Recommended reading… the quantified self, BBC’s multi-lingual websites and British attitudes towards UK’s international priorities

'On the platform, reading' by moriza
'On the platform, reading' by moriza

People still read, right?

‘The Measured Life’ by Emily Singer in Technology Review

Whether it is to get fitter, better or just to have a go at hacking the human condition, people are beginning to turn ‘big data’ technologies on their sleep, diets and productivity. Athletes and sufferers of certain medical conditions have been at it for years, but evidently the ‘quantified self’ is going mainstream and it’s bound to be big business.

‘BBC World Service Language Websites: user experience and typography’ by Kutlu Canlioglu on BBC Internet Blog

The FCO publishes in 50+ languages on our platform and in 20+ languages on the social web. We know a thing or two about multi-lingual publishing. But there is still an awful lot we can learn from the way the BBC Worldservice approaches publishing its non-English websites. What I find impressive is the way the Worldservice provides custom editorial in so many languages yet maintains consistency in user journeys and page layouts. This blog post is about how they do it.

‘British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities’ by Robin Niblett for Chatham House and YouGov

This is the second survey of British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities that Chatham House has developed with YouGov. The survey examined the attitudes of two groups – the first a representative sample of GB adults, and the second a group of ‘opinion-formers’. The differences between the two are fascinating but what is truly revealing are the discontinuities in the public’s thinking about foreign policy. The ultimate conclusion, for me, is that there is a lot of communication and engagement that needs to get a lot better.

Recommended reading… what China will do next, the failure of humanitarian intervention and a vision for online consultation

Here’s what’s been keeping me enthralled on the commute this week…

1. With China projected to overtake the United States in terms of economic output within the next ten years, many commentators are again speaking of a new ‘Asian century’ and the ‘decline of the West’. At Chatham House recently, Niall Ferguson drew on the last 600 years of world history to offer an insight into the changing global balance in terms not only of economics but also of geopolitics and ‘soft power’. Transcripts, video and audio are on

2. Adam Curtis consistently causes me think again about what I think I know. His new documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is classic Curtis fare: sinsiter music + archive footage + dogma + elites perpetrating that dogma + scathing critique = licence fee well spent. But I am an even bigger fan of his blog, and this article on the ‘idea of humanitarian intervention‘ I found provocative against the backdrop of Mladic’s arrest, extradition and trial.

3. Consultation is a ‘set piece’ of government. Doing it better online is a coalition commitment. But how? As well as tackling search, usability and agile development on a centralised government website, an Alphagov sub-team also turned their attentions to consultation and policy engagement. What they came up with was a succint and persuasive proposal that deserves attention and further development, particularly what it has to say about ‘layering’. There’s an introduction from Neil Williams and a copy of the deck on the Alphagov project blog

Recommended Reading… multi-lingual accessibility, cyber-scepticism and cybersecurity

1. Nomensa has suggested 7 tips and techniques for multi-lingual website accessibility on its Humanising Technology blog. Good practical advice and an excellent introductory note for anyone thinking about creating or managing a multi-lingual site.  (via @neilfranklin)

2. Paul Harris writing in the Guardian accounts for the new wave of cyber-scepticism rushing through American academia, this time focussed on social networking. A well-weighted article on an increasingly mainstream debate about the sociological influences of increasingly mainstream communication tools.

3. Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech to the Munich Security Conference which set out Britain’s call for international norms in cybersecurity.  For an international perspective on the risks, OECD‘s Reducing Systemic Cybersecurity Risks report explores the potential of cyber-related events to have the capacity to cause a global shock.

Interested in Arabs? What I’ve been learning since Yemen

Young Yemenis

When I visited Yemen I had the chance to talk at length with young Yemenis. These meetings both impressed and depressed me.

I was honoured by the Yemenis grasp of English and of British culture and history, despite the fact that they had never set foot in the UK. I was embarrassed by my own ignorance of Arabic or their culture or history. I was determined to set this right and have since made a point of learning more about this part of the world and people who live there.

Amongst what I have read I want to recommend two books in particular.

‘The Arabs – A History’ by Eugene Rogan

Despite traversing 500 years of history in almost as many pages, Rogan’s account of the Arabs is always vivid, eloquent and engrossing. It takes the reader from Morocco to Iraq many times over without losing the reader along the way or scrimping on the crucial details that thread the narrative together.

