Coming Attractions

I’ve been meaning to write entries for ages. In fact I have been writing them, but always in my head and while I’m doing something not conducive to typing (showering, climbing a tree, getting lost, &tc). Unfortunately this happens all too often with me…I have plenty of letters, articles, chapter beginnings, and so on stored in the termite infested, highly flammable library that is my memory.


Still, I seem to be having a burst of actually committing words to paper (or screen, more often), so I feel it is time to Make Promises. Usually this is a game that I save for my supervisor, but I thought I might play it with you guys, too.

So: Coming Soon! An edited version of the interview that I did with a real-life Pirate!

And before you Johnny Depp fans get overexcited, I guess I should explain that this is an interview with a member of the Swedish Pirate Party, and does not involve any actual swashbuckling. Also hopefully in coming days I will work out how to take an interview transcript and turn it into something a little more organised. Any tips?

Fascinating conferences vital to your field…

I’m brilliant at finding conferences that are tremendously relevant and useful, attended by people whose work I respect and admire. Unfortunately, my forte is finding these conferences a week or a month after they’ve already happened. I’m getting better – the latest one I’ve discovered is on in about a month. It’s probably too late to go, although I considered it for a while. (For extra points, it’s on at the same time as a lecture I have to give.)


So, I’m curious – how do other people find out about relevant conferences in a timely way? Having a good academic network seems to be one way – lots of academics seem to have at least passing contact with others in their field, and email each other about useful conferences. Joining official networks and mailing lists also seems to work well, although I’m a bit cautious about having my inbox deluged with emails that aren’t necessarily relevant. Google alerts, perhaps?


What works for you?

Terrorism, torture and interdisciplinary research

I’ve spent the last three days attending the Terrorism and Torture symposium, and it’s been fascinating and not nearly as harrowing as I thought it would be. One thing that I really enjoyed about it was that it was genuinely interdisciplinary – there were presentations from political psychologists, media analysts, lawyers, criminologists, and others whose fields defy neat classification.
Coming from a political science perspective and being involved in qualitative research, I’m used to looking at broad trends and living with a certain level of uncertainty about the conclusions that I and others in my field(s) make. It was novel, then, hearing more about research that comes at issues from a different direction – presentations from political psychologists, for example, who look very closely at the effects anxiety has on people’s mental functioning and on the political positions that they’re willing to support.
One of the recurring questions when it comes to attacks on civilians or torture is: why? how could a ‘normal’ person do that? (Most presenters were very clear that the people who commit these acts are, psychologically speaking, not noticeably pathological.) There were quite a few different answers, from Gregg Bloche’s claim that it’s those who aren’t firmly embedded in multiple social networks to Winnifred Louis’s argument that people commit these actions out of a sense of loyalty to and care for their communities.

Another recurring issue – that of how to define ‘terrorism’ – was addressed less explicitly, I think. There are a few different ways to draw the line, and there wasn’t a lot of debate about what differentiates terrorism from guerrilla warfare or military action by a state.Terrorism also got a much greater focus at the conference than torture did, although there were some interesting presentations on the links between the two.

I always feel slightly guilty attending events like this. The area is only tangentially related to my research (‘counter-terrorist’ measures and rhetoric are also being used to shut down other forms of dissent), and it was so enjoyable that it feels more like a treat than ‘work’. I’m trying to take it as a reminder of everything I love about academia, though – especially being in a space where there are new things to learn, people who engage with others’ ideas with enthusiasm, and a commitment to understanding the world and building solutions to some of our problems.

The willingness of more established academics to listen to and help postgraduates was also wonderful. I still get little thrills whenever someone asks me to explain my work, or asks for a copy of one of my papers. The postgraduate workshop was actually attended by more academics than postgraduates, and they were all interested both the content and the methodology involved in work that was outside their areas – one postgraduate, for example, was attending to flesh out his understanding of terrorism in the work of Dostoevsky.
I’m now keeping my eyes out for more of these that fit in with my area – it’s a lovely change from working in the isolation of my office, and not as resource-intensive as attending conferences.

Pirates are quite chatty, actually

Having started the transcription process, I’ve rapidly (re)discovered two things:

1) Transcribing takes a really, really long time, and

2) Interviews that felt brief (because they were interesting for me) can stack up to small novellas.

I’m going to put the interview up in bits and pieces, which seems more reasonable for a blog format. But not right now, because I’m exhausted and would probably edit out all the good bits and just post the bit where I asked him if he wanted a cinnamon bun.

Unusual ways to relax, #1: bleed.

I gave blood this morning, and I feel much better for it. I’ve had a really busy couple of weeks, having managed to actually acquire some kind of direction with my writing, as well as getting enthusiastic about my Greek classes and trying to get the hang of capoeira again. It was nice to sit down for a while, read, and have people fuss over me.


