Slamming just says “let’s not fight”

When [Radio Free Europe]( report that “

Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze today slammed the [Commonwealth of Independent States](

“, they’re missing the point slightly. The news isn’t that Georgia dislikes the CIS (we know that already), but that they aren’t doing anything about it. ‘Slamming’ is a de-escalation, not an escalation, compared to their other options.

If Georgia wanted to cause trouble, they would be trying to leave the CIS. That’s [what the opposition want](, and what Russia is afraid of: this summit was due to be held last month, at the height of Georgian-Russian anger, but Russia arranged a [postponement]( to avoid a rash pullout by Georgia.

Leaving the CIS is one of the few weapons Georgia has against Russia: the organisation represents the last vestige of Moscow’s control over its ‘near abroad’, but is being held together with chewing gum and bits of string. To the East it’s being eclipsed by the [Shanghai Cooperation Organization](, and to the West by [GUAM]( Since these can fulfil most of the functions of an international talking shop, nobody except Russia has an interest in keeping the CIS running. If Georgia left, it could plausibly bring down the whole house of cards.

But the Georgians are being smart. If they actially leave the CIS, they lose a barganing chip and don’t gain much beyond the joy of watching Russia suffer. Much better to turn up, [refuse to pay membership fees](, grandstand about Russia’s crimes, and [keep that threat on the table](


“We are here to make sure once again if we have any reasons to stay in the organization, or it has no future,” Burjanadze announced.

Along with the recent replacement of the Defence Minister, this seems to be part of a very sensible pattern of de-escalation by Georgia.

Extreme pornography

I can’t put it better than Emarkienna

As much as I might like to hear the Queen say words such as “pornography” and perhaps “necrophilia”, I really hope tomorrow she doesn’t.

[Good explanation of problems with the proposed ban on extreme pornography [here](, old news reports [here]( and [here](,,1861301,00.html)]

A babe in arms

The latest surprise in Georgian politics is…a substitution. Out goes defence minister Irakli Okruashvili, in comes Davit Kezerashvili, a 28-year old neophyte whose main claim to fame is as chief tax inspector.

What’s going on here? Is it because Okruashvili has been shooting his mouth off, backing Georgia into a corner by talking tough at Russia? Molly Corso at Eurasianet writes:

According to analysts, Okruashvili, infamous for his blunt,

anti-Russian rhetoric, became a liability as Georgia strives to fight

Russian attempts to portray Tbilisi as the aggressor in the bilateral

row. “In Russia and the United Nations, Okruashvili was identified with

war,” said Tina Gogueliani, a political analyst with the Tbilisi-based

International Center on Conflict and Negotiation.

I’m not convinced. Yes, he has made a few awkward comments – but that hardly seems fair when other ministers are accusing Russia of ethnic cleansing and the like, and aren’t being fired.

If this is about Russia, it’s only via Ossetia. Okruashvili said he wanted to spend the New Year in

Tskhinvali, capital of the South Ossetian region which, with Russian support, is trying to separate itself from Georgia. He was born in Ossetia, and is pretty determined to bring it back under Georgian control. So, the argument goes, Saakashvili is trying to calm down the tensions over Ossetia, and avoid some embarrassing PR over the new year.

I find that a lot more plausible. Saakashvili himself has a basically mainstream attitude to South Ossetia – that is, something which looks over the top to outsiders. He knows the voters like the idea ofdefeating the separatists, made that a plank of his presidential campaign in 2004, and has let things escalate to armed scuffles both in August 2004, and in July of this year. So if Ossetia is behind this, it’s not because of a fundamental difference of opinion. But right now, when Georgia is trying to look

like the innocent victim of Russian aggression, it’s probably best to keep this conflict on the back burner. And that’s especially true after last week’s South Ossetian referendum (the people voted heavily for independence, surprising nobody but ratcheting up the tension), which makes this an even trickier dispute to handle. The new defence minister’s won’t be going overboard on Ossetia: his protestations that he isn’t soft on South Ossetia just demonstrate that he


seen as softer than his predecessor.

