Friday, August 31, 2007

Canadians in the Korean War

I post this purely because it amused me. I've been doing a bit of background research on the Canadian political debate over their presence currently in Afghanistan, but from time to time Google throws up something far more interesting than what you should be doing. This is a from a document about the experience of Canadian soldiers during the Korean War at the start of the 1950s. Life was pretty miserable, spending long periods of time in trenches in the freezing Korean winter:
The main meal of the day came at midnight, delivered in Dixies on the backs of Korean Service Corp soldiers. About three times a week the cooks dropped raw turkey legs into the boiling water in the Dixies and sent them to the front line. When they got to the soldiers, blood was still running from the legs. The cartons in which the turkey came were stamped "not for human consumption." Uneaten turkey was thrown into the barbed wire where the rats, much less fastidious than Canadian soldiers, feasted and multiplied.

Over the long nights the Chinese or North Koreans over loudspeaker from across no-man's-land frequently played sentimental songs. After a while a seductive female voice would say something like "American officers, American soldiers, this is not you war. Go home. A rich American capitalist is in Florida having turkey dinner with your wife, while you are in Korea freezing."

Asked how the propaganda affected him, one young soldier replied: "Not at all. First, I'm not American. Secondly, I'm not married. And thirdly, I don't want to eat any more damn turkey."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Do Americans know what bollocks are?

This somewhat unlikely question has been bothering me for some time. I have heard "bollocks" used as a description, or its great phrasal verb derivative "to bollocks-up", reasonably frequently on the US radio and podcasts I listen to. It was used again in Slate podcast I just listened to today ('paper' version here). Slate is sort of hip and wants to be down with the kids, so it might not be surprising if they use it, but considering most US radio I listen to is the sedate NPR, the US equivalent of BBC Radio 4, the use of bollocks seems quite jarring considering America's normal ultra-primness in public when it comes to just about any reference to the human body. It makes me wonder if it is just a phrase they have picked up from Brits but don't actually understand? Most linguistic trans-atlantic travel has been in the other direction, at least since the 17th century!

I would love to hear from any Americans on this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book review: "Pies and Prejudice" by Stuart Maconie

I’ve just finished reading Stuart Maconie’s “Pies and Prejudice: in Search of the North”. I grabbed it in WH Smiths at the ferry port in Dover as I was exiting England stage right last month. I bought it for a variety of reason. Firstly, I’ve always liked Maconie as a broadcaster, I knew as I read it I would have his dulcet Wigan tones in my head. Secondly, when I leave the UK I tend to get pangs of homesickness, so am willing to wade in some warm thoughts about a part of my homeland that I’m rather fond of. Thirdly, I had heard him talking about the book with Simon Mayo on FiveLive, and he had been recounting how he watched on Good Friday 2006, gobsmacked, “the Manchester Passion”: a reenactment of the resurrection of Christ, but moved to Piccadilly Gardens (for those not -ahem- lucky enough to have visited, this is a small square in the centre of Manchester, that serves as the central bus terminus and hangout for tramps, skaters, hoody-wearing wannabe-ganstas and other various riffraff). Additionally the glorious return of the saviour of man was accompanied by music by various great Manchester bands, of course culminating in the Stone Roses’ “I am the Resurrection”, although not before Tim Booth of James playing Judas got to sing the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. I’m really sorry I missed it, but having lived in Manchester, the cities audacity isn’t very surprising – after all, here’s a town that used a major terrorist attack as shortcut to some major urban regeneration. But anyway, that story alone made me want to read “Pies and Prejudice”. Indeed I’m listening to The Best of James as I write this in their hubristic honour.

