look! a website!

March 27th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the things I’ve been working on the past few months has just launched.

I have no idea what to say about it: my instinct is to be snarky, but actually I think the site is reasonably good. And I can’t really be proud of it, since I had no hand in the design or planning. I’ve basically just been the outsourced dogsbody, churning out a lot of the really routine, repetitive code. Still: it’s there, it works (so far), and it manages to fulfil an impressive number of Web 2.0 cliches.

March 23rd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Whenever you folks in the UK post about the weather, we seem to be having something similar in Berlin. I don’t understand it; I thought I was distant enough to get different weather.

Yes, it’s snowing here too.

Victor Bout and the military-typographical complex

March 22nd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

[Mother Jones’ account](http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2008/03/viktor-bout.html) of the Victor Bout arrest is good, but it’s more fun reaing the [DEA’s charges](http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2008/March/bout-complaint.pdf) against him. Not for the facts – Mother Jones summarises most of the interesting bits – but for the sheer semiotics of the thing.
Just look at the document: Monospaced Courier 12 in numbered paragraphs. Badly reproduced text, lines sloping up the page. Government stamps and signatures. It fits so perfectly into nostalgic stereotypes: typewriter keys clattering in a nondescript government building, as a sweating government agent writes up his report.
And the text plays up to every cliche. The boilerplate allegation that Bout “affected interstate and foreign commerce“. The long, oft-repeated list of aliases (VIKTOR BOUT, a/k/a “Boris,” a/k/a “Victor Anatoliyevich Bout,” a/k/a “Victor But,” a/k/a “Viktor Budd,” a/k/a “Viktor Butt,” a/k/a “Viktor Bulakin,” a/k/a “Vadim Markovich Aminov”). The whole document is begging to be stuffed into a brown paper envelope and sent to Bob Woodward or Fox Mulder.
Since I don’t spend much time reading US legal documents (maybe I should?), I have no idea how standard all of this is. Apparently a lot of US court documents really do still have to be produced in this format. Intentional or not, though, the layout makes it all seem like part of a great cloak-and-dagger Cold War adventure. I’d like to believe that somebody in the US goverment has figured this out, reasoned that it gives people the impression they have mountains of secret information, and decided to stick to Courier.
Oh, and the content? Still reasonably entertaining. Bout’s henchman Andrew Smulian comes off as a complete muppet, calling Bout on a phone the DEA had given him. It looks like the main problem with arranging the sting was that they couldn’t do it in Moscow, but had to entice Bout out to more US-friendly Thailand. Mostly, though, I’m just reading for the typography.

March 21st, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

>So here’s a trick: A first step toward understanding Russia would be to read the press and academic accounts on China — and then substitute the word “Russia” for “China.” (This works in reverse as well.)
[New York Times]

Russia’s independent media

March 17th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Something I should have noticed years ago: ‘Moscow Echo‘, commonly described as Russia’s only (or only significant) independent radio station, is majority owned by Gazprom Media. Gazprom Media is a subdivision of Gazprom. The chairman of Gazprom is Dmitri Medvedev, the President-elect.
Next time I stop being cynical about the entire world, somebody please punch me. Hard.

Protected: boilerplate whine

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March 13th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

For those of you who don’t obsessively track the internal politics of livejournal: basic accounts have been abolished. From here on in, you have to either buy an account, or have advertising everywhere (existing accounts are excluded)

You know, I’m not sure I can work up much anger. Like it or not, LJ’s just another business now, and SUP have a $30m investment to earn back. I wish they had a way that didn’t involve posts about abortion and homosexuality being plastered with ads telling us we’re all sinners. And I wish they’d had the sense to announce it properly, and to consult their shiny new advisory board. But that’s life – not to mention the internet: being screwed by some people, screwing others in our turn.

I don’t really know why I’m posting this: the people who care about these things are up in arms, the rest are carrying on as usual, and LJ are applying their usual Trappist change management. Et l’aurore se lève encore.

