Utrecht Doped Up for Tour de France

Posted on July 3rd, 2015 by MAO

It’s the beginning of July! It’s time for the Tour de France! But already there is trouble with the main sponsor of one of the competing teams.

Dopage
Right, check out that guy’s jersey: the team in question is called Giant-Alpecin after its two main sponsors, Giant bicycles (a Taiwan company) and the German shampoo manufacturer Alpecin. The trouble arises with Alpecin’s current advertising slogan, touting its concoctions as “doping for your hair.”

Oops. “Doping”: that’s an awkward word at the Tour de France. Alpecin executives quickly retreated, promising to suspend the slogan for the three weeks of the Tour. CEO Eduard R. Dörrenberg even promised on the company website “a team without any doping, without the slightest doubt. We are well aware of our responsibility and can clearly distinguish between promotion of the effects of a product and sportive trickery.” You can read it all here (if you read German: “No doping-advertising during the Tour”):

Alpecin
That’s very noble of Herr Dörrenberg, but it’s also naive. He has no ability to make such a promise. What is he going to do, have his Alpecin employees patrol the highways and by-ways around every Tour-stage looking into buildings, trailers, barns, etc. to see if anyone is transfusing blood?

More »

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Making Sense of China News

Posted on May 9th, 2015 by MAO

Making Sense of News: Isn’t that what we all want to be able to do – those of use (probably a minority) who are interested in news in the first place? Now there’s a free MOOC (= “massive open online course”), available on the edX platform, with that title.

MakeSense

Look closer, though: this is a MOOC with a difference. “The University of Hong Kong”! Teaching us how to “Make Sense of News”!

This six-week course will help you identify reliable information in news reports and become better informed about the world we live in. We will discuss journalism from the viewpoint of the news audience.

I know that the course is not restricted to the local audience – it’s a MOOC, it’s accessible to anyone with a computer who can access the edX.org website – but what sort of “news audience” do they have there in Hong Kong in particular? An audience that for 150 years had little trouble accessing reliable news sources – until 1997, when the expiry of a long-standing treaty with the UK meant that the People’s Republic moved in and made Hong Kong its “special administrative region.”

Things have gone downhill from there, despite various guarantees made by China when it took back control. Dissatisfaction by Hong Kongers reached its peak with the extensive street-protests of late last year. It’s true that those were prompted mainly by violations of promised electoral law; the media there is supposedly mostly free from Mainland interference.

But for how long? Again, this MOOC (starting on May 19) cannot be your usual online course, just because of where it comes from and who offers it. Imagine a MOOC entitled “Making Sense of the Entire Range of News Available to You” offered by Saint Petersburg (Russia) State University. Another difference with this one: Usually edX promotes its upcoming MOOCs on its Twitter feed, but I see nothing of that for this course. I do see a MOOC addressing climate change denial which edX is happy to promote that way:
Nonsense
But not this one from Hong Kong. There might be a degree of nervousness involved here from edX.

Indeed, this is a MOOC one could well imagine that will be shut down before it is supposed to end, due to outside pressure. Alternatively, perhaps it is some sham MOOC that delivers People’s Republic-approved pablum that really doesn’t help anyone to move beyond the restricted approach to gathering news that Peking prefers its citizens to take – but I really doubt that, it doesn’t make sense, and for me edX is much too credible a platform to allow that.

“Making Sense of News” must be legit. Will it be accessible through the Great Firewall? Will it even be accessible to those in Hong Kong? Stay tuned. I’m signed up. You can be, too.

UPDATE: Uh-oh, trouble already, and the course hasn’t even started! What has happened is that the course instructors have issued a couple of e-mails with links to a number of video-previews, to give a foretaste of the lectures.

But there has been a problem and, yes, it involves China. From the latest e-mail:

After sending the e-mail with the course outline yesterday, we’ve received a few inquiries about the preview clips on YouTube from China where the video streaming platform is not accessible.
. . .
Please rest assured that this only affects the preview clips. All the actual instructional videos within the course should play back smoothly no matter which country you are from.

“[S]hould play back smoothly.” We can only hope so.

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Texas Shooting, Not Amsterdam

Posted on May 5th, 2015 by MAO

“What happened?” That was the gist of a couple of e-mailed enquiries I received in the wake of my previous blogpost about the visit of the famed Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard to Amsterdam for a “Free Speech” conference last Saturday.

(One of the enquirers added that I would have been much more precise, instead of headlining the piece “Charlie Hebdo in Amsterdam?”, to have referred instead to the shootings in Copenhagen last February, which had to do in a much more-analogous way with Westergaard’s Amsterdam event. That’s quite right: but where’s the corresponding phrase to “Charlie Hebdo” to invoke that incident to the reader’s mind in a short headline? Those Danes sometimes are so deficient in that essential modern PR skill of thinking up snappy descriptions, you know, the kind that are instantly hash-taggable!)

Nothing happened, of course. Security at De Balie was raised to truly ridiculous levels, the likes of which I am sure that place had never seen before. Take a look at this great photo:

DeBalie
Deeper in that scene and to the right you have the Leidseplein, Amsterdam’s premier (but by no means only) party-square. Rigorous on-the-spot reporting by yours truly confirmed there was not a whit less of the sort of festive atmosphere there that you’d expect on a balmy May Saturday evening, despite that weird police presence just on the other side of the tram-stop.

There was another much-closer analogue than “Charlie Hebdo” to that Free Speech conference in Amsterdam, but that occurred subsequently. It was of course that Free Speech (or, indeed, “Provocatively Mock Mohammed”) conference in Garland, TX, a suburb of Dallas, that was actually the target of an armed attack. While Westergaard in Amsterdam received hardly any coverage outside the Netherlands – logically, for nothing really happened – I am sure you are already aware of that Texas attack via your own particular favorite news-source. The coverage I liked, however, was this:

TexasGuys
Amen, brother! Just imagine: It was the two attackers who had the AK-47 assault rifles –  this being Texas, there was no mystery or surprise that they had managed to get ahold of such – yet they were both killed by security wielding only pistols, having only managed to shoot one guy in the leg! In fact:

An officer who normally works on traffic was there as part of a heavy security detail for the event, and this officer shot and killed both gunmen using his duty pistol, said Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland police.

What a pair of losers! The gang who couldn’t shoot straight! Pitiful, particularly by Texas standards. Imagine: it’s your one chance at the big-time, the attack that will define your life (either by ending it, as occurred, or by getting you locked for life so that there can be no second act) – yet you mess it up this badly, at the hands of a traffic cop! Strangely, this Washington Post piece concentrates almost exclusively on how one of these gunmen, one Elton Simpson, had already been watched by the FBI for years, as if that were his big mistake! Well, all that surveillance apparently did not keep him from driving up outside the Garland convention center with his friend and their automatic weapons, did it? More »

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Downtrodden Down Under

Posted on May 4th, 2015 by MAO

It may be on the entire other side of the world, but Australia (together with, of course, New Zealand) is popular among traveling European youth taking that “gap year” before university – or, more likely these days, spinning their wheels in a very bad job market and so willing to beg, borrow and/or steal the considerable sum for a round-trip ticket to Oz, to at least alleviate the boredom and frustration by traveling in a fascinatingly unfamiliar land.

Recent news indicates that might not be such a good idea any more.

Aussie
“Foreign workers exploited in Australia.” Many in that last (unemployed) group understandably want, and need, to find paying employment once they arrive there to offset costs, and the Australian government does meet them more than half-way with a liberal work-visa. But it doesn’t necessarily do so with the best interests of those visitors always in mind. The lede:

It is popular among European youth to travel and and work a number of months in Australia. That is also allowed by a work-visa, but from an Australian documentary to be broadcast Monday [today; Australian time is ahead, so this has already happened] it turns out that these foreign workers are regularly exploited.

Well, they’re a vulnerable population, aren’t they? Strangers in a strange land; and the quote says “European” youth, so for many the level of English used to understand and be understood may not be too high – not that the accent or vocabulary of the Australians necessarily makes it easy to understand them even for those who master the Queen’s own English!

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Charlie Hebdo in Amsterdam?

Posted on May 2nd, 2015 by MAO

Take a look at this distinguished elderly gentleman! Would someone with a grandfatherly face like that ever hurt even a flea?

Westergaard
Don’t worry: I won’t tell you that he has ever hurt anything, whether a flea or otherwise. On the other hand, he’s the target of many. This is Kurt Westergaard, one of the most “notorious” of those “Danish cartoonists” whose work back around 2005 touched off riots, death and general destruction around the world in support of the absurd notion that the Mohammed of Islam is something that is beyond criticism or ridicule. And of course Westergaard himself was the target of an attack back in 2010, where only the padlocked door to the “saferoom” he had established in his house enabled him to fend off the knife-wielding attentions of some sort of crazed fanatic or another.

