Duvet day

…or duvet morning, at least. I woke up with no energy and no appetite (no temperature either so there’s nothing very wrong with me physically). I guess it’s basically the reaction to not getting the job with the European Commission, which I had invested a lot of my time and emotional energy into, which all came to naught; combined with mutterings about further budget cuts at work. And all the travelling I’ve done recently, which is to be followed up with a four-day work trip to Portugal starting tomorrow; and I’ve firmed up the details of my mid-October visit to the US as well (10-12 in Washington DC, 12-14 in Utah, 14-15 in New York, 15-17 with my brother in Boston, home early morning on the 18th) and am feeling jetlagged in advance.

Plus, yesterday I called my friend Mabel and her husband answered the phone. I took the opportunity to ask what he is doing these days, and it turns out he’s working for a company dealing with space technology. My geek side is insanely jealous. Actually all of me is insanely jealous. Of course, I shouldn’t be; I have a well-paying job that is in a field I am interested in and where I am a world-wide acknowledged expert. Also he has a major head-start in life in that his mother is the ruler of a medium-sized country. But these things are not completely rational.

So I’ve spent the morning in my dressing gown talking with Anne. No firm conclusions, except that I probably do want to continue as I was, looking for the way into the EU institutions. If my boss does decide to dispense with my services then there are a number of private sector possibilities as well, but that would very much be a second choice. Also I’ve discovered a careers counselling agency which is actually around the corner from work; I might just drop in on them this afternoon to make a date for further conversations. It also occurs to me that I do a certain amount of careers counselling anyway, with keen postgraduate students who drop by the office looking for the job vacancies which I don’t have.

And I will go into town and do a bit of networking this evening. That takes much less energy than actual work. Also I’m doing a backdated post about the weekend which won’t show up on your friends lists.

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We got our youngest, U, baptised today. I’m Catholic, while Anne was brought up as a Methodist; we had decided at an early stage that the kids would be baptised as infants (Anne wasn’t until she was thirteen) at whichever church was convenient at the time. For the first two it wasn’t completely satisfactory, ceremonies conducted in haste by priests we didn’t know or didn’t like particularly. This time it went very well.

The godparents were L., a friend of ours from college days in Cambridge, and G., a political friend from Belfast now living in London (whose last birthday party was unexpectedly attended by ). We have had a policy of choosing godparents who are not relatives, but are good friends, and who are actually practicing Christianity in some way. This last criterion rules out a huge proportion of people one might otherwise ask, but I think it’s not unreasonable. L. is a Catholic, who hasn’t been able to get to Mass regularly since splitting up wth her husband (small village, no car); G. was brought up Catholic but is now firmly C of E (and indeed lives with a retired vicar).

I go to Mass here once or twice a month, so at least the local priest knew my face. When he came around to discuss the ceremony, Anne suggested that we do it at Mass one Sunday rather than separately. The priest was delighted and set up a whole integration of it into the order of service; and it worked really well, as far as we were concerned – all in Dutch though, which left E. and G. groping a little though they both have decent German. They did their bit in French and English.

We brought F along to the service as well, leaving B with a new baby-sitter. It was the first time he’d been to a full-length church service and it went OK. At one point – just before the actual water bit – the priest asked him to put a toy boat into the font and he duly and gracefully complied. Afterwards he was allowed up into the organ loft which was much more fun. U did not enjoy it and particularly objected to being anointed. Tough, we got her anyway.

Also of course it was great to catch up with old friends, and I attributed my malaise on Monday (this backdated entry is written two days later) to the aftereffects…

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Why ћ is not the same letter as ħ

I’ve had a comment from a reader of my language quiz who complains that the Serbian letter ћ is not unique to that language, but is also found in Maltese. Well, no, not really; the Serbian ћ is Cyrillic, and its upper case equivalent is Ћ, whereas the Maltese letter ħ is based on the Latin h, and its upper case equivalent is Ħ. Also (though of course this is not decisive) they are pronounced completely differently, the Serbian Ћ/ћ a bit like English “tch”, and the Maltese Ħ/ħ much more like a heavy English “h” (the Maltese H/h without the cross stroke is much softer).

Just thought you should know.

