Nice Hero, In His Own Words

Posted on July 23rd, 2016 by MAO

We’ve had Nice, then at the beginning of this week Würzburg, now München – it’s getting hard to keep track of all the public massacres these days!

Still, there remains one ray of light amidst all this gloom. And that is the hero of the Nice attack – only just over a week ago – a guy named Franck. (Just so you know: That’s a somewhat common French first name, the guy obviously wants to withold his last name to better control his privacy.) He’s the brave gentleman who was on his scooter on the Promenade des Anglais and promptly pursued the terrorist’s truck on its deadly path, and who is in fact credited with helping to slow it down so that police ultimately had an easier time shooting the driver.

Amazingly, Franck survived the episode, I believe he wasn’t even injured. The same cannot be said, however, for that scooter he was riding. As I already mentioned on Twitter, there’s now a French-based crowdfunding appeal going on, via the “Leetchi” website, to raise the funds at least to buy him a new scooter.

cagnotte

FranckEven as I write this, they’ve already raised just over €11,000 there so far. The sort of scooter they have in mind buying for him (“PIAGGIO mp3 300 LT sport ABS/ASR Black matt sport”) is listed right there. Interestingly, that same Crowdfunding page has a full picture of Franck at the top (and which I have put here): a fit, distinguished-looking gentleman with dark hair but a white beard (so aged, say, between 45 and 55). More interestingly still, that same page has Franck’s account of the incident, albeit a shortened version. But there is also a link to the full version in an “exclusive” interview piece in the local paper there, Nice-Matin.

I’m going to translate that account (from Nice-Matin) for you here starting from when the truck appears on the scene. I know, usually I’m supposed to add some clever theme or comment in blogposts like these, but not here, the point is self-evident. Accuse me of being lazy if you like, on this summer Saturday morning, but it’s quite a wild tale. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Vierdaagse: Terrorist Target?

Posted on July 18th, 2016 by MAO

It’s that time of year again, time for the Vierdaagse or the Nijmegen Four-Day Marches event. Self-titled “The Walk of the World,” you have to at least give it credit as the world’s largest multi-day walking event. What’s more, this year marks the 100th time that it has been held. Starting tomorrow (19 July), around 49,000 actual participants are expected to kick off their long-range hikes from Nijmegen, covering at least 30km per day, up to even 55km per day for some. They will be accompanied (but generally only in the city of Nijmegen, of course) by some 1.5 million visitors and 4,500 artists.

But we live in uncertain times, times that are not very nice – or maybe they are precisely too “Nice” (capital “N”) after all.

vierdaagse
“100% for sure, attack on the Vierdaagse,” reads in part that rather crudely scrawled message, contained on letters that were anonymously sent, some three weeks ago, to the local police HQ as well as the local newspaper, De Gelderlander. Indeed, the walking masses that characterize this famed festival would seem to be ideal targets for the terroristically inclined – just look at the pictures that flash by at the head of the festival’s homepage – not to mention the crowds of sick, lame & lazy, non-airborne crazy folks who stay behind to take in the various open-air concerts and other public events held in the city. Further, the Netherlands certainly has its share of faulty integrated, alienated Muslim youth who are candidates to answer ISIL’s call to mayhem, although the last outrage of that sort occurring there that comes to mind predates the rise of ISIL considerably, namely the assasination in November, 2004 on the street in broad daylight of the anti-Islam gadfly Theo van Gogh.

The good news, though – “good news” at least before-the-fact, I suppose – contained in this piece from De Telegraaf is that the authorities in charge of the Vierdaagse are not impressed. (And really, looking at that childish scrawl, how could they be?) Nijmegen Police Chief Lute Nieuwerth: “This letter-writer falls in the category ‘foolishness’ and ‘not to be taken seriously.'” Meanwhile, both MarchLeader Johan Willemstein and Mayor Hubert Bruls have publicly stated that, yes, there will be close coordination with security forces, but so far there is nothing that would mandate that the safety measures already in place should be heightened.

That seems like simple common sense – even though no less than King Willem-Alexander himself will also attend. He won’t be walking, he’ll just be there at the festival’s climax, namely on Friday as marchers – those who survive to the end, that is; the weather is going to be relatively sunny and hot! – finish their last march and so may go collect their medals.

And really, let us briefly contrast here this mass sporting event with that other, somewhat more famous one due to begin two-and-a-half weeks later, the Rio Olympics: You won’t find nationalism, you won’t find expensive one-time-use infrastructure bankrupting the public coffers, you won’t find silly advertising on the part of venal multinational corporate sponsors, you won’t find doping here! Rather, the Vierdaagse is all about mass participation in healthy physical activity – and, yes, medals for all rather than medals only for the very best, or at least medals for all those who can fulfill stringent but not almost impossible sporting demands.

Can one dream that, once “sports” like bicycle racing, track and field, and others similar completely lose their credibility with the world public after the thousandth doping scandal, that they will eventually revert to this mass participation ethos? Can one at least dream that, by which I mean dream of a better world?

(Somewhat less than common sense: Another headline from De Gelderlander about the Vierdaagse reads Springsteen and the Stones Not Welcome at Vierdaagse Festivities. The piece is about how the police will be trying to ensure public safety, partly through exhaustive monitoring of CCTV cameras posted everywhere, and also thereby partly through ensuring that no excessive crowd is allowed to gather at any one place at any one time. That’s why they couldn’t have the Rolling Stones, say, giving a public concert in Nijmegen during the event, even if they did it for free, you see – too much of a tempting bombing target!

(Now, there will be rock bands playing there to entertain the festival crowds, so the unspoken corollary to this article’s message is that they must not be very good – indeed, that they cannot be allowed, from a public safety standpoint, to be very good – right? And even though the Vierdaagse is really a big event – at least within the Netherlands and the nearby NW European environs – I really don’t think those who put it on yearly need to worry about having to turn down Springsteen or the Rolling Stones.)

UPDATE: If for some reason you want to follow a live-feed of the Nijmegen Vierdaagse, starting tomorrow (19 July), you can do so here, courtesy of RTL.

I know: What sense is that?! Perhaps it will turn out to be a variation of that old saying attributed to ice hockey fans: “I only watch for the fights.” Or Formula 1/stockcar-racing fans: “I only watch for the crashes.” So: “I only watch for the possible terrorist explosions”? Nah.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Klarafy Yourself!

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by MAO

For years now my favorite classical music station has been the one that is part of VRT, the network of public TV and radio channels broadcast throughout Flanders, i.e. the northern half of Belgium (and also on-line, of course). That classical station for ages was simply known as VRT3, until its brand was spiffed up a bit and switched to Klara in December of 2000. That’s “Klara” as in Klassieke Radio: “Classical Radio.” The station has a number of truly stupendous on-air presenters, but I won’t go into them here. Rather, I need to bring up what’s claimed on Wikipedia to be the station’s 2.27% share of its market.

That’s low, admittedly – or maybe not: it’s classical music after all. (Mainly, but also jazz, movie music, etc.; also (American) country music as of recently, starting Saturdays at 18.00 hours CET.) At least you can’t accuse them of not trying to do anything about this, as we can see from the truly ingenious innovation the station has now offered for weeks.

Klarafy
I’m talking about Klarafy, basically a web-app designed to woo people to classical music by taking their custom playlists (from Spotify) and calculating how their taste in music translates into classical compositions – complete with ready-to-click output links to those compositions to allow people immediately to hear for themselves!

Let me translate some of the text there on the Klarafy page to give you an idea of where they are coming from:

. . . classical music is a rich, inexhaustible treasure-chest of the most diverse sorts of music. Because we at Klara believe that there must sit some music in that treasure-chest that can enchant you, we developed Klarafy: a web-tool that lets you discover classical music in a completely new manner. Not academically or chronologically, but in the most personal way: on the basis of your current musical taste.

That Klarafy page itself is also pretty interesting to visit, even if you think you’re not in the market for this (which, let me be clear, is free). Especially the first three videos, which show a mix of people actually trying it out. Yes, it’s all in Dutch, but you hear them list their favorite pop music (and the artists’ names then show up on the screen in a list, for clarity), and of course follow along as they input their Spotify playlist and see what Klarafy comes up with.

All of them – including Nicole and Hugo, the middle-aged couple in the last of these three videos – seem delighted with what they find. But of course they are! Again, you see what it is Klarafy suggests, or at least the headline items. And the tool just doesn’t blindly spit out its suggestions, but also provides some reasoning to go along with that (although that’s the part that you’ll miss if your Dutch is not good) – like, “Oh, you like Barbara Streisand, a strong female vocalist, so you’ll also like the arias from Verdi’s La Traviata!”

So they click, and they hear classical music with which they presumably have not been familiar before. “Catchy!” they all then say, pretty much.

Try it yourself! – if you’re on Spotify, if you have a playlist there to submit or are willing to make one.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Old Captive Nation, New Captive Media

Posted on July 12th, 2016 by MAO

Ah, how something like the following takes us geezers back to the old days!

Szydlo
“[Poland’s] Premier Szydło discusses new law about TK.” TK means Tribunał Konstytucyjny or “Constitutional Tribunal,” meaning Poland’s Supreme Court. That TK hasn’t been operating so well lately, really since the new right-wing PiS government took power last November. Among other things, it then pushed through laws intended to severely curtail the TK’s ability to exercise judicial review, that is, to vet the laws passed by the country’s bicameral legislature (Sejm/Senat) and reject those in conflict with the national constitution. Those controversial government measures against the TK included rejection of judges who had been appointed to join the TK prior to the regime-change, in favor of other judges more to the new government’s liking.

In exchange, the sitting TK has ruled against and therefore refused to accept those laws, and those new justices. For months now there has been this stalemate between the executive/legislative branches and the judicial branch – something along the same line but still much worse than the US Senate’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nominated replacement for deceased Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia.

The new government also legislated to put the national TV and radio stations under much closer government control, which led to mass resignations of much of the media talent at those institutions. These two areas – that is, TK and media – are the main elements (but not the only ones) which has led to much alarm about the direction of Polish democracy, foremost on the part of the EU, but also within the US government. A recent Washington Post piece in connection with President Obama’s visit to Warsaw for the NATO summit there (Obama slammed Polish democracy) showed this high level of concern.

