More flight woe

Once again my travel plans are fated to take an unexpected twist.

Flying to the Balkans via Vienna today, I got to the airport on time, boarded plane, pulled out Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver and continued from where I’d got to last night (the Hague in the mid-1680’s). After about a hundred pages I realised that the plane wasn’t moving.

Fog in Vienna apparently. We were an hour late taking off; just in time to miss my connection. But fortunately the conference organisers were flying me business class so I’m in the lounge on a computer with an absurdly slow 33.6 modem – remember when those seemed really fast?

Anyway I’ll fly in this evening, and they’ve rearranged my pre-dinner speech to breakfast time tomorrow. But I have a real favour to ask anyone who’s following this evening’s news – my flight lands at 2025 European time and I’ll be whisked straight to the conference dinner, so won’t have access to TV news for hours. I’d be awfully grateful if some kind soul could text me the results of the Tory leadership ballot, which will be out at about the same time, so that I can have a good gloat (I think any of the conceivable results is bad news for the Conservatives). My mobile number is +32 485 555 944.

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SDLP strategy

If the SDLP strategy is as described here, it is an extraordinary combination of complacency and bad mathematics. If SF are good at one thing, it is minimising the difference in votes between candidates to get as many as possible elected under the single transferable vote. Other parties can aspire to this from time to time (the SDLP snatched a seat in East Londonderry in 1998 in this way, and also benefited from the failures of DUP, UUP and Alliance to balance in East Antrim) but it’s very difficult to plan for.

Anyway, I wonder how many Unionist voters truly care whether the SDLP or SF ends up as the largest party? It seems to me most unlikely that enough Unionist voters will see the SDLP as the critical bulwark against SF victories. Those who are really hostile to SF will be not much less hostile to the SDLP, and unlikely to give them lower preferences.

There *is* evidence of some Unionists voting for the SDLP in South Belfast in 2001, but that was to oppose Martin Smyth not to oppose SF. Also it’s true that Danny O’Connor won his East Antrim seat in 1998 on UUP transfers, but that was in a situation where he was trying to outpoll the DUP’s Jack McKee rather than SF.

Looking at the SDLP’s four target seats: in Strangford and North Down it’s difficult to see where their optimism comes from; there is no evidence that their vote has increased since 1998. In South Antrim it’s difficult to believe in a second Nationalist seat, though if Alliance’s support were to collapse the SDLP would be best placed to pick up (same is true of Strangford). In North Antrim they need improbably tight vote management combined with a decline in SF support (for which there is no evidence).

As for the vulnerable SDLP seats, we can forget about the two losses to SF in East Londonderry and (probably) West Tyrone, sufficient on their own to make SF the larger Nationalist party. The most interesting ones are those which might fall to Unionists in Lagan Valley, East Antrim and West Belfast. The first two of these also have ex-UKUP seats ripe for the plucking. I suspect that these will be the crucial battlegrounds that decide the DUP/UUP struggle.

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Election predictions

Election predictions from the Sunday Business Post:

Mostly I agree that they have their eye on the ball but with a couple of puzzling exceptions: Who is the independent Unionist they think can win in Upper Bann? Why on earth do they think that the Alliance vote in North Down (17% in the 2001 local elections) has collapsed to the point that they could lose to the SDLP (who managed 5% in 1998)? Apart from that their take is pessimistic but credible.

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Last night’s TV

The bloke who chose Monty Python as his specialised subject won on Mastermind.

Both teams on University Challenge were useless.

(and incidentally Kanaal Twee have shifted Buffy to Sundays without telling me.)

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Best bit from Bratislava

The highlight of the Bratislava conference for me:

I had the opportunity to rant on one of the panels about the international community’s failure to address the Azerbaijan election riging. After I’d spoken, a wee man got up in the middle of the room and said that all the corret procedures had been followed (that is, all the correct procedures to judge whether the election was rigged or not) and they had accordingly come out with a statement that the election was flawed but not fatally so. I asked him (knowing the answer perfectly well) if it was true that almost 200 of his own election observers had issued a statement challenging his upbeat assessment of the elections. He had to admit that it was true, so I felt I won the argument.

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HTML form problem

Trying to prepare my website for the coming Northern Ireland elections, I’ve set up a draft entry form at – and can’t make the damn thing work in Explorer. Opera and Netscape seem to be OK. Is it just that Explorer gives up if there are too many fields to fill in?

I’m sure there’s a much more elegant way of doing this, but as my web skills have not improved much since 1997 I don’t know what it is.

My souvenir tummy bug from Bratislava seems to have cleared up. Bratislava reminded me a bit of Zagreb (where I lived for eight months in 1998) but with no hills and less fascism.

