Right, that’s it

Off tomorrow morning to the in-laws in Kidderminster overnight; then to Loughbrickland for three weeks, inrterrupted in my case by five days at WorldCon. F can’t sleep for excitement. I guess he’ll make up for it in the car tomorrow mornig. I have to go to bed now though, since I’ll be driving…

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Things you learn from Wikipedia

Back in D&D days I was always fascinated by the Fiend Folio’s descriptions of the githyanki, slaadi and githzerai. What twisted mind, I wondered, could have come up with them?

It was , according to here.

On the internet, you can run, but you can’t hide…

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Wikipedia: Midleton/Brodrick

Just happened to browse the Wikipedia entry for the Ulster Unionist Party, and caught a reference to one of its founders being the “Earl of Middleton”. Immediately my hackles rose. He wasn’t made an earl until 1920, well after the party was founded, and more to the point it’s “Midleton”, as in the town in County Cork with associated whiskey, rather than “Middleton”. So I clicked on the “edit button” – my first Wikipedia editing.

And then I clicked around a bit more, and found that Wikipedia had a short article about him already, so I had to go back to the UUP page to make sure that it linked. Then I realised that there were a whole bunch of references to him elsewhere in Wikipedia under his previous name, William St John Brodrick, all of which liked to the page saying “Please write us an article about William St John Brodrick”. So I changed all of those to point to the Viscount/Earl of Midleton article.

A pleasing if somewhat pointless little diversion. I once had a look though Brodrick/Midleton’s papers in the Public Records Office in Kew, but there was little of interest for me, except his invitation from the intriguingly named “Clerk of Crown and Hanaper” to attend the inaugural meeting of the Senate of Southern Ireland. Still, in some obscure way that hour or so going through his papers back in 1991 has now paid off.

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I have a very modest Amazon assciates thing going from my website – to be honest I haven’t even pimped it nearly as much as I could. Most of the relevant links are to sf books in and out of print.

So it seems I’ve made £5.40 this quarter in referral fees for the sale of two items – one a collection of Ambrose Bierce stories, which I don’t think I’ve read and certainly haven’t linked to, and the other being the Creative Zen MP3 player. So whoever you are who bought those items after following a link to Amazon from my site, thanks for the unexpected bonus!

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2003 UB313

Well, after the disappointing kicker to yesterday’s discovery of 2003 EL61, that it is not quite as big they thought, here’s another one, “definitely at least as big as Pluto”. So I’ll have to update yesterday’s table:

Things smaller than Mars but at least as big as Pluto:

Name What How big Dist from sun When found
Ganymede satellite of Jupiter 5262 km 5.2 AU 1610
Titan satellite of Saturn 5150 km 9.5 AU 1655
Mercury planet 4879 km 0.4 AU prehistoric
Callisto satellite of Jupiter 4820 km 5.2 AU 1610
Io satellite of Jupiter 3642 km 5.2 AU 1610
Luna satellite of Earth 3476 km 1.0 AU prehistoric
Europa satellite of Jupiter 3121 km 5.2 AU 1610
2003 UN313 ?planet ?3000 km 67.7 AU 2005
Triton satellite of Neptune 2706 km 30.1 AU 1846
Pluto planet 2390 km 39.5 AU 1930
2003 EL61 ?planet ?2000 km 43.3 AU 2005

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Silly things

BBC is showing Independence Day. An almost entirely silly film apart from the one line “Uh… Mr. President. That’s not entirely accurate” and also Brent Spiner playing a role ever so slightly different from Data.

One of the Flemish channels is showing a very silly film with Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese called “Rat Race”. As a result of some quick research on IMDB, I can tell you that this is the only feature film in which these two particularly funny actors have co-starred. It is dire.

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Friday evening

Well, I didn’t quite manage to finish absolutely everything on my desk before turned up to lure me from my office. But by then I’d been working effectively since 0630, so was very lurable. I have to drop my father-in-law to the airport first thing tomorrow, so should be able to clear up what’s left on my desk in about an hour or so.

Good to meet you, ! I got (as you no doubt expected) completely drenched running from the pub to my car. But safe and dry at home now.

Also got home to find the latest Interzone waiting for me. I hardly dare open it – it feels somehow heavier. Anyway, a nice way to start the weekend. Even if the weekend is going to be slightly interrupted by work.

PS: tells us that 2003 EL61 may not be as big as I’d hoped. Oh well.

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2003 EL61

Wow! A new trans-Neptunian object maybe twice the size of Pluto! That would make it the largest object found in the Solar System since Neptune in 1846!

Things smaller than Mars but at least as big as Pluto:

Name What How big When found
Ganymede satellite of Jupiter 5262 km 1610
Titan satellite of Saturn 5150 km 1655
Mercury planet 4879 km prehistoric
Callisto satellite of Jupiter 4820 km 1610
2003 EL61 ?planet ?4500 km 2005
Io satellite of Jupiter 3642 km 1610
Luna satellite of Earth 3476 km prehistoric
Europa satellite of Jupiter 3121 km 1610
Triton satellite of Neptune 2706 km 1846
Pluto planet 2390 km 1930

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IRA statement

All knowledge is contained in livejournal – this guy had the statement a good half hour before the BBC.

The leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. This will take effect from 4pm this afternoon.

All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.

The IRA leadership has also authorised our representative to engage with the IICD to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible.

We have invited two independent witnesses, from the Protestant and Catholic churches, to testify to this.

The Army Council took these decisions following an unprecedented internal discussion and consultation process with IRA units and Volunteers.

We appreciate the honest and forthright way in which the consultation process was carried out and the depth and content of the submissions. We are proud of the comradely way in which this truly historic discussion was conducted. The outcome of our consultations show very strong support among IRA Volunteers for the Sinn Féin peace strategy. There is also widespread concern about the failure of the two governments and the unionists to fully engage in the peace process. This has created real difficulties. The overwhelming majority of people in Ireland fully support this process. They and friends of Irish unity throughout the world want to see the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Notwithstanding these difficulties our decisions have been taken to advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country. It is the responsibility of all Volunteers to show leadership, determination and courage. We are very mindful of the sacrifices of our patriot dead, those who went to jail, Volunteers, their families and the wider republican base. We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate.

We are conscious that many people suffered in the conflict. There is a compelling imperative on all sides to build a just and lasting peace. The issue of the defence of nationalist and republican communities has been raised with us. There is a responsibility on society to ensure that there is no re-occurrence of the pogroms of 1969 and the early 1970s. There is also a universal responsibility to tackle sectarianism in all its forms.

The IRA is fully committed to the goals of Irish unity and independence and to building the Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation. We call for maximum unity and effort by Irish republicans everywhere. We are confident that by working together Irish republicans can achieve our objectives. Every Volunteer is aware of the import of the decisions we have taken and all Óglaigh are compelled to fully comply with these orders.

There is now an unprecedented opportunity to utilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process. This comprehensive series of unparalleled initiatives is our contribution to this and to the continued endeavours to bring about independence and unity for the people of Ireland.

The IRA is fully committed to the goals of Irish unity and independence and to building the Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation. Our decisions have been taken to advance our republican and democratic objectives, including our goal of a united Ireland. We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country.

Well, naturally I’m glad that’s happened. But as one of the people on whose behalf the armed struggle was supposedly being waged, and who never felt it in the least bit legitimate, I have little sympathy for the process of “unprecedented internal discussion and consultation” and much resentment that opportunities, and even lives, were lost by the Republican movement’s failure to issue a statement like this ten years ago. Or indeed twenty-five.

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Cultural Traditions – the game

Sent to me by an academic friend in Belfast, who wishes (for now!) to remain anonymous!!!!!

Cultural Traditions

A game for two to six players

Objective of the game:
To improve the standing of your Cultural Tradition by (a) increasing the Territory under your control or by (b) gaining Prestige Points.

Players may choose from the following colour counters:
Red, White, Blue, Green, White (do not confuse with earlier white) and Orange (may also be referred to as Gold).

Players also choose a symbol which gains recognition as the individual player gains Prestige Points.
Players may choose from the following or invent their own symbol:

  • Bowler Hat
  • Hand (red)
  • Land Rover (armoured)
  • Ballot Box (armalite contained inside)
  • Dove (slightly soiled)
  • Bomb (defused)

At the beginning of the game each player controls an equal number of adjoining areas.

During each players’ turn they may attempt to do one of the following:

  1. Strengthen their Tradition’s internal control
  2. Increase the area under their control
  3. Increase their International Prestige
  4. Draw a Cultural Tradition card

1. Internal Control
Players may gain Prestige Points by strengthening control of the areas they already own. This may be done in the following ways;

A) Marking out Territory

A player may choose to increase control of their area by the use of Territorial Markings. In each turn a player can choose to do one of the following;
Kerb painting, wall murals, erect flags, erect arches.
Territorial Marking outside the control of the player may also be attempted but is subject to Mediation (see below).

B) Internal Housekeeping

Use their own Paramilitary Organisation (see below) to maintain control of the area. May lead to the loss of International Prestige Points but the effect can be lessened by the successful use of a Political Party if the player has one.

2. Increasing the area under the player’s control

Players may seek to expand their influence into either neutral areas or those of opposing players. This can be done through the successful use of Territorial Marking or by instigating a Cultural Tradition in the area. Players roll dice to determine whether they have been successful in Territorial Marking. They have less chance of success in areas controlled by other players than in neutral areas. A player can gain control of an area more quickly by establishing a new Cultural Tradition, however, this is open to challenge by other players who can say, ‘This is offensive to my Cultural Tradition.’ The attempt then goes to Mediation.

Creating a Cultural Tradition

Players may attempt to gain Prestige Points by creating a Cultural Tradition.
Cultural traditions may be celebrated within the area under the players’ control relatively easily. A greater number of Prestige Points may be gained by celebrating a cultural tradition outside the players’ immediate control, however, this can be Challenged (see below) by other players.

If successful the player has created a Cultural Tradition and gains Prestige Points.