More entertainingly, it also lays out how tricky editing when it came to the report about Obama’s remarks that was actually broadcast on Polish State TV made sure that most national viewers were left with no inkling that the US President saw Poland as anything other than a model democratic state. Really, those who ran the same broadcast facilities with an iron fist during the bad-old Communist times – however many are still left – are surely nodding in approval.

That WaPo peace is of course in English; you can read all about the details if you like. The point is, it’s now 2016 and media has expanded into the social variety, yet the same whitewashing treatment can be seen with those new sorts of messages, such as the tweet seen above. “Prime Minister discusses law” – as if the whole matter simply revolved about finding and passing the right legislation to clear up the TK controversy and get the government back to functioning normally again.

For the details about this latest legislation the Warsaw Business Journal has a nice summary. Ultimately, though, all of that is irrelevant: this is a constitutional stand-off that cannot be resolved simply by passing more laws, for it is clear that the Constitutional Tribunal will simply yet again point out how it is inconsistent with Poland’s constitution and reject it – and the stalemate will go on.

The WBJ piece suggests that one function of this latest law was simply to try to impress on President Obama, in time for his visit, that steps were being taken to resolve this grave constitutional dispute – to fool President Obama, that is, since as we have seen this is no sort of effective contribution towards bringing about resolution. Of course, it’s unlikely that Obama follows the @Wiadomosci_PR (that is, “News_PR” when PR = Polish Radio) Twitter-feed: it is native Poles who do that, and so it is they who are being hoodwinked by such State propaganda, which, again, really must at least inspire nostalgia – of the unwelcome sort – among those old enough to remember government messages from the old RPL – Polish People’s Republic.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

What’s Spanish for “Chilcot”?

Posted on July 8th, 2016 by MAO

If you follow the news, you’ll be aware of the “Chilcot Report” (named after the British civil servant in charge of the seven-year investigation which led to it), released Wednesday (6 July 2016), which denounced then-English PM Tony Blair’s leading his country into participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein.

That report naturally gave rise to its greatest impact and public commentary in Great Britain itself – just what that country needed while it was still reeling from the “Leave” Brexit referendum vote. However, we know quite well that it was not British troops alone who stormed across the Iraqi border back in March of 2003. Rather, they were largely American forces, by far – which raises the question of whether there could be an analogous independent inquiry into that invasion over in the US.

(It’s quite an idle question, however, in view of President Obama’s “just move on” attitude towards the deeds of his predecessor. Frankly, this writer would gladly give up the prospect of any American “Chilcot”-type inquiry – the original seems to do fine in broad lines for US circumstances – if we could instead get some disclosure and prosecutions of US torture during that period.)

In any case, George W. Bush hasn’t gotten around to reading the Chilcot Report yet (was really never big on reading anyway). Now, there were also Australian troops in on the Iraq invasion, and the media there is now wondering whether that country now needs its own version of the investigation.

But what I want to write about here is Spain, where they are wondering the same thing, reports El País.

Trillo
That “Trillo” is Federico Trillo, pictured there, who was Spain’s Defense Minister in 2003, and who seems to have been the easy, available target for Spanish journalists once “Chilcot Report” became a thing. (In other words, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time, José María Aznar, showed himself more skillful at knowing just when to get out of Dodge and make himself un-findable. But also: see below.)

But here’s the key fact: Spain was not involved militarily in the invasion of Iraq! Those quotes you see in the tweet are Trillo’s assurances that Spain “sent no combatants to Iraq,” in fact “never fired a shot at anyone”!

Now, it’s true that Spain’s Aznar was quite prominent at the time in backing what were George W. Bush’s clear intention to invade and depose Saddam. In particular, just before the invasion was launched, in mid-March 2003, there occurred a high-profile summit meeting on the Azores Islands (Portuguese territory) featuring Bush, Blair – and, yes, Aznar.

But he drew the line at sending troops – or at least that is what his Defense Minister, Trillo, now maintains. Frankly, even if there had been a surreptitious Spanish troop contingent there, it surely would not have had much practical, military affect. It’s only function would have been to demonstrate allied solidarity with what was going on – that is, precisely to have been known about! (If you want to be mean: just like the Spanish troops who fought for Nazi Germany on the Russian Front, although they were actually real, and said to be volunteers.)

Pity poor Federico Trillo – harassed about Chilcot and things he did or did not do back in 2003 when, by all accounts, he’s (basically) innocent – INNOCENT, I tell you! You might ask: “Well, isn’t he out of public life by now, so that he could just demand that the journalists leave him alone?” Sadly, no – in fact, he’s precisely Spain’s current ambassador to the UK!

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

EU/Switzerland Brexit Divorce Court

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by MAO

Here straight out of left field, unnoticed and unmentioned by all who are supposed to be in-the-know, is something with direct influence upon how the Brexit saga is going to unfold in the coming weeks and months. Yes: even though it is out of Switzerland. (And, once again, here the underlying article is in English, so you can click through and judge it for yourself, if you so desire.)

BrexitSwiss
You see, the anti-immigration bug also bit into the Swiss voting public, but a while back, namely in February 2014 with the “Federal Popular Initiative Against Mass Immigration.” It won – with but 50.3% of the vote, but that is enough as long as it also wins in a majority of the Swiss cantons – and thereby expressed the Swiss electorate’s desire for a system of quotas to be placed upon those outsiders seeking to come to live in Switzerland.

“Much like those who voted “Leave” in the recent UK Brexit referendum would like to do,” you might think. Still, such quotas have not yet been implemented by the Swiss government, which has until next February – that is, three years after the referendum itself – to do so.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s a similar one to the one facing the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote: Switzerland also has a close relationship with the EU – although not member-state status, of course, and in fact the Swiss Parliament last month voted to formally withdraw the application to join the EU that had been submitted back during happier times in 1992. (Note that it did this before the Brexit vote.)

Nonetheless, the Swiss continue to enjoy close economic relations with the EU (e.g. 56% of Swiss exports go to EU countries), whose trade and other provisions are expressed in a collection of treaties negotiated over time between the Swiss government and the EU as a whole (represented by the Commission). Unfortunately, these treaties made a condition of such close relations that the Swiss allow free movement of EU citizens to Switzerland. For example, as the article points out, “300,000 people cross the border each day to work there.”

So the “people” – or at least the referendum – want quotas limiting immigration to Switzerland, including by EU citizens, while the treaties with the EU do not allow any such thing. Indeed, last December Commission President Juncker rejected an attempt by Switzerland to assert that it was allowed to introduce immigration quotas under some sort of “extreme situation/Act of God” provision in the relevant bilateral treaty.

Meanwhile, the Swiss government has been tying itself up in knots trying to come up with some sort of quota-that-really-isn’t-a-quota that would satisfy both sides. Good luck with that! And this is a situation whose final resolution, in whatever form, will be painfully obvious to all no later than next February!

Given new developments with Brexit, and in particular the continuing delusions on the part of the many Leave advocates there (to include Boris Johnson, in his one post-Brexit Daily Telegraph column) that somehow it will be possible to limit freedom of movement into the UK while retaining all trading privileges with the EU, how enthusiastic do you think EU officials will be to cut the Swiss a break? Not very, one can imagine – also, because whatever is agreed (if anything) to solve this one EU/sovereign nation impasse could of course be applicable as a precedent to apply to the EU/UK situation.

In a (small) way, this development is a boon to the UK government: they don’t need to try so much any more to get the EU to negotiate before they invoke Article 50 (if they ever do) in order to try to get some foretaste of what an ultimate “divorce” settlement with the EU would look like. (And so far the EU has refused any sort of pre-invocation negotiations, in any case.) No, if they like they can just keep a close eye on Switzerland and wait until February of next year.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

EU Parliament Gold Digger

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by MAO

So now we have this latest Brexit casualty:

Farage

“[M]y political ambition has been achieved,” the accompanying Al-Arabiya article quotes Farage as saying. Elsewhere, he is quoted as now wanting to “take my life back” just as before the poll he had urged UK voters to “take your country back.”

Actually, Nigel, your political ambition has not been achieved – unless that amibition was limited to the “Leave” vote itself. But that is hard to imagine: You really want the UK out of the EU, right?

Well, as recent developments on both sides of the English Channel show, that hardly is yet a done deal. Indeed, Brexit may never happen at all, despite the winning “Leave” vote, for a variety of reasons – which might very well mean that there remains an essential watchdog role for Farage, keeping up the political pressure on whichever UK ruling establishment emerges to actually carry through what a majority of referendum voters seem to have prescribed.

Is he supposed to do that as a newly minted private citizen, having seized “his life back” – or rather as the famous and (unfortunately) influential head of a minor but seemingly influential UK political party? Really, Farage’s blatant abandonment of responsibility for a cause he purported to spearhead is even more egregious than that of Boris Johnson, who was without official position and gave up pursuit of that, rather than discard the influential political position he already held.

Even worse: Farage is not willing to extend “taking back his life” to the point of shucking off the requirement to spend some more time in his hated Brussels – he intends to retain his status as a Member of the European Parliament! What rank hypocrisy, from a man who prompted a political earthquake aimed at removing Britain entirely – including its full delegation of MEPs – from all EU institutions! As you will have heard, the one UK member of the EU Commission, Lord Hill, did the right thing and was quick to resign after the Referendum results became known. I’m not saying ALL British MEPs should resign – until if/when the UK does leave the EU, of course – but certainly all of those representing UKIP there, with Nigel Farage at their head!

But no, the MEP perqs and the pay are simply too lucrative for a greedy hypocrite like Nigel Farage to turn down! (The latter amounts to €84,000 per year.) What’s more – and although I am not sure about this for MEPs – compensation earned for working for the EU tends to be entirely tax-free.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Is Boris’ Name Really Mud?

Posted on June 28th, 2016 by MAO

The Twitter-headline roughly translates to “Piss off, Boris!” and the lead to this piece reads:

Boris Johnson, the face of the Brexit Campaign, develops into the most-hated man on the Island – since it is only now dawning on many Britons what he has made crumble away for them.

