Thebastidge: 01/01/2007 - 02/01/2007
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    Monday, January 29, 2007

    It's good to be home

    I've been sick since I got here, but it's still good to be home. Frickin' airplanes are just larger petri dishes.

    Wednesday, January 24, 2007

    I thought I was done...

    ... with explosions when I left Iraq. But no, there was a 'suspicious package' at Edinburgh airport today that caused the evacuation of the entire facility, out into the literally freezing (ice pockets in places) parking area for about 3 hours whjile they did a controlled detonation and investigation of said package.

    I hope the idiot whose luggage got blown up has nothing to change into.

    The UK has been great, and I couldn't have asked for a better time than I had in Scotland, particularly considering I was traveling alone to a place I've never been and essentially had no knowledge or contacts of, traveling with too much crap in addition to my rucksack (just my guitar, but I'm heartily sick of carrying it by now). It would have been nice to spend more time with my friend Harbal in Glasgow, but again, with such an off-the-cuff schedule and visiting during the week, we were fortunate to have gotten together at all. In both Edinburgh and Glasgow, people I met in pubs just took me under their wing and showed me around, unwilling to chance the possibility that I might not have a good time. Londoners were pretty friendly as well, but the Scots went out of their way and then some. A couple guys took me around Edinburgh after hours telling everyone "Our mate's just back from the Gulf, give him some respect" and I couldn't get them to stop, lol. There's at l;east a couple kick-ass clubs in Edinburgh.

    Got hit up by a hooker in Soho while I was in London. That was pretty funny. She wouldn't have been bad-looking if she'd at least had half of her teeth. She grabbed my ass before I knew what was going on and I just know she was going for my wallet when I put a stop to it. But I couldn't help but laugh anyway.

    Feck! London is possibly the most expensive place I have ever been in my life. Maybe more than Tokyo was. Unbelievable. You choke a bit over the doubled prices, but it's not too bad until you think "oh yeah, and that's in pounds too!" (Which is about $1.95 to the pound right now.) So it works out about 4 times as much for almost everything as I would pay at home.

    I'm killing time in an Internet cafe in Kensington right now, waiting for my hotel reservation for tonight (my last night) to show up in my email, because I got put pretty far behind schedule on the tasks I'd planned for today, by spending most of the afternoon freezing my ass off in the parking lot at Edinburgh airport. I was so chilled by the time they finally let us back in to the building, that it's taken me about 4 hours to warm back up, and I'm just worn out tonight.

    Well, I'm off to try to get checked into a hotel, I don't think I've even got it in me to go out to a pub tonight, which is a shame.

    Friday, January 19, 2007

    Out of Iraq...

    ... but Kuwait sucks too.

    The transient tent here at Ali Al Salem is frickin' freezing. I managed to snooze for about two hours maybe, then shivered the rest of the night away. I don't willingly get up at 4 am very often, but at least this internet cafe is heated.

    Well, I'm off to catch a bus to the airport.

    Thursday, January 18, 2007

    Leaving paradise

    I'm leaving Baghdad tonight, so I'll be offline for a few days while I bum around in the UK. I'll be home late on the 25th.

    Tuesday, January 16, 2007

    Cognitive Styles

    I've read quite a bit about different styles of thinking, personalities etc.

    The literature (mostly written by Americans, or at least Western Europeans) tends to focus on being more accepting of and able to connect with non-linear thinkers, so-called creative types and other styles of personality.

    That's great and all. I've benefited from my ability to do that very thing. It's valuable inter-personal skill to have.

    But let me backtrack for a moment and sing the praises of the linear thinker.

    Watching my co-worker today, struggling with training of some Iraqi personnel, and finally just recording all the instructions in a web-cam video for further dissemination made me recall some of my own efforts in years past trying to train Korean personnel. There was something in common there; a seeming difficulty in simply performing a step-by-step instruction as given.

