Jobs for the Cavaliere

Posted on April 10th, 2014 by MAO

What a handsome, if somewhat aged gentlemen! Is there something he can do for you?

Cavaliere
As you can see, this is Silvio Berlusconi, better known in Italian circles (and beyond) as Il Cavaliere, the Knight.* Let me be clear, when I write that he “can do” things for you, I do not mean in the manner of a Mafia don, or even a leading Italian politician.

Berlusconi’s current job-title is better described as “convicted criminal,” convicted for fiscal fraud in connection with his media and broadcast company Mediaset. Verily did he struggle long and hard to avoid this fate – aided considerably by his repeated tenure as the Italian premier, which made him temporarily invulnerable to prosecution as well as even able to change the laws in order to protect himself – but the dreaded day finally came.

But by that time he was already in his late seventies, so he caught some breaks. He was originally sentenced to four years in prison, but it’s clear that was never more than for show. That was soon reduced to just one year, and to community service rather than any time behind bars.

So that is just it: what will be that community service?

In September 2013 the Cavaliere repeated that he would not submit to carrying out community service “like some common criminal who needs re-education,” but he finally accepted this option, that notably permits him to benefit from a further reduction of his sentence by three months [from the one year] in case of good behavior. Shelter for the homeless, retirement home, where will he carry out his community works?

That is just what a Milan court will start to decide today. There had been wild speculation that Berlusconi could find himself “cleaning the toilets at the main train station,” but it seems at least that is unlikely. Still, it’s sure to be spectacular in some way: working in a drug addict treatment center, at a retirement home and the like are real possibilities. That Milan court’s task is complicated extremely by considerations of personal security for Mr. Berlusconi and, of course, by the tremendous press interest that will ensue no matter what he finds himself doing.

One thing he won’t be doing, at least, is opening his mouth in any way: no speeches, no public statements are allowed under terms of his sentence. Then again, another option for him to “serve” his sentence is, in effect, house arrest. About that, this piece declares that “this scenario remains very improbable and concerns above all persons who are judged to be ‘dangerous.’” I sadly predict that is what the Milan judges will go for, turning that criterion on its head by citing the possible “danger” to Berlusconi himself if he actually has to carry out his community service in public.

* And as you perhaps can also see, this is a piece out of the French Huffington Post. There’s little doubt there is coverage of the issue out of the Italian edition as well, but I found this one expressed the dilemma best.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

Posted on March 27th, 2014 by MAO

Not if you’re Volkert, you can’t.

Volkert
But who is this “Volkert” of which the NOS, the Dutch public umbrella news organization, writes? If you’re Dutch and/or if you were anywhere in the country around 2001/2002, you don’t need to be told: it’s Volkert van der Graaf, the assassin of Pim Fortuyn, whom Van der Graaf shot in a Hilversum parking-lot on 6 May 2002, nine days before a general election in whose campaign Fortuyn was coming on from virtually nowhere to take the country by storm.

And the news today is that Van der Graaf is scheduled to be released from prison on 2 May, so a little less than 12 years after his heinous crime. Ponder that for a second: 12 years, for the in-plain-daylight murder of a dynamic political figure who was heading towards a significant upending of his country’s political establishment. (Here’s another data-point along the same lines, fresh from today’s news as well: 20 years prison demanded by prosecutors – what the judge will impose is another question entirely, but is not likely to be more – for a 24-year-old youth who burned a house down last summer and so killed a mother inside and her 17- and 14-year-old daughters.) More »

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Tracking the Mystery Flight

Posted on March 18th, 2014 by MAO

UPDATE: The BBC caught the “10 Theories about Flight MH370′s disappearance” meme around the same time as Gazeta Wyborcza (discussed below), so I would be remiss to not refer you to their piece, which of course is in English and also extensive (and fanciful, in places).

It’s amazing to realize that, come Friday, it will be a full two weeks since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370′s complete disappearance from Southeast Asian skies, with a “Good night” from the co-pilot (local time was just past midnight) the very last message received, some forty minutes in. With some sources saying that finding the plane could still be a matter of weeks, one can only marvel at the patience of those actually sailing in or flying over the areas of the Indian Ocean now being searched, gamely putting up with what must be an excruciatingly boring needle-in-a-haystack ordeal.

What’s more, there is as yet no sort of confirmed explanation for what exactly happened. But at least accessing the foreign press can help one plug into that greater “hive mind” out there in the world to at least start evaluating possibilities.

Zloto
10 hipotez – that’s 10 hypotheses, the ten most-likely possibilities for the story behind Flight MH 370 based upon facts and analysis Piotr Cieśliński of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza has been able to gather. More »

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Obama: Funny – Or Dead?

Posted on March 12th, 2014 by MAO

President Obama just recently broke new ground in appearing on “Funny or Die’s” interview show “Between Two Ferns,” and extensive speculation in the domestic press duly followed as to whether that had really turned out to be such a good idea. That domestic press, however, does not exhaust the supply of available observers; many foreign news outlets can be counted upon to be interested in this sort of thing involving the American president as well.

Among these is Lorraine Millot, Washington correspondent of the French newspaper Libération, and she offered her observations on Obama’s encounter with comedian-interviewer Zach Galifianakis in her “Great America” blog, in an entry rather unimaginatively entitled Mr. Obama, what’s it like to be the last black president? (That was one of Galifianakis’ more notorious questions, you see, if you hadn’t heard already.)

No doubt as penance for the failed launching of his health reforms, the American President consented – unwillingly, as one can see on the video – to be interviewed by the rather unsavory comic Zach Galifianakis. The American President was bullied (with repeated “Hush!” from the very beginning), called a nerd and grilled about dispatching his “ambassador,” basketball-player Dennis Rodman to . . . “North Ikea.” Twice the humorist touched on the topic of racism. The annoyance was visible on Obama’s features, but the president took it all and got in some good come-backs.

So maybe not such a good idea, from the French perspective. More like an ordeal. Of course, Obama wasn’t doing this for nothing: he wanted to get out the message, especially to young people, to sign up for Obamacare before the oncoming March 31 deadline. At one point he remarked to Galifianakis “I wouldn’t be here with you if I didn’t have something to push” – saying this in the same “disagreeable tone,” Millot notes, as that generally wielded by his interviewer.

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Drops the Other Electoral Schuh

Posted on March 11th, 2014 by MAO

A coming high point in European Union affairs is the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for the period 22-25 May, which will be for all 751 seats. They were made more exciting (if you find them exciting at all in the first place) by an extraordinary intervention a few weeks ago by the German Federal Constitutional Court, which struck down the 3% threshold that had been required of individual political parties for gaining representation in the European Parliament at all.

The reason that this made those upcoming EP elections a bit more exciting is that it means that the way is open now for representatives from all sorts of wacky parties to take their seats there come June, although be forewarned that these parties are more likely to be “wacky” as in “unsavory” – like the German neo-Nazi NPD, for example, and also quite likely indeed to be ideologically opposed to the very institution into which they are gaining admission – rather than as in “loony.” (There is no European equivalent to the UK’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party that I am aware of, for example.)