Boris
Boris Johnson is certainly the flamboyant target for hate among those on the Continent – most of us, in fact – for whom Brexit is an unalloyed blunder. But this piece by Thomas Hüetlin tries to make the case that his popularity is plummeting among UK voters as well.

It’s well-known that one voter whom he has lost is the famed chef/restaurant entrepreneur Jamie Oliver, who in a widely-shared Instagram post (scroll down to read), begged his fellow countrymen not to make Johnson the new Prime Minister. What is more:

London, the city that he ruled for eight years as Mayor, he can now only enter under strong police-protection. His bicycle, with which he used to love to ride to Town Hall, he now has to keep in the garage. “If we see him, we’ll knock him from that silly bicycle,” worked-up citizens said last weekend.

All that very well may be. You can check here the latest odds offered by the UK betting establishments as to whether he is to be the next Prime Minister or not; taking a look right now (i.e. around 13.30 hours CET on this date), some show him ahead, while others show Home Secretary Theresa May ahead. Hüetlin’s piece also does a rather good job of skewring the outright untruths in Johnson’s column yesterday for the Daily Telegraph, but that’s rather easy prey.

Yes, that “£350 million/week to the NHS rather than to Europe” pledge has turned out to be a lie – but people associate that much more with Nigel Farage, who pushed it more publicly during the Leave campaign. And yes, it seems some Leave voters are now regretting their decision, but so far those have occupied only the realm of anecdote, not data.

We’ve seen the TV reports about how Boris Johnson is currently unpopular in the city whose Mayor he used to be, but there are no doubt plenty of Leave fans out there in the English hinterland, and in Wales, who still think pretty well of him. You can’t help but think that this Spiegel piece falls into the same old trap of assuming that London is but a microcosm of the rest of the country – a delusion into which many analysts clearly fell during the whole Referendum campaign, and one which arose out of the political divide existing in Britain which the Referendum result did so much to reveal.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Merkel: No British Raisin-Pickers!

Posted on June 28th, 2016 by MAO

German Chancellor Merkel This AM Before the Bundestag, according to AFP:

AFP_Brexit

We will ensure that the negotiations will not proceed along the à la carte principle . . . those who leave the family cannot expect that that all their duties will disappear and that their privileges will be maintained.

At least that’s the French translation. If you check up on her actual words in German – such as reported by Munich’s Süddeutshe Zeitung, for example – you see that she used “the Rosinenpickerei Principle” rather than à la carte – that is, “picking out the raisins you like [from the loaf] and leaving the rest.” In any case, we all get her point.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

The Tour: Not Just For Doping Anymore

Posted on June 27th, 2016 by MAO

This year is, of course, 2016 – an even year. I like even years or, rather, I regard odd years with dread. For in those odd-numbered years, the European football seasons routinely terminate towards the end of May as usual, and then the following weeks pass within what is for me a hazy mental cloud of wondering how to pass my time, indeed of wondering why I am even here. Even years, on the other hand, always manage to fill this particular period with meaning, with purpose, via the great football tournaments, either the World Cup or – this year – the European Championship.

You might object, “Well, you only need to make it to the beginning of July – then you have the Tour de France!” Yes, but that always strikes quite a different sort of note. The football tournaments are drama; the Tour de France, in contrast, is comedy.

Or perhaps I should specify further: The Tour de France is of course farce. No need to get very “in” to it, to recognize or memorize the rider who might happen to “win” it: sooner or later his accomplishment will be rescinded due to revealed doping of one sort or another. This ultimately makes the phenomenon only interesting in that faint way that WWE (that is, professional “wrestling”) matches are interesting: you can only marvel at how people can take so seriously something that is obviously so fake.

Now we have reports that a completely different problem has arisen to erode the Tour’s credibility further: that of hidden motors installed to provide competing riders with a bit of mechanical assistance.

TourMotor
This first came up last January at the world cyclo-cross championships in Belgium, where the Belgian favorite in the women’s under-23 event, one Femke van den Driessche, was indeed disqualified for having used a small motor installed on her rear wheel.

The officials in charge of this year’s Tour de France are ready to prevent any sort of monkey-business like that from occurring. This was announced today by no less than France’s Secretary of State for Sports, Thierry Braillard, who stated that there would be an extensive system of thermal cameras to catch such hidden motors. In fact, for some reason it is the French Atomic Energy Agency (CEA, in French) that will be installing them – yep, that’s what the article says – cameras so sensitive that even motors not in use will be detectable. Apparently, experiments run this past weekend gave these officials confidence that they will work as promised.

“It is very important that we can detect a cheat,” as the president of the Union of International Cyclists, Brian Cookson, pointed out at today’s very same press-conference. Well, yes . . . I guess, although the Tour does not have a very good record in doing so, or at least in detecting cheats in time to actually deny them the glory of appearing on the victor’s podium at the Tour’s end. Then again, its officials are fighting against the inexorable advance of science, after all – medical science, and now, mechanical and miniaturization science.

This is further a “special” year in that, shortly after the Tour is wound up, the Summer Olympics start in Brazil. And again we will have a classic WWE-type farce; indeed, from the turmoil that has already gone on about doping in athletics – including, of course, the exclusion of the entire Russian track and field team – the Tour will surely only be the appetizer to a veritable feast of cat-and-mouse intrigue in Rio between cheating athletes and those who are responsible for catching them.

It will be amusing, no doubt – but, as usual, nothing to take very seriously.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Brexit and the Conditional Perfect

Posted on June 24th, 2016 by MAO

Yes, of course this is to be about Brexit, but I’ve no grand pronouncements to make, just what you could call a linguistic note. It has to do with this very interesting piece – written by one Naomi O’Leary, no less, how Irish can you get! – in the Atlantic about its effect on Northern Ireland.

NaomiOL
Scroll to the bottom, where Ms. O’Leary discusses a “gray-haired couple” witnessing a (Protestant) loyalist march there just last month, who “confided they would feel safer if the roads from the south were blocked again.” In the following direct quote from the lady, the English takes a turn into the bizarre:

I would have gone to school when I was a little girl on the other side of the border and we would have had our bags searched by the soldiers and so on.

Right – so did that actually happen, or not? You’re using the conditional perfect there, madam, which implies that it did not actually happen, but rather would have happened in the presence of some contrary-to-fact condition that you do not define, but that in any case did not hold true.

But no, then the quote goes on: “We didn’t mind. There was a reason for it.” OK then, so you did go to school in the Republic when you were a little girl, etc. Someone tell me, is this actually common English usage in Northern Ireland? Or was this lady rather peculiarly twisting her language to express past facts in as deferent, non-assertive a way as possible?

In any event, here is her final quote in the piece: “We managed before [i.e. when there was quite a serious border between Northern Ireland and the Republic] and we’ll manage again.” That is, she’s voting for Brexit. No doubt you also “managed” before without internal plumbing; I’m sure you could also “manage again” without that particular mod-con. More seriously, you also apparently “managed” when Protestants and Catholics were hunting each other down unmercifully in that very area – after all, you are still alive. Why not also that again, then – why the hell not, madam?

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Para. 103: More Bark Than Bite

Posted on April 25th, 2016 by MAO

Many Germany observers are confused these days by the so-called Böhmermann Affair: Jan Böhmermann has his own show, called Neo Magazin Royale, on the German public television network ZDF, and on March 31 he recited on-air a poem concerning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that was not so nice, including as it did i.a. several references to the President’s alleged sexual practices. Top officials of the Turkish government, including Erdoğan personally, lobbied the German government to press criminal charges against Böhmermann; Angela Merkel herself eventually announced that the German State would indeed give its required go-ahead for a criminal investigation of Böhmermann for insulting a foreign Head of State.

What is going on with Germany? Isn’t it the country which, for some time now, has topped all opinion polls for world-wide admiration. This abridgement of elementary freedom of speech seems to hark back to the bad old Nazi times.

Not really, though; if anything, it harks back to the mid-1950s, when after a decade of Allied occupation Germany was getting back on its feet as an independent Western country. The former Shah of Iran – were he still around – would be glad to remind us of how speech in modern Germany is far from fully free.

Shah
Indeed, that paragraph of German federal law under which Böhmermann might be prosecuted – paragraph 103 StGB, forbidding “the insulting of organs and representatives of foreign States” – was for quite a while known as the Shah-paragraph, so often did the Persian monarch use it in his relations with the Federal Republic.

But first back to 1953, when German criminal law, having been suspended since that country’s defeat in 1945, is being restored – and authorities take care to re-institute paragraph 103, which dates back to Second Reich, that is, to the rule of German Emperors following the country’s unification in 1871. The political system of post-WWII Germany naturally was carefully designed by the occupying powers to try to ensure that such dictatorship as was seen during the Nazi regime could never happen again; for one thing, the peculiar American concept of federalism was introduced, so that the country was broken up into individual states each having rights and powers at their own local level.

But this new Germany was by no means designed to be any sort of liberal paradise with the world’s greatest personal freedoms. People’s memories were still fresh in 1953, only eight years after the Nazis’ gross crimes against humanity had been ended, and Germany was still to some degree a pariah state. There was no room, in other words, for the inevitable satirists and smart-alecks which such a fertile culture would inevitably produce to spoil the German government’s attempts to get back into the world’s good graces by ill-conceived, badly timed and just plain rude cross-border insults. Indeed, in 1958 Konrad Adenauer’s government wanted to go even further to prevent that sort of thing, namely to adding a paragraph 103a which would have outlawed the spreading of any sort of denigrating reference concerning the private lives of foreign heads of state or their families – whether true or not.

That extension was rejected by the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s federal parliament. But even in rejection the proposed law had a name: Lex Soraya, or “Soraya’s Law,” after the Persian Empress who was the Shah’s second wife, whom he was busy divorcing.

Nobody Cares; Nobody Really Punished

So the Shah lacked that extra bit of legal machinery to go after critics in Germany who said something insulting about his wives. But paragraph 103 gave him plenty of leeway to file charges against those insulting him personally, and he did so in three instances, the first in 1958. The same stricture applied, of course, against insults directed at other countries’ representatives, but the interesting point in this taz.de article is rather how the very prospect of such a foreign head of state complaining often caused the German police to move in ahead of the game and start confiscating materials and even arresting people being rude to foreign political figures, as they did in the case of insulting materials directed at such figures as then-Chinese President Li Peng, against the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, against Pope Benedict XVI and against visiting American Presidents Ronald Reagen and George W. Bush.

