Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

Related articles:

The Thief of Time (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I randomly picked this up a shelf from the local library, impressed with the concept and what I believed were author John Boyne’s writing credentials for having written the well-performing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  The book is written as a fictional journal for Matthieu Zéla (finally, a character who shares my name!) and explores his life – all 250 years of it.  Since the late 18th century Matthieu has never aged.  This is a concept which has been explored heavily before, although this is my first personal encounter with the idea, and I was curious to see how Boyne tackled it.

Unfortunately, the novel never lived up its potential with this grand idea.  It’s structured around several different periods of his life, ranging from revolutionary France, the glamour of 1920s America, postwar Communist witch-hunts and 19th century Britain.  Each of these separate stories begin and end without a clear pattern, but the narrative returns to two stories: Matthieu’s arrival in the UK as a teenager focusing on his life with Dominique, and the present day.  I found this haphazard way of plotting irritating, I think generally because there was no progression throughout the novel.  I have no problem with fragmented storytelling, as my love of Cloud Atlas testifies, but there has to be a reason for it which The Thief of Time lacks.

My other major issue with the novel is that, all things considered, the individual stories told of Matthieu’s life are just so dull.  “Yes, back in the 19th century I was a businessman with wife X…” “1920s I moved into this industry and married wife Y…”  We get the impression that Matthieu spent his whole life either courting women and investing money, shying away from anything more dramatic.  Ocasionally he gets into fights but his chivalrous and charitable nature keeps him out of most scraps, resulting in him frequently playing the role of a concerned figure of wisdom.  Most of the time the only tension was provided by one of Matthieu’s succession of nephews, all names a variation of Thomas – referred to as ‘The Thomases’.  Each Thomas tends to be impulsive and dies an early death after impregnating a woman, thus ensuring the line continues.  Despite appearing silly at first, by the resolution this plot thread had been adequately explained and given a sensible explanation.  Oh, and often these stories included the name dropping of famous historical figures: “I happened to meet Charlie Chaplin”, “No other than Pope Pius IX himself!” etc.  This was occasionally done to great effect, as with his brief involvement with the Rosenbergs during McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s, but mostly came across as unconvincing and needless.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Matthieu comes across as such a dull character.  He’s likeable enough, patient and wise, but I found him utterly boring and unrealistic as a character – particularly one with his experiences.  Nowhere in the journal does he go into detail of what it’s like to live to such a grand age.  There are passing references, such as commenting on the transience of all political movements and how he sees contemporary trivial pursuits as pointless, but this barely scratches the surface.  What of loneliness?  What of his ego?  Does he really never question it?  Sure, his life (and the book) has been too boring to give him a great deal of angst, but even so.  I can’t help comparing him to Jack Harkness from the BBC’s Torchwood, around whom the concept of immortality is far more successfully explored.  Also, passing references along the lines of: “I’d taken a couple of decades off to relax,” just seem very simplistic, even childish.  Likeable, yes, but Matthieu is a very badly crafted character.

As I mentioned, I found the story of Dominique and his modern day existence more engaging.  Both still felt unconvincing in places, particularly in regard to his relationship with Dominique (who is very inconsistently written), but they at least had been turning the pages and reeling with shock at the plot twists.  The character of Jack, Matthieu’s friend, seemed surprisingly developed and real.  I found this often, in fact – with the exception of the various dull businessmen, the secondary characters often seemed the most multi-dimensioned.  Still, I must have invested enough because I had a silent gasp at Dominique’s horrific fate.  The tale of Matthieu’s ownership of an independent satellite TV channel in 1999 and of his son’s life as a soap star was hardly thrilling, but progressed well.  The conclusion of this story – and, indeed, the novel – was one of its best moments.  I really like Matthieu’s realisation that his added years are those that the Thomases never lived, and the moment he ‘saved’ Tommy from his self-destructive nature he begins to age (in a wonderfully abrupt ending scene).  The fantasy elements are fully described but never quite explained in a way which shouldn’t work but does – the same result Wilde achieved with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I was both impressed and disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of historical events.  Sometimes it covered them well, as with the 1848 revolutions in Italy and the 1950s Red Scare in the USA.  Matthieu’s opinion of these events was also fascinated; he came across as a reactionary with a not entirely closed mind, normally willing to ‘go with the flow’.  I enjoyed reading the brief note of his enthusiasm for the space program in the 1960s, for instance.  But often, I felt Boyne just didn’t get how to write historical fiction.  I admit it’s a very hard style to write and you can argue he did a good job, being aged only 29 at the time, but there are some glaring problems.  One of which is the fact none of the characters speak as you’d expect from the period.  Dominique and young Matthieu, almost street urchins, talk like well-educated young adults from today.  There’s no register between the characters, nothing in their speech to indicate rank or role in society.  This can be somewhat forgiven when you remember that it’s written as a modern journal – but then, this begs the question, why is Matthieu’s writing style so modern?  Also, take this exchange, set in 1793:

We decided on a whim to take a trip.

