Interesting times

Belgium went to the polls on Sunday and, this being Belgium, nothing is quite that simple. As well as the EU Parliament elections there was also a vote for the regional parliaments and the federal governments.

Overall the results were similar to those for the local elections last October, with the mainstream parties losing votes to the Greens and the far right Vlaams Belang. This is going to make for some fraught negotiations going forward.

Of the various elections, the European Parliament vote is probably the least interesting. Flanders returns 12 MEPs, of which Vlaams Belang returns 3, having taken one seat from each of the N-VA (centre right, separatists, now down to 3 seats) and the liberal OpenVLD (down to two seats). CD&V (centre-right), the Greens and the socialist sp.a are all unchanged on two, one and one seat respectively.

In the Flemish parliament, the Vlaams Belang have done frighteningly well to win 23 seats out of 124 (a gain of 17 seats) Both the Greens and the far left PVDA have both seen gains — coincidentally four extra seats for each, which puts the Greens on 14 seats and the PVDA on four, and in Parliament for the first time.

That said, the N-VA remains the largest party by far and a three party coalition with them, the CD&V and the OpenVLD would have a comfortable majority.

In Brussels, the one place in which both Flemish and Francophone parties campaign, the Greens are the big winners. I am not going to attempt to guess at what sort of coalition ends up running the city, but I suspect that we can look forward to fewer cars and a more pleasant walk to the station.

And then there’s the federal parliament, which is where things really do become interesting. Again the Vlaams Belang and the Greens are the big winners at the expense of the more mainstream parties. It’s generally the case that Flanders tends to vote centre-right and Wallonia tends to lean to the left and this is reflected in the fact that the largest and second largest parties are the Flemish N-VA and the Francophone Parti Socialiste (PS) respectively. And now they have to form a coalition.

In the last parliament we had a four party coalition of N-VA, CD&V and the Flemish and Francophone liberal parties. This time around, though, the size of the Vlaams Belang prevents these four parties from achieving a majority.

It should be safe to exclude the possibility of the far right getting into government as long as the cordon sanitaire holds — which it should. Gwendolyn Rutten of the OpenVLD has already ruled out any sort of agreement with the far right and I don’t see either the socialists or the greens being willing to do a deal with them. The N-VA have been a bit more equivocal about the far right, but if no-one else is willing to let the Vlaams Belang near at the levers of government then any hopes they they might have are dead in the water. As such, the size of the far right contingent merely adds to the complexity.

Being the biggest party, the N-VA will get first crack at forming a coalition. But the francophone parties don’t trust them — to the extend that the PS have said that they won’t go into coalition with them at all and several members of the francophone liberals of the Movement Reformateur (MR) saying that they don’t want anything to do with Theo “Thickie” Francken.

It’s possible that the N-VA might be able to bring around the MR and hammer out a coalition of with the liberal parties, green parties and the CH&V. An agreement between the N-VA and Greens is unlikely, but not completely outlandish — these two parties tried to form a coalition in Antwerp after the 2018 local elections, although the talks eventually fell apart — but any such agreement would take a long time in coming.

And if the N-VA can’t hammer out an agreement, the PS will have a go at forming a coalition. The numbers are there for a six party coalition of socialists, liberals and greens but whether such a coalition will manage to survive a full five years is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it wouldn’t need to.

After the 2010 election, the Belgian parties took 589 days to form a government. This time around, they may well take longer.

Bad Pun Sunday

The Guardian reports that the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog is considering whether to investigate Nigel Farage over payments he has received from Arron Banks. I am not going to express any opinion on whether such an investigation is justified or long overdue, but I am often amused by the fact that the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog is known as Olaf — a name shared with a certain comedy snowman.

I can’t help wondering, therefore, whether this investigation will lead to Farage’s assets being Frozen, or if they will ultimately decide to Let It Go.

Farewell to Antergos

The developers behind the Antergos Linux distribution announced yesterday that, after seven years, they are bringing the project to an end.

