The Greta Backlash Begins

Posted on August 23rd, 2019 by MAO

As I write this, famed climate-change waif Greta Thunberg is still somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, riding a racing-yacht on her way to various engagements in the US of A. You can track her journey here, and from that it seems the boat, “Malizia II,” is encountering no greater problems than having had to sail rather to the south (basically, off the coast of Spain) in order to catch the right easterly winds to send them off in the right direction.

Back on land, however, a storm is brewing. Voices are arising that cast doubt upon Greta and what she represents, or is alleged to represent. After all, in just about a year she has mobilized quite a bit of the world (including some public figures she confronted directly, such as at Davos) to start to feel guilt and exhibit considerably more concern about what is happening to our Earth. Doesn’t it beggar belief that this could be the accomplishment of nothing more than a 16-year-old autistic Swedish schoolgirl? (One of whose given names is even “Tintin,” according to Wikipedia.)

The philosopher Julian Baggini has a good treatment in The Guardian of some of the earlier attacks on her (i.e. those more than a week old) and how to react to them. However, he was too late for “Greta Thunberg and the plot to forge a climate warrior, which was published last Sunday (18 AUG) in no less than The (Sunday) Times – the same Times with a paywall in place which displays only the first two paragraphs of any piece to lesser mortals who do not subscribe.

Now wait: They want to tear down the “myth” of Greta Thunberg as “climate warrior” – but only if you happen to be among the small subset of on-line readers who subscribe to The Times?! Fortunately(?), a bit of Twitter-intervention resulted in a link to the original and whole version of the piece, published back at the end of May in an on-line monthly UK magazine said to be center-right in orientation, which gave the article the title “Greta’s very corporate children’s crusade”.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Yanks!

Posted on August 21st, 2019 by MAO

🎵Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?🎶

– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

Wise words, those! Surely the Germans are just as aware of such folk-wisdom; still, it could also have been useful had Joni put the song out back in 1970 in a German translation as well (as the Beatles had done previously, y’know: Komm, gib mir deine HAAAAND!)

Just in my last blogpost I mentioned how the quarrel between the US and Germany over the latter’s allegedly insufficient defense-spending has recently heated up again. US ambassador Richard Grenell brought this up in order to threaten that the US was considering moving those of its troops still stationed there (numbering around 35,700) to new bases in Poland.

That story now resumes with today’s early piece from Der Spiegel: “Federal government [Germany’s, to be clear] spends hundreds of millions for US troops.” And it does, if you’re willing to take a multi-year view: €243 million, total, from 2013 until the present. In addition, €480 million has been spent over 2012 – 2019 (so a slightly different time-frame; makes things confusing) on NATO-related construction, almost all of that devoted to American projects.

This information was released by the Finance Ministry in response to a request from a member of the Bundestag, Brigitte Freihold, from Die Linke Party, the party that is closest to being the successor to the former East Germany’s Communist Party. Naturally, people of that persuasion have the least interest in still having US troops based on German soil. Still, the Spiegel writer (or maybe s/he is from the DPA) also gets into the Die Linke spirit: “Real estate, buildings, supplies” reads that super-headline, then the lede: “Tens of thousand of US soldiers are stationed in Germany – and they burden the Federation with considerable costs.” And then in the first paragraph: “Nowhere in Europe are so many US soldiers housed as in Germany [true]. And that doesn’t come cheap, nor for the German taxpayer.”

Not true. Well, maybe true in the accountant’s-green-eyeshade sense of “true.” But that discounts all the other fringe-benefits gained by allowing a US troop presence. After all, for some strange reason the Poles are quite eager to welcome American soldiers permanently on their soil, going so far as to offer to name one of the new bases “Camp Trump.”

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Germans: Military Klutzes!

Posted on August 20th, 2019 by MAO

It happened under the radar, so to speak. The major German papers wouldn’t pick the story up, but a regional paper, the Rheinische Post, did. This concerned Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who in recent days has barnstormed through the US and Canada on a four-day trip. The thing is, he arrived at his first destination, New York City where he was due for a meeting of the UN Security Council, a couple hours late: the original airplane that was to carry him from Berlin’s Tegel airport turned out to be defective.

No big deal? It is if you have been paying attention! (To be clear: That’s not your obligation!) How about the G20 summit last year in Buenos Aires (30 NOV – 1 DEC 2018), when malfunctions in Angela Merkel’s official airplane (No, not Luftwaffe 1; it’s called “Konrad Adenauer” after post-war Germany’s first Chancellor) made her stop her flight from Berlin short in Cologne and then go on to Buenos Aires by herself on Iberia (that is, Spanish) airlines! And of course she was late for meetings there with her fellow heads of government/state, by around twenty-four hours.

But wait – there’s more, more in this sad tale of repeated failings when it comes to the basic task of getting top German politicians to where they need to go. Foreign Minister Maas himself had to cope with three separate airplane incidents within four months (FEB – MAY) earilier this year (although one merely delayed his flight back from Bamako, Mali, by twenty hours – nothing urgent awaiting back home, other than seeing his family, etc.). And at the end of May Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier had to quickly switch to a private jet to go off on an official visit to South Africa, because there was a rip discovered in the cockpit of the official plane he was to have used. Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has also suffered this sort of indignity, in the middle of a visit to Indonesia.

Bizarrely, @Team_Luftwaffe actually used Twitter to pat itself on the back concerning the latest Heiko Maas incident! Whereas for Merkel’s G20 trip it couldn’t come up with any official substitute plane, in Maas’ case “thanks to quick servicing by #Team_Luftwaffe he was also back in the air” in a replacement.

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Trump, Spurned, Spurns Back! (Greenland)

Posted on August 19th, 2019 by MAO

The running joke over the last half-week has been Greenland: Donald Trump wants to buy it for the US! Could this be serious? Well, it was the Wall Street Journal that initially broke the story. For a while afterwards there was no official reaction from either the White House or from Greenland/Denmark. Then on Sunday (yesterday) evening Trump confirmed his interest in such a purchase to reporters (FT paywall).

Ah … but this guy is no longer the Prime Minister!

Eventually, top Danish and Greenlandic officials started to deal with this idea of an American purchase, and not as a joke. Denmark’s relatively new prime minister (from last 27 June), Mette Frederiksen, actually used this past weekend to travel there for the very first time. (Coincidence, or what?) There, she said “Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Danish. Greenland is Greenlandic. I really hope that it’s not something that is seriously meant.” And Kim Kielsen (he’s male), Greenland’s Premier, echoed “Of course, Greenland is not for sale.”

Still, all that was probably obvious, no matter Trump’s intentions. Why hasn’t this story died already? Because Trump is scheduled to visit Denmark in the near future!

You may recall that the American president is due in Europe shortly anyway, for the G7 summit that will happen in Biarritz, France starting next Saturday (24 AUG). It only makes sense, having made the trans-Atlantic slog, to add other engagements once you are over there. First Trump and Melania will visit Poland – they love Americans there and are dying for some permanent US military bases on their territory, which they are certainly willing to help pay for. They’re even willing to call the biggest & baddest among these future bases “Camp Trump.” But then the plan was to go on to visit Denmark on 2-3 September, on a full state visit, no less.

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When In Rome… Some Littering Tips

Posted on August 14th, 2019 by MAO

Rome is a strange place. Yeah, OK, there’s the 2,000+ years’ worth of architecture and memorials that have made it a perennial tourist “must-see” since the 18th-century days of the Grand Tour for sons of the English aristocracy. Yet that same Rome has now caught the “we hate tourists” fever, introducing new, tourist-unfriendly statutes which seem to cast the city’s storied history as a film-set into oblivion: NO more sitting on the Spanish steps as Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck did together in “Roman Holiday” (1953; that’ll be up to a €400 fine); NO more jumping into the Trevi Fountain as Anita Ekberg did in “La Dolce Vita” (1960; that could cost you up to €450).

(BTW I also note how in the same NYT piece it reports “Penalties for graffiti were toughened.” Quite right: No more graffiti scrawled after, say, 1400 CE, should be acceptable.)

The Rome authorities obviously think they can take up this martinet attitude because people will never stop wanting to come visit their city. But nowadays they really test visitors’ patience further with their manifest incompetence in running the city. Namely: garbage everywhere: “Landfills in flames and rats feasting on waste in the streets,” apparently caused (in part) by a NIMBY attitude towards waste incinerators. (The buses there also occasionally spontaneously burst into flame – another token of municipal incompetence.)

For those of the famously clean, Puritan districts of the Netherlands, all that could be enough just to stay home. After all, at least there they have their trash under control. But do they?

