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Afghanistan 1977: Haven of Peace and Tranquility

Wednesday, 26 March, 2014 0 Comments

Reuters: “Afghanistan accused Pakistan’s intelligence service on Monday of staging last week’s attack on a hotel in Kabul in which nine people including foreigners were shot dead by militants.”

CNN: “The number of people killed when militants stormed an election commission office in the Afghan capital Tuesday has risen to five, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry said.”

That’s how it is today in Afghanistan, but if we go back to 1977, we find the country’s national airline, Ariana, transporting passengers to a promised land of peace and tranquility. All that ended on 25 December 1979 when Soviet Airborne Forces landed in Kabul. Two days later, KGB and GRU operatives dressed in Afghan uniforms occupied major military and media buildings, attacked the Tajbeg Presidential Palace and killed President Hafizullah Amin. Within two weeks, Soviet forces in Afghanistan exceeded 100,000 personnel. What followed was a decade of barbarism, followed by retreat and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Ariana is flying again, but peace and tranquility remain a mirage for Afghanistan.

Ariana

Cyberwar with Waze

Wednesday, 26 March, 2014 0 Comments

When Google paid $1 billion last summer for Waze, an Israeli firm that had created a traffic and navigation app for smartphones, The Economist mused that if the users’ data were built into Google Maps, it “should give a timelier, fuller picture of conditions on the roads.” That’s because motorists can use Waze to report traffic jams, accidents, roadworks, speed traps and fuel prices. The Economist also noted that Waze was hugely popular in Israel, with “almost 100% penetration” among smartphone-owning drivers, according to Yahal Zilka of Magma Venture Partners, which had led the first round of investment in the company.

But within that “almost 100% penetration” lies a grave danger. Check this out:

“As part of their studies in computer science at the Technion in Haifa, two students constructed a program capable of disrupting traffic reports provided by the popular navigation service Waze by creating fictitious traffic reports to steer drivers off course. Using the program that they constructed, the students were able to create a traffic jam that continued for hours and forced thousands of drivers to steer clear of their regular routes.”

The report by No Camels concludes: “The cyber attack simulated by the students could have severe consequences on traffic patterns, enabling a user to discourage drivers from using a toll road leading to bankruptcy for the traffic authorities…”

Given the shortage of employees skilled in dealing with cyberattacks, those Technion students should have no problems getting well-paid jobs at home or abroad.

DE$IGN and $TYLE and NERD$

Tuesday, 25 March, 2014 1 Comment

Thus spoke Google: “That’s why we’re so excited about wearables — they understand the context of the world around you, and you can interact with them simply and efficiently, with just a glance or a spoken word.” Along with monitoring our health and fitness, wearables will give us real-time information, and for those programmers who wish to create wearable experiences for their existing apps to see how they appear on round and square devices, Google began offering its Android Wear Developer Preview last week.

But is the hoodie-wearing brigade well placed to offer consumers stuff to wear? Of course not. Just look at how Jan Koum, the newly-minted billionaire CEO of WhatsApp, dresses. But while they might be inelegant in appearance, the nerds are very clever and that’s why Google yesterday announced a partnership with the Italian eyeglass frame-maker Luxottica, which owns the Ray-Ban and Oakley sunglasses lines. Remember what Patti Smith said? “My sunglasses are like my guitar.”

Note: Apple has stolen Angela Ahrendts from Burburry, to be the company’s new head of retail. She’s got a distinct sense of fashion and lots of experience running a company with lots of style. And the interview there was conducted by Joseph Rosenfeld, who styles himself as “Silicon Valley’s must trusted Brand Strategist for high-profile individuals.” Instead of hoodies, his (male) clients might be nudged towards wearing leggings.

A tremor of intent in Crimea

Monday, 24 March, 2014 1 Comment

The writer Anthony Burgess noticed his hand shaking one hungover morning in 1965. “That”, his wife said to him, “is a tremor of intent”. Thereupon, Burgess conceived an eschatological spy novel titled Tremor of Intent, which would offer an alternative to the humourless fiction of John le Carré and the jingoistic fantasy of Ian Fleming. By terming it an eschatological thriller, Burgess was expressing his view of the Cold War as the “ultimate conflict” for which Good and Evil were, he felt, inadequate terms.

