Written on the subway walls

My comments on the French election posters, which appeared in bulk last weekend with the formal beginning of the campaign, after which strict equal-access rules apply…

The ruling principle is the difference between those who want to be elected, and those for which the style of candidacy is most important.

Those who want to be elected are keen on getting votes, by the silliest means. Those who don’t expect – or seriously want – to be elected are keen to be seen to be doing politics how they wish it was done. Hence Sarko, Bayrou, Royal, and Le Pen’s posters are all centred on the candidate’s face, which is meant to convey their virtues but also their context.

For example, Sarkozy’s face appears, well-lit, from a darkened landscape, above his name and nothing else. Subtext – I am a leader without party, come to relieve our darkness. Join! Francois Bayrou’s is not that dissimilar, which should not really be surprising given that he thinks he really is without party, and that his party used to be more rightwing than Sarko’s as recently as 1994.

Ségoléne Royal’s face is inevitably the centre of hers, but what is this? Grainy, monochrome photography, with a block red masthead and italic, bold white Helvetica type. It looks like a 1970s leftwing paper’s front page from some demonstration, presumably intended to lend some revolutionary romance to her image (and herald a last-minute tack to the base?). More importantly, it’s easily the best-designed and most recognisable of the lot, rivalled only by…

Le Pen’s, which shows the man himself on stage, looking astonishingly like Ian Paisley. Like the Man Standing in the Gap Left By God, Le Pen’s political career is founded on his stage performance. Makes sense, and is at least legible. His far-right rival, Philippe de Villiers of the MPF, is a borderline case. No-one thinks he will get a significant vote, but he probably thinks he will. Notable is the odd look in his eyes – his party is very much the UKIP to Le Pen’s BNP, appealing to Catholic farmers rather than secular townies, and like them, he could well be described as a swivel-eyed loon.

The others know they won’t be elected, and have their explanations ready – the election system is against them, the media is controlled by the armaments industry, France needs a more deliberative system. So they are free to design as if everyone in the country would stop to read every word. Olivier Besancenot, Arlette Laguillier, and the risible Schivardi stuff theirs with reams of text, illegible without making a point of visiting every poster – which is what they wish you would do, and they choose to imagine a society where everyone would. Voynet’s just look like they were left over from last time out.

Tramp the Dirt Down

Somebody is worried that Slobodan Milosevic might escape from death. And so, they dug up his corpse and drove a stake through his heart.

Seriously. They really did it.

One might also want to read this.

Somewhere it’s always still the DDR

Who knew that there is a place that is forever East Germany? The fine Strange Maps posts a satellite image of Playa RDA, or DDR Beach, a 15 kilometre long by 500 metres wide sand spit on the southern coast of Cuba. On the 5th of June, 1972, Fidel Castro gave the sliver of land to the DDR during a state visit, renaming the island Isla Ernst Thälmann and the beach, Playa RDA. You can view it via Google Maps here.

Thälmann was the German Communist leader up to 1933, and was commemorated by a couple of other things, such as a German battalion in the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war. Later, a statue of him was erected on the island after a ceremony at which some hundred guests took part.

According to German Wikipedia, there was a serious point to all this. World trade in sugar was subject to a quota system at the time, and the transfer of the island was theoretically in exchange for an East German sugar refinery’s share of the European export market. No wonder the Cubans were pleased.

The island is in a Cuban military training area near the Bay of Pigs. Which makes me wonder, if during the late 1970s, when East German warships regularly sailed to African and South American ports, they ever visited it? And what is the communist equivalent of “15 men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho! and a bottle of rum!”?

Eurovision: The Quickening.

78 days until Eurovision.

This is the season for choosing national entrants. The deadline is March 13; every candidate will have picked an entrant by March 10. Only a few countries have already made their choice. So, over the next three weeks, millions of people in over 30 countries will be choosing their national representatives.

It’s awe-inspiring, really.

First thoughts on this year’s contest below the fold.
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The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.
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Premature Evaluation: Albion’s Seed

Why is America the way that it is?

Wrong question, the author of Albion’s Seed would say. America isn’t any one way, and hasn’t been since the very beginning of European, particularly English, colonization. David Hackett Fischer puts the core of his argument straight into his subtitle: Four British Folkways in America. He identifies four distinct migrations from Britain, and to a much lesser extent Ireland, that shaped American culture and regions down to the present day. These migrations were fairly coherent in origin, destination and religion. Understanding these origins will help understand cleavages in the contemporary United States, and it will help understand America as a whole.
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Taking Stock: Books

Best books I read in 2006?

