Not at all fascinating map of the world’s most and least tedious countries

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When two Facebook friends set out to examine whether including a map could render an otherwise totally pointless blog post any more or less credible, they knew just where to look for inspiration. All that remained was to choose a suitably inane subject and invent some survey statistics.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. Someone actually shouted out “Africa!” during the selection process. It was reasoned that they should not be expelled, since there might be a grant opportunity from the EU for employing the geographically-challenged.

Here, after almost fifteen minutes of slaving away with Photoshop, is the result.

Global-Tedium-Rankings-2013

We won’t be diving into the data, because there is none. However, a couple of caveats:

  1. It’s not only likely that some people lied when creating this map; it’s a certainty. The entire thing was invented on a whim.
  2. This is not an annual exercise. Over time, the relative tedium ranking of a country may shift in myriad ways that no one can be bothered to investigate.

We are the System

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Qu’une révolution détruise un gouvernement en laissant intacts les modes de pensée qui lui ont donné naissance, on les retrouvera dans le gouvernement suivant. On parle beaucoup de système, mais on ne sait pas de quoi on parle.
Traité du zen et de l’entretien des motocyclettes de Robert M. Pirsig

We ARE the System - poster artwork by @lissnup

We ARE the System!

If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic
patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact,
then those patterns will repeat themselves. . . . There’s so much talk
about the system. And so little understanding.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—Robert Pirsig

Any given day, much of my time is taken up with systems of one kind or another, their attendant problems, and the struggles that ensue.  Today I found myself dealing with the frustration of a tiny but elusive error preventing a simple computer program from executing. At the same time, my anger was aroused when I learned that Twitter suspended the account of someone who had voiced their opinion without malice or death threats. I felt angry because I knew they had not suspended the account of a hateful bigot who suggested religious genocide against Muslims as an appropriate response to the deaths of 3 innocent people in the Boston explosions, before the actual culprits were even identified. I see parallels in these two events because in both cases there are rules are in place to govern behaviour, yet a repetition of the same behaviour seemingly produced different results.

Rules are the framework of all systems, and the application of those rules is operational governance. The computer code which worked just fine on server a but failed on server b was not at fault, neither were the servers. As a programmer, I was working under an assumption, and a reasonably rational one, that server a = server b. Awareness of that assumption, and modifying the code in a very specific way, resolved the difference, and solved the immediate problem. You should note that in this solution, the systems were not changed, but server a ≠ server b. The reason is that the administrators of the systems had applied subtly different methods of operational governance. The way around it was to make a subtle change in behaviour – specifically, in the way the code was presented: behaviour a ≠ behaviour b.

In the case of the Twitter accounts, the same initial behaviour (sending replies that upset the other party) also yielded two different results:  account x was suspended, account y was not. There is only one set of rules published on Twitter; were the rules applied differently? Such situations are not unusual and they often provoke outrage. This is because insisting on a set of rules but then failing to apply them consistently indicates a issue in the operational governance of the system – as applied by its administrators – the outcome of which is inequality. However, when we realise that account y was able to evade censure by deleting the offensive tweet quite quickly – we can see that the issue can be dismissed because there was a subtle but effective difference, and (ultimately) behaviour x ≠ behaviour y. But honestly, no one likes to see patterns like this. They speak to us of petty, nit-picking, jobs-worthy administrators and belligerent, arrogant self-styled elites. They are the nagging whispers of inequality and injustice.

These are tiny examples of how we create systems which exhaust us – with their imperfections, contradictions and inconsistencies. We find ourselves adapting to different scenarios and trying to formulate corresponding sets of behaviours just to obtain the same outcomes.

The most uncomfortable and painful issues occur where impersonal systems of governance collide with human needs and aspirations, where the impersonal crashes into the personal. Such events cannot be avoided, because it is at this intersection that change happens.

In the process of our trial and error approach, we provide feedback to the system, which might then respond by changing the rules! Very often, the change favours the system, and personal aspirations are crushed, while institutional power is increased. For example, people who start out speaking about freedom of choice but are later transformed by an increasingly restrictive security system into prisoners demanding freedom from oppression.

There’s a lot of debate and discussion about “revolutions” these days, but the truth is, a real revolution is incredibly difficult to accomplish. Indeed, so much of everyone’s time and attention is constantly being diverted just dealing with the existing system and its ever-changing rules, there is rarely any opportunity to indulge in critical thinking or to devise solid plans to change the status quo. Higher level goals are pushed further from our grasp as we get caught up in the details of conflict.

This, I think, could be our greatest challenge: to mentally step outside the system, distance ourselves from events at the border, reclaim our ability to think for ourselves, acknowledge our role in creating and sustaining systems – in driving their changes with our feedback, understand what forces are at work, and the ways we surrender our personal power to the impersonal systems we inhabit and nurture.

Bouncing Bullets: The Accidental Shooting of a President

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What was reported as an accidental shooting of president Mohammed ould Abdel Aziz in Mauritania on the evening of Saturday, 14 October has taken many twists and turns, with new versions emerging so often that everyone is thoroughly confused. It is important to note, most of these versions are not theories, but news stories being related to the media by various players in and around the ruling regime. All this storytelling takes place against the backdrop of Aziz and some of his entourage having flown to France, on Sunday, where he was admitted to the Percy Clamart* military hospital in the suburbs of  Paris, a fair distance from the centre. Aziz is reported to be recovering well from his ordeal although there is no firm news about his return.