As many of you probably noticed over the past several months, we no longer have enough free time to properly maintain Antergos. We came to this decision because we believe that continuing to neglect the project would be a huge disservice to the community. Taking this action now, while the project’s code still works, provides an opportunity for interested developers to take what they find useful and start their own projects.

Although I fully understand their reasoning, it will be a shame to see Antergos go. It’s a distribution that I used for five years — from August 2013 until switching to OpenSuse in December of last year — and I always found it to be a lovely operating system and a great way of getting at the power and flexibility of Arch Linux without having to actually install Arch.

Arch provides a very flexible and very powerful operating system but it does have something of a reputation for expecting its users to know what they’re doing. This is great for systems administrators but can prove a bit time consuming for someone, like me, who just wants the latest and shiniest software.

Antergos comes with a very nice graphical installer which leaves you with a very solid base from which to explore everything Arch has to offer. This also means that if you really mess things up (as I have done a few times) reinstalling is quick, painless and can get you back to where you started before the end of the evening.

And it was lovely to look at. The development team put a lot of effort into the theming of the distribution which contributed no end to its being slick, effective and a pleasure to use.

Over the past couple of months, I have been hesitating over whether or not to return to Antergos. Realistically speaking, this decision has now been made for me but I will be interested to see what, if anything, emerges from the Antergos project.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

The concluding part of Nnedi Okorafor’s trilogy of novellas is a powerful and often moving tale, packed with well-drawn and believable characters that bring this world to life.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene — though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives — and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novella without posting spoilers for the two preceding installments. Everything builds on what has gone before, locking together to make for a whole that is far greater than its parts. This is a book that knows where it’s going, even if the author doesn’t much care how she gets there.

As a result, this is a story that leaves much unexplained and unexplored. To fully appreciate it, therefore, you need to recognise that author, Nnedi Okorafor, is more interested in using metaphors to discuss concepts than she is in ensuring that every narrative tab fits perfectly in it’s slot.

This makes for a story that is thoughtful and left me mulling over it for days afterwards and a universe to which I would be very happy to return.

Elections

26th May is election day in Belgium where voting is compulsory — or would be if anyone actually checked.

There are three elections, all on the same day, for the European Parliament, the Federal Parliament and the regional Parliaments respectively. Being an EU, but not Belgian, citizen, I get to vote in only the EU Parliament election.

The Federal Parliament is the one from which the national government is drawn, which means that we will see the end of the current caretaker administration just as soon as a new coalition is formed.

I’m not holding my breath, though. Opinion polling suggests that the Flemish separatists of the N-VA are set to end up as the largest Flemish group in the Parliament and the Francophone parties are already saying that they want nothing to do with the N-VA.

The coalition negotiations could take a while.

The joy of commuting

Normally my train journey into work takes 43 minutes. Today it took over two hours. According to my NMBS App (which, I have to say, is pretty good at keeping you informed as to the state of the Belgian railways as well as being a handy route planner) there was a fire between Brussel Noord and Brussel Centraal.

My usual train is a direct train to Brussel Centraal, stopping at Brussel Noord. So that was cancelled.

There was a train to Leuven. Lots of trains go through Leuven, and it’s in the right general direction, so on I jumped.

When I reached Leuven, the available information was telling me to head to Brussel Zuid (another detour) and take a tram. Fortunately (I think), the train from Leuven was so much delayed that, by the time it reached Brussels, the line had been reopened and I was able to go directly to Centraal station.

And when I finally walked into the office, 90 minutes late, I was informed that three people had taken the day off due to rail issues.

Bunch of lightweights.

Minuscule – Mandibles from Far Away

I thought I had talked about the Minuscule series previously on this blog, but a couple of searches didn’t turn anything up so I shall have to file that under Things I Meant To Do But Didn’t Get Around To. It’s a shame because the series of short films is a superb collision between the documentary style of National Geographic and the universe of Tex Avery in which animated insects experience their adventures against a background of real-world sets. The films are short, dialogue-free and very, very funny.

Many of these short films can be found online and there is also a DVD box set available if you prefer to watch in comfort.