Nonetheless, five of the judges on that German Federal Court (out of eight) concluded that there was no more need for any such electoral threshold to “preserve the European Parliament’s ability to function.” Fine, then, but the legislatures of a handful of other EU member-states do still retain this sort of electoral threshold – in particular, Germany itself, with a 5% hurdle to gain representation in the Bundestag!

Inevitably, then, this has come along:

Prozenthurd
Yes, it’s Die Linke, or “The Left” which is the German political party now calling on that domestic electoral hurdle to be abolished. That’s the party representing the left-over of the old SED, i.e. the “unity” party which dominated the former German “Democratic” Republic (East Germany) in a far from democratic manner.

Let’s remember why that 5% barrier was inserted into Germany’s post-WWII federal constitution in the first place: because the constitution of the Weimar Republic before Hitler did not have any such rule, and it was the proliferation of pissant political parties in the Reichstag that made the State almost ungovernable and paved the way to power for the Nazis.

Indeed – and as you would expect – representatives of the more mainstream parties on the current German political scene reacted distinctly unenthusiastically to that suggestion from head of Die Linke. The deputy chairman of the governing coalition’s Bundestag faction, Thomas Strobl, for instance: “In the 65 years since this German republic was established, this clause has given us stability and predictability.”

The German President, Joachim Gauck, however, has indicated a willingness to see a debate on the point. What’s more, maybe “predictability” is not necessarily the characteristic you would most want to associate with any legislative body that is supposed to be accountable to the people through elections.

At bottom, though, we are left with a simple logical inconsistency. Could those five federal justices voting to abolish the EP’s 3% electoral hurdle please explain why that same calculus should not also apply to the Bundestag’s 5% hurdle? One suspects that the only answer they would be able to come up with is that the European Parliament is so much less important – has so much less real power – than the Bundestag that it is quite alright to maintain the former as a convenient hobby-horse for all of one’s best, and most idealistic, democratic intentions.

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East Gas? West Best!

Posted on March 9th, 2014 by MAO

It seems Russian troops – even though they (mostly) are not yet labeled as such – are in the Crimea to stay. Reclaiming that strategic peninsula for Ukraine would require the use of force, something no state outside of the Ukraine is willing to contemplate, and before which even Ukraine authorities themselves should hesitate due to the risk of thereby only losing more of their territory.

What the West is left with is proceeding with a deliberate worsening of relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime as punishment: denying him the chance to get yet more mileage out of his $51 billion Sochi reconstruction by staging a G8 summit there, for instance. But the unfortunate problem is that, to a great extent, this can turn out to be self-defeating as the West needs Russia just as Russia needs the West.

Anyone who follows international affairs regularly can name two vital areas right off the bat for which that is true: Iran and Syria. For the former, the West seems very close to achieving a remarkable deal that will safeguard against any nuclear weapons ambitions Iran might have – but one for which Iran’s willingness has been predicated upon united political and economic pressure from the West and from Russia. As for Syria, the regime there is already behind on the schedule for the elimination of its chemical weapons that Russia did quite a lot to help draw up.

(Now, this NYT piece claims that Syria is ready to try to speed things up to try to make up lost ground – but the article is dated March 4. Returning to Russia’s potential reluctance for any more international cooperation, there are always those inspections that Putin, in good times, ordinarily consents to undergo in relation to various arms-control treaties.)

Then there are the more tangible things – like natural gas. (OK, it’s a gas, but still slightly more tangible than a pure concept such as “arms control.”) Plenty of European countries are still dependent on gas supplies from Russia, piped through the Ukraine. And so we get this:

V4 Czech
I know, that must seem at first sight like some confused jumble. “V4,” for example: what’s “V4″?* That is shorthand for the “Visegrad 4,” itself a shorthand for the Central European countries Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. And what the governments of those countries have done is think ahead a bit in light of this new geopolitical confrontation with Putin. More »

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Shocked at the Shock

Posted on February 13th, 2014 by MAO

The headline from this piece in Flanders’ paper-of-record De Standaard reads “Belgium, where the blind and babies with an open back* must die,” and its first sentence reads “That our land wants to broaden the Euthanasia Law to include minors is arousing incensed reactions outside the country.”

Yes, you’ve surely heard by now that, from being one of the few countries in the world to have legalized euthanasia (which it did back in 2002), Belgium is about to enlarge that to include requests to die from terminally ill minors (i.e. under 18 years of age).

There is certainly resistance to this measure from some Belgian political quarters, but all indications are that that extension of the law will be enacted. But this particular article has more to do with how the world at large has reacted to this – or actually, and despite that “outside the country” (in het buitenland) above, how certain elements of the American media have reacted.

For example, there is the “American news broadcaster” (not further identified) cited as decrying Belgium’s “culture of death” and comparing the new euthanasia law with good old King Leopold of the 19th century, “who in the Congo had the natives’ hands chopped off.” (BTW that last is true: the Belgian administration of the Congo as its colony was truly scandalous, but that really has nothing to do with this euthanasia debate.) The Christian Broadcasting Network is then named explicitly, with its outrage over “this shocking tale out of Belgium.”

The most notable instance, though, involves CNN, in particular that broadcaster’s celebrity reporter Christiane Amanpour. Check out this video – also embedded within De Standaard’s article – of her interview with a Flemish legislator involved in pushing the new law forward:

Wow – imagine if YOU were called upon to face such hostile questioning, broadcast to millions over one of the biggest worldwide news channels, unable to defend yourself in your native language! No wonder Belgians are feeling aggrieved by the attention!

* “Open back”: This apparently had to do with babies born with the birth-defect of some sort of cleft in their backs, allegedly then consigned to be disposed of in the manner of Biblical King Herod.

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If It Ain’t Broke . . .

Posted on February 13th, 2014 by MAO

That’s right, repeat after me: If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it! Yet that is what it looks like the EU Commission is ready to do to the apprenticeship system in Germany and Austria known as duale Ausbildung or “double education.” Here are a couple of alarmed tweets arising from the German media.

Ausbildung_Welt

Ausbildung_Newsticker
Duale Ausbildung basically embodies the principles that make this sort of training a much-envied example for the rest of the world. Intended for young people who by temperament or lower test scores do not intend to go on to university, it initiates them into advanced technical skills and the sort of (often high-paying) jobs in industry that those can bring through a dual regime of theoretical instruction in a school classroom combined with on-the-job training at a firm that has taken on that person as an apprentice.

