Category Archives: politics

Thoughts on Sakaguchi Kyohei’s ‘How to build an Independent State’ 独立国家の作り方

Last week I attended the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference in Paris. This was my first Crossroads conference and incidentally my first trip to Paris. I have many fond memories of France but the one time my family ventured into a major French city we ended up in a car crash. So it was much to my pleasant surprise that Paris was as beautiful as it is made out to be, and I was lucky enough to spend it with two very lovely people.

Unfortunately I missed the keynotes, but thankfully Jeremy Gilbert has posted his excellent discussion of the challenges of neo-liberalism on the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy (here). In it he argues that the various cultural and political movements of the 1960s represented a democratic surge that threatened the status-quo by asking a number of dangerous questions relating to the distribution of wealth, economic and military power and crucially how we live to together. The strategy of capital in response to this upsurge has, in Gilbert’s words, been to ‘meet precisely those amongst that set of demands which would not threaten the over-arching goal of capital accumulation, while determinedly opposing the realisation of those which would.’ People protested and demanded and critiqued. The market gave the people what they wanted, but in commodity form and on the market’s terms.

This is one of the major problems of critiquing capital. As a system it is incredibly resilient, precisely in this ability to give us what we want, but not on our terms (a mechanism well captured by the second part of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ mini-series). It is this adaptability in the face of critique that leads Gilbert, near the end of his article, to note that:

‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor council estate (that’s a housing project, if you’re American) in the North of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’

One of the problems with critique is that there is no exterior to launch a critique from, seemingly no viable alternative. Communism, at least in its past forms, looks to be a dead end, and the nihilistic hope for some sort of terror led revolution by people such as Zizek leaves me queasy. This is the reason that some academics are keen to hold up groups seemingly untouched by capital relations. As one of the two lovely people said over a fine meal in a Parisian cafe at 11:30pm, the previously colonized subjects of anthropology are now being held up as models for the future.

This brings me to the book I am reading at the moment, ‘How to build an Independent Country (独立国家の作り方)’ by Sakaguchi Kyōhei. In all honesty I bought it because I liked the title and wanted something to read on the Shinkansen from Fukuoka to Tokyo, but it ended up in the bottom of my bag. I fished it out again on return to the ‘long toothache’ that is the UK, and am about a third of the way through it now. Although I was pretty skeptical at first, I am finding it quite interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it offers up a model of a different attitude to living derived from a group that has fallen through the cracks: homeless people living in Tokyo. The second is that his argument so far has been a lot less about theorizing and a lot more about getting on and doing something.

So to begin with I was skeptical. Its all very well and good holding up homeless people as paragons of virtue but (a) shouldn’t the state have stepped in to make sure they didn’t become homeless in the first place and (b) wouldn’t the homeless people themselves rather be, you know, home-d? Both these points are still niggling away as I read the book, but lets put them to one side for a moment and see what Sakaguchi has to say.

Sakaguchi’s main point is that the vast expense incurred by either renting or owning a house is actually, when you think about it, ridiculous. People grind away at work in order to pay that 100,000 a month rental bill or the equivalent in mortgage payments. For the majority of people outlay on their housing will eat up the lion’s share of their wages, meaning that they have to work harder and longer in order to provide for all the other things they need in life.  Indeed, Sakaguchi seems to suggest that this system was set up intentionally as a way of integrating people into the economy.

In this he is backed up by scholars such as Hirayama Yosuke. Hirayama argues that homeownership was vigorously promoted by the Japanese government in the early post-war period as the key means by which people could gain security for their old age. Japan is interesting in that it is one of the very few developed capitalist nations that did not produce a comprehensive welfare system. Provision of welfare was mostly left to corporations and security (in the sense of the long term prospect of stability) was promoted through the prospect of homeownership and a pension. As long as you worked hard and paid off your loan you could look forward to stability in your old age, drawing a pension and living in your fully paid for house.

However, since the 1990s this system has been breaking down. Neoliberal reforms and casualisation of the labour force have taken their toll. The rise in fixed term contracts, permanent part-time work and falling wages means that the prospect of living on one’s own, let alone buying a house, is becoming less and less achievable. The pension system is also under ever increasing strain due to the dual problem of an aging population and declining birthrate. For many young people the old social contract simply does not work anymore.

