of the destruction of the mosque in Samarra, the US claims that the problems are over. , as do (mostly unnamed) “Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats“. Good news, except that these aren’t really people I trust to tell me how well things are going in Iraq. And 1300 deaths isn’t something you can ignore this easily. At least there is something on the human effects of the curfew

And then there’s a worrying article, titled “An End to the Soft Sell By the British in Basra“. The gist is that over time the British are losing their “softly softly” approach (softness being strictly relative in the first place). But it’s the incidental comments that are disturbing: the murder rate in Basra has doubled since November, the military are leaving their bases less and less, the police forces are little more than a cover for sectarian militias.

Finally, 1/3 of US veterans of Iraq have reported mental problems. That’s a huge number, especially considering the likelihood that a good few will be suffering but not willing to see a psychiatrist.

It’s a hard life being a journalist

A decent enough human-interest piece on the difficulties of being a female journalist in Iran. But it’s spoilt by the introduction:

Women living and working in Iran, particularly those working for the foreign media, are finding all kinds of difficulties strewn in their path, writes Frances Harrison

Is she (or whoever wrote that sentence) really claiming that female journalists have a harder time than other women in Iran? The article itself shows how she managed to use her status as a journalist to get past sexist restrictions, by threatening not to report things she wasn’t allowed to see.

airships over moscow

I want to see a photograph of this - Moscow police are going to start using airships to monitor traffic.

March 4, 2006

Online RPGs affect players’ perceptions

Online RPGs affect players’ perceptions of reality. People who play a MMORPG think that assaults with weapons are more likely than those who don’t play. There’s the start of a discussion on whether the same might apply to positive ‘cultivation effects’ (which is apparently the appropriate jargon). The next question is whether you could rejig the rules of a game in light of this - and whether you should.

March 3, 2006

Looking East

Today I’ve had my head in Russia. From time to time I’ve attempted to find some interesting Russian-language blogs, and I’ve more or less failed. Turns out the reason is that they’re all using Livejournal. Now the question is just how to find the fascinating LJs amongst the teenage breakups and blow-by-blow personal diaries.

Meanwhile, I’ve turned up some odd and interesting Russia-related bits in English. A Soviet cartoon character reinvented as an Olympic mascot Panic-buying of salt, because of fears that Ukraine would stop exporting salt to Russia. Nobody from the Ukrainian government actually said that, or anything close. Just some Russian official worried publicly about the possibility and - Wham! - salt prices go up twenty times.

And how did I not notice that there’s a new BBC documentary series about the role of the oligarchs in Russia?

Edit two minutes later: or rather, there was a documentary about oligarchs. It’s presumably finished in the three months since that article was written. Have to rewatch this film instead (the DVD arrived a couple of weeks ago, as part of my christmas bonus from work, and it’s sitting on the shelf for a rainy day).

February 27, 2006

third-country nationals in Iraq

From corpwatch, an excellent piece on the (mis)treatment of foreign workers employed by US contractors. The usual nastiness - people working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for $1.56 per hour, workers left without protection or even protective clothing, recruiters lying about which country people would be taken to.

But unlike with, say, mistretment in sweatshops, here the Filipino workers are working next to highly-paid US contractors. I wonder what impact this has on the Americans - I’d imagine it being pretty hard to avoid at least some uneasiness at being treated so much better than your colleagues.

Also, these Third Country Nationals are presumably being brought in because Americans don’t trust Iraqis. That is, any Iraqis working on a base are suspected suicide bombers in the making. So you give jobs to outsiders who won’t be trying to get the USA out of Iraq, and you leave Iraqis unemployed.

February 23, 2006

riot patterns

How do you guess how bad the rioting is going to get after the Samarra bombing? I find myself doing mental calculations along the lines of ‘x killed on day one, double that, add in some reprisals over the next week….’. B of course I don’t have any real reason to double rather than triple, and in the end I’m just making up a number that feels about the right size.

But it wouldn’t be all that hard to make more serious estimates about the likely progression of unrest. There are any number of riots around the world triggered by some event or other, and the newspapers don’t do a bad job of reporting casualty numbers as they change. So you could get a good, quantitative, idea of how these things develop just by totalling up the figures. And shiny charts and graphs would be equally easy.

