Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Russian and me

When I was six I wanted to be an archaeologist. I also wanted to be a train driver and an astronaut, but unlike the latter two the urge to be an archaeologist stayed with me.

I have no rational explanation for this, it just did.

No one around me - family, school or whatever - had much idea what an archaeologist did other than digging up old things - so wanting to be an archaeologist sort of turned into a fascination with late antique and early medieval history.

Now you would have expected that with that sort of interest somewhere alone the line I might have learned some Latin, some Greek, perhaps some old French and a bit of Old and Middle English.

Well no - while I can puzzle out a little Middle English and Old French, and on a good day manage a simple bit of Anglo Saxon, that's just what I've taught myself over the years. A smattering of random phrases and words. My Latin and Greek is even worse.

Never learned them you see.

Now this isn't because I'm a linguistic klutz, but rather because I'm not. I learned Russian as well as the more conventional French plus a bit of Spanish and German  on the side.

This was back in the cold war days, when the ability to speak Russian was a rare and useless accomplishment. We didn't talk to them and they didn't talk to us with the result that it really was a singularly useless accomplishment, unless you ended up working for Foreign Affairs, or some related agency and even then that probably meant sitting in a darkened room translating chunks of Izvestiya and Pravda and producing summaries on the implications of an upswing in tractor oil usage in Uzbekistan.

Or I could have become an academic - except that I'm not a literary type.

So I did something else.

But actually what studying Russian gave me was the same thing that studying classical languages gives some people - an entree into a strange alien half recognised world, which while their motivations may be the same the culture is different, they have different interests and interactions, and more interestingly the way a different society works (or not).

And strangely, like my love of archaeology this fascination with a now vanished world and its history has stayed with as in my recent post about Fanya Kaplan and Bruce Lockhart.

And the odd little stories - how during the civil war the SR leaning Siberian provisional government in Omsk tried to withdraw the Kerenskas - the paper rubles issued by the Kerensky government between March and October 1917 in favour of their own notes, and how the population refused to hand over their Kerenskas and accept the (probably worthless) Siberian rubles. (In case you're interested there's a vague mention of this in Dr Zhivago where Pasternak talks about people refusing the lemons,  the yellow banknotes issued by the Omsk government)

Or the role of the Japanese in the allied intervention in Vladivostok and the way that it really was a precursor to their expansion into Manchuria to gain access to additional resources.

Or the way that Vladivostok was an invented city - in 1860 it consisted of a few trapper's huts, yet by 1918 it was a respectable little city, even if it did lack a decent sewage system - something that reminded me of Seattle, which also started out as a little outpost clinging to a forested coast - it might even be interesting to do a 'compare and contrast' bit of analysis comparing the settlement of the American and Canadian Pacific North West with the Russian settlement of Primorye ...

Odd what fascinates people, isn't it ?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Photography update

A few weeks ago I blogged about my intent to try some good old fashioned wet film black and white work. At the time I said that I reckoned I could do the job for less than $200.

So far, sourcing via ebay, I'm well on track as this spreadsheet shows - just under $115 for the hardware. I'm assuming that I won't have access to a dark room, and as a consequence the change bag is a necessity for getting the film out of the cassette and into the developing tank.

That's why I went for a small format developing tank, and a film puller - while in the old days I just used to pop the end off the film cassette by brute force (or occasionally with the aid of a bottle opener) but I had the luxury of a dark room then with enough space to spread out.

Given that a change bag is kind of cramped inside I reckon that being able to retrieve the leader and then feed the film into the tank spool might be a better approach under the circumstances.

I obviously still need to source some developer and fixer plus a couple of measuring cylinders but I don't see that breaking the $200 budget. All costs are in Australian dollars, but at the moment costs are near enough 1:1 with the US dollar to make currency fluctuations irrelevant. If you'd prefer to see pounds just multiply all costs by 0.6 or 0.75 for euros.

The other interesting thing is that there is obviously a trade out there in wet film technology and film cameras ....

Monday, 28 November 2011

Who needs a landline?

Our landline died a couple of weeks ago, or more accurately, our analogue voice service did.

The ADSL service kept on working so we're not really sure when the analogue service died - I just happened to be sitting having breakfast one day and noticed that the phone base station said 'check landline'. So I did, and sure enough it was buggered with no dial tone.

