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Friday, March 25

Notacon

Notacon is in two weeks, and I'm getting excited. For once (because I have several deadlines in the same week) I've managed not to leave preparation till the last minute, so I don't need to be distracted by fear of not getting it done.

The con[ference or vention?] is billed as being about Community through Technology, but it's really a lot broader than that (and to me it's the diversity of talks that makes it interesting). There's a technical symposium with talks that ought to be useful to IT professionals, talks about building 'virtual' communities, talks about the face-to-face communities that exist around various techie obsessions, an assortment of hacking and/or computer security talks, photographers and musicians showing us how they use various tools, and a colleague and me giving an overview of our field. Not to mention several live music acts, some games and competitions and of course beer and friendly people.

I am, of course, somewhat biased about this event because it's being run by friends, and quite a few of my friends are also talking there, but don't take my word for it. If you're anywhere near Cleveland, it's worth checking out the website (and especially the speaker list) and seeing how much this event has to offer. Registration is still open, and will be on the door too, so come along. Correction: pre-registration is closed, but you can still register on the door, so come along.
posted @ 12:28 PM -

Defying gravity

I'm trying to get away from short hey look at this cool link!!! type posts to my blog, but this one was just too good not to share: How to really confuse your party guests.
posted @ 7:44 AM -

Thursday, March 24

Mind control and totalitarianism

I just read an interesting and deeply sad piece in the New York Times about refugees from North Korea. Not a great deal of it was news to me—I already knew that many people flee North Korea to China, and that China is a haven of freedom and prosperity compared to where they came from—but there was one part I did find rather shocking. The last few paragraphs speak about the extent to which Kim has managed to deceive his people, and they run very counter to what I would have expected.

I tend to assume that in a totalitarian regime people have at least some understanding of what their government is doing to them, but are kept from rebelling by fear, combined with effective government policies to stop any non-government-controlled organisation getting big enough to mobilise against them. This definitely holds in some places, such as Zimbabwe, and it goes some way to explaining why the Communist Party of China is so afraid of Falun Dafa and organised religion in general. Yet the article on North Korea describes people actually believing that they lived in the best and richest country in the world until they saw the rest of the world with their own eyes.

I find it quite frightening to see how completely a population can be deceived, and it suggests that North Korea's dictatorship might take rather longer to come undone than, say, Zimbabwe's. Not to mention the very real risk that if a foreign power were to decide to invade they'd be facing a million dedicated soldiers, rather than the demoralised, willing-to-surrender lot that Iraq's army turned out to be.
posted @ 1:46 PM -

Monday, March 21

The Larry Summers affair

Because I think this is of more general interest than most of what I write there, I'm going to link to a couple of posts in my work blog. Larry Summers, president of Harvard University, stirred up huge controversy in January with some remarks about women in science. Having finally read his actual speech over the weekend (spurred in part by Pinker also discussing this issue), I've written at length about the relative inoffensiveness of what he actually said and the various mistakes he did make which reduce the amount of sympathy I have for him.
posted @ 9:13 AM -

Friday, March 18

I've been in the Midwest too long

Last night I said it's not that cold out today. Not with any bravado, but just because I hadn't felt all that cold cycling to Vinay's place. Then:
  1. I took several minutes layering clothes before going out to get home.
  2. I rode home with snow falling.
  3. Arriving home, my comment wasn't that it was cold, but something about how nice it was to be riding before the snow settled.
It wasn't until this morning that I realised how absurd this was.
posted @ 9:31 AM -

Tuesday, March 15

Credit, where it's due

I'm growing a little tired of hearing and reading the GW Bush triumphalists talking about all the great things he has supposedly achieved for the Middle East. At the same time, I'm growing at least as tired of the way Bush opponents respond to this by trying to deny that anything good is happening. I don't see how anyone who claims to be reality-based in their view of the world can deny that the past year or so has seen some changes for the better, but it's also pretty incoherent to say that these are definitely all because of Bush's arrogant, diplomacy-allergic foreign policy. So here's a quick list of things that must be recognised as progress in the Middle East, and other possible explanations for them:
Libya settles Lockerbie compensation claims and opens itself up to inspectors
I suppose this could be Ghaddafi's fear that when the US army finally extricates itself from the quagmire of Iraq it might be turned on Libya, but let's face it: he hasn't been a focus of attention for some time, and he must always have realised that other countries were higher on the list, especially when Libya wasn't even mentioned in the infamous axis of evil speech. On the other hand, Ghaddafi has been trying for a while to become respectable, through the African Union and the UN (both organisations being bizarrely willing to let Libya hold seats on human rights committees), and ultimately he needs foreign trade. I find it much more plausible that Ghaddafi's moves relate to his long-term survival by opening up the country to foreign investment, that might just bring in some income and create jobs for the enormous number of disaffected youth with which every Arab country seems to be cursed.