In fiction, it would have to be most of the second half of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I read six in 2006 and the last two in early January 2007, and it’s a terrific body of work. Its acclaim and success need little boost from this blog, but I enjoyed and learned from the whole run. The only competition I’ve read in historical fiction is Dorothy Dunnett, with the Lymond and Niccolo series, plus her take on Macbeth.
Beyond the captain and his doctor, best from last year’s reading: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk, the best of his novels and a look at many sides of Islam, modernity and Europe; The Death of Achilles, by Boris Akunin, a witty and subversive detective series set in late Tsarist Russia, far fewer of which have been translated into English than into German, annoyingly enough; An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth, with its insight into the minds of musicians and a virtuoso book by an absurdly talented writer; and Accelerando, by Charles Stross, head-stretching science fiction for the early 21st century.

Over in non-fiction, I would start the list with: At Canaan’s Edge, by Taylor Branch, concludes his epic and riveting account of America in the era of Martin Luther King. Gripping writing, definitive research, passionate commitment, simply a great book. The other favorites from non-fiction also tend toward the long and the historical: The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, a mold-breaking history of Australia’s colonial period; The Prize, by Daniel Yergin, the history of the 20th century with oil as its central theme; A Writer at War, by Vasily Grossman, annotated stories from a Soviet journalist at the front lines of the Great Patriotic War; The Mission, by Dana Priest, on the militarization of American foreign policy; and The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart, a British ex-diplomat’s walk through central Afghanistan in the winter after the Taliban fell.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.
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Eurodemocracy and E-democracy

Nosemonkey suggests that the cross-European effort to make data on the CAP’s beneficiaries available might be an example of how a European demos could function. There’s more detail at Martin Stabe’s, and the searchable database is at Farmsubsidy.org.

I’m quite keen on this. Not so much because I’m sympathetic to the whole “lacking a European demos” debate – personally, I think it’s over-schematic and essentially useless – but because it’s an opening for a different kind of debate. Look at national demoses (I invite any classicists on board to correct this backformation) – do you really want another, bigger one? Even at the European national level, it’s a scene of highly formalised, big-media dominated, fact-light jousting. Look at the nearest ones in scale to a putative Euro-democracy: the US, with its sterile two-party dynamic and addiction to campaign funding, China and Russia (nuff said), India, with epic fractionalisation, corruption, and sporadic violence. Urgh.

But something like this, or for that matter MySociety’s various projects in the UK, offers the possibility of a more fact-driven debate, a reduced reliance on political parties, and greater oversight of the grey zone where the EU institutions and nonofficial bodies like the various cross-European business and labour groups and standardisation conferences intersect.

After all, why should (as Andrew Grice of the Independent suggested yesterday) the Liberal Democrats complain that other parties are stealing their ideas and putting them – gasp! – into practice. Only if you insist on the party as a tribe and a vehicle for self-advancement should this matter. A highly anti-liberal view, in my opinion.

Fine Brussels-based blog Kosmopolit is heading in the same direction, with a critique of Ségoléne Royal and referendums.

Brio and Open-Source Hardware

Intellectual property rights in technology. Great, aren’t they? Consider Brio, the middle-class fave range of wooden toys, whose manufacturers have neatly locked out competitors who want to make toys that will go with theirs by using couplings and fasteners that are proprietary and non-standard.

Elsewhere, on the NANOG (North American Network Operators’ Group) list, they discussed the thorny problem of cooling increasingly powerful servers and routers, and arrived at some consensus around using much more water cooling. Paul Vixie argued that in the future, rackmount equipment would have standard connectors for cool water in and warm water out, as it already has standard power connectors, USB ports, and RJ-45 Ethernet ports.

Cool idea! Naturally, there are already racks with water connectors, but inevitably they are proprietary and incompatible. Amusingly, someone pointed out that standard connectors and flexible pipes exist in the beer trade, which is a start. But what does intellectual property actually bring society? I know the standard arguments about the necessity of rewarding invention, but it’s very noticeable that a lot of innovation happens in the open-source world and in what you might call the non-patent space, among academic researchers and the like.

When Bell Labs invented the transistor, they didn’t try to enforce patents on it. Instead they published all their results in peer-reviewed journals and organised technical conferences to spread the knowledge. Perhaps the optimal solution isn’t to look for a total solution, but just to start pushing back the limits of the IP-sphere and see what happens, tolerating any anomalies? Again, seeing that the EU’s misbegotten software patents directive is now dead, this is something we could get started..