“Perhaps Australia?”
“I think not.”
“Africa then.  There’s a whole continent there waiting to be explored.”
“Too hot.  And too underdeveloped.”

Who in 1793 took a trip “on a whim”?  People traveled, yes, but the concept of tourism was far from what it is today.  Then the examples: Australia has a population of only a few thousand at this point and scarcely existed as a united entity.  Travel to Australia took several months there and back, often in diseased and dangerous conditions and, even considering Matthieu’s longevity, would be an almost guaranteed one-way journey.  Even if they made careful plans to return, one would hardly go to Australia on a jaunt.  Africa’s not such a problem but it’s still naive to suggest people would consider traveling there in such an off-hand way; this is many decades before the widespread colonisation of the continent. They ultimately decide to go to France despite, you know, the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the fact France and Britain were at war.  How did they even get there?  It’s just little issues like that which ruined the novel for me, which is a shame because it does come across as very well researched at times.

In conclusion, The Thief of Time was a disappointment.  Not a total failure – there is still much to like – but I found it, overall, extremely boring to read and the largest challenge to finish a book I’ve had for a while.  It’s too long, I think.  If everything which doesn’t work could be culled, changed, reduced or developed then the novel might work but, as it is now, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Final rating: 5/10

Turkey Protests

Over the past five days, Turkey has been taken aback by mass protests in most of its major cities.  They were sparked by plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul, but considering protests have since erupted in Ankara, Antakya, and other cities, it is clear that this has developed into something larger.  Tens of thousands of protesters have been out on the streets, day and night, in what appears to have become general anti-government protests against Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power since 2003.  Unions have also called for strikes in solidarity with the movement.

I was rather surprised when I first heard the news of this – I’d always thought Turkey to be a fairly democratic country.  Sure, mass protests do happen in democracies – just look at Greece, or Italy, or Spain – but they never seem to have quite this level of intensity, or when they do the government usually swiftly resigns.  Democratic countries also tend not to react so violently – tear gas and water cannons have been deployed, resulting in many clashes between protesters and the police in which several people have been injured and even, I think, a couple of deaths.  That said, Turkey appears to be showing some restraint – they have allowed protesters to gather inside Gezi Square, who have set up a barricade around it and now effectively govern themselves, and also the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc has apologised for the use of excessive force.

If I understand it correctly – and I know very little about Turkey – the protestors are mainly young, liberal, secularists who oppose the creeping Islamisation of Turkey under Erdoğan, which they argue is against the principles established in the 1923 constitution when the country gained independence.  An example of this is his crackdown upon alcohol consumption.  The protests are also against his increasing authoritarian nature.  There are fears that he seeks to change the constitution to a Presidential system in order to increase his own powers, and he has also been criticised for his power over the media.  It’s no wonder he hates Twitter so much.

I’ve seen a few comparisons between Turkey and the Egypt Revolution in 2011 since the protests began, but I’m not sure how comparable the countries are.  Egypt certainly was far more authoritarian than Turkey is now, with Mubarak having led the country for three times the amount of years Erdoğan has led Turkey.  FreedomHouse gave Egypt a freedom rating of 5.5/10 in 2011, whereas Turkey in 2013 has 3.5/10 (with 7 being ‘not free’).  There may be similarities, but my guess would be that Turkey’s future will not be as dramatic as Egypt’s.

Incidentally, one of the most ironic points to come out of this is the advice Syria has given Turkey over the issue, urging Erdoğan to resign.  Turkey doesn’t seem to have taken Syria’s advice (which I can’t blame them for; Syria’s not exactly who I’d ask for advice to successfully stop protests).

It is impossible for anyone to predict how this situation will end, particularly not someone as misinformed as I.  But I think the protests will result in concessions from the government, and perhaps even Erdoğan’s resignation, though that’s not hugely likely.  He is still believed to have the majority of the country behind him.  The protests could fizzle out, but I think they will have some lasting impact upon the country.