It doesn’t work, but it still has a ring of commonsense to it. In the book Sakaguchi notes time and again that the idea of paying lots of rent, or getting a 35 year loan to buy a house is hardly questioned in Japan (and I would argue that it is hardly questioned here either), even though it is increasingly difficult to do so. To a certain extent there is anecdotal evidence that attitudes to housing are changing and the notion of shared-living is getting some interest in the media (witness J-Pop phenomenon Arashi’s new segment on their show ‘Secret Arashi’, where they welcome guests into their own ‘share-house’ studio). However, renting an apartment and eventual homeownership is still the generally accepted norm.

So, Sakaguchi, a trained architect, sees the housing system as a transparent way of getting people to work and pay taxes. His solution to this problem was to look for ways to build houses that cost as little as possible and avoided the tax system. This is where Tokyo’s homeless come in. While walking around the Asakusa area Sakaguchi met with a number of homeless people who nevertheless had homes. Small, yes but homes nonetheless. These homes were built out of what he refers to as ‘gomi’ (rubbish), such as discarded pieces of wood and blue sheeting, but were also augmented with solar power generators and car batteries rigged to produce 100v electricity. Local parks offer water sources and toilets, libraries bookshelves, the local public bath in place of the shower. Food is a little more difficult — many homeless in Tokyo receive handouts from restaurants and supermarkets — and I doubt many people would be comfortable with this arrangement. However, the idea was there in principal: a radical rethink of what is needed to live and the relationship between the public and the private sphere.

It is this relationship that Sakaguchi continues to probe in the book. He refers to the bureaucratic world of Japan as ‘anonymous’ (tokumeika sareta) and relates it to the proliferation of private house buying, and the concomitant steady encroachment of the private into the public. Part of his ‘mission’ (his words not mine) is in questioning this privileging of the private over the public and the effect this has on human relations.  Perhaps if there was a reconsideration of the relationship between private and public the anonymity of the system would be replaced with more enduring human relationships: going to the library to get your books means you have to talk to people and share a public space; likewise with going to public baths.  And perhaps with the cost of housing reduced more people would have time to sit in parks and talk to each other.

Of course there is also the problem of the law. But here Sakaguchi found that as long as your home has wheels it is not legally classified as a house and therefore it is not taxed. He also found that there are pockets of land in Tokyo where long running disputes over ownership have left them ostensibly free to use — something that he hasn’t talked about much yet but will, I am sure, make a reappearance later in the book. Anyway, armed with this information he built a small (3 tatami mat) house for around 30 000 yen (£250), put wheels on it and, after negotiating with the owner, set it up in a car park. He even got a Pizza delivered to the house as proof that it was actually a house.

The point that comes through here is that Sakaguchi didn’t come up with a clever theory of emancipation from capital relations. He just saw something that looked like a viable alternative and started an experiment. Now of course we could argue that he is still embedded in ‘the system’: the fact that he is pumping out books and making money would seem to undercut his efforts at extraction. He still bought his materials from a DIY shop. He still has an iPad and buys clothes from, you know, shops. Hypocrite, right?

I’m not so sure. Sakaguchi uses the strategies of homeless people as an example because they have been forced by the their situation to develop a new way of living, not necessarily outside capital relations but certainly on the margins. They have been forced to use their own resources by neoliberalism, incidentally what this particular ideology is all about, and in doing so they offer a model for something different. Again I can’t quite shake the feeling that the state should be stepping in to help, but perhaps state intervention that stops people from having to fundamentally rethink value systems is part of the problem. What Sakaguchi is doing is working through the consequences of a shift in perspective on the meaning of home, the relationship between public and private and the relationship between work, property and stability that comes from having to piece together a life on Japan’s streets. Lots to think about anyway, and I haven’t even got to the bit where he sets up his own country.

Here is a trailer for a documentary that follows his project:




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Filed under Capitalism, Japan, media, Modern Living, politics, Uncategorized

Civic service

The March edition of Prospect Magazine makes a bold and convincing argument for the introduction of compulsory civic service in the UK.  The authors observe worsening attitudes towards the younger generation, just as young people themselves struggle to plot a course into adulthood.  Civic education is therefore a moral imperative.