In all of those latter cases the police then had to back off and apologize because one key element required to prosecute such acts – namely, an official complaint coming from the “insulted” party – was not forthcoming. Thus we see that it has really mainly been the Shah who has actively taken advantage of this paragraph 103 during its post-War history. It is also important to note that the harshest punishment that ever resulted was “low-level fines” collected from editors at a Cologne newspaper (after a three-year trial) which published a disrespectful set of cartoons about the Shah in the 1960s.

Now the Turkish government is seeking legal redress as well. (Vice President Numan Kurtulmus has even publicly characterized Böhmermann’s poem as a “crime against humanity.”) That fact has caused many to worry that President Erdoğan, buoyed by how dependent Chancellor Merkel is upon him regarding the refugee situation, is deliberately using these insults directed against him to force her to turn Germany into something it has not been since 1945. Such concerns are misplaced, however, for a Bad and a Good Reason:

  • The Bad Reason: Paragraph 103 has been there as part of German federal law since that law was resurrected in the mid-1950s, so it’s nothing new; and
  • The Good Reason: Over-enthusiastic policing aside (which has always eventually been called back), it seems clear that the modern German legal system does have a good understanding of, and sympathy for, the right of freedom of speech, as we can see from the minor penalties courts have issued even when Paragraph 103 cases have managed to go all the way to trial and judgment.

In other words, while for much of its post-War history German diplomacy has operated within a difficult and awkward framework, so that measures such as Paragraph 103 were useful to have when citizens “misbehaved” vis-à-vis foreign potentates, in the final analysis they have amounted to mere window-dressing. When necessary, “action” can be seen to be taken, whereas no one is seriously punished as a result, and nothing (including the German people’s right to express themselves, in particular) fundamentally changes. OK, Jan Böhmermann may now be under police protection, and he has had to cancel the taping of a number of his shows – but he should enjoy his new status as media martyr, history shows he won’t pay much for it, if anything, and it might even enhance his career.

One might well see a parallel here with the “promises” concerning a resurrection of Turkey’s EU membership bid that are part of the recent agreement concerning the refugees – but that would require a separate post.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

A Little Incompetence Goes A Long Way

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by MAO

More #BrusselsAttacks here, what else? But I think you’ll be amused this time, if perhaps in a somewhat morbid way . . .

From recent personal experience, I’ve come to the view that the central taxi switchboard for Amsterdam – at least that in charge of dispatching cabs for the largest taxi company here, with the longest tenure – is hopelessly incompetent. It seems that might also be true for Brussels:

23MARHeureusement
“Luckily, the call center for the taxi company misunderstood the terrorists . . .” it reads there.

Taxis: If you have been following the whole #BrusselsAttacks thing closely, you’d be aware of the taxi story. Namely, the three fellows who carried out the attack at Zaventem airport were identified by the taxi-driver who had driven them to the airport. The funny thing about them, he reported, was that they refused to let him handle the baggage they were taking along. That baggage, of course, turned out to be the explosives that blew up within the terminal – or at least two of the three bags did.

23MARFeelLucky
(Actually, we now have further reports that that third bomb did ultimately explode – but only later, when police were in control of the arrivals hall and everyone else was evacuated, and no one at all was hurt when it did.)

Further, the same taxi-driver was glad to reverse-engineer the ride for the police’s benefit, so that that big raid that was reported yesterday evening (the evening of the attacks) in the Schaerbeck section of town actually was directed at the address from which the taxi-driver had picked these terrorists up.

But here is the rest of the story, as reported in one of the main French-language Belgian papers, La Dernière Heure (DH.be). As it turns out, the terrorists had much more baggage (i.e. explosives) than just those three pieces, as the police indeed found out when they raided that evening. They wanted to take all of their explosives to the airport, and so when calling for a taxi specifically requested a mini-bus (une camionette). But this is what was misunderstood; what they got was just a plain old taxi, with only a trunk to carry their luggage. So they could only take along those three explosive pieces – one of which, the biggest and most powerful, did not explode immediately – and not everything that they wanted, specifically a fourth explosive that was even bigger than the other three.

Indeed, says this piece, just that biggest fourth piece would have sufficed to completely blow up the entire departures hall there at Zaventem – or, alternately, “a fifth of all houses in Schaerbeck.” That last bit is definitely an exaggeration, to be sure, although there were some anxious moments during that raid as the bomb-disposal experts worked to disarm that largest, “unstable” charge.

Meanwhile, it seems that quite a few of the rank-and-file Brussels taxi drivers showed themselves willing to take stranded people home yesterday for free! But now they’re worried about all the lost business from the airport remaining closed, which it will also be tomorrow, Thursday. Also, the head of the local taxi association insists – quite rightly – that the identity of that driver who took the terrorists to the airport stay secret. That’s what the driver wants him/herself, and remember: s/he did his/her job, and then reported his/her suspicions, while it was the switchboard that demonstrated that admirable ineptitude.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Flipping the Fried Finger

Posted on March 23rd, 2016 by MAO

Today we’re into day one of #BrusselsAttacks recovery and we’ll see how the city reacts as its airport remains closed and with major damage, as do the main thoroughfares through the European Quarter, while the metro reopens with major holes in its structure, and the like. Actually, even at what we could call the “day one-half” point – that is, yesterday evening – there was a heartening and spontaneous mass-gathering around the Bourse, the now-unused Stock Exchange building at the center of town, where people wrote encouraging and defiant messages in chalk on the pavement and otherwise showed general solidarity (considerably aided by the fact that that part of the city was turned into a pedestrian-only zone last summer).

Further, it seems that next Sunday, Easter Sunday, there is to be a “white march” through the city, to show more solidarity, an absence of fear, etc. In that link that is the spokesman for the European Parliament in the video who is announcing it; perhaps it will be organized by that institution (which would make it not so spontaneous).

By now, though, I’ve learned to be leery of most post-terrorist attack public gestures. We saw how those could turn out with the Charlie Hebdo killings fourteen months ago, and in particular that incident’s own marche blanche down the Champs Elysées: an event meant to reassert freedom of speech in the face of murderous threats turned out to feature – in the marchers’ front row! – more national leaders responsible for beating down free speech in their own countries than you could shake a stick at. Thereafter, as treated on this very blog, the French authorities made clear that “freedom of speech” would thenceforth only be permitted along narrow lines that they allowed, namely only speech against Muslims. Sadly, I later noted how no less than Denmark seemed to be following suit.

Still, this looks like a cheeky gesture:

pommes
“Why many Belgians are posting pictures of french-fries, of all things.”

Black-yellow-red: the colors of the Belgian flag, of course. In front of that, “french” fries, which you might be aware were (probably) invented in Belgium. Finally, you might also recognize there a very familiar gesture of contempt, usually executed by the fingers of one hand.

Quite clever! – although, to be fair, the HuffPo Germany traces this original “meme” back to advertising by Burger King brought out around ten years ago – and quickly withdrawn, in the face of public outrage (in that commercial context). Still, the HuffPo piece goes on to report that “Garde la frite!” (FR: “Hold on to your french-fry!”) is French slang for “keep your chin up!”

So, all told, very appropriate, and shrewd. Nonetheless, when evaluating the effect these attacks have on Belgian society I intend to continue to focus on what is done rather than what is expressed, be it through social media emissions or city-marches. We all realize that to a large part such post-attack gestures of defiance serve to mask the fear that the attacked society feels; will that fear translate into restrictions on freedom (e.g. France’s seemingly never-ending state of emergency after the November Paris attacks) and/or useless security measures just for show, such as metal detectors stationed at the doors of subway stations? If so, then we will know that society has capitulated to what the terrorists were trying to bring about in the first place, no matter what that society says.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Book Trade Fairs, In Minor Key

Posted on March 18th, 2016 by MAO

Look what I discovered yesterday:

17MARLeSalon
“The Salon du livre invites [you] to discover South Korean literature.”

“The Salon du livre“: I had never heard of it! Looks like it’s basically a book fair, held every year (since 1981) in Paris. Its website is here (but only in FR, bien sûr), where it says that this year it’s being held at the Porte de Versailles Pavillion 1, and it opened yesterday.

Now, the thing that made this particular bit of news remarkable for me was my realization of the other book-fair that also opened yesterday, namely the Leipzig Book Fair (the link this time is in EN). But that book-fair has been held since 1632 (interrupted only very occasionally by various wars).

What can we conclude from this confluence of events, on both French and German sides? It’s easy, and it’s what I already realized when I went to visit the Leipzig Book Fair six years ago: that one may very well the second-biggest such trade fair in Germany, but in absolute terms it has a way to go towards really being important on a global scale. Because if it were truly important, if it were the international book occasion where everyone just had to be present, the Salon du livre would never dare to schedule itself at the same time. You can rest assured that the people in charge of the latter are very well informed of when the Leipzig Book Fair is scheduled to happen, and made their decision accordingly.

No, the world-dominating book fair is the one held in Frankfurt-am-Main every second week of October. I’ve been to that one a few more times than the one occasion I have tried Leipzig. That’s truly the one everyone who has anything to do with books, wherever in the world, has to attend, particularly those involved in a professional capacity. I mean, it’s simply impossible for mere mortals to arrange for anything even resembling a reasonably priced hotel room in Frankfurt when that is on – I’ve had to use the tactic of staying overnight at some other relatively close-by city (once Munich) and taking the train to and from the Fair on the day in question.

By the way, just when the Frankfurt Fair first started is hard to say, among other reasons because 1) Frankfurt had been a renowned fair town (i.e. in general) for quite some time before they added books to the wares; and 2) Books did exist many centuries before Gutenberg (who did his pioneering printing work in near-by Mainz), they were just hand-made and -copied. But 1454 is a common date cited for Frankfurt’s Book Fair, i.e. very shortly after Gutenberg’s innovation. Nonetheless, by the 1700s it was the Leipzig Fair that was doing better, attracting more visitors and business, due to various major booksellers simply deciding they liked Leipzig better, and Frankfurt slipped rather far behind. But 1945 brought a radical reversal of fortunes – hard to have a really good book fair under a regime that is not so fond of free expression – to produce the situation we still know today, of Frankfurt superiority by far.