But, by itself, that’s not enough to explain putting your defence policy in such inexperienced hands. Granted, Kezerashvili’s previous job as head tax inspector is a lot more macho than it sounds – in this part of the world tax

evasion is closely linked to organized crime, and the financial police

have a reputation for dramatic, heavily-armed raids. But that’s a long way from running the army – the opposition are branding him “

a deserter…with no clue about the army

“. And Kezerashvili has been forced into making a fairly laughable attempt to prove his military creds:

Like most Georgians, I also like weapons…. I have a favorite sword.

If it was just about foreign policy and PR, couldn’t Saakashvili just

have told Okruashvili – and old ally – to keep his mouth shut for a few


So if foreign policy can’t explain it, what about the domestic angle?

It can’t quite be a case of Saakashvili putting his men in charge,

since the old defence minister was already a close ally of his. But if

Okruashvili was an ally, Kezerashvili is entirely Saakashvili’s

creation: a peon in the Justice Ministry until Saakashvili grabbed him

as a personal assistant, and helped him into ever-grander jobs. There’s

an element here of grooming Kezerashvili to become a major political

player (being made minister at age 28 isn’t bad going, even in a

country with a population of 4 million), combined with the knowledge

that for now he’s going to follow Saakashvili’s lead.

But however competent and loyal Saakashvili expects Kezerashvili to be, he’s also relying on him


being one of the big guns. Okruashvili was getting hard to push around: in a recent poll,

90% of Georgians considered him to be Georgia’s second most powerful

politician. There are suggestions that the president thought

Okruashvili was planng a coup, but even without going so far, it’s very

likely that Saakashvili wants to be the dominant figure in foreign

policy right now. And he’s probably managed it in the short term – but at the cost of turning a powerful ally into an enemy

A mandala is a memory palace

Maṇḍalas and memory palaces: that’s the theme of something I might have written, had I managed to stay in the academic world. The idea is that the intricate visualisations peformed by a Tantric adept during a ritual work as keys to remembering doctrine, in the same way as Roman orators and renaissance scholars used ‘memory palaces’ to organise their knowledge. And because all these groups relied on their memories more than we do, they were immeasurably better at putting them to good use.

A lot of Buddhists, modern and ancient, would have a hard time understanding the point of a ritual like this one, where they visualise a kind of hideous monster:

terrible indeed, roaring ‘PHAT’, adorned with skull ornaments, with sixteen legs, naked, ithyphallic, left legs extended, with a great belly, with hair standing upright, causing great fear, roaring ‘pheṃ’, with thirty‐four arms and holding a fresh elephant skin

[From the Vajrabhairava Tantra]

But when you read the commentary, all this is explained in terms of traditional Buddhist doctrines:

he is ornamented with skull ornaments because he is born from the sphere of dharmas…his sixteen legs are the complete ascertainment of the sixteen emptinesses…he is naked because he understands without obscuration all dharmas….he is ithyphallic because he becomes the great bliss…his left legs are extended because all dharmas are individually penetrated by emptiness…His hair standing up is a sign of his freedom from suffering….The thirty-four arms are the complete ascertainment of the thirty-four aspects of bodhi

Yes, some of the connections are a bit dubious (the usual argument is that the commentators were taking bizarre, transgressive rituals and trying to make them seem orthodox) ‐ but the principle is clearly there: visualise something colourful, and it’ll help you remember what`s going on.

In fact, this isn’t new. Buddhism was designed from the start to be easy to remember. Why do you have four noble truths, a noble eightfold path, five aggregates, and so on? Because lists are easy to remember, and when you’re a wandering monk with only a bowl and a robe for company, you need to keep things in your head.

But go back to that odd Tantric visualisation, because things get even more

interesting here. It isn’t just many-armed gods that were being pictured here, but maṇḍalas with intricate patterns of lines and symbols. One of the underlying themes is the one known in the West by the tag “

as above, so below

” and in India by “tat tvam asi”: i.e. that the maṇḍala represents the world as a whole. And by meditating on aspects of the maṇḍala, you can recall what you have been taught about the universe.

Apart from the Buddhism, this isn’t so different from something similar in Europe. Cicero used this ‘ars memorativa’ to remember his speeches, but the most detailed surviving source is Quintilian, who


a memory method based on placing symbols of things to be remembered around a home. It’s quite similar to the Indian method, except based around a real building not an imagined maṇḍala, and aimed at the law-courts not at religion. It all fits far too comfortably into stereotypes of practical Rome and the mystic East, doesn’t it?

