Rescued from another long-dead blog

Two fun things happened yesterday. I had been picking up vibes from the Balkans that the chain of command issue was still hampering the deployment of the EU’s first ever military mission in Macedonia. My Brussels sources, on the other hand, were confident this had been resolved. So I went off to the European Parliament to hear MEPs grilling Admiral Feist, the commander of the mission, about it, with the intention of planting a question with one of my parliamentarian friends.

And as we were sitting in the smoky tea-room on the third floor, Admiral Feist himself and a couple of aides appeared and took the next table! So I was able to ask him straight out, and he basically confirmed the Brussels rather than Balkan end of the story.

Then later on, one of my colleagues was feeling a bit miffed that he had not been invited to CEPS‘ big meeting at the end of the week. So I sent a quick email to my former colleagues there, and they both phoned me back asking if he could not only attend but also speak on one of the panels!

And then the new Bulgarian au pair arrived. And with her help we got the kids to school this morning.

This morning I tried to attend the European Parliament debate on the military mission in Macedonia. It nearly worked, except they did it at 0900 rather than 1130 as we had expected. It seems they passed all the amendments by my friends Lagendijk and Wiersma, and also a couple by Morillon, and rejected all but one of the Van Orden amendments. Groan.

But it looks like we may have a person to run our office in Georgia.

I just did a search on my name in Cyrillic – Николас Вајт – and founda nice reference from an interview I’d completely forgotten doing in late 2001, referring to me as водечкиот бриселски експерт – “something Brussels expert”, I thought, but I suppose it must be “the leading Brussels expert” which is very nice.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Just finishing up after two days in Berlin. Took the overnight train here from Brussels on Tuesday night and found myself sharing a carriage with young Indian film maker Heeraz Marfatia and friend. Train was delayed so got here only in time to change clothes in my colleague’s hotel room before an exhausting series of meetings. Saw an old friend in the German Foreign Ministry, now doing bilateral German-US relations which of course are at a very low point right now. Quizzed my colleague in great depth about Mormonism over dinner, and finished Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s “Pashazade” – and I was not disappointed.

Today we went to the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. The transformation of the surrounding area into a business district is quite amazing. Thirteen years on, however, the museum is still adapting to the change. The propaganda against the DDR (justifiable, of course, for the most part) shows some signs of becoming a bit more reflexive and reflective. I was not quite convinced by the exhibition on non-violent protest and passive resistance which included the Romanian revolution, which last time I checked had involved a certain amount of violence. But what was described as the most valuable exhibit was the actual strip of tarmac on which the white line indicating the border had been painted. Quite unimaginable the first time I came here in 1986.

The Nebula shortlist is out at last. For the novels, a far better selection than last year. Hugo-winner American Gods, by Neil Gaiman; the well-reviewed Bones of the Earth, by Michael Swanwick, and The Other Wind, by Ursula Le Guin which should be waiting for me when I get home; the excellent Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville; and two I haven’t heard of, Picoverse, by Robert A. Metzger and Solitaire, by Kelley Eskridge. I know that Eskridge is the partner of Nicola Griffith, whose Slow River won a Nebula some years back. Five overlaps with last year’s Hugo shortlist in the short fiction categories, including the winners of Novelette and Short Story, Chiang’s superb “Hell is the Absence of God” and Swanwick’s amusing “The Dog Said Bow-Wow”. There may be hope for the Nebulas yet, but we will see who wins…

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Awful night’s sleep last night.

But yesterday I made my first ever joke in Russian. We were having a coffee break at the Ethnobarometer brainstorming session, and one of the other participants emerged wearing a massive Moscow-style hat. “У вас есть шапка”, I commented, and people laughed.

That minor triumph was then overshadowed by bashing into an elderly couple’s car while I was shopping. Their left hand side was badly dented, but the Renault Espace was barely scraped. It will be expensive though.

