Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Bill Gates, GM seeds, Monsanto and Africa. Hope for the future?

Bill and Melinda Gates during their visit to t...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I do find this all profoundly depressing.

There I am, minding my business looking at a news website, when my eye catches one of those annoying little 'On the web' link-bait thingies. 'Bill Gates' predictions for 2030' it says. Fair enough. I refuse to click on 'em as a matter of principle (my furious rebellion has come to this over the years) but a while later I made my own way over to the 2015 Gates Note, which is Bill and Melinda's version of the sort of photocopied note that goes with the Christmas card to let everyone know little Gypsophila is now taking ballet lessons and wee Roderick has stopped eating light bulbs.

Bill and Melinda make a number of predictions for the future, slavishly picked up and amplified by all manner of media. One of them is 'Africa will be able to feed itself'. Which is nice. I was reading all this worthy guff, all the time being keenly aware of a nagging sensation about Bill Gates that I've tended to have since the days when, as a journalist, I was in receipt of official letters of complaint from Microsoft about the things I had to say about them - and him.

I saw a little infographic thingy, the 'Four keys to agricultural productivity', sourced from AGRA - the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. These sorts of acronym pop out at me nowadays, they usually mean 'Big Business/Agro Disguised As Something You'd Like More'. Alliances, Committees and Action Groups funded by Big PR to front some vested interest or another.

And such is AGRA. The weasel comes in their own FAQ:
Can resource-poor smallholder farmers afford to buy seed every year? 
Yes. In fact, we are finding that seed companies regularly sell out of their stocks every year, and still cannot keep up with demand. Selling seed in small packages and making it available at the village level has greatly increased farmer adoption of improved seed. Mobile money has likewise boosted sales of seed in remote villages. AGRA also works with farmer organizations that offer group buying opportunities, as well as access to credit. What we are increasingly seeing is that, by adopting improved seed, farmers are becoming more prosperous and more able to purchase additional seed, as well as other inputs.

Does AGRA support GMO in Africa?
AGRA invests in conventional, farmer-driven breeding as a way to give farmers access to high-quality seed at prices they can afford. The big problem for farmers in Africa is access to reliable seed. Currently, only about one quarter of Africa's smallholder farmers have access to good seeds, compared to, for instance, 80 percent of farmers in China. New varieties are needed because many of the seeds farmers use today are inherently low-yielding and vulnerable to crop diseases and pests.

Well, hold on a moment, folks. What was wrong with a straight 'no' to that last question? And why would farmers HAVE to afford to buy seed every year?

It's interesting that everyone here is talking about 'maize' when they mean 'corn' or 'sweet corn'. Is it just my nasty, suspicious mind that tars us all with avoiding an increasingly unpopular and maligned word? Did you know that Canola was a brand name, coined (at least in part) because North American consumers wouldn't like the sound of 'rape seed'? Or that over 90% of the North African rape crop is Genetically Modified (GM)? Or that over 95% of American sweetcorn is GM - designed to be resistant to chemicals such as Monsanto's poisonous Roundup herbicide and so allowing the crop to be drenched in such high levels of the awful stuff that it makes its way into the food chain - and the food that people eat?

AGRA was founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So we take a look at this drought resistant 'maize' Bill's PR guy is waffling on about. It would seem 'Joyce Sandiya' in Tanzania was likely planting ZM 309 or ZM 523, two varieties of hybrid corn developed by CIMMYT (another acronym right there, this time for the 'International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center', whose research into drought resistant corn was backed by, wait for it, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation). It was planted in Malawi in 2009 to great success.

Which is great, right? We're feeding Africa. Yay.

Except I can't help feeling unsettled by some of CIMMYT's bedfellows. They're working with Monsanto, the poster child for egregious GM and a company in which one Mr Gates' Foundation has a substantial, 500,000 share, investment (he's also invested in GM company Cargill but is tight-lipped about both investments). They're also linked to genomics company GeneMax, 'big six' GM company DuPont and agrochemical and genomics company Syngenta. Their 'advisory board' have strong links to Monsanto and Cargill.

They've got GM scrawled all over them.

It's interesting looking at all the coverage of their work, how they always partner with a local authority/research associate and ensure the local boys are upfront when it comes to the headlines and credit. Again, that's just me being suspicious and remembering the techniques used to publicise Microsoft 'win' stories back in the day.

