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Archive for August, 2011

Poms, Paddies, Jocks & Taffs

August 26, 2011 23 comments

I wrote this piece about British national terms after my Cross-Cultural Communication lecturer asked me about the differences between different UK-ish groups. Anyone/everyone disagree?

The most important bit, and by far the most offensive to get wrong, is recognising that the non-English nations within the UK can never be called ‘England’. England, Scotland and Wales are Great Britain; Great Britain and Northern Ireland together are the UK; and citizens of the UK are referred to as British citizens (the word ‘Britain’ on its own doesn’t have a set meaning). If you call someone from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland ‘English’, they’ll be extremely cross. This is a particular problem for non-native English speakers, since many languages don’t discriminate between ‘British’ and ‘English’.

However, there are also plenty of ways of using technically correct forms that can cause confusion, and sometimes offence.

Most Scottish or Welsh people don’t mind being referred to as ‘British’, although most wouldn’t use that term to describe themselves. However, a Scottish or Welsh person with strong political nationalist views might take offence at it. In general, it’s best to describe someone who’s Scottish or Welsh as simply Scottish or Welsh, although a mixed group of people from England, Scotland and Wales can be referred to as British without offending anyone.

With Northern Irish people, there’s a Protestant/Catholic divide (in the sense of heritage/culture rather than actual religions). Most NI Protestants are happy to identify as British; most NI Catholics would be angry to be described as British, even when they’re in a group that also includes people from England, Scotland and Wales. You can’t even sidestep that one by using ‘Northern Irish’, as most Catholics would just describe themselves as ‘Irish’ (particularly as many Catholics born and resident in Northern Ireland choose to carry [Southern] Irish passports, since the Republic of Ireland grants citizenship to anyone born anywhere on the island of Ireland, and Irish citizenship gives you full residency and voting rights anywhere in the UK). Nor can you sidestep it by using ‘Irish’, because many Protestants would be offended to be described as ‘Irish’ rather than ‘Northern Irish’.

Whether a person born in England says they are ‘English’ or ‘British’ is dependent on several factors: whether they have mixed UK heritage, whether or not they’ve grown up in London (‘English’ tends to have more rural, village green-ish connotations, whereas ‘British’ is more urban and ethnically mixed), if they’re from an ethnic minority (black and Asian people in England generally refer to themselves as ‘black British’ and ‘Asian British’, because they don’t identify so well with the stereotype of English), and political affiliations (because of the connotations above, people who are more conservative are more likely to identify as English and vice versa, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule).

However, most people born in England won’t be offended by being called the term they don’t personally use (I’m not offended to be described as English, and my Tory friends aren’t offended to be described as British) – I think this is largely because England is traditionally the dominant nation/culture within the UK, and in most English people’s minds there isn’t much of a difference between English/British. The exceptions here would include a few extreme English nationalists (but a far smaller percentage of the population than in Scotland or Wales) if called British, and possibly a few people from ethnic minority groups if called English.

(the entirely crazy-old-man David Duff has rightly pointed out that in the spirit of the headline, the Welsh are Taffs. CHANGED)

Blogging is dead and no-one cares?

August 12, 2011 7 comments

My riot policing piece yesterday attracted 600 unique visitors in 24 hours. That isn’t exactly Perez Hilton, but is about six times my current normal run rate (I think the biggest this blog has ever been is about 1000 daily visitors, for some of the global financial crisis articles).

The fact that the piece had quite a few visitors isn’t too surprising, I suppose – it was a take on a newsworthy and important topic that dissented somewhat from the conventional wisdom, based on hours and hours of discussion with people who were on the scene across different English cities and/or who really understand counterinsurgency strategy. And it was pleasing to see strategy/COIN experts talking about it favourably.

The odd thing, though, is that whenever I’ve written a piece in the past that has gained masses of attention, it’s been through links from bigger blogs, news sources, or occasionally forums. This time, as far as I can see from my logs, there haven’t been *any* blog links to the piece. All the traffic is coming from retweets and reshares on Twitter and Facebook.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as to say that blogs are dead as a medium: the existence of a self-publishing platform with a fairly powerful off-the-shelf CMS, and that isn’t restricted to a particular social network, remains useful.

But it’s looking like the sense in which we’ve traditionally understand blogs – roughly, a community of people who link to each other’s posts, comment on them, and write pieces that track back to them – no longer really applies. Facebook and Twitter have killed it, in favour of something flatter and much less based on the blogger’s personal brand.

Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

August 11, 2011 14 comments

I’m not going to do a hand-wringing riots piece. We’ve seen a million of them, whether from a cartoonish ‘make them less poor’ point of view, an authoritarian ‘hell in a handbasket, we’re doomed’ point of view, or a bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ point of view. It’s dull.

However, following on from Jamie’s post about how the riots went down in Manchester, and a question on Tim’s blog about Liverpool and Manchester cops making more arrests more rapidly than London cops, I do have a few thoughts on police tactics.

First up, the police did an excellent job at preventing loss of life and serious injury. Obviously, the deaths in Birmingham are terribly sad – and if the initial eyewitness statements prove to be correct, about as cowardly and evil as it gets. But the fact that in London, nobody was killed and few bystanders were seriously hurt is amazing, and not what anyone would have expected from news footage on Sunday/Monday. “People not being killed” is more important than “Currys not being robbed”.