Well, it turns out that Westergaard will be the featured speaker at the Vrije Woord (“Free Word”) Festival happening tonight at Amsterdam’s premier venue for that sort of public presentation, De Balie, right on the Leidseplein. De Balie officials only announced his presence this very morning, out of security considerations; previously there had only been talk of some “mystery speaker” and, somehow, the attendant possible necessity for the screening of attendees as they arrived.

That’s still a little less than a full 12 hours’ worth of notice, and as we have seen (as in the assassination on US Election Day, 2004, of the film-maker Theo Van Gogh), Amsterdam has plenty of Muslim fanatics. Can they get their act together in time to make Westergaard sorry he ever even considered visiting the Netherlands’ delightful (co-)capital? There will be security there in abundance, of course; indeed, usually De Balie is open seven days a week, if only for its cafe, but the building has been closed today and will only re-open when the Festival starts at 19.30.

This piece in the newspaper Het Parool notes that there has been no withdrawal from tonight’s festival by anyone who bought a ticket, although De Balie made that option available. Apparently some employees at De Balie have refused to work tonight, however, for whatever reason. Also, according to this other Parool article, the Netherlands chapter of international writers’ organization PEN got early confidential word at the end of March that Westergaard would be coming and withdrew its co-participation – the event had “become too big,” according to its chairwoman.

In a related story, you may have heard how around 150 writers are now protesting the intended awarding of the “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at an upcoming gala put on by the American PEN. But really, now: what is it – among many other things – that Charlie Hebdo and that Kurt Westergaard are satirizing? It has to do with the very fact of all the fanatics out there that make it necessary to layer on the security, to make people fear for their lives, just to make the point that – exactly like the Christian God in, for example, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and countless other works of Art – the Muslim God and Mohammed are not to be immune to satire and ridicule, and that those for whom this is unacceptable had best start accepting it or move back to wherever it is they originally came from.

So all power and plaudits to Kurt Westergaard, and to Charlie Hebdo. But keep an ear out on your May Saturday night for word of the latest killings, this time in Amsterdam.

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A Troubling Failure to Explode

Posted on April 2nd, 2015 by MAO

Was it an April Fools joke? You would hope so; and this report from the official Czech ČTK news agency did come out yesterday:

Granaty
“Ministry of Defence wants 39 million [that’s CZK] back for allegedly faulty grenades.”

But no, it all seems serious. That said, the ČTK piece lags far behind a related one from the premier Czech newspaper Lidové noviny which provides many more vital details.

This all has to do with a 2009 contract to the Czech Army from the domestic firm Zeveta Bojkovice, a.s.*to deliver 3,000 “grenades,” actually meaning the explosive part delivered by an RPG personal anti-tank weapon. Several of these were found to be defective, and Zeveta has not been cooperative in its reaction. The Ministry of Defense started complaining back in 2011, but the firm has kept denying any defects and refusing any financial restitution, so that the affair has finally landed up in court. That Kč 39 million that the government is trying to win back amounts to around €1.4 million.

By itself, this sort of incident is not so surprising. Czech public procurement generally has gained an unsavoury reputation for mainly seeming to function to enrich insider businessmen, who deliver shoddy performance at high prices. The really interesting aspect here is that the Czechs discovered that this ammunition was faulty in Afghanistan, where back in 2010 they had a 700-man contingent under NATO.

That original ČTK piece just said “grenade,” which got me rather indignant; a hand grenade is a close-combat weapon whose failure to explode when expected easily results in serious consequences. But then I found out from Lidové noviny that this rather had to do with the RPGs. That’s a bit better, mainly because these are weapons that are meant to be fired at some range. Furthermore, given that the Taliban generally have no armored vehicles – i.e. the type of target one would expect to have to fire an RPG against in an emergency – these were likely generally fired under rather less urgent circumstances, probably against structures like buildings. One hopes that the defects discovered did not include any tendency for these munitions to actually explode when they were not supposed to. Still, even if we assume that – and even keeping in mind the rock-bottom Czech standard for government procurement – this sort of failure is deplorable.

* If you still are looking for a laughing matter, that link I provided previously was to the English version of the Zeveta Bojkovice website. This is the holding company that owns the ammunition firm, but anyway – what’s this appearing high-up on their homepage?

One can never capture every single moment in life. But it is possible to retain the moments which made it richer in some way, or just belong to the bright bits without which the colourful mosaic of the past years would not be complete…

For real! This is also no April Fool’s prank, I promise!

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Horror Flight 4U9525 On-Board Video

Posted on April 1st, 2015 by MAO

That story of that doomed Germanwings flight just will not die, and here is the latest revelation:

Mobilvideo
“Mobile video shows the last seconds before flight 4U9525 crashed.” Yes, while it is overwhelmingly likely that that Airbus 320 slammed into the side of a mountain at a typical airline-in-flight speed, it was still possible at least for a mobile phone’s removable memory-card (if not likely the mobile phone itself) to survive the impact and the resulting kerosene-fueled inferno (although the latter probably only by being thrown clear).

And so there has been a mobile-filmed video discovered of Flight 4U9525’s very last moments, filmed by somebody – whether crew or passenger – in a back row. It confirms much of what the French prosecutor’s office has been able to reconstruct by means of other evidence, for example that the airplane’s captain spent some time desperately trying to get back in the cockpit, including by hitting it with an axe. And that all on board were aware of their impending fate fairly early on; the video records all manner of anguished cries, of “My God!” and variations thereof in a number of languages. There is a new bit, though: apparently the airplane first hit the mountain with one of the wings, so that it was violently jerked to the side, or maybe swung around at high speed, before ultimate impact.

One quite curious thing here is the sheer phenomenon of someone whipping out their mobile in such a dire situation in order to film it. One could just say “Isn’t that just 2015 developed-country civilization for you?” although in my opinion the incident would only have truly reflected contemporary mores if what had been produced was rather a selfie-video, turned back on the phone’s owner to capture for posterity’s sake the facial expressions of his/her last moments on this Earth. We must offer heartfelt, if posthumous, thanks to that protagonist for resisting the temptation, turning the phone’s camera forward and thereby helping to fill in facts for the record.

Even more interesting, though, is the prospect of what happens next with this fortuitous video back in this world upon which the rest of us are left behind. Word slipped out about it in the first place after journalists from both France’s Paris Match and Germany’s Bild Zeitung were allowed to view it. The choice of the latter was particularly unfortunate, as the Bild has been an icon of (West) German culture for decades as the premier tabloid newspaper, by which I am not referring to physical form but rather to the rather older definition of “tabloid,” i.e. catering to a sensation-minded readership, featuring nude women upon its inner pages – that sort of thing.

Clearly, we “all” want to view that video, just as no one in the end turns out to be self-disciplined enough to avoid at least sneaking a peek while slowly driving past the site of a particularly gruesome highway accident. Yet “decency,” “responsibility” and, I suppose, respect for those who died militate against it ever being made more public than it already has been.

Early indications are not good: here is Paris Match’s “exclusive” account from that mobile-phone video, and here is Bild’s – both in English, as both publications have made sure that they have German, French and English versions on-line.

Again I ask: How long before the video itself is accessible to all on-line, somewhere? Probably not long.

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US Army’s Wild Dragoon Ride

Posted on March 28th, 2015 by MAO

Throughout this past month NATO has been busy with its “Atlantic Resolve” set of military exercises in Poland and the Baltic states. These are something new, not occurring previously to the first such training deployments there starting last Spring, and, as is evident by the very name, are designed to bolster local morale in those lands against the increasing military misbehavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, military exercises under the same name, also involving American troops (that’s sort of the point), are now getting started in Romania and Bulgaria, and supposedly will include Georgia in May, with US troops set to cross the Black Sea by ferry!

But there is also something else rather new about that Baltic “Atlantic Resolve” as well, now that it’s time for the US troops who trained there to head back to base.

konvoj
“American convoy stopped in Krakow and Warsaw.” This is truly remarkable, for American troops stationed in Europe generally return to their bases by train – and then usually in the middle of the night, since such transports have lowest priority on any local rail network. Still, and especially for the heavy equipment, that remains the best way to transport these units over long distances.