Related Articles:

Freedom In The World 2013

Taken from Wikimedia Commons.


Green = Free 
Yellow = Partly Free 
Blue = Not Free

Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012.  I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world.  One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.

As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed.  Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc.  However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant.  I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance.  Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy.  Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:

Egypt
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.

Libya
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains.  Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.

Tunisia
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report.  While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further.  But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.

Mali
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly.  Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed.  Not good.

Burma
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China.  While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military.  A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.

Ivory Coast
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Overall Trend
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world.  There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another.  The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere.  Their fear is not without cause.

New Moon Review

Contains spoilers.

 

   Well.  My ambition to read all four Twilight novels (written by Stephenie Meyer) and review them continues with the second book in the saga (though the term ‘quartet’ would be more apt).  In this second instalment, vampire Edward Cullen leaves human lover Bella Swab in an attempt to keep her safe from himself and his family after an incident involving a paper cut and his ‘brother’ Jasper.  Overcome by grief, Bella first goes into catatonic shock then spends months in a lifeless void.  Her pain finally begins to heal as she spends time with her friend Jacob, until he develops into a member of the vampires’ bitter enemies: the werewolves.  Bella and Edward are reunited after he, believing her dead, seeks suicide by displeasing the power Volturi family – the vampire equivalent of a royal family – but she convinces him not to go through with it.

That’s the plot in a nutshell.  It really doesn’t sound like much and, well, that’s because it isn’t.  Plot was not a strong point in Twilight either, though that did pick up pace and develop well towards the end, something which can’t be said of New Moon.  The beginning is fine; the birthday party introduces well the underlying theme of Bella’s ageing and mortality, as well as forming a reminder of the dangers vampires pose to humans.  However, once Edward leaves Bella and walks out of her life, the narrative simply stops.  About 30 pages pass then until Jacob even makes his first appearance (6% of the book), and then around 80 pages (16%) spent developing Bella and Jacob’s relationship and sewing seeds for the werewolf reveal until an event actually happens.  The pace is so incredibly slow.

And yet, it was never once boring.  That’s perplexing me.  The development of characters does pay off and the reader gets to know them intimately, but as a rule this should never be at the expense of the narrative; rather, the two elements co-exist and feed off one another.  So how come New Moon somehow gets away with this?  It isn’t through the plain, clichéd writing style.  I’m not convinced it’s a reflection on the characters either.  Perhaps it’s in the relationships, which Meyer spends most of her time developing.  Is it possible for the relationships to feel deeply developed if the characters are not?  Perhaps so.

The pace does quicken with the werewolf reveal, although this does feel like a less detailed rehash of the vampire reveal in Twilight.  The book’s antagonist is revealed to be Victoria, bitter after previous events, who is seeking to kill Bella in revenge.  The werewolves are tasked with protecting her, and this seems to be where the story is going.  Then, suddenly, Alice Cullen arrives out of the blue after she ‘saw’ Bella jumping off the cliff (more on that later) and finds out about Edward.  The pair are consequently whisked away to Italy where the climax of the novel takes place.  The werewolf strand is utterly dropped, scarcely to be mentioned again.  I know this will be continued in the next two books, but to review New Moon as a novel in its own right – which is it – this is rather sloppy.  In addition to that, the threats are resolved astoundingly easy.  Edward’s about to kill himself!  Hold on, he’s seen Bella, he’s fine.  They’re being taken deep into the Volturi’s lair!  Wait, they’ve been let free after Alice wordlessly promised to turn Bella into a vampire so she’ll keep their secret.  Literally back home in time for tea.  When they return Esme thanks Bella for everything she did in saving Edward, and while it’s true she did risk her life in going to Volterra, she did little else.  This makes logical sense, but emotionally and structurally feels utterly wrong.

What didn’t make logical sense was Bella’s dreaming.  Every night, for about four months, she dreamed the same dream.  Then suddenly, when her lifestyle changed, the dreams also changed.  This shows a lack of understanding towards either dreaming or effective symbolism.  Even worse symbolism was the sledgehammered references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which revealed in advance exactly how the plot would go.