There is no doubt that the UK is becoming ever more fragmented.  The worlds we create for ourselves continue to shrink just as the barriers between us become more visceral.  A scheme that promises to bridge these worlds and facilitate greater cross boundary exchange can only be a good thing.

But does this concept of ‘the civic’ have anything to do with politics?  The authors argue that producing better citizens is the main purpose of their scheme.  However, their conception of the good citizen seems to be one fully engaged in the social sphere, but not the political.

It may be the case that social civic engagement leads to greater political awareness.  However, this linkage needs to be questioned.  What if the civic becomes a substitute for the political?

Part of the problem is distance.  Westminster is both physically and metaphorically miles removed from the everyday lives of most young people in this country.  The idea that one can affect political change seems remote.  In fact, it is not even rational to vote: the time and effort needed to get informed seems to outweigh the miniscule impact you are likely to make.

Creating a better citizen entails not only promoting civic responsibility but also giving young people real political empowerment.  This would entail politics taking a central place in school curriculum as both a subject of study and ongoing experience.

Doing this would go some way towards assuaging fears that civic service is a way of getting the state’s work done on the cheap.  Rather than a benevolent government looking down on its people as they construct civil society, the distance between these two realms would shrink as the civic and political become entwined.

Creating a sense of belonging in no easy thing.  But it is clear that creating more socially and political aware citizens is a step in the right direction.

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Filed under politics, UK

Ha Ha! Theoretical physics is on my side!

My studies have recently taken me on a very interesting diversion into the world of knowledge. To be more specific: the ontological and epistemological assumptions that we use when we go about placing things in categories, so that we can do useful things such as talk about the world around us and compare stuff. When we are talking about Japanese identity we are also talking about the categories that separate ‘Japanese’ from ‘foreigner’ etc. Of course, these categories need to come from somewhere and in the case of Japan, John Clammer suggests that a lot comes from indigenous cosmologies (read Shinto and Buddhism) that have shaped the ways in which the Japanese think about basics such as inside and outside, purity and impurity etc.

But another, perhaps even more fundamental categorising element is language. I was lucky enough to get Steven Pinker’s excellent “The Stuff of Thought” for Christmas, which is a great book about how language and thought are interlinked. Although I am by no means a theoretical linguist, the idea of language determining how people see the world seems very rich: the immediate question being can learning another language allow one to think outside the confines of one’s own mother tongue? This has implications for my study: are Japanese who can speak foreign languages and foreigners who speak Japanese slowly modifying their respective world views in a way that is challenging hegemonic cultural understandings of each other?

The physics bit comes from this week’s New Scientist. In it there is an article entitled “Trapped in a World View” that reiterates and builds upon an argument made by Niels Bohr that: “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (p. 42, my italics) The article suggests that Western European languages are getting in the way when it comes to understanding the latest in theoretical physics. Why is this? Well, it seems that the concepts that ideas such as string theory deals with are not wholly compatible with the basic mechanics of our language, which is made up of nouns acting on nouns in various ways using verbs. The author suggests, however, that different languages offer a ‘better’ set of categories for understanding the weird world of quantum mechanics, notably the Algonquian family of languages that have lots of verbs but little in the way of specific noun categories. In this world view the world is a set of processes that we are part of and the world is in a continued state of flux – quite close to the physicist’s own observations of particles that showed them to be more process than thing. What is stunning about this revelation is the fundamental importance of language – to the extent that the cutting edge of physics is only now (well, 1992) making insights into the universe that some of us on this planet have had access to from day one thanks to the language they grew up with. But here is the kicker. The author suggests that by studying other languages we may be able to break down categorical walls and address the limitations that they impose upon us. “The study of other types of languages opens us up to other world views, to complementary ways of speaking about the cosmos.” (p. 43) Back in the universe of me, I wonder if the same holds true for the world views that come with national identity.

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Filed under Japan, Language, Philosophy, Physics, politics, Reality, theory, Wierd

Draft of article: soul searching

I felt like writing down some responses to a letter I found on the Project for the New American Century website. I think I will continue to revise it in public so to speak.