I mentioned how, if you are a book professional (or indeed, an author with something to sell), you really have to be in Frankfurt the second week of October. I’m beginning to doubt whether that still holds true for those of us – like me – who are crazy about books but mere amateurs, i.e. with a private interest. For one thing, at Frankfurt you aren’t even allowed admission until they opened their doors on the weekend days (at the end of the Fair) to the great unwashed reading masses. But as well, the last time I was there I didn’t have much of a good time; I really started to wonder about the true extent of the Fair’s commitment to those public cohorts who, after all, merely supply the custom which keeps the whole publishing industry (in whatever form) profitable and ongoing.

So maybe Leipzig is a better choice – or Paris, both going on now and through this weekend? Well, maybe not: they’re smaller, and therefore more “intimate,” but one really goes there to see what is going on with the publishers in which one is interested, and there is no guarantee those publishers are going to be there, unless you are talking about Frankfurt.

Featuring the Undecipherable, the Untransmittable

Another minor reason to attend is that such book fairs like to feature the literature of a particular country and/or language on each occasion. Actually, Frankfurt and Paris do that; Leipzig does not. As we read at the very top of the 20 Minutes piece on the Salon du livre, “Who knows Hwang Sok-yong or even Lee Seung-U?”

Who knows them, indeed? In my mind that is the problem with such country-focuses, particularly when the literature being focused upon comes from such an alien culture as, here, South Korea (or indeed, for me, any Asian language). I’m not saying that any literature written in an Asian language is useless, certainly not. Rather, how relevant can such a fair-focus possibly be to attendees of book fairs in the West? The overwhelming majority of those people are going to read such literature in translation, if they ever read it at all, and really, just HOW distorted from its original artistic content – being made up entirely by the texture of the original language – will such translations necessarily be? Truly, to appreciate Korean (or any other) literature, you need to learn Korean (or any other . . .).

Now, on the other hand I understand the Frankfurt Book Fair happening later this year will feature Netherlands-Flemish literature (having already done the same back in 1993; and they did Korea in 2005). Perhaps that could be a reason to start searching for a hotel room in some neighboring city around that period, so I can give the event one more chance.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

The Regeni Case: Expect No Progress

Posted on March 10th, 2016 by MAO

Giulio Regeni: A name you should know. He was an Italian graduate student at Cambridge University who in January was conducting research in Cairo towards his PhD on Egyptian labor unions when, on the 25th of January, he disappeared and was not seen again until his body was found nine days later in a ditch along the highway between Cairo and Alexandria. It was clear from his corpse’s condition that he had been brutally tortured before he was killed. As it turned out, Italy’s development minister, Federica Guidi, was in Cairo with an entourage of Italian business leaders the day his body was found; they all immediately left the country.

In contrast, the Egyptian authorities were rather less punctual in investigating what had happened: it took them another five days for them to search his Cairo apartment. Nor were they very fast in finally delivering his body for shipment back to Italy so he could be buried at his hometown of Fiumicello, in the North. But obviously: whereas in a Cairo morgue only a handfull of officials such as the Italian ambassador to Egypt could have access to it, once back in Italy a much wider circle could see first-hand how brutally and cruelly he had been abused.

His death fits precisely within the recurrent pattern under the dictatorship of General Al-Sisi of those native Egyptians who somehow incite the ire of the authorities also suddenly disappearing, either for good or – if they’re lucky – emerging from local police stations having suffered brutal torture. Indeed, it is a fair complaint that the world only now has jumped up to denounce this inhuman behavior once it was finally a Westerner who was its victim. Still, how could it be otherwise that it was those authorities – with authorization coming from whatever level, high or low – who did this to Giulio Regeni? The EU Parliament, at least, is satisfied that the Egyptian government in fact was responsible, as it showed in its action today:

EUParlRegeni
The Italian government itself, though, has so far been more careful than that, as it does truly want to find out what happened here. This recent piece in the Corriere della Sera gives some idea of its progress:

Regeni
Headline: “The Regeni Case: Close-Circuit Camera Images Erased.” Lede: “Our investigators also did not succeed in obtaining the telephone traffic around the house.”

What? “Images erased”? We’re talking here of the closed-circuit surveillance camera images from the Cairo subway, which Regeni is known to have used that fateful evening of January 25th to get to wherever he was trying to go. Why were they erased?

Italian investigators requested acquisition of these recordings starting on 5 February, after the discovery of Regeni’s body, as decisive testimony for reconstructing the boy’s agenda and movements. The Egyptian authorities, however, took them [the recordings] only quite later, only on 13 February was it discovered that the images did not exist anymore, they were recorded over by more-recent ones.

That’s apparently what happens with those recordings, as a cost-cutting measure: after a certain period of time, they are recorded over. Too late.

And what about the mobile phone traffic, both around where Regeni resided in Cairo and the metro station. It’s no good.

The documentation submitted by the Egyptian authorities is inadequate. All that the [Italian] prosecutor Sergio Colaiocco has on his desk is a list of Regeni’s outgoing calls on the day of the 25th. The entire period before that is missing.

The bottom-line here is obvious: Egyptian officials are not interested in aiding the Italian investigation simply because they are the guilty ones. People around the world – academic researchers, potential tourist and the like – should realize very well from this incident that the only foreigners who are safe now within Egypt – presumably! – are those with diplomatic accreditation, but no others.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Heads of State & Their Rides

Posted on March 8th, 2016 by MAO

Oh, to have one’s choice of a ride – of wheels, man, of an automobile to take you around! The vast majority of us are limited in this respect by budgetary considerations, but some are not. Among those are heads of state, and Rzeczpospolita takes a look at their choices of roadster.

Jezdza
This inquiry just doesn’t come out of the blue, though. Last Friday there was apparently some sort of incident involving Polish President Andrzej Duda as he was riding in his official limousine along the national A4 highway. This article only mentions this in passing; you have to go elsewhere to find out any more about it (like here, to the tvn24 site, in Polish), and even then many details are still missing. The important thing, of course, is that President Duda was completely unharmed. Additionally, there seems to have been some damage to the tires, at least, but otherwise the incident is being investigated further, by all sorts of Polish governmental agencies. President Duda was himself asked directly about it yesterday (Monday), but he was willing only to confirm that he was in fine shape.

Well, what sort of car is it that he rides around in? A common thread for presidential cars – as one would expect – is that they are made within the same country in question, so that, for example, David Cameron uses a Bentley Mulsanne, President Mattarella of Italy cruises in a Lancia Thesis, Czech President Zeman disposes of a Škoda Superb and (of course) Angela Merkel* has a Mercedes S Class. Poland is not really known for any make of cars, though, so President Duda is taken around in a BMW 7, the “High Security” version which is (like all the others mentioned) modified to reflect the needs of security (and of communications) for a head of state.

President Obama’s ride is most famous of all. It’s a Cadillac, again highly, highly modified (e.g. to enable communication at any time with the Vice President and the Pentagon; also to withstand chemical attack), known as Cadillac One, or the Beast. This vehicle is transported to any of the various places in the world to which the President may travel, and is so heavily weighed-down by its armor and other equipment (it weighs 10 tons, although with a super-charged engine that can handle all that) that it gets only 100 km per 30 liters of gasoline (that is 7.8 miles/gallon).

The piece finishes up with a listing of other Heads of State and their official cars, which I’ll reproduce (and translate, where appropriate) for you here:

  • France: Citroen DS5
  • Hungary: Audi A8 Ls
  • India (sorry, no Tata): Mercedes-Benz S600
  • Japan: Toyota Century
  • Malaysia: Maybach 62 (Maybach is owned by Daimler-Benz; it’s their luxury line. Strange, Wikipedia reports that the 62 model was discontinued, so the Malaysian government may have trouble finding spare parts.)
  • Russia: Mercedes-Benz S Class (just like Merkel)
  • South Korea: Hyundai Equus VL500
  • Sweden: Volvo S80; and finally
  • Vatican: Kia Santa Fe (!); maybe they particularly like the model-name?

* Yes, it’s true that, properly speaking, Angela Merkel does not belong in this list because she is a Head of Government, not Head of State. Nonetheless, this is the data-point which the (unnamed) Rzeczpospolita author uses. I think we can assume German President Joachim Gauck rides around in his own presidential Mercedes S Class as well.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

“Bitter” Refugee Experiences

Posted on March 7th, 2016 by MAO

Today there occurs that climactic EU summit with Turkey PM Davutoğlu devoted to the refugee crisis. It’s safe to say all Europe awaits the outcome of that with bated breath, although perhaps none more so than the many refugees now trapped in Greece, together with those others even further behind in the pipeline (e.g. still in Turkey; or trapped in Syria in front of the closed Turkish border).

Here and there, however, there will be some who are not so interested: they’ve made up their minds to head back where they came from. The following Agence France-Presse piece by Guillaume Decamme, carried on Yahoo! France, examines a couple of their “bitter experiences.”

AmereExp
Let’s take up these examples. Note that they all have to do with men from Afghanistan. (Note as well that there is also a two-minute video heading the article, in case you’d like to hear them make their cases personally – in language translated to French.)

First we have Mohammed Asif Nouri, 26 years old and with a degree in economics: “I thought my dream would come true in Europe,” he laments. Last year he braved the terrible journey which eventually landed him in Frankfurt-am-Main, via the route everyone knows about (once the Hungarians had put up their fence): Turkey-Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Croatia-Slovenia-Austria. Once in Germany, he was shuttled between various refugee centers in Hamburg, Sachsen-Anhalt and then to Frankfurt.

The one constant he encountered? “European nationalism,” he says. “The Europeans think we are going to destroy their culture.” Then there was that time when he wanted to ask directions of some German, who first stood off to put some distance between them and then insisted in answering in German – “whereas 99% of Germans speak English.” More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Maybe She Was Just Glad to See Him?