They do not, as Volkskrant columnist Harriët Duurvoort advises us in a recent column. Certainly not in Rotterdam – and she lives there. She can see the trash pile up excessively in the kliko’s – the dumpsters – right outside her front door. She has the buiten-beter app (“better outside”) provided by the city for complaining about trash, has likely signed her own name to the Vuilnisbelt Rotterdam (“Rotterdam’s a dump”) petition that is going around – but she has drawn the line at the city’s offer to have her “adopt” a dumpster:

To assist you in keeping the area around the container clean, you receive gratis a key for opening the container from the side to deal with any blockages, a stick, work-gloves and a broom for sweeping up garbage next to the container.

She also knows about Bert Wijbenga, the city councilor from the business-friendly VVD party, responsible for outside areas, who has opined “collecting trash less often doesn’t have to be disadvantageous” and who wants to save €17 million yearly from the city budget that way. But he still has enough budget for “flying squads” charged with catching people in the act of dumping excessive trash in, around or completely away from those dumpsters.

Also Pretty Trashy Elsewhere

Finally, she’s also well-aware that the problem is not confined to Rotterdam (the trick is Googling the phrase zooi naast kliko’s: “trash next to dumpsters”). She’s right about that. Amsterdam doesn’t have a particular phobia hosting incinerators, but the problem is that the ovens run by Afval Energie Bedrijf Amsterdam (AEB – wholly owned by the city of Amsterdam) recently had to shut down due to “serious technical problems.” That’s affecting not only Amsterdam but a host of neighboring cities and towns who also relied on being able to send AEB their trash.

What’s more, other countries relied on the same – mainly the UK. Yes, the Netherlands once had its garbage-act so together that it could handle disposing of the stuff from outside its own borders (for money, of course)! But no more: the authorities are now scrambling to cancel the contracts obliging them to do that. (Note that this has nothing to do with Brexit!) And the trash piles up alarmingly, everywhere. (If not as egregiously in Rome – yet!)

So maybe Netherlanders might as well head to the Eternal City after all? The food is much better there, for one thing; and just as is apparently true back home, when they’re through with their take-out margherita pizza they can simply drop the box and any uneaten remains pretty much where they like!

UPDATE: This piece in the Financiële Dagblad (the Netherlands’ leading business newspaper: paywall!) tells how the situation at Amsterdam’s AEB trash-incinerating company is even worse than first reported: it’s downright anarchy!

A power-struggle between the “white collars” of the office and the “blue collars” of the incinerator-installation [has] brought the Amsterdam trash-processor to the edge of the abyss.

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Croatian State Sneaker Pimps

Posted on August 13th, 2019 by MAO

One winning concept emerging out of all the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and following was privatization. More than forty years of Communism had demonstrated how state-owned businesses meant low productivity, low quality, and basically “selling” output only to “customers” who had nowhere else to turn. A key task for each post-revolutionary government – Russia’s as well – was getting state economic assets back into private hands, subject to private-sector incentives, as soon as possible.

At least one state company fell through the cracks, however – and it is doing rather well, thank you! Recently one of the three national German radio stations, Deutschlandfunk, in the form of its excellent week-daily morning program Europa heute (“Europe Today”), devoted a week’s series of programs to Slavonia, which is basically that third-part of Croatia situated farthest away from the coastline. There on its eastern border (which happens to be the Danube; Serbia starts on the other river-bank) is located the Borovo shoe-factory complex, now fully in the hands of the Croatian State after a colorful and turbulent history.

The Borovo factory grounds today

Things looked promising way back at the start of that history, in 1932, for the factory installations were an extension of Bat’a Shoes, the company out of Zlín, Czechoslovakia, that had pioneered in developing shoe-manufacturing equipment and would go on to conquer markets in Europe and much of the rest of the world before World War II called a halt. There was no production during the war, indeed the facilities suffered damage, but then the Yugoslav state took them as its own, dusted them off a bit, incorporated them in a socialist-style “Kombinat” organization and labeled the products made there with the “Borovo” name. Thereafter, if you were a Yugoslav, that was likely where your shoes ultimately came from, including soldiers’ military boots. (In fact, vehicle-tires and machine-parts were also fabricated there at the time.)

Production also took a break – and there was again damage – during the civil wars that broke up former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The Borovo facility ended up in what turned out to be Croatian territory. From the visit Deutschlandfunk reporter Grit Eggerichs paid there, it seems little was ever done about that latest bout of military damage: many of the buildings on the premises still sit abandoned, with open holes where windows are supposed to be, foliage growing from the roofs and birds and animals wandering freely in and out.

Pare Down to Success!

But those buildings are simply unneeded, as the shoe-works have shrunk considerably from what they once were: around 600 work there now, when it was once it was 23,000. (They’re still not paid so well: Eggerichs’ report speaks of one master-sewer – female – who has worked there since 1982 and still earns only the equivalent of €400 per month.) Rest assured, though, there are no more tires manufactured, and in fact the company has narrowed down the range of shoes that it makes.

In particular, these days it is known for the stylish canvas sneakers (Completely “vegan”! No animal products used! Woke, man!) that it sells under the “Startas” brand (which itself traces back to Yugoslav times). Slate has called Borovo “Croatia’s hippest shoe company”; there’s an e-commerce site (“original non-aligned sneakers”) where you can order a pair of your own, as well as an Instagram account; and, in what is taken by the underpaid Borovo employees as a totemic cultural achievement, their pink-with-white-unicorns Startas sneakers were once featured in Vogue (scroll way down).

Buy a pair for the little girl in your life!

Things are going well for the company, then (although they could pay people better). Meanwhile, it is fighting against the very “finders-keepers” principle that made it Croatian in the first place by bringing lawsuits to try to regain ownership of the former Borovo sales outlets scattered throughout the other states that once collectively made up Yugoslavia. (So far only the Serbs are being recalcitrant about giving them back.) It seems state ownership does not preclude devoted experts putting out a good, stylish product – who knew?

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When Will Salvini Be Found Out?

Posted on August 12th, 2019 by MAO

The Italian government is in crisis. Yes: again. Fresh from his role as beach-bum politico, the head of the Lega and most dominant member of the current ruling coalition by far, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has entered a motion of no-confidence in the current government. The pretext is the diametrically opposing positions of the ruling parties (the Lega and the 5 Star Movement, Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) on the project to build a high-speed rail line between Lyon and Torino. But the real reason is likely to be last May’s European Parliament election: compared to the Lega attracting around 17% of the votes and the M5S in the low-thirties in the last general election in March 2018, those percentages were flipped around in the polling for Italian MEPs.

Some have called the Lega/M5S coalition ultimately resulting from March 2018 “Frankenstein” in that the partners were ill-suited to each other in multiple respects, and now it seems Salvini has decided this is his chance to blow it up and seize greater power – the Prime Minister’s position! – for himself. Never mind the video compilation the La Repubblica newspaper compiled of all the times Salvini had promised publicly that this marriage … er sorry, that the coalition government would last the entire five-year period before a general election would be required again.

Now, Salvini’s timing is slightly off, for as he well knows this is peak vacation-week in the Italian calendar (Ferragosto! – something about the Virgin Mary), so nobody who can afford it is at their usual job. Surely Salvini himself remains at the shore, among his bikini-clad constituency, and more power to him for that (which I mean only figuratively). What’s more, those in charge of the two houses of the Italian Parliament have made it clear there will be no accelerated procedure or other special treatment afforded for his motion to intrude on those bodies’ set calendar of business (although M5S head Luigi Di Maio is calling together members of his party so they can decide how to respond).

May I suggest the following item for their agenda?

OK, it may seem to be just about “flight records.” Actually, BuzzFeed first issued its report (“The Explosive Secret Recording That Shows How Russia Tried To Funnel Millions To The ‘European Trump'”!) a month ago; this new piece about “flight records” merely adds some detail, you could really rather interpret it as just a timely reminder, to sustain public interest in their allegations.

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Corrupt Czech Wine in New Bottles

Posted on August 9th, 2019 by MAO

It’s a momentous year, precisely thirty since 1989 defined a new era of European history with all the revolutions in the East overthrowing Soviet Russian hegemony and – as we’ve already seen here – this weblog will have no hesitation in picking up that theme.