It’s a nice book – laugh out loud funny in places – and reminiscent I think of Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Isle” in its affection for its subject. But it has a major flaw – its written for two audiences: Northerners who want to slap themselves on the back and say “aren’t we civilized these days even though we’ve kept our core values?” and Southerners (particularly Londoners) who basically think everything north of them is a bit crap and need telling. His first chapter is actually a tour of the South of England, just to show he knows that there is quite a bit diversity from the Essex wideboys to Devon shepherds, but there’s the thing: both Northerners and Southerners in their mutual sense of superiority totally forget the rest. I’ll leave the Scots and the Welsh to look after themselves, they’ve got their own governments after all, but the honour of the Midlands needs defending. Neither Northerners or Southerners know anything about the Midlands as a rule. They might be vaguely aware of Birmingham, but that will be about that. Having lived in Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and met people from all over the UK, it gets kind of dull hearing “so where are you from?”, “Worcestershire”, “Oh, right… errr… where exactly is that?” Don’t worry that Worcester is home to one of the finest cathedrals in Europe, or that Birmingham was the industrial centre of the world in the 19th century, or that Shropshire has some of the most beautiful rural scenery of anywhere in the UK, it’s the Midlands – who cares.

Northerners think they are hard done by because the London media types look down on them, but the defensiveness breeds its own superiority complex. My first move was from Worcestershire to Glasgow, hopping straight over “the North”. I know it’s the north of England, but when you look south from Scotland, all the bluff toughness over how cold and windy it is up/down there in “the North” looks a bit whiney. Moving to the second most northerly capital in the world, has only reinforced this view. Northerness is clearly a state of mind, rather than a geographical position, a point that Maconie makes well.

I’m still a bit suspicious of Yorkshire, they are far too much of a country for their own good, but as a whole the North of England is, if you avoid the chavs and scallies, a fine place. The CIA World Factbook entry on the UK describes it geographically as “mostly rugged hills and low mountains; level to rolling plains in east and southeast”. Most foreigners' image of England is based on the latter, but as all Northerners know, it is the former that really dominates, and that’s not just a state of mind. Take a drive up in the North Pennines, in its own way, it is a beautiful as anywhere in else Europe.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More meat product comedy adverts

In the past I have drawn the attention of my dear readers to just how much more fun and successful your life could be if you just ate more doner kebabs. Now in a similar vein, I would like to share with you these messages seen at a Danish motorway service station. Guys, are you trying your best to live up to the image of a sharply dressed successful young businessman? Busily heading between meetings whilst still trying to fit in time with your perfect family and great group of friends? How about finishing off that image with some ridiculously phallic shaped fast food?

Don't be silly - of course no one is going to laugh as you march confidently into your next appointment with your long, hot, steaming, sausage in hand!:

And lets just see that again in close up:

Tulip: possibly the world's silliest looking fast food.

How to spoil a perfectly good summer

Do a PhD.
What I should be enjoying

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"No Real Than You Are"?

(via the BBC)

A 2.5 mtr high Lego man washed up on a beach in Holland yesterday. What is his shirt trying to tell us? Legomen presumably have Danish as their mother tongue, so we can forgive him his mistakes in his English sloganeering, and just enjoy its crypticness.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book review: "God's Terrorists" by Charles Allen

It was the subtitle of this book that made me buy it - "The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of the Modern Jihad". I've been trying to understand more about modern Saudi political history, and how the official Wahhabi form of Islam in Saudi Arabia has produced both a very politically conservative form that is absolutely supportive of the Saudi monarchy and the Salafi-Jihadis who want the violent overthrow of the same royal family, and thought the book might have something to say on the background of this. I was to be disappointed.