Types of Cultural Tradition

Cultural Traditions can take any form, however, music, art and film festivals are popular options. Marches and Rallies may also be attempted, however, this can have a negative impact on Prestige Points if unsuccessful.

Creating Paramilitary Organisations and Political Parties

After the first round players may seek to create a Political party or Paramilitary Organisation. Players may choose to name their organisations (the words; People’s, Democratic, United and Socialist are popular – as indeed is Popular – but these are purely for cosmetic purposes and have no effect on game mechanics since the Political Parties and Paramilitary Organisations operate in much the same way).

Political Parties help improve Prestige but can face Political Embarrassment from the activities of paramilitary organisation or other set-backs.


At any point in the game a players’ attempt to create a new Cultural Tradition can be challenged by other players. A player issues a challenge by stating, ‘This is offensive to my Cultural Tradition’. The player’s chance of succeeding in creating a new Cultural Tradition is reduced in proportion to the number of other players who claim that their Cultural tradition has been offended. Each player may issue three Challenges per game.

If a Cultural Tradition is challenged it goes to Mediation – roll two dice and check result (if the result is drawn the cultural tradition does not take place in its original form but can be attempted again in subsequent rounds).

3. Increasing International Prestige

Players may seek to gain points by increasing their international prestige. This can be done by sending a foreign delegation abroad or by receiving representatives from other countries (roll dice). International Prestige may also be lost due to the activities of Paramilitary Organisations or by conflicting international support.

4. Drawing a Cultural Traditions Card

In each turn a player may choose to draw a card from the board rather than attempt to increase Prestige Points. Cards may modify the players’ future attempts to increase Prestige.


  • Win a European Union community development grant – add one to roll.
  • A delegation from your Political Party meets the Prime Minister – add one to roll.
  • US President says you are playing a vital role in the peace process – add one to roll.

Some cards can have a detrimental effect on the player:

  • Paramilitary activities abroad cause Political Embarrassment – minus one from roll.
  • Members of Political Party are caught spying on other players – minus one from roll.
  • Prime Minister says political process might go forward without you – minus one from roll.

The game ends when everyone becomes thoroughly bored with it.

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Homophone corner

So, a colleague mentioned to me casually that actress Sandra Bullock is half Albanian.

Really? I mean, I know about the Belushi brothers, John and Jim (whose father came from the same village as independent Albania’s first proper leader Fan Noli, the one who was overthrown by Ahmet Zogu later King Zog); and a quick glance at her WikiPedia entry seemed to confirm the news:

Bullock was born to the late German-born opera singer Helga Meyer, and American-Albanian voice teacher John Bullock.

But it didn’t quite ring true to me; “Bullock” is not an obviously Albanian name. Not very much more digging and I came up with what appears to be an authorised biography:

Her mother, Helga, the daughter of a German rocket scientist, initially studied to be an opera singer in Nuremberg. To support her studies, she worked as a clerk, one day being called to the town’s Palace of Justice (where the notorious post-WW2 trials took place). Here she was to takes letters for the new head honcho, one John Bullock. Bullock, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, was a Juilliard scholar who’d joined the Army as a runner and risen to become the boss of the military Postal Exchange for the whole of Europe.

So, if the Sandra-is-Albanian story is true, we are being asked to believe that at the height of the Cold War, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US Army allowed its PX operation for the whole of Europe to be run by an Albanian? I somehow think not. Also notable that the people posting on this pro-Albanian website seem to laugh at the idea.

Almost certainly she (or someone) told a journalist once that she is half German, half Alabamian, and the journalist misheard the second bit (and possibly had never heard of Alabama). And so a legend was born.

Happy birthday, Sandra! She is 41 today.

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Humour test

Everyone’s doing this…

the Prankster
(47% dark, 30% spontaneous, 16% vulgar)
your humor style:

Your humor has an intellectual, even conceptual slant to it. You’re not
pretentious, but neither are you into what some would call ‘low humor’.
You’d laugh at a good dirty joke, but you definitely prefer something
clever to something moist.

probably like well-thought-out pranks and/or spoofs and it’s highly
likely you’ve tried one of these things yourself. In a lot of ways,
yours is the most entertaining type of humor.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Conan O’Brian – Ashton Kutcher

My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:

free online dating free online dating
You scored higher than 83% on dark
free online dating free online dating
You scored higher than 0% on spontaneous
free online dating free online dating
You scored higher than 16% on vulgar

Link: The 3 Variable Funny Test written by jason_bateman on Ok Cupid

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Winding down my expectations

So, the guy who’s setting up his own organisation, which sounded to me like a very attractive alternative to my current employment (see my posts with job hunt tags), has started copying me on his memos to colleagues and potential colleagues. And it’s pretty clear that the funding isn’t there yet, and quite possibly will never be there. So I’m recalibrating my career thoughts.

There are two possibilities.

First off, the continuing mirage of a job as political adviser to some senior international figure is attractive, despite my failure to land a post with the European Commission last September. I may be being over-sensitive, or over-optimistic, but I have detected hints being dropped in my direction by a couple of senior EU people in connection with the coming Kosovo talks. So, plan: this week, try and make my interest known to people before I leave on my holiday.