Alastair Cooke had a sensible reflection on how far the space programme has come since John Glenn was feared lost on his first re-entry. Not on-line yet.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Further reform of the House of Lords seems very unlikely in the short term after the House of Commons rejected
all reform options. John Alderdice had predicted this outcome to me the
other day, though I was getting a bit sceptical; Robin Cook appeared to
have built up a bandwagon behind the concept of a completely elected
upper house, and it all began to look like Tony Blair facing defeat
over this issue which would have strengthened Cook in the event of Iraq
going wrong.

But John was right. The Commons voted against
100% election by 289 to 272; very narrowly against an 80% elected
option by 284 to 281, more heavily against 60% (316 to 253) and finally
against Blair’s preferred option of 100% appointment (323 to 245).
Meanwhile the House of Lords voted for 100% appointment by 335 to 110.

can see a logic in Blair’s (and John Alderdice’s) position. Why should
the Commons want to give more electoral legitimacy to the Lords? Who,
after all, will be bothered to vote? Do the democratic credentials of a
secondary chamber really matter all that much? And, how easy will it be
for me to get in to an appointed as compared to an elected house? Not
that the last of these questions bothers many people of course…

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Gary Westfahl’s essay on the malign influence of science fiction causing the Columbia crash has drawn a predictably vitrolic set of responses from readers of Locus Online. I thought it was not such an offensive piece, but a little silly and even presumputuous in suggesting that the creators and consumers of sf as a genre bear some kind of collective guilt for the Columbia disaster. I see the normally sensible Anna Feruglio Dal Dan declaring that Westfahl put her off subscribing to Interzone. That’s a bit harsh – I’d choose Evelyn Lewes as my preferred reason for unsubscribing!

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

The famous blonde-haired Deirdre Clancy was arrested yesterday for vandalising an American plane refueling at Shannon airport.

I found her statement of purpose entertaining: “She regards war as part of [sic] parcel of the system which demeans women; legalizes corruption of many different forms; discriminates against, locks up and labels the so-called ‘mentally ill’, without questioning the sanity of the military-industrial system in which we are all complicit.”

However there’s a serious purpose. If you are an individual citizen opposed to the Iraq war, in a country whose military forces are not going to participate, there’s not much you can do except bash American targets.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

The BSFA and Arthur C. Clarke awards shortlists are both now out. As usual there is a large overlap with four novels in common on two lists of six. The four are The Scar by China Miéville, Light by M. John Harrison, The Separation by Christopher Priest, and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I bought the last of these in June and it completely blew me away; and now I am re-reading his Mars trilogy after someone emailed me last week to ask if I would put a review of them on my website. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by M. John Harrison but this might tempt me to try; I’ve enjoyed both Miéville and Priest before and will add those to my wish list too.

The two which made the Arthur C. Clarke award list but not the BSFA were Kil’n People by David Brin and Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. Brin is rather hit and miss and I have found his Uplift series decreasingly, er, uplifting. I haven’t read anything by Moon but as with Harrison could now be tempted. The two other BSFA nominees are Effendi by Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Castles Made of Sand by Gwyneth Jones, both sequels to books I have read in the last couple of months. I just bought the Grimwood last week and hope to get to it in the next few days. Not overwhelmed by Jones’ Bold as Love but I might give in to temptation if I see it in a shop.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Latest pointless exchange on humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare:

Me: So, once again, you decline a direct request for evidence. Why is this not surprising?

Paul Crowley: A discussion with you is invariably like explaining Euclidean geometry to someone who has never seen a right angle and doesn’t know what it could be. No. I take that back. It’s much worse than that. There’s a deliberate obscurantism — a kind of doctrine that nothing can be known unless it’s been written up in a textbook by a professor of whatever-subject-it-may-be — and then, of course, whatever the professor says MUST be true.

Me: All I did was ask what evidence you had to support your views. I didn’t specify that it had to be from a professor; I didn’t specify that it had to be in a textbook. As usual, you couldn’t provide any evidence to support your views. And when I pointed that out, you resorted to abuse.

But you do this routinely — on the most basic dumb-ass topics.