This system is certainly no secret, and has been studied on-the-spot by legions of scholars – and of politicians, including some from America, most of whom have thereafter pined after the prospect of bringing the same sort of regime home to address shortcomings in technical training and in employment prospects there. More »

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The Beatles: Keeping America Apart

Posted on February 10th, 2014 by MAO

In case you hadn’t notice, in the US at least they are in the middle of a spate of 50th-anniversary celebrations. Everything that was anything important in the 1960s, it seems, happened within that late 1963-early 1964 time-frame: the March on Washington, JFK’s assassination, the War on Poverty – and, yes, the advent of the Beatles on American shores, most notably on prime-time 1964 television, on the Ed Sullivan Show, for the first time fifty years ago just yesterday (♪ YESterday ♫ . . .), on 9 February 1964.

This is just the sort of meaty commemoration that today’s media likes to sink its teeth into, to attract clicks and boost flagging sales if nothing else, and you will have seen the articles in your favorite outlets, whether Internet or on paper. We’re also Beatles fans here at EuroSavant for sure, consider their body of work as a full part of the Western cultural canon along with Beethoven and all the rest, etc. But we also like to be contrarian, and a regular survey of the foreign-language on-line press often gives us much ammunition to be contrarian with.

BeatlesNeg
“The coming of the Beatles had a negative effect on relations between white and black America,” it says there. You will have never heard of Xavier Baudet – I hadn’t either; it turns out he is a former minor Dutch singer/songwriter, is now a record producer, but also studied American history at the University of Leiden – but he makes some thought-provoking points.

The key to his essay is a comparison between the progress in the area of civil rights for American blacks in the Sixties versus the societal changes that the Beatles supposedly brought about. And Baudet does credit them with a huge impact: in his eyes, they unleashed the Counterculture. Sure, for the first few albums their songs dealt only with the usual personal themes of love, girlfriend/boyfriend and the like – but just look at that hair! They acknowledged an artistic debt to folk music, which at the time included the likes of Bob Dylan, but whose own lyrics more importantly were starting to express dissatisfaction with and resistance to the status quo. Moreover, as Baudet puts it, “In interviews the Beatles made no secret of their stances on segregation, Vietnam and drugs-use.”

That criticism of American segregation, in particular, might have been all very well, but it was likely not so appreciated by the black civil rights leaders of the time. That’s because blacks were trying to head in precisely the opposite direction, indeed to integration, meaning gaining full citizenship and participation as equals in the society as it was at the time. They wanted nothing to do with “Counter”; they wanted to be fully accepted within Culture! Baudet:

They [black youth] sought precisely to connect with the society against which their white contemporaries set themselves. For a white “drop-out” there was always a second chance. But contrary behavior could put a black youth in very big problems. Black artists avoided offensive behavior. In complete contrast to white popstars, they dressed and groomed themselves exemplarily and generally shut up about politics. Motown even had a special school for that.

If you think about it, that certainly rings true. Go ahead: Google for some images of the black groups of the Sixties – the Coasters, the Ink Spots, the Temptations: they’re invariably looking very natty in tuxes, suits-and-ties. And of course the Supremes: sheer female elegance! More »

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“It’s you!” At The Russian Games

Posted on February 9th, 2014 by MAO

“It’s not us – it’s you!” That’s the official Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics line they take on the latest hitch that has arisen, as reporter Jules Seegers reports in the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad:

NRC_Sochi_itsyou
The Games have finally started, as you well know, meaning that there are now scheduled athletic events – meaning people get to turn up to see them. The problem is that too many are failing to do so: 92% of event tickets have been sold (that number itself is a separate issue worth discussing), but so far only 81% of those ticket-holders have attended the events they had paid to see.

How can that be? I mean, that’s why they traveled to that God-forsaken sub-tropical town on the shores of the Black Sea in the first place! It’s hard to think of any on-site distractions that could have diverted their attention elsewhere – OK, maybe some might have found themselves locked in their bathrooms, but you have to presume that would have affected only a few.

To Games spokeswomen Alexandra Kosterina, the cause is clear: a “problem with the Russian mentality,” by which she means too many people think they can show up at events just at the last minute! Don’t they realize that there are all sorts of security formalities to take care of before one can be admitted?

First of all, it’s curious how she paints all spectators – Russian and non-Russian – with that “Russian mentality.” (Surely there are some Germans there, too, for example.) Nonetheless, she is probably correct in pinpointing the problem: as Seegers points out here, visitors are checked “several times” before being granted admission, and an accurate awareness of the necessary measures to take in response (analogous to “Be sure to show up to the airport at least three hours before your flight!”) no doubt is only slowly taking hold. Still, this “We don’t have a problem, it’s you that has the problem!” attitude is what is notable to me, even though we’ve already had the occasion to see it here at Sochi. “It’s not us – it’s you!”: There’s your true motto for these Olympic Games!

Olympic Cover-Up

Then there is also this. Remember, we all live in a Brand, Brand World – and Samsung is part of that world when it comes to the Olympic Games, both for the Sochi Winter Games as well as for both Summer and Winter Games in the past.

Sochi_Samsung_iPhone
While it may be true that these benevolent Korean executives believe so strongly in sport, they definitely believe in spreading the Samsung name worldwide. The Olympics offer a great opportunity to do that, and for these Winter Games the company has gone all-out to support its latest phone version, even including one in each “goody bag” handed out to all the participating athletes. (The Mladá fronta dnes article to which that Zpravy tweet links even says the ones they gave the Czech team came in the Czech national colors.)

That’s the good part; the bad part is that Samsung doesn’t want to see at Sochi any phones from competing brands, which did not pay for Olympic rights. Now, they have not been granted dictatorial powers to ban any competing mobile phones from the Games (although, in this Russian context, such a measure is surely not unimagineable). Just what they have been allowed to do is still somewhat unclear, but it seems to have extended to at least making any athletes who do carry iPhones tape over the Apple logos durig the opening ceremonies.

Again, that’s the athletes – and hey, they’re getting new Samsung phones for free! – not any spectators. And the MFD piece further links to an English-language Slashgear article for corroboration.

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Distaff Defense

Posted on February 9th, 2014 by MAO

The yearly Munich Security Conference came to an end last week, and I wanted to be sure to pass along the following tweet that issued out of that, and especially the accompanying photo, which is said to have “gone viral.”

EuroDefMnstrs
It’s this article in the Guardian that claims that this picture went viral, and which provides a good English-language account for you about how this issue cropped up at that security conference.

At least we have here something in the way of continuity from the “male chauvinist pig” theme in my previous post about today’s election for Tokyo governor. For what we have is no less than four European Defense Ministers who are female, and the issue must be: What, if anything, does that mean?

The obvious jumping-off point here is the question of whether to allow females to serve as soldiers in combat units. Although hardly widespread (yet), there is an unmistakeable trend worldwide in that direction. A few countries do already allow women to serve in their militaries without restriction, including Sweden, whose Defense Minister you see there second from left. In the US, while the formal ban on women serving in combat was removed only as recently as January 2013, further institutional progress towards enabling them actually to do so is only creeping along. For example, while the first women (three of them) recently graduated from Marine Corps infantry combat training, they won’t be allowed to actually serve in infantry units (and that probably means “combat units,” of any type) for the foreseeable future.