I suspect that if you did this, you’d find that certain types of unrest are very predictable. I also suspect that somebody, somewhere, has already done this; I just don’t know where you’d look to find their results.

Meanwhile, back home…

Good that somebody is paying attention to human rights abuses in the UK - America is too much of an easy target. The report from Amnesty is here, and here is the annual human rights report from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (which says sane and anti-government things about Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition).

No, I haven’t yet read either. I’ll be doing that at work tonight.


You start reading about Iraq, and suddenly there’s a massive catastrophe sitting in front of you. The question is whether the destruction of the Askariya mosque is going to be catastrophic (Juan Cole says apocalyptic) or just very, very bad.

Naturally enough, people are calling for extra security at mosques. But the attack was carried out by men in police uniforms. Having police outside mosques isn’t going to reassure Shiites, when they suspect those ‘police’ could be about to blow the thing up.

If the police aren’t trusted enough to protect the mosques, then (yet again) the sectarian or party-based militias will step in. Al-Sadr is already on his way back to Iraq (he’d been touring the Middle East), and no doubt he’ll be taking the lead in this.

Rejecting the occupiers

Local governments in Iraq are taking stands against the coalition: in Basra authorities have refused to work with the British, because of a video which shows Iraqis being beaten up by British troops. Then the governor of Karbala has “suspended all cooperation with US forces because of police dogs being used to search buildings.

What’s interesting is that this doesn’t look like a protest against the idea of the occupation, so much as a reaction to specific - and avoidable - abuses. There continues to be a democratic deficit, in that there is little way for Iraqis to feed their concerns to the US and UK governments and military commands. So you end up with this kind of fairly dramatic approach. It gets the job done, at least; even if they don’t change their behaviour, the coalition can’t claim not to know that certain things are unpopular.

I’ve not been paying much attention to Iraq lately, so perhaps I’ve missed similar cases.

February 22, 2006

His ribcage was found in Washington…

With the latest installment of torture by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, things are moving beyond the point where you can have a sane discussion. There’s yet another report on it, this one saying that at least 98 people have been killed in US-run jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, 34 because of homicide, 8-12 tortured to death. In several cases the people doing the killing were following orders from above.

And what does the US government say? They had an ex-white house lawyer onNewsnight, saying that it’s all OK, because torturing 10 people to death out of 100,000 prisoners isn’t all that bad a percentage, really.

It turns into nastily black comedy with an NGO person explaining how hard the medical examiners are making it to investigate what’s happening - “his ribcage was found in washington DC and part of his larynx in germany”. But the time I want to give up on life is when you hear people saying, almost casually, that somebody forced a detainee to jump to his death in the Tigris.

And I don’t know how to stop this - it’s already been reduced to the point where I can’t understand how anyone can defend it. If you tell somebody “they’re torturing people to death” and they don’t care, then where’s left for you to go?

Bonus from later in the programme: a montage to show the social change of the 60s - consisting entirely of shots of short-skirted legs. Miniskirts - that’s what social revolution is all about!

February 21, 2006

Too much choice

IT Conversations, which is one of my favourite ways of keeping myself awake at work, has a fascinating talk(hour-long mp3) by Barry Schwartz.

He thinks that the amount of choice we have makes us unhappy. Not much of what he says is very rigorously argued - there’s a lot of picking odd little examples, and not much trying to find overall data.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting line to take, and no doubt there is an element of truth in it. As far as I can boil down his arguments, excessive choice can be bad because of :

  1. Transaction costs The more choices you have to examine, the longer you have to spend checking through every one of them
  2. Extra choices give diminishing returns. Having two options is massively better than having one. Having 274,922 options instead of 274,921 is not much better - but you still have to look at that extra option before you can make an informed decision. The cost of evaluating choices increases linearly, but the benefit from each extra choice tapers off.
  3. Psychology. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. If you have many choices, then whatever you choose you will give up on most of the things you could have done - and this isn’t pleasant. As a teacher, he finds that many of his multi-talented students suffer when they leave college, and for the first time have to shut out some of the options in their lives. If you only have one choice, you won’t feel so much regret - your life might be bad, but you’ll blame it on the system, not on yourself making a stupid decision.