This ‘art of memory’ dribbles on through the centuries, and gets a shot in the arm in the Renaissance, as it’s picked by by people like Robert Fludd (who develops a memory palace possibly based on the Globe theatre) and Giordano Bruno (who was famous as a mnemonicist long before the Church burned him as a heretic). These people were still talking about ‘memory palaces’, but they were moving them away from Quintilian’s real buildings and closer to the imagined spaces of Indian rituals.

Now, although I did find

one tantilising suggestion

of contact between Indian and European mnemonicists, I don’t think they’re sharing ideas. They’ve independently come up with similar techniques, because they work.

And that’s partly why I’m so fascinated: this is one of the few areas where the modern world lags massively behind the great cultures of history. The mnemonics we retain are laughable shadows. Libraries, computers and cheap paper function as our outboard brains so we don’t need onboard brains in the form of maṇḍalas and memory palaces.

In turn, that makes this one of the few areas where humanities scholars can justify their existence. Bringing back these old techniques, and combining for the first time the memory techniques of India, Europe, and anywhere else, is a project that would contribute something useful to the knowledge circulating in our culture. I almost wish I’d stayed in a university, so I could do it.

Mnemonics East and West

: I don’t seriously think that there was any direct interconnection between Indian and European mnemonic traditions, but I did find this intriguing line in the

Ars Memorativa

, a memory guide printed in Germany in 1490:

There are some masters who use loci other than doors. Such as chairs, benches, tables, bridges, windows or villages. But they recognise that the door is the easiest to know.

Those from India paint in their loci like in a book, like birds, animals, fish. First they have an eagle, then a sparrowhawk, thirdly a hawk, etc.

Some from Chaldea use all sorts of strange things. They paint sheep, birds, carts, wheels, horses….

Almost certainly, the author here (who, to be honest, seems to be something of a hack) is just using ‘_India_’ to mean ‘_some wacky far-out place_’. But you never know, I could be wrong.


: He wrote a full chapter on the art of memory, going through his method in detail. Summarising the crucial bits:

Some place is chosen of the largest possible extent and characterised by the utmost possible variety, such as a space house divided into a number of rooms. Everything of note therein is carefully committed to the memory…

The next step is to distinguish something [to be remembered] by some particular symbol which will serve to jog the memory….

These symbols are then arranged as follows. The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living-room; the remainder are placed in due order all round… and entrusted not merely to bedrooms and parlours, but even to the care of statues and the like. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details

Can I post a quick, angstfree LJ puzzle?

I don’t usually like linking without explanation, but I’ll make an exception for this, which should appeal to the inner geek in all of you. Plus Prufrock and Hamlet, mangled for rachelfmb and emmav to enjoy. Here’s a sample:

I recognized large, arbitrary changes. “Odd”, I thought. “Why?” To research, I headed downstairs, muttering softly, “Hmm”.

I hastened below carefully, there revisiting my book room. Books inhabited each table, shelf, and nook. Taking Cambridge Literature Treasury and proceeding to “Poetry, Poe’s”, my fears – oh my God! – heightened. Sighting no Raven but The Dark Bird, severe distress arose. “Absolutely, The Raven is maimed!”, I exclaimed. “How?!”

Immediately arriving upstairs, I posited a conspiracy: a literature alteration conspiracy. “Are,” I did quietly question, “all writings changed?”

I have a sneaking suspicion that the


geeky among you (yes, that means the Mau players) have already read this, and devised your own more intricate versions. Am I right?

How Pakistan wins in Central Asia

Pakistan is quietly setting itself up to do very well out of Central Asia, slightly underneath the radar. Despite being a significant power it itself, militarily and population-wise, Pakistan’s playing the typical game of the small state. It’s piggybacking on the aspirations of China, America, and even India, being bankrolled and supported by them without ever quite becoming a client state.

###China and the oil

China is famously desperate for oil, and Pakistan is doing well by helping it get at what’s in Central Asia. At the core of this is [Gwadar](, a fishing village that Pakistan is furiously turning into a port and transport hub – funded by over $400m of Chinese money. It might be a [grim place to visit](, but it’s also the site of a fascinating convergence of superpowers.