"God's Terrorists" isn't a bad book, it's just 90% a different book to the one suggested by the cover. See the camels in the picture? And the head scarves? Doesn't that sort of suggest Arabia? But oddly this is a book about Imperial India. Allen is a respected historian of the Raj, and perhaps that should have been a clue, but I would say both the front cover and back cover blurb deliberately set out to suggest this is book about the roots of modern jihadi terrorism and not about Empire-era India. What the meat of the book is about is Muslim radicalism within British-India, generally known at the time as the "Hindustani Fanatics". This is a fascinating story in itself: the origins of this group were Indian Muslims who in the early 19th century had gone to Saudi Arabia and had been inspired by Wahhabi puritanicalism and brought their zeal back with them. They were somewhat involved in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but this was not a Muslim thing in particular with Hindu regiments mutinying as well. They fled India to hide out in the mountains of the North West frontier, bringing British and Indian-native forces into various skirmishes and minor wars with Pashtun tribes of the India/Afghanistan border regions. The Pashtuns didn't think much of the British invading their lands, but they didn't think much of the Wahhabis either, with the Imperial forces sometimes doing deals with them to drive the fanatics out - much like the current Pakistani government at times tries to do, co-opting the tribes against various foreign al-Qaeda groups.

This is all very interesting but really didn't have much to do with what was happening in Saudi Arabia at the time. In fact Allen notes that the Deobandi school of Islam, the specifically South Asian school that began in India in 1866, was set up in opposition to the Wahhabi inspired Hindustani fanatics (p.206-7). The Deobandi school has an important role to play in the development of Pakistani Islamism, and more globally because of the influence of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who along with Sayyid Qutb, was central to the development of modern Islamism. The Taliban are also described as Deobandi, although some say the claim is problematic.

There are some chapters that deal with Saudi Arabia, both the beginnings of the Wahhabi sect in 18th century and its more modern history, but they aren't anything I haven't read elsewhere and feel like a basic review of the known history, rather than an a fresh delve into primary sources - diaries, reports, statistical data - that Allen clearly has mastery of in the case of Raj-era India. Perfunctory would be the word. His descriptions of minor battles and skirmishes between the British and Indian Armies and the Pashtun tribesmen at the fag-end of the 19th century are well written military history. This is obviously Allen's 'thing', not Saudi Arabia. I'm pretty certain Allen had a book pretty much written just on Muslim radicalism during the Raj, but then his publishers suggested that if he gets the words al-Qaeda and Taliban in there a few times, and they put the word "terrorist" in the title, it would sell 20 times the amount that a military history of British Army skirmishes in the Hindu Kush a century ago. I bought it, so they were probably right. More fool me.

You will learn lots of things if you read this book. Just not what you expected.

Facebook vs. MySpace

Just a couple of months ago I entered with some trepidation the world of social networking sites by signing up to MySpace. After getting invites to be the friends of a few strange music acts I had never heard off (since I've also had some very thinly veiled invites to be someone's friend who is clearly trying to get people to click through to their porn site - "see the pictures MySpace won't let me share with you!"), seeing some truly terrible web design and generally not getting it - I blogged here: "What's the point of MySpace?"

I've found the answer now: there isn't any. I'm too posh for MySpace. Oddly, just days after blogging against MySpace, I got my first invite from a friend to join Facebook. Of course on signing up, it started spitting out numerous friends, past and present, mainly from universities I have studied at or old school friends. People I am actually interested in being in contact with.

So it was very interesting to hear on the ever excellent On the Media, an item on the class distinctions between MySpace and Facebook. It's not just high-school vs. university educated; in the military the enlisted men use MySpace and the officers use Facebook. The interesting essay that OTM has based their report on, notes that the US Army has now barred soldiers from accessing MySpace, but - unsuprisingly - not Facebook.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Life in Finland

Helsingin Sanomat International translates a rundown of the summer's news originally in their Finnish language monthly supplement, that had taken July off. It shouldn't be funny but is:
A lot has happened in Finland this summer, much of it while we were away. Firstly, at the beginning of June a 20-year-old man in Suomussalmi shot his sixteen-year-old former girlfriend and then himself. Then a 19-year-old man used a crossbow to kill two women of 22 years and 26 years of age while they slept in his apartment in Pori. And a 26-year-old man assaulted and killed a 50-year-old man at his home in Rauma. Another 26-year-old man killed a 45-year-old man on the victim's doorstep in Espoo, such that the victim's aged mother was a witness to the event.
And that's just the first paragraph. It goes on. And on.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Price transparency weirdness