All that is thrown out the window for “Operation Dragoon Ride,” however, whereby 120 military vehicles and the US soldiers that serve them – from their unit markings it seems they are of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment – are currently making their 1,800 km way back from the Baltics to their base at Vilseck (Bavaria), Germany along the local highways and byways. This article in České noviny discusses how they are currently traversing Poland with, as mentioned, planned stops in Krakow and in Warsaw. In fact, in the latter city (Poland’s capital, of course) they visited the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. And that’s not all their itinerary in Poland: these troops also met up with the inhabitants of the town Drawsko Pomorskie, which only has 11,878 residents in the first place and is way up in northwest Poland, near the Baltic coast – but, you see, the town also is host to a major firing-range and NATO maneuver area just to its South. More »

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Working for the Islamic State

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by MAO

OK, it’s clear the armed gentlemen you see in this picture don’t want to talk to the press, so let me step in and let you know about a new way to escape with your head still attached to your body after falling into their hands. (Although you may have heard of this already; the article says CNN also has coverage of this.)

extranjeros
Those 20 sanitarios extranjeros are foreign personnel ISIL soldiers recently captured while taking over a hospital; they are mostly Filipinos but also other nationalities such as Ukrainian, Indian and Serbian. They were told that “if they wanted to continue to live” then they would be expected to continue living in the area and continue their work at the hospital, which of course would largely be transformed into a medical facility for treating ISIL fighters.

Now, the first important stipulation to this report is that all of this took place in Libya, near the port city of Sirte which was ex-Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s home town and also where he was finally tracked down and killed. These militants are said here to be “jihadists” from the “Islamic State,” but we have to remember that the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL proper – the one operating in Syria and Iraq – has lately taken to franchising its operations, to Libya and to Nigeria: so these are but Islamic State franchisees.

Probably a bigger stipulation about this story is that it is ludicrous to believe that these hospital employees can just be ordered to continue their work, under ISIL occupation, and that everything can go on as before. Who pays them? How much? Who procures the hospital’s needed supplies? What happens when/if those opposing these “Islamic State” forces counterattack to take back this territory?

Some of these questions can no doubt be answered by looking at similar institutions in the captured Iraqi city of Mosul – although Sirte is quite a bit smaller than that, and the unique aspect of this story is the new way these fighters have come up with here to make these Libyan hospital personnel “loose” sorts of hostages – slaves, really.

But at least we are spared quite a few more grisly execution videos.

Side-note: It’s easy to see the two ISIL soldiers in the pictures are carrying very different types of weapons. In fact, the one on the left is carrying an M16/M4 type assault rifle (civilian version: the AR15) which characterizes American and American-outfitted forces. Hard to figure that one out, if these guys are supposed to be in Libya. Easier to figure out if they are ISIL in Syria or Iraq: the equipment was captured from the Iraqi Army.

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FN Derangement Map

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by MAO

The French edition of the Huffington Post, that media outlet’s first presence in a non-English-speaking country which dates from January 2012, is the “new boy” on the French media scene. That’s probably what makes it think it has extra license to come up with this sort of on-the-edge coverage of the upcoming regional (“departmental”) elections there:

derangeant
First, the tweet text: “The FN [that’s Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Front National] and its hundred-or-so repulsive candidates.” But how can they legitimately call them dérangeants (“disagreeable,” “repulsive”)?

Libération, L’Obs, Rue89, Le Figaro, France3, La Nouvelle République… All have worked hands-on to dissect the social media accounts of some thousands of candidates put forward by the party of Marine Le Pen, aided considerably by cybermilitants . . . more-or-less openly hostile to the FN.

In other words, a pack of researchers from the news organizations named above supplemented by interested “cybermilitants” have simply dug deeply into what these candidates have themselves been putting out to the public on social media.

The result is a Google Maps mash-up which you can see at small-scale in the tweet, and which you can examine in all its glory by clicking through to the article. But what do all those little flame-like marks mean? Here’s the Key to them; I think no translation is really necessary, other than “Combo” = “Combination”:

combo
And there you have your handy guide to the FN’s more distasteful candidates for those upcoming elections, and why they are distasteful. Now, it’s true that much of this can be merely a matter of opinion: again, it has to do with interpreting the language on various social media messages, although I should think that in many cases it’s fairly clear when someone is being anti-Semitic, racist, etc.

Although certainly partisan, this sort of enterprise is all the more a necessary contribution because French opinion polls show that the FN is the party most likely to gain the most representation from those elections. One would think this sort of mash-up technique cannot be copyrighted – wouldn’t we like to see the same sort of thing as well just before national elections held elsewhere, e.g. Israel, the US?

UPDATE: While we’re on the subject of innovative, informative maps of France, here is another one (this time from Le Monde which shows, again by département, the number of cases of “radicalization” reported since last April, basically incidents of people either succeeding or not in traveling to Syria to fight for ISIL. As you would expect, the Paris area takes the prize.

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Lethargy in the Air Defense

Posted on March 17th, 2015 by MAO

One’s first reaction might well be that this is hardly something you should discuss publicly over the national airwaves. Then again, Poland has certainly become considerably more transparent since the bad old days of the “People’s Republic” (Rzeczpospolita Ludowa):

Obrony
The tweet is from Polskie Radio, and as is the very function of their feed, they’re tweeting about some interview they will broadcast (or have broadcasted). “Minister of National Defense: we really need air-defense weapons fit for the XXIst century.”(!) And the lede:

As MON [= Ministry of Defense] Chief Tomasz Siemoniak said on Radio 3, it has not yet been decided that American Patriot rockets will be chosen for Polish air defense.

Now, it happens that some Patriots are due in Poland quite soon, at the end of March, but they don’t belong to Poland, they are American and will be there in connection with an ongoing series of military exercises with American forces that are clearly an explicit response to all the trouble happening on the other side of Poland’s eastern border.

And that is just it: especially given that strategic context, why are people hearing statements like the following?

We really need anti-aircraft defense for the twenty-first century, that’s been a priority for the last three years. It’s not only about the purchase of specific equipment, it’s also a matter of deep cooperation with other governments. You have to look at it as the complex affair it is.

Right, and against the American offer to sell Patriots, the Polish Ministry of Defense is also considering what he called in the interview the French SAMP/T air defense system, which would seem to be from out of the larger “Aster” family of military missiles developed jointly by France and Italy. That decision is due at the end of May. But to me, the whole tone of Siemoniak’s report here is that of wanting to excuse delay and inaction.

You’d have to assume that Russian intelligence does not require discussion on public interview programs to have a very good idea about the nature of Poland’s air defense weaponry. (Indeed, the reply-tweet you see there from @KajdasMarek suggests that what they have to work with for now is merely 23mm and 57mm guns from the 1960s.)

I guess what disturbs me the most about this news is the seeming lackadaisical attitude here in the face of a very real threat from the East, to which most Polish political actors, at least, have been quick to respond. But their efforts will have been in vain if/when the Russian air force gains air superiority over Polish territory through sneak-attack – and the nearest American air bases are far back in Western Germany!

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He Was Just the Piano Player!

Posted on March 16th, 2015 by MAO

Strange if tragic news here from the Belgian French-language radio & TV networks:

Monterrey
The lede:

A musician was abducted Sunday by an armed band while he was playing for 400 persons at a bar in Monterrey, in Mexico, and was found dead a while later a few kilometers away, a judicial source announced.

His name was Rogelio Contreras; he was around 20 years old; he was known as El Chicken [sic] and played timpani for a band apparently called “Kumbianaeros RS.”

The name of the bar of the incident, in Spanish, is “Eternity.”

And this was not the first time:

The Eternity bar has already been the theater for violent events: on 26 January 2012 eleven members of a musical group were abducted [there] and then assassinated.

Some fierce music-critics there! But of course this is no laughing matter, especially not the way that, for this latest incident involving only El Chicken, no one present was willing to tell investigating officers anything more than that there were five in the attacking group and that they were armed.

More profoundly, this is merely the latest sign – a bizarre one – that the drug-gang wars there in Northern Mexico are still going on. (The city is only about 150 km away from the Texas border.) Nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madre hills, and said to be Mexico’s most “Americanized” city (FWTW), Monterrey certainly looks interesting, but I would not now advise any tourist-visit there – whether to appreciate the local music, or for any other reason.

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Spain’s Low-Cost Miracle

Posted on March 14th, 2015 by MAO

After the glance back into Spain’s past last time, I thought a look into that country’s future might be in order. First off: you’ve perhaps heard of the new political party there Podemos, but have you heard of Ciudadanos?