What I hadn’t realised is that the folks behind the short films had also released a feature film (in French, of course, but when there is no dialogue this really doesn’t matter) in which a stranded young ladybug forms an alliance with a squad of black ants in order to retrieve a rather unusual treasure to the ant hive.

And now there is a sequel.

When the first snow falls in the valley, it is urgent to prepare its reserves for the winter. Alas, during the operation, a small ladybug is trapped in a box – to the Caribbean. One solution: reform the shock team.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

In Binti, Nnedi Okorafor created a fascinating universe that drew on an often different set of inspirations to those usually found in space opera to give us something that felt both fresh and original. In Binti: Home, Okorafor expands on this — both in terms of the society and environment of Oomza University and also the cultural environment from which Binti comes.

The emphasis in this novella, as in the previous one, is very much on the character of Binti and her struggle to develop in the face both of conflicting expectations.

After having left her insular community to become the first member of the Himba to enrol at Oomza University, Binti now returns home. But home is not quite home any more. Binti has seen and done too much and grown in directions that make it impossible to fully fit in with the community in which she grew up.

The Australians have a term, Tall poppy syndrome which describes resentment towards people who are visibly successful in comparison to their peers. It’s a phrase I have seen used within various expatriate communities, specifically in the context of returning home, and it’s a phrase that came to mind several times as Okorafor describes the resentment of family members and the refusal of friends to accept, or even understand, the person Binti has become.

Of course, intolerance works in many directions and, while Binti has to deal with the reactions of those she left behind, she also shares their prejudices against the Desert People who are generally seen as primitive and unstable. It is Binti’s necessary reassessment of her prejudices that form the culmination of this novel, and which sets things up for the third novella in this series.

Binti: Home is an engrossing continuation of the first novella that challenges you to think about the way in which prejudices are unthinkingly adopted. It also ends on the sort of cliff hanger that left me wanting to dive straight into the next novella, Binti: The Night Masquerade.

While this novella suffers a bit from being the middle book of a trilogy, it is a satisfying read that works well in the context of what we understand of Binti’s world. I will definitely be reading the third, and final, book in this series and am looking forward to discovering how Nnedi Okorafor brings Binti’s journey to a conclusion.

Quote of the Day: He’s going to be prime minister, isn’t he.

The Official Secrets Act, surprisingly not a Jacqueline Wilson book but actually a serious, government-level agreement, surely only exists to spell out the importance of basic confidentiality to cretins who aren’t in the room on merit, but apparently it wasn’t clear enough.

Ryan Priest on Gavin Williamson, the former defence Secretary who was sacked for leaking confidential conversations.

Avengers: Endgame

May 1st — Labour Day — is a public holiday in Belgium so, on Wednesday, wee all trooped to the nearest Mutiplex to see Avengers: Endgame. The reason we made the trip to the multiplex rather than the smaller, cheaper and close cinema we normally go to is that they were screening an Avengers: Endgame Marathon. This comprised of a double bill of Infinity War immediately followed by Endgame, or six hours in front of a big screen. It was fun, and an excellent way of reminding ourselves of the events that led up to Endgame.

I was expecting this to be a single film in two parts, but it really isn’t. The Thanos storyline is closed off very quickly and we jump forward five years to find what’s left of the Avengers trying to deal with the ongoing fallout. Things pick up with the return of Ant-Man, who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm for the past five years, and he’s come up with a plan.

What follows is less of a film and more a series of sub-plots as various Avengers dash through time and space as they try to reverse Thanos’ actions. Much of this involves returning to the events of previous films and allows several of the characters to bring their story-arcs of the past decade to a close. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that not all of the Avengers survive and, of the survivors, it’s quite possible that some of them will hang up their capes after this.

In many ways, then, Endgame is a long goodbye to the characters we have been watching for the past decade. That’s not to say that the film isn’t entertaining, it is. And, of course, things come together for the inevitable climactic battle which is both well executed and thrilling to watch.

For me, Infinity War is the stronger of the two films, but Endgame continues to maintain the high standard we have come to expect from Marvel and provides a solid send-off for the original Avengers. I look forward to seeing where they go from here.