Remember the [oil pipeline through Afghanistan]( – the one some people claimed was behind the US invasion of Afghanistan? That was going to end up in Gwadar – and still will, if it ever goes ahead. It might end up being extended at both ends, to Azerbaijan and India, with Pakistan sitting happily in the middle taking transit fees. If that pipeline doesn’t come off (building anything through Afghanistan seems pretty dubious), there’s another one waiting in the wings: the Iran-Pakistan-India gas route – which would again go through Gwadar.

China has been [considering]( building another pipeline on from Gwadar into China – and even if that doesn’t happen, they’ll be able to ship oil out by sea.

Meanwhile the Chinese are building one railway to connect Gwadar to the [Karakoram Highway](, have already [built]( a road linking it to Karachi, and are looking at linking it to Iran.

So, China gets a little more energy security, Pakistan gets road, railways, a new port, earnings from transit fees, and Chinese interest in keeping Pakistan stable.

###America and the Taliban

Then there’s America – an even clearer case of Pakistan selling off its foreign policy, but getting a good proce for it. In September 2001 Musharraf managed to spin Pakistan’s foreign policy 180 degrees, abandon the Taliban, and let the American army use Pakistan to invade Afghanistan. And boy, were they rewarded – with [money](,2763,984792,00.html), with [weapons](, with a [trade deal]( and with general support for the regime.


Pakistan can’t use quite the same approach to dealing with its greatest enemy – but even here there are pragmatic elements. It’s just that here Pakistan’s deal-makers are competing with the populists and the nationalists, and they only come out on top some of the time.

Let’s take the populists first. India-bashing always goes down well, and if there’s an election coming up the politicians will say some nasty things about India. But this isn’t all that important: sometimes politicians get boxed in by their rhetoric and forced to do something, sometimes talking tough affects the situation by itself – but in general, the grandstanding doesn’t amount to much.

More important is the body of nationalistic, paranoid, anti-Indian opinion which dominates Pakistans army and [intelligence services]( These are the people who got Pakistan involved in supporting the Taliban to provide ‘Strategic Depth’ – that is, having friendly space for Pakistan’s army to regroup in the face of an attack from India, and avoiding India and her allies encircling Pakistan. These people get nervous when they see India [stationing a dozen MiG-29 fighter planes in Tajikistan](

But then there’s the third group, who want to cut the same kind of deal with India as they’ve made with China and the US. That is, let India use Pakistan as a route to Central Asia (and Iran, in this case), and on the back of that get money and an Indian interest in keeping Pakistan stable. The big avenue for this is a proposed [gas pipeline]( running from Iran to India, through Pakistan. From that idea, it’s only a short step to getting India a share of what comes off any pipeline between Turkmenistan and Pakistan. When gas is involved, even the arch-enemy can be turned into a friend.

###Keeping everybody happy

It’s not easy keeping three superpowers in bed together, but Pakistan is navigating through the straits pretty well. The US didn’t like the look of China’s involvement in Gwadar – they saw it as a listening post and a way for China to project naval power into the Arabian sea. So they leant on Pakistan to push China out of the deal. What did Pakistan do? They raised the price of Chinese involvement, [demanding]( $1.5bn per year from Beijing. So Islamabad turns a conflict into a win: either China coughs up and they’re in the money, or they back out and the US takes over Gwadar (which they’d find useful for browbeating Iran and for supplying trops in Iraq)

When Pakistan chooses to defy the superpowers, it can, because every power involved has an interest in propping up the Musharraf government. Most obviously, the US is still relying on their support in the War on Terror. But nobody wants to see a nuclear power in civil war, and both China and (especially) India know that a disintegrating Pakistan is infinitely worse than a stable Pakistan.

###Going it alone?

Apart from being everybody’s accomplice, is Pakistan getting involved in Central Asia? Well, they’ve tried a little, but not enough for anybody to care much. According to [RAND](

> In the early 1990s, many Pakistani firms and the Bank of Pakistan moved into the region expecting rapid liberalization and acceptance of their services. After attempting to conduct business in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan for several years, many firms re-sorted to looking for an exit strategy.1

Pakistan’s government has made a few [attempts]( at promoting business in Central Asia, but it’s mostly trivia. In 2003-4, Pakistan’s exports to Central Asia and the Caucasus amounted to just 1.2bn rupees – or slightly over US$20m!