Second, there’s always the private sector as a lobbyist. That will take some time to work into, since I basically decided not to go for it last year. But my other options are few. I am not going to back into electoral politics until I can see a way of landing a winnable seat, and also not until the situation at home has settled down a bit. Anne needs all the support I can give her with the kids.

So, I’m back to where I was in December 2003.

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Job advert

This is on my rarely-used filter for those of you based in Ireland:

The publisher O’Brien Press is looking for a receptionist for 8-9 months, starting at the beginning of October.


Ivan O’Brien
Sales Director, The O’Brien Press Ltd
Tel: +353 1 4923333; Fax: +353 1 4922777; Direct: +353 1 4055627
E-mail: ivan@obrien.ie; Web: www.obrien.ie

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July Books 11) The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land

11) The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, by Diana Wynne Jones.

Everyone should rush out and get this. At least, anyone who’s ever enjoyed more than one of the great fantasy series. Diana Wynne Jones is, of course, a superlative author of fantasy novels for younger readers (and one of two for older readers as well – I particularly enjoyed Deep Secret which my sister got for me a few birthdays ago). But here she takes an affectionate but acerbic look at the cliches of fantasy fiction. To take one example from near the beginning:

COSTUME: It is a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Therafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTROKE).

She is hilarious about the standard ecology and economy of fantasy novels, and the ubiquity of STEW (which “seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak”). I had a wry smile on my face for most of the book – the one bit that made me laugh out loud was her description of PanCeltic Tours and PanCelts, which certainly irritate the heck out of me when fantasy authors write Oirish novels and get it wrong (someone on my friends list has tagged her locked entries on this subject with the keyword “begorrah”). Too long to reproduce here, at least being faithful to the typography. Anyway, go and buy it.

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Historical mystery

The house where I grew up in Belfast was built around 1930 (the post box on the corner was marked “EVIIIR” which ties it down to a particular eleven-month period in 1936). The gates were falling apart with rust when we were children in the 1970s, but a little name plate attached to them indicated that some previous owner had wanted the house, otherwise an unexceptional suburban semi-detached, to be known not merely as “215 Upper Lisburn Road” but as “Le Sars”. My parents’ French dictionaries offered no clue as to what “sars” might be (this was long before it became an infectious epidemic) and it remained one of those minor puzzles from childhood that one is left with.

Thanks to the glories of the internet, however, I now know that Le Sars is a small French village which was on the front line during the Battle of the Somme during the first world war, and was captured by the British in the first week of October 1916 in the Battle of Le Transloy. An Irish soldier, Henry Kelly, won the Victoria Cross during that battle, and I wondered if perhaps he might have settled in Finaghy after leaving the army; but it’s pretty clear from the information on-line that he spent most of his life in Manchester (though spent time fighting against Franco during the Spanish Civil War), so it probably wasn’t him. Indeed as far as I can tell from skimming the on-line sources, most of the British troops involved in the capture of Le Sars seem to have been from the North of England.

Of course, that wouldn’t prevent a veteran of the Great War from settling in south Belfast a few years later; it’s also entirely possible that my skimming of the internet has not given me a completely accurate picture of the make-up of the forces. When I have a chance, I’ll have to go and check the Belfast street directories and find out who was the first person to live in the house when it was built, and then see if I can track down their war record. Of course, Le Sars itself is only two hours’ drive from here; but battles are rarely commemorated in much detail on the site where they actually took place.

It all reminds me of the vivid first world war scenes in Robertson Davies’ fantastic novel Fifth Business (the first book in his superb Deptford Trilogy). Horrendous, but an inescapable part of modern history.

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Two memes – joy and idiosyncracy

From :

List 10 things in a day that give you a moment of joy, and tag five of your friends:

  1. My wife
  2. My family
  3. My daughters asking me to tickle them
  4. My son telling me about the latest things he’s read/made/done
  5. Seeing my wife (and sometime children) sit down to eat a meal that I’ve cooked
  6. Watching Buffy (or indeed anything) with my wife
  7. Conversations with high-level officials who are interested in the subject and able to do something about it
  8. Doing TV or radio interviews (I’m such a media whore!)
  9. The first sip of wine or beer at the end of the day
  10. The start of any Beethoven or Sibelius symphony
Tagging for this one:

From :

id·i·o·syn·cra·sy n. pl. id·i·o·syn·cra·sies
A structural or behavioural characteristic peculiar to an individual or group.

Write down five of your own personal idiosyncracies. Then, if you wish, tag five people from your friendslist to do the same in their journal.

  1. I have a habit (familiar to anyone who’s sat beside me in a meeting ) of taking large numbers and factorising them; in fact I have a whole carefully developed system for representing the factors of large numbers in three dimensions. I am particularly interested in highly composite numbers.
  2. I cannot resist second-hand book shops, especially if they have a decent English-language section. (This goes also for particular favourites on my travels like the English-language bookshop in Vienna airport.)
  3. I am fascinated by alphabets (much more so than I am by languages)
  4. When I am meeting diplomats from any country I like to show off what I know about their own country’s history.
  5. I have a weblog and run two websites.