Every time I give plasma it reminds me how pleasant the whole process is (apart from the bit with the needle, but don’t think about that). You get to relax without feeling like you’ve wasted time, and you get that glow that comes from helping other people. Plus shortbread with ‘Thank you’ baked onto it, some days.


I’d highly recommend it.

Multitasking my way to inefficiency

I’m trying a new thing at the moment: only doing one thing at a time. I’m terribly easily distracted, and too often I’ll have three workspaces open on my desktop at a time as well as constantly stopping what I’m doing to do ‘one quick thing’. In part, it seems to be down to constantly feeling like I’m behind where I ‘should’ be with my work – there’s absolutely essential writing, reading, and transcription to be done, all at once.


Of course, it’s a terribly inefficient way to work. I’m constantly anxious and can’t concentrate on anything. So I’m trying something new – breaking work done into small, but reasonable chunks, and finishing one thing before moving on to the next one. Revolutionary. I also keep one workspace free for my ‘to do’ list, so that if I have a task nagging at me I can add it to the list rather than fret about it or do it immediately.


Unsurprisingly, it’s working well so far. And getting to tick off these small tasks (write 500 words, transcribe 15 minutes of an interview, read a chapter, write the outline for a lecture) helps me feel like I’m making a dent in the mountain of work ahead of me.
Of course, I feel quite silly for getting to the stage where I had to actually sit down and tell myself to focus on one thing at a time. I suppose we live and (hopefully) learn.

ants knowing the gravity of elephants

I like to go to the lectures for units I’ll be lecturing in, to make sure that what I say is at the right level and fits in with the rest of the unit. I also like the chance to get out of the box of my own PhD and see other parts of the world, literally and metaphorically.

This semester I’ve been going Roderic Pitty’s global governance lectures, and today’s lecture was from Afeif Ismail, a Sudanese poet who has just won been shortlisted for the Kit Denton Fellowship. [Edit: I should have mentioned before that Afeif's poems were 'transcreated' into English with Vivienne Glance. Afeif read the Arabic (?) versions of his poems and Vivienne read the English versions.]
He’s obviously an incredibly passionate man with huge reserves of energy – he talked about some of his political work in Sudan (mostly for the Sudanese Communist Party), and since he’s been here he’s helped set up the ‘Wings Organisation for Cross-Cultural Development’ as a way for new migrants working in the arts to find their feet. All this, and much other work, while dealing with the physical and psychological scars left by his 24 arrests in Sudan, torture, the trauma of becoming a refuge, culture shock, language barriers…

I am awed, and I hope that the other students were too. I really appreciate Roderic’s attempts to add an emotional element to his teaching, and it’s a lesson I’m trying to take on board. I don’t want to come across as just trying to jerk heart strings, but at the same time I feel strongly about my research and I think that it’s important to show students that I care about it. And also give them an opening to care themselves.
It’s strange listening to lectures from this perspective. It’s a bit like watching a movie or reading a book and not being able to shut off the bit of my mind that analyses gender relations etc. Half of me is listening to the content of the lecture, the other half is thinking, “oh, that quote breaks up the lecture nicely.”
To finish, someone else’s words about Afeif Ismail, a reminder of how lucky we are to be able to think and read and write so freely. This excerpt, and the title, are from a piece I found here, adapted for webcast by Barbara Campbell and written by Nandi Chinna (I haven’t had a chance to buy Ismail’s book yet):

When people on the outside of the walls hear about the place he is in, he is able to get two sheets of white paper. He believes that he has never ever, neither before nor since, received such a great gift. He uses the smallest writing he can and fills up every millimetre of the paper with the poems he is holding carefully inside his head.

I am an unstoppable force

…now that I have access to the Internet in my office, on Ubuntu.


I am pretty excited about this, actually. Until now I’d leave all of my internet-research to do at home, downloading articles and websites and so on to read here. But now… well, actually, now I am a trifle worried that the Internet will be quite distracting.

Anyway, I’m not sure this will apply to anyone else, but if you’re a) using Ubuntu, b) quite new to linux, and c) want to connect to SNAP, there are some helpful bits of advice on the uni site as well as on sourceforge. The sourceforge site seemed most up to date – starting there seems most sensible. The SISO people were also really helpful and got me over the final hurdle.

The War on Democracy

On the weekend my housemates and I went to see an advance screening of John Pilger’sThe War on DemocracyI haven’t read or seen much of Pilger’s work before, so I came to it without much of an idea of what to expect.
It wasn’t a perfect documentary. In fact, in places it really made me cringe. Pilger’s onscreen presence often leaves much to be desired – his questions often come across as leading, and at times it was almost painful watching him try to comfort distressed interviewees. The narrative also jumped around a lot, trying to cover decades and a whole continent without a coherent framework. The soundtrack left a lot to be desired.

