Ukraine blog update

by Maria on October 13, 2006

Just a reminder that there are quite a few interesting posts on the Ukraine study tour blog. You may remember that I blogged a couple of weeks ago about taking part in a study tour of Ukraine organised by two UK trusts and stuffed with meetings with policy makers, NGOs and media people in Kiev and the Crimea. Well, now the study-tourers are all back in our respective homes, digesting what we’ve learnt and writing it up.

So far, there’s a great piece by anthropologistDaniel Washburn about faith and politics in Ukraine. It gives a potted history of orthodoxy in Ukraine and how those religious and political cleavages interact today.

Our friend in Kiev, by tour director John Lotherington, describes how the conflict and enduring civility of Ukrainian poltics are united in the person of Professor Valentin Yakushik (our ‘indefatigable mentor, guide and political matchmaker’).

Alastair Nicolson grappled with the many greys of the Ukrainian economy, using proxy indicators and eyeball evidence to get a feel for Ukraine’s prospects for economic development.

John Edward got a surprising amount of mileage out of Scottish-Ukrainian cultural links before turning to Ukraine’s recent politics and its prospects for EU entry. (Hard luck to the Tartan Army whose team lost 2-0 in Kiev this week.)

And Katie Allen wondered how politics could be cleaned up when corruption and seat-buying is cheerfully acknowledged but many journalists are still afraid to do their jobs.

There’s lots to read, and the comments are pretty much virgin territory. Plus, there’ll be several new pieces next week, including one from me on our meeting with Ukraine’s most famous living novelist, Andrei Kurkov.

Speech and Politics

by Henry Farrell on October 13, 2006

Two interesting pieces on the intersection between free speech and politics. Richard Byrne in the “Chronicle”: on how the writer of ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is being accused of preparing the way for war.

Mr. Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University who has been active in the antiwar movement since the attacks of September 11, 2001, heard a call to action. The article prompted him to dust off an essay that he had written a few years before and publish it in the June 1 edition of the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram. His target? Not President Bush or the Pentagon, but Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. … His blistering essay cast Ms. Nafisi as a collaborator in the Bush administration’s plans for regime change in Iran. … “By seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire,” wrote Mr. Dabashi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India, when, for example, in 1835 a colonial officer like Thomas Macaulay decreed: ‘We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.’ Azar Nafisi is the personification of that native informer and colonial agent, polishing her services for an American version of the very same project.” In an interview published on the Web site of the left-wing publication Z Magazine on August 4, Mr. Dabashi went even further, comparing Ms. Nafisi to a U.S. Army reservist convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi”

And Martin Arnold and Vincent Boland in the “FT”:, on a bill passed by France’s National Assembly that will criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide if the Senate passes it too.

The French legislation, which could still be blocked by the senate, would make it a crime to deny that Armenians were the victims of genocide in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. The bill was read in Turkey as a sign that France was now permanently opposed to Ankara’s bid to join the EU. Bulent Arinc, the parliamentary speaker, criticised France’s “hostile attitude” towards Turkey. “This is a shameful decision. We are very sorry to see that this [bill] was passed only because of internal [French] politics.” Turkey itself denies genocide and the judicial authorities have prosecuted writers who have used the term to describe the killings of Armenians. One of the most prominent such figures is Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature on Thursday minutes after the French vote.

I haven’t read _Reading Lolita in Tehran_ (would be interested to hear from anyone in comments who has), but it seems to me that the evidence against Nafisi is ridiculous as it’s presented here. It seems to consist of a reductive reading of Edward Said, and the facts that she’s critical of the Iranian regime (which is better than some others in the region, but still pretty nasty) and friends with people like Paul Wolfowitz and Bernard Lewis. This doesn’t in my book add up to proof that she supports, let alone is actively paving the way, for any sort of violent regime change from outside. On the other hand, I think that the evidence that France’s new proposed law _is_ intended as a slap in the face for Turkey is quite strong. I don’t have any principled objection to bans on speech by Holocaust deniers and their like, but the law seems almost designed to be counter-productive. Telling Turkey that it’s effectively not qualified to be an EU member state (which is how this law is being received, and, I suspect, how it was intended to be received) means that the real changes in Turkey’s internal censorship regime which were starting to take hold a year or two ago are almost certain to be rolled back, and that the more vicious nationalist elements (who were never happy with EU membership in the first place) will increasingly be in the ascendant in Turkey’s internal political debates.

GMail ads

by Eszter Hargittai on October 13, 2006

Remember all the concerns about GMail reading people’s emails with the goal of displaying targeted ads? I was among those expressing reservations back when the service was first introduced. I continue to believe that it is important to be generally conscious about how much of our email and other activities are stored and potentially analyzed by Google and other service providers. Nonetheless, it’s also interesting to pause on occasion to see the level of sophistication – or lack thereof – that some of these services have reached nowadays.

Sometimes I am surprised by how well the ads on the sidebar match the content of my messages. For example, from very little text, GMail seems to be able to tell if a conversation is conducted in another language and serves up ads consistent with the language of the correspondance (here I’m referring to some experiences with Hungarian). It may be that it’s tracking the route the email took. None of the email address domains end in .hu so no clues there.

Today, however, I was reminded that there is still considerable room for improvement in the system. I am in the midst of corresponding with some friends about an evening outing consisting of drinks, dinner and possibly dancing. There is no information in the messages about the location of all this (even at the city-level) so it’s hard for the ads to be targeted in that way. Our email addresses either end in or educational institutions scattered across the country so even if GMail analyzed that information, it wouldn’t help in this case. We also haven’t mentioned any restaurant names to provide clues.

There is one piece of specific information that has come up, however: “I’m flexible (except the usual Thai food allergy problem).”

Given this note, it was curious to see a link to “Thai Restaurant Iowa”. The word “allergy” is right next to “Thai food” in the above sentence. So what are the chances that information about Thaid food restaurants is going to be of interest?