Saturday, 31 December 2011

The funeral of Kim Jong Il

We have all seen the pictures of a grey snowy Pyongyang, the car with the the oversize portrait and the following car with the absurdly oversize wreath of white roses, the wailing crowds, the serried ranks of soldiers bowing in respect, and the son leading the funeral car by holding the mirror, as if leading a horse.

At first it seemed merely to show how far the world has come in the last twenty years - for those of us who grew up in the cold war, the funerals of dead dictators in distant cities formed part of the backdrop of our lives. The funeral seemed like a throwback to the time of Brezhnev and Mao.

But the other thing is how Confucian it was. The white roses and chrysanthemums. The wailing crowds - in Shanghai you can still hire professional wailers - and the funeral walk. Not the death of a communist leader more like the choreographed funeral of some past emperor from an earlier time ...

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Saturnalia and solstices and other celebrations

As I'm sure you've noticed, today's the solstice, and in another three days we're going to have another sort of celebration.

If you've ever wondered about the three day offset, I've a post on it over on one of my other blogs.

However, if you're one of my the regular readers, or even if you've just happened by, compliments of the season, and to quote a Bangkok cabbie a couple of years ago, 'happy jingle balls!'

Monday, 19 December 2011

Kim Jong Il and the war of 1905

Today’s reports of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the subsequent uncertainty are the latest in a chain of events that started with the Russo Japanese war of 1905. Given the the events in the lead up to 1905 one could make a plausible argument it started earlier, but 1905 will do

One of the key learnings of that war for Russia was just how fragile the Russian hold on Primorye and the  strategic port of Vladivostok. If the war had gone on longer they could have concievably lost Vladivostok as well as losing warm water access at Dalian.

That learning was reinforced during the Russian civil war when the West, along with Japan, attempted to sustain a viable puppet government in Siberia, based first of all on the Menshevik SR rump government in Omsk, and later by engineering a coup by Admiral Kolchak against the Omsk government to ensure that there was no rapprochement with the Bolsheviks.

Japan, which had occupied Korea in 1910, devoted 70,000 soldiers in support of the west, and clearly hoped to  play a significant role in any rump Siberian state.
Under pressure from the west, Japan withdrew in 1918, but  events in Manchuria showed, Japan still retained ambitions to expand beyond Korea.
The Russians also realised this, retaining control of the rail line to Vladivostok via - Harbin as long as possible, and indeed by not risking a war with Japan until 1945 after victory with Germany was secure.

It was into this context that Kim Jong-il was born, most probably at a Soviet army camp in Eastern Siberia, in 1941,where his father, Kim il Sung was being groomed to lead  a Soviet puppet state in Korea. The date is significant – already by 1941 the USSR was planning for a war in Manchuria and Korea, and before Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Darwin.

While the Japanese Communist party was a significant force in post war Japan, and Stalin may have entertained hopes of proSoviet government in Japan, Kim il Sung and the DPRK was a backup plan to ensure the security of Primorye, Vladivostok and access to the mineral resources of Eastern Siberia. The last thing Russia wanted a pro US state in Korea.

By 1949 it was clear that there would be no socialist revolution in Japan, and that the DPRK route was going to be the only way of establishing a friendly buffer state on the Korean peninsula.

Later, after the Sino Soviet split the DPRK had an even greater value to the USSR as a means of protecting Primorye from the Maoists, especially after the government of China began to claim that Primorye had been unequally and unfairly annexed by the Russian empire from the Qing state.

What the Buryat or the Evenk or other tribal peoples inhabiting the area thought was of course ignored, as were the wishes of the vast majority of Koreans.

However such was the strategic value to the USSR of the DPRK that it even managed to acheive a degree of East German style prosperity, and was possibly even a little richer than South Korea during the seventies.

Of course, when the Soviet Union came apart the DPRK lost its major backer, but it struggled on, perhaps on the odd crumb of aid from Russia as the strategic imperatives remained the same, even if the flags and slogans remained the same.

It’s no surprise that Kim’s last foreign foray was to meet Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan Ude.

Korea is a hostage of geography and its recent political history a result of this hostage-dom. With Kim’s demise there is the possibilty of change, but to a large extent it will depend on the ability of the army to manage change and for Russia to resist the urge to meddle and pursue its own strategic objectives ….