Ciudadanos
The name means “citizens,” and that is another recently formed politial party there. The writer of this piece in the Spanish edition of the Huffington Post, César Ramos, is a politician from the mainstream leftist PSOE party (the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – formerly of Felipe González). Yet he sees potential in this new political formation, mainly to put an end to the monopoly of the Popular Party (Partido Popular, now in power under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) of the political space on the Right.

At least Señor Ramos, as a PSOE delegate, would wish for that to be true. From its Wikepedia page it seems that Ciudadanos is more of a regional party for Catalonia, founded to counteract the anti-Spanish feeling there. On the other hand, there is this:

PSOE
Ciudadanos is said here to be able at least to expect enough votes in the upcoming Andalusian regional election, not to win it, but to affect the outcome in favor of the PSOE. By the way, this particular La Información article is unintentionally funny in the way it writes the party name Ciudadanos just like a regular word – so that, for example, the picture caption (to the same picture you see there in the tweet) has the PSOE Andalusian Governor Susana Díaz meeting with ciudadanos meaning just ordinary citizens, when you’re tempted to think instead that it means that she’s meeting with members of the competing party! (OK, so it’s only me who finds this funny . . .) More »

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Monuments and Overdue Memory

Posted on March 11th, 2015 by MAO

Check out this statue:

Franco
If you were to ask me, especially with the hat this looks rather like Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. But you’ll actually find this sculpture in Spain, and – as you might have been able to make out from the tweet’s text – it depicts General Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator from April of 1939 to his death in November of 1975.

In fact, there are still a number of public works of art of this sort and other monuments to be found in Spain which refer directly to Franco and/or his “accomplishment” of taking over the country in a bitter civil war and then violently disposing of hundreds of thousands of political opponents. That sits rather uncomfortably with Eduardo Ranz, a Spanish lawyer and, at 30 years of age, much too young to have had any contact with Franco or his regime directly. Nonetheless, he filed suit last month against the mayors of 38 Spanish cities and towns to have them get rid a total of 86 specific such monuments to Franco.

As we know, it’s always an almost irresistible temptation to drag Hitler and his Nazis into almost any argument one undertakes, but here I think one can properly forgive Ranz when he points out that “It’s as if, in Germany, a victim of Naziism were to see a swastika in the street. It’s unthinkable.” So one might think, yet those many monuments to Franco remain there, in public, almost forty years after his death.

Topping the list is Franco’s tomb at La Valle de los Caidos, what is characterized here as a “pharonic” sepulcher, maintained at public expense and located not far from Madrid at the “Valley of the Fallen,” where the “Fallen” referred to are Franco’s “Nationalist” troops. It is joined by a Victory Arch, within Madrid and located near the prime minister’s official residence, and towering some 50 meters high. Once again, the “victory” commemorated there is that of Franco in 1939.

The very existence of such shrines must be a shock to the foreign tourists who go see them – those who are able to grasp their full meaning, anyway. Further, for anyone familiar with the extensive persecution and killing of regime opponents that went on during the Civil War and afterwards, Ranz’s Nazi analogy must ring true and lead to a certain incredulity that these are still there in Spain, available to be seen by one and all. Yet this phenomenon reflects the peculiar nature of Spain’s transition away from that dictatorship to democracy. It was swift: Once the caudillo was dead and his designated heir King Juan Carlos was in charge, everyone knew that the King was ready to move the country to democracy and that happened directly. It was also quite bloodless: as this piece briefly mentions, a key development in that movement to democracy was an amnesty law covering everyone associated with Franco and his crimes.

Spain basically gained instant relief from dictatorship in exchange for not making any fuss about those who had misruled the country for so long (indeed, many of whom who had committed what today would be termed “crimes against humanity”). Since 38 years had passed, so that most of those holding irreconcilable grudges against the Franco regime had died out, the country was glad to accept that deal. For about the next ten to fifteen years it was characterized both by the political predominance of the Left (understandable) and by free-wheeling, even dizzy cultural change as all the old legal barriers to behavior disappeared and society had to find new bearings in that Brave New World (including a new attitude towards the Catholic Church, a pillar of Franco’s regime).

Political Amnesia

Again, that Left (mainly Felipe Gonzalez’s Spanish Socialist Workers Party) was careful to continue in the spirit of that amnesty law and not stir up recriminations against villains of the country’s tragic past. Whether of the Right or the Left, subsequent Spanish governments have continued that policy to this day. But that has meant maintaining a deliberate black spot in the collective memory about the most terrible episodes of internecine savagery and cruelty in Spanish history, going back at least to the forcible expulsion of the Muslims that ended in 1492. And it has meant that you still see all those monuments to Franco.

Yes, people die out, but human memory is nonetheless a pretty long-term and durable thing (if not especially accurate, at least in its details). Such terrible episodes cannot be suppressed forever. Slowly, gradually, as (for example) new and revealing histories are written, published, and discussed publicly, a new willingness to reopen this history and come to terms with it is emerging.

No one without a more specific knowledge of how the Spanish courts work can know whether Ranz’s lawsuit is something serious, or merely symbolic. Furthermore, if he does win, then what precisely is supposed to happen with artifacts such as that victory arch and (especially) Franco’s tomb? But if things do come to that, surely the Spanish authorities will be able to figure something out. For now, Ranz’s audacious legal maneuver must surely be greeted as a token of how far things have come, and how far he wants to push them further.

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Senatorial Children at Play

Posted on March 10th, 2015 by MAO

As the days wind down towards the March 24 self-imposed deadline for some sort of result from the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, one important truth seems to have gotten lost, or even one important bit of jargon: “P5+1.” That’s the term for the parties who are now negotiating with the Iranian government, and it stands for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (so “P”: US, Russia, China, UK and France) plus 1: Germany. It’s funny: especially in the wake of the brouhaha set off by Israel PM Netanhayu’s recent visit to address the subject before the US Congress, you would have thought that the whole affair was simply US v. Iran, eye-to-eye, straight-up.

But it is not. Granted, rejection of any deal on the part of the US government would certainly kill it, at least in its formative stages. (After an agreement has been reached and has worked successfully over a number of years – that would be another matter.) But, again, this is a multilateral process, and one would hope that any such failure of the negotiations to bear fruit would reflect a consensus among all negotiating parties. Even more basically, one would hope that each of those parties would enjoy a firm sense of just who they were dealing with – not only across the table from the Iranians, but also from other governments which are supposed to be on the same side.

That is not the case, unfortunately, something we now see in graphic form from the recent open letter from 47 Republican Senators to the Iranian authorities warning them against reaching any agreement with their own government.

Naturally, such gestures do not go unnoticed.

BriefAngriff
“An attack on Obama – of the childish sort,” is the opinion of longtime German foreign correspondent Hubert Wetzel, writing in the well-respected Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Wetzel doesn’t pull any punches:

The US Senate was once a well-respected chamber of parliament, perhaps the most respected from all the world’s democracies. Reasonable people debated there and came to reasonable decisions. It was part of the Senate’s proud self-image to be far from as nervous, obstinate and partisan as their colleagues in the House of Representatives, but rather moderate and deliberate.

These times are now past, and hardly anything shows that as well as the letter that 47 Republican Senators have now written to the Iranian regime – led by a freshman from Arkansas [freshman Sen. Tom Cotton], a man who in the old days would have been told that he should first warm the backbenches for a few years before piping up.

Oh yes, Herr Wetzel doesn’t think much of the letter, whose tone he paints as being as dummdreist as its contents are banal. (He may have gone to the trouble to invent an adjective here, in dummdreist, to adequately convey his scorn; dreist is “bold,” but with dumm it’s in a stupid way: so “stupidly bold.”) Further, “Within the letter there is nothing that any Iranian diplomat could not look up in Wikipedia.”

Or which that diplomat might possibly know even without Wikipedia – consider this fact:

IranCab
Of course the US Congress does have a certain role within US relations towards Iran – in the first place having to do with setting or lifting the economic boycott that has been imposed upon that country over the years as alarm over its nuclear program has grown. Otherwise, and by the US Constitution, foreign policy is largely left to the Executive Branch. This latest letter marks a disturbing violation of what used to be the norm against partisan sabotage of the President’s foreign policy – although it follows closely a more spectacular breach of that same norm embodied in Netanyahu’s invitation to speak before Congress with no notification to President Obama.

Still, the antics being employed to scupper any P5+1/Iran deal are becoming extreme and embarrassing. And we can be sure that the others within that P5+1 have noticed.

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Euro-horse Already Out of Barn

Posted on March 9th, 2015 by MAO

The tweet reads “High time for a parliamentary investigation into the euro.” Could they be talking about Greece?