In 2004, after the terrible acts at Beslan school No.1, an open letter was sent to the heads of the European Union and NATO from The Project for the New American Century, signed by 100 prominent US politicians and political thinkers. After a brief note of sympathy for the victims, the letter proceeds to warn that Vladimir Putin has used the incident as an excuse to erode democratic values within Russia. The letter states that:

He has systematically undercut the freedom and independence of the press, destroyed the checks and balances in the Russian federal system, arbitrarily imprisoned both real and imagined political rivals, removed legitimate candidates from electoral ballots, harassed and arrested NGO leaders, and weakened Russia’s political parties. In the wake of the horrific crime in Beslan, President Putin has announced plans to further centralize power and to push through measures that will take Russia a step closer to authoritarian regime.

I find it difficult to read these words without a certain amount of irony. For although it is certainly the case that Putin is systematically repealing what little liberal sensibility there was in Russia, it seems that the US has, in using a horrific event to repeal civil liberties, a lot in common with its former Cold War rival.

Let me explain. By using the fears set out by the 100 signatories of the letter we have a set of criteria with which to examine the US. A number of ‘democratic’ values (I use scare quotes as these are not really democratic but rather liberal values) are undoubtedly under threat in Russia: freedom of the press, (b) the checks and balances of the federal system, (c) freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and (d) free elections. Using some of these points we can now talk about how America is shaping up in the wake of 9//11.


Freedom of the press in the United States is a tricky subject to tackle, mainly because to even voice the question ‘are the press completely free?’ goes against all accepted wisdom. Of course the press are free in the United States, it is after all the country of the fourth estate, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Media freedom has been demonstrated by Watergate and by the Vietnam War, two examples of asking hard questions and documenting hidden facts that brought about great shifts in power (although I have sympathy with Baudrillard’s position that Watergate was the anomaly that reinforced a misguided vision of purity in American politics).

Nonetheless events such as Watergate demonstrate how the press in the past have been courageous and critical. But arguably the media landscape we are presented with now would be mostly unrecognisable to journalists from that era. As I see it this change comes from a few significant developments such as the emergence of 24-hour news channels, the changing sensibility of news coverage and the framing of debate.

A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) stated that on the run up to the second Iraq war, out of almost 400 interviews conducted on major news outlets, only 3 were with anti-war activists. How can this be the case?

One factor was the out-pouring of patriotic sentiment that came after the 9/11 attacks and the overwhelming tendency of mainstream media outlets to stop asking questions. This climate was maintained not only by government officials but also in the news media itself, and an ‘us and them’ mentality was seen to develop. On MSNBC’s Hardball programme in September 2002, the hosts refer to World Bank/IMF protesters in Washington DC as hating America, which is indicative of much of the coverage protest received:

“Those people out in the streets, do they hate America?” “Yes, I’m afraid a lot of them do. They hate America. They align themselves with Saddam Hussein. They align themselves with terrorists all over the world.”

The debate was thus framed in terms of good and evil, with us or against us. This is what the geographer Derek Gregory refers to as ‘opposing’: “reducing the complex roots of political violence to an opposition between Civilization (always with that imperial capital, and almost always meaning a particular version of the United States as somehow the universal civilization) and the rest, savage, barbarian others”.

In the climate generated by the press, freedom of expression becomes not a question of clumsy state censorship, but much more dangerously of self-censorship. In the face of overwhelming patriotic support for a war framed by the good and evil, Civilisational rhetoric from not only the state but also your peers, it takes an incredible amount of courage to stand out and ask difficult questions. Those who did, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were demonised by the news media: Paula Zahn from CNN put it to him that “people out there are accusing you of drinking Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid”. This would be acceptable if pro-war interviewees were posed similar questions. But as an Iraq war media timeline produced by FAIR and a documentary by Amy Goodman show, such critical questioning was distinctly lacking. To stand out as a commentator was media suicide, to protest as a private citizen was to be ignored. In environment so hostile to dissent, how can we in all honesty talk of freedom of the press?