And my sister and her husband were staying from the weekend, over from Portland, which was good. Back to work tomorrow though.

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A somewhat grim night of upset stomach – I think caused by some dodgy food rather than excessive alcohol consumption. Bratislava is not the most exciting of capital cities but it does bring my personal tally of countries I have visited to 39.

So I decided to have a quiet morning in my hotel room and finish work on the Georgia report, the Macedonia report being finally published at last yesterday.

All was going well and then my laptop informed me that its battery was about to run out. Thinking quickly, I copied the report to a floppy, hung around the free conference internet facility in futile hope that a terminal would be free, and then tried the hotel business centre where I am now.

Of course the floppy disk was corrupt and unreadable. Bah.

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Airport blues

Can you believe I just spent half an hour driving around the car parks of Brussels airport looking for somewhere to leave the car???

Of course I was late anyway due to horrendous traffic – Rue Belliard appeared to be stationary, so I tried the detour via Chausee de Louvain and it was also congested – and I missed my plane. (Flying to Vienna, then taxi to Bratislava, which is half the price of actually flying to Bratislava via Frankfurt or Munich.) Luckily there is another plane two hours later. Though right now I would rather just go home.

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What Irrational Number are you?

What Irrational Number Are You?
You are √2

You are in good company, many other square roots are also irrational numbers. Just by being a square root you have been branded a radical. You are considered very attractive, especially by Europeans (at least on paper.)

You fear that a relationship with another √2 may somehow end up complex and ultimately imaginary. In reality, only another √2 will make you whole.

Your lucky number is approximately 1.41421356

Shiny Lemur
Straif’s Blog
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Azerbaijan again

I wasn’t sure if I was going to post about this, but I’m sufficiently shocked to do so.

I was in Washington for most of last week. Most of the areas I cover for my work have a certain degree of consensus between the Administration and the “broader policy community”; Balkans, Georgia, Moldova, even Ireland. On Azerbaijan there was a sharp divide. The White House and to a lesser degree the State Department were fully behind the Aliev government, where dad Heidar Aliev has just handed over as President to son Ilham Aliev, in an election where the son got (officially) 80% of the vote. But two ex-US Ambassadors I spoke to, now outside the administration, were both certain that the election was completely rigged, and both thought it probable that the opposition leader Iso Gambar (who officially got 13%) should have won.

Obviously as this is a public forum I can’t describe how I got most of the details. But I had mobile phone conversations with people actually in polling stations watching the ballot boxes being stuffed. An American diplomat, sent to observe the election, was beaten up, probably by the police. And on Friday many of Gambar’s supporters were arrested ostensibly for provoking the previous day’s riots.

That in itself perhaps isn’t so surprising; dodgy elections happen all over the place. What I find stunning is that Western reporting of all these incidents has been limited to a paragraph or two in the print media; the BBC has barely covered it, let alone CNN. I’m used to the American press being crap, but the Western Europeans normally have a bit more backbone. Neither Washington nor Moscow (nor, frankly, any government in between) has any interest in disturbing the rule of the Aliev family in their oil-rich fiefdom. The father was in power from 1969 until last week. The son’s first statement as President is that he will hold the opposition leadership personally responsible for any political violence.

I know a lot more about Azerbaijan than I did a week ago. And I think I will have to learn a good deal more.

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Yet another 100 greatest books list

The Observer joins in the game played by the BBC and the Norwegian Book Clubs to name its 100 greatest books – with an explanation.

1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes
2. Pilgrim’s Progress John Bunyan
3. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
4. Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift

5. Tom Jones Henry Fielding
6. Clarissa Samuel Richardson
7. Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne
8. Dangerous Liaisons Pierre Choderlos De Laclos
9. Emma Jane Austen
10. Frankenstein Mary Shelley
11. Nightmare Abbey Thomas Love Peacock
12. The Black Sheep Honore De Balzac
13. The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal
14. The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
15. Sybil Benjamin Disraeli
16. David Copperfield Charles Dickens
17. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
18. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

19. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
20. The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne
21. Moby-Dick Herman Melville
22. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

23. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
24. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll
25. Little Women Louisa M. Alcott
26. The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope
27. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
28. Daniel Deronda George Eliot
29. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky
30. The Portrait of a Lady Henry James
31. Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
33. Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome
34. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde

35. The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith
36. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
37. The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers
38. The Call of the Wild Jack London
39. Nostromo Joseph Conrad
40. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
41. In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust
42. The Rainbow D. H. Lawrence
43. The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford
44. The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan
45. Ulysses James Joyce
46. Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf
47. A Passage to India E. M. Forster
48. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
49. The Trial Franz Kafka
50. Men Without Women Ernest Hemingway
51. Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine
52. As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
53. Brave New World Aldous Huxley
54. Scoop Evelyn Waugh

55. USA John Dos Passos
56. The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler
57. The Pursuit Of Love Nancy Mitford
58. The Plague Albert Camus
59. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
60. Malone Dies Samuel Beckett
61. Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
62. Wise Blood Flannery O’Connor
63. Charlotte’s Web E. B. White
64. The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien

65. Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis
66. Lord of the Flies William Golding
67. The Quiet American Graham Greene
68 On the Road Jack Kerouac
69. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
70. The Tin Drum Gunter Grass
71. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark
73. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee
74. Catch-22 Joseph Heller

75. Herzog Saul Bellow
76. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Elizabeth Taylor
78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John Le Carre
79. Song of Solomon Toni Morrison
80. The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge
81. The Executioner’s Song Norman Mailer
82. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller Italo Calvino
83. A Bend in the River V. S. Naipaul
84. Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee
85. Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson
86. Lanark Alasdair Gray
87. The New York Trilogy Paul Auster
88. The BFG Roald Dahl
89. The Periodic Table Primo Levi
90. Money Martin Amis
91. An Artist of the Floating World Kazuo Ishiguro
92. Oscar And Lucinda Peter Carey
93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera
94. Haroun and the Sea af Stories Salman Rushdie
95. La Confidential James Ellroy
96. Wise Children Angela Carter
97. Atonement Ian McEwan
98. Northern Lights Philip Pullman
99. American Pastoral Philip Roth
100. Austerlitz W. G. Sebald

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Stuck in hotel room…

…trying to make progress on editing our first ever report on Georgia. It’s a good report, the only problem is that the original author isn’t a native English speaker and barely a sentence is getting by unedited. Out of 36 pages.

Which is basically why I am not really ready to pick up the challenge of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. I did actually toy with the idea, a Great Novel about a former prime minister in exile in the far corners of largelty unexplored planet, pulling in geology and politics in equal measure. But basically too much of my work involves wrestling with large chunks of prose at the moment, and it wouldn’t be enough like fun, especially ince it seems likely that there will be elections in Northern Ireland which will absorb any spare energy I have after work and family. Perhaps next year, when I plan to have a new job.

Today I have to attend our board meeting, to be interrogated by senior colleagues and elder statesmen about my work. Thank heavens I don’t work on Palestine or Iraq; I think it will be a fairly easy session for me as the Balkans are not as bad as they used to be, and Moldova and Georgia are off the radar screen. Then I’m seeing a former intern for dinner, and more editing tomorrow (a public holiday here) before two days of work meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Found a really nice branch of Borders just a block east of the White House. Bought Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch” in paperback, as I hadn’t yet seen it in Europe. It’s another one in the BBC Big Read though I have to say I’m getting a bit disenchanted with that, bogged down as I am in the pointless plot twists of Raymond E. Feist’s “Magician”. As first novels by fantasy writers go, I was far more impressed by Juliet McKenna’s “The Thief’s Gamble” which I only bought because I met the author at P-Con two weeks ago.Anyway “Night Watch” has been well reviewed, and I rather hope it will match up to his best (ie “Small Gods”).

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Private lives becoming public

I found yesterday’s news from the Netherlands rather alarming.

Apart from the fact that Mabel is a personal friend of mine and it’s always very unpleasant when people you know get dragged through the media this way, it’s enough to make me wonder what will happen if I ever get back into electoral politics (as I genuinely hope to do some day). Will my ex-girlfriends (or indeed my never-quite-girlfriends) be hounded by the media? Will investigative journalists trawl through my legacy of writing for fanzines and Usenet posts, to quote from my ill-considered rantings of ten to fifteen years before?

Of course, probably the answer is that I am unlikely to be in contention for anything famous enough for that sort of thing (and certainly not looking to marry into royalty or become governor of California). But it’s an unnerving feeling all the same.

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In Washington

An extraordinary evening in New York on Thursday night, at a fund-raising dinner for work, with entertainment including Emmy Lou Harris singing “Imagine” accompanied by Philip Glass on the piano.

I stayed overnight with my cousin in Brooklyn – the first time I’ve been there, and what a contrast it is with New York.

Then last night we had a reception in the State Dept with Colin Powell saying lots of nice things about the organisation and our boss waxing lyrical in return. No doubt thoroughly sincerely, or perhaps not. I went for dinner with two colleagues and one of our board members. The restaurant we chose was looking dubious about seating us, so I told them that one of our party was an ex-prime minister and suddenly a table was found. Of course, that’s a line they probably hear quite often in Washington restaurants.