DDSEnquete
For indeed, doubt was thrown on Greece’s continued membership just yesterday, by Finance Minister Varoufakis, in the event that Eurogroup ministers refuse to accept Athens’ own ideas about how to deal with its tremendous burden of sovereign debt. This despite that fact that there is no mention in the treaties underpinning the Eurozone for any member leaving it, much less any prescribed procedure. Still, there is neither any authorization nor prescribed procedure for, say, giving birth during a transcontinental airline flight, yet that does happen from time to time; if/when the emergency arises and Greece just has to return to the drachma, they’ll surely find some way to do it, with or without formal EU treaty provisions.

In any event, this tweet (from the right-wing Dutch political blog Dagelijkse Standaard) does after all call for a parliamentary inquiry, and cuts closer to home. This is a petition directed to the Netherlands parliament, initiated by a group of political commentators led by a certain Thierry Baudet. Still only in his early 30s, Baudet already has a string of publications to his name, most of them in a Eurosceptic vein, decrying the threat to the nation-state posed by the super-national European institutions. More directly relevant, he also succeeded back in 2013 in having a referendum submitted to the Dutch Tweede Kamer – that is, he gained more than the 40,000 signatures required to put it to the attention of the parliament – which was to be “concerning the future of the Netherlands within the European Union.” The Tweede Kamer did duly consider the proposal, then rejected it.

Unsurprisingly, the group behind this latest proposed referendum has its own website, complete with a dedicated page to “Why a parliamentary inquiry over the euro?” Key to their argument is their assertion that it was assumed Northern European lands would allow themselves to become responsible for the fiscal failures of Southern European lands.

Despite what was claimed later, this perverse mechanism was amply foreseen by politicians. As Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission at the time when the Maastricht Treaty was concluded, said, “The difficult moments were predictable. When we created the euro, my complaint as an economist was (and I discussed this with Kohl and with other heads-of-state): how can we have a common currency without shared financial, economic and political pillars? The answer was: for now we have made this leap forward. The rest will follow.”

And:

It continues to surprise us how it could have been possible for such a radical decision to be paired with such little critical debate. What role did the government play here? How is it possible that politicians did not take more care over the financial stability of our country? What did those involved know precisely about the risks? And what did they not know? . . . Did people realize that this euro eventually would make necessary a very great transfer of power over to Brussels – such as the banking union, the stability pact and the upcoming budgetary union?

So they want the Dutch parliament to look into such questions, obviously with a view towards taking further concrete measures should unsatisfactory answers be revealed.

First of all, again, there is no explicit procedure available for any country now using the euro to ditch it for another currency – although, granted, that procedure can be made up on the fly, but surely not with great accompanying financial and economic chaos. More importantly, although this conservative group can probably once again get their 40,000 signatures to bring this measure before the Tweede Kamer as well, the question of the Netherlands in the euro is surely settled for now. There is no sign at all of any truly widespread political rejection by the Dutch populace of the common currency.

Indeed, economic analysis has tended to show that the euro has greatly benefited those Northern European lands heavily involved in trade and able to keep their labor costs in check – such as Germany, especially, but also the Netherlands, both of whom have seen their terms of trade steadily improve since the introduction of the euro in 1999 against Southern European lands with less ability to hold costs down. This widening gap between those advantaged and those disadvantaged by the euro contributed substantially towards getting everyone in the sovereign-debt mess we find ourselves in now – well, except for Germany and the Netherlands (again), plus a few other Eurozone countries (and Denmark) who find that they can actually ask borrowers to pay them to take their money on loan these days, rather than actually pay positive rates of interest.

This initiative must therefore be counted as merely a cry from out of the Dutch conservative wilderness. To the extent anyone takes it seriously, it is surely not constructive, in that doubts concerning any Eurozone member’s commitment to the euro are not useful just now as that grouping has to decide what to do about Greece’s new governing regime and its demands to cut down austerity. It’s rather the Greek people who need to examine the depth of their commitment to the euro, and thereby their level of support for future negotiating maneuvering by their Syriza government which we can surely expect more of in the near future

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Switzerland = Star Climate Pupil

Posted on March 7th, 2015 by MAO

Now about that Paris climate summit that is still scheduled to happen starting next 30 November . . .

Wait now, don’t nod off! I realize that coverage of such UN climate summits is supposed to intrude into our consciousness only when they are actually going on, and even then to confine themselves to newspapers’ back-pages, to some link way down at the bottom of the homepage.

But not in Denmark, at least. (Maybe that is due to some sense of guilt over the signal failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (“COP15″) at the end of 2009 – as if that were their fault. Or maybe it is due to the Danes actually being quite a bit more serious about renewable energy than most other lands.)

Schweiz
It’s a Danish article, from Politiken, but it’s not about Denmark: it’s about Switzerland, which “is first with a climate-plan” for that Paris summit at the end of this year. In the accompanying article by Politiken’s Ellen Ø. Andersen we learn some interesting things about how that summit will be structured that I did not know before. As she writes:

The idea to let countries themselves tell how much they will do [i.e. towards acting againt climate change] was thought up to prevent the same sort of fiasco as that which afflicted the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

When all the world’s leaders gather in Paris in December, in this way they will not argue about the amount of CO2 reduction – instead they can concentrate on other difficult questions such as financing and control mechanisms.

Sounds like a smart idea, although already the widely varying commitment among countries to this new set of rules has to be a little disheartening.

All countries in principle have to send in such a [national] plan before 1 April. In practice it is expected that only a smaller number of lands, mostly from among the world’s richest, will live up to that deadline. The other countries’ plans will be sent later, some even around the final deadline of 30 September.

But let’s shift our focus here back to the good news – Switzerland! Not only have the Swiss already sent in their plan – the first country to do so – but it seems mighty impressive: the Swiss want to halve their CO2 emissions from what was their 1990 level by 2030. This is even more than what it is anticipated will be proposed in a collective plan that the EU will draw up and submit on behalf of all its 28 member-states.

Then again: Switzerland is in a particularly favorable position to be able to set such a goal. It is a very mountainous country, of course, which means quite a lot of clean hydroelectric power is available. It also generates 36% of its power via nuclear plants, and apparently even boasts a culture in which storing long-term nuclear waste is considered a privilege which many local jurisdictions are willing to compete for.

As a result, as Ms. Andersen notes here, Switzerland already emits somewhat less CO2 than it did in 1990. So perhaps cutting that down to half 1990’s level within fifteen years is not so ambitious after all – indeed, that has been the gist of some criticism of its plan. Nonetheless, it’s the first hand-in of an assignment that every one of the world’s countries (or the EU collectively) has due, and so a handy reminder of both that task and the Paris summit’s greater task, which is nothing less than “to achieve . . . a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.”

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Fair Maiden Protected or Abused?

Posted on March 3rd, 2015 by MAO

The just-murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was 55 when they shot him last Friday night, and as he made that fateful walk across Moscow’s Great Moskvoretsky Bridge he was in the company of his 23-year-old Ukrainian girlfriend (and fashion model), Anna Durytska. Although that great disparity in age will surely prompt tsk-tsk’s even in this day and age, surely any man who shows himself ready to face down the criminal Russian political establishment over many years must surely be vouchsafed certain sweet side-benefits. Even the sainted Václav Havel was said to be something of a womanizer – when he didn’t find himself in jail, of course – and in the eyes of many he lined up his second wife, a prominent Czech actress, rather too quickly after the death from cancer of his first wife, Olga. These must be classic alpha males we are dealing with here, after all.

But back to Ms. Durytska, who had to endure the horrible experience of seeing her lover, with whom she was holding hands during a romantic midnight stroll on a bridge, cruelly shot down and killed right before her. According to all accounts, the first thing she did was call the police, and then call her mother back in the Ukraine. The police naturally had to take her in for questioning, but, according to the on-line account at BBC News, she was then allowed to return to the Ukraine, and her lawyer stated that the police had been “acting correctly.” (That BBC site also – inevitably? – is topped by a glamor head-shot of Ms. Durytska, just in case anyone wanted to doubt her modeling credentials.)

Other reports, however, paint a picture that was much more unpleasant for Nemtsov’s girlfriend.

Nemtsov
She was retenue – “retained,” of course – in Russia, which hints of a certain freedom of movement denied. And in the actual linked news report, taken from Le Point, that is the case. “The investigators interrogated me and wouldn’t tell me when I would be free nor why they were detaining me [there],” Ms. Dyritska is quoted as complaining. “I have the right to leave Russia, I am not a suspect. I am a witness and I gave them all the information that I had, I did everything I could do to help the investigators.”