Percy Clamart military hospital. New presidential headquarters of Mauritania

Most stories begin with Aziz returning southwards to the capital, Nouakchott, from his rural ranch near Akjoujt, in the westerly Inchiri region of the country. In all but one account Aziz was driving the vehicle, an unmarked Toyota Avensis Landcruiser V8, with 80% tinted windows and, under all but extremely unusual circumstances, this would be a specially adapted armoured car.

Mauritania was supposedly under a security alert due to a warning from an unidentified foreign power (best guess: France) about new terrorist threats. There was increased security – but not a nationwide state of emergency – and Aziz had cancelled his plans to attend the ‘Francophonie’ summit in Democratic Republic of the Congo because of the alert. This fact makes it highly unlikely that he would be driving, alone or in convoy, in a regular car. It should also indicate that his personal security team would be strongly opposed to any plans to go driving alone at night, even in familiar territory.

What everyone agrees on is that the president arrived in his car at the Nouakchott military hospital that Saturday evening alone, dressed in casual clothes and without an escort. The cousin who is mentioned in several accounts as having been a passenger in the vehicle at the time of the shooting was not present and has not made any official statement. I have been told by more than one contact in Mauritania that this cousin was not with Aziz, and has been accounted for at the time, but in the south of the country. This is important because otherwise, he has to be considered as a suspect for the shooting.

On the subject of who did the shooting, there are again several versions, most claiming that military personnel opened fire on the president’s car in error, after it failed to stop either at a checkpoint or near a military base between 35 and 45 kilometres from Nouakchott. The lone unmarked vehicle had not been recognised as belonging to the president and was assumed to be “hostile”. This raises serious questions about the standard operating procedures of Mauritanian security forces, and at the same time is strongly reminiscent of the Diabaly massacre in Mali a month earlier. Versions of who opened fire range from either a lone shooter or three men in a Mercedes 190 targeting the president deliberately, to two soldiers at the military base.

The news of Aziz having been shot began with typical uninformed drama: the first message which reached me claimed he had been shot in the head and was dead. The story evolved so that he was still alive but seriously injured, having been shot in various places on his body: neck, shoulder, arm, hand, stomach, and I think I also saw a leg mentioned at one point.  A large crowd had gathered outside the military hospital and rumours were rife. At this juncture, an official statement was released claiming Aziz was only slightly injured and would be making a public statement to reassure everyone. He did appear on national television on Sunday morning to say he was well, an emergency operation had been a success, and he would be going to Paris for further treatment. See my comment on this post for some highlights of questions arising from the spin.

It all seems too complicated to explain in words, and since there are no theories to speak of yet, I have made an illustration to present my own theory on how a bullet from 1-3 shooters could injure Aziz in several places:

How a man driving an armoured Toyota Landcruiser V8 can be shot in the shoulder/chest, and through the back, with the bullet exiting the stomach, and injuring the arm/hand before entering the bowel.

There is another story doing the rounds at the moment, and it does not involve any late-night solo driving in the desert or military bases, “distant” cousins or diagrams (thankfully!). This one says that Aziz was at a private house in Nouakchott in the company of a lady who is not his wife and was injured in a crime of passion. The rest of the details are too sordid for a quiet little blog like mine. At least in this alternative explanation they don’t have to produce a bullet-riddled vehicle or even any bullets, which are two examples of the many normal and expected things that have not happened.

*Clamart is where, on 22 August 1962 the French President Charles de Gaulle was the target of an assassination attempt organised by the French paramilitary group of OAS. Percy Clamart hospital is where Yasser Arafat died in 2004.

New #m25fev Civil Activism Campaign in #Mauritania

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An awareness-building campaign mounted by February 25 Movement [ar] civil activists in Mauritania to encourage people to react against against spiralling prices has been launched across the country. This first new campaign after a distinct lull in activity has received an enthusiastic reception from Mauritanian youth on social networks, and lots of coverage in local media.

This image shows the change in fuel prices from the three significant price reductions totalling 84MRO implemented after the 2008 military coup against former president Abdallahi – one of the reasons used to justify it was his inability to control runaway price inflation – and then the increases right after the 2009 election that brought General Aziz to power.

With the presidency and international funding secured, prices have been increased 23 times, by a total of 226MRO. They will continue to do so, as long as the Mauritanian government keeps its promise to the IMF, to remove all fuel and food subsidies, restrict wages and install other economic measures in exchange for continued tranches of cash from the Extended Credit Facility.

The 6.4 million-dollar question: what happens to the IMF funds, and to the revenues from the countries two main sources of income: mining and fishing. Aziz made bold claims about being the “president of the poor” (a trashy tag beloved of dictators) and promising to stop corruption.  The reality is that people are worse off and, far from ending corruption, Aziz and his regime have transferred senior political, business and banking positions from former elites to their own sticky-fingered clique.

Here’s an English language version of the image