Tagging for this one:

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Party party

Well, we did it. Having been encouraged by to lower my ambitions to reasonable levels, we had about twenty people around yesterday afternoon for beer, wine, juice and snacks. The weather was decent enough to do it in the garden; my mother is staying, and was extremely helpful in preparing the food, fielding small people etc; all thee of our children drifted in and out of the company at different stages (though I must explain to F that most people already know where babies come from), and we had I think five other children wandering around without any untoward incidents (all smaller than F). Nothing got broken, and thanks to the generosity of our guests we are well ahead of where we started in terms of cut flowers, wine and even chocolates. So thanks to , , Zoe, Andy, and everyone else who came and helped us effectively have a house-warming, almost four years after we moved in here. Hope to see the rest of you next time.

[Edited to add:] Turns out that belgianwaffle was also among my guests – little did I know!

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Shevardnadze interview

A fascinating interview with Eduard Shevardnadze, former president of Georgia and former foreign minister of the Soviet Union, here. Fascinating, as much as anything, because of the prejudices revealed by his Russian interviewer:

Eduard Ambrosievich, in all honesty, does your conscience ever bother you for ruining the friendship with Russia together with Gamsahurdia and Saakashvili? After all, it wasn’t you but your predecessors who started the friendship, and they were just as smart as you.

To which Shevardnadze replies:

I am not responsible for the actions of Saakashvili and even for those of Gamsakhurdia. As for myself, I was never against Russia. I even did something helpful for Russia. I was a member of the Politburo for seven years, a foreign minister. Who helped end the Cold War? Wasn’t Russia interested in this?

The Russian attitude to Georgia has always seemed to me a bit like that of someone who has recently been dumped by their boyfriend / girlfriend / husband / wife and hasn’t yet got over it – it doesn’t matter what the Georgians do, it is always wrong. There was a particular edge to it during Shevardnadze’s rule in Georgia, as he was seen by many Russians as a traitor – someone who was firmly at Gorbachev’s side in the years of collapse and then ran away to install an anti-Russian, pro-Western policy on Russia’s southern flank; Shevardnadze seems utterly unaware of his own poor image in Russia (or perhaps he just isn’t letting it bother him).

Meanwhile the Russians don’t understand that from the Georgian side they are perceived as the occupiers of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not to mention the more recent bombing of Georgian territory three years ago. There is little incentive on either side for improving the political rhetoric.

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July Books 10) The Light Ages

10) The Light Ages, by Ian R. MacLeod

Hmmm. On the one hand, this is the book that China Miéville’s Iron Council should have been. Complex, interesting characters, a sparsely sketched yet believable social set-up, just the corner of the irrational (the mysterious “aether”, discovered in 1678, and the cornerstone of England’s prosperity, but which has dreadful effects on those it touches directly). The literary references are on the whole to those Dickens novels I haven’t read, and to Hardy who I haven’t read at all, but for all that the cliches of nineteenth-century Britain are well-enough known that it all made sense to me (the revolution is clearly 1848, or just possibly Paris 1870, rather than 1968). So a deep and absorbing novel.

But the start is awfully off-putting – took me several goes to even begin properly. Once I was in it, I was flying, and found it easy enough to follow. But I still felt it could have been done more efficiently and briefly, in say 300 pages rather than 450. Maybe that makes it Great Literature, and me a philistine. I don’t know.

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July Books 9) The Knight in the Tiger Skin / ვეფხისტყაოსანი

9) The Knight in the Tiger Skin / ვეფხისტყაოსანი (more usally translated as “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”), by Shot’ha Rust’hveli / შოთა რუსთაველი (more usually transliterated Shota Rustaveli), translated by Marjory Scott Wardrop with an introduction by Irakly Abashidze.

The is the grand epic poem of Georgian literature, written by a senior official of the court of Queen Tamar, in the late twelfth / early thirteenth century. I bought my copy of the 1966 edition of the 1912 translation from a street stall in Tbilisi last week, but have found the same edition transcribed on the Georgian Parliamentary Library site here. (The original Georgian, if you want to try it, is here.)

Rather grand claims are made by Georgians and their fans on behalf of this poem (vide Abashidze’s introduction, “its life-affirming passion, shining humanity and heroic spirit, the ideas of patriotism and internationalism that it embodies and the elevated human feelings and moral ideals it expresses link this great literary monument of the distant past with the spiritual world of all freedom-loving peoples”) and since I can’t read the original to appreciate its intricate metrical structure (including rhyming words to the fourth syllable) much of it is lost on me. I did wonder if the limitations of the metrical structure of the four-line stanza are in some ways reminiscent of comics – you have the box, you have to fill it with narrative, so sometimes it needs to be padded out a bit, and occasionally it feels a little cramped.

The plot doesn’t matter much – there are knights, one of whom wraps himself in a tiger skin and mourns his lost love, they go on long voyages by sea and land, fight battles in many different countries, and rescue the lost love, and all ends happily. However it is absolutely fascinating to read a work written at the far end of Europe from Eleanor’s Aquitaine and her sponsorship of the ideals of courtly love, and find exactly the same values of chivalry extolled – and explicitly sourced not in Europe but in Arabia, Persia, Africa and India. I have always tended to think of this sort of thing as linked to the Norman French of the later Middle Ages, but of course it all happened because of the Crusades and the massive injection of new material into Western European from the Islamic world.