Apparently this is also true of the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS), the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, which recently announced its own public campaign (hashtag #30LetSvobody, “30 years of freedom”) to remind the public of the momentous happenings back then. That’s because, according to them, this eagerness to engage with 1989 is not shared by the present government. So far (and there are only three months to go) it has budgeted only Kč55 million (= €2.16 million) for a handful of events, such as exhibitions at the National Theater, and something called “Velvet Simulation” which will take place at the National Museum’s new next-door building (formerly the Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building; formerly the HQ of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).

This accusation of relative neglect towards commemorating 1989 seems credible enough, but anyone can see that the ODS’ ulterior motive is a political one. The current Babiš government is a minority regime in the first place, and now under considerable fire (including facing mass demonstrations demanding that it resign), so new elections are always a near-term possibility. And the ODS, you see, was one of the very earliest proper political parties to emerge on the Czech(oslovak) political scene back when that emerged from the chaos and euphoria of the so-called Velvet Revolution.

So at the announcement of their #30LetSvobody initiative the ODS wisely led with a renowned pre-1989 dissident (there weren’t too many of those; and there aren’t very many left) still within its ranks, namely Aleksandr Vondra: right-hand man to Václav Havel, ambassador to the US, etc. “Svoboda dnes dostává na frak” he declared (“Today freedom is really taking it on the nose”), “we’re governed by a former StB official [StB = Communist secret police; that’s PM Babiš] and his press.”

Vondra was followed by Pavel Žáček, not any dissident (he was only 20 years old in 1989) but subsequently Director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and now a member for the ODS of the Czech Parliament’s lower house. He was followed in turn by current ODS Chairman Petr Fiala, who said uplifting things about “Democracy and freedom, a return to the West and Capitalism, these are the values we want to defend.”

Nice, but by the time they got to Fiala the dissident magic was long gone. Most knowledgeable observers would agree with Vondra’s complaint about having a former secret police collaborator as head of government and about a national press divvied up between hostile camps of billionaire native oligarchs. How could it have come to this – as well as other, related corruptions of Czech society – over thirty years when 1989 offered in its immediate aftermath a clean slate for starting again combined with so much idealism and enthusiasm?

That’s a deep and very interesting question; I’m fully confident books will be written trying to answer it, and I’ll be on the look-out for them (even if, as likely, they’re written in Czech). But it’s at least clear that the ODS had much to do with that. They were in control of the government through much of the 1990s, led by Václav Klaus with his Thatcherite right-wing ideas about letting free markets work, keeping the government off to the sidelines. Who knows? Maybe that approach was precisely what nascent Czechoslovakia (then, from January, 1993, the Czech Republic) needed at the time; maybe Klaus’ scheme of “voucher privatization” (every citizen received a voucher representing share-ownership in government-owned firms; most promptly sold theirs off to businessmen who had at least a faint idea of what they might do with them) was a reasonable way to return the state-owned enterprises that made up just about all of the economy into the hands of the people.

ODS Is Guilty (ČSSD Too)

What’s also true is that the ODS did much to initiate the strong streak of corruption that plagues the country today. It wasn’t so much the violations of party-funding rules that led Klaus to resign the premiership in 1997 (he would later serve as President from 2003 to 2013); rather, under the ODS “hands off” government clever Czechs discovered the exciting new business game of “tunneling,” meaning sucking the value out of the company you were responsible for like a leech, by means of diverting money and assets into your personal accounts while fattening up the firm further by taking up loans you know it will never be able to pay back.

Many used those dubious means to get rich, and many of those remain rich today and have in the meantime taken ownership of media properties for whitewashing their histories and defending their reputations. For a good play-by-play of that ongoing process you’re referred to the Fleet Sheet’s Final Word e-newsletter, to which you can subscribe for free.

By the way, the ODS naturally did not rule through the 1990s unopposed – which was the other prominent party to emerge from the post-Revolution turmoil? Those were the socialists of the ČSSD and yes, they took over the government from ODS in 1998. (Actually, with the active assistance of the ODS – but never mind, the details are complicated.) Boy, was that group tarred with the brush of corruption, even more than the ODS! Their particular brand tended instead towards things like crooked sell-offs of government properties and corrupt processes for public procurement.

Both ČSSD and ODS are still present in Parliament. The ČSSD in fact is they key prop currently keeping Babiš’ government in power, but one has to think they would never be so brazen as to try to shore themselves up politically by reminding people of their history back to the Velvet Revolution (and beyond): the laughter would be deafening. The ODS has little more basis for doing the same, although they are giving it a try.

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This Little Piggie Won’t Blow

Posted on August 8th, 2019 by MAO

It was just a pink stuffed toy, a little piggie – ahhhh, cute! – found lying on the sidewalk in a side-street of the tony Ixelles/Elsene district of Brussels.

Problem: There seemed to be some sort of electrical wire around its neck. People walking past didn’t like that aspect very much. One way or another, word got out to the police.

As this piece puts it, they “took the for-sure over the unsure,” closed that side-street, the Rue Souveraine – and called in the SEDEE: the Service d’Enlèvement et de Destruction d’Engins Explosifs,” that is, the Belgian Army’s bomb-squad.

Nope, turned out it was no bomb. But this is 2019.

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Coming of Age in the DDR

Posted on August 7th, 2019 by MAO

Wächst jetzt zusammen, was zusammengehört? For that was the great promise in the euphoria around the Fall of the Wall and German Reunification, almost thirty years ago: although by then very different from each other, ultimately the former West and East Germanies “belonged” together and would “grow together.”

Has that happened? That is the central question behind a new article-series from Der Spiegel entitled Wir seit ’89: literally “We since ’89.” Already a number of interesting pieces are out – you can survey them here, of course they’re all in German – but one in particular from today informed me about something I had not known about previously: the Jugendweihe.

That was the coming-of-age ceremony, for 14-year-olds, that was prevalent during the East German Communist regime: a formal, festive occasion for the young ones to get all dressed up in suits and dresses and collectively appear on a stage, in front of doting parents and relatives in the audience, to receive the traditional gifts: a certificate, flowers, and a book.

Of course, that was hardly all that there was to that. For one thing, that wasn’t any ol’ book, but rather (at least during the DDR’s later stages) Vom Sinn Unseres Lebens, or “On the Meaning of Our Lives”; you can be quite sure that “Meaning” had only to do with “defending Socialism and the International Working Class” and that sort of thing. Just to make sure that point didn’t get lost, the heart of the Jugendweihe ceremony had the celebrants repeatedly affirm publicly (“Yes, we pledge this!”) a four-part oath consisting of those and related elements: “I pledge to deepen further our solid friendship with the Soviet Union,” “to fight for the People’s happiness,” etc. If you didn’t participate in your scheduled Jugendweihe that would be a black mark on your records that would restrict the further opportunities the regime offered to you; yet in order to be allowed to do so, you had to attend a string of “ideology classes” which featured visits to instructional places: to factories, to museums, even to a former Nazi concentration camp, if not too far away, to contemplate Fascism.

Clearly then, for the young people the Jugendweihe was a chance to dress up, have one’s impending adulthood acknowledged, and even get some free stuff. (It also marked the point at which these youths were to be addressed as Sie – the formal pronoun, as opposed to du – by strangers.) How could you even think about missing it, when all your friends would be there? (And, indeed, even in the 1980s 90% of those eligible did participate.) For the Communist authorities, on the other hand, it was a super indoctrination tool.

Religion Erased

It was also a great alternative, for human societies have shown no particular shortage of ceremonies to mark a child making the transition into adulthood. In the Western tradition, in particular – that is, Christian – there has always been confirmation, for most denominations. OK, and also the bar/bat mitzvah. But in East Germany the regime was actively hostile to religious practice. They were ever able to expunge it entirely, but hey, what a great marketing move to introduce this Jugendweihe to drive the others out. Not that these authorities were being particularly original: the specific ceremony went back to 1852, when it was thought up precisely to offer an alternative to confirmation, namely by “free thinking” and “humanistic” groups who even back then wanted to rebel against the Christian Establishment. Under the Nazis the Jugendweihe was prohibited, but it only took the DDR leadership until 1954 to re-animate it as the effective propaganda tool it became.

But now the DDR has been gone for almost thirty years – is the Jugendweihe gone, too? Not at all! The article cites around 40,000 that were held this past Spring (that’s when they happen) in the former East Germany, not to mention a couple hundred in the former West Germany (but generally conducted there by East German “exiles”). Don’t worry: neither socialism nor international working-class solidarity have anything to do with the ceremony anymore; and the highest participation-rate, in Saxony, now amounts to 1/3 of all those eligible, so slightly lower in other eastern States. (Now local Jugendweihe foundations exist to run the ceremonies; it generally costs around €120 to participate, welcome to Capitalism!)

