Bad Google! Naughty Google!

This is interesting; apparently The Complete Review has fallen foul of Google’s revised search algorithm:

Apparently the complete review is exactly the kind of “low-quality site” that is “just not very useful” they were targeting, as search result positions have plummeted for most of the review-pages at the site.

I do have some sympathy with Google; providing good search results would be a very difficult problem even if there weren’t a lot of people trying to game the system. But The Complete Review, far from being a content farm, is one of the best literary resources on the web, particularly for translated literature. So the system is not working properly in this case.

The problem is that Google provides such a huge chunk of all traffic around the web, so anyone who runs a website is at their mercy. And while they don’t seem to abuse their position too much — they seem to approach the business of providing search results in an honest and well-meaning way — they still have a great deal of power and no accountability.

Decline & Fall by Chris Mullin

Decline & Fall is the second volume of Mullin’s diaries, which I bought on a whim to read on my phone without having read the first volume. The first volume was about life as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government; this one starts with him being sacked after the 2005 election, and so is about being a backbench MP in the last five years of the Blair/Brown government.

It probably would have made more sense to read the first volume first, but I enjoyed this anyway; because he never had a senior job in government, he’s just enough of an outsider to provide a clear-eyed account of life in the Westminster bubble. I might have to read the first volume, now.

And, incidentally, the fact it’s a diary made it well suited to reading on a small screen. Short entries mean you can easily dip in and out of it.

» The picture is of a design for fabric for a roller blind for the Houses of Parliament by Augustus Pugin, from the V&A.

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The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

The King of Kahel is my book from Guinea for the Read The World challenge. It is the first book printed by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s own publishing imprint specialising in translated literature. They say ‘AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites to identify exceptional works that deserve a wider, global audience.’ So this book was presumably picked up because it was a big hit in French.

It’s rather unusual among all the post-colonial literature I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, because the hero is a European colonialist. Specifically, it’s about Olivier de Sanderval, a real person, a man from a wealthy family of provincial French industrialists who did some exploring in what is now Guinea and wanted to set himself up as an African king.

And he’s not just the hero in the narrow sense of being the central character; it is very much his story and he is presented as a sympathetic character.

It’s always interesting to have your expectations confounded, if only because it reveals what those expectations are. Because there’s nothing terribly radical about this novel. If it had been written by a white French novelist I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; Monénembo has lived in France for nearly 40 years; and yet I was in fact surprised.

That aside, this is an enjoyable if unexceptional literary novel. It is light and cheery in tone; the back cover claims that ‘Monénembo has created nothing short of a jovial Heart of Darkness‘, which is about as baffling a description as I’ve ever encountered. The book reads to me like a playful re-imagining of history, so I assumed it was only based lightly on the historical Sanderval. Apparently, though, Monénembo did a lot of research and had access to the Sanderval family archives, so there may be more history in it than I realised… perhaps if I’d realised that I would have enjoyed it more. Or maybe I’d rather have read a straight biography.

As an example the book being unexpectedly accurate, Google found me these pictures: the two sides of a real coin produced by the real Olivier de Sanderval to serve as currency for his kingdom of Kahel. The Arabic script reads ‘Sanderval’. Which is sort of amazing, actually.

Egypt, Libya, foreign policy and honesty

I have been following events in north Africa closely, both via the usual media outlets and Twitter (see, for example, Andy Carvin’s one-man newswire for all the latest rumours swirling around). But I haven’t said much about it on this blog because, well, it’s a complicated subject of which I am ignorant.

It has often been enthralling, even so. The spread of protests from country to country, the ebb and flow between protestors and their governments: at times like this, live round-the-clock news coverage actually makes sense. Egypt had almost the perfect revolution for a spectator; large photogenic crowds, plenty of reporters on the scene, a hint of euphoria, a frisson of danger to add some spice, and not, in the end, too many casualties. Libya has been a darker experience; the more brutal response by the regime and the effective news blackout just producing a swirl of horrifying but unconfirmed rumours swirling around on Twitter.

There have already been some extraordinary moments, like the Wael Ghonim interview,or the incredible celebrations in Tahrir Square after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Or last night’s speech from Saif Gaddafi, which was so weirdly rambling and unfocussed that the conspiracy theory, that he was just buying time for his father to flee the country, almost seems like a plausible explanation.

And it has been making me think about the way we talk about foreign policy. Because when a popular revolution peacefully overthrows the dictator of a brutal autocratic police state with a habit of torturing its own citizens, it would be nice to be on the side of the protesters. Which makes it slightly awkward that our governments have spent decades supporting the dictator. And it’s not just Hosni Mubarak; it’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia; even Gaddafi had managed to rebrand himself from mortal enemy of the West to someone we can do business with. And there’s the awkward fact that we supported Saddam Hussein until it stopped being convenient. At least we can say we definitely don’t support the Iranian theocracy… but then that did come into being after a popular revolution against a brutal dictator who, almost inevitably, was someone we did support.