You won't be surprised by now to learn that 25-year former Monsanto executive and GM research pioneer Robert Horsch is the deputy director for agriculture at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So there's Africa's hope for the future, right there. Bound to buy their seeds every year (wait for the prices to go up), mired in debt and tied to restrictive contracts and drenched in glyphosate herbicides, producing poisoned food in thrall to big agribusiness that snuck in under the coverage of enlightened philanthropy.

You really couldn't make it up...

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A Cairo State Of Mind

English: View from Cairo Tower
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The pollution is staggering: the air is grey with it, the sunlight dappling the twisted trees by the roadside moves with the slow miasma. It rained in the night, the moisture still shines in the ruts and gulleys of the serpentine backstreets and alleys.

Cats dart nervously between cars or feed on the rubbish piled up on the kerbsides, a broken-legged skinny dog whines. Its ribs are stark, skin-stretched.

The traffic grumbles and roars, constantly punctuated by the cacophony of blaring, bleating horns. People weave between the battered cars, squeezed into each other by the press of steel as they scurry or loiter.

Everything's grubby, despite the rain.

The statue of Ibrahim Pacha stands proud on its great block, the leader of Egypt's armies, the defeater of the Ottomans, defender of the realm and much other rot beside. His hand is raised, his mighty, verdigris-streaked steed below him as he looks out over the filthy, crumbling city around him. When it has all fallen in on itself, neglected until it simply collapses under its own febrile weight and the vibrations of the traffic - like an African Jericho - he'll still be proud, still be there. The downtown area is increasingly being bequested to the poor and marginalised as the Money moves out to 'New Cairo', with its Emaar developments and Al Futtaim Malls.

Over lunch at the conference, one of my fellow speakers tried to prod me about how fake and spangly Dubai is. I was too polite to tell him it was the one thing Cairo's brightest and bestest aspire to, so much so they're building a facsimile of Dubai on the outskirts of their fatigued city just as Dubai is building its very own facsimile of the pyramids. Let's swap: your culture for our glamour. Don't forget to spit on your hand before shaking, buddy.

A subway takes you away from the Great Man, steps take you down to pass under the road around the statue. Two men loiter for tips at the bottom. They have a plastic table to rest their prayer beads and ashtray on. There's an escalator going up and two fat old women approach it nervously. One is holding a box of food on her head, the scarves covering them drape over shapeless shoulders. They hop on, grasping for the handrail.

Disaster: a mis-step and their movements become increasingly Lorenzian, catastrophically they reach out for each other and lose the handrail. The younger of the men with the plastic table starts to move, sensing the unfolding tragedy. He's too slow, the ladies tumble, one onto her back, one falling forwards. The box of food goes flying as he belatedly hits the escalator stop button. I catch the food, the ladies wailing and scrabbling at the glass sides of the stairway as they try to heave themselves to their feet. They bat away the vain attempts of the man to help them, calling to God to help them. I right the food box and leave it aside as other onlookers rush to help the howling women.

Coming up out of the subway into the exhaust-laden sunshine, a man with one leg has paused to regain his breath after the climb, his crutches under his armpits supporting him as he fumbles for a cigarette. His clothes are shabby and his trousers shine with dirt.

For three Egyptian pounds, Dhs 0.50, I enter the Hadiqat Al Azbakiyah, the Azbakiyah Garden. It's marginally quieter in here, the traffic outside carving its way around the Great Man presiding over his crumbling eternal triumph. The pathway is a precarious walk, the paving has caved in. The kerbing is worn and shattered, litter and piles of leaves block the pathways. There's a destroyed, inexplicable low building with a collapsing rusty iron balcony at the end of the pathway, an Ottoman era relic clashing with the 1970s architecture of what can only be a toilet block, its slab sides spattered in bat shit. It is, of course, padlocked shut.

There are gardeners here and a grubby-looking heron vies with two crows to get at a small geyser gushing up from a broken pipe as a turbaned man in a gelabiyah hoses down the matte leaves of the exhaust-dusted plants. A group of men loiter around a gazebo. One calls out to me, 'Hello mate, hey buddy.' I wave a hand as I leave them behind.

I wander around, wondering at the unkempt, smashed-up state of the place. Only the Egyptians could break a garden.

Back to the hotel, then, to feed the mosquito in my room. He must be missing me by now...

Thursday, 15 January 2015

MENA. Online. Literature. Today.


Well, the day after tomorrow, actually.

This two day event - a day of conference and a day of workshops - is taking place at the Townhouse Gallery Rawabet Space in Cairo on the 17th and 18th January 2015 and features panel sessions, talks, discussions and workshops which will set out to examine and illustrate the current state of publishing in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Some may recall, the event was postponed from last December because of a localised outbreak of demonstratin'...

