Music, eh?

Huffington Post has a playlist up of the top 50 No 1 singles in the UK over the past decade. A quick flick through it tells me that A) they’re for the most part crap and B) my taste in music is well outside the mainstream. It’s also put me in a wistful mood, so I’m going to have to go through the iPod and dig up some old favourites, like this one:

 

Children are coming – they can forge their own path

Cross post with Chronica Minora:

 

The sigil of House Stark in the TV series Game of Thrones.

The TV series Game of Thrones, and the book world of A Song of Ice and Fire generally, place great importance on heraldry and family. House Stark’s motto (or simply “their words”) is “Winter is coming”, House Lannister’s is “Hear me roar”, House Greyjoy’s is “We do not sow”. They serve to distinguish families from one another and often are a concise statement of what the family’s concerns are: the Starks urge one to be prepared, the Greyjoys show their contempt for farmers and the like, for instance.

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

The Stark sigil as on A Wiki of Ice and Fire

George RR Martin is fascinated by heraldry, perhaps too much so. It works for his series, though, because it builds a complex and realistic world. He’s drawing on medieval Europe here, which had a very complex set of rules governing what could or couldn’t be on a family crest, although the book series doesn’t follow such rules. All families are concerned with heraldry, though, and individuals often have their own crests (or sigils, as they are called; and the ones shown in the TV series do not necessarily match those described in the books). Others might have a crest assigned to them by a more highborn lord, which is probably quite realistic too. There’s a full series on Westerosi families here, but as it’s based on the books be warned that many a spoiler lurks within.

The impending arrival of my younglings has had me dwelling a lot on family. It’s not actually a new interest/fascination. I’ve always taken family seriously, and certainly after it dawned on me some years ago that if I had no sons my particular family line could be kaput – I have no brothers and my sister has no children yet. That worried me in my own head for a while, worried me in a vague sort of way at least. I don’t know why. Families come along in their own time and I certainly don’t feel particularly old.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

Brian Boru probably did not look like he did in this 18th century engraving.

When I was a teenager I became fascinated by family history. I know bits and pieces of my own heritage – one grandfather was an architect, the other built cars and later ran a dock, for instance. Game of Thrones and its obsession with family seems to have reawakened that interest.

Generally speaking, my family seems to be descended from Mathghamhain, either the brother or nephew of Brian Boróimhe (I’ve read both at various times but haven’t made any serious genealogical study). For a youngster like myself, having some sort of tangential connection to a great historical figure such as a high king was, without a shadow of a doubt, cool. Any touristy genealogy stuff seems certain of it, but putting on my medievalist’s hat I tend to look somewhat cynically on such claims now, given that for centuries families across the world have claimed descent from legendary or mythical figures. Still, somewhere along the way was somebody called Mathghamhain (it means “bear”) and I am his descendant. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I like connections to the past, and having some of my own fascinates me; perhaps when I am older or have more time I will conduct a more in-depth study of my own family line.

FamilyCrestThe family crest also intrigued me, and I have no idea how it came about. Strictly speaking, I can’t use it, as I am not the head or heir apparent of the main line. I believe that is some guy in Orleans, presumably descended from one of the many Irish who left the country after the Battle of Kinsale and subsequent Flight of the Earls. The O’Mahony Society has its own crest. I’ve also come across two variations of the family motto, which wouldn’t be uncommon in history as different branches might adopt different stances or crests/mottoes depending on their individual circumstances. The one I came across first translates from Irish as “the burning torch to victory”, though this list of Irish mottoes only lists the other variation, which translates from Latin something like “thus we guard our sacred things”. My Latin is very rusty, though.

Irish heraldry is somewhat complicated by the country’s history, with some coats of arms awarded after conquest by the English and others possibly dating to before that. The system of surrender and regrant, where Irish kings and lords swore fealty to the English crown and were given back their lands under new titles, such as earl, is probably a factor in this but I cannot say for certain. It’s not an exaggeration to say that almost all Irish people are descended from a king, as there were more than 100 across the island at one stage. Plus every Irish family had different septs (branches that held their own lands) so that adds an extra layer of complexity. Some will have Norman heritage (or Cambro-Norman), some will have Scottish, and various other backgrounds too. It’s all relevant or, perhaps more accurately, it’s all as relevant as you want it to be.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/D-YgEvxHDwE]

Catcrest2 Crest2 CrestSome weeks ago I found myself wondering idly what I would do if I were in the position to create my own family crest and motto (as the Game of Thrones cast do in the video above). It’s possible, through the office of the chief herald, though I understand it costs a small fortune and I can’t see any that have been granted in the past few years so that could be defunct. It’s probably a bit pretentious, though it’s not like I’m trying to forge a dynasty or anything. I suppose it’s the idea of being able to forge one’s own destiny/heritage which caught my attention. What would I want to depict, and what would I want to say? Here’s what I’ve come up with on the right, based variously on the facts that I like cats, have “bear” as a surname, and work in newspapers. It just got me thinking about whether or not the words and sigils passed down through history are still relevant to me directly. Do I want my children to recognise their past and honour it in some vague way, or would I prefer them to start afresh?

The truth is somewhere in between. The overall crest has a lot of historical relevance and is part of their (and mine) heritage. My wife is an O’Leary and her family is of similarly ancient lineage, so our little ones will have that heritage too. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Coffee under threat

About 20% of South America’s coffee harvest has been killed off by a fungus. We might get away without a massive price increase this year, but next year could be a different story according to USA Today:

Green Mountain Coffee is one of the biggest buyers of coffee in the world, purchasing some 207 million pounds in 2012. [Senior director Lindsey] Bolger said the coffee market hasn’t responded to Central American production dropping by 20% this year because Brazil, the biggest coffee grower in the world, is expected to bring in a good crop.