The deeply murky nature of our foreign policy is hardly news, of course. What I find so frustrating is the way that we talk about it, the way that governments feel the need to gloss over all the unpleasant details right up until the moment when the regime falls, and we are shocked, shocked to discover that Hosni Mubarak was a revolting dictator all along.

It would just be refreshing sometimes to hear a politician stand up explicitly spell out the logic:

Yes, we know that in supporting Hosni Mubarak we are propping up a brutal police state. But look around at the other countries in the region: Sudan has had decades of civil war and genocide. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Somalia is a failed state. Libya and Iran are even more repressive states and supporters of terrorism. Yemen serves as a base for Al-Qaeda. And so on. So we take the position, on balance, that supporting a nasty dictator is a reasonable trade-off for decades of stability and no war with Israel.

Because that argument may be right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think it’s even outrageously cynical. Because foreign policy is a fairly blunt instrument. Mubarak’s regime might not have been our ideal choice for the kind of government Egypt should have, but then we don’t really get to choose. We certainly don’t get to control the internal policies of the country; all we can do, presumably, is to look at the government in place, weigh up the possible alternatives, and decide to support them or not.

Of course it’s a bit more nuanced than that — there are different degrees of support, there are various pressures we can apply — but short of invading, which is hardly a panacea, we’re pretty limited in what we can do. Foreign policy has to be deeply pragmatic because the range of choices is so limited.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to be horribly cynical, although it clearly often is. It’s just difficult. Even if you don’t allow self-interest to trump human rights. Even if your only concern was the well-being of the people of north Africa and the middle east, you’d still probably end up supporting a few dictators. But it would just be nice if politicians would be a bit more open about it, a bit more explicit about the bargains they are making. A bit less diplomatic, in fact.

» Demonstrators Praying and Riot Police and People Should Not Be Afraid of Their Governments, Governments Should Be Afraid of Their People are © Ramy Raoof and used under a CC by licence. The shot of protestors in Tahrir Square in from Al-Jazeera.

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The Sands of Oxus by Sadriddin Aini

The Sands of Oxus is my book from Tajikistan for the Read The World challenge. Which is a bit of a cheat, in fact. Aini’s Tajikistan credentials would seem to be impeccable: according to Wikipedia, he is ‘regarded as Tajikistan’s national poet’. He wrote the first Tajik novels and a Tajik dictionary. He was a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Tajik SSR, the president of the Writer’s Union of Tajikistan, and the president of the Tajikistan Academy of Sciences. However, rather annoyingly for my purposes, he didn’t actually live there. He was born, and spent his whole life, in what is now Uzbekistan. He was ethnically Tajik, but not geographically.

This seems rather typical of Central Asia; my book from Uzbekistan, The Railway, was written by someone who was actually born in Kyrgyzstan. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan, but it’s set in Kazakhstan. I guess it’s partially because the Silk Road historically created a mixed, mobile population; and more recently because it was all part of the Soviet Union, and people moved from one SSR to another for all kinds of reasons, sometimes by choice and sometimes under duress.

If I come across a book which is a more perfect fit for Tajikistan, I might read that as well, I suppose. But The Sands of Oxus will do for now. It is the first volume of Aini’s autobiography; it covers his childhood in rural Uzbekistan — in what was then (1878-90) the Emirate of Bukhara. The book ends with him leaving to study at a madrasa at the age of twelve.

It’s a straightforward chronological autobiography told, at least in this translation, in fairly plain prose, but I found it very interesting; mainly for what you might call historical/ethnological reasons. It’s a vivid portrayal of life in a small village in Central Asia in the 1880s; the farming, the food, the customs. It’s occasionally a bit didactic — there are a few incidents which carry a suspiciously neat message — but not annoyingly so. The broadly political stuff, about venal magistrates, ignorant village mullahs, ruthless tax collectors and the arrogant aristocracy, might I suppose be influenced by his revolutionary politics as an adult and indeed the fact he was writing in Stalin’s USSR. Not that any of it is inherently implausible.

Reading it, it seems like an incredibly timeless world: the cycle of planting and harvest, Ramadan, a summer festival, circumcisions, marriages, funerals. There is no mention of any modern technology at all, not even the telegraph or the steam engine. It must have already seemed ancient by the time this book was written in 1949.

Here’s a fairly random sample:

Each year when the mulberries began to ripen, my father used to move us from Mahallayi Bolo to Soktaré. The year that the Shofirkom canal was choked with sand and Mahallayi Bolo was left without water, we moved to Soktaré early, even before the mulberries began to fruit.