But while the police did well on that basic front, the disorder in London lasted longer than the public could reasonably be expected to tolerate – hence the myriad of calls throughout the week to send in the Army, and/or to use water-cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas. The problem is that none of these would actually have helped. In short, policing in London on Sunday/Monday didn’t fail due to lack of force, or due to political correctness preventing officers from beating thugs up (plenty of beating up of thugs was done). Rather, it was due to a lack of understanding of what was going on – and, to some extent, a lack of absolute manpower.

The looters this time round flashmobbed. Digressionally, this is why BlackBerry Messaging is important to how the riots worked, not just an irrelevant detail like Twitter and Facebook. For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random. Throughout London, mobs turned up at a co-ordinated time, looted, ran away, and regrouped. That isn’t how riots have historically happened: normally, the mob is trying to claim a specific territory, and the authorities are trying to stop them. Like a traditional war, with a front line.

These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.

In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.

Politically speaking, the wider mob of angry non-looting citizenry needs to be placated – so completely useless draconian measures seem likely to be introduced. If they are, they’re certain to be used when more-or-less peaceful demonstrations like UKuncut get rowdy, because those are the crowd dynamics in which CS gas and water cannons ‘work’ (if you class quelling the violent thugs slightly more rapidly, while also injuring far more non-violent protestors than would otherwise be the case, as ‘working’). So that’s a bit depressing for those of us who support the right to political protests.

But the good news (at least, for people who don’t like their house being on fire) is that the things the authorities have clearly learned over the last few days make it unlikely that the perceived total breakdown of law and order seen in London will be repeated. At least, not until the next new kind of rioting strategy emerges…

Have Google ever met any foreigners?

August 1, 2011 9 comments

The World’s Unsurprisingly Fastest-Growing Networking Platform, Google+, is getting stick from various corners for its naming policy. This formally restricts you to “Use your full first and last name in a single language“.

The idea behind it is sensible. G+ aims to be a combination of a professional network like LinkedIn, and a personal network like Facebook, with ‘circles’ ensuring your clients can’t see your Tequila Night photos and that your girlfriend’s mates don’t get spammed with your articles on social media marketing.

In both those cases, the connections and relationships that people have become meaningful *because* they use their real names. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, despite now having 750 million users encompassing many utter idiots, hasn’t descended into the kind of horrible pseudonymous anarchy found on MySpace or Bebo. So banning people from calling themselves thinks like HotBloke1988 or BieberFan1997 is probably a good thing.

Similarly, and also sensibly, Google wants to have proper segmentation between users, interests, brands. This is a model which Facebook took some years to implement properly, leading to the occasional whinge and/or viral petition from silly people when their inappropriately-set-up page gets taken down because it’s using a personal profile to advertise a product or political cause. Part of the reason for Google to be so hardcore about enforcing real names in the initial roll-out is to make sure that people understand from Day 1 that You Can’t Do That, and need to set up the proper sort of page for whatever you’re trying to spruik.

While I understand that this annoys some pseudonymous writers, I think they’re a sacrifice worth making in the short term to ensure that Google+ starts and continues as a place based around actual relationships and trust, like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the long term, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t adopt brand identities and share in G+ that way – there’s no real difference between ‘Skud’ and ‘TechCrunch’, in the sense that they’re both content sources defined entirely by what they publish online.

However, the real problem with this part of the G+ roll-out is the massively ham-fisted way in which it deals with anyone whose name doesn’t fit the Anglo-Saxon convention of Firstname Middlename1 Middlename2 Familyname. Which accounts for, erm, almost everyone in China, a sizeable proportion of the population of India, and everyone in Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking countries. And would have been completely avoidable if even *one* developer from *one* of these countries had worked on the G+ project.

If you’re starting a new social network, it’s straightforward to build a database that has 12 name fields instead of 2. This allows you to account for any combination of names in any language, while also allowing your users to select which of those names are displayed in the default profile, and in which order.

So a Chinese person with a Western nickname could write their name as Lee (Familyname) Wan-Wing (Firstname) Robert (Nickname), and then choose to display their name as “Lee Wan-Wing” or “Robert Lee” depending on their preferred convention. The default to display would be Firstname Familyname, but any others would count. Similarly, a Spanish person could enter their name as Javier (Firstname) Garcia (Familyname) Lopez (Matronymic), while a Russian would be Mikhail (Firstname) Sergeyevich (Patronymic), and a South Indian would be Prashant (Name) Kumar (Patronymic). This would make all names traceable and transparent, while also ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to pick something that’s culturally appropriate.

Given that Google employs 10,000 staff outside of the US, including many Indians and many Chinese people, it seems bizarre that this concern doesn’t appear to even have arisen during the G+ roll-out. Differences in database design formed by the use of English versus non-English users have been a massive concern in Internet circles for decades, as highlighted most obviously by the time taken to allow non-ASCII characters for domain names. Any multinational company has to deal with the “names don’t map onto English names” problem for its own staff, even if its customers are largely based in the west (surely there can’t be a software company in the world that doesn’t employ South Indians?).

The only explanation I can think of is that it simply didn’t occur to the senior managers in charge of Google+ that different people worldwide might have different naming concepts. And that none of the less senior foreigners raised the concept. God Bless America!