Posted on March 5th, 2016 by MAO

That may very well have been true, but the one thing for sure was that this 26-year-old Frenchwoman was not as well-endowed as she would seem.

soutiengorge
Describing this woman’s journey to visit her man locked up in the city jail of the northern French city of Rouen, the newspaper Le Parisien put it this way:

Before going to visit her detainee, she had pumped up her bust. Nor for any erotic reasons, but just to supply him with various products he would need. To do this, she had loaded up her bra.

I’ll say: When prison guards inspected her more closely they found in there:

  • 5 “mini-telephones” with their chargers
  • 1 Sim card (OK, those are small)
  • 5 grams of cannabis
  • 2 packages of cigarette rolling papers
  • 1 recharge for an electronic cigarette
  • 20 euros cash; and, get this . . .
  • 2 packets of meat (further unspecified)

Quite the heavy load! I bet she was glad to get all that off her chest, even if it turned out to be in quite another room within the prison building than what she expected, prior to her being led off to incarceration herself.

The unnamed author of this piece characterizes this cargo as something out of Prévert, that is, Jacques Prévert who was a prominent post-World War II French poet. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything of his work. In any case, in view of this episode’s setting in Rouen, my own mind is cast much more in the direction of Emma Bovary, that protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel who was so confused about love and men, and whose sad fictional existence was set in and around that city (where Flaubert himself lived most of his life).

Smuggling stuff – a lot of stuff – hidden in one’s bra to one’s lover: surely this the sort of incident Flaubert could have come up with for his fiction. Well, almost: Wikipedia reminds us that the bra was not even patented until 1889 (and that was in Germany; Flaubert himself died in 1880). Then again, the word brassiere originally came from Norman French (Rouen is the capital of Normandy) meaning a child’s undershirt. (Note: as you can see in the tweet, in French they use the word soutien-gorge.)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

French Anti-Brexit Threats

Posted on March 4th, 2016 by MAO

Now this is curious . . . “Brexit would have ‘consequences’ for the migrant question, [France President] Hollande warns.” This comes right when French authorities have just wiped out about a quarter of the infamous “Jungle” camp of migrants at Calais trying to get into the UK – and just as British Premier David Cameron went to the northern French city of Amiens yesterday to visit with President Hollande, Premier Valls and other officials.

3MARBrexit1
What “consequences” could President Hollande have meant? Unfortunately, the Le Huffington Post story is not exactly clear. Here is what Hollande said standing next to Cameron at their joint press conference:

One should not raise fears, but speak the truth. There will be consequences if the United Kingdom quits the EU . . . including the manner of managing situations in the matter of migrations.

And here is Premier Manuel Valls:

The day that this relation [that between the UK and the EU] is broken, the migrants will be no more at Calais.

HuffPoFR reporter Alexandre Boudet then helpfully adds, “In plaintext, the doors will be thrown wide open for them rejoining the United Kingdom.” (Wait: RE-joining?)

And then Harlem Désir, French Secretary of State for European Affairs:

There is no blackmail, nor threat, but it’s true that we cooperate more easily as members of the EU than if the United Kingdom wasn’t that anymore, because for example we also work with common European tools such as Europol or the Schengen information system. Even though Great Britain is not a member of Schengen, it cooperates through this system and other means of exchanging information.

Still not very clear. And there still seems to be some element of threat, despite M. Désir’s denials. Luckily, this piece also references an article in the Financial Times (EN-language; but paywall) which helps to clear things up:

3MARBrexit2

Mr. Macron [that’s the French economy minister] said that Brexit could scupper a bilateral deal with France, known as the Le Touquet [A]greement, that allows Britain to carry out border controls – and keep unwanted migrants – on the French side of the Channel.

Finally the picture comes clear as to how, as David Cameron has also been warning his constituents, that “Jungle” over in Calais could potentially move across the Channel if Brexit were to occur – despite the best efforts of UK authorities. For when their officials can no longer first check travelers’ papers on the far side of the English Channel, then they have to do it once they are already in England – and what can you do then with those who you discover don’t belong there, who immediately claim asylum? According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, you have to deal with them in a humane way, which includes not just sending them back somewhere, at least not at first.*

Still, this key “Le Touquet Agreement” is a bilateral agreement, i.e. not something within the legal framework of the EU. Therefore, it does not logically follow that it should necessarily fall by the wayside should the UK no longer be an EU member-state. Rather, if that does happen, then that will amount to the French government canceling it after Brexit out of sheer vengeance. If this really is being contemplated, it could set a pattern, by which I mean: If the French will be vengeful after a Brexit, then why won’t the EU be so as a whole? How can those who advocate Brexit really be so sanguine that the UK will be able to re-negotiate basically the same terms for trade, etc. that it had as an EU member once it is out?

One can look at the matter that way, or one can employ another perspective: That, starting here with President Holland and his top officials at this UK-France summit, a campaign has begun of threats and intimidation to try to head off a Brexit. Here at EuroSavant we view the UK remaining an EU member-state as a no-brainer – there’s little doubt future blogposts in the run-up to 23 June will faithfully reflect that – yet one can doubt whether this sort of tough approach is really best calculated to aid the British electorate to make that correct choice when they are called upon to cast their votes.

Anyway, that HuffPoFR piece also reported that President Hollande made special mention of the problem of reuniting the many refugee children stuck at the Jungle who have relatives already in the UK with those relatives. David Cameron was said to be accommodating on that. Further, Cameron announced a supplemental payment to France of €20 million to help out with those refugees still stuck at the Jungle – mainly, however, for encouraging them to be dispersed and moved away to other parts of France.

* Note that the “Le Touquet Agreement” has to do with people arriving to the UK via the cross-Channel ferries. There are analogous agreements (which are also bilateral), under different names, covering train (Eurostar) and aircraft travel, which also could be abrogated by the French/Belgians (train) or those and other EU member-states (aircraft) in the event of Brexit.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

SuperTuesday: Who’s Behind Whom

Posted on March 1st, 2016 by MAO

Yes, it’s SuperTuesday today, the day when the world at large is sure to gain some clarity as to who are likely to be both the Republican and Democratic 2016 candidates for president. Time for a quick review of which cohorts of special citizens stand behind which candidates.

SupTsdy
Granted, this review comes from a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, not from an American one. On the one hand, the FAZ is truly one of Germany’s most-respected newspapers, certainly in the top three. On the other hand, can you really accept an evaluation of US political conditions from someone named Winand von Petersdorff? (Plus, as I look at the FAZ website just now, the headline article is a report on an interview Syrian dictator Assad just gave to German television, in which among other things he “praises Germany for its refugee policies”(!). Groan . . .)

Let’s proceed anyway. The first thing to keep in mind is Marco Rubio’s unique policy proposal to completely abolish taxes on interest, dividends or capital gains income from stocks. This naturally means that most hedge-fund managers are wildly in favor of seeing him occupy the Oval Office come next January.

Supposedly Larry Ellison, Oracle founder, is also included within Rubio supporters. Otherwise, what can loosely be called Silicon Valley has some very nebulous and split allegiances. Anyone who pays attention now knows that Meg Whitman – formerly CEO of eBay, now of HP – did support Chris Christie, right up until he endorsed Donald Trump. Who she supports now? No clue. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are similarly cloudy as to their preferences – although, for different reasons, Herr Von Petersdorff is sure it’s a Democrat for both. Noted Libertarian Peter Thiel (PayPal) supported Rand Paul, as one would expect, and is now is said to favor Ted Cruz. As for current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella – well, how about some clues: He’s an Indian immigrant, and he satteth at the right hand of Michele Obama at the last State of the Union speech. This means Hillary.

Hollywood is also for Hillary: Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Animation, and noted director Steven Spielberg. Maria Barra, CEO of General Motors, is also for Hillary – ’cause Obama saved her company’s bacon (and that of Chrysler, though the CEO there is Italian) a few years back.

Note that there is no such current American VIP who Von Petersdorff was able to find who supports Donald Trump. Neither can The Donald expect support from big Republican donors such as the Koch brothers, Harold Hamm (“King of the Frackers”) or Sheldon Adelson. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was clearly the candidate in the Koch Brothers’ pocket, but he withdrew from the Republican race quite a while ago. Now it’s said they are going for Rubio – makes sense. Same for Sheldon Adelson, and this we know because that Las Vegas paper, the Review-Journal, that Adelson bought a few months ago to be his mouthpiece (and tried to keep the purchase secret) has endorsed Rubio.

Of course, it’s easy to imagine there are certain supporters any candidate would not want, or at least would not be glad to have the support publicly known. That’s probably the case for those big Republican-supporting money-men just mentioned. Also, the degree of Wall Street support for Hillary is a very sensitive subject. The past record would seem to indicate both Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein and JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon are definitely friends-of-Hillary, but Von Petersdorff reports they have kept mum about their presidential preferences for quite some time now.

If you’re still intrigued about the Continental perspective on SuperTuesday – and can handle the German – the FAZ will have a live-blog today.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Gassing It From Both Sides

Posted on February 23rd, 2016 by MAO

The second week of Champions League last-16 action kicks off tonight, with a pair of very juicy matches indeed: Bayern Munich at Juventus and Barcelona at Arsenal. So maybe it’s the appropriate time for a little reminder about one of that competition’s chief sponsors.

Gazprom has paid big to associate its name with Europe’s leading international football club competition for a number of years now, and at every commercial break you’ll see an elaborate paean to it on your TV screen, generally in cartoon form and accompanied by a medley of leading tunes from Tchaikovsky. The thing everyone must remember is that Gazprom is not really a company in the conventional sense of that term. Rather, it is a component of the Russian state, tasked with making money, for sure, but also with carrying out Putin’s strategic objectives. Those have included, multiple times, forgetting about money entirely and cutting off gas supplies to entire countries – generally in mid-winter, of course – to make them knuckle under. Among these victims have been the Ukraine, of course, but also those EU countries, generally to the East (e.g. Bulgaria, Slovakia, Estonia, Finland), which have not had the resources or time to make the considerable infrastructure switch from the heavy dependence on that gas that they had during Soviet times.