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September Books 9) The 9/11 Commission Report

9) The 9/11 Commission Report. OK, perhaps there were less grim things to be reading as I shunted between planes yesterday at Belfast City Airport and then Heathrow; but it’s a gripping story, told well, and basically leaves little room for conspiracy theorists – including conspiracy theorists who wanted the Iraqi government to be linked to the horrors of 9/11. The structure of the report is easily digestible, with the first (and probably the best) chapter a straight narrative of the events of the hijackings, told essentially from the point of view of the victims as far as that can be done. The point is repeatedly driven home that America was caught unprepared (the fighter planes scrambled to defend Washington were sent in the wrong direction, and in any case had not understood their orders correctly, and in any case were too late) and the most important success against the terrorists on the day was that won by the passengers of flight 93 who forced the hijackers of the fourth plane to abort their mission.

The rest of it is pretty convincing – with one exception: as an eagle-eyed Balkan practitioner I found it a bit surprising that Nawaf al-Hamzi, one of the Pentagon hijackers, is described as watching current news coverage of fighting in Bosnia in 2000, five years after the war there was over (perhaps this was a reference to the Presevo Valley conflict of that year, but it seems unlikely as that affair was almost ignored by Western media and anyway was not in Bosnia). But the other Albanian and Bosnian bits of the story confirmed what I knew or suspected. An Azerbaijan angle was hinted at but not really explained; Georgia crops up briefly too.

The account of the mistakes made in rescue efforts in New York on the day is gripping, but fairly straightforward, and the conclusions are backed up by the example from the Pentagon of how to run a rescue operation efficiently; the only two recommendations that matter are a) get a better radio system for the emergency services and b) designate the fire department as lead agency in the event of a similar event in future. The first has been implemented, the second seems unlikely to be.

After all this excellent narrative, the conclusions and recommendations are a bit of a let-down, and seem to be more like private axe-grinding by policy-makers who thought they had ideas, rather than “let’s match more co-ordinated security efforts with a serious attempt to make friends with the Arab world” which seems the obvious conclusion to me. On the organisational mechanics, what leaps out of the text for me is that a) the FAA had no adequate plan for dealing with domestic hijackings (apparently they now do), and b) the FBI had no adequate intelligence analysis capacity.

I am not reassured on the latter point. The CIA’s misses, though numerous, feel to me more like bad luck; the FBI’s more like bad management culture, with good analysis happening in the field and totally cut off from headquarters – perhaps the most chilling passage is in the account on page 275 of the FBI’s internal squabblings over the “20th hijacker”, Zaccarias Moussaoui:

There was substantial disagreement between Minneapolis agents and FBI headquarters as to what Moussaoui was planning to do. In one conversation between a Minneapolis supervisor and a headquarters agent, the latter complained that Minneapolis’s FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] request was couched in a manner intended to get people “spun up.” The supervisor replied that was precisely his intent. He said he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center.” The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen and that they did not know if Moussaoui was a terrorist.

The mind boggles.

Of course, a large part of my interest is that I do deal with similar material myself, though unlike a state intelligence agency our information is normally published at the end of the process (and if we don’t publish, it’s more likely because we decided the evidence wasn’t good enough than because we thought it was too sensitive). I make the judgement every day as to whether or not a particular new piece of information is important enough to start phoning senior government officials and telling them there is a problem. The two things that are essential are a) when to make that judgement and b) knowing who to call. As far as I could tell from the 9/11 report, the CIA people at least were relatively free in both regards, whereas the FBI culture actually worked against effective use of intelligence. The report tries to be even-handed between the two agencies but I don’t think this is really possible given the evidence.

Conclusion: anyone with the slightest interest in knowing what happened on 11 September 2001 should read this report.

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Latest woe

So eventually the 1430 flight was announced for 1700. But British Midland’s computer system is buggered. So, at 1730, rather than let the remaining passenges on board, they gave us back our tickets and told us, effectively, to sod off.

I’ve now got a standby place on the 1935 British Airways flight. Long whiny letters demanding compensation will be written… I should have been in Brussels seven hours ago, and now it isn’t clear I’ll be back tonight.

[Later edit: Actually the 1935 flight worked out and I was home by 11 pm, a mere ten and a half hours after I had originally been due to land…]

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Yesterday in Belfast

I was here for a conference on last year’s elections, which also coincided with the opening ceremony for the new building of the Queen’s University of Belfast Institute of Governance, of which I am an honorary fellow. Now I have half an office with my name on it. Rather a thrill.

