1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I respond by asking you five questions so I can get to know you better.
3. You will either update your LJ with the answers to the questions or post them here.
4. If you repost you will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the post; if you answer here, then any of my friends (or me) can do a set of follow up questions, but you get to ask them stuff too.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you can ask them five questions.
6. Or you can just ask me five question in comments here if you prefer.
Questions from mountainkiss:
- How did you get into your line of work?
Gradually. I was an academic researcher in history and philosophy of science, but also active in politics in Northern Ireland - I was the central campaigns director for the Alliance Party for three years in the mid-1990s just as the peace process was going. Then I managed to get a job in Bosnia, doing the same work that I had been doing in Belfast, but paid rather than unpaid, which is an important difference; and that gave me a taste for getting stuck into political analysis of complex and fast-moving situations. Then I had had enough of working for the Americans, and got jobs with two successive think-tanks in Brussels; and that gave me a taste for unpicking what was going on the EU and telling people about it. I moved to my current job a year ago, in order to input more effectively to the most vulnerable bits of the policy process.
- What do you find most rewarding about what you do, and what would you change if you could?
I love interacting at high-level with senior decision-makers, and (I hope) helping them to make better decisions. I hate the routine office admin, and it's the one disadvantage of a relatively small organisation that there are fewer people to delegate the tedious bureaucracy too (though it's a skill I am learning).
- You seem extraordinarily sociable, you read a lot of difficult books and write thoughtful commentary, you do demanding work that involves travel and you are clearly devoted to your family. How do you find the time for all this, and what are the challenges associated with work/life balance for you?
You're clearly a very perceptive person yourself, Frankie! Having reflected on this very tricky question, I think there are three key things I try and do with my time. The most important is simply to get enough sleep, without which you have no energy to face the other challenges of the day. The second is to make sure I get out of the house for face-time with my wife at least once a week, to review and chew over everything going on in our lives. And the third is to also make sure I have a little time for reflection on my own - the daily commute is crucial in that way. Once you have the foundations in good order, it is much easier to balance on them.
- If you were in charge of the political system, what would you change to make it work better?
Hmm, which political system? I work in several different ones...
Though on reflection, it's easy enough - what I see happening time and time again is bad decisions being made due to restrictions in the flow of information among policy-makers, and between policy-makers and those to whom they are accountable. I think that all areas of policy would benefit from more openness and transparency. I am struck by how often key official documents in foreign policy are available to a persistent researcher, but not really to the general public on whose behalf these decisions are made. I would open things up, in general.
- What are the policy areas that are most important to you and why?
Foreign policy, because it fascinates me; health and education provisions for people with autism, because of my family.
- I've spent a fair amount of time over the years in the Free State but I've never visited NI. What do you see as the biggest differences?
Well, the accents are completely different!
Northern Ireland is, basically, provincial; a small place with all the good and bad that that entails. The Republic (not the "Free State", at least not since 1937!) started off that way but has graduated into being a 'real' country; the North never will. It's still my original home, it's still where I love going back to, but I'm quite happy not to be there at the moment, given the nature of my work and the family situation.
- I just don't get the appeal of Dr. Who. Enlighten me!
...and yet you like Red Dwarf?
For me it's a combination of nostalgia and escapism. I read sf in general because it takes me to a different place; my day job is quite intellectually taxing enough, and I resent authors who make me work too hard to discover what is really going on. Doctor Who does not make me work too hard, and the place it brings me to is a combination of what's on the screen and my childhood weekends. If you didn't grow up with it, I'm not totally surprised that you haven't latched onto it again. (But have you seen much of the post-2005 show?)
- If the lemur and I were to visit SE Europe where should we go?
Istanbul is technically south-east Europe, so I would start there. As regards the former Yugoslavia, Rebecca West wrote of three of my favourite places in the prologue to her great book: the wonderful ancient ecclesiastical town of Ohrid in south-eastern Macedonia, clinging to the edge of the lake; the peculiar wounded and scarred metropolis that is Sarajevo; and the perfect preserved citadel of Korčula on the Adriatic. But I also had a memorable trip a few years back to the Vojvodina north of Belgrade, culminating with the fortress of Petrovaradin overlooking the city of Novi Sad; and going further south again, the landscape of Montenegro is the most spectacular. There are many possibilities!
- You have travelled more than most. Given a free choice where would you choose to live and why?
The concept of "a free choice" is difficult - my constraints are to a large extent things I've chosen myself or things I woudl feel ambivalent about changing. But I guess I would like to live somewhere with warm weather and good English-language bookshops.
- You describe yourself as a 'lapsed medievalist'. Who among medievalists do you most admire?