Although much of Arab history has been spent under domination by non-Arabic peoples, what I particularly appreciated was Rogan’s preference for primary sources written by Arabs themselves. Eye-witness accounts of events are drawn from a tremendous range of sources – from the fairly conventional, such as the accounts of Saudi royal household, to the more esoteric, such as the diary of a Damascene barber. No source is wasted and each is perfectly poised to give the facts a life beyond the printed word.

By the end, I was left questioning the permanence of an Arabic identity. Sure, there is the commonality of language but there was little evidence of a consant or stable geopolitical community. Based on what I read, I’m not convinced that the Arabs recognise themselves by that tag.

Across the centuries up to today, tribal, national and sectarian communities seemed to hold much greater sway and staying power, and I suppose in that regard that the Arabs are much like other well kent peoples – the Europeans, the First Nation Americans or the Africans, for example.

I don’t think it was Rogan’s intent to persuade his readers of the primacy of Arab identity. He acknowledges that the Arabs are one people and many peoples simultaneously, and it is part of the appeal of book that he gives each commonality and singularity the space to breathe.

It was the experience of learning about the many dynamics at play in the history of the Arabs that so enthralled me, and in that regard I think Rogan succeeds in the reasons he set out to produce this work.

If you can’t study Middle Eastern history under Rogan at Oxford, ‘The Arabs’ is the next best thing.

‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

For all it’s qualities, ‘The Arabs’ is still a book a history book and an ambitiously over-arching one at that. It could spend too long looking at one country or tribe. Indeed, Yemen only makes an appearance on four pages in Rogan’s tome. As a result, I was left wanting more and that’s where ‘Yemen – Travels in Dictionary Land’ came in.

What a fantastic book this was. It achieved many things for me. It was full of humour from the off. Mackintosh-Smith starts by taking us through his struggle to learn Arabic. It’s not just the pronunciations which prove problematic for him but also the meanings: sada is ‘thirst’, ‘echo’ and ‘an owl’, and siffarah is ‘an anus’ and ‘a whistle’.

This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book; the author’s aim is not to laugh at the Yemenis but to marvel at the complex character of the people and the lands in which they inhabit.

The rest of the book is a first-rate travelogue (the author’s account of the little known island of Suqutra is fascinating), an informative history (covering even pre-history effortlessly), and a beautifully written appreciation of a rich and mature culture:

the songs are siren songs that tell of the flash of teeth beneath a veil like a silver coin in a well, of the saliva of lovers’ kisses intoxicating like wine, of beauty that is cruelly ephemeral

Despite the quote above, the book is never twee, never condescending. It’s not a book written by a tourist for tourists (Mackintosh was a resident); it’s not voyeuristic or sensationalist. Mackintosh is always an outsider in Yemen, but he is comfortable with that fact and uses it to his advantage. Throughout his years of living there he is driven by a passion to discover but also puts in the work to understand. He never rests in pursuit of experience and learning, and thanks to his writing ability he is able to explain and share his passions.

Even though I was only there for a week, I can vouch for the accuracy and wonder contained in this book. In it I recognised the Yemen I briefly got to experience firsthand and learned so much more about one of the least well-known but deeply fascinating countries in the Arab world.

As Yemen is brought to our attention ever more frequently, I urge you not just to rely on the media. For those who cannot visit in person, then use this book to take you there.

Recommended Reading… from FCO, Chatham House and Race Online 2012

Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World‘ by William Hague, FCO

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech outlining the Government’s vision for UK foreign policy on 1 July 2010. The transcript is on the FCO site and you can also watch the video recording on the FCO’s YouTube channel.

British Attitudes Towards the UK’s International Priorities‘ by Chatham House and YouGov

This survey tests views both of the general public and ‘elite’ opinion-formers concerning the key themes of future UK foreign policy and international relations. Part of the part Rethinking the UK’s International Ambitions and Choices series from Chatham House, the survey demonstrates divergences between these two groups.

Manifesto for a Networked Nation‘ by Race Online 2012

The Networked Nation Manifesto sets out bold and detailed plans calling for urgent action to get millions more online by the end of 2012 with key roles for government, industry and charities.