The conference is being organised by Townhouse's Dina Kafafi and is an initiative of the Digital Resource Library in collaboration with Townhouse, the International Media Network Services for Human Rights, Sweden and the Goethe-Institut, Cairo. So you'd better eat your greens.

The speakers are a stellar lot, including The Goethe-Institut's Stefan Winkler, Kotobi.com's Ashraf Maklad, Al Arabi Publishing's Sherif Bakr, joined by a number of prominent and interesting writers and publishers, educationalists, cultural organisations and social activists.

And, you guessed it, I've infested the agenda, too. I'm doing a bit of moderatin', a bit of talkin' (mainly about how the Middle East publishing market is struggling, a little bit about how we're finding new freedoms thanks to t'Internet and some more about how the UAE is seeing a transformation in its literary and publishing scene) and also giving a two-hour workshop on self-publishing tools and how to get your work into shape and into print.

I must say I'm excited to be going back to Cairo. It's been years and years since I was last there and yet I used to run an office in Garden City and travel as constantly as I later did to Jordan. I have always had a powerful love hate relationship with the city but never find my time there anything less than fascinating.

There's no entrance fee for the conference or associated workshops: you can just rock up with empty pockets. Registration starts from 9am Saturday and the event starts at 10am. There's coffee and stuff.

If you just want to pitch for the self publishing workshop, it's at 1pm on Sunday. At 3pm there's a demonstration of the Narcissus.me publishing and distribution tool set for Arabic writers and Mohamed Altaher is giving a workshop on online security tools at 5pm.

There's a Facebook page, linked here for your Facebooking pleasure.

And, finally, there's a map. It's here:


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Corel Draw Display Issues? Of Graphics Software And High Resolution Screens...

This image (when viewed in full size, 1000 pix...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you're using any professional graphics software and are thinking of buying a machine with a 4K or other high resolution screen, be very, very careful indeed.

I've been using Corel Draw since it first came out in the late 1980s. I remember extolling its virtues in the weekly computing column I wrote for Gulf News at the time. And its virtues then, as now, were legion.

Most people use Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign from Adobe Systems these days but I'd invested early in learning to navigate my way around Corel so I've stuck with it. One of the earlier adopters of graphics and page makeup software (first Ventura, which rather ages me, then Quark), I've spent a lot of money on Corel over the years - the upgrade path was always a little shaky and if you upgraded every three years or so, you almost always ended up paying full price - usually a stiff $1,000 or so.

Corel Corporation at one stage looked like they might challenge the mighty Microsoft when they bought WordPerfect from Novell. It wasn't to be - from that heyday, the company has rather plunged and tottered around and has recently completed a round of layoffs (by no means the first), impacting engineering and customer service in particular. I was to discover this the hard way.

But throughout it all I've stayed loyal to Corel. It's a bit like supporting England in the World Cup. You know you're on a loser, but you stick to your guns come what may.

I no longer use the software suite for work purposes and haven't in a long time, but I've kept a copy on my machine because it's handy for doing all sorts of little graphics jobs, from my book covers through to worksheets for Sarah's classroom. But our copy's old now, Corel 12 dates back to 2004 and Windows 2000 (remember that?) and XP. An upgrade was clearly needed, but $1,000 for some classroom worksheets and the odd graphics job for a book or website was a tad stiff.

You can imagine, then, my glee at finding a copy of Corel Draw Home and Student Suite 2014 sitting on the shelf down at Carrefour when I bought my lovely new and VERY orange Lenovo Yoga. At a mere $100-odd, it was just the ticket. I snapped it up like Snappy Sid MacSnap the winner of last year's snappiest snapping snap snapper contest.

The software installed, but the splash screen looked odd, a little like a shrinky-dink. It was tiny. And then the actual screen display showed. You can just about make out the menu bars. It's minuscule to the point of unusability. We clearly have a problem here, Houston.

I am not going to try you with details on how I messed with the screen settings, searched the web, scraped the Corel Support Forums or had frustrating online chat sessions with witless bots in deepest Uttar Pradesh pretending to be online chat support people. I am going to skim over the countless emails with Corel customer support telling me to slam the doors, re-install the software, perform a ceremonial quirkafleeg and dance widdershins around my computer sprinkling it with the blood of a black cockerel (all very fun, but I spent an age picking sticky feathers out of the keyboard).