Ask for evidence, you mean? Yes, I do. Your statement was that “given a simple case where we have two texts, saying much the same, demonstrating the influence of one on another, the most probable situation is that the greater influenced the lesser.” This seems to me unlikely – to me, the ostensible dates of the two texts is a much better starting point – but for some odd reason I prefer to have evidence before making my mind up one way or the other. Hence my request whih you were unable to comply with.

This is the second time within a fortnight.

Third, in fact. The first was your assertion that many Stratfordians think “the truly remarkable burst of literary ‘genius’ in Elizabethan England BEFORE Shakespeare (and culminating in him)” can be explained “by saying that the language was passing through such and such a phase (and something much more than a ‘standardisation’)” – but the only person you found to support this statement was Elizabeth Weir, who is not a Stratfordian. I admit that I confused you a bit by asking if you knew of any literary historian who espoused this view of the history of literature, when in fact I just meant if you knew of anyone whose opinion is worth noticing who thought so.

The second was your assertion that Alan Nelson has found “mistakes” where there are none in Oxford’s Latin. If this were the case, it should be dead easy for you to show which of the phrases “de benne esse, quantum in nos est”, “leuare facias”, “fyre facias” and “summum totale”, which Nelson describes as incorrect, are in fact acceptable in 16th century legal Latin.

You make it clear that you are NOT querying my statement.

I don’t see how asking for evidence can be construed in any way other than that I *am* querying your statement.

You imply that you have an open mind on the issue and are merely waiting for more evidence.

Absolutely, which is why I often query statements which contain information which is surprising to me.

Yet then you deny that.

When have I done so? Can you give me any evidence of my doing so? Oh, sorry, asking for evidence again.

You don’t have an open mind, yet you are not prepared to come down in one way or the other. So WHAT IS THE POINT of asking for evidence?

To enable me to come down one way or the other?

It is obviously clear that you DON’T know whether what I say is true or not. And neither do you know how to find out. Yet you cannot admit to either fact.

I hereby admit, Paul, that sometimes I don’t know whether what you say is true or not, though I am always inclined to doubt it. And when I want to find out if what someone says is true or not, my first step is often to ask them to explain themselves better and to tell me what evidence they have. Since you cannot explain yourself and do not supply evidence, I am still inclined to doubt.

Is THIS what a modern Cambridge education does to a human mind? It fills it with empty pomposity. You can never — at any stage — admit to ignorance of anything. Honesty goes out the window. You forget what it is ask ordinary questions. You cease to know what it is to think about anything. (You pass exams simply by regurgitating lecturers’ notes.) You become quite incapable of any learning — and as thick as two short planks.

You have all the qualifications to be a Stratfordian academic.

I don’t know what it is about asking you for evidence that drives you to higher and higher levels of abuse. A more effective debating technique would be to say, “The clearly inferior text A borrowed from the clearly superior B.” Or, “The Stratfordian scholar C argues that the English language was passing through a peculiar phase in the late 16th century.” Or, “Legal document D, dating from the 16th century, spells the word ‘bene’ with two n’s.” But to do this you would need evidence to support your views, and I am increasingly sure that you have none.

Let me tell you how I actually operate this principle, Paul, with a real example from my life last week. For some time I have been closely following negotiations between the European Union and Ruritania (not its real name, but those interested in the region will work it out). On Monday it was announced that an important step in the negotiations had been reached. On Wednesday two mid-ranking EU officials informed me gloomily that on the previous day the President of Ruritania had demanded new concessions from the EU before the latest step could be implemented. This seemed unlikely to me, because I know the President and the political situation there quite well. On the other hand political life is somewhat surprising at times, and these officials had access to the EU’s negotiators, so I could not rule it out. I needed more evidence before making up my mind.

So on Thursday my colleague in Ruritania contacted the President’s office directly, and I myself contacted the Ruritanian ambassador in Brussels, to find out what they thought. Both of these approaches to Ruritanian officials produced a consistent story: that the President had written to the EU making certain suggestions that he felt would be a good idea in the context of implementing the new agreement, but that these were certainly not new preconditions, certainly not rolling back the agreement that had already been reached, and in any case less far-reaching than I had initially been led to believe. On Friday I notified the EU officials that there seems to be a misunderstanding on their side, and hopefully will have played my little part in sorting it out. If on the other hand I had adopted your approach, Paul, and made up my mind one way or the other as soon as I heard the news, it would have been impossible for me to do this.