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A fantasy on the genitive plural

For those of you following my Russian strand, I've just added a little bit of creative writing about the genitive plural  to one of my other blogs ...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

2011 - what worked

For the last couple of years I've done a 'what worked'  personal technology review at the end of the calendar year. Like the Inca new year it's now a tradition on this blog - here's the view for 2011

Evernote has turned out to be the real success of 2011. Accessible from tablets and phones running iOs or Android, and from Macs and Windows natively, with a web client for everything else it has turned out to be incredibly useful. Notes, web clippings, invoices for tax purposes, contracts, all sorts of work stuff and personal research material, it handles it all.
One Note was good but was hobbled by a poor web client and lack of true multiplatform capability

I changed over Chrome as Firefox seemed to have chronic memory leaks. I have used Firefox since but Chrome delivers, and the silent background updating means that bugs and issues are fixed quickly and silently

The best $285 I've spent in a long time. Truly game changing in that working with a tablet means working with a truly portable device, one that can be used from the sofa, bed, the kitchen bench, basically everywhere within wi-fi reach, and also it socialises the experience.
It's telling that J, who tends to be a technology refusenik wants one of her own (this time a Lenovo IdeaPad)  for compiling teaching materials via evernote, and general web based research. It'll be interesting to report next year how the experience went ...

Still delivering...


I was a 
really reluctant convert to Windows 7. Having been a Linux and OS X user for years I felt kind of dirty going back to Microsoft. But, it's like driving a Holden - they're pretty good these days, and kind of fun ...

Cloud services

Windows Live SkydriveGoogle Docs, all these services that let you create, maintain and store documents remotely have really helped this year, making it easy to build and maintain a portfolio of working documents and backgrounders on line and accessible from anywhere. Coupled with One Note and wikidot, invaluable.

Cooler e-reader

still wonderful, light and versatile with wonderful battery life

Asus Netbook

Still good, and as both using as a tool to catalogue books and
our trip to Thailand  showed, light weight, reliable, versatile, and coupled with cloud services. highly effective

Dropping off....

Given I used to be such an evangelist for Linux I've hardly used it this year apart from a couple of vm's now and then. Ubuntu's move to Unity hasn't helped but them I'm finding I can do everything I want on Windows 7 or my tablet computer ...

Again, ashamed to admit it but the Open Office/Libre Office split and Oracle's shenanigans have ended up with me increasingly using Office 2010, with Skydrive for document portability, and Google Docs for anywhere anytime document creation, no matter which computer I use

Monday, 12 December 2011

dem stones, dem stones, dem dry stones …

I had trouble sleeping last night, and about three in the morning one’s mind starts to wander and I got to thinking about the Archepiscopal Museum in Ravenna, or more accurately about a collection of inscriptions that they have there, that irritatingly they won’t let you photograph.
Ravenna was of course the seat of the last Emperors of the West, of various Ostrogothic kings and later of the Byzantine exarchate of Italy, and was one of the wealthiest cities in Medieval and early Renaissance Italy.
I’ve previously written how the current Renaissance exhibition at the NGA allows you to track the evolution of technique and of art from a purely devotional activity to a rather more secular one.
So with the museum in Ravenna which we visited last year on our trip to Europe – or it could if they organised the display of inscriptions.
The late Roman and Ostrogothic ones are beautifully carved and the letters are well set out. The Byzantine ones perhaps less so but still pass muster. Lombard ones from the ninth and tenth centuries are increasingly crude, badly set out, letters crammed together when the stonemason ran out of space etc etc.
And then the miracle. One can see culture returning. The inscriptions get clearer again and better set out.
And when I saw that collection of inscriptions I thought ‘you could make an online exhibition of this’.
But as I said they wouldn’t let you photograph them. I’ve tried mining Flickr for open source/creative commons licenced examples, but no, it’s clear that photographing Ostrogothic inscriptions is not the first thing people think of doing when on an Italian holiday.
So I’m afraid that the online exhibition will have to remain in my mind, as I designed it in the wee small hours, but should you go to the Archepiscopal museum in Ravenna, be sure to look at the collection of inscriptions and see what story it tells you ….

Russian spam

One of the side effect of being interested in Russian history is its effect on the spam you get.

In among the usual invitations to enhance the dimensions of one's penis, have longer harder erections etc (does anyone else think that these say something about the sexual insecurities of the American male - I've never given it much thought despite a happy and fulfilled sex life) comes the Russian spam - from the trite 'hello my name is Elena and I want to chat' to the bizarrely confronting 'hello I am your hot Russian pussy', sometimes in English, sometimes in Russian, often accompanied by pictures young physical looking women in serious danger of hypothermia, to the plain odd - the advert for a mig welding kit accompanied by the obligatory young and clothing challenged woman , or offers for sets of (overpriced) spanners.

