Category Archives: History

Of contract negotiation, cryptography, and camels…

Saudi Aramco has a fascinating review of the history and significance of poetry in the Horn of Africa:

Somalia did not possess a written language until 1973, when the Latin alphabet was put to Somali phonetics; until then, people who wanted songs and words in their heads had to either memorize someone else’s or compose their own. […] The verses are learned by ear, for a Somali proverb says that “he who looks at paper never becomes a memorizer,” and the skills of listening and repeating are gradually applied to the creation of poetry. Part of the training thereafter is informal.

“I can remember the evening bonfires around which the children would gather,” says Dr. Ahmed Artan Hanghee, dean of the Institute of Arts under the Somali Academy of Science and Arts. “The storytellers would come and start recounting the past history of the clan. Then the poets would take over and entertain. The rules of poetry have never been written; they are just absorbed and understood.”

Real poetry is so common that it can fly completely below the radar of our daily lives. It is subtle yet significant and we sometimes only notice its role and complex structure after it is gone. I’ll spare you my ramblings on poetry as a form of language ecology for now, though. The article continues:

But that doesn’t make them easy. Classical poetry, considered the domain of the nomads and the purest form of the language, is lengthy in presentation and strict in style. There are stringent rules of meter and of alliteration, compounded by metrical counts that vary with the length of syllables. Thus the length of its vowel determines whether a syllable counts as either one or two moras, or units. Classical poetry must have 20 to 22 moras per line, as well as a pause after the 12th unit and two words per line that share the same initial letter. In Somali, the first two lines of the poem on page 33 are:

Inta Khayli dhuugyaha cas iyo, dheeh wiyil ah qaatay.

E dhallaanka Aadnigu u baxo, sidatan lay dhawray.

A second style of poetry, called anigarar, has 17 to 18 moras per line, and four other genres employ successively decreasing numbers of units, down to five per line. Woman poets compete in a separate genre of their own called buranbur, with similarly precise rules.

The words are metaphorical, rarely direct, Hanghee says. Most poetry contains the symbol of the camel, which can embody the notions of beauty, woman, provider of life, food, fragile temperament or freedom, or the ideal of nationhood.

“Somali poets talk in the abstract,” says Hanghee. “You’ll find one describing the beauty of a camel, but what he really means is Somali liberty and independence. Or the subject of the poem might be a horse, but he’s really describing the woman he loves. The waves of the Indian Ocean become the waves of decolonization and the freeing of Africa.”

This might seem like a stretch, but I don’t see a lot of dissimilarity to negotiating terms of engagement with giant companies.

We all hunch around the conference bridge using words that are rarely direct. We banter about or offer competing visions of security that can only be described metaphorically. And perhaps like working with nomadic herdsmen in the Horn of Africa, it is a perpetual challenge to bring security experts to agree on single sheet of paper that they feel does not restrict their future desire(s) while still honors their pride and heritage. You’ll find one describing the beauty of a control, but what s/he really means is consumer liberty and independence…

Stanislav Evgrafovich Petrov Day

I agree with Cosmic Variance that there should be an international Stanislav Evgrafovich Petrov Day to celebrate human reasoning. Those with the most compassion and experience (call it intelligence, if you must) seem the least likely to jump to false conclusions, and therefore are worthy of recognition for the hugely beneficial role they play in modern society. The Wikipedia explains:

Stanislav Evgrafovich Petrov (Russian: СтаниÑ?лав Евграфович Петров) (born c. 1939) is a retired Russian Army colonel who, on September 26, 1983, averted a potential nuclear war by refusing to believe that the United States had launched missiles against the USSR, despite the indications given by his computerized early warning systems. The Soviet computer reports were later shown to have been in error, and Petrov is credited with preventing World War III and the devastation of much of the Earth by nuclear weapons. Because of military secrecy and international policy, Petrov’s actions were kept secret until 1998.

It only stands to reason that if President Bush were really interested in the study of history, a compassionate person, or a seasoned leader, he probably never would have invaded Iraq based on flimsy and falsified evidence.