Google keeps trying to change 'widdershins' into 'sidewinders'. Which says something about modern society, I'm sure.

The solution, after much escalation, turns out to be buying a $1,000 copy of Corel X7, because Corel Home and Student 2014 isn't 2014 software at all, but a rebadged version of redundant Corel X6 dating back to 2012 - before anyone had even dreamed up the idea of a laptop with a stunning 4K screen. And despite saying it's Windows 8.1 compatible, it won't work properly on a high resolution screen.

Let's just pause on that one for a second. A professional graphics package that doesn't support high resolution screens. Hmm.

I argued with them. Clearly the software is unfit for purpose: you've called it Corel Home and Student 2014 but it's not, it's Corel Redundant Package so it's hardly my fault it doesn't support current hardware. Yes, they said, we understand that - and what's more, X7 might not even work with your screen - the graphics software industry in general is having to remake things so that the software is responsive rather than static. If I needed any succour, as misery loves company, I could draw some comfort from the howls of Adobe customers who are having the same problem with high resolution screens and their software from what I could see on the Adobe support forums.

The least I can do is let you know - there appears to be an industry-wide issue out there with the new generation of hi-res screens and graphics software. So try before you buy. The software, I mean. The hardware I'd recommend in a flash - the Lenovo Yoga is a lovely machine, light as a feather, deliciously functional and the screen is nothing less than lavish. You want to dive in and splash around in it. Battery life is amazing, the flippy screen tricks it does are cool and the build quality's great.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Googled!

The Whole Story
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You're like my yo-yo
that glowed in the dark.
What made it special,
made it dangerous.
Kate Bush, Cloudbusting

When you're using Gmail and send someone a mail saying something like 'The quotation is attached' and you forget the attachment, Google pops up with a wee dialogue saying 'Are you sure you want to send this email? Only you've forgotten the attachment, you dufus.'

Which is sort of cool and, certainly the first time it happens, sort of pulls you up a bit at the same time. This 2008 three-part video series, about inviting Google into your life is, incidentally, remarkably prescient.

On leave in the UK, I started to notice Google doing 'stuff'. I was getting wee notifications letting me know that Google had 'Auto-Awesomed' pictures I was taking on my mobile. But it wasn't until I got back that I got a BlipVert telling me that Google had made me a 'Story'. It was illustrated with a photo I'd taken of my 18 month-old niece.

I clicked on the link and watched with growing, sick fascination as a line on a world map led from Dubai to Heathrow and photos I'd taken - 'moments', apparently - started appearing in a day by day sequence, each locationally tagged and accompanied by a placename and map. Then a red line led from Wales to Hilltown and I got to see all my Christmas snaps, from the present opening frenzy (and subsequent cacophony of not one but TWO Elsa SnowGlow Dolls singing 'Let it go' to the accompaniment of small girls marching around with one hand, for some reason, waving in the air) to walks in the woods, parklands and seaside, including a red line to Castlewellan, where we spent a frozen afternoon getting enjoyably lost in the 'Peace Maze' to be found there. Google had 'Auto-Awesomed' a photo of a duck I had taken, which I had posted with a note (in a slightly scared sort of way) on Google+ - my note had been automatically added to the image in my 'Story' as a caption. Our trip back to Heathrow was another red line on a map before my New Year snaps and then 'The End'.

Like so much Google does, it both impressed and scared me. Even this 1.0 version is pretty slick, but I can see where we're going with this and, well, I'm not sure about it if you know what I mean. Goggles can identify books from their covers, landmarks from their image. Google knows when you were born, where you are now, where you've been - what you're doing and what you like. It can serve you with contextual stuff to enrich your life. It can help you with that illness by inserting itself into your DNA. Google welcomes you to the hivemind. Now, just do your bit to help feed the Queen, drone...

I was still turning this stuff over in my mind when Dina, the organiser of the MENA.Online.Literature.Today conference in Cairo, emailed me my ticket to travel there this weekend (the conference, postponed in December, is on again at the Townhouse Gallery this Saturday & Sunday). Her mail contained little more than 'Attached is your flight' and a PDF from the travel agent with the flight details.

Yesterday I went to Google Calendar to update a meeting. And I found my flight had been added as a calendar event. By Google. From the email content. Airline, flight number, time and booking code all noted.

I am under my desk typing this as we speak. I am dressed in tinfoil and have a colander on my head to stop them reading my brainwaves.

(I may also be doing a little 'I found an excuse to put a gratuitous image of Kate Bush on my blog' dance.)