The worst part, though, was the documentary’s tendency to devolve into blatant propaganda. Pilger briefly raised important issues, but then shut down the debate immediately. For example, he mentioned concerns over media censorship in Venezuela and then followed it up with four or five interviewees ridiculing the notion and several clips of antagonistic coverage of Chavez. There were no updates mentioning the closure of several TV stations earlier this year.* There’s a lot to celebrate in Venezuela and other South American countries right now, but at times this seemed like a cross between a propaganda piece and a tourist video for South American ‘people’s power’.

That said, it was also a fascinating look at a part of the world that often receives little (and biased) coverage here. I don’t know much about the history of the US in South America, just the general outline: that the US has supported dictators, death squads, basically any groups that have been willing to serve their interests and follow their line, and that this has come at the expense of democracy and human rights.

Pilger’s travels through Bolivia and Chile add a few details to that outline. Interviews with survivors of torture and old newsreel footage give more of an understanding of what the US policy in those areas actually meant to people on the ground. The interviews with ex-CIA and other US operatives were enthralling. The openness with which some of them spoke about US policy was enlightening – one interviewee made it clear that he strongly believed that the US hadn’t cared at all about democracy, and still didn’t. Others refused to acknowledge doing any wrong – one (current?) member of the CIA said that he doubted Pilger could find more than 200 victims of Pinochet’s regime, and said that Amnesty and other organisations were lying about genocidetorture, and other human rights abuses. He also made it quite clear that the US has not changed and should not change its policy in South America from what it was during that period.

That seemed to be supported by Pilger’s coverage of Venezuela, which was the most interesting section of the documentary for me. Pilger went through the evidence that the US supported the 2002 coup, giving significant financial support to Chavez’s opponents and backing up their story about what had led to the coup. The section on the coup was gripping – Pilger covered the elite-level story, but also the responses of Venezuelans who supported Chavez.

I would have like to see more of Pilger’s exploration of post-coup Venezuela. Some of the initiatives looked interesting (and perhaps problematic) – I’m looking forward to finding time to read more about the barrio-level organisations set up to bypass the bureaucracy, the corner stores run on oil proceeds, the health clinics, the changes to education, and so on. My favourite initiative: they’ve been putting sections of the constitution on packets of price-controlled rice and beans, to ensure that everyone knows what their rights are.

As long as you can grit your teeth and bear a bit of propaganda and clumsiness, I think this is well worth watching.


* I think there’s a good argument for closing these stations, given their support for the 2002 coup, but it’s an argument that should be entered into, not glossed over.

The Dangers of Blogging: arrest, unemployment, and looking like an idiot

There have been a few things, over the last few months, that have made me think about the various dangers associated with having a blog. Yesterday I was listening to a searchenginepodcast about the arrest of Chinese bloggers. There have been various stories about people being fired for blogging. I’ve also been having a few chats with other postgrads in my department about blogging – trying to work out what I want this blog to be about and what I want it to achieve.


Now, I’m not too worried about being arrested at this stage. I suppose this might be a problem in the future, depending on where I live in the future and what I blog about, but it’s definitely not one worth worrying about yet. (Of course, we should all be concerned with civil liberties online, but I suppose I’ll leave that to another post.)

I am a bit worried about looking like an idiot, though, and this is why: I ‘google’ people’s names. Yes, it might make me look like a crazy stalker, but there are reasons. Mostly, I meet a lot of academics these days, and often I’m interested in their work and want to see what they’ve been doing. Sometimes I lose people’s contact details. Sometimes I’m just curious, and want to know more about someone I’ve just met. If I were an employer, I’d also run a search on job applicant’s names. [Edit: Tama mentions similar issues on his blog.]
So, assuming other people do what I do, there are a few rules that I tend to have for myself. Because I blog under my own name, I assume that anyone can find this blog (and my facebook account, and my librarything, which are both also under my real name). So I only write things that I’m comfortable with the whole world knowing. Including future employers, publishers, officemates, my head of department, and of course my family (who constitute my main readership, I suspect).
I think it helps to bear in mind what I want the blog to do as well as what I feel that I shouldn’t do: I want to write about snippets of my research, including the work that won’t make it into my thesis. I want anyone who stumbles across this blog to have at least a vague idea of what I’m interested in, and who I am. And, perhaps most importantly, I want to use it to find and maintain connections with other people interested in my area.
What does blogging mean for you? What is it for? What rules guide your blogging?