And today I have to, first, find breakfast and, second, finish editing the Georgia report. At least the hotel has a decent internet connection.

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Moderately pleased with my new front page. OK, so it would barely get you a pass grade in basic webmastering these days, but it looks a lot better than it used to. Also I added comments to the Norwegian and Sybervision lists. And Infinity Plus published my review of the Runestaff so I’m quite pleased.

We took an impulsive tour in the countryside today. My current intern was telling me that he thought his mother’s ancestors emigrated to Wisconsin from the insignificant town of Orp-Le-Grand, not too far down the motorway from here. So we loaded up the children into the car and went to have a look; but in the limited time available all I could do was check the war memorial, and nobody of the right name was there. We came back by the country roads and stopped off in Jodoigne, where we found a playground and a friterie for lunch. Jodoigne has obviously seen better days. Orp-Le-Grand, I think, has not.

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Ten years on

Anne and I were married on 2 October 1993 at Clare College chapel in Cambridge. It’s been a fantastic ten years. Probably nobody reading this has even met her, but you would all like her if you did.

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(Political) Blast from the Past

I discovered that a political rival from my student days is now the Tory candidate for Hammersmith and Fulham, Conservative target seat #26, and sent him a short “hello” message. He replied that I was the only person he’d ever lost an election to (for Deputy President of Cambridge University Students Union in 1989) and so he hoped the Lib Dems weren’t about to select me for the same seat! He can rest easy. Since the Lib Dem vote has advanced from a modest 8% to a towering 11% there over the last few years, I don’t think it will make much difference who their candidate is.

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Spam victory, and U.S. law

Over the last few months I’ve been following a very interesting court case in Florida, where a lawyer claiming to represent various (anonymous) email marketing organisations launched a case earlier this year against a number of anti-spam activists. His case has now collapsed ignominiously for reasons made clear in this large pdf file explaining the defendants’ case. They are now going after him for every penny he has got for filing a frivolous lawsuit. One hopes that the spammers who put him up to it will bail him out of the expensive legal mess he is now in.

America has 8% of the world’s population but 50% of the world’s lawyers. (I think I was told that by Sergio Marchi, Canada’s ambassador to the WTO.) And just occasionally this is a Good Thing. Also I have to admit I am amused by the eccentric rulings of Texan judge Samuel B. Kent in such landmark cases as Smith v. Colonial Penn Insurance (“the highway is paved and lighted all the way to Galveston, and thanks to the efforts of this Court’s predecessor, Judge Roy Bean, the trip should be free of rustlers, hooligans, or vicious varmints of unsavory kind”), Bradshaw v. Unity Marine Corporation et al (“at the end of the day, even if you put a calico dress on it and call it Florence, a pig is still a pig”), or my personal favourite, Bolivia v. Philip Morris where he transfers the case from his own court to the District of Columbia:

…given the tremendous number of United States jurisdictions encompassing fascinating and exotic places, the Court can hardly imagine why the Republic of Bolivia elected to file suit in the veritable hinterlands of Brazoria County, Texas. The Court seriously doubts whether Brazoria County has ever seen a live Bolivian … even on the Discovery Channel.
…this humble Court by the sea is certainly flattered by what must be the worldwide renown of rural Texas courts for dispensing justice with unparalleled fairness and alacrity, apparently in common discussion even on the mountain peaks of Bolivia.
…it is the Court’s opinion that the District of Columbia, located in this Nation’s capital, is a much more logical venue for the parties and witnesses in this action because, among other things, Plaintiff has an embassy in Washington, D.C., and thus a physical presence and governmental representatives there, whereas there isn’t even a Bolivian restaurant anywhere near here. Although the jurisdiction of this Court boasts no similar foreign offices, a somewhat dated globe is within its possession. While the Court does not therefrom profess to understand all of the political subtleties of the geographical transmogrifications ongoing in Eastern Europe, the Court is virtually certain that Bolivia is not within the four counties over which this Court presides, even though the words Bolivia and Brazoria are a lot alike and caused some real, initial confusion until the Court conferred with its law clerks. Thus, it is readily apparent, even from an outdated globe such as that possessed by this Court, that Bolivia, a hemisphere away, ain’t in south-central Texas, and that, at the very least, the District of Columbia is a more appropriate venue (though Bolivia isn’t located there either)…a Bench better able to rise to the smoky challenges presented by this case, despite the alleged and historic presence there of countless smoke-filled rooms.

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