Tremor of Intent Synopsis: The ageing, amoral MI6 Agent Denis Hillier, posing as a typewriter technician, journeys to Crimea aboard the cruise ship Polyolbion on a mission to infiltrate a convention of Soviet scientists and return to Britain his school friend Roper, who has defected to the Evil Empire. En route, he encounters the sexually curious sixteen-year-old Clara Walters, the obsequious steward Wriste and the sexually experienced Miss Devi, secretary to the sinister epicure Theodorescu. All of this allows the genius creator of A Clockwork Orange to describe hilariously graphic scenes involving food, drink, sex, politics, philosophy, history, religion, treason and murder. When Hillier is forced to spend three days in the seedy Babi Humayun (Sublime Portal) hotel overlooking the Bosphorus, Burgess hits his musical stride. Snippet:

“Istanbul disturbed him with its seven hills, as though Rome had tried to build herself on another planet. The names of architects and sultans rang in his mind in dull Byzantine gold — Anthemius, Isidorus, Achmet, Bajazet, Solyman the Magnificent. The emperors shrilled from a far past like desolate birds — Theodosius, Justinian, Constantine himself. His head raged with mosques. The city, in cruel damp heat, smelt of wool and hides and skins. Old filth and rusty iron, proud exports, clattered and thumped aboard under Galata’s lighthouse. Ships, gulls, sea-light. Bazaars, beggars, skinny children, charcoal fires, skewered innards smoking, the heavy tobacco reek, fat men in flannel double-breasteds, fed on fat.”

In this age of Putin and Snowden, it is our misfortune that there’s no Anthony Burgess around to novelize the comic aspects of their Cold War II symbiosis.

Cacti with Alps

Sunday, 23 March, 2014 0 Comments
Cacti with Alps

“It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises — it was comic to […]

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Abandoned City

Saturday, 22 March, 2014 0 Comments

The city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia is filled with office towers, government buildings, museums, theatres, cinemas and sports fields — not to mention acre upon acre of apartments and bungalows. The only problem: Ordos was designed to house one million people, yet hardly anyone lives there.

The phenomenon of China’s empty places has been well documented in recent years, as has the tragedy of Ireland’s ghost estates and the calamity of Spain’s spectral airports. For the architects of all these follies, Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann, has composed Abandoned City, a melodic exploration of vacant spaces that’s all melancholy and menace. This is a contender for our “Album of the Year.”

The power of Twitter

Friday, 21 March, 2014 0 Comments

Background: France has a $1.7 billion deal to build a compact aircraft carrier for the Kremlin.

Foreground: Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, admits that while Paris cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia, there is the harsh reality of employment. With his tweet, he reassures Putin that he can humiliate Western Europe as much as he likes.

Background: Hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “wipe out Twitter” following a stream of tweets alleging corruption in his inner circle, Turkey blocked access to the social news site.

Foreground: Claire Berlinski is an American novelist, travel writer and freelance journalist. She read Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, and she lives in Istanbul amid a menagerie of adopted stray animals.

Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations in Ukraine

Thursday, 20 March, 2014 0 Comments

In 1993, Samuel Huntington put the cat among the international relations pigeons with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled speculatively “The Clash of Civilizations?” He expanded it to book length and it was published in 1996 as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was immediately condemned by the multi-cultural complex because of its staunch defence of Western values, but its stock rose significantly after 9/11 as people woke up to the reality that the new, anti-Western barbarians were already at the gates.

Huntington makes a number of recommendations to save Western civilization, including restraining “the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic and Sinic countries.” But he also urges the West “to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders.” When it comes to today’s politics, it’s worth examining how Huntington stacks up two decades after his initial analysis, especially regarding Russia.

Stalin In chapter 7, which deals with “Core States, Concentric Circles and Civilizational Order”, he looks at “Russia and its Near Abroad” and lays out several scenarios for Ukraine, “a cleft country, with two different cultures.” Its “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries” says Huntington and he suggests that “Ukraine could split into two separate entities, the eastern of which could merge with Russia.” He also quotes a Russian general as saying, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” This leads him to conclude: “Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support, is, in turn likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.”

And here we are 2014, where relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated seriously and talk of a new Cold War fills the air. Huntington rewards reading.