Neither history nor security

Once in a while I run into a “study” being done by someone under odd pretense that begs the question “who approved this for funding?” Here is a perfect example:

Simon, who teaches at Philadelphia’s Temple University, thinks that by spending time at Starbucks — observing the teenage couples and solitary laptop-users, the hurried office workers and busy baristas — he can learn what it means to live and consume in the age of globalization.

“What are we drinking, and what does it say about who we are?” Simon asked during a recent research trip to London.

His research has taken him to 300 Starbucks in six countries for a caffeine-fueled opus titled “Consuming Starbucks” that’s due for publication in 2008.

Observing teenage behavior in public places? This appears to me to have nothing to do with the study of history (more like sociology, psychology, or anthropology, if not culinary arts). He then goes on to postulate about the “comfort” patrons feel when they isolate themselves in familiar and unchallenging surroundings…

Simon believes Starbucks succeeds by “selling comfort” in an anonymous, often dislocating world. He says he has lost track of the number of times people have told him that when they traveled to a strange country, “the first thing I did when I got off the plane was go to Starbucks.”

Brilliant. He’s lost track? This man has discovered that the franchise concept works by selling comfort to people afraid of the unfamiliar and thus unwilling to take any chances. What a breakthrough in history. The only thing more preposterous would be if his book was funded by the company he is studying, since it so eloquently has the same namesake. And 2008? I’ve never heard of a “current event” study taking so long to reach publication. This is why historians should stay out of fashion design too, incidentally. Where’s the blog? By the time he writes this thing his observation of “teenage” behavior is very likely to be irrelevant.

IMHO, here’s a more notable topic worth reviewing, relative to the past versus the explosion of bland coffee-houses in London — it’s called the history and decline of the community and their gathering places (e.g. the local pub) in England. In the early 90s you could not find a decent cup of coffee in downtown London to save your life, but there were a hundred opinions for every ten pints of domestically produced beer usually in some relation to current events. Brand loyalty meant something deep and mysterious, somehow tied together with hundreds of years of publican tradition. Today, you can’t take a step without running into someone sloshing a smelly black imported brew in styrofoam containers as they race along the street, and I somehow doubt that these global-franchise loyalists could give a crap about history or even local issues. Good or bad? Who knows, but I’m certainly not going to ask for money as a historian to sit in Starbucks around the world for two years to “prove” that strangers like comfort.

The Easter Rising and Vernacular Poetry

I thought it fitting to take a moment this Easter Sunday to remember three noted poets who gave their life in a struggle against British rule. Patrick Pearse (Pádraic Anraí Mac Piarais) — called the “embodiment of the rebellion” and credited with proclaiming a Republic — Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh. After the British quickly routed the Irish rebellion in 1916, all three were executed by firing squad.

It is no coincidence that the Irish rising was led by men who practiced poetry, as they surely relied upon it as the most natural way to help persuade the public to resist the authority of the Kingdom and achieve political independence. Poetry in Irish is considered the oldest form of verse in Europe that specifically emphasized accessibility to a “common person”, or in other words poetry not written or spoken in Latin. This earns it the title of “vernacular”.

This heritage to the race of kings
by Joseph Plunkett

This heritage to the race of kings-
Their children and their children’s seed
Have wrought their prophecies in deed
Of terrible and splendid things.

The hands that fought, the hearts that broke
In old immortal tragedies,
Theses have not failed beneath the skies,
Their children’s heads refuse the yoke.

And still their hands shall guard the sod
That holds their father’s funeral urn,
Still shall their hearts volcanic burn
With anger of the sons of God.

No alien sword shall earn as wage
The entail of their blood and tears,
No shameful price for peaceful years
Shall ever part this heritage.

Yes, madam, I am drunk. But in the morning I will be sober…

…and you will still be ugly.