Did the usual - unplugged everything, plugged in an old corded phone I keep in case of bushfires and the power going out, and definitely nothing. Plugged everything back in, logged into the phone company website and logged a fault.

After three separate visits, various phone calls, an occasion when they sent me an SMS saying the fault was fixed when it wasn't, they decided the fault must be on our side of the installation - possibly downstream of the ADSL filter/splitter that they installed to try and fix our ADSL dropouts.

All of this has taken about ten days so far. Some of it down to the phone company's inefficiency and miscommunication, and some of it down to procrastination on our part.

All this time we have had no analogue voice service. Have we noticed? No. We have our mobiles, we have a Skype account that lets us call landlines in Australia for free and landlines overseas for pennies.
We even have a cloud based fax service for dealing with those places (mostly overseas hotels and travel agencies) that need to to have credit card information faxed to them. Basically, while we're dependent on the ADSL service, the analogue service really doesn't matter any more,

Tellingly, at one point the phone company helpfully redirected our landline number to our Skype dial in number (this is a number that lets you call my Skype account as if it was a standard landline). tellingly we were not overwhelmed with voicemails - in fact we had exactly zero calls.

The only noticeable impact of not having a working landline is all the calls I've racked up dealing with the phone company - who to be fair have offered us a month's free line rental, which will probably offset the cost of these extra calls somewhat.

If it wasn't for the thought that we might have a creeping problem with our internal phone wiring, I'd be tempted to ignore the issue and leave the service permanently down.

However what it has proved is that the analogue service is basically irrelevant and we could happily move to a naked DSL only service. In fact the only reas we havn't is the attenuation and drop outs our ADSL service is prone to in the early evening due to it being basically overloaded ...

[update 01/12/2011]

We finally have a working landline - has only taken 17 days and 4 the last of whom we hired to check the cabling.

A Greek guy - described the efforts of the previous three as 'They bloody idiots' and fixed the problem in about 40 minutes after tracing it to a duff connector installed god knows how long ago and by whom, but which looked suspiciously like a Telstra style splice unit ...

Monday, 21 November 2011

KCL to open a Russian Studies Institute

Back in February 2010 I wrote a post commenting on the short sightedness of closing Paleography at KCL. In the post I suggested that it was just as short sighted as the wholesale closing of Russian faculties in the nineties.

The justification for closing Russian departments, departments of Slavic studies, departments of Soviet Studies etc was something along the lines of 'We've won the cold war, Russia is no longer a credible threat, we can't justify the investment', which of course really meant we can no longer get funding from the military and the spooks, and no one else will pay for it - oh yes and Russian is hard, no one will study it.

Well studying Russian is hard. I know, I studied it back in the cold war days. But Russia sits on a vast part of the world's mineral wealth, some of the central Asian successor states are rich in gas and oil, and have immense strategic significance. Just because the genitive plural is mind numbingly complex is no reason for not studying Russian. Just as the complexity of Chinese is no reason for not studying Chinese given the economic significance of China.

Russian companies own aluminium plants in Queensland, newspapers in London and god knows what else. Russia  also still  posesses a fairly serious military capability.  In other words Russia is economically and militarily significant and that means it's in our interests to know something about their language and culture, if only to negotiate more effectively with them.

Unfortunately the wholesale closing of Russian faculties means that the people who could conceivably have taught the mysteries of the genitive plural are now pursuing alteranative careers such as running market gardens in Queensland and the pool of expertise has largely been lost to academia.

So it was with a wry smile that I saw a report this morning that KCL was to establish a dedicated Russia Studies Institute. The wheel is coming full circle ...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Britain, Russia and Brest Litovsk

An interesting little conundrum here. On August 30, 1918, Fanya Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin.

To put this is context, this was some six weeks after the murder of the Tsar and his family in the Ipatiev house, and nearly six months after the signing of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, which settled the Eastern front in world war I.

What is less clear is the British role in all of this.

Immediately after the (post revolution/pre-treaty) ceasefire in the east British secret agents continued to organise partisan groups that sneaked across the ceasefire line in the Ukraine to harry the German and Austro Hungarian forces there, with the aim of continuing to tie down a substantial part of the German army which might be otherwise deployed to the Western front. It wasn't all one way - various Habsburg proteges such as Basil the Embroidered were involved in attempts to create new states in the west of Ukraine.