The conference was OK but concentrated more on the findings of a massive opinion poll of voters than on the actual election results. I could have done with a bit more cross-checking with reality. The only real politician present was Jim Wells of the DUP, who has a disturbing physical resemblance to . Since many of the papers were attempting to explain why the DUP did so well in recent elections, and tended to conclude that this trend is now unstoppable, his interventions tended to be genial (except at one point when someone described the DUP as being right-wing – he doesn’t think they are).

Was glad to manage a drink in the evening with old schoolfriend A. and old politics friend S., the latter entertaining us with anecdotes from the recent talks at Leeds Castle and subsequently, all of which must remain off the record. We were in Renshaw’s which is very different now from the Senior Common Room atmosphere it had when it first opened twelve years ago. Full of first-year students enjoying the third drinking evening of term, before their money runs out. Nice to watch people have fun.

Then back to the B&B for my early flight – not so early, as it turned out…

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Flight woe

My cunning plans to be back in Brussels by lunchtime today have been scuppered. The flight I was meant to be on to Manchester got cancelled, but they changed me to another flight via Birmingham which would actually have got me into Brussels a little earlier. Alas, the Birmingham flight was also delayed, to the point where I would have missed my connection there, so I got them to switch me to another flight via Heathrow (incidentally delying the Birmingham take-off still further while they took my bag off it). But the Heathrow flight is also running over an hour late, and while it looks like I will make the early afternoon connection to Brussels, I’ve had to alert colleagues to cover for me for a meeting with the Hague war crimes tribunal people this afternoon which I will now miss. Bah.

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Got here at last…

Checked into fading guesthouse on Cromwell Road just now. Just behind me came a taxi driver from Belfast City Airport with two Chinese passengers. Then they took a second look at the place and asked him to drive them to Dublin instead. It will be well after midnight by the time they get there…

Off to find food now (shouldn’t be too difficult around Botanic Avenue).

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Questions, questions…

Both Mastermind and University Challenge last night featured questions about a) Bleak House and b) Einstein’s quote that “God Does Not Play Dice”. The knowledge contained in quiz shows may be running out…

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More travels

Back from Moldova safely, but more travels loom. I go to the Hague for the afternoon today, and then tomorrow evening go to Belfast for a conference – Belfast folks please give me a shout if you'd like to meet up (best is text to mobile phone, see my contact details) though I'm not yet sure of my timetable on Wednesday night; back here on Thursday; then we have visitors over the weekend for U's christening; then to Portugal for a work meeting from Wednesday to Sunday of next week. Tiring but usually fun.

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September Books 8) To The Nines

8) To The Nines by Janet Evanovich

I first got into Janet Evanovich by picking up some of her earlier Stephanie Plum books at Vienna Airport. And since I was changing planes there again, and failing really to get engaged by the Classic Science Fiction Novel I had been reading on the flight from Chisinau, and saw the latest in the (excellent) bookshop, I bought it and read it. My verdict: don’t bother, folks. The formula of a sexy yet insecure woman working as a New Jersey bounty hunter was great, indeed usually hilarious, while she was tracking down small-scale miscrents. Internet-surfing serial killers just somehow aren’t as funny. Plus there were huge gaping plot holes, especially with regard to her boyfriend’s frequent breaches of police standard operating procedure. Fairly cheap, at least.

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Gallows humour

What is worse than being captured by the Chechens?

Being rescued by the Russians.

Feel free to post in your own journal provided you don’t say where you got it from.

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Talking to a Moldovan

I’m here as a guest at a conference organised by an old friend of mine. For the first time since I’ve known him I got him to reminisce about his time in government in the early 1990s.

Not verbatim, but my summarised memory of what he told me:

“Yes, I was the first Defence Minister. Actually when we set it up, we called it a Sub-Department for Defence Matters, not a ministry, and I was its General Secretary and special adviser to the President, not the minister, because we didn’t want to annoy the Soviets. This was just after we’d won the first multi-party elections as the Popular Front.

“Then came the August 1990 putsch in Moscow. A friend of mine called me up in the middle of the night and told me, turn on the television, see what’s happened, it’s all going to go back to former times, you need to get yourself to the other side of the Romanian border. I couldn’t leave my colleagues at a time like that – I managed to organise an armed citizen’s militia to defend the capital, we had it completely blocked off.

“The police were mostly on our side, and the local Soviet Army just wasn’t sure what to do, keeping lines open to us and to the Kremlin. We weren’t really sure what the end would be politically. Then the next day Yeltsin got up on the tank, and because everyone else was doing it, we realised it was time to go for sovereignty, and as you know the whole thing fizzled out. After that it was all right to have a ministry of defence.