I’m disappointed he didn’t offer any solutions. Reducing choice is really not a viable option (notwithstanding the apocalyptic climate-change predictions I’ve been hearing a lot of lately) - what else can we do?

There’s an obvious technological angle in all the rating and comparision-shopping systems on the web - ebay, amazon, froogle and so on. Equally there are the lower-tech equivalents: Which and the like. Given a set of personal values and some choices, it’s not all that hard to automate most of the work of choosing between them.

I guess there are also some social and psychological lessons out there. I know I’d benefit from learning to accept that my choices will often be the wrong ones. Perhaps we’d also benefit from thinking that “if you don’t know what to choose, it’s OK to pick something at random”. We could have Dice Man lite being taught in finishing schools.

Another thing the talk didn’t address is the link between choice and homogeneity. I love the way that we can live in subcultures within subcultures, that you can meet people who are so very different. If you eliminate choice, you eliminate all that beauty.

But it’s all OK, because even Schwartz doesn’t want to eliminate choice. And if you’re talking about how to deal with it, then I am unashamedly enthusiastic.

According to Amazon, there’s no shortage of books by Schwartz to follow this up in more detail.

February 13, 2006

Worldchanging recently pointed out that

Worldchanging recently pointed out that underground coal fires release as much Carbon Dioxide as US road vehicles. Like (it seems) a lot of the other readers, I was surprised, keen to find out more, and interested in what solutions people had come up with.

There aren’t any. Or at least, none that I can find. I spent a fair while in the British Library last week, looking through the few references I could find. There’s some work on using satellites to identify and monitor fires - Anupma Prakash, for example, has written quite a few articles on this, and there is a small organisation investigating coal fires in China. And there are the old techniques that have been used for decades (centuries?) with limited success. The book Unseen Danger, which is a history of the Centralia mine fire, is a readable account of some of these, and how they failed.

It seems that much of the research is tucked away in technical papers within mining-related organisations. I kept on seeing references to reports from the US Bureau of Mining. But that bureau was closed a decade ago, their reports are presumably locked away in a library in Washington, and the best we have online ins the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

As Prakash says, “till recently, such a major environmental hazard was overlooked or largely undermined by the international community”. I’m not sure where to look for ways of changing that, but I do think it’s worth doing.

January 9, 2006

David Byrne

Every now and again, a post on boingboing really does point you towards a wonderful. This time, it’s David Byrne, and his monthly set of mp3s from fascinating little corners of the musical world.

This month it’s all country. Country music reminds me of science fiction: there’s some great stuff in there, but 90% of it is crap. I’m lazy enough that I’ve not ploughed through the crap in country or in SF - I’ve hung around in the hope that somebody will point me towards the good stuff. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to find several guides before this. One was a set of Americana, which Ozzy played at Octaine in November 2004. Another is the country int he sets on Radio Paradise]( - from these, at least one of the setlist is familiar to me. But this set is my favourite of the three.

So, boingboing wins for that alone. I’ll probably spend while with tuned to country-tagged music, and try to get my bearings a little better.

But the icing on the cake is David Byrne’s journal. Just this paragraph makes me want to read everything else he’s ever written:

I hope also to catch and absorb some whiff of the Philippine ethos, sensibility and awareness — by osmosis — and by conversation, too. I believe that politics is an expression of the landscape — the streets, eroticism and hum-drum lives — as much it is of backrooms, ideologies and legislature. Geography, religion, sex, weather, music, food — these all contribute to a national policy and how it functions. As in current genetic thinking, the word “expression” is appropriate here; just as there are elements in the genes waiting for chemical keys to allow the cells to express themselves as a chicken liver or a human heart, there are elements in a place that trigger expression in action and in culture. Much human behavior is a kind of expression of latent keys — genetic or geographical and cultural — unlocking tiny doors.

January 4, 2006

squatter city

squatter city is a great example of taking an overlooked issue and using a blog to build up expertise on it. Over the past few months, he’s been noticing a trend towards European governments closing down well-established squats: Rhino in Geneva, St. Agnes Place in London, Christiania in Copenhagen. Robert, who writes it, also has a book about squatters.

