Turkmenbashi the Great

Well, he’s dead – Sapuramat Nizayov, or Turkmenbashi, the design classic Central Asian dictator. In 1985, when he was appointed first secretary of Turkmenistan by Mikhail Gorbachev, he must have seemed terribly normal – just another, formally Marxist but probably not very, formally Muslim but deeply russified, bureaucrat like so many others.

There were many like him, but this one was special. Having succeeded to the title of president of an independent nation, he unfurled like a black flower into a genuinely bizarre and vicious tyrant, someone who had far more in common with the Soviet Union of 1935 than 1985. He started out believing he had to create a national identity for Turkmenistan, but pretty soon this goal became indistinguishable from the creation of a Stalin-like personality cult that got more and more bizarre with time.

Everyone knows their favourite bits of Turkmenbashi – renaming the months, the ice palace – but it’s probably more interesting to wonder why.
Continue reading

An unintended consequence

Recently I was sent a lavish document celebrating 50 years of mobile telephony, by a large Swedish company – well, obviously, Ericsson. 50 years? you say. Well, AT&T offered a primitive service in 1946, in which quite simply you called an operator and they would ask on a common radio frequency for the subscriber desired, then, should they answer, patch you into the radio circuit. It was crude, insecure (everyone could hear), clumsy (you had to know where the called party was), relied on manual operation, but it was mobile telephony of a sort.

The theoretical principles of cellular radio were discovered in 1948 at Bell Labs, but would have to wait 30 years for electronics to progress far enough to make them practical. So how did Swedish public housing help to make it happen?
Continue reading

Your Holiday Assignment

This is usually Crooked Timber‘s turf, but I might as well deliver the good news to the masses here: the much-awaited annual King William’s College General Knowledge Paper, aka the most difficult quiz in the world, is now online (pdf).

Readers are invited to spoil the “fun” for all the others by posting answers in comments. I think I found half a dozen out of 180 on a first, googleless sitting, one because the question (18.10) was -uncharacteristically- a gimme, two others by unfairly taking advantage of my Frenchness (hey, it’s got to help sometimes) and a few more because section 3 is really full of low-hanging fruits. The rest looks much harder, though.

Addendum (12/23) : C’mon people, everybody loves quizzes, right? If it is the .pdf file that bothers you, here is the quiz in convenient html form on The Guardian website. And remember that “scire ubi aliquid invenire possis ea demummaximapars eruditionis est“.

Centipedes of the 21st Century

Bruce Sterling gives the canonical definition of a “centipede,” a new approach to political scandalmongering, probably coming soon to a polity near you. Unless you’re in India, Greece, Poland, Indonesia, South Africa, the UK or the USA, in which they’ve already arrived.

Basically, a centipede is an attempt to drive a politician from power by creating a moral panic. “Centipedes are a cheap, highly effective, low-risk, highly-mediated method of political destabilization. Centipedes are new phenomena because the barriers-to-entry in media have crashed. This means that subversive efforts formerly isolated and punished as libel, slander and whispering campaigns can swiftly take on avalanche proportions. While pretending to be about spontaneous indignation and moral values, centipedes are coolly calculated and all about power. … I named them ‘centipedes’ because they are segmented, covert, and poisonous.”

He also details their common characteristics. They’ll probably be increasingly recognizable.

La Febbre

A couple of weeks back I had the pleasure of seeing Alessandro D’Alatri’s recent film La Febbre (Fever). As the reviewer says (Italian link), this is a ‘normal’ (everyday) film, not a great one, even if it does include one or two memorable moments, like the scenes shot along the river bank, which were (and I imagine this is not entirely unintentional) rather reminiscent of some which are to be found in the unforgettable L’Albero Degli Zoccoli from that giant of Italian cinema Ermanno Olmi.

La Febbre è il classico film italiano, che vuol raccontare una storia normale, di tutti i giorni, e che per farlo non trascende dai canoni della buona creanza del plot, e da quel pizzico di amara critica sociale che lo rende molto politically correct.”

(La Febbre (the fever) is a typical Italian film, the kind of film which tries to tell a simple, ‘normal’ story – an everyday one – and which in order to do this stays well within the bounds of what is normally thought to be an acceptable plot structure, and then, following the recipe, there is added just enough social criticism to make the film a highly politically correct one.)

My point of interest in this post, however, is not really the film itself, but rather the film as a reflection of something else: the disenchantment and frustration that many young Italians seem to feel with contemporary Italian society, and the impact that the evident failure of Italian civil society to adjust to Italy’s contemporary social and demographic reality may have on the future evolution of Italian economy and society.
Continue reading