But you could say that is still an impressive amount, and religious confirmation ceremonies in the East run at less than half that amount . . . in stark contrast to the West. Here, then, what belongs together has not grown together, and likely never will because the former West Germany lacks the Jugendweihe tradition. Stated baldly, the legacy of the DDR lives on thirty years after its demise at least in the de-Christianization it successfully accomplished and left behind, in those Eastern lands where it once ruled.

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Gun Control Debate in Czech

Posted on August 6th, 2019 by MAO

El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio (no, not Toledo!): Two mass-shootings in less than twenty-four hours understandably has again prompted much thinking about the problem of guns in American society (not that any remedial measures are likely to be taken). They have done the same in the Czech Republic, where in a commentary on the “Plus” State Radio channel (devoted to news, debate and current events) Washington-based correspondent Jan Fingerland takes up the old conundrum: Zabíjejí zbraně, nebo zbraně? (Basically meaning “Do guns kill or do people?”)

Why would anyone in the Czech Republic be exercised by such a question? Reports of gun-related crime there are exceedingly rare; they’ve clearly got the problem under control (despite the presence of several leading firearms manufacturing firms). But why is that? It’s because of their historical base of forty-one years of Communist dictatorship (with six years of German occupation before that), during which there was never any question of anyone bearing arms except those explicitly allowed to do so by the authorities. Current Czech society started anew only fairly recently, coming up on thirty years ago; given that in the piece Fingerland suggests that “American society is not mature enough for such a widespread right to bear arms,” surely that should also be a worry for the Czechs?

Against that context there’s the second parallel between the two cultures when it comes to guns: within both, debate on the subject is conducted “between two extreme options.” Now, in the States you can see these “options” reflected on the street: “In some places,” Fingerland writes, “even mothers in the parks have a pistol on them, for instance Marge Simpson in the famed [cartoon] serial; elsewhere it is difficult to encounter anyone who ever holds a gun in hand.” Needless to say, that first picture is not the case in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, there as well the argument tends to rage between those who insist guns are necessary to defend oneself against criminals – against terrorists! – and those wanting to ban them all.

As one could expect, Fingerland looks for a solution somewhere in-between. He seizes onto the quite apparent key fact that the big problem in the two latest incidents was the extraordinary mechanical power and speed of the weapons (both of the Russian AK series) the gunmen in Texas and Ohio wielded – particularly in the latter case, where he managed to kill nine despite being “neutralized” by police within a minute of opening fire.

On the other hand: pistols. “Depriving people of the possibility of owning a pistol is nonsense,” Fingerland asserts, “and few really want to anyway. A pistol is enough to stop a thief, maybe even to stop some crazy shooter” – who, in his world, whether in Central Europe or the USA, would never get the chance to get close to high-powered weapons, restricted to the military, in the first place.

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Burqa-Clad Oxymorons

Posted on August 5th, 2019 by MAO

Another Amsterdam [Gay] Pride Week has now come and gone, with the climactic – even notorious – Canal Parade making its along the Prinsengracht on Saturday afternoon. Make your way to the city center during this period, especially the final Friday-through-Sunday, and/or elbow a place for yourself to spectate at that Canal Parade, and you will definitely encounter all sorts of outrageous outfits. Usually not like we see in the following, however:

It’s Muslim burqas in rainbow colors! But wait, there’s more! You see the yellow one on the left, with the black shades and holding the “Burqa Queens” sign? That’s not even a woman, much less a Muslim, rather it’s Hendrik Jan Biemond, Amsterdam city councilor for the Dutch Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA). Just last Thursday a nationwide burqa-ban went into effect in the Netherlands, although it’s applicable only in government buildings, in schools, in hospitals and on public transport. Biemond turned up here in solidarity to protest that: “I want people to have the freedom to clothe themselves as they want.”

Well, first of all, from this Het Parool piece it seems that Biemond himself is homosexual; should he turn to the Muslim community whose modes of dress he is defending, he might get an unpleasant surprise! (Indeed, sporadic harassment by local Muslims of homosexuals, including during Pride Week, continues to tarnish Amsterdam’s tolerant image.) But let’s take a look at those signs. “No Human Is Free Untill [sic] We Are All Free”: Fine, we dismiss that one as patently ridiculous. How about “My Burqa Is My Right And Pride”?

“My Right”: Not when you’re in schools, hospitals, etc. in the Netherlands, it isn’t anymore! But “[My] Pride”? Clearly “pride” in being Muslim, which somehow is to be expressed by draping oneself in an impractical, excessive arrangement of fabric that barely leaves an opening for the eyes, whose original purpose was to hide any bit of femininity from passing males lest they go mad and proceed immediately to sexual assault. Given what I’ve read about rates of sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, the burqa may well have a point there, but it’s fair to say behavior is rather more restrained on Western sidewalks.

Related to this concept of “pride” is Biemond’s assertion of “freedom to clothe themselves as they want.” But as who wants? As the women themselves want – or as the patriarchy imposed over them by Muslim belief wants? As their fathers and other male relatives want, as their insistence that their womenfolk wear these ridiculous, anti-modern outfits is forced by means of brainwashing and intimidation?

Thankfully, another voice has just pitched in, that of Amsterdam city councilor Marjolein Moorman, head of the PvdA fraction there (so, in some soft way, Hendrik Jan Biemond’s boss). Her tweet:

For me a burqa symbolizes inequality between women and men. A man is allowed to freely show himself, but the woman must cover herself. For me that has nothing to do with freedom.

At the same time, a burqa can never constitute a licence to threaten or harass a woman.

Finally some sense – and note well, from a woman! (Not to say “sense” is especially rare from a woman; rather to say that in this context the viewpoint of another woman particularly resonates.) Of course, she’s also set off the sort of debate you would expect in the comments down below that tweet.

Perhaps pro-burqa activists next time could research a bit more thoroughly the inherent nature of Amsterdam [Gay] Pride Week, rather than use it as an opportunity to protest simply because it occurs to close to the introduction of that limited burqa-ban! I call for this in part because I am worried that they will next show up in a public demonstration upholding the Muslim ban on drinking alcohol – in Munich, on the occasion of the next Oktoberfest!

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Odette the Chatbot Welcomes You!

Posted on February 26th, 2019 by MAO

Ostende: The largest city on the Belgian coast (itself only about 66.5 km long), quite historic. But that location offers a mixed bag: Through the ages the city has usually made good money as a port during peacetime, but inevitably has been a target during war. These days it’s known mainly as a beach-destination, with a famed esplanade (sea-front) and even a preserved section of the WWII Atlantic Wall.

Now Ostende has planted itself firmly in the 21st century, as La Dernière Heure reports:


“Chatbots”: yeah, it’s what you think. The local tourism authority there has taken the AI plunge, although only for Facebook Messenger. Seems lately the people working there have been swamped with information-requests via that particular medium, according to tourist authority chief Peter Craeymeersch (great Flemish name!). So they combined some funds with some programmers to take the obvious next step.

The main chatbot – answers to the name “Odette” – is said to be able to respond to most any questions you might have about how to entertain yourself there. The only other one (so far) has no name, but only functions to impart the same sort of information about Ostende’s yearly art festival, The Crystal Ship.

For now, you’ll have to pose your questions in Dutch. By next Fall the bots will also be capable in English – but French? Belgium’s second official language (out of three)? No word on that, and this might be the most “Belgian” aspect of all here.

And could I ask a favor? Could someone ask Odette’s twin-bot just when that “Crystal Ship” festival is supposed to happen in 2019? The dedicated website somehow manages to say nothing about any 2019 date! Perhaps that is very Belgian as well!



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Airheads of Youth (Get Off My Lawn!)

Posted on September 19th, 2018 by MAO

Tourist alert: There are a couple of big, BIG national parties coming up soon in Eastern Europe! This is due to the simple fact that both Czechoslovakia and Poland emerged at the end of the First World War -so a hundred years ago, in 1918 – from the Russian and Austria-Hungarian Empires which collapsed at the end of that conflict. Fortunately, the exact schedule is fairly spread-out (to the benefit of the hard-core partyer): Founding of the Czechoslovak State, 28 October, of the (Second) Polish Republic on 11 November.

Head in that direction for some substantial celebrations, especially if you missed the last millennial party-day – no, not 1 January 2000 (although that one, too), but 1 May 2004 when these and eight other countries all became EU member-states. No need to study up on the exact historical occasions this time, though, for the natives likely won’t do much of that themselves, at least in the Czech Republic according to to this piece in that country’s main business newspaper Hospodářské noviny.