Inna Durytska, Anna’s mother, already figures in this tale through that midnight telephone call (she was also naturally Anna’s first destination when first arriving back in the Ukraine – Anna is 23, remember), and she became plenty worried. “I was afraid they would accuse her of murder, simply because they need some Ukrainian trail of clues.”

But again, I’m just a little concerned by this discrepancy between the BBC’s account and others’. And it is not just L’Actualité24/Le Figaro, either: this other piece in Germany’s FAZ – surely a source you can trust most of the time – also reports of Ms. Durytska having her departure from Russia “obstructed” (gehindert; it also has yet another shot of her fair countenance, for those who cannot get enough). And surely we all can intuit that a visit to the Russian police – under any circumstances, much less when one is associated with someone so much out of favor with the authorities – is likely to be quite unpleasant.

So what’s going on with the BBC? Or could it be (as ungentlemanly as it may seem) that the Moscow police authorities really gave her no harsher treatment – and detained her no longer – than any witness ordinarily has the right to expect, so that there is an element of personal hysteria here which the BBC was prudent – even gentlemanly – to ignore?

BTW I just heard on VRT, Flemish Radio, that Boris Nemtsov was buried today at the same cemetery that holds the grave of investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya, another figure whose mysterious street-murder (in 2006; well OK, in her apartment building’s elevator) was mighty convenient for Vladimir Putin.

UPDATE: Whatever the true nature of her treatment in Moscow, Die Welt reports that Anna Duritskaya has had to seek police protection in the Ukraine after receiving multiple threats to her life.

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Annoyed Iberian Cohorts

Posted on March 2nd, 2015 by MAO

Unwise! It looks as if the new Greek premier Alexis Tsipras is alienating those within the EU who otherwise could be potential allies.

Iberia
“Spain and Portugal exasperated by Tsipras’ remarks.”

Tsipras is already under fire to some degree in his home country due to the temporary settlement he reached with the Eurogroup earlier in February which gained for Greece needed additional financing for another four months, but at the cost of what seemed to be several retreats from the ambitious plan to reject outsider-imposed austerity that had led his Syriza party to electoral victory in January. On Saturday (28 February) the French newsmagazine Le Point reported him hitting out at what he perceived as the distinct lack of support he had received in those negotiations from countries you would think were in the same situation as Greece, namely Spain and Portugal, accusing them of wanting to lead Greece down the road to a “financial asphyxiation.”

Top politicians from those two countries were quick to react, including Spain Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who told a party gathering in Seville that “[w]e are not responsible for the frustration that the radical Greek Left created by making promises that it knew were unsustainable.” Meanwhile, the spokesman for the ruling PSD party in Portugal termed Tsipras’ accusations “very grave, lamentable and false.”

The thing is, that party gathering Rajoy addressed in Seville was of the Partido Popular, Spain’s right-wing, Christian democratic party, while although that “PSD” of the Portuguese ruling party’s name translates to “Social Democratic Party,” it is also of the center-right. Syriza, as everyone knows by now, is of the Left; indeed, that word is an acronym of the party’s longer, formal name which translates as “Coalition of the Radical Left.”

All this stands to reason when you see how the two Iberian countries are not hitting it off with the new Greek government if only because, clearly, in the context of the on-going EU sovereign debt crisis, “conservative” means plodding onward with the terms of the bail-out packages granted by the infamous “Troika” (made up of the EU – meaning mainly the Eurogroup, but also the Commission – the ECB and the IMF). “Radical,” on the other hand, certainly means trying to break out of that arrangement. Although not necessarily only “Radical Left”: indications are that the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party, and so of the Radical Right, should it come to power – Heaven forfend! I understand that much of its leadership is in jail, anyway – would be similarly dismissive towards the terms of Greece’s bail-out package, or worse.

On the other hand, if everyone would just stop and think a bit, it’s clear that all periphery Eurozone countries still laboring under bail-out packages should have many powerful interests in common. First and foremost, any softening of terms that an aggressive, daring national government might be able to grab/cajole from the “Troika” authorities (going all the way to outright debt cancellation) would naturally be something that fellow countries in the same situation should be able to claim for themselves as well. Such considerations clearly were at least in the back of the mind of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and other Eurogroup officials who took such a hard line against the new Syriza government’s proposals. For now, it seems this hard-line faction has managed to keep even other Eurozone countries still suffering under bail-out-mandated austerity firmly within the corral.

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Netherlands Imam Gala Under Threat

Posted on February 19th, 2015 by MAO

Eagle-eyed Telegraaf journalist Alexander Bakker sends us advanced word of an interesting event happening next March 8 in Rijswijk (a suburb of The Hague), check it out:

Rohamaa
As you can probably make out, it’s going to be a sort of imam-extravaganza: the smaller-type bits there just under the date speak of “Readings | Films | Live translation | Anasheed* | Child-care.”

I won’t be there, unfortunately, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I can’t remark how the poster Bakker retweets reminds me too much of some WWE event; much better is this one:

Rohamaa2

I found this one, naturally enough, on the website for the event’s main sponsor, the Rohamaa Foundation (Rohamaa = رحماء = “merciful”). That second poster, just like the first one, takes care to note that there will be separate lecture-halls for males and females. The two posters also share the prominent slogan Zij Hebben Recht Op Ons or “They have a right to us,” meaning “They have a right to our help,” for it’s clear from their website that Rohamaa is mainly a charitable foundation channeling financial contributions and other assistance to hot-spots in the Arab world (and, Allah knows – Syria! – these places do stand in need).

The thing is, I feel quite confident in saying that the staging of such a clearly Islamic public event would not per se excite notice in the media – i.e. this sort of thing is normally “dog-bites-man” by now. But no, there is a problem: three of the headline imams are of the sort of reputation that the Dutch authorities have denied them a visa to come. In turn, this has prompted the local Rijswijk authorities (civil government, police, courts) to confer on the issue; the local government spokesman is unsure “whether there will be a decision.” What sort of “decision” could we be talking about here? The Telegraaf article does not say; but what could it be otherwise than to disallow the event?

Back to the Rohamaa website, and if you scroll down you can read (again, in Dutch) a press-release of two days ago telling of how the Foundation is “indignant” at the decision to deny those visas – apparently after they first had first been routinely granted, with no indication of anything untoward. Even more annoying: the top Ministry official in charge of the decision stated on TV that he knew nothing about the dossier.

Then this:

We fear that such decisions merely contribute to an increasingly polarized climate in the Netherlands. One could conclude from this that things in the Netherlands are measured by two different standards: freedom of expression is a great societal blessing, requiring guarding at all times, except when it has to do with certain minorities. This feeling has prevailed now for some time and is by this merely confirmed and enlarged.

Hear, hear! Vrijheid van meningsuiting, people! Freedom of expression!

* Anasheed is basically Islamic vocal music, mostly a capella.

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Seeing Freedom’s Light, Finally?

Posted on February 18th, 2015 by MAO

Back not so long ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, this weblog took up a brief examination of behavior on the part of the authorities which seemed to belie the commitment to freedom of expression which supposedly was what had been assaulted by the three Parisian killers, and for which – there can be no doubt – those many thousands of citizens marched in the streets of Paris (and other French cities, indeed other cities throughout the world) on Sunday, 11 January. Indeed, when it soon came to the gumshoes hitting the pavement there turned out not to be much loyalty to free expression, but rather to the enforcement of a quite lopsided expression regime under which it is quite OK to mock Islam, but beyond the pale – indeed, arrestable – to mock or denigrate those who mock Islam or to express any sort of sympathy or understanding for why those killers acted as they did.

This much was clear quite soon in France, but unfortunately the same syndrome was also evident in Denmark, where some 23-year-old guy (among others) who expressed approval of the Paris killings was arrested when the authorities found out, and his apartment thoroughly searched.

Now, as of last weekend, we saw the same variety of Charlie Hebdo terror strike Denmark itself, with the shootings at the public debate over blasphemy and the arts, followed by an assault at Copenhagen’s historic Grand Synagogue, that in the end left a total of two innocents dead and many wounded. And as sure as mushrooms pop up out of the ground after a rainstorm, there followed commentators ready to praise the “sacrifice” of gunman Omar al-Hussein:

AarhusAK
You see that the name of the Facebook account and its associated photo-avatar has been obscured, but the accompanying Jyllands-Posten article tells us most of what we’d like to know: 26 years old; head of a family; of Palestinian origin; and he doesn’t even live in Copenhagen but rather near Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, located on the Jutland peninsula. He’s identified simply as “AK,” and if he doesn’t win any style-points for originality, he at least is multi-lingual: you see that this Facebook update has not only Je suis Omar but also Vi er alle Omar (Danish for “We are all Omar” – I’d beg to differ) as well as Allah yerhamak (properly: الله يرحمك) or “God bless you.” More »

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Hand-Me-Down Arms to Ukraine

Posted on February 14th, 2015 by MAO

Here’s a good on-the-ground example of what the current Western skittishness about providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself actually means.