There’s no much worth mentioning militarily, either: Pakistan’s army may be the 7th largest in the world, but it’s pointed entirely at India. The ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence service) reputedly has agents all over the region, but they don’t exactly


a great deal. In the past they were accused of stirring up Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and elsewhere, but that was mostly a by-product of what was happening in Afghanistan – and has stopped since 2001 in any case. It doesn’t matter much, because Pakistan is doing far better from helping superpowers than it could do by itself.


You’ll only find [one article]( on it in the British broadsheets, but Kyrgyzstan has spent the past five days in the middle of massive, peaceful anti-government demonstrations. The protesters are principally calling for a change in the constitution to reduce the power of the president, but they also want to get rid of the President, [Kurmanbek Bakiyev]( and Prime Minister [Felix Kulov](

I love watching the role of blogs in all this. [Edil Baisalov]( the protesters’ unofficial spokesman, is posting frequent (Russian) updates on Livejournal – from a yurt outside the parliament building. Meanwhile Yulia at [New Eurasia]( is keeping up a commentary from the opposite side, very critical of the opposition and worried that repeated coups will turn the country into a banana republic. Even Kyrgyz news agency AKIpress has turned to livejournal: they were having trouble keeping their site up, so they set up a livejournal and started posting reports up there.

If you want to follow what’s going on in English: here are news updates, analysis from people outside the country here and here. Currently [Eurasianet]( is reporting that things have started to turn violent – here’s hoping for a compromise of some kind.

Who are the Bishkek protesters?

Rather than another blow-by-blow accoutn of what’s going on in Kyrgyzstan, I thought it might be more useful to do a ‘who’s who’ of the protesters. I’ve also tried to touch-up/create bios for some of them over at Wikipedia. Beware: the below is neither comprenensive nor fully checked…

  • Almaz Atambaev. Social Democratic Party Businessman, failed presidential candidate in 2000, briefly minister for Industry, trade and tourism
  • Omurbek Tekebaev. Speaker (former speaker?) of the Kyrgyz parliament, presidential candidate in 2000. Is his brother, Asylbek Tekebayev, also involved?
  • Edil Baisalov: NGO-wallah, blogger, victim of an assassination attempt earlier this year. No formal party affiliation, as far as I know.
  • Roza Otunbayeva, former Foreign Minister. Founder of the small Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party. She was banned from standing in the 2005 elections because she hadn’t been resident in Kyrgyzstan for five years (she had been serving as ambassador to the US!)
  • Isa Omurkulov. Former minister of railroads.
  • Timur Sariev. Being quoted a lot, but I can’t find anything about him, except that he’s a member of parliament.
  • Kubatbek Baibolov – leader of the Union of Democratic Forces
  • Melis Eshimkanov. Deputy chair, social democratic party, and former presidential candidate.

History of printing

This post is brought to you by the awestruck feeling of finding yet another underexplored bit of world history….

We all know Gutenberg wasn’t the first person to experiment with movable type; it had been tried in China before. What I hadn’t realised was just how international the world was first time round.

One of the first examples of movable type comes from the [Tangut Empire]( They were printing in a [language]( unrelated to Chinese, written in a script inspired by Chinese characters – but with a set of 6000+ totally different logograms.

And some of the first texts that they tried to print like this were buddhist text translated from Sanskrit (possibly via Tibetan).

So: this culture created a writing system inspired by the Chinese, a religion from India, and out of them developed movable type 400-odd years before Gutenberg. Impressive, no?

But, there’s a flaw. Movable type makes a lot less sense with 6000 characters than it does with an alphabet of 30-something. So for the most part, they just printed by carving wood-blocks, one per page. So when they created a Tangut version of the [Tripitaka](, the Buddhist scriptural canon, they used 130,000 blocks. Most of them are now in London or St. Petersburg, having been raided by people like Aurel Stein. Here are some papers on Tangut history and language.

[The picture is a fragment from a written Tangur text of the Platform Sutra, taken from the British Library]