There people o have plenty of historical milestones from recent history to remember, mostly of the sad variety. But that’s if one cares to recall them in the first place (and isn’t ignorance equivalent to bliss?). Admittedly, the 1918 (happy) events are relatively prominent in the national memory: in a recent survey, 79% could recall the end of the war and/or the establishment of the republic (not from personal experience, of course). Just twenty years later, in 1938, that republic crumbled to dust, abandoned to Nazi German forces due to the infamous Munich Agreement. But only 54% of this poll’s sample know about that.

Similarly, they’re pretty up on the Warsaw Pact invasion n 1968 that put an end to a brief period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring – 76%. Rather fewer (65%) could tell the poll-takers anything intelligent about how the Communists took power in the first place, namely by means of “Victorious February” (as it was styled in Communist propaganda) a Soviet-supported take-over of the government in 1948.

This poll was conducted by the NMS Market Research organization on behalf of Post Bellum, which describes itself as “a non-governmental nonprofit organization which documents the memories of witnesses of the important historical phenomenon [sic] of the 20th century and tries to pass these stories on to the broader public.” It might well be worth your time to click that previous link to read the fuller (English) description of what they try to do, or even to download their entire 24 page EN-language brochure. Crucially, Post Bellum has managed to partner with Czech Radio, and thereby has gained not only necessary equipment for recording and storing live historical testimony, but also occasional programming-slots within State radio’s various channels to present a series of documentaries, collectively titled “Stories of the 20th Century.” The webpage that brings all these together (about 90 of them) for listening/downloading is here; however, as you might well imagine, everything is in Czech.

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Dutchmen Attempt Murder in Prague

Posted on September 11th, 2018 by MAO

I’ve been watching coverage of this particular incident for a while, mainly via the Czech press. It has to do with an violent episode in downtown Prague last April 21 (a Saturday evening) when a group of Dutch citizens beat a waiter unconscious at a downtown sidewalk restaurant after he objected to their bringing along their own alcohol to the meal. The latest development, reported about a month ago (i.e. first week of August, 2018), is that two members out of that group – brothers, as it turns out – judged to have acted most violently now face attempted murder charges from Czech justice.


They were a group of seven men, presumably having traveled to Prague for some “stag party”-type fun. And yes, they seized maximally the chance to display their upbringing, their courage and their sheer manhood by ganging up en masse against the sole waiter, quickly getting him on the ground and then repeatedly hitting and kicking him there, breaking his jaw and and an eye-socket and rendering him unconscious. This happened at a very public location, namely in the shadow of the Tesco department store and right by the Národní třída Metro entrance (not to mention a famous statue of the head of Franz Kafka by David Černý), and things went on in front of plenty of witnesses (and cameras) until the gang decided they needed to escape any oncoming police intervention and ran off. So we can also assume they didn’t bother paying for the meal they were in the process of consuming.

Don’t worry, they were all eventually captured, and brought before Czech justice. To be clear, according to the latest Dutch coverage, of the seven perpetrators two were released without charge because of evidence that they had actually tried to calm their colleagues down rather than fight. Three others of the group were given an eight-month suspended jail sentence and deported out of the country, which they are not allowed to re-enter for the next five years (something admittedly difficult to enforce given that the Czech Republic is in the EU’s passport-free Schengen Zone). The remaining two are still jailed in Prague to this day; evidence subsequently submitted about the serious nature of the waiter’s wounds has led the Prague authorities to increase the charges agains them to attempted murder (possible 18 year jail sentence).

I have two further points to add about this disgraceful incident:

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Past Deeds Catch Up with Venezuela

Posted on August 27th, 2018 by MAO

The news is full these days of the disaster that is happening in Venezuela, basically a collapse of the economy and massive emigration. These people’s lot was not helped in any sense by last week’s 7.3-Richter earthquake – that’s pretty damn strong, it made buildings in Caracas sway. You’d imagine there were extensive casualties, although I have yet to see reports about that: perhaps, even as they were hit by those shifting tectonics, the Venezuelans realized they still have bigger ongoing problems and just quickly moved on.

That derelict economy is a complicated issue, but it is at least clear that it is due to disastrous past decisions made by the national government. Some additional after-effects of those recently popped up which you have likely not heard about. For Curaçao and a couple of its five other associated islands (Aruba, Bonaire) lie rather too close offshore from Venezuela, pretty much a stone’s-throw from the chaos prevailing there. So, for example, these islands regularly encounter their own boat-loads of refugees coming from the south, desperate for sustenance.

Curaçao and its five associated islands are in fact still in a loose political relationship with the original colonizer, the Dutch state, so the Dutch press is always interested in what is going on there. Lately there was this:


“Curaçao relieved: Confiscation of Venezuelan national oil company [property] lifted.” That property on the island is basically the refinery there and associated ships at anchor, which oil company ConocoPhillips had succeeded in having impounded – via judicial means, of course – as a means to gain compensation for the seizure of its own oil refining property in Venezuela proper by the government there around ten years ago.

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A Flying Leap From Climate Change

Posted on August 15th, 2018 by MAO

Here’s something on my EuroSavant Twitter timeline that made me sit up and take notice: “Low-Cost Air Tickets are A Catastrophe, From Which Only Legislation Can Save Us”


To be sure, this comes from the Copenhagen-based Dagbladet Information, generally considered to be oriented to the Left (and that in Danish terms!). And the guest-columnist for this particular piece is one Lauritz Korfix Schultz (@lauritzschultz), a high-school teacher.

But since when has one’s station in life necessarily blocked anyone from putting together a cogent argument, an alarming and convincing warning? This comes in particular after a “scorching” European summer (and elsewhere within the Northern Hemisphere) with drought everywhere and the widespread outbreak of forest-fires.

Schultz focuses squarely on commercial aircraft flights and the substantial contribution they make to ever-more CO2 in the atmosphere, to a greater greenhouse effect that is gradually heating the Earth. Yes, there is a growing realization here, with increasing coverage (at least within Scandinavian papers) of those who resolve never again to fly, out of concern for future generations. Admirable, for sure, Schultz says, but hardly enough: it is rather time for national governments to intervene to at least make flying far more expensive, in order precisely to drive down demand and ensure that ticket prices finally accurately reflect the damage they enable travelers to inflict on our common environment.

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Seehofer Antidote: Sealift

Posted on August 6th, 2018 by MAO

“We’re a bit like a left-wing PEGIDA – only ten times as fast and not as shitty.” That’s the take-away quote from a recent piece in Neues Deutschland, “Uprising in Orange,” about Seebrücke (“See-bridge”; in English they call themselves “Sealift”), a new pro-refugee political movement that has recently arisen in Germany.


Maybe you already know about PEGIDA: A notable anti-refugee movement, since its formation in 2014 it has been organizing regular right-wing nativist demonstrations in its home-city Dresden and then further afield. These people are not that, they’re the opposite. Seebrücke just recently got its start in Berlin, which is where Neues Deutschland journalist Niklas Franzen interviews its two top officials for this piece; it, too, has already spread beyond its cradle to other cities. Its cause is clear: Stop the Mediterranean deaths! That is, save the refugees found floating there in their precarious, smuggler-provided rubber boats and let them come – let them even come to Germany! To that end, the organization has organized a series of public demonstrations this summer, including around 12,000 people gathering under the Seebrücke name in Berlin, and numerous other public events elsewhere in Germany, to include raves, flashmobs and even “yoga lessons”(?).

After initially coming to life as the result of communications traffic on the Telegram on-line message system among people alarmed at the drownings and increasing repressive measures against those Mediterranean “boat people,” the organization was formed through the coming-together of various left-wing NGOs and “art collectives.” Yet it resolutely keeps its own structure to a minimum: the two “leaders” interviewed for the piece are better described as Seebrücke‘s leading spokespersons, as it operates in a very decentralized manner, with no hierarchy, leaving it to local enthusiasts to organize events to move the cause forward, itself offering only what it calls “a roof” over the common cause (plus a common color to brand all their activities, namely the easy-to-pick-out orange tinge of the standard life-preserver vest).

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Bulgaria Wants to Join Euro

Posted on August 2nd, 2018 by MAO

August has now started, and this is the month Brussels notoriously empties out (together with Paris, etc.), you can’t find anyone who can actually make a decision, and so nothing can get done. But when they come back in September EU officials will face a full plate, topped by Brexit but also refugee policy (the incoming hordes have now notably shifted to Spain), Poland/Hungary, Trump, and all sorts of other things. None of those is a particularly pleasant subject, so the EU mandarins will surely cherish all the more any good news on their agenda – like Bulgaria know knocking on the door of that EU club-within-EU club, the Eurozone, as Martin Ehl recently reported for the Czech business newspaper Hospodářské noviny.