Your friendly EuroSavant blogger here is himself a combat veteran, and I think that women serving in combat units is a bad idea, for reasons of unit cohesion and effectiveness. I am hardly alone in this – indeed, I’d want to tell you that any man who has ever actually been in combat will tell you the exact same thing, but of course I can’t know that. For what it is worth, the highly respected Israeli military writer Martin van Creveld is a prominent opponent of the idea, and put his case forward back in 2002 with his book Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? (His answer: No.) Indeed, Creveld on this topic often shows a vehemence that jars even me, and he followed up that book last year with another one entitled The Privileged Sex. (Hint: It ain’t men he is talking about.) Prof. Van Creveld has also been quite willing to stand up for his ideas, even embarking last year on a lecture tour through Europe to debate the point against various female opponents. More »

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Tokyo Sex Strike

Posted on February 8th, 2014 by MAO

Those of you out there with a classical education will be familiar with Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata and its unique plot-device: the Lysistrata character is a sort of FEMEN warror 2,300-years-before-the-fact, who persuades the woman of Greece to withold sex from their husbands until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War.

It’s good for a lot of laughs, and casts interesting light on the state of Athenian society in Aristophanes’ time. But surely you’d think such a trick is irrelevant in this modern age?

Time to think again, for it is quite current, and from an unlikely source.

TokyoSexStrike
Yes, it’s the women of Tokyo who are hot and bothered, but mostly in the political sense, and who are reaching back to Ancient Greek literature to try to push through a political objective. It’s a simple one, really: there’s a guy running in the elections for Tokyo governor tomorrow (9 February 2014) that they really don’t want to see win. He is Yoichi Masuzoe, a prominent politician in Japan since 2001 – in fact, a former government minister – and a scientist before that. Among his “scientific” observations was this one from back in 1989:

Females are not normal when they are having a period. One really cannot [when that is the case] let them make crucial decisions for the country, like for example whether to declare war or not.

More »

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“We’re Watching You in Sochi!”

Posted on February 7th, 2014 by MAO

Sochi, Sochi, Sochi – yes, here comes that particular subject again, but after all, today are the opening ceremonies. Not that I care to write about those here; far more entertaining are the travails of those showing up to that “sub-tropical” town on the Black Sea coast only to confront the sad fact of how little that is tangible the equivalent of $51 billion will get you in Russia these days.

I already referred you in the last post to the excellent Twitter-feed @SochiProblems. That is already a roaring success, as we can see from the fact that 1) It already has more followers than the official @Sochi2014 feed; and 2) It has attracted a competitor, @SochiFails, which is smaller in its own follower-dom but still quite amusing and not all that redundant from what you see on @SochiProblems.

But the truly amusing development is the push-back to all these reports of “Sochi is not ready” recently offered from Russian Vice-Premier Dmitry Kozak:

Minister_Afviser
That’s “Minister rejects criticism of Olympic Games hotels: We are monitoring the rooms by video.” Imagine that! Now, it’s not too long in this article that DR makes reference to its source in the Wall Street Journal, so feel free to go there to get all the details in English.

Still, even before you do that, let me give you this from that WSJ piece:

Dimitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, seemed to reflect the view held among many Russian officials that some Western visitors are deliberately trying to sabotage Sochi’s big debut out of bias against Russia. “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day,” he said. An aide then pulled a reporter away before Mr. Kozak could be questioned further on surveillance in hotel rooms. “We’re doing a tour of the media center,” the aide said.

Whew, looks like that aide got Kozak out of the way just in time before he could insert foot-in-mouth further!

A spokesman for Mr. Kozak later on Thursday said there is absolutely no surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests. He said there was surveillance on premises during construction and cleaning of Sochi’s venues and hotels and that is likely what Mr. Kozak was referencing. A senior official at a company that built a number of the hotels also said there is no such surveillance in rooms occupied by guests.

Let’s see, that last would be a “senior official at a company” whose friend-of-Putin owner certainly received lavish overpayments in exchange for delivering up this late and sub-standard performance, right? As for there being “no such surveillance,” it has long been established that any electronic means of communication anyone takes there is going to get hacked.

And then all this alleged deliberate sabotage by people hell-bent on tarnishing Sochi’s reputation! Verily, the pressure is on now and these high Russian government officials are showing their true colors.

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Sochi Anti-Dissent Façade Cracking

Posted on February 6th, 2014 by MAO

“I can’t hold myself back” said the lesbian. Now hold on, this is no commonplace tale of lust run rampant, but rather what may turn out to be the first crack in Vladimir Putin’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics façade.

LesbSchaatsster
For it wasn’t just any ol’ lesbian but, as you can see there, a Lesbische schaatsster, or “lesbian skating star,” from Team Canada and by the name of Anastasia Bucsis, who found that she just couldn’t keep her mouth shut once in Sochi – and all this before the opening ceremonies (scheduled for tomorrow), even before the start of competition (scheduled for today)!

What she did Tuesday was talk at a Team Canada press conference about her “coming-out” last year, all within the context of both endorsing and revealing her participation in the AthleteAlly/Principle 6 Movement that is challenging the International Olympic Committee to do more at these Sochi Games to protest and counteract Russia’s notorious law against “homosexual propaganda.”

Those very same statements from Ms. Bucsis would seem to fit pretty neatly into the rather broad definition of “homosexual propaganda” which that law proscribes. So there you are, Russian authorities: you know her name, nationality, and location, and the ball is now in your court. There can be little doubt that this defiant declaration will be but the first of many of its sort at these Games – unless the local authorities do actually intervene in an intimidating manner to cut this off at the bud.

Meanwhile, there’s not much more doubt that the IOC has done just about all that it intends to do when it comes to actually insisting on the upholding of Olympic principles (e.g. against discrimination of any kind) at these Games – there’s simply too much money involved to rock the boat like that. As James Surowiecki puts it in the New Yorker, “one thing is certain: this Winter Olympics is the greatest financial boondoggle in the history of the Games.” Go and check out his piece, I recommend it – as I certainly also do the Twitter account that has sprung up out of nowhere to record how little that record $51 billion sum has actually brought, @SochiProblems.

SochiProbsI

SochiProbsII

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“Super Bowl” in Danish

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 by MAO

From the homepage of DR, Denmark’s state TV and radio broadcaster (which, even in Denmark, by no means exhausts the radio or even TV choices available there through the airwaves):

DK_SuperBowl

Be there: Super Bowl for beginners

One of the world’s biggest sporting events goes on this evening, when the Super Bowl is played. Get answers to your most important questions here.

But there is a particular line of inquiry about which DR feels visitors might be particularly interested. We’ll soon see just what that is below, but first:

Sports economists: Super Bowl is a gigantic advertisement-show

VIDEO: Super Bowl can set a record for cold

American football is created for the Americans.