November 24, 2005

I’m puzzled by the memo

I’m puzzled by the memo leaked to the Mirror a couple of days ago. This claims that Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar, until he was talked out of it by Blair. It’s a crazy idea even for Bush, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible. What I find hard to believe is the story of how the document came to light. According to the Mirror article:

The memo, which also included details of troop deployments, turned up in May last year at the Northampton constituency office of then Labour MP Tony Clarke.

Would something this damaging be handed out willy-nilly to MPs - especially to somebody like Tony Clarke, whose voting record shows that he was reasonably anti-war and anti-Blair in the first place.

But then, the government seems to be treating it as if it’s genuine - charging people and threatening editors under the Official Secrets Act. So I’m confused - I guess it’s possible that somebody leaked this to Tony Clarke in the past, and that he and his staff kept it secret until now. It might become clearer in a while - for now, I’ll just hope that the document turns up on Cryptome, which it will if it gets into the public domain.

[also covered by the Guardian, The Times, and probably a few others.]

November 7, 2005

Money in Iraq

The Iraq Analysis site site is accumulating an impressive amount of new content at the moment.

Among it is a fairly damning statement from the IAMB on contract management in Iraq:

The KPMG audit of the 23 sole sourced contracts revealed exceptions in a number of cases including * (i) insufficient documentation to justify non-competitive contracting action, * (ii) lack of support for the provision of services or receipts of goods, and * (iii) discrepancies in the amount billed.

And then they recomment “_ that amounts disbursed to contractors that cannot be supported as fair be reimbursed expeditiously_”

So, one more point goes to those distrustful anti-american anti-corporate types.

On a similar topic, somebody from Corpwatch (the US one) has written this book about the economic end of the war. It might be horribly out-of-date by now (it was published November 2004), but then everything on Iraq seems out of date at the moment. I’m planning to read it anyway, if I can get hold of a copy.

November 2, 2005

Galloway summary

This, despite being 6 months old, is a very useful summary of the allegations against George Galloway. (via crooked timber, which also brings the story up-to-date)

August 29, 2005

Robert Trivers

The Guardian has a wonderful profile of Robert Trivers. As an ignorant arts student, I hadn’t heard of him before today, and now I’m regretting it.

August 21, 2005

Translating the internet

I don’t know what to make of this report by Reidar visser, which analyses the effect of the internet on separatist Shi’ite politics in Southern Iraq. Much of the report is devoted to translating and commenting on articles from fairly minor websites. I’m delighted that people are taking apart arabic-language Iraqi politics on the internet, and making it available to those poor fools who don’t speak Arabic (i.e. me).

But at the same time, isn’t it a waste of time? At one point, Visser reveals that one article has had only 10-30 readers. Is it worth an expert’s time to translate this stuff?

Arabic discussions about Iraq are so widespread on the internet that no human is going to be able to translate them all. If you want to understand what Iraqis are saying on the web, you’re really going to have to learn Arabic. You’ll get so much more information by skimming though lots of sites than by reading erudite deconstructions of a few articles. Case studies are inevitably misleading: they’re subject to the biases of an academic, and no one piece of writing can explain an entire discusison.

But - there are so many people, myself included, who don’t read Arabic and yet write about Iraq. In an ideal world, we’d all either learn the language or stop talking about Iraq. In my case, either is a possibility: I’m likely either to finally learn to read arabic, or to shift my focus off Iraq and onto the CIS, where I can at least read what’s going on in Russian. But in general, most people won’t know the languages of countries they’re trying to understand.

Given that, I suppose translating and analysing extracts from foreign-language sites is worthwhile. But it still feels as though Visser and others like him are flinging themselves at an impossible task.

Translating the internet

I don’t know what to make of this report by Reidar visser, which analyses the effect of the internet on separatist Shi’ite politics in Southern Iraq. Much of the report is devoted to translating and commenting on articles from fairly minor websites. I’m delighted that people are taking apart arabic-language Iraqi politics on the internet, and making it available to those poor fools who don’t speak Arabic (i.e. me).

But at the same time, isn’t it a waste of time? At one point, Visser reveals that one article has had only 10-30 readers. Is it worth an expert’s time to translate this stuff?