So you can watch those playful cartoons of serious-looking employees manning gas pipeline control rooms, etc., flick by on your screen, but you need to remember: this is a “company” that would be glad to simply let you and your family freeze; all that it takes is for Putin to give the word. The sad fact that it has been able to do that reflects the absence of any common EU energy policy. Yes, the Commission has certainly been aware of the problem, and of course there exists a Directorate-General for Energy within the Commission, now headed by the Slovak Maroš Šefčovič. And in one sense it’s reassuring to read (in Dutch, from Het Financiële Dagblad; behind paywall) that the Commission recently concluded from a study that “well coordinated actions by member-states, above all in case of emergency, can considerably increase the security of [natural gas] delivery.” (On the other hand: Why did they find this out only recently? And what are they going to do to make that conclusion a reality?)

Fortunately, other developments have occurred which – often independently from anything the Commission might have done – serve to lessen this dependency on Gazprom and Russia. For one thing, demand for natural gas is declining simply due to increased energy-efficiency and alternate renewable sources of energy that are coming on-line. And there are other developments, too, discussed in a separate article not stuck behind a paywall (although it is in Polish):

GazBitwa
“American natural gas arriving on European shores forces Gazprom into a battle for the market and for investors.” Yes, the Americans are coming to the rescue again, specifically the shale-oil companies which, via fracking, have unlocked considerable new supplies of both petroleum and gas there on the North American continent. Mighty kind of them, you have to admit, namely to pollute their own ground-water and a as result have so much gas coming out of local household water-taps that you can light a match and explode it, all just to produce some more fossil fuels to sell. But the business of America is business. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Clattering Clooney

Posted on January 27th, 2016 by MAO

It’s Gorgeous George! And he was in Amsterdam within the past couple of days.

Clooney
The Dutch news/commentary website “The Post Online” took appropriate note and recorded about a minute-and-a-half of video, which you can access by clicking through. Don’t worry, of course he speaks in English, it’s merely dubbed underneath in Dutch.

I feel the need to take exception to a couple things he mentions here.

First, he is asked about the whole #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon, and claims he’s been on the problem for a while. He attributes it mainly to “who’s doing the hiring and who’s greenlighting pictures and the kinds of movies being made – and that’s something that needs to be looked at.”

OK then: write more parts suitable for actors of color and hire them – fine. But “the kinds of movies being made”? I thought, when it came to that, it was all about Art – that is, about inspiration, about pursuing deep themes and not about some reasoning-process such as “Hey, looks like we haven’t made a Latino film in a while – time to make a Latino film!” etc. Am I naive here? Probably.

Then there is the reason he visited Amsterdam in the first place, and you can read it on the wall in the background: Nationale Postcode Loterij. It was their big gala, and George doesn’t neglect to plug them in the interview:

We don’t do it in the United States, and we should, it forms this whole sense of community where, like, a whole postcode wins, which is great, but they also donate so much money to so many different actually needy charities . . . . I wish we were forward-enough thinking to do the same thing.

That’s right: What’s drawn in the Postcode Loterij as the result is a postal code and, if you do actually live there AND you bought a ticket, you get a payoff. You can see the extensive list of charities to which this institution contributes – as well as the by-year monetary amounts – on its Wikipedia page. Amusingly, that list includes the Clinton Foundation. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Yes We Can – Take Bribes

Posted on January 15th, 2016 by MAO

Here’s another bit of news that I am surprised has not been reported more – or maybe it’s just that it has only been reported in Spanish and not yet crossed the language barrier.

15JANPodemos
The headline is fairly straightforward: “The DEA of the US reveals that Venezuela and Iran agreed to finance Podemos through Hispan TV.” “US,” “Venezuela” and “Iran” should be no problem; “DEA” is the Drug Enforcement Administration of the US federal government; “Hispan TV” is a worldwide Spanish-language TV station operated by the public television authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran; and Podemos (SP: “[Yes] We can”) – here we come to the point of all this – is a new, insurgent, left-wing, anti-austerity Spanish political party which did fairly well in the pre-Christmas Spain nationwide elections. (It’s not in government yet, though; no party is yet in government. The old government is still there as caretaker because, unfortunately, several other parties also did well in those elections.)

This is not good news for Podemos. Accepting political contributions from foreign sources, at best, puts any political party in bad odor. At worst, it is illegal; and that is the case in Spain (emphases in the original):

The Law for Party Financing of 2007 prohibited receiving funds from foreign governments but did not impose sanctions on those who evaded this restriction. Nonetheless, last 1 July a reform of the Penal Code came into force which prescribed up to four years’ jail and fines of up to five times the amount of the donation received by formations gaining more than 100,000 euros from another country . . .

Podemos is alleged to have received €5 million from Iranian sources, and undisclosed other amounts from the Venezuelan government. Further, Pablo Iglesias, Podemos‘ leader, is alleged to have received personal payments of between €2,000 and €3,000 numerous times. Again, Hispan TV was used as the main vehicle to move these monies and make things look legal, through inflated invoices and the like. All this is coming to light now – allegedly – because a Venezuelan government insider with knowledge about what has been going on has started talking to the DEA.

The affinity between Podemos and the Venezuelan government is easy to see: both are left-wing. But neither are Muslim; indeed, there has not been a strong Muslim political presence in Spain sine 1492. So why would Iran want to buy influence in an up-and-coming force in Spanish politics this way? For that matter, what is the Iranian government doing in the first place splashing out the cash for a television network to push it views throughout the Spanish-speaking world?

And, really, why haven’t we all heard a lot more about this? Could it be just a journalistic hack-job from a media outlet, El Confidencial, that is hostile to Podemos‘ politics. I have to confess that I really do not know; for what it is worth, El Confidencial seems quite a newcomer to the Spanish media scene, and I’m not even sure whether it has or ever had a paper/sold-on-the-streets version.

Still, as hinted above, the Spanish political situation remain in limbo after that December 20 election because, for the first time, no party won a majority enabling it to govern alone. The parties which did well (including Podemos) have been thrust into the very unfamiliar task of forming a coalition government, something that has never been required before in post-Franco Spain. They are not doing well at it so far; and if it turns out that they can’t work things out, then there would have to be new elections. That is when these allegations – if true – would start to really bite for Podemos.

UPDATE: Here we are in March, 2016 – there still is no new Spanish government yet – and there comes this report that this Podemos case has been brought before the Spanish Tribunal de Cuentas or Court of Accounts:

PodemosII
The facts at issue are pretty much as described in the initial blog-post (above): “the alleged illegal financing of Podemos via Iran’s television station in Spain,” although in this piece there is no mention of Venezuela. So on the one hand this would seem to lend credibility to the accusation; on the other hand, this is once again a report from that same source, El Confidencial.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

German Finances in Cautious Clover

Posted on January 14th, 2016 by MAO

Here’s some news that I have not seen reported elsewhere, and I really don’t know why:

14JANHaushaltsplus
That’s 12.1 billion, as in euros: it is a surplus, and it is the bottom-line result of the German Federal Government’s budget over 2015. Further:

The reasons for this are the good economic conditions and high level of tax-receipts. For Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) this surplus turned out to be double as much as was expected in November.

No wonder we see Schäuble there leaning on his hands with such a smug look on his face: for him, it’s job well done!

Actually, good economic conditions pretty much automatically mean high tax-receipts, at least for any government which has its act together in the tax-collecting department, which Germany certainly does. But where did those good economic conditions come from? Well, the Germans do what they do well, as everybody knows; among other things, that means a healthy Mittelstand or layer of mid-sized companies (usually privately owned) making all sorts of capital equipment held in such regard by the rest of the world that demand for it is largely price-inelastic (that is, that demand takes little or no hit even if prices rise, e.g. due to currency fluctuations). The result is Germany’s long-standing status as the world’s #1 exporter, these days contested only with China.

So there is all that, a set of character traits contrasting sharply with others said to be more typical of other areas of Europe (mainly to the South) now experiencing quite worse economic conditions. Germany also implemented its so-called “Harz Reforms” around ten years ago, consisting of a series of changes to labor market regulation which made it easier to hire and to fire workers, and which resulted in a suppression of German labor costs which made the prices for native manufactures even more competitive internationally. And finally there is the effect of the euro: No matter how much it might be derided there (e.g. as the teuro, from the German word for “expensive”), one thing that is clear is that, by taking away Southern European nations’ ability to devalue their currencies when their own products became too uncompetitive, the euro locked in a high degree of export superiority for goods from the North, and thus flows of money there – and so relative prosperity, and high tax-receipts. (This also can mean – to some extent – that the economic troubles afflicting Europe’s periphery are not these countries’ fault.)

So Where to Spend the Bounty?

That big pot of money is there – billions of euros, twice as big as had been expected – so the question naturally arises: What to do with it? Ideally, having accumulated in German Federal coffers, the money would be spent in such a way to recycle it back to the other EU states from which it largely came, in such a way to share the wealth and the prosperity a bit more broadly around the European continent. This could be something as simple as an accelerated raising of German workers’ wages, so that they spend more and some of that more they spend are goods and/or services from elsewhere in the EU.

That’s not what is going to happen, though. Rather, according to this piece, much of the money will go to the obvious need: Wir schaffen das!, i.e. “We can do it!” That is, it will be devoted to dealing with the flood of Third World asylum-seekers of which more than 1 million have shown up on Germany’s doorstep through 2015 (with many more expected still to come). The German government largely attends to this problem by sending money to the lower-level Bundesstaat and local governments that actually have to deal with the incoming refugees on the ground. So these elements will get more money. (Not that that will solve the problem; it has become clear recently that considerable political and inter-cultural obstacles also need to be addressed, with solutions that largely cannot only rely upon money.)

There is also another consideration. Successful governing in Germany necessarily means keeping in the back of one’s mind the Biblical tale of Joseph in Egypt, of the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years. German official have to be especially careful with their budgets, considering that an amendment they passed to their Constitution in the recent past mandates that the federal budget deficit be no more than 0.35% of GDP – and that provision comes into effect starting now, in 2016. That means any surplus – no matter how unexpected it may be – to some degree must be husbanded with a view for any bad times ahead (although that same amendment permits greater deficits than 0.35% of GDP in case of national emergencies, whether economic or natural-disaster in nature).

This mandated caution looks even more reasonable in light of some additional news:

14JANWIrtschaft2
Germany’s economic growth for 2015 is expected to come in at 1.7%. What is more, more-or-less the same rate is expected for calendar 2016. Many would see that as low – especially in comparison to economic growth in developing countries, especially China. It’s pretty much also low in comparison with rates that the US is starting to hit again.