The Civilisational conflict theme extends to our next point: freedom of political expression/freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. To a large extent I believe that the framing argument can be extended to cover freedom of political opinion, the most glaring example being the demonisation and subsequent banning by many radio stations of the Dixie Chicks after they protested America’s plans for war. As such I would like to focus on freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. But first a disclaimer: the examples I am about to cite are not examples of US citizens. However this does not mean they should be discounted, as they are both display frightening arbitrariness of action: they are seemingly random, causeless and meaningless. They have little or no logical rational basis. And once the wheels of the procedure are set in motion the question of citizenship becomes irrelevant.

The first example is of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen born in Syria who subjected to ‘extraordinary rendition’ (a wonderful piece of what Steven Poole calls ‘unspeak’): put more plainly he was deported to Syria, kept in solitary confinement, tortured for 10 months and forced to sign false confessions. The second example is of Ms. Ghuman, a music scholar from the UK. She was also detained while passing through an American airport, interrogated and deported – although luckily back to London and not Damascus. However, Ms. Ghuman’s career as an assistant lecturer in the US has been ruined and she still does not know if she can ever return to the US.

Maher had ‘suspected links to terrorism’ (which all proved to be false); Ms. Ghuman’s was simply a case of mistaken identity. Both of these people were denied any rights or access to lawyers. Maher, like the detainees at Guantanamo Bay that have dropped so resolutely off the media radar, was for 10 months reduced to a state of bare existence: he was ‘opposed’ and as such became a nobody, a non-entity. For a few chilling hours Ms. Ghuman also experienced the same denial of being, dropped out of civilized modernity into barbarism. How long before US citizens with Middle Eastern ethnic backgrounds are subject to the same treatment? Their white Anglo-Saxon friends?

Speech and elections

Finally, a recent incident in the press highlights both issues concerning freedom of speech, but also those of governmental checks and balances and free elections. After running over his allotted time while asking presidential candidate John Kerry why he did not contest the 2004 election results, a student at Florida University was forcibly removed by police. When he refused to leave the police used a taser to subdue him and he was taken into custody.

The question he was asking is valid, and his treatment – even if he was acting up – was excessive. Election results have been questioned before. The documentary film “American Blackout” (2006) has detailed instances of crossovers (where Republican voters turn out to vote for a more sympathetic democratic in democrat controlled areas), systematic redistricting, problems with voting machines and lists of felons (who are not eligible to vote) being used erroneously to restrict the black vote – who historically vote democrat. McKinney herself became the object of media slander when comments she made about 9/11 were taken out of context by media outlets, and she was cast as a conspiracy theorist. If the events in the documentary are true, they amount to systematic disenfranchisement and deserve mainstream debate. But this debate would strike at the core of America’s national confidence in its freedom, and I wonder if the comfort that comes with knowing will ever be willingly replaced by the discomfort of questioning.

However, I think it is now possible to ask the Project for the New American Century a question. Have the 9/11 attacks led to the erosion of liberal values in the United States? As soon as liberal values are taken for granted they run the risk of being lost. It may be worthwhile for the US to look at Russia and engage in a little soul searching.


Filed under America, Amy Goodman, Baudrillard, Documentary, media, news, politics, Power, US elections



Yesterday I attended a workshop organized by Dr. Chris Rumford about the theorising of borders. In his introduction Dr. Rumford made reference to a number of instances, such as farmers being asked to lock up their fertilizers by the government, and shop keepers similarly being asked to watch out for specific purchasing patterns that give rise to suspicions of terrorism. Although I am not completely convinced that these are instances we can talk of in terms of borders, the theme of the introduction – that borders should not be thought of only in terms of nation-states – is insightful and informative.

A discussion I had with a colleague during one of the coffee breaks reminded me of a lecture given by the geographer Derek Gregory that I happened to download and listen to (glorious podcasts!). In it he talks of ‘vanishing points’, areas where the structures and norms of society break down: bounded areas within society that are nevertheless excluded from society – spaces of exception. These are not only socially but also temporally separated, they are perpetual and indefinite; they do not have an end date stamped upon them. The most enduring example of these zones is of course the concentration camp and more recently we have the American facility at Guantanamo Bay. But a recent article in the New York Times gives an example of how these spaces of exception need not be attached to geographical sites such as the camp, but also function at the level of the individual.