Friday, 9 January 2015

Book Review: Jamila's Thread And Other Stories


Jamila's Thread is a lovely little book to hold in your hand, it truly is. It's almost enough to make me give up my 'a book is about the words, not the physical form' argument in favour of ebooks. As booky books go, it's very sweet.

It's a tiny little thing, really - we're looking at 100 pages of pocket-book format set in large type. It's a collection of ten short stories that set out to rediscover the beauty of the traditional folk tales of the Middle East and North Africa and comes from Project Pen. With illustrations as richly Arabesque and fantastical as the stories they adorn, it's truly a pleasure to read.

 

Project Pen is a Jordanian collective - incubated by Oasis500 - that aims to create a next generation of storytellers and encourage the development of new forms of narrative and literary expression. They've got up to all sorts of shenanigans in their journey to challenge, explore and discover the somewhat moribund world of story-telling in the Middle East. This, their latest project, is probably the most culturally valuable because, in my humble opinion, it has the power to inspire others to follow in its path.

The stories are simply told and themselves are simple enough. Jamila, the star of the show, is an ill-fated little girl, the most beautiful of seven lovely daughters born to a cursed family. The only way to lift the curse is to banish Jamila and so her fate is set, to be eventually determined by two reels of thread, one gold; one silver.

The resolution of her story is clearly set from the first word: this is a world where wrongs are righted and justice is done. Cynics will clearly need to leave their shoes at the door. But every one of these tales has a wealth to offer that you won't find in the empty, research-driven world of Frozen or Tangled. These are stories from a world where the magical is a wide-eyed possibility, not a revenue opportunity from an untapped demographic.

This is a book to enjoy if you want to find a few moments of serenity and spend a while in a Middle East we've all left behind - a world of ogres and djinn, fairytale princes and envious neighbours who have the power to turn boys into bulls. It's a beautiful little collection to read to your children at night and a tiny inspiration for story-tellers in the Middle East who thought there was no outlet for their work, for their first steps into a new world of imagination shared - a baby step in the direction of rediscovering the region's love of narrative and creative story-telling.

In its Arabic edition, it's called 'Abou Alfoul'. It should be on the shelves of all good booksellers in Dubai in February, as well as on Kindle and iBooks.

And I really would commend it most highly...

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Al Gore Rhythm

English: Red pill Português: Pilula vermelha
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I suppose it was my own fault. There was an M&M lying on the table by my new and very orange Lenovo Yoga (slicker than Slick Dick McSlick, the slickest slickster since Slippery Sidney Slickstein) and I fancied a little chocolaty treat as I shopped online. I realised - it would have been in time - that dropping red pill-like things when you're staying in a house inhabited by a teenager is perhaps not the smartest thing to do. but the Brother In Law put a Connemara down, slapped me on the back and said 'This'll put hairs on yer chest!'.

I swallowed involuntarily and the little red sugar-coated morsel went down fast. I chased it with a sip of Connemara. This might have been where things started to unravel.

For a start, the thing I'd been browsing turned into another thing. Apparently people who'd been looking at my thing also bought the other thing. Would I like both things together? If I said yes and accepted a lifetime subscription to Super Wonderful Services I could have both for free as part of a package to access a million different streams of really great content and entertainment designed to make me happy and more fulfilled in life.

The screen started to blur. Voices chanted 'Do it! Do it!' and there was a powerful hypnotic whine coming through the speakers. Maybe I wanted to refine my choices based on the content I'd been accessing? My mouth felt glued together as I tried to scream 'Nooo' and I found myself trying to push the mouse through molasses. My wife's a teacher, we have young nieces and nephews. I don't need Elmer's First Colouring Book to become part of my lifestyle choices, let alone Lady Gaga perfume and, Saints Preserve Us, One Direction albums. Too late, Elmer's there, exhorting me to sign up for my exclusive preview of SWS and enjoy discounted access to films, ebooks, free shipping and more.

Try it and you can have this thing you really want. Click here to find out what it is. I'm trying to stop myself but the CLICK button is throbbing insistently and there's no button for 'NO'. A counter starts 5; 4; 3; 2; I'm trying to find the off switch but it's too late. 1! Congratulations, you now have a subscription to SWS and two extra family members have just been notified their kidneys are subject to donation.

Overwhelmed, I fall backwards off my chair, ripping the cord from the laptop but the screen's still on, downloading movies I'm going to love and pushing books I'll appreciate more than anything else in the world. I black out briefly.