“Yeah, I brokered the ceasefire that ended the Transdniestria conflict in 1992, but shortly after that they replaced me as defence minister with a career general. I’m out of all that now, prefer this NGO activity, working with the next generation.”

I hope he writes a book about it some time.

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September books 7) Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

7) Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, by Chris Stephen.

The title makes it sound as if this is a book restricted just to the one event, the Milosevic trial. In fact it’s not, and what you get is a very good quick summary of the entire Yugoslav crisis from the beginning, and then also an account of the politics of the establishment of the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, before we get to the dramatic events surrounding the fall, arrest and prosecution of Milosevic. There have been surprisingly few books written since the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war that covered the developments of the years afterwards – Tom Gallagher has had a go but it expanded into a trilogy of academic hardcovers without him really meaning it to.

We got to know the author well in 1997 when we were living in Banja Luka; I reckon I’m on first name terms with about half of the people he thanks in the acknowledgements section. Chris always struck me as a fun person, who doesn’t let his sense of humour leak into his journalism perhaps as much as he should. Of course the appropriate tone for much of the testimony of the victims of Milosevic’s wars is restrained outrage, and Chris does this very well. His depiction of the towns of Prijedor and Kozarac, which were very much part of my patch at the time, is totally accurate. The only factual error I caught was that Zoran Djindjic was kicked out as mayor of Belgrade in 1997 very shortly after he got the job, rather then hanging on until 2000.

I think this is a particularly good book to use as ammunition against the wingnuts who see the entire thing as a massive conspiracy against the Serbs. He doesn’t quite address the ludicrous US reservations about the new International Criminal Court, but since he’s not really writing for that audience I suppose it’s fair enough. I see a couple of other reviewers have picked up on the fact that the book ends half-way through, before Milosevic has started defence let alone the trial being over. Well, I hear rumours that the timescale for the rest of the trial may not quite be what people have expected so far, so Chris may be able to produce an updated edition before too long…

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Things I’ve learnt from the last few weeks

1) You can’t rely on everyone. I’m pretty sure that Finnish ex-president Martti Ahtisaari never said a word to Rehn about me, for instance. And Paddy Ashdown was constrained by his institutional position from saying anything.

2) You can rely on some people. Roll of honour: Finnish ambassador Alpo Rusi, who had only met me once; Finnish ex-foreign minister Pär Stenbäck; Irish ex-MEP Pat Cox; British MEP Sarah Ludford; Dutch princess Mabel van Oranje. Probably also Andrew Duff and Graham Watson, with an honourable mention from Bronislaw Geremek who actually broke the news that I didn’t get the job. I’ll happily return the favour some day, not that any of hem will ever need it.

3) I should probably have unleashed the MEPs on Rehn a few weeks earlier in the game.

More thoughts later.

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Best careers advice book ever

I see that a new edition of What Color is your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles is coming out. I found this the best careers advice book I ever read, at the moment I last took a serious career shift, in late 1998. The summary of the advice is as follows:

  1. Know your best and most fulfilling transferable skills.
  2. Know what kind of work you want to do and what field you would most enjoy working in.
  3. Talk to people who are doing the work you want to do. Find out how they like the work, how they found their job.
  4. Do some research, then, in your chosen geographical area on those organizations which interest you, to find what they do and what kinds of problems/challenges they or their industry are wrestling with.
  5. Then identify and seek out the person who actually has the power to hire you for the job you want; use your personal contacts – everyone you know – to get in to see him or her.
  6. Show this person with the power to hire you how you can help the company solve its problems/needs/challenges and how you would stand out as one employee in a hundred.
  7. Don’t take rejection personally. Remember, there are two kinds of employers out there: those who will be bothered by your handicaps – age, background, inexperience, etc. – and those who won’t be and will hire you, so long as you can do the job. If you get rejected by the first kind of employer, keep persevering until you find the second.
  8. In all of this, cut no corners and take no shortcuts.

Words to live by.

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September Books 6) Monstrous Regiment

6) Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett on form is not only funny but also profound – I think Small Gods is his peak, and I found The Fifth Elephant surprisingly apposite when I was in Macedonia during the 2001 conflict. I had quite high hopes for Monstrous Regiment, and it started well, but I felt had run out steam by the end of quite a long book – in particular, the joke of yet another supposedly male soldier turning out to be a woman had run very stale by the end. Still, helped me pass a slightly sleepless night.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

Why do I have time to update?