Normally of course, all this goes into the spam sump and is deleted, but sometimes one sneaks through, or I  happen accross it while checking the spam sump's contents for a missing email - usually one from some supplier that includes some advertising blurb - things like the email from the credit card company telling you that your statement is available for download, which has a pile of advertising included - the 'buy more shit at Christmas' meme

But I digress. The English language spam from Russia, or more properly the former USSR is just that on the whole, spam selling sexual titillation to the lonely and inadequate.

The Russian language spam is different - is it aimed at Russians living abroad, or does it tell us something about life in Russia today, its insecurities or its inadequacies. Or indeed plain old fashioned sexism where Marya still needs to get her kit off to sell welding rods ..

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Renaissance–pictures from the Accademia Carrara

This year’s major summer exhibition at the NGA is Renaissance – pictures from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo.

I guess the first response is ‘Where?’ – in fact the Accademia Carrara has a good, if obscure collection of works from the late Medieaval onwards through the Renaissance and it was this collection that has been mined for the current exhibition – starting with late medieval devotional works that – while more stereotypes and individualistic than Byzantine works of the same period show the same stilted repetitive composition – here’s St Peter – don’t worry he looks the same as St George, you can tell them apart one has a big gold key and the other a sword.

Iconography to tell the stories to the people by the use of standard set of images. But behind the seemingly similar images you can see signs of change – a crucifixion that might almost have been drawn by Goya – portraits of young men that start to look like people rather than stereotypes.

You see a similar effect in the Madonna paintings. The Madonna moves from this stereotypical image to a much more individualistic pictures of a real woman with a real child. Now personally my reaction to Madonna paintings en masse is ‘God! not another bloody virgin Mary’, but put together as they are you can trace the evolution of style, of individualism, as well as the gradual improvement in technique

There are two other things that are interesting – first of all the exhibition covers the change from painting in tempera on smooth wooden boards – as in Byzantine icons, to canvas as in modern oil paintings with oil based paints, which allows more fluidity and larger paintings.

The other is the change from purely devotional art to the development of secular portraiture, first by the inclusion of pictures of the sponsors of the works in devotional paintings to portraits in their own right – saying ‘here I am, look at me’ such as in the portrait of Giovanni Bendetto Caravaggi, Rector of Padua University, which is most definitely all about saying how important a scholar Giovanni Caravaggi was.

The change in technique from board to canvas and the development of secular portraiture is neatly brought together at the end of the exhibition with two full length portraits by Giovanni Moroni that could easily pass as Dutch old masters. Comparing these with the first, late medieval,  paintings in the exhibition shows just how far art travelled during the Renaissance.

The exhibition is on from now until Easter. Being members we went to the members private viewing on the opening night. Like the exhibition a couple of years ago of paintings from the Musee d’Orsay the NGA had managed to get access to the paintings due to restoration work back home.

Unlike the opening night of the Musee d’Orsay exhibition, there were no frightening haircuts or beards on show – perhaps because the exhibition this time required a serious interest in art history. Of course there were those there  who were there to be seen but make no mistake – this is a serious exhibition – not intellectually easy but definitely rewarding.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

All the Ways are open [Review]

Annemarie Schwarzenbach // All the Ways are Open // Seagull Books // translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This is not a travel book. It purports to be but it is not, instead it is a set of highly impressionistic pieces by Annemarie Schwarzenbach recounting experiences during her journey to Afghanistan in a 18HP Ford with Ella Maillart.

Ella Maillart published her own account of the journey as the Cruel Way, a book that is much more a travel book in much the same way that Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana is a travel book.

That said Schwarzenbach’s book is enjoyable, in no small part due to the polished translation, Its impressionistic nature adds rather than detracts to its charm, giving glimpses of a more innocent world now vanished.

And that is its value – not as a travel book but as a portrait of a world that was ….

Thursday, 1 December 2011

3 months with a zPad

as I’ve previously mentioned on several occasions I bought myself a no name Chinese made Android tablet roughly three months ago.
Since then I’ve used it fairly intensively and this is a fair summation of my experience:
  • Apples are not the only fruit. Tablets don’t have to automatically be iPads. The Android experience is pretty good.
  • The software ecology in Android isn’t quite so rich – there are quite a lot of iPad only apps out there, but everything you need for something resembling work and recreational stuffing around exists for Android.
  • You don’t need to pay $600 for a tablet experience. My tablet cost me just under $300 direct from an overseas wholesaler . Lenovo and Acer periodically have specials on tablets for around $350, which seems a fair price if you want some local support and a  device sourced from somewhere in Australia
  • You can type on a glass keyboard but if you’re  seriously taking  notes invest in a cheap bluetooth keyboard or use a netbook.
  • It's really good as a way of sharing images or handing to someone to show them a document or a web page
  • It would be really nice to be able to print …