Szrot
Szrot for the Ukrainian army.” Szrot (pronounced simply as [shrot]) would be a fun Polish word in any other context: it means “scrap metal,” basically trash. But that’s basically what the Ukrainian army has to look forward to now, specifically to twenty “Saxon”-type armored personnel carriers coming fairly soon from United Kingdom stocks, to be eventually followed by fifty-five more.

This piece by Rzeczpospolita staff-writer Piotr Wożniak goes on to estimate that Ukraine will be paying the UK government about $51,000 for each such APC, which seems hardly a high amount for a military vehicle. The trouble is that this is hardly top-of-the-line equipment. A perusal of the Wikipedia page for the Saxon is valuable here, although Wożniak provides several related data-points of his own. Saxons went into service in the British Army in the early 1980s; they’re no longer actively used there because they’ve been replaced by more modern equipment. You’ll only find them still in use in backwater militaries like that of Hong Kong or Mozambique.

Even then, and even for that $51,000 apiece, none of the Saxons will come equipped with the armament that was standard for them in British service (namely a 7.62 mm MG medium machine gun, which itself is really no very big deal) – for no one wants to actually provide the Ukraine with “offensive weapons” as that would be too “offensive” to the sensibilities of Vladimir Putin. (Meanwhile, just go on-line for satellite photos to take a gander at the top-of-the-line Russian military equipment – and personnel, let us not forget – crossing the border to support the Separatists.)

Relevant to this point, Wożniak has a great paragraph:

What is interesting is that the lack of support for Kiev when it comes to weapons and military equipment cannot be rationally explained. Ukraine is not the object of any embargo, nor is it some terrorist-supporting state. There exist no legal obstacles.

Ah, but of course that is just a Pole talking, someone whose country knows all about invasions from the East from past experience, whose country is objectively next in line – just look at the map! – after Ukraine falls. That is, someone who doesn’t realize how Vladimir Putin can be a perfectly reasonable fellow, provided one simply doesn’t resist him.

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Swiss Nuclear Democracy

Posted on January 31st, 2015 by MAO

Switzerland generates a little more than 36% of its power through nuclear energy, at four separate plants which collectively host five operational reactors. Therefore it has a spent-nuclear-fuel problem, and a recent piece picked up by @news_suisse (with its own atomic-orange color-scheme) shows that country’s remarkable approach in addressing in particular the need for “deep geological repositories” to hold that stuff for eons:

Dechets
The key phrase here is en lice. In French it translates to “in contention,” so the message is that only the two locations named (namely Jura-East and Zurich-Northeast) have made the cut to be considered further as long-term nuclear waste sites.

Just consider the value-judgment in plain sight here: “in contention” – those two places have beaten off four other candidates to make this short-list. That is, they actively want to host the sort of nuclear-waste site which in most other countries – certainly the US – inspires the most virulent of NIMBY (“Not In My BackYard”) sentiments!

Bizarre! Yet such has been the course of deliberations of Nagra, a company established collectively back in 1972 by all Swiss nuclear-waste producers for handling the disposal problem – and, naturally, subject to close governmental oversight. Even stranger, I combed this piece for some indication as to just what is in it for the winning site (or sites; it could be both), maybe some sort of generous financial remuneration to the local government – but nothing! Nothing but public frustration on the part of the losers already cut out of the competition:

The discontent [over Nagra’s pre-selection] is already palpable. The president of the Committee of Cantons, the Zürich State Counsellor Markus Kägi, could not hide his surprise at seeing only two sites retained.

Nagra boss Thomas Ernst justified his recommendations, emphasizing that only scientific and technical criteria were taken into consideration. “Reflections of a political or social order played no sort of role.”

But maybe there are a few other clues about what is going on. For one thing, this is a really long-term project: the Swiss Federal Council will make the definitive choice only in 2027. Then, and only then, will it be submitted to parliament, and possibly to one of those famous Swiss referenda. Clearly, this has been a technocratic exercise so far; the NIMBY-storm still has 12 years to develop.

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Don’t Make Germans Like They Used To

Posted on January 23rd, 2015 by MAO

Perhaps it is untoward to quote oneself, but in this case my tweet of a few days ago has to be revised and extended in light of further information.

Aldi
In particular, I put there “after complaints,” but in that I was just being faithful to the original article out of De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper.

Aldi received at the beginning of last week the first complaints. One customer asked them not to use anymore the mosque, a religious symbol, on the label. Then a discussion arose on the Internet, after which Aldi pulled the soap from the shelves.

Now another version of events has arisen, this time from an actual German source:

AldiSeife
According to this, it wasn’t “complaints”; it was one complaint about that mosque on the soap-label, from one guy on Facebook. This is backed up by this report from the local newspaper from the area where this Aldi store is located (North Rhine-Westphalia).

Shitstorm

The customer argued that the mosque and minaret of the Muslims were to be observed with respect and dignity. “And it is precisely for this reason that I do not find it suitable that one should put this illustration, so full of meaning, on just any consumer product.”

That was all that it took: off of the shelves those bottles of liquid soap flew! But in that last tweet you’ll perhaps have notice a recent addition to German public vocabulary: “shitstorm.” That is what ensued: Aldi promptly came under fire for its action (although I’m unaware that that has caused them to reverse it and start selling the soap with those labels again).

But that was last week – the first full week after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. This week saw something similar, in fact even more alarming. The usual Monday-evening march of the new, anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement in Dresden was canceled by the authorities – and of course the counter-demonstrations that had been planned for that evening as well – because of a threat that had been received against Lutz Bachman, one of the movement’s leaders until, just two days ago, he resigned after pictures of him posing as Adolph Hitler became public. More »

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This “Unity” Wears Him Out

Posted on January 21st, 2015 by MAO

Who’s tired? Are you tired? Nicolas Sarkozy is tired:

Sarkozy
“François Hollande’s national union already fatigues Nicolas Sarkozy.” That much is clear, even in a rather spectacular manner. For on Monday evening there was a big ceremony held in Paris in honor of Agence France-Presse, the main French news-agency, supposedly to celebrate that organization’s 70th anniversary. President Hollande was there, and so was François Fillon, of the opposition and who had served under Sarkozy as Prime Minister. Just to show how non-political an event this was supposed to be, even far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen was there (and she had not been invited to the huge JAN 11 Paris march).

By the way, I write “supposedly” there in connection with AFP’s 70th anniversary because, according to my standard Wikipedia sources, the organization really got started back in August, 1944 as Paris was being liberated from the Nazis by the advancing Allied forces – that means 70 years is August, 2014. Perhaps the earliest that the French political elite could find a mutually agreeable free spot in their agendas was last Monday – Blue Monday, in fact, said to be the most depressing day of the year, in case that had anything to do with it. Or – more likely – perhaps the shocking attacks against freedom of expression in France of two weeks ago caused the country’s movers-and-shakers to decide that there needed to be some occasion, something celebrating freedom of the press, so that the AFP was enlisted for that.

Another “supposedly” is in order here, however, a far more bitter one, for by its actions after the Charlie Hebdo attacks the French government has betrayed its actual indifference to that “freedom of expression” which one could argue all those people – the non-politicians – were marching down Paris avenues on Sunday, January 11, to support. Or maybe not “indifference” but rather a stark partisanship: it’s OK to mock Islam and Muslims, but the same is not true when the target is Jews or, indeed, those who mock Islam and Muslims. The latter are allowed to dish it out; they must be shielded from actually having to take it. More »

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Lithuanian Survival By-The-Book

Posted on January 19th, 2015 by MAO

Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to invade bits of land adjoining Mother Russia where he feels native Russian-speakers are feeling oppressed has understandably made many in the immediate neighborhood rather nervous. And while Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all members of NATO, that still doesn’t necessarily allow them to sleep easily at night. The famed Article V of the NATO treaty does make an attack on any one member an attack on them all, which theoretically means that the Alliance’s nuclear powers – the US, foremost – would be willing to escalate all the way to Mutually Assured Destruction should Putin merely have his forces invade the Baltics and then refuse to back down. But how credible is that? For that matter, how effective were France and England in carrying out the guarantees of Poland’s territorial integrity that they issued just prior to the Second World War?