Especially in times like these, it’s important to be reminded that there was a time when the centre of our civilisation was located in what are now Iraq and Iran (with significant overspill to Egypt and Pakistan).

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Ten characters meme

Ten fictional characters who I would shag:

Actually, I found this very difficult after the first three. If the story-line is one of a romance with a happy ending, then I feel I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s relationship (even a fictional character’s). And even if it’s not that kind of story, just because I find them interesting doesn’t mean I’m desperately keen to shag them. So, the top four I’m totally sure of, largely because their role in the story includes a certain element of shagging everything that looks sufficiently interesting, and I think I would be sufficiently interested for a fling; the next two are fascinating characters who don’t exactly radiate availability but I wouldn’t mind a go with, as long as I knew I’d survive the experience; and the bottom four are a grab-bag from my shelves and memory of TV programmes. So, in reverse order, the ten fictional characters I’d shag are:

10. Stephanie Plum

She’s been good company for me on many a plane flight, particularly going through Vienna airport where she always seems to be waiting for me. Stephanie hunts down bad guys (though not usually very bad guys) in New Jersey, and we hear of her life via Janet Evanovich. Her love life is complex, and I would figure in it only briefly.

9. Helena Justina

Like Stephanie, Helena Justina solves mysteries and fights crime, but this time in first-century Rome. This picture (if indeed it is her) doesn’t show her at her best; she is aristocratic, sarcastic, and very intelligent. She would also break my rule of not interfering in a steady relationship, since she lives in nearly wedded bliss with Marcus Didius Falco, at least according to author Lindsey Davies. However, I don’t think it counts, because he has been dead for about 1900 years.

(Of course, so has she…)

8. Caitlín Mulryan

This is rather a desperate and random grab off the bookshelf. Caitlín turns up in Poul Anderson’s The Avatar as the hero’s lover, but turns out to be a more complex character than just the love interest, and apparently show up in some of Anderson’s later books too. It was a close call between her and the time-travelling girlfriend from Anderson’s There Will Be Time. Caitlín wins on the grounds that a) I can remember her name and b) she is Irish.

(I’m a bit sad that I can’t really think of another bonkable character from the works of any of the other great classic sf writers.)

7. Susan Ivanova

Funny how despite the fact that I’m a Doctor Who fan, and have more than a passing acquaintance with Star Trek, there’s none of the characters that really leap into the bonkable category for me. On the other hand, I only watched Babylon 5 a few times, yet I’d really like to take Commander Ivanova aside and help her unwind. And see below for two more classic media sf characters.

6. Death

Definitely in the category of dangerous but attractive. Very dangerous.

5. Scully

This feels like a bit of a cop-out, since I found the X-Files increasingly silly as the years went on; but if we’re talking early series Scully, still trying to make sense of the confusing world around her, then I think it’s possible.

4. Dr Frank ‘N’ Furter

Don’t get strung out
By the way I look
Don’t judge a book by its cover
I’m not much of a man
By the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover!

How could anyone resist?

3. Eleanor of Aquitaine

Now, this really is cheating in that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a genuine historical personality. My excuse is that so many myths and legends have been woven around her that she has featured as a fictional character in numerous novels, plays and films. The picture here is the only one known to be really her, from her tombstone, and probably doesn’t represent her at her most glamorous (she was around 80 when she died in 1204). If she could fit me into her busy schedule in the spring of 1152, between her divorcing the king of France (to whom she had been married for fifteen years) and marrying the future king of England, I wouldn’t complain. She’d have been in her late 20s at the time.

2. Phedre no Delaunay

Scholar, spy and courtesan, world traveller and political activist, in the universe that is described by author Jacqueline Carey, I think I could find enough in common with Phedre to make it work for at least one hot date, since that is her specialty.

1. Faith

What more need be said? (Though oddly enough I can’t manage the same level of enthusiasm for Tru in Tru Calling. I guess it’s the superior production values of Buffy.)

[Edited to add:] I was inspired to do this by ‘s list, though I think I may have seen it from someone else first. Since then I note another list of boys from , and lists of girls from here and here.

Thanks to comments below from , I realise that I unjustly neglected both Bernice Summersfield from the New Adventures of Doctor Who series, and Ashley Watt from Iain Banks’ novel The Crow Road. I would also like to add Angelina DiGriz of the Stainless Steel Rat books from ‘s list, and Officer Tina Russo from Hill Street Blues from ‘s list. So, sorry to Stephanie Plum, Helena Justina, Caitlín Mulryan, and Scully, you’re off the list. (But Susan Ivanova can stay on it.)

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The next concours, ie the next round of recruitment for the EU’s administrative machinery, has been announced. The job criteria are:

  • A university degree of at least three years’ duration
  • Thorough knowledge of one of the following official languages of the EU (main language): Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish PLUS a satisfactory knowledge of a second of these languages.
  • Citizenship of one of the Member States of the EU

There will be literally thousands of applicants. And you can only apply on-line, between 1 and 29 September. Full details here (pdf file). If you’re even half interested in a job as a Eurocrat, this is the time to apply – it will take two or three years for the process to reach a conclusion and there probably won’t be another concours this decade.