One of the things that the introduction of the Euro means is that it is now much easier to compare prices across much of the EU when you are shopping - particularly internet shopping. Finland is clearly an expensive country, particularly as salaries are lower than the old EU member state average, whilst taxes are a bit higher than average. But sometimes you feel that some shops must just think we are just stupid. I've been looking at getting a digital SLR camera, the Canon EOS 400D is one that many recommend. Now obviously if you shop around you should be able to find the best price - but why would one company sell it at different prices in different countries? I've found the camera for sale on the site of a big trans-European electronics firm based in France, Pixmania, but I first saw it on their UK section. On the Canon is GBP 469, which is EUR 697.05. So then I looked at the Finnish bit of the site, where the camera is EUR 779. Strength of the pound allowing Japanese cameras to be bought with sterling for less or something like that, perhaps? Err... no, because if you buy it from the German bit of Pixmania site its only EUR 699.

What's up with that then? I could imagine that it might cost a bit more in postage to get it to Finland, but why should the base price for the same product be EUR 80 higher just so you can read the website page in a different language? Or maybe its because that product is selling locally in Finland for EUR 775 and they think Finns are too dumb to check outside of their home market? I haven't checked if the German bit of the site would ship to a Finnish address, the UK section only seemed to be for delivery within the UK - although I'm sure that must contravene some EU common market competition regulation...

Moan moan, and the government are making booze more expensive again, moan moan, and it'll be winter again soon.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Terrorism and failed states

I just love it when I'm right.

A couple of years ago it struck me that terrorists groups don't want to operate from failed states despite what we have heard from dozens of western politicians, military leaders and various 'experts' in the media. It's a point I've been trying to argue since. It is obvious really: failed states are awful places to live - ask a Somali refugee - and things don't work there and that includes for terrorists. Secondly when the government of a state fails, other governments stop respecting its sovereignty and feel free to intervene directly: in the early 1990s the Ethiopians repeatedly entered Somalia to kick the crap out of al-Ittihad al-Islami, a radical group they saw as threatening. After the genocide in Rwanda, the new Rwandan government repeatedly sent troops into the Congo to hunt down Interahamwe militias. Pre-9/11, al-Qaeda wasn't in Afghanistan because it had no government, it did - the Taliban was the de facto government. Bin Laden picked it because it had a government he could co-opt.

So I was chuffed to read in the executive summary of the newest report from West Point's excellent Combatting Terrorism Center the following:
Conventional wisdom suggests that Somalia, a failed state, would be an ideal safe haven for al-Qa’ida. Our analysis, however, indicates that weakly governed regions such as coastal Kenya, not failed states like Somalia, provide an environment more conducive to al-Qa’ida’s activities. In Somalia, al-Qa’ida’s members fell victim to many of the same challenges that plague Western interventions in the Horn. They were prone to extortion and betrayal, found themselves trapped in the middle of incomprehensible (to them) clan conflicts, faced suspicion from the indigenous population, had to overcome significant logistical constraints and were subject to the constant risk of Western military interdiction.
It's always great when the big boys agree with you. The whole report can be downloaded here, or look here at some of the other academically original and important work being done at the CTC.

An administration weaving all over the road

Most people know that President Bush got arrested for drink driving in his younger, more louche, pre-politics days. Indeed many journalists are arguing that Attorney General Gonzales only remains the attorney general, because he has always been Bush's personal lawyer and hence knows where the bodies are buried (not literally of course). So despite Alberto's first performance before the Congress back in the spring being compared by even a Republican to "clubbing a baby seal" (although let us note: the baby seals are innocent), he remains both the senior law enforcer in the United States and a national embarrassment. But whilst Bush's crimes are well known, I hadn't heard before that Dick Cheney had also been arrested for drink driving. Twice.

From Lexington in the week's Economist:
He found himself, in his early 20s, alone in a cell after his second arrest for drunk driving, wondering what to do with his life. (p.48)
There are many around the world who might wish he had sobered up before coming to his decision.