Peyton Manning picked as the NFL’s best player.

Finally, here we go:

READ ALSO: Brain injuries are a threat for American football

READ ALSO: Why concussions are dangerous

Gee – mentioned at the end not once but twice! Bunch of wimps! American football was indeed made for Americans,* and not for these cheese-eating . . . er, foreign weaklings! At least the DR writers were astute enough to put forward the topic of advertisement much nearer the top, as that truly gets much closer to the essence of what the entire phenomenon is about.

* Which is not to say that the NFL is not doing it’s very best (e.g. multiple regular-season games played at London’s Wembley Stadium) to widen the pasttime’s appeal outside of North America.

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Massacre of Innocents

Posted on January 31st, 2014 by MAO

You poor, sweet darlings . . . Let that be a lesson, never get mixed up with the big-time boys!

Libya_Goldman
We’re talking here about the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), ready to go to court in London against Goldman Sachs, accusing it of taking on the LIA as a client, only to turn around and hoodwink it in a derivatives deal.

According to the Fund, which controls $60 billion, the bank is said to have “profited in an abusive manner from the LIA’s weakness” and to have pushed it to enter into nine derivatives transactions, with among others Citigroup, EdF [= Électricité de France], Santander and ENI [the Italian state petroleum company], with the goal of obtaining “substantial profit margins” from a total value of one billion dollars . . .

Due to the [economic] crisis, these transactions “lost almost all of their value” and expired in 2011, but the Fund estimates that Goldman Sachs nonetheless succeeded in obtaining a profit [i.e. for itself] of 350 million dollars.

What can one say here? For one thing, this case is being put forward for actions dating back to 2006, i.e. back when Qaddafi was Libya’s dictator, and I doubt there is anyone left ready to shed too many tears for his sake. What’s more, it seems Goldman plied the key Libyan decision-makers with expensive gifts, including luxury visits to Monaco.

Still, this sort of account cannot but reinforce the impression that Goldman operates on some variation of Groucho Marx’s old saw “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would accept me as a member,” only here it is “Anyone who would willingly be our customer must be rather stupid, so let’s take them to the cleaners!” Don’t take my word for that impression: that is exactly what has inspired so much resistance to Goldman’s current proposal that it purchase an ownership share in Denmark’s national energy company.

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Cold Sochi Comfort

Posted on January 30th, 2014 by MAO

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are almost upon us, and it’s safe to say that the overwhelming feeling for outsiders is one of trepidation. That the Winter Games will take place in an area usually designated geographically as “sub-tropical” is but humorous; that they will be located within a region where Russia has been struggling since the fall of the Soviet Union with violent local independence movements is a much more serious proposition. And the violent groups that will want to disrupt the Olympics were clever in sowing such fear by their twin attacks around Christmas in the near-by (by Russian standards) city of Volgograd, which killed a combined total of 34 people.

The Dutch are no slouches when it comes to winter sports, so there will be a sizeable contingent from the Netherlands at the Sochi games, together with an official visit by King Willem Alexander and Queen Máxima, Premier Mark Rutte and other high officials. Will those representatives be safe there? The newspaper Trouw tries to set its readers’ fears at ease today with an article entitled The Netherlands will keep a close eye on Sochi security.

The author (uncredited; from the Dutch press agency ANP) hardly aids his/her own cause with a column-heading that reads “Possible attacks.” Still, what’s notable here is not what the Netherlands is doing, but the listing of some of the security provisions some other nations will be taking.

  • The Americans: They have posted two Navy ships just offshore in the Black Sea – the better to start evacuating American citizens should things start to go haywire onshore.

  • The French: They are actually sending special anti-terror police along to guard their athletes. And not just one variety, but two: the GIGN, “specialized in ending hostage situations” (OK, that’s a relief), and the RAID*, “an elite corps of the national police.”

Sadly, once you read about those steps the Americans and French are taking, the corresponding Dutch measures cannot help but strike you as rather inadequate. They include an official warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that everyone needs to be careful:

. . . it turns out that possible attacks in Russia, above all in city centers and South Russia, must be taken into account. You are advised when traveling in Russia to be extra-vigilant, above all at locations such as bus- and train stations, airfields or when traveling with public transport.

Oh, and if you do get into trouble, the Dutch Embassy will be open 24/7! Of course, that is way off in Moscow; but there will also be a “consular window” available at the Holland Heineken House there in Sochi.

Don’t worry, it goes on, “[c]alamity plans have been coordinated and scenarios worked out.” So if there is violence at the Winter Olympics, the Dutch government will at least be able rather easily to imagine what is happening!

The point? Is it that the Netherlands – and every other country sending substantial numbers of its athletes to the Games, for that matter – should emulate French or American practice and send along, in effect, para-military bodyguards? No, it’s that things have reached the point – resulting from the ill-considered (and almost certainly corrupt) decision to put the 2014 Winter Games here in the first place – that such worries are arising at all.

* A brilliant acronym, you’ll surely agree! It actually stands for Recherche, d’Assistance, d’Intervention et de Dissuasion – Investigation, Assistance, Intervention and Dissuasion.

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Yes We Vati-CAN!

Posted on January 29th, 2014 by MAO

In the immortal words of English hip hop artist Mike Skinner (better known as The Streets):

I think you are really fit
You’re fit – But my gosh don’t you know it

Sorry, but that’s just what first came to my (highly cultured, don’t worry) mind when I first saw the below, thanks to re-tweeting by Le Figaro:

Superpope
His papacy is not even one year old (that will occur on 13 March), but already Pope Francis has been flying high in the world’s esteem. And while I won’t go so far as to accuse Vatican officials of leaving their confines in the Holy See to find some local graffiti artists to plant that particular illustration on a local wall, it’s probably safe to say that the Pope and his officials have reason to be satisfied with their efforts so far to put this new Pope’s personal stamp on the office.

Another reflection of this – and going further with the Le Figaro connection – is the piece published today in that newspaper, “Pope Francis is more popular than Obama in the Internet.” Now, how are you supposed to decide who is more popular than whom on the Internet? Apparently it’s a function of how often people search for your name on Google and how often you are mentioned on the Web overall. The Pope ranks high in those two metrics (1.7 million and 49 million, respectively), although he does not top all individual markets. In Italy, where he lives, there are more Google searches for Silvio Berlusconi; in Argentina, where he is from, there are more (surprisingly) for the Italian comedian and anti-Establishment politician Beppe Grillo. And among world youth, His Holiness must take a back seat when it comes to these metrics to One Direction and Justin Bieber.

Then again, why is this subject even coming up? Examining the Figaro article closely, it’s clear that it has been touched off by a recent report on Pope Francis’ popularity from the Aleteia news service, which bills itself as “The news of the world from a Catholic perspective”!