Bella was starting to grow on me throughout Twilight, but I’m afraid after New Moon I’m finding her completely unbearable.  I can empathise with the deep trauma she feels when Edward leaves, particularly when it is later explained that she not only grieved for him but for his family, her way of life, and her future.  Yet, after four months, she really ought to have had the capacity to at least smile, or communicate with people.  It’s hinted she may have deep psychological problems when her father suggests a psychiatrist, and the more I think about it the more it makes sense: Bella is crazy.  Insane.  Loopy – mad – doolally!  It all fits!  Her hallucinations of Edward are shrugged off as being ‘merely her subconscious,’ but since when have hallucinations being natural and normal?  This is why she is immune to the effect of vampires’ powers!  Her erratic, self-destructive personality, and her lack of awareness towards danger, is now finally explained.  Her shocked reactions to reveals which were obvious from the beginning…  The Twilight quartet suddenly works, thinking from the perspective of, forgive me for the lack of tact, a lunatic.  It almost becomes a work of high literature.

My opinion has not changed of the Cullens since Twilight; while Edward was extremely flawed to abandon Bella in the way he did, it’s in his character to do so.  It’s also in Bella’s character to so rashly forgive him without a trace of anger.  The most interesting character to be developed in New Moon is Jacob Black.  To fully analyse Jacob, he needs to be treated as two characters: pre-transformation Jacob and post-transformation Jacob.  Pre-transformation Jacob is likeable, reliable, and the reader feels compelled to appreciate him.  Then, when he becomes a werewolf, his character seems to change.  He’s far angrier, more assertive, less of a ‘klutz’, more reckless… Maybe, in Meyer’s mythology, these are the normal effects of a werewolf transformation, but in terms of characterisation it feels wrong and cheated because the reader is expected to sympathise with New Jacob just as much as with Old Jacob, which doesn’t happen.  I have no idea what Meyer intended Jacob’s purpose to be.

His werewolf comrades fare little better.  All males, inexplicably, and all overtly boyish.  If Twilight oozed suppressed tension and desire, New Moon is sweating in testosterone.  Another inexplicable facet is how virtually every male with a speaking role seems to fancy Bella: Edward, Mike, Jacob, Quil… Bella laughs and shrugs it off awkwardly, as she only can do, but it feels wrong.  Girls (and boys) with this talent do exist but I don’t believe Bella to be one of them – I’m not convinced.  There’s no reason for her to be so ‘fanciable’.  Bella admits this herself, going on about how worthless she is, but drawing attention to a quandary without resolving it does not make it go away – Meyer might as well have stuck an arrow saying “Look!  Irregularity!”

I did, however, like the Volturi – particularly Aro.  His friendly enthusiasm, greeting people as friends one moment and planning to kill them the next, makes for edgy reading.  The moment when dozens of unaware humans are led in for ‘feeding’ is intentionally horrific and has precisely the desired effect.  They are a real and credible threat, which makes it all the more disappointing that this threat is not yet realised.

One final criticism: Meyer’s repetitive writing style is beginning to grate on me.  How many times did she use the word ‘twisted’ when referring to someone’s facial expression?  The convoluted references to literature and science in explaining everyday occurrences – although if we’re going with the “Bella is insane” explanation then this is suddenly genius.  But I return again to my earlier point of how readable Twilight is.  It absolutely shouldn’t be… And yet it is.  Meyer must be doing something right, but what that is escapes me.  I must give her credit for the unresolved threads at the end of New Moon, nevertheless.  Victoria is still loose, the Volturi will kill Bella if she does not become a vampire but the werewolves will declare war if she does, Bella’s impending choice of either Edward or Jacob… I have to go on, keep reading…

Overall, New Moon is not a spectacular work of fiction.  It’s slow, all over the place, at times nonsensical and unconvincing.  And I enjoyed reading it despite each of those potentially ruinous flaws.  I had a conversation with the school librarian today about the Twilight quartet (she gave me a look of shock when I asked to borrow Eclipse), who told me she feels New Moon is the weakest book of the four, and that the next two improve.  Will I agree?  Watch this space.

Final Rating: 5.5/10

2013 Predictions

Finally, gonna end this busy day with a list of predictions for next year.  I didn’t plan to publish these – I was writing them for my own interest – but decided to give it a shot, in case miraculously they’re all correct, so I can prove I predicted them!  Rather rushed:

  • UK
    • Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    • The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
  • Abroad
    • The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    • The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    • Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    • A war will not start over Iran.
    • Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    • Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    • Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    • Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    • The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    • I expect more crises from North Korea.
    • Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    • This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    • There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    • Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    • Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    • Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    • More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    • Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    • Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    • The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    • Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.