That’s one of my favorite quotes by Churchill, apparently in response to Lady Astor’s comment ‘Sir, you’re drunk!’. Churchill is famous for his sharp wit, in spite of his love of drink. W Bush on the other hand, seems to be famous for brashness (and lack of wit) perhaps due to his love of lying (about his drink among other things).

In both cases it’s tempting to find fault in vice, but it seems more useful to me if you can get close to the actual personality of a person and assess their aptitude to think rationally under stress. I’m obviously no psychiatrist, but I found this entry in Wikipedia insightful:

In Addiction, Brain Damage and the President: “Dry Drunk” Syndrome and George W. Bush (Katherine van Wormer, CounterPunch, October 11, 2002), van Wormer goes on to speculate over whether Bush is an example of a “dry drunk”, a slang term used by Alcoholics Anonymous and substance abuse counselors to describe a recovering alcoholic who is no longer drinking, but who has not confronted the dysfunctional basic cognitive patterns that led to addiction; they use the term because they feel that such an individual is someone “who is no longer drinking . . . but whose thinking is clouded,” not truly “sober”. In her opinion, Bush displays the telltale characteristics of grandiose behavior, rigid, judgmental outlook, impatience, childish and irresponsible behavior, irrational rationalization, projection, and overreaction. She concluded that Bush displays “all the classic patterns of addictive thinking”. More specifically, she argued that Bush exhibits “the tendency to go to extremes,” a “kill or be killed mentality,” incoherence while speaking away from script, impatience, irritability in the face of disagreement, and a rigid, judgmental outlook. She added that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was primarily a result of his relationship with his father: “the targeting of Iraq had become one man’s personal crusade.”

To be frank, I didn’t really follow the “relationship with his father” theory until I read a recap of the younger Bush’s history of reckless behavior and inability to handle confrontation over his mistakes:

The most notorious episode, reported in numerous diverse sources including U.S. News & World Report, November 1, 1999, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq by Robert Parry, First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty by Bill Minutaglio, and W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty by Elizabeth Mitchell, has 26 year old George W. Bush, visiting his parents in Washington, D. C. over the Christmas vacation in 1972 shortly after the death of his grandfather, taking his 16 year old brother Marvin out drinking. On the way home, George lost control of the car and ran over a garbage can, but continued home with the can wedged noisily under the car. When his father, George H. W. Bush, called him on the carpet for not only his own behavior but for exposing his younger brother to risk, George W., still under the influence, retorted angrily, “I hear you’re looking for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?” Before the elder Bush could reply, the situation was defused by brother Jeb, who took the opportunity to surprise his father with the happy news that George W. had been accepted to Harvard Business School.

Makes you think twice when you read today’s news by the BBC titled Bush denies Iraq is in civil war, eh? I’m starting to wonder if Air Force One has a garbage can stuck under the landing gear…

To paraphrase an old Chinese saying, if the top rafters are not level, the lower ones are probably crooked too:

Tuesday’s news conference came as US military investigators flew to Iraq to study reports that marines shot dead at least 15 civilians, including seven women and three children [including a 3-yr old], in Haditha in November 2005. The military’s initial claim that the civilians died in a roadside blast was disproved by an earlier investigation.

Corruption is one of the hardest things to work with in security since the enforcement mechanisms end up undermining their own credibility, which leads to a response that causes an escalation of overly harsh tactics, which undermines credibility, and so forth.

NZ judge lifts suppression order on rape case

This is making big news in NZ. Not too sure of the details, but I find it interesting that the media was not allowed to report any details of a rape case for twenty years:

In the High Court at Auckland on Monday, Justice Randerson lifted suppression orders which prevented the media from previously reporting the number and nature of the charges.

The three men face a total of 20 charges relating to a period between 1985 and 1986 when the complainant was 18-years-old.

They are accused of indecent assault, rape and unlawful sexual connection and the charges include two counts of indecent assault using a baton.

What better serves the cause of national security?