Public intellectuals in China

March 13th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Public intellectuals in China are the subject of a fascinating article by Mark Leonard in this month’s Prospect. He namechecks several of them, but has no room to do any more than briefly sketch their ideas and outlooks. So in the interests of hearing from the horses’ mouths, here are links to what I’ve been able to find of their work in English…
Wang Hui is easily the most interesting figure mentioned. Wang has a few good articles in Le Monde Diplomatique [European views of China](http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/10/110.html) and on [political dissatisfaction in the 80s](http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2002/04/WANG/16310). But he is a literary critic by training, and what really caught my eye was ‘[Borderless Writing](http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~tnchina/commentary/wang2001.html)’. Framed as a celebration of the essayist [Yu](http://mclc.osu.edu/rc/pubs/yuhua.htm) [Hua](http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=5470), this piece is mainly concerned with the role of the author: must she be a tortured soul, or is technical virtuosity enough? And how can literature be political without turning into punditry or social science. On the way he pulls in Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Borges and Isiah Berlin, and weaves in his own romantic rhapsody on writing:
>Writing is merely the power with which the writer is shaping himself. What is more important, however, is that writing is a way in which the writers open themselves up and entrust themselves to time and to fate. Writing is a struggle in which a writer is fighting against himself and where happiness and gloominess coexist together. Writing unites a writer with the world of fiction, brings oneness with reality.
This main source of Wang Hui’s reputation, though, is his 11-year stint (he was removed last summer) as co-editor of Dushu, one of China’s main literary journals. Dushu was founded in 1979, and initially focused on biographies of Chinese intellectualls. Over the 80s it developed more interest in European philosophy and critical theory, printing works by and about Heidegger, Foucault, Buber and Camus. When Wang and his co-editor Huang Ping took over in 1996, they gave it another push: towards the theoretical, the international and the political. It became a pillar of the so-called “New Left”, a movement which Wang (although he dislikes the term), [describes](http://www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2004/october/Scenario_China.htm):
>Political democracy will not come from a legally impartial market, secured by constitutional amendments, but from the strength of social movements against the existing order. This point is central to the genealogy of the critical intellectual work that is now identified as a New Left
If you can’t get enough of Wang (I can’t), there’s a [long profile of him](http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/10/13/news/left.php) in the IHT, and he has at least one [book](http://www.amazon.com/Chinas-New-Order-Politics-Transition/dp/0674009320/ref=ed_oe_h/002-3568384-0240018?ie=UTF8) in English (reviews: [one](http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief.com/node/126), [two](http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B02E1D81F3EF931A35752C0A9629C8B63)), and there are [one](http://granitestudio.blogspot.com/2006/10/iht-wang-hui-and-chinas-new-new-left.html) or [two](http://uselesstree.typepad.com/useless_tree/2006/10/new_left_or_old.html)) interesting and (apparently) well-informed blog posts on him.
Many of the other intellectuals mentioned are economists, so I find it a little harder to figure out where they’re coming from. There’s Zhang Weiying, a member of the ‘new right’ who ‘thinks China will not be free until the public sector is dismantled and the state has shrivelled into a residual body designed mainly to protect property rights.‘ His own [page](http://www.gsm.pku.edu.cn/wuan1/e-wyzhang.html) lists many of his English-language publications.
Another economist is Hu Angang, author of [several English-language books](http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=Hu%20Angang&page=1) (google has an [extensive extract](http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Louqmn31NDwC&oi=fnd&pg=PP9&dq=%22hu+angang%22&ots=0cJ4ESoJVJ&sig=iObXuJMZ_5W7zVbB1uW4cYtInH4) from one). Has [several](http://www.imf.org/external/np/apd/seminars/2003/newdelhi/angang.pdf) [economics](https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1300/MR1300.ch6.pdf) [papers](http://www.handels.gu.se/epc/archive/00005194/01/gunwpe0236.pdf); his interests apparently center on economic history, measuring the extent and distribution of growth, and tax and development policy.
Foreign policy I find more comprehensible that economics, but I didn’t come across anything mind-blowing here. Zheng Bijian is a ‘liberal internationalist‘, he introduced the concept of [China’s Peaceful Rise](http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/challenges/competitors/2005/09peacefulrise.htm) – that is, emphasizing economic and cultural power over military power, and taking a relaxed attitude to border disputes.
All of that sounds eminently sensible – and US-friendly enough for Zheng to develop ties to [RAND](http://www.rand.org/pubs/authors/z/zheng_bijian.html) and [Brookings](http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/2005/chinaspeacefulrise.aspx). But [what I’ve found](http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/664.pdf) of his [writing](http://www.digitalnpq.org/articles/global/32/11-07-2005/jehangir_s._pocha) seems worthy rather than exciting. Possibly he’s just too powerful to be interesting (He advises Hu Jintao, supervises the training of new officials, and runs the [China Reform Forum](http://www.chinareform.org)). Being inside the Chinese establishment must make it hard for him to express views far beyond the mainstream.

Yan Xuetong is more conservative (Leonard calls him a ‘neo-comm’). He writes on [China’s foreign policy towards major powers](http://www.spfusa.org/Program/av2002/oct2202.pdf), [The rise of China and its power status](http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/1/1/5), [Missile defense](http://cns.miis.edu/pubs/npr/vol06/63/yan63.pdf) and [soft power](http://www.ccwe.org.cn/ccweold/en/journal/2/4ThePathforChinatoIncreaseitsSoftPower.pdf).