This is nothing particularly new. Rather, we’re just past an important milestone for this effort by Sofia (no, not any female but rather Bulgaria’s capital), which namely happened in June when the Bulgarian government struck agreement with Eurozone officials on a program of six economic/financial requirements the country will have to meet by June of 2019 to then be admitted into the so-called European Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM II), a monetary arrangement allowing a divergence of only ±15% around a set central rate. It is standard that any given national currency be subject for at least two years to ERM II before that country is allowed to adopt the euro.

Membership Requirements: No Sweat!

For Bulgaria, upholding that ±15% should be no problem, as the Central Bank has long had its currency, the lev, “shadow” (i.e. stay close to) the euro around a fixed point (and before that, the lev “shadowed” the deutsche Mark). When it comes to the three fundamental criteria for euro membership, as well, Bulgaria meets them all with room to spare:

  • Inflation: 1.4% in 2017 (1.9% max allowed)
  • Government budget deficit: Actually had a surplus last year of 0.9% GDP (max allowed deficit is 3%);
  • Overall government debt: Now 29% of GDP (max allowed 60%)

It is hardly unknown for central bank authorities to have their national currency “shadow” a dominant neighboring currency, even though such a policy effectively means giving up control of national monetary policy to that “shadowed” money: the Netherlands authorities long had the guilder shadow the deutsche Mark, while Denmark still today does the same for its krone with regard to the euro (it’s the only other country currently within ERM II).

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Sing to Me of Your Bloody Standard!

Posted on July 30th, 2018 by MAO

Here’s a pretty remarkable photo; the setting is the porch-entrance to the Elysée, France’s presidential palace.


It’s a fairly variegated group, at least racially if not sexually. Of course, it’s the victorious French national football team, visiting President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. And they’re all singing something.

In fact, they’re serenading about “the day of glory,” yes, but also about “the roar of those ferocious soldiers,” “cut[ting] the throats of your sons, your women!” – all so that “an impure blood [can] water our [farms’] furrows!”

Yes, they’re singing La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem from 1795, and the heyday of France’s revolution. It was relevant back then, with foreign armies streaming into the country to try to extinguish the widespread revolt against the sort of king and aristocracy that prevailed then in the rest of Europe.

But is that sort of thing still suited for 2018? The contrast is striking – at least for me – when national anthems are played at national-team football matches involving France: the downright bloodthirsty words the French players are expected to sing (many do not) versus the more anodyne sentiments sung by the other side:

“God Save the Queen”;

“Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”;

“Unity and justice and freedom/For the German fatherland!”;

“William of Nassau am I, of native blood” (from the Dutch; the world’s oldest national anthem, so perhaps we can forgive the fact that it makes less outright sense than most);

“Poland has not yet perished/So long as we still live”;

Etc.

Or you have the Spanish, luckiest national football players of them all, with a national anthem for which there are officially no lyrics at all!

For France, can this be allowed to last? Is that country really still the sort of revolutionary power for which such an official anthem is appropriate, particularly considering its position for decades at the heart of the EU?

I really would look forward to finding what writer Alain Borer for Le Point has to say about all this, his title even speaks of some sort of “misunderstanding” (malentendu) involved here. But the bulk of this piece is behind their paywall, so I’m not allowed to know. Sorry about that.


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Extradition & Dodgy Polish Justice

Posted on July 25th, 2018 by MAO

This is HOT off the press, off the Twitter timeline! (At least for those of you out there reading not long after the date/time of this article’s posting.) And it’s big: it’s a major ruling just out from the European Court of Justice regarding the EU’s internal system of mutual criminal-suspect extradition.


If the reader has been paying attention at all to EU affairs (certainly to this Twitter-feed and associated blog), s/he will be aware of the ongoing struggle between the EU and the government of Poland. This regards several changes which that particular regime (composed of of one party only, so-called PiS or “Law and Justice”) instituted starting shortly after coming to power in October 2015 elections. Among such authoritarian measures in the eyes of the EU have been those regarding nomination and mandatory retirement of national judges, which subject the courts to much too much influence from government officials.

Unfortunately, all that has resulted so far between the EU and Poland is stalemate, with neither side inclined to back down. It’s also true that the EU Commission instituted a so-called “Article 7” procedure against Poland, which could eventually strip that country of its vote in EU matters (except that the Hungarian government has made clear its intention to veto any such development). And the Commission has sued the Polish government at the European Court of Justice, but getting any resolution out of that also takes a long time.

Ireland: We Won’t Extradite!

Last March, however, a monkey-wrench was thrown into the EU-Poland confrontation from an unexpected source: Ireland High Court Judge Ms. Justice Aileen Donnelly. The Irish authorities had apprehended one Artur Celmer, a Polish citizen wanted back there on suspicion of various drug-trafficking charges, and Judge Donnelly was handed the task of supervising his extradition to Poland in accordance with the EU’s system for that (the “European Arrest Warrant” or EAW).

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Moustique Mystique

Posted on July 24th, 2018 by MAO

We’re now heading into Europe’s summer doldrums, when everyone seems to be away on vacation, to return only sometime in August. That’s certainly the case for France, which notoriously closes down every year for that entire month. Just enough time, then, to address a remaining philosophical question before packing up the family plus luggage in the car hitting the road. Audrey Dufour of the newspaper La Croix poses a piercing question: Is the mosquito [FR: le moustique] actually good for anything?

La Croix [Fr: The Cross] is well-known in France as the national paper of the Roman Catholic Church, so it is rather interesting that Ms. Dufour should take up this particular question. After all, the mosquito has long served as a key piece of evidence for those secular types ready to dispute the doctrine that the World/Universe is so wonderful and intricate that it must have been created by a divine intelligence. An argument that has spanned millenia and currently goes under the labels of “creationism” or “intelligent design,” it is often first attacked by bringing up the lowly mosquito: What sort of world-designer in His right divine mind would have thought to include that?

Human-mosquito interactions are inevitably unpleasant for the former across-the-board, whether looking down on a summer’s day to see an irksome insect drawing your blood, to hearing that bothersome whine around your head at night while trying to get to sleep. But that is ultimately small potatoes: what is truly serious about mosquitos is the ~400,000 people they kill each year by transmitting malaria, making them truly the world’s most deadly animal.

Right … Anything Good to Say?

That’s a pretty heavy weight on the debit side of the ledger. But Ms. Dufour gamely makes a good effort towards trying to find something positive to say. One word: Biodiversity, something Pope Francis has explicitly lauded in his speeches on ecology, and which here expresses the idea that the mosquito, no matter how odious, is an irreplaceable link in the great natural chain of being.

And it’s true, fish and amphibians eat mosquito larvae wholesale, while birds and other sorts of animals feast on the grown-up versions. Now, it’s not as if any of these rely solely on mosquitos for their nutrition; indeed, the article points out how it would be hard to prove that any would particularly be affected should mosquitos go extinct entirely.

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Qatar 2022: Ready Already?

Posted on July 23rd, 2018 by MAO

The Russian World Cup 2018 is now over: for us here at EuroSavant, roughly four weeks of studious effort to ignore what was going on there, with periodic postings of tweets seeking to remind people what a propaganda victory this represented for Putin. Next up, in World Cup terms, is Qatar in 2022. According to the FranceTVInfo.fr site, le Qatar est déjà prêt: “Qatar is ready already” (much more gracefully expressed in French, of course):


I guess almost limitless funds, together with a largely formless homeland with few distinctive terrain features, can be useful for efficiently driving such a massive construction project to completion (not to mention the, er, “forced labor” as Amnesty International puts it). Still, that headline is misleading: from the article itself it becomes clear that Qatar is not yet ready to run a World Cup-size football tournament, although its progress is likely more advanced at this stage than any other host has achieved.

The biggest stadium, Khalifa International Stadium, situated in the capital Doha, is now ready to host opening and closing ceremonies together with key games such as the Final. Indeed, in October of 2019 it is scheduled to host the world track & field championships. But that’s about it: Work remains ongoing on the remaining seven, as well as on the subway/metro system which is the country’s first such installation, being purpose-built for the occasion.