Common Sense Budget Act sponsor Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) had some interesting things to say about government spending and security:

What better serves the cause of national security? Investment in first responders, energy independence and global nutrition … or billions that we’re still pouring into the F-22A Raptor, which was designed to outpace Soviet fighter jets?

Dr. Lawrence J. Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense to Ronald Reagan for Manpower, Installations, and Logistics, gave more detail on the proposal in a report titled “A Realistic Defense for America”:

Without diminishing America’s ability to fight extremists, American can save $60 billion by eliminating Cold War-era weapons systems and programs designed to thwart the former Soviet Union – weapons and programs that are not useful in defending our country from extremists or the other threats we now face.

When I have Fears that I may cease to be

by John Keats

    WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be
    Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
    Before high pil’d books, in charact’ry,
    Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
    When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
    Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
    And feel that I may never live to trace
    Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
    And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
    That I shall never look upon thee more,
    Never have relish in the faery power
    Of unreflecting love;—then on the shore
    Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
    Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

Apparently Keats died from tuberculosis (TB) in 1821. London suffered immensely from this disease in the past (killing up to 20% of the population) and there were many serious efforts to eliminate it entirely, so I find it surprising to see on the UK Coalition site that TB is spreading rapidly:

Tuberculosis is making a dramatic comeback in parts of the UK where levels of the disease are now higher than those in China and parts of India and Africa. The Tuberculosis rate has risen by 80% in London over 10 years, to reach 40 cases per 100,000. In 2001 were 7,300 cases in the whole of the UK, of which more than 3,000 were in London. Around 60% of the UK’s TB cases are people who were born abroad, and were infected it before they arrived. A study in 1995 showed that, among the homeless, levels of TB were 200 times higher than in the general population.

Perhaps even more alarming is that the disease is not being identified properly, which was also one of the problems that Keats’ faced:

A paper presented to a meeting of the British Thoracic Society showed that more than half the 121 cases of TB that arrived at an accident and emergency department in Newham were not recognised as TB, in spite of symptoms such as coughing up blood.

Vote for your king?

I find it odd that Americans would think it normal to elect a king and queen by ballot. That’s just wrong. But if you play along with it, how can anyone then get upset when a woman is elected King?

Let’s face it, if you are going to have elections, then you are allowing people to vote for their preferred candidate. Them’s the rules of democracy.

Now, if monarchies are really preferred, let’s dispense with the whole “popularity” competition nonsense from the start. MSNBC reports:

Hood College is reviewing its homecoming rules after a lesbian was crowned king, a college official says. […] Donald Miller, Hood’s student activities director, said all homecoming events will be reviewed and possibly changed. “We will look at what students want Hood’s homecoming to be,” he said.

Well, they voted didn’t they? How will you find out what they, the student body, want homecoming to be now? Go to the campus supreme court and demand a recount? Ho ho ho.

The College should acknowledge a vote, recognize that they are holding an election for a costumed and fanciful position of flair, and announce that if people care enough about this they should vote next year. Then they should celebrate the absurdity of voting for kings and queens and get on with things, not deteriorate into introspection and unenlightened devisiveness.

Incidentally, the MSNBC poll at this time shows 58% of 23973 responses say “a woman is a woman…let her run for queen”. Only 17% voted for “who cares” and there was no button to vote for “no one should be allowed to vote for kings or queens, period”.


Rafi Ron, former Israeli airports security chief, has some interesting things to say in the latest CSO magazine about the failure of profiling in security. He refers to a better system as behavior pattern recognition (BPR):

My experience at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv has led me to the conclusion that racial profiling is not effective. The major attacks at Ben Gurion Airport were carried out by Japanese terrorists in 1972 and Germans in the 1980s. [They] did not belong to any expected ethnic group. Richard Reid [known as the shoe bomber] did not fit a racial profile. Professionally as well as legally, I oppose the idea of racial profiling. So we are left with behavior, because behavior is probably the Achilles’ heel of the terrorist.

Excellent insights from someone with extensive experience on the subject. It’s just too bad he didn’t use the term “behavior-ling”. :)