In Soktaré my brother and Sayid-Akbar Khoka began to study with the village khatib, and I played in the many streams and canals with other boys my age. My father decided not to move back to Mahallayi Bolo that winter, since drinking water was scarce there and had to be drawn from a village well and carried to the house. Accordingly, he demolished our tumbledown living quarters and built a new house of mud brick, with a storeroom, a kitchen porch, a cattle stall and a barn for hay. Usto Khoja assisted him with the construction, and Ikrom Khoja and Muhyiddin helped as far as they could in mixing the mud; but despite his father’s pestering, Sayid-Akbar refused to help, claiming that he wanted to be a calligrapher and if he soiled his hands with mud and bricks they would be spoiled for the pen.

That year I and my playmates Haid Khoja, the nephew of Ibrohim Khoja, and the daughters of Usto Khoja, spent most of our spare time with Tūto-posho, who would tell us strange and wonderful tales. She knew by heart the stories of Rustam, Isfandiyar, Siyavush, and Abu Muslim, and would repeat them for us endlessly. We would each bring her bread, mulberry raisins, or some other delicacy to entice her to talk. She would lie back with pillows under her head and legs, and tell us stories.

Certainly worth a read.

» The images are two sides of a 5000 tenga note from Bukhara in 1920. So the period isn’t quite right, but I like the pictures, so why not. From the British Museum.

Yes to AV.

Just a quick pointer to a couple of my blog posts from last year’s election: ‘First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us’. And the follow-up: ‘FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)’.

I would actually favour some kind of proportional representation — this one seems quite ingenious — but at least AV would be an improvement, because it would, I think, effectively get rid of tactical voting.

Serious political geeks will explain that tactical voting is technically possible in an AV system; but it’s much more complicated. It’s quite difficult even to explain how it works. Unlike FPTP. In a FPTP election with more than two candidates, tactical voting is so completely obviously part of the system that people don’t even have to think of it as tactical: there is an obvious and clear incentive to vote for a less-favoured candidate who seems to have more chance of winning.

Under AV on the other hand, anyone who wants to do tactical voting is going to have to do detailed research into voting patterns in their constituency and some careful mathematical analysis of different possible outcomes in order to work out how to maximise the effect of their vote. I don’t think many people will do that, and if they do, well, good luck to them.

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Qatari Voices

Qatari Voices is an anthology edited by two people — Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar — who organise a writing workshop at a Qatar university, supported by a grant from the US State Department. And the book is essentially a result of that project.

So it is not a book put together by someone who, seeing a vibrant natural growth of Qatari writing, was excited enough to organise an anthology. It is a collection of undergraduate essays written by students who are actually studying engineering, or law, or medicine, or whatever. And I guess there’s no reason why an engineering student shouldn’t have a glittering prose style and a penetrating social insight… but, as it turns out, these ones don’t.

To be fair, whatever the purpose of this book is — which isn’t clear to me — it’s not something they were expecting random people halfway round the world to buy and read for pleasure. It’s not really appropriate to judge it by fierce literary standards.

And it isn’t completely without interest; you do get some sense of the whiplash speed of change in Qatar over the past 60 years, from a poor desert country of fishermen and pearl divers, where girls were expected to get married at about 14, to a fabulously oil-rich nation where women can study to be doctors. But although those changes make Qatar and the other Gulf states one of the most fascinating parts of the world at the moment, these essays do not have the kind of insight necessary to go beyond the obvious.

But it serves as a book from Qatar for the Read The World challenge, so it meets my requirements at least.

» WCMC-Q is a photo of West Cornell Medical College in Qatar. © vobios and used under a CC-by licence.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

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Reading on my phone

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was a free download from Apple as part of a Christmas promotion, and as such it’s the first full-length novel I have read on my iPhone. I’m almost as interested in the reading experience as the book itself.

The major conclusion is that the experience is at least good enough. The high-resolution display of the iPhone 4 makes a difference, I think, not least because you can set the type size as small as your eyesight can stand without compromising the readability.

Perhaps it’s not as immersive as a book; I find I need quiet to read these days more than I used to, but it’s especially true with the iPhone, I think, that I need good reading conditions to concentrate. I noticed a slightly increased tendency to find myself skipping a bit, a slight tendency to anticipate the end of the ‘page’ and go ahead without fully processing the last few words. It may be that I do that anyway, but that it’s more obvious when the pages are shorter. I think a bigger screen would be better as a reading experience, but it’s a great advantage not having to carry an extra device; the phone is ideal for snatching a few minutes of reading during the day.

As for the novel itself: I enjoyed it, but I can see why some people find it quite annoying. It is very high-concept and I don’t know that its cleverness manages to avoid being glib.