Wednesday, May 25, 2005

25 May 2005: Daily

It has not escaped the attention of numerous correspondents that despite the name of this Blog, I actually refer to AKT rather less often than I refer to politics, football, baseball or even emailing the Pope.

OK, I admit it, my daily life in Bay 10 of the Zepler Building isn't usually sufficiently interesting to merit inclusion in the exciting non-stop roller-coaster of fun that is this blog. I arrive around 9, do some coding or paper-writing, talk to Gloria for a bit over lunch, work some more in the afternoon then go home. Gym and football is often woven in there, as is the occasional meeting. Sometimes, if I'm just doing coding that day, I'll work from home. Thus rolls along the PhD research, this AKTing lark in its day-to-day form.

Presently, however, I'm working on a non-thesis-related piece of research, and it's made me realise that my daily routine is neither normal nor mundane by the standards of most people in the world. In particular, I've been looking at the writings of a number of fellow-bloggers, specifically those in Iraq. While my job is simply to build tools to do some automated natural-language extraction from their pages, it's hard not to glance at the content of the pages as I flick through them with my efficiently-constructed Java and Perl tools. And then you realise, it's not just an academic text extraction system, we're actually dealing with real lives here. Individual lives, people with families, upbringings, histories, favourite places, favourite ice-creams, aspirations, perspectives, cynicism, hopes and fears. No shortage of fears.

The daddy of them all is Salam Pax. He started blogging back in the days of Saddam and was openly critical of the regime, his only hiding place being his internet identity and assumed name. As the war came, he continued, describing daily life in the middle of the war, ostensibly for his friend Raed who couldn't always read his emails, but increasingly for a global audience who began to pay attention. I first heard of him when William Gibson spoke in glowing terms of this brave blogger who was describing the war with an incisiveness none of us outside Iraq could begin to imagine. Pax, naturally, read Gibson's blog and for a couple of days there was some drool-inducing mutual appreciation, but overall Gibson was right: "My man Salam. I'm a total fan. Tells it like he sees it, and sees it like I can't." Salam's thoughts can now be read here.

Raed started his own blog, of course, and soon others popped on to the scene as the 2003 Iraq invasion quickly became the most-diaried war of all time. Riverbend, G, Alaa and the rest soon joined in, often referencing each other both in virtual and real life, leading to a fascinating intermeshing of community viewpoints, and many of them continue today. Some blogs make political points, some make religious points, some flat out make it all up, but almost all of them do something which television reports can't: they tell you what it's like to live a daily life through all this. What's it like to hide out in a small room with no electricity but still have a cellphone and a charged-up laptop with internet access? What's it like to have the security forces search your house so frequently it becomes something you prepare for? What do the frightened residents of Mosul and Basra have on their MP3 players and in their kitchens during these days? How about their pet cats?

The strangest thing is when you come across blogs that have clearly finished. Latest post usually quite a normal one in the context of the blog, but maybe dated September 2003 or January 2004. Some move on to new places (such as Salam), some ended their writing as the 'overthrow' phase of the military action drew to a conclusion and, most movingly, some finished because the author of the blog was blown up in a terrorist act or military push. It's often hard to tell because the blog just stops - just as you feel you're getting to know the person, reading their archives, suddenly it stops - and then a couple of days later, studying a totally different blog from the same timeframe, you read that such-and-such was killed and you think, oh, so that's what happened to them. And the friend you just made is gone, like that.

It's hard not to be affected, even in what is really an academic exercise in text processing. And it makes me realise more and more just how amazing daily life is for all of us, whether we recognise the fact or not.

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