Vladimir Putin’s favourite joke

Wednesday, 19 March, 2014 0 Comments

No, it’s not the one about Obama sending Biden to Poland yesterday, although that has generated its own share of mirth. Despite what his numerous critics insist, Putin does have an impish wit and while it’s not very comical to be on the receiving end of his barbs, as the family of Alexander Litvinenko knows full well, there’s a lot to be learned from what Russia’s latest “strong man” finds amusing. Here goes with his favourite joke:

In the bitter cold of the Russian winter, during a wild storm and with darkness falling, a peasant is wandering home to his humble village. Suddenly, he stops as he sees an exotic bird on the ground, nearly dead from hypothermia and hunger. So, he picks it up and warms it with his breath. The bird revives and the peasant is left wondering what to do next as he cannot afford to feed it. At this very moment a herd of cows appears out of the driving snow and one of them drops a large dollop of shit as it passes by. Knowing that if he puts the bird in the steaming substance, it might live until morning and then fly to a milder climate, the peasant does this and trudges towards home.

Shortly afterwards, however, another peasant comes along and hears the bird chirping happily in its warm surroundings. He picks up the bird, breaks its neck and takes it home for supper.

Putin, convulsed with laughter by this stage, tells his terrified audiences that the joke offers three vital lessons for life:

1. Do not believe that everyone who drops you in the shit is your enemy.
2. Do not believe that everyone who gets you out of the shit is your friend.
3. Whenever you are in the shit, keep quiet about it.

It’s doubtful if he told this joke to Hillary Clinton during the ill-advised “reset.” Wonder if he’d tell it to Mitt Romney, though? He’s a realist, after all.

Valeri Volodin sounds like Vladimir Putin

Tuesday, 18 March, 2014 0 Comments

“The Russian Federation invaded its sovereign neighbour on the first moonless night of spring. By dawn their tanks ground westward along the highways and backroads as if the countryside belonged to them, as if the quarter-century thaw from the Cold War had been a dream.” So begins the second chapter of Command Authority, the final novel by the late Tom Clancy, which was published in December last year. Those Russian tanks are rolling into the Baltic states. “This was not supposed to happen here. This was Estonia, after all, and Estonia was a NATO member state. The politicians in Tallin had promised their people that Russia would never attack them now that they had joined the alliance.”

The leader of this outrageous invasion is Valeri Volodin, a KGB veteran bent on reviving the former Soviet Empire, but as this is a work of fiction characters are a product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Anyway, after Estonia, Putin, sorry, Volodin turns his evil eye on the troubled Ukraine. “Any hopes the police might have had that the situation would defuse itself went away when tents started to be erected on both sides, and nationalists and Russian Ukrainians began clashes that turned more and more violent.”

Cut to an up-market Moscow restaurant where Stanislav Biryukov, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is having supper with a British businessman. “Russia will invade Ukraine, probably within the next few weeks,” says Biryukov, sipping his chacha, a Georgian brandy. “They will annex Crimea. From there, if they meet no resistance from the West, they will take more of the country, all the way to the Dnieper River. Once this is achieved, I believe Volodin will set his eyes on making beneficial alliances from a position of power, both in the other border countries and in the former nations of the Warsaw Pact. He believes he can return the entire region to the central control of the Kremlin. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania. They will be the next dominos to fall.”

But this is just fiction, right? And our dear leaders don’t read fiction.

St Patrick’s Day and the catechism of cliché

Monday, 17 March, 2014 0 Comments

St Patrick's Day Brian O’Nolan, who was born in Dublin in 1911, was best known by his literary alter ego, Flann O’Brien, and he also operated under another layer of creative anonymity as Myles na Gopaleen. From 1939 until his death in 1966, Myles wrote a weekly column in Irish, English or Latin for The Irish Times called Cruiskeen Lawn (‘Little brimming jug’). In several of those columns, he outlined his Catechism of Cliché. “A cliché,” he wrote, “is a phrase that has become fossilized, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage. Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the same situations in life.”

Especially for St Patrick’s Day, when Irish clichés abound, here’s Myles deconstructing the language of Ireland’s establishment, which has remained uncannily consistent of clichés over ten decades.

What does it behove us to proclaim?
Our faith.
In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?
Democracy.
From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
From the house-tops.
At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
Now, more than ever.
What action must be taken in relation to our energies?
They must be directed.
In what unique manner?
Wholeheartedly.
In what direction?
Towards the solution of the pressing post-war problems which the armistice will bring.
How will the armistice bring these problems?
In its train.
By what is the train hauled?
A 2-4-2 compound job with poppet valves and Pacific-style steam chest.