That must give one pause. Look, it’s true that His Holiness made it to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and that’s not nothing (although it’s less than it was). Still, remember that he has people working to make such things happen for him; remember also that when, say, HTC is suddenly the mobile telephone everyone is talking about, that fact stems from more than just that particular product’s qualities. But my gosh don’t you know it . . .

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No Pussyfooting In-Flight!

Posted on January 28th, 2014 by MAO

OK guys: Get your minds out of the gutter, and rest assured that this piece from the Flemish paper De Morgen is entirely on the up-and-up.

Captain Pussy
Yes, that’s “Captain Pussy” (civilian name: Yvonne Cunha, 28 years old at the time, must be of Portuguese extraction) sitting there in the cockpit of a Boeing 707, in a picture taken forty years ago. Her sitting there is no joke, either: yes, it’s a publicity photo, but not one of some stewardess called forward to look pretty in the cockpit. She was the pilot! Sure, not the only pilot in charge of flying that airplane (for the defunct Trans European Airways – TEA), but definitely the first female commercial pilot in Belgium.

So this piece takes advantage of what is roughly the 40th anniversary of her becoming a pilot to look back on how times have changed. For one thing, the early 1970s were clearly a rather politically incorrect time: TEA had just started operations, and as a publicity stunt they were looking for “a woman and a black” to make into pilots. Still, it was very tough to fight against the prevailing stereotype that placed her to the rear as a stewardess rather than up front flying the plane. For one thing, when she finally became a pilot they had no uniform to issue to her: she had to make her own. And yes, when she finally had gained enough seniority to be in charge of flights, she became known far and wide as “Captain Pussy,” on her way to accumulating more than 25,000 flight-hours.

One thing she never did, though*, was fly as part of an exclusively female set of pilots in the cockpit. “The bosses said there had to always be a male co-pilot or captain present on any flight. With two females the passengers would get too nervous, they thought.” Nowadays – and perhaps you didn’t realize this, just as I did not – all-female crews of pilots are not uncommon at all.

* OK, another thing she may not have ever done – but who knows? – is join the “Mile High Club” – but I thought I asked you gentlemen right at the very start to keep your minds out of the gutter? Anyway, if you want to know about that, you’ll just have to get in touch with her.

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Snowden “World Exclusive”

Posted on January 28th, 2014 by MAO

You may know that notorious whistle-blower Edward Snowden conducted an interview last Friday in which he responded to questions submitted to him on Twitter. Or you may not: what a surprise, any coverage of that was hard-to-find on the main US Internet media outlets.

That’s not the case in Germany, where they just LOVE Edward Snowden and can’t get enough of his doings and pronouncements. In fact, German Snowden-mania went on to reach a peak of sorts shortly thereafter.

Snowdon_ARD
OK, tief in die Nacht, or “deep into the night”: the exclusive Snowden interview (filmed in Moscow, of course) shown in the name of the ARD, which is the German national association of public broadcasters, did start at 23.00 hours on a Sunday night. Yet, as this piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung describes, executives at Germany’s first public television channel pulled out all the stops to ensure a sizeable audience, such as scheduling it in the period after the Sunday evening news and just after a six-person panel-discussion show at which Snowdon (“Hero or Traitor?” – with a former US Ambassador to Germany present to argue for the latter) was topic #1.

That having been accomplished – and viewer figures were around 2 million – afterwards they have turned rather protective of their vaunted “world exclusive.” If you click through the tweet to go to the SZ article, you immediately see the YouTube video of the interview, but you can’t watch it (nor on YouTube itself) because the ARD has taken care to restrict it geographically, likely only to viewers in Germany.

On the other hand, this SZ article provides a link to a transcript of the interview (only in German, of course), and the piece itself is itself a précis: it summaries what it views as the highpoints, eleven of them. More »

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Doomed from the Start

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by MAO

SobotkaBohuslav Sobotka: this 42-year-old fellow (to the left) is going to be the new Czech Prime Minister as of this upcoming Wednesday, and you can read a fairly good introduction to the man in the GlobalPost (via Agence France-Presse). Yes, in the Czech Republic top politicians are often quite young – public personalities above a certain age are often discredited by what they did during the bad old days – and it’s good to get the political scene there somewhat back to normal, after a 2013 that saw a caretaker PM in place whom nobody wanted, after the previous head of government had to resign in a corruption scandal.

From that GlobalPost piece we learn things about Sobotka such as that he likes science fiction and is even said to have a sweet tooth. Yet a couple of passages strike a strange tone: “known for being short on charisma but long on integrity” or his declaration in an interview “I would like politics to be a bit more matter-of-fact in the future.”

Specifically, these things sound rather odd to anyone who has followed The Fleet Sheet’s Final Word (a free, English- or Czech-language, Monday-through-Thursday daily comment on Czech politics) for any length of time. There, Bohuslav Sobotka has long been known as “Suitcase Sobotka,” an indication of his preferred method of accepting illegal money – in the past, at least, such as when he served as the Czech Republic’s Finance Minister from 2002 to 2006 under three successive Social Democratic prime ministers.

Is this the same guy? He is! A rather ominous sign for his own prime minstership, one would think. And one would think correctly, as we read in today’s Final Word:

By our count, three Czech PMs have left office as a direct result of some sort of financial scandal (Václav Klaus, Stanislav Gross [under whom Sobotka was Finance Minister], Peter Nečas [the last properly-elected PM before Sobotka]). What sets new PM Bohuslav Sobotka apart from these three, as well as from the other seven Czech PMs, is that a potential financial scandal is hanging over him before he takes office.

The exact nature of that scandal is unimportant here. (You can read further if you’re curious.) The point, basically, is that the Czech Republic is a rather corrupt place, and its citizens know it, which results in a constant stream of new “reform” parties emerging at elections claiming to want to do something about that. The latest is “ANO 2011″ (ano in Czech means “yes”), founded and dominated by the Czech Republic’s second-richest man, Andrej Babiš, who of course is in line to become Sobotka’s Finance Minister.

It’s a sad situation. But at least you can realize that this new Czech government is destined to no good end. And you read it in the Final Word – or, at least, here – first.

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Friendly Breaking-and-Entering

Posted on January 25th, 2014 by MAO

I stand corrected – for this:

Marzooqah
Yes, for a while there it seemed like we would be able to look forward once again to following the madcap exploits of that ragged but plucky band of ex-Somali coastal fishermen who one day – with a little help from the flood of small arms of every conceivable description to be found in that war-torn land – came up with rather bigger and more lucrative prey to go after on the high seas. Maybe we would even get to see Tom Hanks in action once again, in crusty old sailor mode, in a sequel to last year’s American-ship-gets-hijacked movie. (Or maybe Hollywood would not particularly let mere facts get in the way of such a sequel, if the original turned out to be enough of a financial success.)