(By the way, the lesser-known Article IV provides for invoking consultation among Alliance members in the event of disquieting security developments. Lithuania and Latvia invoked that in March of last year in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea.)

You can’t blame these nations for doing a little contingency planning based on a assumption of Putin’s worst behavior paired with maximum fecklessness on the part of their supposed allies. (Indeed, I hear there exists an NGO whose sole purpose is to steer the world’s surplus feck to NATO’s Brussels HQ.) Here’s what’s happening in Lithuania:

LitManual
Yes, that Baltic nation is shortly to publish a “survival manual” for all its citizens about what to do in case of a Russian invasion!

Now, I found out about this via the round-about path that you can see contained in that tweet. But it turns out that, within that Le HuffPost article, there was an additional link to a Reuters article, in English and datelined from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, that lays everything out pretty well.

So you don’t need me to explain further. Just allow me, as a sort of enticing sweetener, to reproduce here a couple of the most-juicy paragraphs:

“The manual, which the Defence Ministry will send to libraries next week and also distribute at army events, says Lithuanians should resist foreign occupation with demonstrations and strikes, “or at least doing your job worse than usual”.

“[W]orse than usual” – love that!

In the event of invasion, the manual says Lithuanians should organise themselves through Twitter and Facebook and attempt cyber attacks against the enemy.

Mark Zuckerberg as future insurgent hero – who knew?

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Get Off Your Privileged Ass!

Posted on January 17th, 2015 by MAO

It’s coming onto the second half of January and, like every year, that means the World Economic Forum, in the Swiss ski-resort of Davos, where the world’s most powerful and well-heeled come together annually to hobnob, look down from the summit (figuratively but also literally, given Davos’ height-above-sea-level) at the rest of us poor slobs and try to solve some of the world’s problems. Such a gathering of influential and monied types is sheer nirvana for advertisers and others who would seek to influence them in some way. (Including of course the fearless & topless banshees of FEMEN: going around half-naked in the January snow does not faze these gals!)

As you might imagine, the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) has an inside track when it comes to accessing Davos attendees. (I don’t mean just from its status as a prominent local bank; it also still likely aids many of those assembled to avoid taxes in their home countries via its no-name-but-number bank accounts.) This year it has come up with a real PR winner:

WEF
OK, what’s this about “6 kilometers”? It’s fairly simple: UBS is going to invite all WEF attendees to wear a rose-colored odometer during the time that they are there. If a minimum of 1,000 participants record having walked six kilometers during their stay, then UBS will donate 2,500 bicycles to poor African children for use in traveling to school. More »

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Talkin’ Turkey? Turkey Talkin’?

Posted on January 16th, 2015 by MAO

Hopefully my readers are willing to indulge me today as I depart from usual custom to address an article I came across written in English. As EurActiv reports, the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu visited Brussels yesterday.

Turkey
Of course, my eye was caught by that headline: “Holy Roman attitude”! Here is the paragraph from Davutoglu out of which that came:

Nobody can tell me “we Europeans” and “you Turks” […] But we are part of European history. And we are part of contemporary Europe. There are 45 million Muslims living in Europe and more than 6 million Turks. […] We have to have an inclusive European identity. But if you have a Holy Roman-German-Christian type of understanding, then Europe has ended, sorry.

We can all rest easy now, right? We have this Turkish, Muslim official from outside of Europe standing by ready to tell us when Europe has officially “ended.” But he is right with that “we are part of European history” part: Tours, 732; Constantinople, 1453; Vienna, 1529 and 1683. For those with lesser background in European history, those were dates at which Europeans tried (mostly successfully) to beat the invading Muslims/Turks back, out of Europe.

What kind of “inclusive European identity” can there be that includes the Turks? Our civilizations are based on totally different philosophical/moral foundations: the European, on a Judeo-Christian basis; the Muslim, on the Koran and sharia law. Yes, Turkey is a country that directly borders on Europe – it is not part of Europe, geographically speaking, other than an insignificant piece of land to the West of the Bosphorus – and close trade relations, to include as-low-as-possible tariffs, would be a good thing. But not EU membership, not suddenly handing the 77 million Turks living in Asia (note!) Minor the power to co-determine all the many other aspects of life that we now look to the European Union to regulate.

Admitting Turkey to the EU makes about as much sense as – and is a very analogous idea to – admitting Mexico as America’s 51st state. But regular readers (Hi, Mom!) will already know that I delved much further into this point in a blogpost of quite a while ago. And that is even when you’re dealing with a squeaky-clean, smiling, democratic Turkey. That’s hardly what we have now, and the mass-arrests of journalists in that country of last month and the brutal response to the Taksim Square protests in Istanbul are just a couple of available data-points that make that only too plain.

(Now, to give it credit, Turkey has put in super-human efforts to accommodate the flood of refugees coming to it from across the Syrian border, and remains the world’s foremost enemy to that bloodthirsty dictator and child-torturer Bashar al-Assad.)

Yet more:

The Turkish Prime Minister made ironic remarks about the lack of political stability in EU countries, saying that at a NATO meeting in his previous capacity as foreign minister, he was the only [sic] to have been in office for four full years. Another country which he didn’t name had changed seven ministers in the meantime, and some others six or five.

Yes, isn’t that something? National governments that actually reflect the popular will! Not so easy to find in other lands where the government even blocks Twitter (or tries) to try to keep its public uninformed about allegations of widespread corruption within it – as was the case not so long ago in your country, Mr. Prime Minister.

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Get Off-a My Cloud!

Posted on January 15th, 2015 by MAO

Bitkom is a German IT trade association for small- and medium-sized businesses with an associated website, and that site is reporting something interesting, picked up by the national newsmagazine Stern:

Cloud
Cloud-Dienste: cloud services, with examples listed such as Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud and Dropbox. Turns out they’re not so popular there. A recent Eurostat study put Germany squarely in the middle of the pack of European countries when it comes to their use. While you would expect Germany to be somewhat ahead of the IT-laggards that study identified, such as Poland and Rumania (8 percent of population uses cloud services), it’s strange that country is not nearer the head of the class along with Denmark (44 percent) or Norway (43 percent).

Instead, 21% of German respondents to the Eurostat study reported that some of their data was in the Cloud. And the reason is very clear: “from concern of not being able to make use of regular data-security and data-protection provisions.”

It’s always handy to remember that a healthy chunk of the current German population, somewhere around under a quarter of it, had some experience of living in the old DDR or East Germany, with its intrusive Stasi secret police. Germany is also constantly at the forefront of efforts within the EU to shore up individual privacy protections.

It also has been leading in its agitation resulting from the Snowden revelations of the wide reach into Europe of the American NSA and British GCHQ, especially after reports emerged that Chancellor Merkel’s own mobile telephone had long been tapped. And what do we also find in common concerning those named cloud-data services that Germans are so loathe to take up? That’s right, they are American, run from America and therefore as we know subject to secret demands from the American authorities to give up their secrets, violate their customers’ confidentiality, whenever those US authorities deem that they need to do so.

The Stern article is too polite to mention the US, as is the lengthier Bitkom piece (where you can see the full table of country results). But it is clear the fears on the part of US high-tech concerns that their overseas market-share will suffer because of a loss of confidence brought about by the ruthless worldwide surveillance from the Anglo-Saxon authorities are by no means unfounded.

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France: The Lock-Up Starts

Posted on January 14th, 2015 by MAO

Take a look: is this really a face only a mother could love? (I mean the guy on the left.)

Dieudonne
He’s not getting much love in France right now. In fact, he’s under arrest. His name is Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala; his occupation depends on whom you ask. Avant-garde comic – or dangerous rabble-rouser. One thing for sure is that he is rather anti-Semitic in his views, and that has led in the past to cancellation of some of his shows. To name but another of his misdeeds, shortly after the beheading of James Foley by ISIL he posted a video making light of that event. (His controversial opinions also meant that he was denied entry into the UK outright – yes, which once provided exile to the likes of Karl Marx, back when it was known as the British Empire.)

But right now we’re still lingering in the Charlie Hebdo afterglow, and Dieudonné had to put his two cents’ worth in. I want to rely on this report from Rzeczpospolita in the first instance to get a little distance, a little impartiality: from this, it seems that all he did was use his Facebook account to make fun of the “Je Suis Charlie!” slogan, writing instead “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” using there the surname of the slain hostage-taker at the Jewish supermarket in Paris. More »

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