(Indeed, in Qatar you get where you need to go by car: highways are plentiful, gas is cheap, and the inside is air-conditioned. If you don’t have the means to do that, then you don’t count. Obviously, that attitude cannot apply to the thousands, even millions, of football fans that mini-state hopes to attract in late 2022 – but who will take the metro afterwards, when they are not used to doing so now?)

How Much Is That in Real Money?

In money terms, writer Emmanuel Cugny calculates that Qatar will ultimately spend the equivalent of around €100 billion on World Cup 2020. That aforementioned subway system alone will cost around €31 billion. Plus, it says here that the authorities promise to have available 1.5 million hotel rooms (versus the normal FIFA requirement of 60,000); this presumably means some level of private infrastructural spending as well. And as Cugny takes care to note, this massive effort is all the more impressive considering it is taking place against what is supposed to be an economic embargo, now nearly 14 months old, against Qatar by its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council states.

More »


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Twitter: Something Rotten

Posted on May 30th, 2018 by MAO

The scandal around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and misuse of personal data is now old news, updated only by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “mea-culpa-but-no-real-answers” appearance at the European Parliament – and by the advent of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which one would think will pose a stark challenge to Facebook’s entire business model (and legal challenges from NGOs against the Internet giants, based upon GDPR, are already filed).

I’m basically not involved with Facebook. Rather, it’s no secret that EuroSavant has for some time revolved mostly around Twitter. And it’s not anything about my personal data on Twitter that I am particularly worried about. It’s something else, namely the timeline.

It’s by now well-known how Facebook applies massive computing-power to manipulate a user’s timeline (called there the news feed) to keep people hooked. When it comes to Twitter, for too long I believed (rather naively) that there was no such manipulation, that the Twitter timeline was a simple “fire hose” of tweets aggregated from accounts one chose to follow.

It’s hardly that anymore. The first step away from “firehose” was the “In case you missed it” feature: manipulation to pluck individual tweets (chosen via AI to be of particular interest to the account-holder) out of their place in the timeline to be displayed again in a special section under that title. The significance here was less any utility from the new feature itself, than representing the first overt (i.e. that users were allowed to know about) concession to tweet-flow manipulation. Since then, it’s become clear that things have gone much further, to the point of what we might term the “Facebooking” of the Twitter timeline.

I know this is not just me: even famed journalist Elizabeth Drew has noticed something odd is going on:


But speaking of me, I’ve become frustrated by the increasing time/effort it now takes to find the sort of tweet-material I need, namely news-pieces worth passing on – whether in by tweet or a blogpost – with a bit of translation and commentary. Ms. Drew’s key objection is quite basic: “let us see tweets by people we’ve chosen to follow.” Too often that does not happen anymore.

“Oh? So what does one see instead on the timeline?” you might well ask. Tweets from people to whom I do not subscribe, for one thing, but which have been retweeted by people to whom I do. Fine, since by retweeting a given twitterer in effect broadcasts that tweet as his own, you can argue that there should be no objection to that when it is from someone I follow. But what about seeing a tweet solely due to it having been “liked” by someone whom I follow? For example, @Slatefr liked this Beach Boys tweet from @jmpottier, that’s supposed to have something to do with me??


No, “liking” is something different; and it’s nothing I ever asked for. Even worse: Receiving a tweet from someone whom I do not follow solely on the basis that he is followed by someone I do! Sometimes the apologetic message even states that not just someone you follow follows this guy, but many others as well! I don’t care: quit constipating my timeline! I’ve told Twitter what I am interested in, in effect, by the choices I’ve made about whom to follow!


Again, this really degrades Twitter’s usefulness for EuroSavant, namely finding interesting foreign-language articles – and not dealing with distraction through tenuously related fluff used by Twitter in its constant quest to increase “user involvement,” measured by numbers of followers. For it’s a public company now, folks, and has been for a while! Gotta show ever-rising metrics to Wall Street!

Back to Basics

Let’s recall what should be the Twitter fundamentals: You and I and everyone signed up to regularly receive the tweets of other tweeps in whom we are interested. But more and more, as Ms. Drew points out, that simply does not happen: tweets from those you follow are not put on your timeline, while all sorts of tempting, extraneous, AI-created garbage is.

You know how you can counteract that? By making a separate list of the Twitter-handles of those you follow (perhaps on an Excel sheet) and then cutting-and-pasting each handle in turn up into the URL, pasting it just after the “http://www.twitter.com/,” and then Return to go in sequence to each user directly! That’s what I increasingly do when I get tired of cutting through the crap displayed on my regular timeline.

That’s also what you could do, dear reader, to ensure you do not miss any tweet emanating from @EuroSavant! OK, I can’t ask you to do that, only to be aware that you surely have missed some of mine, even when your timing was otherwise right to catch them, all due to the Twitter algorithm trying to “broaden your horizons” via exposure to other tweets of quite evanescent relevance. And yes, I see the value of exposure to new things, to let serendipity bloom – but how about if we limit that to retweets from those I have chosen to follow?

I know, I’m shouting into a void here: Twitter will do what it feels it needs to do to satisfy its shareholders, not its users. And “timeline abuse” has hardly penetrated into the current controversy encircling the on-line giants. Like Facebook, Twitter is a worldwide monopoly, riding a powerful network effect, for the communication service it provides. But increasingly there is something rotten there at the core.

UPDATE: Cut-and-paste the following URL; save it somewhere securely:

https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&q=filter%3Afollows%20-filter%3Areplies&src=typd

Here’s what you do: Log on to your Twitter account normally. But then copy-and-paste the above into your browser’s address bar, hit Enter and go there. In effect, you’re executing a Twitter-search of your timeline which functions to remove the extraneous bullshit discussed in the blogpost above, so that you are left with what we could call “ur-Twitter”: namely, just the tweets in accurate chronological order from only the accounts you have chosen to follow.

For those into Irony, I would admit that I came upon this solution from a tweet which I never would have seen in my timeline without the new-fangled “So-and-so liked” distortions about which I complain above, which this tool serves to remove. But I’ll take it anyway.


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Leave ISIL Out of This!

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by MAO

Remember back at the end of July when a young guy pulled out a knife in a supermarket in a residential suburb of Hamburg (Germany) and started stabbing people? He killed one person there and wounded five, then wounded another as he tried to flee the scene.

Naturally, as he jabbed he repeatedly cried out that old standard “Allahu Akbar” – Of course! Of course! – and it should neither be a surprise that he was a refugee in Germany, housed in a local Hamburg refugee center: he had been refused asylum, was supposed to be deported, but was enjoying a bureaucratic delay because he had never shown any “papers” specifying where he came from. (He’s Palestinian, although born in the UAE.)


Well, he has succeeded in avoiding deportation, but only in favor of a German jail. (Of course, he succeeded far more in souring the German electorate’s mood towards refugees generally.) Now he will go to trial, charged with one count of murder and six counts of attempted murder.

Back then after his arrest, he had a lot to say to the police. His aim had been to become a “martyr,” but only after first killing as many “Christians and young people” as possible. He had meant his act as a “contribution to a worldwide jihad,” and ISIL issued a statement shortly afterwards taking credit for his attack.

Nonetheless, he is not being charged with terrorism. Investigators could find no actual connection on his part with ISIL or any other terrorist group, no matter how much the perpetrator himself and ISIL tried to talk up such a connection after-the-fact. It seems clear that he was nothing more than a very confused young man, a lone-wolf “inspired” by ISIL but nothing more.

Hamburg law-enforcement, after proper investigation, are intelligent enough to realize that. Contrast that with, for example, the New York City Halloween truck-killer. (What? Forgot about him already?) Send him to Guantanamo (said President Trump)! ISIL also claimed credit for that attack and – no matter how tenuous the actual links between that killer and ISIL seemed to be – their credibility (ironically enough) was good enough for US authorities: He’s a terrorist! Or consider the 2015 San Bernardino shootings: they’re Muslim, ISIL takes the credit, so they’re terrorists – when acceding to that self-description in fact gives them more sinister credit than they deserve, not to mention potentially subjecting them to further criminal charges which may not actually be warranted.

In the Age of Trump the US is no sort of calm, reflective country, so that we should not expect anytime soon rational proceeding in such extreme public criminal matters of the sort the Hamburg authorities have displayed here. But that’s a shame.


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Secret Police Skeletons

Posted on November 9th, 2017 by MAO

By now it’s reached the cliché-stage to call the new presumptive Czech Republic prime minister, Andrej Babiš, the “Czech Donald Trump.” Sadly, people like to do so – among other, obvious, reasons – because the comparison is so true. The main aspect here is that Babiš is also rather rich, said to be the second-richest person in the country, so that a great part of his political appeal undoubtedly is voters’ confidence that someone who has been so successful in his personal financial life must be able to perform in the same way for the country.