The Niece from Hell is standing over me as my eyes flutter open. 'Why are you being strange again?'

I point my finger at her accusingly. 'You're taking LSD! You left one here on the desktop! A red pill!'

'That?' The contempt is icy. 'That was an M&M. Would you ever stop stealing my chocolate?'

She turns on her heel, leaving me lying on the floor amongst the carnage. The screen is glowing with a comforting blue aura, Elmer mouthing the words 'Great Choice' and coruscating slowly as the hard disk light flickers, content downloading in a stream of algorithmically selected stuff I don't want, need or understand...

Monday, 15 December 2014

Random Observations: On Bit Rates

English: A visual representation of my connect...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was watching my beloved - and soon to be replaced - Samsung copying a file over to my memory key and idly watching the nifty little data rate graph gadget that Microsoft has added to Windows 8 letting me know it was copying at a little over 10 Mbps or 10 megabits per second.

It reminded me of an argument I had back when Unisys (showing my age, I can actually remember Sperry, Burroughs and Rand) released a 'mainframe on a desktop' and I was editing a computer magazine. Pal Paul Lynch was GM of Saudi mainframe software company Al Falak and poo pooed my enthusiasm for this latest innovation with, 'Listen, when your desktop machine can manage the IBM 3090's 3 Megabits per second throughput, you can start talking to me about mainframes on a desktop.'

The IBM 3090 600E was the daddy of all mainframes in the late '80s. This was it, as good as it got; a ten million dollar room full of quietly humming cabinets that supported a stunning 256 Megabytes of storage. It streamed data to tape at an amazing 1.25 Mbps and its processor core clocked at a stellar 69 MHz. And its processor crashed through a blinding 10 MIPS (million instructions per second).

To put this in context, when we're looking at this gargantuan processing power in today's context that's something in the order of a singing birthday card.

The Samsung's replacement (Samsung, having made for me pretty much the perfect notebook in the shape of the Series 5 Ultra, if you discount the issue of Chuck The Trackpad, has now stopped making notebooks and only makes tablets and phones.) has up to 8 Gbytes of RAM, 256 Gbytes of onboard solid state storage and its 4Ghz processor runs, as far as I can tell from the confusing rash of conflicting numbers I can find online, at something like 52,000 MIPS. In short, it could execute every single instruction ever processed by every 3090 ever, take time off to eat a doughnut and take a leisurely coffee before having the job finished before its scheduled lunchtime nap.

I am glad to say it weighs a little less than an IBM 3090, too. And doesn't require water cooling, which is also nice...

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The UAE's Wikipedia Problem

Wikipedia
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don't quite remember why, but I looked up the place I live on Wikipedia a while ago. Al Heera is a suburb of Northern Sharjah, a sleepy wee harbour and an area of older mud brick houses that were until recently the homes of taxi drivers and labourers which has now been all but cleared. The 1970s era police station remains.

Wikipedia didn't have a page for Al Heera, but it did have one for Al Hayra. It contained nothing more than a line saying it was a suburb of Sharjah. But Al Heera has a lot more history than that (as I pointed out the other day in that ten things you didn't know about the UAE post). And it's spelled 'Al Heera' - that's what it says on the street signs and everything.

So I thought I'd change it. I haven't tried to edit Wikipedia for a while because anyone from the UAE fell foul of the way the UAE's IP addresses work. Wikipedia all too often locked you out because someone from your IP address had previously been blocked. I even took Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to task on this when Jess and I interviewed him for our Dubai Eye radio show a few years back (His response was 'suck it up', basically). But something has changed when I wasn't looking and now you can freely edit Wikipedia from the UAE. So I rolled up my sleeves and set about trying to change Al Hayra to Al Heera and filling the entry out a bit.

Well, my dears, what followed was an education. 'You can't do that' said members of the "Wikipedia community" - it's called Al Hayra.'

It's not. I live there. It's called Al Heera.

'Just because you live somewhere doesn't mean you can change Wikipedia. Because you say so doesn't make a truth. There are more Google results for Al Hayra than Al Heera. So it stays that way.'

But those results are all websites that have derived their miss-spelling of the place from Wikipedia. You're the reason for those results. Just because you've made a mistake and it's been echoed all over the Web doesn't make your echoes justify the fact what you originally shouted was wrong. You can't define a virtual world that has no link to reality. What next? You going to rename London as Loondown?'

'Look, it just stays that way, right?'