Well, I actually thought I would be doing Real Work in this internet cafe, disturbed only by the sound of people arguing in Russian around the room – just like the Brussels office used to be before moved back to Moscow 😉 But for some reason after twenty minutes of access to my work webmail it decided to stop letting me do anything. I’ve kept on trying diligently, but it’s time to give up and head back to the hotel now.

[added five minutes later: as if by magic, writing that was enough to ensure that the work webmail reappeared. So I can give it ten more minutes before I have to go.]

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September Books 5) Star Trek: Enterprise – The First Adventure

5) Star Trek: Enterprise – The First Adventure, by Vonda N. McIntyre

I’m not really a trekkie. I mean, if I come across a Trek episode – from any of the series – while channel surfing, I’ll probably stop and watch it to the end; I will even engage in half-informed debate about whether TNG, DS9, Voyager or the original series is best. And I have one or two favourite episodes. But I think I have read a grand total of three Star Trek books in my life – Gene Roddenberry’s novelisation of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, the James Blish “Star Trek 5” (in which I think “This Side of Paradise” is the best individual story), and David Gerrold’s heavily annotated script for “The Trouble With Tribbles”. So I’m not a real trekkie, though I can probably pass for one in mixed company.

Well, make that four Trek books as of yesterday; Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1986 speculation about how Kirk and Spock all got together (I bought it from a charity shop during the summer for something like 30p) was just enough, in my sleep deprived and slightly despondent condition yesterday, to prevent mind and body from completely separating on the flight from Brussels to Chișinău via Vienna. The actual plot is just a wee bit thin, but there’s enough characterisation to make it interesting – not only consistent with what I think I remember from the original series, but also working in new material in a way that seems to make it all more coherent. (I have made the same comment – weak plot, great characterisation – about her Hugo and Nebula winning novel Dreamsnake.) I don’t recommend that people seek this one out, but if you happen to see it lying around your local bookstall, it’s worth, oh, several times what I paid for it.

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Back in Chisinau

So, here I am in Chisinau, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova. It’s my second visit; not a lot has changed since I was last here three years ago (Communists still in power, Soviet army still occupying the easternmost province of the country). I do notice two things, not completely sure if these are changes or just that I’m paying more attention: first, there does seem to be a higher level of economic activity, more small traders spilling out of the Soviet-era shops onto the pavements; and second, there seems to be a lot less reservation about using Russian – in public signs, in advertisements, and even on the street. The first governments after independence were keen on pushing the use of Romanian, and rolling back Russian as an official language. Since the Communists returned to power in early 2001 they’ve been moving towards bilingualism, which certainly suits the capital city better, though I suspect it is less relevant (and probably less implemented) in the countryside. (See entry in Language Hat which I sparked off.) I have to be a bit wary though because I now know a bit more Russian than I did three years ago, and so am more sensitised to it than I was last time.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that the wine is good. My Moldovan friends insist that the wine has got better in the last three years; my memories are not clear enough to judge. The vineyard owners are all Communists, apparently, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

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Author, author!

Well, I wrote back a polite and fairly lengthy email to the author who was bothered about the fact that I have written some pretty negative things about her work on my website. And she has replied, offering to send me four of her books, based on her assessment of my likely tastes! Well, that’s an offer I can’t really turn down, especially made with such good grace. More details will be revealed in due course…

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Set off to the office in the pious hope that I might get some work done before leaving for Moldova. On the outskirts of Brussels, after 20 minute drive, realised I had left my passport at home.

Go back and start again.

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Let’s call the whole thing off…

…well, it looks like the story has come to an end. Just got an email from the former foreign minister of Poland saying:

I am ready to support your candidacy for a position in Olli Rehn’s cabinet. Knowing your excellent work for the ICG I think you would make for a great candidate. However, I was recently told by [a mutual friend], as well as by Olli Rehn himself, that he has already completed his cabinet. But I do wish you good luck in your further endeavours.

Well, it’s a pretty good source for not very welcome news.

Oh well, there we go. I’m not feeling a great urgency about moving on from here, but news like this, after the pretty immense efforts I put in, is pretty depressing.

I have a bunch of things to do still here but I think I’ll just clear the desk and go home, and kid myself that I’ll get up early tomorrow and do them then.

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