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Stratfor – “London Bombings: OPSEC Errors or Intelligence Failure?”

I’m not always hugely convinced by Stratfor, one of the big names in doing for the commercial sector what we do for governments, but I found this latest piece from them very thought-provoking. (F-locked because it’s their copyright material, and I don’t know where to point to on their website; and also because I’m posting at work.)

Stratfor has introduced a weekly article written by Fred Burton, Stratfor vice president for counterterrorism and corporate security, that takes a tactical approach to analyzing terrorism and terrorist groups, the motivations and methods of various movements and the impact on security and public interests in the United States and abroad. We believe you will find this supplement to our geopolitical analysis timely and relevant to your intelligence needs. Please watch for details in the coming weeks on how you can register to receive this mailing on a regular basis. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing your feedback.

By Fred Burton

Nearly two weeks after the London bombings, investigators have established a critical mass of forensic and other evidence, and it is now certain that all four bombers died at the scenes of the explosions. The identities of the bombers have been established, timelines of their movements recreated, and revelations that at least one of them previously had been under MI5 surveillance for a time have emerged. It also is strongly suspected that the four-man cell was operating under the guidance — or at least was in contact with — a shadowy fifth operative or a handler of some type in Pakistan.

All in all, it seems unquestionable that the July 7 bombings were well-planned, well-coordinated, trademark strikes by al Qaeda.

Yet in reviewing the growing mass of evidence, there is still something that doesn’t add up. It’s the kind of thing that seems innocuous enough, but sticks in a detective’s brain — a clue to which he returns again and again, trying to make it fit with the rest of the puzzle. And in this case, it’s the image of all four bombing suspects together, captured by closed-circuit television cameras, entering a train station at Luton early on the day of the bombings.

For anyone with a background in intelligence and tradecraft, it’s hard to downplay the significance of that image. One of the first rules learned in Intelligence Officer Training 101 is that operatives working together on a mission should not travel together or engage in noticeable contact, for fear of providing leads to anyone who might be conducting surveillance. For al Qaeda, the risks of putting live operatives together in the same place and time — at any point, but particularly on the day of a suicide mission — would be enormous. And those risks would be amplified in a place like Britain, which is blanketed with CCTV cameras that, as we know from evidence gathered in the past, would have been systematically noted by al Qaeda operatives conducting their own pre-operational surveillance.

This leaves us with two possibilities: Either al Qaeda is not as slick and as smart as the world — and particularly the intelligence agencies that have failed to prevent its strikes — would like to believe, or the 7/7 operatives were unwitting bombers who might have been duped into carrying out a suicide mission.

Let’s consider the facts supporting an “unwitting bombers” theory for a moment.

First, we know from materials gathered in connection with arrests made since 9/11 that al Qaeda conducts extensive and detailed pre-operational surveillance. This means that before any strike, someone is sent to check out existing security measures and other details at possible targets, and along the routes that cell members would travel on the day of the actual mission. These all must be countered or else somehow factored into the plans in order for an operation to succeed.

Certainly, the 7/7 cell members — or at least their handler — would be aware of the presence of security cameras at the train stations and realize that this footage would be carefully scanned in the aftermath of the explosions. If the bombers were aware of the true nature of their mission, it would hardly be difficult to spread their movements out — arriving at the train station at staggered times and thus throwing at least some complications into the post-attack investigation.

Moreover, all four men were carrying their actual identification documents at the times of the explosions, which have become part of the forensic evidence gathered. This would be extremely foolish, assuming they actually knew they were on their way to their deaths — again, since it would greatly speed certain aspects of the investigation that easily could be dragged out, helping the trail grow cold before authorities could close in on their handler or other operatives with whom they potentially had contact.

Finally, it’s not beyond the pale that al Qaeda would use unwitting operatives. The informant who led U.S. authorities to Ramzi Yousef, who planned the first World Trade Center bombings, was initially called into service to test out a plan involving explosives planted inside baby dolls — and realized at some point along the way that he might in fact be a suicide operative who wasn’t prepared to die. Rather than carry out his mission, he reported it to authorities instead.

Our longstanding assessment of al Qaeda has been that it is an extremely resource-scarce organization — for operational security reasons, if no others. The fewer people who know about or are part of a plot, the safer they and their plans are. We also believe it to be an extremely risk-averse and security-conscious organization; otherwise, it could not have achieved the success it did with 9/11, the Madrid attacks and other operations.

This assessment remains firmly intact — and the implications for the future spin forward in terrifying ways if it can be assumed that the 7/7 operatives were unwitting bombers. Speaking from the standpoint of a professional who has trained operatives in the past, it makes perfect sense to me for all four bombers to be seen traveling together if they believed their purpose was to conduct a training run. For a handler, it’s just easier to keep the group together in tow.