So I changed it myself, following a Wikipedia mantra to 'be bold'. And I added a photograph of Al Heera police station, with its sign that clearly says 'Al Heera Police Station'. And it stayed that way. I also filled out the history of the place, which is all a little Quixotic and even charming. I didn't exactly change the world, but I recorded a wee bit of little known history that relates to the neighbourhood I live in and it felt good. I had a look around at other UAE pages. And oh, my word, what a mess did I find. The article on the UAE's Prime Minister was embarrassing to say the least. The article on Dubai charts every single bad thing that's ever happened in the city and all too few of the good ones. Ajman was almost non-existent apart from a load of bitterness from someone who had clearly got caught out by the real estate bust. I quickly found out that if it's something negative about the UAE, it gets added to the pile eagerly but if you contribute something positive it gets hung out to dry and flagged up as promotion or POV or any number of other perceived violations of Wikipedia policy. Even if it's true, cited fact.

To be fair to Wikipedia, it gets attacked constantly by vandalism, lunatics with an agenda and narcissists both personal and commercial. Companies can't understand why they're not allowed to write their own pages, self-interest constantly battles to get its version of 'the truth' out there and the UAE doesn't have a great reputation for creating sound, neutral-tone, articles among members of the Wikipedia community.

But all that notwithstanding, the UAE on Wikipedia is largely unloved and patchy and all too frequently articles are unbalanced, inaccurate and misleading. Many articles are badly weighted, with a marked tendency to put slagging the place and its people off before letting the facts get out there. And nobody clearly cares: many unjustified assertions and snide asides in articles have been up there and left unchallenged for years and there are many, many such errors.

As the long time reader of this marginal and dusty corner of the Internet will attest, I have often aired my own beefs about the place in which I live and have even been what you might call outspoken and critical. I'd argue that a friend who'll tell you the truth to your face is worth having, but I know there are those who would disagree. The UAE's not perfect, not by any means. But it's done for us very nicely these past 21 years and we remain safe, happy and comfortable in our overseas home. I can't imagine anywhere else that would have given us what we enjoy here. And so I actually found myself feeling a bit affronted by it all. Why should the first result on Google return a page packed with violations of human rights, charges of Islamic Injustice and lurid accounts of the 'bust' when we are all here - labourer and CEO alike - because we're better off here? How is it that the UK article, for instance, doesn't outline every nasty killing, injustice or act of corporate malfeasance that takes place there but the UAE and Dubai ones do?

The latest example came yesterday when I stumbled across the fact the UAE gave 1.25% of its GDP in overseas development aid (ODA) last year - over $5 billion. I thought that was a lot and nipped off to check it on, naturally, Wikipedia. I was amazed to find the UAE would be the world's largest contributor of aid by percentage of GDP and stands as the ninth largest contributor of aid outright. Not bad for the world's thirtieth largest economy. But when you get to Wikipedia's 'List of governments by development aid', the UAE doesn't even feature on the 28 country listing. How could that be? Because the list given is of OECD countries - the assumption clearly being that if you're not in the OECD, you don't matter.

One of the ways of getting change to happen in Wikipedia is, frustrating as it can be, arguing a case. And so I opened up a dialogue on the 'talk page' (the best way of starting the conversation). The UAE is now - as a result of that dialogue - at least mentioned, although the main list still excludes non-OECD countries. It's a small (and frustrating) example of what I've found on Wikipedia. There's nobody out there who cares and so the whole country is constantly misrepresented and mischaracterised. The UAE is neglected and because of that neglect its coming up badly time after time when the world searches for it precisely because Google consistently places Wikipedia content up on that number one pedestal that we all crave so much that we're willing to call our children Boondark Binkysnangle so that at least they'll be searchable when they grow up.

Like the UAE, Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's on a journey. It's a community, reflecting all the human folly, foibles and fabulousness that you'll find in any community. There are more than a few nerds and nutters in there. But I've found you can usually initiate a dialogue and change things - not always everything you want, but better than it was before. Sometimes the dialogue can be infuriating and I have been amazed at the negative sentiment and blind ignorance I have encountered. There appears to be a broad assumption that nothing good can come out of the Middle East and so every conversation seems to start from a low point and struggle to make its way upwards. But that's the only way you promote change, no?

Blind assertion and wilful vandalism are, rightly, punished - and it can be a tough playground. But the worst thing of all is simply letting things go unchallenged and the more strident voices be heard because we can't be arsed to get involved.