The British are also claimed to have tried to persuade the government of Russia to allow the transit of Japanese troops prior to Brest Litovsk to fight on the eastern front, and when initially it appeared that Trotsky was against a treaty with the Germans, to persuade the Russians to maintain at least a token force. They even sent a general, General Poole, to take command of the Czechoslovak legion with the aim of reinforcing the token Russian force in the east.

In short the British were afraid that a settlement in the east would allow Germany to move its forces west, and maybe finally achieve breakthrough on the western front. Which is exactly what Ludendorff  tried to do during the spring offensive in 1918.

All this came to naught. Lenin, fearing that continued involvement in a war with Germany, however token, would inevitably divert resources away from any internal conflict, and would mean that the Bolshevik government would have to compromise with other factions and have to form a more moderate coalition of the left leaning parties, forced through a pro-treaty motion in the Central committee, effectively overruling Trotsky and mandating him to make an agreement, however distasteful.

Enter Bruce Lockhart – alleged diplomat but clearly a British ‘black operations’ officer to advance the British position, and responsible for organising several plots, including one to rescue the Tsar.
Bruce Lockhart (his surname, not his full name) was arrested immediately after Fanya Kaplan’s failed assassination attempt. It’s clear that Bruce Lockhart and another British intelligence officer, Sidney Reilly had a more than passing involvement in the plot.

The question is – was the assassination attempt in revenge for the murder of the Tsar and his family, or more an attempt to remove Lenin in the hope that the ultra left Bolshevik faction would implode and a more moderate government emerge which would repudiate Brest Litovsk and again open hostilities in the east?

And was Britain’s earlier apparent lack of interest in a serious attempt to free the Tsar and the Imperial family because they expected other things to happen which would allow the Tsar to leave for exile, much as later happened for the Kaiser and Karl of Austria?

[by happenstance, when checking one of the background facts while correcting this post I happened across this article from the BBC, which gives an alternative but not dissimilar view]

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

daily life with the zPad

there's been a flurry of posts recently about how a quarter of iPad users hardly use them.

as someone who bought himself a no name Chinese android tablet a few months ago I thought I'd add my $0.02 about it.

First of all I do use it a lot - and I do mean a lot - so much so that the inkjet printed zPad name and banding information has worn off the back.

The way you use it is interesting - all these click and read operations - like email, like google reader, scanning the news on the BBC and Guardian apps, checking the weather, Twitter, all can be done from the lounge room or a chair on the deck, in a way that couldn't be done comfortably with a netbook or full size laptop.

Anything needing more than two lines of text to be written, photo editing, any vaguely serious work remains on a 'proper' computer.

In short, the tablet socializes computer use - just as in the same way reading the paper can be a social activity where one can engage with the cat, pass the device to one's partner if one finds something particularly interesting, wander into the kitchen with it.

I would however still take a netbook travelling in preference because of the convenience of having a keyboard and a set of editing tools, but certainly I could imagine taking the tablet travelling, and possibly a bluetooth keyboard is all that's needed to make the difference.

So, back to the quarter of iPad owners who never use it. The one question that doen't seem to be asked is their pattern of conventional computer use. Those of use locked into the great buzzing booming world of technology forget that there are a lot of people out there with fairly minimal computer skills and who only use a computer because  they want skype, they want a little bit of email and to deal with online banking and billing.

These people probably don't create or consume much in the way of content, nor do they feel the need to.  Just because they suddenly acquire a tablet are they not going to change their behaviour - people on the whole change when they need to, not when the potential exists

Monday, 14 November 2011

The war of 1911

When I blogged about the ‘Long War’ hypothesis I completely failed to mention the Italo Turkish war of 1911.

No excuse other than ignorance on my part as while it doesn’t alter the hypothesis that the first world war really started in the east with the Russo Japanese war of 1905, the war of 1911 uncannily predicts the first world war in the Middle East some five or six years later with the use of armoured cars and aircraft by the Italian forces and the use of native mujahadin levies on horseback by the Turks, led by a dashing commander – not Lawrence of Arabia, but one Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk.

And the Turks damned near won. Italy, which had decided that the Turks really shouldn’t be left to govern what is now Libya, and that the people of Libya would be much better off having the Italians as colonial masters (after all the world was made to be ruled by the European powers and France and Spain had divided Morocco between themselves a few years previously). The Turks, and the Libyans, had a different view and put up a fairly stiff resistance despite having no significant military presence in Libya. And despite their eventual defeat, the Turks learned that they could  European armies could be beaten.