Of course, we must speculate here, but suppose the handler — who might have been Mohammed Saddique Khan, the elder statesman of the four-man cell, or a shadowy fifth operative who may or may not have visited Britain prior to the attacks — had called the group together under the guise of testing them. Perhaps the goal was to plan “another Madrid,” or simply — in the cell members’ minds — to determine what was possible and where the risks in an operation lay. In this scenario, the training run would be most easily carried out if they departed from a central point, timed their runs and then met again afterward to report their findings.

However, they would have been — without their knowledge — carrying explosive devices with pre-set timers, and only their handler would have been aware that the cell members would not live to possibly change their minds or tell tales. In that case, the presence of the cameras or other security measures could be more easily discounted, and al Qaeda’s operational security (OPSEC) would remain intact.

If we stand by this argument, there are several potential aftereffects that would play in al Qaeda’s favor. Not the least of these is the fact that the bombers were British-born citizens who carried out an attack on their home soil. It is extremely difficult for many to accept that native-born citizens could be al Qaeda sympathizers, and this tends to amplify the terror effect of the strikes.

That said, we must examine the other possibility — that the bombers knowingly undertook a suicide mission. The tale then follows a standard pattern: a four-man cell of hard-core militants, intent on death and destruction.

There is plenty of evidence to support this case as well — particularly as more details emerge about the operatives’ movements in the days prior to the attack.

For instance, it has been confirmed that three of the bombers visited Pakistan last year — two of them, Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, arriving and departing together from Karachi — and authorities believe they might have been radicalized while attending madrassas there. Furthermore, there are now reports that the suspects themselves purchased many of the materials used in the attacks — including the large rucksacks each of the bombers carried aboard the trains — in Leeds in the days prior to the strike.

Perhaps most damning is word that, with forensics well in hand at this stage, there is “no evidence” of any timing devices having been used, authorities have said. Now, that is not the same thing as saying there is direct evidence the devices were command-detonated, and this has been a matter of some conflicting reports since the bombings occurred. However, the latest revelations from British authorities strongly suggest that the bombs would have been manually — and purposely — detonated.

Assuming that the London strikes were a standard suicide mission, all the aftereffects mentioned above remain; only the belief in al Qaeda’s reverence for operational security is cast into doubt.

And it well could be that — as painful as this is for intelligence and security agencies around the world to stomach, looking back over the history of successful attacks — the network’s tradecraft really is that lousy.

Consider Ahmed Ressam, whose behavior as he crossed the border from Canada was so suspicious that he attracted the attention of authorities and the Millennium Plot was unearthed. Ahmad Ajaj, traveling in the company of Yousef, was stopped at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1992 carrying a suitcase full of manuals on bomb-making techniques. The Madrid bombers all boarded the trains they blew up from the same station. Mohammed Atta left pocket litter and documents detailing the 9/11 plot behind in a rental car. And Zacarias Moussaoui applied to a training school to learn how to fly — but not land — airplanes. The list goes on.

As evidence continues to mount, the balance seems to be tilting in favor of the traditional suicide mission. The bitter pill for intelligence agents and analysts is that al Qaeda actually can be that sloppy and yet still be effective. It’s almost like a contradiction in terms.

There is, of course, a third and final possibility — that all of the bombers’ movements were carefully planned and calculated, with all of the clues they left behind for investigators intended as a final, brazen thrust.

In some respects, it would be more comforting to believe the London bombers were duped into carrying out their mission. But any way you slice it, something about the 7/7 operation is going to be very hard to swallow.

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Sensible blogging

I’ve been following the latest blogger-getting-fired story with some interest. (If you haven’t seen about this – this is where a columnist for the New York Times read her nanny’s blog and fired the nanny; and then wrote about it in her column. Last time I noted (publicly) an incident like this, my sympathies were largely with the blogger (Joe Gordon, late of Waterstone’s and now of Forbidden Planet).

This time round my feelings are a bit more mixed, and I think the blogging nanny’s last entry helps me feel justified in that ambivalence. Working with children is just a bit different from working in a job where you are publicising books, and the parent, I think, is entitled to a little more of a comfort zone, however irrational and logically ill-founded, than the bookseller; and all kinds of personality issues which should ever be considered in the office do become important in the home. I hope I myself wouldn’t fire a blogging nanny, but I think her employers had an unquestionable right to take that into account if they wanted.

Having said that, while it may be within the bounds of acceptable behaviour for the parent to fire the blogging nanny, it is certainly not then within the bounds of acceptable behaviour to write a long newspaper article sensationalising the nanny’s blog, and I feel considerable sympathy for the nanny who as far as I can tell showed much more discretion in describing her employers than they have since done towards her.

I came across a blog the other day describing the life of a Western woman living in an Eastern European country, a moving account of her small child getting bigger and her own attempt to come to terms with her husband’s having recently admitted that he had an affair several years ago. She has posted enough information that I was able to google the husband’s fairly high-powered job almost instantly – she’s used their real names (and the real name of the head of the organisation for which the husband works) and the real city and country in which they are based. I attempted to be a Good Samaritan a few weeks ago, when it was my own organisation; perhaps I should make the same suggestion again…

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