Hmm, very tricky. I just love the great writers who started it all - Bede and Gibbon. Of living medievalists, John D. North has written a lot on the subjects that interest me, but is probably too technical for the general reader. The other medieval history books I have enjoyed most are probably W.L. Warren's Henry II and Richard Crouch's William Marshall. Eleanor of Aquitaine fascinates me deeply but I have not read a truly great book about her (thiough there are several good ones).
- We share a great admiration for Bujold. Which other female authors do you admire?
Hah, this is where LibraryThing is so useful! Looking at female authors where I've read more than one book by them and given at least one book top marks: Ursula Le Guin, Connie Willis, Sherri S Tepper, Octavia Butler, Mary Gentle, Madeleine L'Engle, Joanna Russ and George Eliot, all of whom have their off days as well but are brilliant when on form; plus I very much enjoyed The Time Traveller's Wife, Cold Comfort Farm and Fun Home, but am not aware of having read any other books by Niffenegger, Gibbons or Bechdel.
- You started out as a scientist and became a historian. How did your scientific training inform your historical imagination? How did your historical training influence your understanding of science?
I think the second is more significant than the first. I was always interested in science at least as much for Story as for Knowledge, which is why I found my way to the historical path. The doctrine of the social construction of knowledge is a very powerful analytical approach to What Is Really Going On, not just in science, but also in other walks of life; information is put together by people, and the human factor affects everything about it.
- What poetry do you like?
Hmm, I don't actually read a lot of poetry - my speed-reading habits mean I don't naturally linger on the page long enough to let it sink in. Doing my Eng Lit O-Level, Robert Frost appealed to me most. At the moment I am enjoying an exchange of smutty doggerel being posted between two of my livejournal friends, but I guess that's not quite the same thing!
- From my uninformed position, the future of Northern Ireland looks brighter than it has throughout my lifetime. Do you agree? To what do you attribute the successes so far?
Oh yes. The crucial point was the realisation by the Republican movement that they were not going to win the armed struggle, and their gradual climbing off the philosophy of waging war. They did it too slowly, in my view; the campaign was not justified and secured nothing in 1998 which would not have been on the table in the 1970s in the absence of violence. There has of course also been a subsequent shioft from the DUP; but if the IRA had met their commitments on decommissioning sooner, the DUP would have remained the smaller Unionist party for a lot longer.
There is another crucial factor as well which was the character of George Mitchell as chair of the talks process, and keeping the whole show on the road. He managed to gan the confidence of the participants in each other and in the process. It would have been much more difficult without him.
- Which five fictional characters would you most like to shag?
Hmm. I answered this one in July 2005, and have been reviewing my answers in the light of what I've been watching and reading since. I think I now have to change my original rankings quite a lot:
5) Bernice Summerfield. Or possible Ashley Watt from Iain Banks' The Crow Road.
4) The Empress Alixana.
2) Phèdre nó Delaunay still at #2
1) and Faith still has the top spot, as far as I am concerned.
- For work and fiction, how many different languages do you most frequently read in?
Really mainly English. I can read easily enough in French, Dutch and German, but almost any significant document that reaches my desk at work is in English. I do end up speaking French and Dutch fairly often to interact with yer actual Belgians, and often pick up and scan the free Metro newspaper in either language (though mainly for the sudoku).
- Roughly what are the percentages? (e.g. is English still the reading you do in the main? Not edged out by French?)
Absolutely. I would be surprised if I spend as much as 1% of my time reading either French or Dutch, and for German it is even less.
- Regarding memory: how often have you encountered a multi-lingual group where there isn't a shared third language between the group, and you find yourself doing simultaneous translation? Add-on: how often has it gone pear-shaped and you've given the correct narrative in the wrong language to the given group/individual?
A few times; though again the inexorable rise of English as lingua franca has probably made this kind of situation rarer than it was for my parents. I would say that it has happened most often in German, though I did once rather bizarrely finding myself interpreting in Russian which I barely speak. I had a couple of memorable moments of this kind in my last job: on one occasion, my colleague (who speaks Serbian but no French) and I (speaking French but no Serbia) met a Serbian contact who had French but no English. On another, I met with a monoglot Albanian contact who came with an interpreter who spoke French but no English; on that occasion I brought my own Francophone colleague to interpret for me. I have to say in these circumstances it is really rare to get the target languages mixed up as you speculate, though I'm not saying it never happens.
- Regarding memory: remembering past conversations, dreams, of the written word - do you remember it in the language it was first absorbed in, or does the language melt away to the remembered meaning, or is it all translated to your mother-tongue?
Usually the first - anything memorable is usually so because of the particular turn of phrase used, and that's almost always something that can't be easily translated without long and tedious explanation.