The other side effect was that the Ottoman Turks learned early the value of military aircraft using them to some effect during the Balkan war and later on to attack Greek and Allied targets in the north Aegean during the Gallipoli campaign – where the commander on the Turkish side was again Mustafa Kemal.
One can speculate, but Kemal’s experience in Libya, where the Ottomans so nearly beat the Italians must have added to his determination to resist at Gallipoli – for the simple reason that he knew that European armies could be beaten …

Thursday, 10 November 2011

zero thru' one of minus one

a little gmail message count snafu:

If you click on the picture to blow it up and  look at the right hand figures you'll clearly see that the message count is displayed as 0-1 of -1. This little gem appeared after I deleted a message - it fixed itself on refresh but even so ...

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A cultural weekend

Sometimes it seems like all we do is work.
Being human we do need a break and this weekend with its promise of 30 plus weather breaking down into storms seemed an absolutely ideal time to go and take in a little culture.
Saturday saw us decamp to the Portrait gallery to see their exhibition of of new portraiture from South east Asia – some of which was interesting and some of which was simply odd.
I personally found Vivan Sundaram’s photo collages and Nusra Latif Qureshi’s prints especially striking.
In Sundaram’s work I was especially struck by what seemed to be beautifully photographed Indian familty portraits that looked as if they could date from the 1930’s set in conjunction with artworks in a way that one suspects was never normal in middle class India. For example:

Sunday saw us catch the end of the Fred Williams exhibition at the NGA.
Fred Williams  has a style of inspired minmalism building picture of the Australian Bush amiout of sparse paintings of swathes of colour enlivened by what can only be described as textured blobs.
I have a great weakness for such minamalist paintings – I am a quiet fan of Rosie Scott’s Cornwall paintings for example, and Fred is definitely a master of the abstracted minimal.
What was especially nice about the exhibition was the shear range of paintings allowing one to trace the evolution of his style from his early student work on to his mature work.
What was also nice was that as well as his landscapes they included some of his portraits – proving that the man could indeed paint in an (almost) conventional style if need be…


Photography, as we all know has gone digital – and for its utter convenience it’s difficult to  see a reason to go back to the good old days of film.
Except I’ve never been totally happy with black and white photography on digital, I’ve never quite found a technique to get the depth of contrast one sees in 1930’s photographs with their high silver prints. For example, this UK National Portrait Gallery picture from the 1930's of Jasmine Bligh, one of the first BBC television announcers.

So I’m starting a little experiment to see if you can get some thing similar by choosing your source media carefully – amazingly, you can still get a range of black and white films of various characteristics from a range of online retailers, and ebay is your friend here for sourcing them.
There are also still people who develop films, admittedly for around $25 a time –. not cheap, but I’ve thought up a little project that should make the whole exercise fun and cost effective.
I have a digital negative scanner. I also once, admittedly nearly forty years ago, was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, taking my own pictures and developing my own films. While I still have my own enlarger, I no longer have a developer tank, change bags, film loaders etc I could process my own. So if I could source the things required, for example a film developing tank, a change bag in lieu of a darkroom, the chemicals, and so on for less than $200 I'd still be ahead. And I do still have my film cameras.
So my project is this – source a tank and a change bag from ebay, and I should be right  to process my own films. The chemicals might be a bit of a problem in Canberra, but there are still shops that sell them in Sydney and Melbourne, meaning I could if necessary take the train to Sydney to pick some up – carrying a range of strange chemically smelling  liquids and powders through security at an airport is probably not really going to be feasible.
Then once in business work my way through a range of films to find one that gives me effects I’m after.
First thing was to check my film cameras. One of the first problems was that my Vivitar SLR had died – probably only a battery, but the TTL meter was never totally reliable when I used it, and while I still have an Olympus Trip in working order, it’s not the best for composing shots. Probably meant that a new camera was required for the project – but of course no one makes film cameras any more …
However, if you look on ebay for old film cameras it’s clear that there’s a trade in old hi-end camera bodies and lenses among afficinados but that wasn’t what I looking for – I need something good but basic.
Well, I was outbid on an old Pracktica, but I managed to snag a Seagull ( a Chinese clone of an old Minolta model) for around $30 including shipping – and assuming that it’s OK I should be in business.

So in anticipation I've ordered my first batch of film - Lucky SHD ASA 100 from China - popular with the lomography crowd ...