The article in question concerns a music scholar, Ms. Ghuman, originally from the UK but who has for the last 10 years lived and worked in California. On arriving at San Francisco airport in 2006, Ms. Ghuman was inexplicably detained by airport security, questioned for hours and then forced to leave for London. When she asked to contact the British embassy officials Ms. Ghuman recounts: “they told me I was nobody, I was nowhere and I had no rights”. Her valid visa was ripped up. To this date (13 months later) she has heard nothing of her visa status, and has been denied access to her records due to security issues.

To my mind this account is an example of border, not just at the level of a nation-state choosing who can and cannot come in and out of their territory, but also a border erected at the site of the individual that restricts access to the mechanisms, norms of conduct, laws etc. that make them a ‘somebody’: a recognised member of society. The vocabulary used by the immigration officials – ‘nobody’, ‘nowhere’, ‘no rights’ – is the vocabulary of the camp, of Guantanamo Bay; it is spatially and temporally removed, it is an explicit denial of existence. This border is a particularly dark instrument of control that plays on security fears to create social purgatory for those who fall into the profile.

The New York Times article makes for chilling reading, mainly because Ms. Ghuman is clearly (as admitted by officials at the time) the victim of a mistake. But this example could have been a lot worse. Ms. Ghuman could have been placed in a detention centre where her non-existence would be ever more difficult to challenge, where the not only the laws of the US are suspended but also those of her home country and the international community. This should be a wake up call for all of us, as anyone can be a victim of arbitrariness. If the study of borders can help us understand and critique instances like these then it is most definitely a worthwhile pursuit.

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Filed under America, Borders, liberty, Modern Living, news, politics, Power

Iain posts, he just doesn’t know it yet…

In an effort to get Iain writing for me I have just gone ahead and posted something for him. Thats what friends are for.

Saw this recently about how technology will eventually mean it is feasible to record a human life from start to end and what moral questions this raises, imagine Facebook taken to the extreme, when it requires no user input because all the gaps are filled in by sensors in everything we come into contact with (Iain is… about to get hit by a bus but he doesn’t know it yet, though he will in about 400ms, I could warn him but I’m just a mobile phone and far too busy working out my next chess move).

It reminded me of something I read recently on the same thing about how in 500 years historians of the time would have an amazing resource to call upon. The amount we can glean from pollen grains in stomachs of frozen icemen currently is pretty amazing, but if ice man had been recording his life we would have a wealth of information about him beyond what type of tree pollen blew into his food. Also had a thought recently along the Phil K Dick line of pre-cognition, but instead of weird woman hooked up to a machine it would be amazingly constructed algorithms for predicting human behaviour, based upon whatever inputs were available, maybe visual and heart rate for example, the ‘system’, such a barbed word, detects that a guy is showing behaviour consistent with someone about to rob a bank and raises the alarm to whatever effect (maybe lock the airlock style door just as he enters, would look great on an American cctv comedy clips show “Little did he know that ‘the system’ had been tracking him since he left his house this morning and now he is trapped in an airlock, watch how he explodes as we evacuate the air, ho ho ho, and now a hilarious clip of a puppy falling into a meat grinder”).

To be continued.

(Chris: On a similar note, I got around to watching Aaron Russo’s America: From Freedom to Fascism recently on google videos, and there is an interesting interview about this kind of technology near the end of the video. The documentary is pretty well made and quite startling, so if you have time its definitley worth watching – if only as a great example of the mistrust of government that sits in the heart of so many Americans).

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Filed under America, BBC, Capitalism, Modern Living, politics, technology

Yahoo! Pipes

Yahoo! have been very clever and created something called Pipes, which is an interactive data aggregator and manipulator that lets you mashup your favorite online data sources.  Iain spent about five hours today (admittedly spent mostly working out how it works)  setting up a politics feed that grabs articles relating to politics from a load of different sources.  A version of this feed is now in the side bar, but the full version with a nifty time frame setting is here.  The potential is massive, and we (Iain) will continue to play.

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Filed under news, politics, technology, Yahoo! Pipes