That was not true though: the Marzooqah was not captured by Somali pirates – or by any pirates – a week ago. I only discovered this by putzing around a bit on my Twitter-feed and clicking once again on the underlying article from the Volkskrant that had originally announced the news.

That article has been revised – drastically. Yes, a bunch of men were seen rushing onto the Marzooqah that evening, but those were not pirates, those were Eritrean soldiers! It took an announcement to that effect the next day by a spokesman from the European anti-pirate mission to clear up the confusion.

Just why it was that those soldiers were rushing onto the Marzooqah was not explained by that spokesman. I guess some people were rather worried that the ship had been or was about to be hijacked. Getting jumpy! – when in reality, as this revised piece now points out, in 2013 there were only 7 pirate attacks on shipping in that general area, and none of those was successful. The 2014 counter has likewise been reset back to zero.

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DONGed in Denmark

Posted on January 25th, 2014 by MAO

Did you know that the largest energy company in Denmark (76% owned by the Danish State – for now) is named DONG (formerly Dansk Olie og Naturgas A/S)? That’s just the tasty opening tidbit to an interesting tale currently resounding within that country’s halls of power, as reported on the webpages of Denmark’s public broadcast company, DR (formerly known as Danmarks Radio).

DONG
The problem is, DONG needs money for further infrastructure investments. Fortunately, it seems to have found an outside investor willing to purchase an ownership stake. Unfortunately, that investor is rather too “outside,” as in from “outside” the country.

In today’s European Union that should not really be any sort of issue. Cross-border investments are supposed to be able to proceed unimpeded; indeed, public tenders are to be awarded blind to the nationality of the bidding companies (as long as they are from EU member-states).

Still, especially when it’s about the company that heats so many national homes – and in a cold Scandinavian climate – it’s natural to have a preference for business dealings with fellow nationals. That preference is further sharpened here from the fact that it’s no less than Goldman Sachs who is the foreign party lined up to do the investment. And wouldn’t you know it:

One of the [deal's] points of criticism is that Goldman Sachs has placed the investment in a tax haven, so the State would lose tax receipts in connection with payment of dividends from profits.

The Vampire Squid doesn’t miss a trick!

OK, but the tale does not end there: four Danish pension funds have now collectively come up with the money to make the investment instead. But the problem is that their bid might simply be too late, maybe: it’s hard to interpret the rules here.

In any case, the Danish Finance Minister, Bjarne Corydon, will chair a meeting on Tuesday to make a decision. Goldman Sachs representatives likely expect things to be all arranged then, but Minister Corydon – and even the Danish PM herself, Helle Thorning-Schmidt – are getting pressure to go with the pure-Danish alternative, however last-minute. This lobbying is coming in particular from the Danish People’s Party, (in)famous for its generally ultra-nationalist policy stances and general contempt for the EU, but for all that still quite influential within Danish politics.

While hardly the most enthusiastic EU member-state, Denmark still has a good record for keeping to the rules. Here, though, the argument for national chauvinism seems strong, considering the counterparty.

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EU: Stop the Generosity!

Posted on January 22nd, 2014 by MAO

On Twitter, it’s always possible – if you’re obsessed enough to keep a close eye, or are at least blessed with serendipity – to pick up the occasional golden nugget that passes everyone else by. Like this one, for example:

Reding
Viviane Reding is one of the EU Commission’s Vice Persidents, but her specific remit is Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. It would therefore appear that she is doing a bit of freelancing beyond that portfolio, not that that phenomenon is unknown among EU Commissioners.

What’s remarkable here instead is her message, as appeared a few days ago in the relatively obscure business paper Deutsche Mittelstands Nachrichten (or “News for German Medium-Sized Firms”). Are you worried about poor people from elsewhere in the EU (read: Romania and Bulgaria) coming to your countries to “steal” jobs and freeload on your social welfare provisions? Reding asks. Well, the real problem here, she says, is those “generous welfare systems” themselves: cut them back, she says, and problem solved! Moreover, the problem would be solved by the member-states doing what they should do – i.e. cutting back – and not by the EU, whose problem it isn’t anyway.

Now, this is something new. Indeed – although Ms. Reding would undoubtedly deny any connection – it’s something that philosophically is straight out of the contemporary American Republican Party, whose partisans in Congress have done rather well lately to reduce food stamps (i.e. food assistance) and cut off extended unemployment benefits for US citizens. But, back in our European context, those Western European social welfare edifices, built up over the decades since the Second World War, are usually immune to criticism – at least from those outside the national borders. More »

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Oiling the Chinese Bureaucracy

Posted on January 21st, 2014 by MAO

Granted, this is not something particularly calculated to arouse your sympathy, but Le Monde tells us today how the famed French hard alcohol company Rémy Cointreau – the result of a merger in the early 1990s between Rémy Martin and Cointreau – has fallen on hard times.

RemyC
Sales down 18.9% in IVQ 2013, down a total of 12.3% over the last three quarters of last year.

What seems to be driving most of this is a notable collapse in sales of the firm’s flagship Rémy Martin cognac: down 21% in that same April-to-December period. But it’s the hint as to why this is happening – contained in a link embedded within this article to another piece behind the Le Monde paywall – that is interesting. For sales are collapsing above all in China, where it seems a bottle of Rémy Martin is almost standard currency when it comes to “convincing” a local official to take some action in your favor. In other words, Rémy Cointreau is facing collateral damage from the People’s Republic’s current anti-corruption drive!

Look, don’t they teach these things at INSEAD, say? One must diversify one’s worldwide clientele of corrupt officialdoms! After all, there are so many to choose from!

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Calling In Their Gold-Chips

Posted on January 20th, 2014 by MAO

Gold: it’s not just for money anymore. Actually, it’s not much about money anymore! Yes, people always watch the gold price, but that’s more about gold as a commodity subject to price speculation. And gold remains a central bank reserve asset into which such national authorities can dip when they want to intervene in the currency markets – again, by selling their gold-as-commodity in order to gain supplies of the currency they want to strengthen – but they will sooner do that using reserves of other foreign currencies they have accumulated.

This is a far cry from those long-ago days of the gold standard, when the value of a nation’s currency was determined by the precise amount of actual gold it claimed to represent, so that balance of payments surplusses and deficits were settled by transfers of gold from one central bank to another. There was a dirty little secret there, however: it was rare that the gold was actually physically transferred when settling such national accounts. It’s heavy stuff, after all, and thus costly to ship, especially when you factor in the extra need for security. Plus, you could never rule out the trade winds reversing next year – so to speak – so that deficit country became surplus country and the gold would then have to be shipped back the other way.

No, it was much easier just to slap a new ownership-label on a certain section of a pile of gold sitting safely and cozily in some certifiably safe place – the vaults of the New York Federal Reserve, say, or a similar place in London, which has long been the center of the world’s gold market anyway and the source of the daily gold fixing that sets its price.