That is why I ask for evidence: because it usually brings out a fuller picture and helps me understand the context for the original statement. I find your views difficult to understand because I cannot see what evidence you have for them. I admit that I don’t have a particularly deep knowledge of the 16th century, and that is why I often ask questions when statements which contain surprising information are made. When the person asked has no evidence, I have to draw my own conclusions.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

Father Chris Jenkins has died. I sent this note to Belmont Abbey:

“Fr Chris preached a mean sermon at Cambridge. His annual questioning of the theological credentials of the Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union was the most notorious, but his other set-pieces, including his welcome and words of advice for new students, and his challenge to those seeking jobs in the milk round not to devote their lives to salary scales also stay with me. Over beer in the chaplaincy bar, or wine on other occasions, he would be controversial and provocative, but (as Lucy Hartley rightly says) he nurtured diversity of opinion and approach in the Chaplaincy. (Lucy also is right about his tendency to fall asleep during films.) His influence on my own intellectual approach to the Faith was profound; he will be remembered with fondness and respect by many.”

To which I would add that I hope his dislike for the Welsh was a put-on, given that he had just been posted to Dolgellau and died in Gwent. He could be socially disastrous; I remember one awful evening when he came round to my room and completely alienated many of my non-Catholic friends. But my Cambridge world was much more interesting for having him in it, and his farewell dinner as Chaplain in Newnham in June 1988 was an emotional moment for all of us.

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Rescued from another long-dead blog

When the Challenger exploded, I was working at Armagh Observatory during my year off. I’d just come back to my lodgings and found the daughter of the house glued to the TV – “Have you seen that?” she asked, as the news service replyed the fireball over and over.

Yesterday I’d been at a brainstorming seminar organised by Martti Ahtisaari and George Soros on the future of EU policies for the Balkans, around a recent ESI paper. It was a bit odd because I had decided to be smart casual, wearing a new jumper rather than jacket and tie. However apart from Daniel Gros and Stanislav Daskalov, everyone else had taken the formal option. Oddly enough the three of us had collaborated on a paper on trade a few years back…

I had a good seminar, and was able to make points in favour of the excelent Greek Presidency paper, conditionality re ICTY and military reform, a more liberal EU visa regime, and a better outreach program from the EU to the Balkans. A dispute ensued with a German diplomat. Then home through the heavy snow, and turned on the television to find the shuttle story all over the media.

Had to interrupt writing this because Bridget got into the toothpaste and got some in her eyes, poor child…

People ten years or more older than me always remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. The two space shuttle disasters are moments like that for me. Princess Diana’s death a bit less so, because like most people in Europe I was in bed, with my radio still on and tuned to the World Service, which is less dramatic. On Sept 11 2001 I was in a meeting with Branislava Alendar from the Yugoslav mission to the EU; I’d just heard the first tower had been hit before the meeting started, and by the time we were finished they were both down and the Pentagon had been hit too. Oddly enough Branislava was at yesterday’s meeting too. And back in 1981-82 there seemed to be an awful lot of shootings, the Pope, Anwar Sadat, our local MP Robert Bradford, and indeed Ronald Reagan.

Do these seven people deserve having more of a fuss made of their passing than any other seven killed in a transport accident yesterday? Well, yes. I think the Observer’s editorial got it right this morning when it argued that “manned space travel is a cultural achievement, a measure of what we aspire to as a species. If we turn our backs on future missions we will gain nothing and will lose a sense of vision and purpose that the world can ill afford to lose.” It is an important endeavour on a world scale, and it’s more than just a personal disaster for the astronauts and their family, friends and employers.

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My second blog

My second attempt at blogging lasted for a few weeks in February-March 2003, and petered out after the Djindjic assassination. I only really got into my stride whe I set up this blog in May.

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