Oh, and he also does not hold back when it comes to advancing those private financial interests using his public powers; we know that from his record as Treasury Minister in the outgoing government.

But now the leading Czech business newspapere, Hospodářské noviny, brings up another parallel people may have started to forget: Babiš’ unsavory pre-Revolution past.


“Agent Bureš”: That was said to be Babiš’ code-name in filed reports about his alleged collaboration with the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police back in the bad old Communist days, dating from when he was reported to have sat down as a 28-year-old in 1982 at a specific cafe in downtown Bratislava to sign a collaboration agreement. Now, Babiš’ own father was a high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist official, in fact a diplomat, meaning that young Babiš mostly lived and was educated abroad. Naturally, he then grabbed an excellent regime job as a young adult, working for the Slovak international trade company and even representing it for a while in Morocco.

So working secretly for the regime in some way was pretty much baked-in for Andrej Babiš. The real question is: How enthusiastically? More »


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Laughing on Spain’s Precipice

Posted on September 15th, 2017 by MAO

Here at EuroSavant we’re always trying to expand the breadth of European non-English-language sources we regularly consult: both through learning new languages (a slow process; also one sometimes even prone to reversal) and simply through finding fresh news-sources we hadn’t been aware of before.

How long ago was it that I added the Twitter-feed of El Mundo Today to my “following”-list? I can’t remember, but that media-outlet seemed legit at the time, what with its very name a derivative of El Mundo, one of Spain’s “newspapers of record,” and with the ambitious slogan La actualidad del mañana (“Tomorrow’s news”) making up its Twitter-bio.

They also seemed to have a knack for coming up with interesting scoops, or at least so I thought recently when I saw one of their tweets yesterday:


“A Catalan Terminator comes from the Future to appear in Parliament intending to dissuade Puigdemont.” That would be Carles Puigdemont, let’s call him “governor” of the want-away Spanish (let’s call it) province of Catalonia, and so point-man for the referendum on independence from Spain which officials of that province intend to hold on October 1, despite opposition from the central government. More »


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The Brutal Remedy for Mongolism

Posted on August 28th, 2017 by MAO

What interesting news the mainstream Italian newspaper La Repubblica recently had! “Down Syndrome: In Iceland they choose to avoid it”:


And avoid it they do: The tweet-text below the picture goes on to report how only 1 or 2 babies afflicted with that genetic irregularity are born in Iceland each year.

Let’s have a reminder that Down Syndrome is certainly nothing anyone would want to see in their new infant; from Wikipedia:

Those with Down syndrome nearly always have physical and intellectual disabilities. As adults, their mental abilities are typically similar to those of an 8- or 9-year-old. They also typically have poor immune function and generally reach developmental milestones at a later age. They have an increased risk of a number of other health problems, including congenital heart defect, epilepsy, leukemia, thyroid diseases, and mental disorders, among others.

Further, and to be blunt, people with Down Syndrome have a certain common look: “a small chin, slanted eyes . . . a small mouth,” etc. Not something you like to see; and it was this appearance that led the doctor who originally described the syndrome back in 1862, John Langdon Down, to initially call those suffering from it “mongoloid” as he felt they resembled the so-called Mongoloid race in Asia. (These days, use of that term is strongly discouraged; I only have it in this post’s headline because I needed something short and with brutal shock-value.)

Icelandic babies, then, are to a remarkable degree spared such anguish* – innocents spared a stunted (and likely shortened) life assigned purely due to the cruel vagaries of chance. Perhaps even more significantly, Icelandic parents as well are spared what are certainly the much greater – and longer – demands on them, both financially and emotionally, to support their child in living as happy a life as he or she can.

Fantastic! Then again, perhaps that this comes out of Iceland is the least surprising thing. Many are aware how people there share a unique common genome-set, due to the fact that almost all of them are descendants of a limited group of Viking explorers who first settled the North Atlantic island starting towards the end of the ninth century A.D. (OK, and maybe also of the Irish slaves they brought there.) This remarkable fact once led Wired magazine to call Iceland “the world’s greatest genetic laboratory,” due to the remarkable genetics research that has been carried there in recent years, taking advantage of that national genetic homogeneity. More »


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Look Both Ways Crossing Autobahn

Posted on August 28th, 2017 by MAO

“Grieving Momma-Duck Paralyzes Traffic on the A3 Autobahn” – it’s quite a story, a tragedy, really, reported by the Rheinische Post from news-agency dispatches.


As we humans know, you actually never try to walk across the Autobahn in Germany, not unless we’re talking about a pedestrian overpass. But this momma-duck didn’t know anything about that, and apparently led her brand-new brood of ducklings onto Autobahn 3, at the spot just to the west of Cologne where it crosses Autobahn 4 coming from the west.

That brood numbered a bit more than five ducklings. We know at least “five” because, unfortunately, that was how many smashed duckling bodies were left there on the pavement, before the momma-duck and the rest of the ducklings managed to get off the highway quick and into the surrounding foliage.

The problem was that the momma-duck then reappeared at the same spot around three hours later, presumably trying to find out what had happened to her missing progeny. She was harder to drive away this time; for whatever reason, there were firefighters on the scene, but she wouldn’t let herself be caught nor be shooed away from the Autobahn – where, we can assume, the on-coming high-speed traffic was staring to make things dangerous.

So the police shut the Autobahn down! For the duck! As they tried to chase her away, which is where she went after about half an hour. (I would have loved to hear the report on the traffic bulletin broadcast by both national and the local radio stations!)

Now, this happened during the day last Wednesday, so a business day but with perhaps traffic a little less thick than usual because for many it was the tail-end of summer vacation. But the traffic was undoubtedly still substantial – this is Autobahn 3, people, the Autobahn coming out of Cologne and paralleling the Rhine southward for a while before heading eastwards to Frankfurt am Main, and beyond.

I have never heard of the Dutch authorities ever shutting down a highway due to any bird. Then again, in a couple of places there highways do have “animal” overpasses, that is, bridges built over the highway from the woods on one side to the woods on the other, for wildlife to use. These are expensive, of course, and perhaps one could argue about their actual benefits to the public versus their costs; but then again, perhaps Germany could take up this idea and add a couple of these to its infrastructure budget nonetheless. Sorry, no sort of “public service announcements” are going to be able to educate the ducks!



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The AWOL Czech President

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by MAO

This week started off with a commemorative occasion of note, at least if you live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Monday, 21 August, marked the 49th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the broad-based Communist reform movement underway there known collectively as the Prague Spring.

OK, the 50th anniversary next year will presumably be a much bigger deal. But for remembering officially the event in those peoples’ political history which, in its long-standing trauma, probably corresponds to the 9/11 attacks in the US, at the least, every year’s 21 August is surely worth some official attention. But not from the Czech Republic’s President, Miloš Zeman, at least not this year: there was nothing from the Presidential Palace, no attendance at any ceremony, no statement.

Naturally, then, the State Radio’s news channel, Radiožurnál, wanted to find out how come. Gaining no access to Zeman himself (perhaps somewhat understandably), they turned to his official spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček.


The interview was brief, three questions, amounting to “Did the President express anything in relation to the 49th anniversary of the Occupation, and does he intend to do so going forward?” What it yielded was no so much obfuscatory as, frankly, outrageous. The President had already expressed himself on that subject, Ovčáček maintained, and that at least 47 years ago when he made it clear he was against the invasion and paid for his opinion by losing his job. And then check this:

In other words, the President bravely expressed himself during that period when it was no cheap thing to do so, [whereas] today the sort of people who opine on this sad anniversary are those who during Normalization [the period following the ’68 invasion] were satisfied with digging in to the gravy-train [CZ: chrochtali u koryta].

Now, Zeman is getting old, perhaps he momentarily forgot that he is, after all, President of the country.

And then: “Isn’t he going to return to the subject at future anniversaries?” “The President puts forth his views on this almost every day, when he speaks of how the Czech Republic must remain a sovereign nation” and bla bla bla . . .

It’s as if Zeman has no further obligation to have anything to do with that Warsaw Pact “brotherly assistance” simply because of how he is alleged to have behaved in the years immediately afterwards. Let’s take a quick look at what that behavior actually was; for this, I go to his page in the Czech Wikipedia. I know, the particular nature of that source is such that you never can discount someone with a political point to prove distorting what you find there, but still, there’s some interesting material. More »


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