    By no means is this disability absent in our own society. A military officer was in our office a few days ago, asking for help with a very simple task. By the time his problem was solved our guys were cursing and frustrated (once he left, of course, maintaining professionalism). This is a guy who seems not un-intelligent, is very personable, you want to help him... but he's hopeless when it comes to anything "technical". I tried to bet he was a "12 o'clock flasher" but no one would take the bet. This guy can't even seem to follow a step-by-step instruction on plugging in cables for a common device. Not a vague- "just plug it in" but a step by step "cable A into Jack B" set of steps.

    Even if one is not naturally a linear thinker, styles of thinking can be practiced. Witness the brainstorming session- an exercise in creative thinking. If one puts some effort into it, anyone can think in a technical fashion to some limited degree. But many people are simply unwilling to do so, and some cultures are more predisposed towards or away from it, in my experience.

    Here's the thing about linear, serial, cause-and-effect thinking. It is the workhorse by which the majority of advances are made. Not the break-through insights, necessarily, but the testing of the theory, and the development of practical applications for those insights. It's most often harnessed towards making thing easier, which then gives one more leisure time to think creatively about how to make things better.

    Most of what keeps you, the modern techno-citizen (who else has time to waste reading my blog?) alive and healthy, was created by logical, cause-and-effect linear-thinking engineers, and is maintained by trained technicians who have, to some extent, been taught to think and act in a way consistent with logical, linear cause-and-effect natural phenomena.

    Take that away and the creative types starve.

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    fargin' funny

    I once spent about 2 or 3 solid months several years ago sitting in a cubicle, translating the North Korean Labor Party Newspaper (No-dong Shinmun) into English. It was pretty much an exercise in futility. Apart from the vanishingly small intelligence value in an open source newspaper designed purely for domestic consumption, with and English-language version published as well, it was also made clear to me when I started the task that it was only to keep me out of the way. I had just transferred into that agency and I was told bluntly: "We don't have time to train you on what we're doing. I don't even have time to evaluate whether you have the ability to contribute. So just do this, and you'll look busy, and I'll look like I've tasked you."

    Nah, there's nothing wrong with our intelligence services, why do you ask?

    But I digress. This would have been maddeningly dull and frustrating if it weren't for the occasional absolutely hilarious and completely unrelated-to-reality stuff I read there. As it was, it was just average dull and de-motivational.

    Today, I read something just as funny. This Songun blog is great. I can't stress enough, that this is exactly the kind of stuff that you would read in No-dong Shinmun. If you don't believe me, the No-dong shinmun is available in English in the U.S. if you really look for it. The Korean version is even more hyperbolic than the English version. Read the Songun blog. If you dialed it back between 5% and maybe 10%, you'd have No-dong Shinmun exactly. Especially watch the you-tube videos on "Always Working Together For The People," keeping in mind they are actual n. Korean video footage.

    h/t Samizdata

    Had some problems with the blog

    At some point a few days ago, I was having some problems with blogspot logins timing out due to either their problems or my link. Somehow, my template got corrupted and truncated. So I've had to rebuild it from scratch, not having a backup copy handy to me here (I know I have at least one version at home, but no good to me here).

    So I was unable to fix my template for a few days, and then when I published a post, it nuked the 'running config' as well, so nothing displayed. I managed to cobble most of my bookmarks back together, and I've been fixing the rest as time permits (time is not so permitting right now since I'm getting ready to leave Iraq and having to pacck all my crap up to mail home).

    Comments are still FUBAR'd, so don't bother unless you don't care if they're erased in a few days when I get around to fixing haloscan. If someone does comment, I'll make an effort to transfer them over, but no guarantees. It might have to wait until I get home and then probably until I sober up.

    In the meantime, be assured I am still alive.

    Sunday, January 14, 2007


    Well, if everything goes smoothly, I'll be leaving Iraq before the weekend. I'm getting pretty excited to get back to my comfortable life back home, the better for having been here (provided I don't get blown up between now and then!)