“I think the situation will be very different next year, because despite a bumper crop from Brazil, if coffee rust continues to be an issue, and plants in Central America are weakened, production will be down even more than 20%,” Bolger said.

Central America produces half of all arabica beans in the world, which makes me edgy for the future of my beloved coffee.

 

A crisitunity


Well, actually, it may be the case that my entire archive is gone. This saddens me quite a bit, but it’s a chance for a fresh start.

When I started Tiny Planet in 2007, it was supposed to be about world events and current affairs – because communications tech has made the world much smaller than it once was. And there will still be commentary on world events, but I’m going to write more about general things too. This return to blogging has been a bit invigorating, so the chance to start afresh is unexpectedly welcome.

Watch this space for now as I tidy things up and get the ball rolling. In the meantime, I also blog here exclusively on history.

This monster lives

Tinyplanetblog.com has risen from the dead, after a hosting switch threw things out of whack for a while. I can’t import my old blog just yet, but will attempt to address this over the next couple of days. In the meantime, it’s good to be alive again.

Giving and taking personal data

Update July 7 c.11.45pm: Since I wrote this piece this has been tweeted, which is disconcerting though I don’t have the full context.

 

 

While the Prism exposé was a fantastic scoop for The Guardian, that the US is spying on the planet wasn’t that surprising. America is a superpower of surveillance and intelligence gathering is a pretty basic part of national security, even if the scale could be a bit startling. At least they’re not going through your post (or are they?).

When I lived in the Middle East any post I got from home was regularly opened and looked at. I didn’t have any personal letters going through, at least not that I remember. It was mostly magazines and newspapers from home, sent by dad. There were probably a few bank statements too. Mostly the envelopes were opened and taped shut again, but there was one occasion when one of the office managers came over to me with a whole mess of stuff that had been opened and but into a large clear plastic bag that was then stapled shut. She pulled a face and said something along the lines of “err…” One of my colleagues suggested they’d been looking for porn – a racy article in a foreign newspaper might well be cut out or blotted out with marker. I wish I’d kept a photo of it. The magazines in my batch were Forbes and Newsweek, in case you’re wondering.

Other people had things confiscated, although the powers that be wouldn’t necessarily tell you that. They might tell your boss though. We got an email from the editor one day asking us all to be careful about what was sent to us (painkillers and Bibles were the examples given). Somebody is always watching. After that I became more concerned about what I gave away about myself and what I got up to. Privacy does matter.

While the Abu Dhabi authorities would argue it was well within their rights to check on things coming into the country (and it is under law), I would be surprised if they didn’t have some log of it somewhere. This is mild stuff in the world of surveillance. Other journalists in other places have had their phones tapped or been followed. And we all know how journalists at News International hacked people’s phones in the hunt for a story. However, I’m not suggesting this is on the scale of the NSA’s activities, which has seen it collect and request data from major companies such as Microsoft. I don’t agree with it in the slightest, but I’m not wholly surprised by it either.

The US has argued that one cannot expect 100% security without giving up 100% privacy. While most people will have nothing to worry about, it’s a dangerous precedent because it’s a short step from collecting online information for national security reasons to monitoring everything for internal security reasons. It’s not exactly as Ice T once put it, “freedom of speech, just watch what you say”, and it’s definitely not like Big Brother from 1984, but it’s easy to see how it could be that way. Somebody is always watching.

A post I wrote years ago about the Pentagon resulted in somebody from the Pentagon visiting Tinyplanetblog.com. I was oddly flattered and yet slightly worried, as wee me wouldn’t stand much chance against the US cybermilitary – and generally speaking cyberwar techniques have improved dramatically since then.

There are pros and cons to giving data away. Information is a valuable commodity, and privacy just as valuable. What we put up online – or what is learned about our activities online – can benefit or come back to haunt us. I’m quite a private person yet I’ve made my peace with giving up a bit of data if it means improved services. For ages I kept all location services turned off on my phone and iPad, but in the past couple of months I’ve pretty much left them on so as to use my mobile devices to their potential. It’s not 1984, where I now love Big Brother. I’m giving a smidgen of what I have as it means I can get more. I suppose data is currency.

Data is a double-edged sword. On one side, you could argue that a society that is more open about everything online could encourage a more open and society. On the other side, it means a higher likelihood of being more vulnerable to identity theft or just general snooping. However, if things are out in the open and you’re taking charge of it, it can’t be used against you effectively. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee that what’s being shared is accurate as it’s easy to change one’s identity online.

For a journalist, raw data is an invaluable source of stories. We can take reams and reams of figures and plot them on charts in interesting ways. But imagine the horror is we were to do something like that based on your Google searches or Gmail chats.

As a journalist, and particularly as a senior one in a national newspaper, I’m comfortable with being out there and available. Anybody who wants to can follow me on Twitter or send me a message on Facebook, though I keep higher privacy settings there than I do on Twitter.

Every time we google something we’re giving away a bit of information about ourselves. I can look at the visitor logs for this site and see where people are coming from, broadly speaking, and usually down to the IP address. There’s no point in getting indignant because somebody is watching, or at least can watch, us online. It’s been happening for years and it’s not going to change. What we can do, though, is be more careful about what we post, how we search, and who can see what. Don’t give it all away for free is what I would say. Make people earn it.

What say you?