Arabic discussions about Iraq are so widespread on the internet that no human is going to be able to translate them all. If you want to understand what Iraqis are saying on the web, you’re really going to have to learn Arabic. You’ll get so much more information by skimming though lots of sites than by reading erudite deconstructions of a few articles. Case studies are inevitably misleading: they’re subject to the biases of an academic, and no one piece of writing can explain an entire discusison.

But - there are so many people, myself included, who don’t read Arabic and yet write about Iraq. In an ideal world, we’d all either learn the language or stop talking about Iraq. In my case, either is a possibility: I’m likely either to finally learn to read arabic, or to shift my focus off Iraq and onto the CIS, where I can at least read what’s going on in Russian. But in general, most people won’t know the languages of countries they’re trying to understand.

Given that, I suppose translating and analysing extracts from foreign-language sites is worthwhile. But it still feels as though Visser and others like him are flinging themselves at an impossible task.


I’ve also been having another look at Latin and Greek recently. And, at risk of seeming horribly religious, I’ve ben reading some of the letters of St. Jerome.

This is hilarious in an exactly opposite way to the dream of the rood. It sounds uncannily like current evangelism. Or rather, it sounds exactly like the kind of stereotypical CICCU evangelising that makes people run screaming. Nothing has changed, it seems, over the past 1600 years, and perhaps the Jerome Method works.

I was going to paste in some of the gems I came across, but I can’t find the appropriate letters on the internet, and certainly not in English. One day I’ll go back to the classics library and copy down a few of the best bits.

Incidentally, I’d not realised that Jerome and Heironymus are same name. Not quite as good as Catamite and Ganymede, but getting close.

Dream of the Rood

I’ve just escaped from four years of trying to bluff my way around an ancient language I could barely understand. So what do I do? Move onto another one.

Since I’m still in work-limbo, I’ve been spending part of my time learning Old English. It isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds - I’ve been interested in this stuff since my teens, and it was mainly personal circumstances that made me do the Sanskrit course at Cambridge rather than Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

More importantly, this time round I get the benefits of doing it as a hobby. I don’t have to do any more grammar than necessary, I don’t need to feel guilty when I consult a translation, and I get to cherry-pick the interesting bits.

Unfortunately, the corpus is pretty small, so there aren’t many interesting bits. The one that is great fun is the Dream of the Rood. I first came across this when I went to an ASNAC open day five years ago, and all the students agreed it was the best text on the course. I’ve picked at it a few times, but this weekend is my first attempt at reading all the way through in the original.

It’s the story of the Crucifiction - but it’s the crucifiction told by the cross, and Jesus is a Saxon hero. Here’s how Jesus gets on to the cross:

Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes 
efstan elne mycle  þæt he me wolde on gestigan. 

Then I saw that lord of mankind
Rush with great courage to climb onto me

þær ic þa ne dorste       ofer dryhtnes word 
bugan oððe berstan,     þa ic bifian geseah 
eorðan sceatas.     Ealle ic mihte 
feondas gefyllan,  hwæðre ic fæste stod. 

There I did not dare to bend or break against the
word of God. Then I saw the surface of the earth trembling.
I could have fallen on all those enemies, but I stood firm.

Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig), 
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne, 
modig on manigra gesyhðe,   þa he wolde mancyn lysan. 

Then that young lord (who was God Almighty) undressed,
Strong and resolute.  He climbed onto that wretched cross,
Going boldly into the sight of many, since he would liberate mankind

Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan, 
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan. 

I trembled because this warrior had climbed onto me,
But I didn't dare bend to earth, to fall onto the dark ground. And I had to stand firm.

There are texts, translations, and notes on this all over the web. For reading it, the best I’ve found is this one, which links each word to a dictionary definition. And since the sentence structure is pretty similar to modern English, it’s not too hard to understand without formally learning the language.

Circus to Afghanistan

Back in the dim and distant past (2004?), Jo Wilding took a Circus to Iraq. Now it turns out somebody else has been doing the same thing in Afghanistan.

Perhaps with slightly different politics from Jo, or perhaps not - but who cares, it’s a circus!

April 13, 2005

Sir William Jones: getting lucky

The Sanskrit language whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined then either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philosopher could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

That comment is an obligatory part of the preface to any book involving Sanskrit. It comes from a speech William Jones gave to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786. It’s the first claim of a common root for Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, and so Jones generally gets credited with the origin of Indo-European linguistics.