    Better for having made a decent chunk of cash, but also for having had the experience. There's no doubt in my mind that it has been an informative adventure. There are some things I might have wanted otherwise about this job and experience, but overall, even the discomforts and inconveniences were good for me- it reminds me of how fragile our American lifestyle could be. It reminds me (though I never entirely forgot) that life can be dangerous and fraught with pettiness and that bad people exist out there who will hurt you for not much reason at all, by American standards. It reminds me that what we consider to be common-sense standards of decency and integrity don't hold much value to people in some places.

    Iraqis are not poor. Oh, by any relative measurement of our wealth compared to theirs, they're dirt poor.

    But this is not a part of the world where the majority of the people are hungry, if not outright starving. This is not a place where mustering the energy to work for enough food to replace the calories is a gamble.

    Iraqis have cell phones, and clothes, and cars when they want or need them, and homes to live in. They have plenty to eat, if the quality wouldn't appeal to you or I, we would quickly become accustomed to it were we to live this our whole lives.

    The reasons for Iraqis to be relatively poor are complicated. They're not as simple as the American Left would have you believe. They're not simply poor because their country was economically interdicted and then bombed. It's not even because of the British and other 'Great Powers' (Which did NOT include the United States)dividing their countries along imaginary lines. They're poor because of traditions and attitudes that go back far beyond outside interdiction. The decline of the Arab and Ottoman Empires began centuries ago, and as long as they look backward to some golden age that barely existed, they will not beat this poverty of the pocketbook or of the spirit.

    There are bright sparks of difference in some of the individuals I have met. Individuals do make a difference, even if they are hobbled by a society which stifles individualism. The progress in such a society is undoubtedly slower. But individuals still shine. I hope I can keep in touch with some of these few individuals, but it will be difficult because of the general conditions here. One can't be too overt about it, because it's dangerous for them, above and beyond the difficulty in simply communicating in a place where telephone service is spotty and the Internet has barely penetrated (and is a sign of conspicuous consumption).

    There's no reason for such shitty communications service in this country. Telephones, satellite dishes, and personal computers were not interdicted during the Oil-for-food scam. They were forbidden by the regime because information is the enemy of the National Socialist state.

    Anyway, the closer I get to leaving, the more excited I am to be going home. I hope that I can explain things well enough when I get home to bring some of my insights to people who labour under some severe misapprehensions. For the rest, I can only hope that they don’t do too much damage with their misconceptions.

    Tuesday, January 09, 2007

    Stuck Mojo

    I've been seeing this band mentioned a lot lately. So I'm gonna jump on the bandwagon. I watched the video for Open season today:

    Honestly, some of the other songs available on their website for free download are better. But I like the message.

    Although all of the sons on the album are available for free. I encourage you to buy the album (as I did), as it is the only way these guys get compensated.

    Friday, January 05, 2007

    Some good advice

    Thursday, January 04, 2007

    Semi-Random Thoughts on Language

    I'm a big believer in the importance of education. Not merely formal education with the attendant credentialing being an economic signal, but in all forms of 'standing upon the shoulders of giants' that is enabled by the human ability to store and transmit knowledge.

    And, I like to talk.

    As a person who has largely educated himself (through access to public education, it must be admitted) and has been trained by the military as a linguist, I'm very interested in Psycholinguistics, and this may indeed be a subject for my doctoral thesis someday, should I make it that far in academic achievement.

    In line with my interests, I found myself in absolute agreement with the points I read here.

    When I listen to people of low economic origins back home, I can see the difference in their future potential merely in the way they speak. Poor kids (like myself) who make an effort to speak grammatically, and with a good vocabulary (mine was primarily acquired through reading, thankfully my parents never discouraged that as some do) tend to do much better in life, economicall. At the same time, kids who had better starting points who made no effort at reading and intellectual pursuits are now far behind me (as evidenced by a lot of the discussion at my high school reunion). In fact, some people seem to devolve to a worse vocabulary as they find themselves sinking down the economic ladder. This doesn't really make much sense to me, unless it's a function of protective colouration in the economic strata in which they find themselves. I know that I have a very flexible vernacular depending upon the group I find myself in at the time. Friends who know me well have commented upon it before.