As for [civil society](http://www.asienhaus.de/public/archiv/focus11.pdf) and [democracy](http://zonaeuropa.com/20070412_1.htm), Leonard brings us Yu Keping. His views would be (or rather, [are](http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/2008/democracyisagoodthing.aspx)) unsurprising coming from a European or American think-tank. He believes ‘democracy is a good thing’, but that it can only be introduced slowly. [This](http://globalization.mcmaster.ca/wps/Keping.pdf) looks (from skimming) to be one of his more interesting pieces: a survey of Chinese views of globalization.

I couldn’t track down work by everybody Leonard mentions. Either Fang Ning, Pan Wei and Chi Zhiyuan don’t write much in English, or their names are too common for easy googling. Not that I mind much; the rest of the names amount to days of reading.

March 11th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

[Edit: as predicted, this was a case of a misleading article in the Guardian. See i_am_toast‘s comment.]
Plans to make schoolchildren take part in citizenship ceremonies pledging allegiance to the Queen

Yes, it’s the Guardian selling papers by angering liberals, and somebody’s always willing to say idiotic things to get himself back in the news. But it still leaves me feeling sour – and yes, these things can matter.

Worse – I hadn’t realised (or had forgotten) that we make immigrants swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law

sorry; I will stop posting so much about politics eventually. I just seem to have remembered in the past few weeks how beautiful the world is, and therefore also how fucked up chunks of it are

Protected: Finally, a politics-free post

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Women’s Day in Russia

March 9th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Turning an over-sized comment into a post

March 9th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Pictures from a Russian flash mob earlier today.

Protected: Romania

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The prize for ‘least convincing answer’ goes to…

March 7th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

From an old Panorama program on Russian crime boss Semyon Mogilevich

Why did you set up companies in the Channel Islands?

The problem was that I didn't know any other islands.

Yes, I am posting a lot today. Yes, I am spending Friday night behind a computer. No, I don’t have anything better to do. Shuttup.

unexpected statistic of the day

March 7th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

crimes in Britain have fallen from about 20m in 1995 to about 12m in 2006
(from this article on prisons)

ETA: the figures are apparently from here, and the writer obviously cherry-picked to prove his point. But the actual figures are even more interesting – crime rising slowly over the 80s, quickly through the early 90s, peaking in ’96 and dropping since. And no, I’m not quite naive enough to blame crime on the tories 😉

[And apologies to those of you to whom this is all old hat; I feel humbled by my total non-wonkiness, in having not the faintest idea about that trend]

March 7th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Wahoo! Viktor Bout has been arrested

[ETA: people may not know that The Yorkshire Ranter has been tracking Bout’s activities for years, and is the place for informed comment on him]

Protected: Looking on the bright side

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Newspaper snark

March 2nd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

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

You thought nobody would read your PhD?

March 2nd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

Getting your PhD into the national press is pretty impressive. But getting two articles devoted to it (one on the front page) before you even submit, must mean you’re on to something. Alternatively, perhaps you have a journalist friend who doesn’t mind writing the same article twice.
Today’s [Observer](http://education.guardian.co.uk/faithschools/story/0,,2261448,00.html) devotes much of its front page to a report by Anushka Asthana, beginning:

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

This ‘new evidence’ is, of course, a complete revolution compared to the [last time Asthana wrote this article](http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/sep/16/religion.faithschools), back in September. That one only made page 2:

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

[OK, there are some differences. For a start first article only covers London, the second is nationwide. But the articles don’t take much trouble to explain what’s actually new. Besides, how can I concentrate on the technicalities while distracted by visions of the Heath Robinson contraption which will ‘cherry-pick’ the affluent, and ‘siphon off’ the merely middle-class?]
What about the research papers on which the articles are based? Neither has been published or peer-reviewed. Neither is the work of a notably eminent scholar. Neither has sent shock-waves through the social science community. And – they’re both the work the same PhD student, [Rebecca Allen](http://www.rebeccaallen.co.uk/index.html), who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of London’s Institute of Education. The first was an [conference paper](http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/167585.pdf) (the online version is marked ‘draft paper – please do not cite’; blasting it at 450,000 Observer readers clearly doesn’t count as citing). The second I can only guess is Allen’s PhD thesis.
So, how did Anushka Asthana spot this academic rising star, assess her work, and decide that it was a matter of national importance? I’d like to think she spends her days poring over conference proceedings and hustling preprints out of postdocs. But I’ll go with circumstantial evidence – and the way everything in the British media works, and put it down to Oxbridge cliqueyness. In this case, Anushka Asthana (the journalist) and Rebecca Allen (the PhD student) were contemporaries at Cambridge, on the same Economics course in 1999. Slanderous as the accusation may be, I think I’ll chalk this one up to the old girl’s network.
[FWIW, I do think that class segregation of schools is a Bad Thing, and probably should make the news. I’d prefer that news reports are based on academic research rather than think-tank lobbying. But I don’t trust ‘evidence’ that isn’t publicly available, I don’t trust journalists who sensationalize everything and put nothing in context, and I wish journalism – and politics – didn’t always come down to looking after your friends]

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