Tentative moves towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians
I'm sorry, but this one is particularly obvious. Arafat died. I hate to cheer anyone's death—even someone with blood on his hands—but it has been clear since the start of the second intifada (which if you cast your mind back happened even before 9/11) that Arafat and Sharon could never negotiate a deal between them. At least one of them had to go, and nature took its course with Arafat, which was the best possible outcome because Israel knew that for all their occasional rhetoric about taking him out that would only have inflamed the situation, and a 'retired' Arafat would never have kept out of Palestinian politics. Meanwhile the Bush administration has been doing far less to engage with the Palestinians than the Clinton administration did, so it particularly rankles to hear them credited for this one. And of course I should mention that we still don't know if this is going anywhere. I'm more optimistic than I have been for several years about this, but that's taking an extremely low baseline and simply saying now there are at least some encouraging signs, so let's not get carried away.

Talk of elections in Egypt
First of all, this is nothing new. Before Iraq was invaded, there was always periodic talk of elections in Egypt and [at least local] elections in Saudi Arabia, but it was never taken seriously for good reasons. Meanwhile Egypt does have its share of long-term problems (mass unemployment - see the comment about disaffected youth in Libya, political scandals, and not to mention Mubarak getting old), which have nothing to do with American policy, but everything to do with weakening the current regime's grip on power. Fear of a coup is at least as strong a motivator for a dictator to change course as fear of invasion.

Calls for an ejection of Syrian influence in Lebanon
This is the one that I'm most willing to concede to Bush, and whatever the cause it is most certainly a Very Good Thing. However, I can't help but think that this has been brewing for some time, and it was triggered by a stupid mis-step by the Syrian government (blowing up a popular former leader). I do see some American influence here, because I think it's fear that led Assad to be so unusually incompetent in his meddling because he felt the need to exert Syrian power over something, and I think it's the same perception of Syria as hamstrung by the possibility of an American invasion that gave so many Lebanese the courage to come out and demonstrate. But that's far from saying this happened because of US foreign policy.
Meanwhile, look at the mess in Iraq. Democracy doesn't simply mean the people got to cast a vote, there's still a lot to be done, and it's going to take a few years to really see if the invasion achieved anything or not. There is a plausible best case scenario—an Iraq that really works for its citizens and can be a beacon to the rest of the people of the Middle East; even more so if its government can be religious without being oppressive or anti-democratic—and if that happens I will have to eat my words and accept that the invasion of Iraq was worthwhile in the long run. On the other hand, we have a Kurdish region that wants independence, a large Sunni Arab minority who have so far not taken part in the democratic process and may yet derail it, and real reasons to worry about Iraq's future. I still wonder if it's going to either break up or remain impossible to rule like Somalia, or turn into Iran's little brother, and we can only wait and see.

On the subject of Iran, a few years ago I was actually optimistic about that country. There were moves afoot to give people more representation in the government, to weaken some of the more opressive applications of Sharia, and give women a closer to equal status. Why has this turned around? To be honest, I understand Iran too little to think much of my own opinion, but I can't help thinking that fear of America had a major part in why Iran is now so determined to go nuclear, and that anger against America was a particularly useful tool for the mullahs in the re-radicalising of their country.

Overall, there's no denying that some good things have happened in the Middle East on Bush's watch, but that's quite different from saying that he deserves any or much or all credit for them. At least some of the movement has been due to demographics, economics and the simple inevitability of leaders aging and dying, and it's far too early to declare the Iraq operation a definitive success or failure.

Update: I've just read an editorial that takes quite a similar line to me; obviously this proves nothing but it's nice to see someone who knows more than me about international relations seeming to agree. I also forgot to mention Ukraine and Georgia. I don't think the US can take much credit for the peaceful revolutions in both of those countries when it is so happy to indulge Putin and Putin so clearly opposed them at the start, and at the same time I think those events must also have had some impact on popular sentiment in the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Egypt.
posted @ 7:55 AM -

Monday, March 14

Where I've Been

I've been a blog slacker lately, haven't I? In my defence, I've been either busy or out of the country for all of that time, so here's a quick round-up of what I've been doing:
  • My parents and Melinda's parents came to Cleveland to meet each other. It all went pretty well, and was a fun weekend, but it kept us busy and of course we were both nervous beforehand.
  • I wasted a few days trying to write a simple visualiser for my main current project, before deciding to shelve that part of the task and come back to it when I have less on.
  • I got the main functional parts of the program working in time to run some long tests over Spring Break, which was cool but it came at the expense of doing basically anything else over the course of a couple of weeks.
  • For Spring Break (which was last week) I went skiing. The conditions were probably the worst I've experienced in 4 winter heliski trips, but it was still a lot of fun. Just being out in the middle of nowhere is a wonderful experience, and poor snow by heliski standards still amounts to plenty of OK skiing. Of course I'll be posting more photos from there over the coming week or two.
  • Today I had the privilege of not only going to a gigantic lecture (Severance Hall was at least 90% full) by Steven Pinker, but also being in a small round-table discussion with him. I'm always wary of these widely-trumpeted events with 'stars' of the field, because they are often overhyped and the people often seem arrogant and remote, but this was a very interesting afternoon. I'll write more about what he had to say another afternoon, but basically I felt that he was playing the right kind of role for a popular science writer, aggregating information from a pretty broad base of research, and drawing it together in an intelligible big picture. I was also very pleased to learn that next year's invited speaker will be Jared Diamond.
  • I'm pretty much on schedule with my deadlines, though I do still have plenty to do in the next 3 weeks, and on that note it's time I got away from a computer.
posted @ 7:49 PM -
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