I had assumed that the comment was based on some kind of reasoned argument. Then on Monday I read the paper it came from. Jones wasn’t coming up with a systematic theory of historical linguistics - he was clumping together any similarity he could find, with no regard to plausibility. He happened to get lucky this one time, but he wasn’t any saner than, say, Immanuel Velikovsky.

Here are a couple of the other brilliant ideas Jones had in that speech in Calcutta:

It is very remarkable, that the Peruvians, whose Incas boasted of the same descent, styled their greatest festival Ramasitoa; whence we may suppose that South America was peopled by the same race, who imported into the farthest parts of Asia the rites and fabulous history of Rama
Nor can we doubt, that Wod or Odin, whose religion, as the northern historians admit, was introduced into Scandinavia by a foreign race, was the same with Buddh, whose rites were probably imported into India nearly at the same time
The letters on many of these monuments appear, as I have before intimated, partly of Indian, and partly of Abyssinian or Ethiopick, origin; and all these indupitable facts may induce no ill-grounded opinion, that Ethiopia and Hindustan were peopled or colonized by the same extraordianry race

The moral of the story is that if you spin out enough wild ideas, one of them will eventually turn out to be right, and a couple of hundred years later you’ll be remembered as a great scholar and visionary.

March 20, 2005

Jonathan Raban

Last December, I came across Jonathan Raban’s soft city in Oxfam. I impulse-bought it, because it played to my fascination with big cities, and with their impact on the imaginations of their inhabitants and visitors.

As I wrote elsewhere, I was torn between admiration for Raban’s erudition and prose style, and irritation at his disdain for non-academics trying to think by themselves. Mostly, I liked it just because there still aren’t enough people writing about cities in the same rose-tinted way they write about nature.

Now I find that Raban is a bit more interesting than the parochial academic I’d pegged him as after Soft City. He’s moved on from London, lived in Seattle for a decade, and written Passage to Juneau, a book about sailing in the Pacific Northwest. From the reviews, it seems he’s trying to do for the sea the same as Soft City did for cities - the book is even subtitled A sea and its meanings. I find that strangely inspiring. I normally avoid books about the sea or the countryside for fear of sentimentality: since I grew up in the country, I’d rather save my sentimentality for the city. But Raban I might make an exception for - if he can write poetically about London, then perhaps he can also write non-romantically about Alaska. It’s easy to be inspired by a book about something you love anyway. I’m wondering whether I’ll manage to be equally inspired by a book about something as alien to me as the sea. So Passage to Juneau goes on the reading list.

March 3, 2005

Bruno does childcare

Bruno is about the best way I’ve found to cheer myself up when I’m down. This sequence (which goes on for about a month) is particularly uplifting and chicken-soup-esque. I’m impressed - there’s a small child involved, and I still loved it.

February 13, 2005

Uncertainty, confusion and deniability

Iranian protesters have a nice method to escape prosecution: they encourage people to do things which might, or might not, be protests. For example , they might call for people to drive into the city centre. The protest succeeds if the traffic is obviously heavier than usual, but the police can’t sift the dissidents from the commuters.

I’m wondering what other systems - for protest, or for anything else - do, or could, use the same kind of deniability system. It’s probably dealt with smewhere in the security or politics literature, btu of course I have no idea where.

February 10, 2005


Yes, I do already have a webpage, and a livejournal, and I’m starting a politics group-blog elsewhere, and a blosxom private blog/note-collection, and have strewn plenty of debris elsewhere on the net. Why another one?

  1. because I want somewhere to write about social software and other technology without boring everyone else. Livejournal is for friends, tran is for hacks, blosxom is for me and me alone.
  2. To respond to other blogs - to ‘participate in the conversation’, as the jargon du jour would put it. To have somewhere I can trackback to posts, without baffling all comers
  3. To stop writing off-topic comments. I keep writing comments on other people’s blogs that are only tangentially connected to the original post. It isn’t fair on them to keep begging forgiveness for going off on detours. Now I can digress on my own time.

So that’s the plan. I’m sure it won’t work out as neatly as all that. Either this blog will die, or it will go somewhere I didn’t expect it to. That’s life.