    Intelligence is one enabler of progress, but the pure ability is worthless in the wrong context. The smartest English professor in the world will not be able to communicate his most in-depth knowledge of Western Literature to a Chinese peasant. 1. The Chinese peasant doesn't speak English, nor presumably, the professor speak Chinese. 2. The Chinese peasant has no context of knowledge to place the professor's communications in. Not knowing who Chaucer is, the concept of who is derivative of Chaucer is impossible to benefit from.

    This may seem obvious, but people act in ways every day which fail to take into account this very thing.

    If native intelligence were all that mattered, early homo sapiens would not have been cave men- they would have invented a hi-tech world in a single generation. You can be the smartest Bushman in the Kalahari, but without the cultural institutions of the modern world surrounding you from birth, you will never figure out how to fly.

    My native linguistic ability is negated by the cultural environment I find myself in at the moment. How much worse to be inarticulate, and unable to clearly formulate my internal dialogue because I lacked exposure to the vocabulary, and therefore the very concepts that I need. Sure, I might grasp these concepts in a vague way, much as anyone can formulate a new concept from nothingness. But we all know that true innovation is MUCH more difficult and rare than capitalizing on another's knowledge. Essentially, without adequate vocabulary and grammatical construction, I'm inventing the wheel every day, and even more importantly, have no way to communicate my invention to someone else. Who may have already invented it (mentally) but has no way to communicate it to me. How to collaborate?

    I'm a fairly knowledgeable person, with a better than average understanding of technology, and verbal aptitude in the 99th percentile. Which does me very little good when I'm working with my Iraqi counterparts here. Mostly, we do not have common vocabulary, and secondarily, we have severely diverging world views- mine fairly straight-forward, cause-and-effect Western scientifically oriented. Theirs: primarily mystical, based upon a fate-oriented attitude of submission to the will of Allah, where things happen in a fashion almost completely outside of human control.

    When I listen to conversations around me, with my pitiful Arabic language ability, (give me a break- I've only been here 3 months! LOL) it strikes me how EVERY sentence refers to God in some way. Inshallah, Hamdilallah, W'allah. The very structure of the language re-inforces the mystical and supersititious belief that God makes every decision, from the smallest subatomic particle to the way a person behaves, on the fly. Note for secular humanists: People who speak Arabic as their primary and only language probably cannot recognize a world without God's will manifested in literally everything. They are literally programmed to think that way.

    Language matters. Culture (nicluding education) matters. These things are related. Language is the "operating system" part of the "software" of the human being. All other abstract thinking other than some spatial relationship and mathematical processing parts of the brain are dependant upon running the information through language to parse for meaning. Therefore, language MUST have and CANNOT AVOID having an effect on the ability of the individual to process abstract concepts. Not only individual linguistic abilty, (both native aptitude and the multiplier effect of language education), but the language itself, be it Japanese or Spanish, MUST have some effecton on the ability of the individual to think in certain ways. Undoubtedly, some languages are more effective at communicating in certain modes, whether we crudely define those modes along an emotional/logical axis, or in more subtle and diverse modes yet to be defined. Innuit famously have many words for snow- surely one can communicate more efficiently and precisely, not to mention poetically, in the Innuit language about "snow" than one might in ancient Mayan. Perhaps Japanese can express more emotion about cherry blossoms than any other language. Currently, English, particularly American English, is the language of the modern technological world, in large part because its bastardized influences have forced flexibility and tortured grammatical construction upon us until necessity became virtue. In part, because any technological term originated anywhere in the world quickly makes its way into English, more seamlessly than it is used in its original ethno-linguistic context.

    I'll close with a couple random thoughts:

    1. Perhaps some day, we will construct artificial languages of extreme subtlety and nuance purely for discussing art and flower gardening, and others for the rigidly cause-and-effect thinking required for engineering.

    2. Will we become truly different ethnic groups then, techie geeks and artsy-fartsy folks? (Nah- creativity allows and calls for too much overlap in right-/left-brain thinking.)