However, that may not be good enough anymore:

Bbank_Gold
This brief piece from Germany’s Huffington Post reports how the Bundesbank’s official in charge of transatlantic relations, Philipp Mißfelder, has demanded that all of his institution’s gold be shipped back to German physical control by the year 2020. Apparently, that has already occurred with the German gold that used to be held in Paris – note how we’re only allowed to find out about this after it already happened – and now Mißfelder is demanding a repatriation of the 674 tons of Germany’s gold in New York and London.

One has to wonder: Why this? Why now? Granted, it’s always a better feeling to have a valuable asset like that – even if less important than it was before – under your own lock-and-key, unseizable by others barring invasion, yet, again, the trouble and costs involved in that physical transportation are such that things were run up to this point in such a way as to avoid them entirely. It’s true that Germany itself is a bit safer of a place, now that it is not divided in two anymore with Warsaw Pact armies massed just on the other side of the inter-German border, but then that has been the case for over twenty years.

What it comes down to is Trust, right? And what sort of recent cellphone-listening, snooping-on-citizens* developments have we seen lately to throw Trust into question?

* Recall that this has involved both the US and the UK, the former operating from the privileged position of its embassy, allotted by the Berlin authorities upon reunification a high-status location right beside the Reichstag.

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Enforcement Creature of Habit

Posted on January 20th, 2014 by MAO

Things looked bleak for Patrick Van den Kieboom of Edegem, in the Antwerp suburbs. He had imbibed around three glasses of his region’s renowned beers – and who could resist that, on a Saturday night? The problem was that he had then taken the wheel to drive himself and his wife home, and was stopped on the road at a drunk-driver checkpoint.

Bijrijder
The key to what happened then is in that word “bijrijder” – yes, “by-rider” or passenger: the officer came up and asked not Mr. Van den Kieboom but rather his wife whether she had been drinking – No – and then had her breathe into the little device. She passed easily, and they were soon on their way again.

The explanation is simple. Van den Kieboom’s car he had bought from a South African who had shipped it to Belgium – it was to Commonwealth standard, whereby the driver sits with the wheel on the right side! But as usual, the Belgian highway officer had come up on the left side as the car was stopped on the right-hand side of the road!

To make the incident even more surreal, his wife even got a BOB keychain for her good behavior! (As pictured; BOB = Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder, basically “designated driver,” and the catchy leitmotif for anti-drunk driving campaigns in both the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium.) Let’s hope they saw sense and switched around soon afterwards to let the wife actually drive – and that no one with authority within the Belgian police reads De Telegraaf (and note, it’s a Dutch, not Belgian, paper)!

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Of Illusionists and Hostage-Takers

Posted on January 18th, 2014 by MAO

Remember when beer was just beer? (No? OK, maybe you’re not old enough.)

DeGroeneReclame
Jesse Frederik of De Groene Amsterdammer does, though, although from the mini-vignette of him that we see at the top of the column to which the above tweet links he doesn’t seem to be that old himself.

Beer was not always a branded article. From surveys among retailers just after the Second World War [remember, this is written within a Dutch context], it was apparent that only ten percent of customers ever asked for a specific brand. Beer was beer, and nothing more!

Ah, but things eventually changed. “Brand consciousness arrived only when brewers realized that marketing, the selling of illusions, could show consumers differences where there weren’t any.” Beer from Heineken – the company which turned out to be most successful at this new game by far – became perceived as the social tipple, Amstel (a brand later purchased by Heineken) as the “people’s beer,” Hertog Jan as “chic.” Physically, though, they had only minor differences if any.

So what did we get? Lots more marketing expenses among brewers, and of course an explosion in Dutch beer consumption over the years – from ten liters per year in 1950 to 86 in 1980. “The glass of beer, once a brand-less product, comparable to sugar, became a great vehicle for solving all your problems.”

Except that we know it only sometimes seems to solve our problems, and then only for limited times, before the hangover sets in. More »

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RIP For The Castaway

Posted on January 17th, 2014 by MAO

Oh, did he ever spend a long, long time stuck on that Pacific island, with prospects for rescue always so distant and remote. Still, he managed to hold out for many years, and all that while to be a source of support and strength for those stuck there with him, and perhaps that’s what we should recall now as we mourn his death.

Wait . . . you say you completely agree with me about the Professor? From Gilligan’s Island? Sorry, my friends, I know everyone – in the US, at least – is talking about Russell Johnson. But here I’m afraid you’ve run once again into one of the favorite tricks of any columnist, the Think-it’s-about-one-thing-then-it-turns-out-to-be-another gambit.

Stndrd_Japaans
Or, if you like:
DR_Japansk
The “islander” I’m talking about – and the Philippines are after all a bunch of islands – is LT Hiroo Onoda of the Imperial Japanese Army, recently dead of a heart attack at 91, who was one of that crazy band of left-behind soldiers who got the word much too late that Japan had surrendered, and who himself only stopped fighting and came out of the jungle some 29 years after the war’s end, in 1974. And even after he was discovered there by an outsider – the Danmarks Radio piece says it was by a Japanese “hippie” – he refused to actually lay down his arms until his superior officer in the War, a Major Taniguchi who in the meantime had become a bookstore-owner, came to the Philippines jungle to order him to do so.

This is quite a character, although take a look at the full head-shot featured at the top of the piece from De Standaard. Doesn’t he look like the kindly old Japanese granddad-in-law you always wanted to have? More »

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Call It A First-World Problem

Posted on January 16th, 2014 by MAO

All those of you not feeling quite right in your skin, torn by that compulsion to “cross the road” – well, at least if you’re in the Netherlands you’re going to have to find some other medical institution to be your conduit and crossing-guard, according to a recent report.
Transgender
Yes, those looking for a sex-change operation will not be able to avail themself for a quite a while of the Free University Medical Center (VUmc; if they have not already made such arrangements, of course), located in South Amsterdam. That’s simply because the place is swamped: 400 adults and 200 children approach it yearly for that sort of procedure, but it can’t handle that traffic and has put a stop to any new admissions. Unfortunately, it has been conducting 85% of such operations nationally.

Actually, the problem is money: the VUmc would need €10 million annually even to handle that usual 600, but gets only €3 million from insurance companies. (Heaven forfend that any of these people pay for such an operation themselves! Actually, it’s rather eyebrow-raising that such procedures are in fact covered by the private health insurance that makes up the Dutch health care system.)

This has created another oppressed minority: the “transgenders” who now can’t get the change made (or have to look elsewhere to get it done; and/or – *gasp* – who have to pay for it out of their own stylishly metrosexual pockets). Naturally, there’s an advocacy group for these people, called Transgender Netwerk Nederland. (Go ahead, click and check it out: I’ve linked to their English site.) As TNN director Elleke Alink points out, “If they had announced a cessation of treatment for some other patient group, everyone in the Netherlands would surely have protested. What’s at issue here is a relatively small group, but consisting of patients who are in some cases having a hard time of it.”

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