And that's the UAE's Wikipedia problem. Sheer neglect.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Fear And Loathing In Jebel Ali

Brownian Motion on a Sphere. The generator of ...
Brownian Motion on a Sphere. The generator of ths process is ½ times the Laplace-Beltrami-Operator (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bring your own shade, said the email from the Jebel Ali Festive Market people. What it didn't say was you'd end up humping a two-ton umbrella base up a sandy assault course for mile after relentless mile. Well, a couple of hundred yards, but you know what I mean.

Our garden umbrella was too big, even if the base came in handy, so I nipped down to Carrefour and picked up a cheapie. I came to hate that umbrella as the afternoon wore on. It spent the day poking people's eyes out, twisting in the base or being blown over - anti-tank grade concrete lump notwithstanding.

I got sunburnt.

Talking children's author, mother of two and borderline lunatic Rachel Hamilton in was a fun start to the afternoon. She was, of course, lost. Her Brownian sense of direction is compounded by a complete inability to translate simple instructions into anything other than the complete opposite of their intent. Most people stopped setting up their stalls to gawp as I wandered around, screaming into the mobile like a parody of Dom Joly's parody of people screaming into mobiles. "NO, TURN LEFT AFTER THE SPINNEYS THEN LEFT AGAIN." Finally she hove into sight, her car resolving from the shimmer above the tarmac like a TV presenter doing the visual for the voice-over intro to a documentary about the Serengeti.

She brought the blasted pop-up again. This, of course, spent the afternoon billowing and swooping around like a malign spinnaker and needed every bit of equipment we had to pin it down. The nice chap on the stall to our right lent us some bricks to try and curb its most wayward tendencies. Always handy to have a few bricks with you, I say. Every now and then I'd be chatting pleasantly to someone then hurl myself to the right behind a flapping canary yellow banner, shout foul abuse and appear to be wrestling with a warthog. By the time I'd reappear, tousled and sweating, they'd usually either wandered away or gathered a crowd of speculative types gambling as to whether the warthog would win out.

Hamilton is, of course, above all this. I watched her trilling and cooing as she prised money out of small children's hands, the heart of Cruella DeVille disguised in the persona of Elsa From Frozen. Children can't resist. I watched them glimpse the bright coloured cover of her book and get drawn in as the evil hag cackled and gibbered. They're helpless, their eyes wide and their souls already on the trash-heap. By the time they've whispered 'The Case of the Exploding Loo?' and started giggling, she's gathered in the billowing mists of darkness and turned into Beloved Children's Author Rachel Hamilton, crooning about how she could sign their book for them if only they'd let 45 dirhams come to a new home where they'd be cared for with unicorns to play with and everything.

I'm stuck with people holding a book splashed with BEIRUT on the front cover asking me what it's about while Hamilton dances widdershins around her cash tin, children now queuing up to send their Dhs45 to the Happy Unicorn Place.

Hamilton finally has to brave the single chemical toilet. A small girl wanted to know where Much Beloved Children's Author Rachel Hamilton was because Hamilton had been performing an act of mass hypnosis at her school and the book was all she wanted for Christmas. 'She's in the loo,' I growled at her. 'And I hope it explodes.'

Don't you hate crying children?

I'd just finished patching it up with the parents by the time old poo pants got back. By now the heat's searing and a car park with no shade in Jebel Ali is not somewhere I wanted to be. Someone buys a book and I love car parks with no shade in Jebel Ali. We pulled off a double whammy, a lovely nuclear family walked away with two kids clutching exploding loo stories and two parents clutching exploding people stories. We were doing high fives and little We Sold Some Books dances when they come back to ask something or another. We tried to pretend it doesn't really matter when people buy our books because it happens all the time although it's always nice to think you've giving someone pleasure.

I started to wonder if that wee Spinneys sells the heavy turkey grade foil so I could make myself a heat exposure bag. A Lebanese chap stopped, seemingly mesmerised by the cover of 'Beirut.' What's it about? He asked. I said, 'It's about what happens when the future President of Lebanon acquires two Soviet nuclear warheads and European intelligence has to find out what he means to do with them.'

He put the book down and smiled a bitter smile. 'Trust me man, he does nothing with them. Nothing.' And walked off. I must confess it was the most brilliant reaction of the day and I was only stopped from running after him and giving him a book by having to wrestle with a warthog behind the yellow banner.

And that was it, really. I went home to immerse my head in aloe vera and Hamilton no doubt made it back to her tottering castle atop the dark hill to count out the gold into the vast coffer she keeps at the bottom of her four-poster bed with the skulls grinning down from their perches on each pillar.

There's probably a crow in there somewhere, too...