Then again, compared to European standards, 1.7% is pretty good, due to Europe’s (and especially Germany’s) continued graying and population loss, over-regulation and other factors. Further, as this FAZ piece adds, “comparatively few currently have to worry about their jobs: The situation on the labor market is at a historically favorable level.”

Still, in absolute terms you could say 1.7% is low. As we see, Germany has been able to extract from that a very nice federal government budget-surplus. But one must still be cautious.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

WiFi from the Indigent

Posted on January 14th, 2016 by MAO

A story about Prague . . . from the Spanish press, from La Vanguardia – but Twitter is a many-splendored thing that way. But first, just appreciate the photo, taken on Prague’s Charles Bridge about a week ago – the statues, the ice-fog in the background so you can’t even see any sky.

14JANIndigentes
What is of significance here is the figure at the lower-left: the beggar crouching in the snow. An enterprising young Prager by the name of Luboš Boleček has come up with an innovative way to help such people. They spend a lot of time hanging around on the streets, right? At the same time, other people walking in those streets – people with the wherewithal to own a smartphone – are frequently in search of a WiFi signal, right?

Why not give the homeless person a WiFi repeater, so s/he can create a useful WiFi hotspot where s/he stands? The tourists and other people in search of a WiFi signal thereby benefit; but so do the homeless as well, in the sense that they thereby provide a useful service which justifies and might attract sponsor’s funds, which can then go to providing these people with the sort of services useful for helping them get back on top of their lives and re-entering society again as full and fully productive members. (Any funds go in the first instance to public transport tickets, lunches and toilet facilities which enable them to go about this WiFi hotspot task.)

I suppose those inclined to look on the bad side might dismiss this project as an abuse of the homeless as a sort of city furniture – or some such – for visiting tourists. In Boleček’s reasoning, however, it is much more along the line of the “homeless newspapers” you often find such people peddling on the street: again, an escape from merely begging outright for money in favor of attempting to offer some real value-added in return. Maybe it’s time to update that “homeless newspaper” paradigm, he suggests: people don’t read much anymore in any case – at least not anything on paper – so the rationale for such newspapers is fading and it’s time for something new.

Boleček’s project is admittedly off to a stuttering start, as he is still looking for private or public funds to enable him to fully get going with it. As he says himself, you’d think some telecommunications company would be glad to step in as a sponsor. Anyway, you can learn more about it on the website he has set up, which is also in English.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Back to Doping Square One

Posted on January 12th, 2016 by MAO

Take a good look at the below tableau: Such a scene of triumph and female empowerment, smiles all around, the Russian flag wielded like a blanket and the (bizarre, disjointed) logo of the 2012 London Summer Games looming off to the left.

12JANBritseAthletiek
Sadly, as was revealed to the world not so long ago – by the WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency – if that Russian flag stands for anything these days, it stands for a state-sponsored campaign of deliberate cheating at international athletics competitions through doping and other artificial (and banned) chemical advantages. The two “athletes” pictured here, track-and-field runners Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova, were both on a list of five published in November for which the WADA recommended a lifetime ban from any further competitions. (As you will further be aware, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) also banned all Russian track-and-field athletes from the upcoming Rio Olympic Games.)

Gee, people pay billions to build facilities and throw a a high-level athletics party (OK, “competition”), invite you to come join in – and then you cheat! Not being especially grateful for the hospitality there, wouldn’t you agree? That may be why, as the Volkskrant reports here, the British athletic federation, UK Athletics, has just put out a quite remarkable anti-doping proposal, entitled “Manifesto for Clean Athletics.” Here are the introductory words of Chairman Ed Warner:

Greater transparency, tougher sanctions, longer bans – and even resetting the clock on world records for a new era – we should be open to do whatever it takes to restore credibility in the sport. And at the heart must be a proper and appropriate funding regime for the anti-doping authorities to help confront the new challenges they face. Clean athletes the world over deserve nothing less.

“Greater transparency” means recording all doping-checks and their results in an open register, according to this proposal; “tougher sanctions, longer bans” means establishing a minimum ban of eight years for cheaters. There are a number of other interesting suggestions here as well (e.g. if your athlete is caught cheating, you as a federation compensate the lost prize-money to those athletes of other federations who were honest) which you can read, in English, on the UK Athletics website. But the one that particularly catches the eye, of course, is erasing all athletic records and just starting over. Why not indeed? More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Polish Media: There’s More to Come

Posted on January 11th, 2016 by MAO

Relations between the new right-wing Polish regime and the EU have taken a turn for the worst lately. Whether it’s doing so purposefully or not, the PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – Law and Justice) Party now heading the government there seems to be following the route pioneered only a few years previously by Victor Orbán in Hungary towards making the country an “illiberal democracy.”

This has involved measures such as reducing the independence of the Supreme Court equivalent there, but what has caught the eye most has been the law recently pushed through the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) which converted the State radio and TV institutions from commercial organizations wholly owned by the government to governmental institutions – thus liable to having their top staff chosen by the government of the day. Once this law was passed and signed last week by the country’s president (also PiS), the government lost little time in putting in its own people.

As usual, I’ve tried to track that via my regular review of the Polish press, so that I can then pass on interesting bits of what was going to you via tweet and/or blog-post. But now that the law has been passed – and the Polish government and EU Commission have set out their antagonistic positions about it – what seems most interesting is a tweet I first picked up from last November, when the PiS government was getting ready to take power.

11JANUmbau
“Radical reconstruction planned: Poland wants to cut down on foreign influence in its media system.”

Here we got a first warning, from the influential Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, of the intentions of the incoming PiS government, in particular of Piotr Gliński who became Minister of Culture. Note the emphasis: “cut down on foreign influence” – now, what sort of “foreign influence” could there be within the State radio and TV institutions? As mentioned, even before the new law they were 100%-owned by the Polish government; some variation of this is the rule with all other European State broadcasters. So what could they mean by “foreign influence” – perhaps the foreigners who happen to work there?

No, that’s not it (although it wouldn’t be any surprise if the new bosses at TVP and Polskie Radio do fire the foreigners); rather, we’re speaking here of the print media. In Poland that is mostly foreign-owned (and that mainly from Germany) and Gliński wants to do something about it.

The new government wants to “change the ownership proportions” of local newspapers, Gliński said. To do this, they are considering “buying back” shares owned by foreign publishing companies, founding native Polish newspapers or further building up those fully Polish-owned papers that now exist.

Consider: “buying back” foreign ownership stakes in Polish publications. What if those foreigners who now own them do not want to sell, or demand what the new Polish government considers too high a price? It is easy to imagine here that the PiS government will not be willing to accept nein! for an answer. It’s easy to see we are talking here about the potential expropriation of business assets bought fair-and-square in the past. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Smoking Ruin

Posted on January 8th, 2016 by MAO

I heard it on the Belgian radio news, and now this from the on-line press so it must be true:

8JANKansspel
“Gambling Commission wants to allow players to smoke again in order to save casinos.”

For Belgian casinos – all nine of them – are in trouble, mainly for the usual reason of fierce online competition. One can always smoke at home (if the significant other there agrees), in front of the computer. If something is not done, argues Gambling Commission Head Peter Naessens, then punters will stay there to place their bets or, if they really desire that on-site gambling experience, will simply cross the border, presumably where they can both gamble and smoke.

So the proposal is to put in an exemption to the general smoking ban for enclosed public places of July, 2011, and thereby allow smoking again in Belgian casinos – that is, allow people to ruin their lungs (for the cigarette-makers’ profit) at the same time as they ruin their finances (for the casinos’ profit). This is really depraved; and both of these are potentially addictive behaviors!

The one hitch here may be that that 2011 ban came about as the result of a decision from the country’s Constitutional Court, which interpreted the relevant law to require that, if you are going to have a smoking ban at all, you enforce it for all public places, in the interest of equity and fair competition. Meanwhile, this particular article signs off with the reminder that “. . . the [gambling] sector is good for 5,000 jobs in our land.”

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Just *Forget* Charlie Hebdo!

Posted on January 6th, 2016 by MAO

WHY oh WHY do we have to look to Quebec for a little bit of contemporary wisdom?

6JANCharlie
Translated: Is it really necessary to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo attacks, as it seems France is doing all this week? In fact, the writer here, Nathalie Goulet, is from France, she is a member of the French Senate for the center-right party UDI and Vice-President of a government commission investigating how best to fight jihadist networks.

These Charlie Hebdo anniversary ceremonies, she makes clear, are not the way to carry that fight forward. What are terrorists looking to achieve, after all? What might those key elements be that transform them from angry young men thinking of causing mayhem to gun-toters ready to carry that out?

. . . what these murderers are looking for, other than to promote a violent ideology and to oppose our values, is a moment of glory: they are searching for acknowledgement from their mentors, from their friends and those helots [low-lifes] who surround them.

It’s inexhaustible media coverage and especially official ceremonial attention – repeating year after year – which gives them exactly what they want, and thereby also attracts future candidate-terrorists looking for their own chance to go down in a blaze of glory.

Within this international bond of terrorist crimes, what sort of effects can these images of the Charlie anniversary have, other than to reinforce their conviction that they have attained their aim? To cast families into endless mourning, create a security psychosis, divide society, make more fragile the [French] Republic which then forgets here and there its founding principles of Liberté Egalité Fraternité . . .

Yes, of course. Yet there’s another reason to drastically tone down or even cancel outright these sorts of commemorations. (And I’m also looking at you, 13 November 2016!) All you have to do is recall images of that parade through Paris last year after the Charlie Hebdo attacks – you remember, with French President Hollande there in the middle of a menagerie of other world leaders in the front row. The vast majority of those leaders were implicated in some way with harassment of journalists and restriction of freedom of the press in their own countries, even while this solemn Paris parade was supposed to be a celebration and defense of press freedom as expressed in the slogan “Je suis Charlie.”

In short, we also need rather less of these ceremonies because, through craven government cynicism as abetted public ignorance, they run too much danger of becoming gigantic exercises in hypocrisy.

By the way, if the French government still wants to indulge in such ceremonies, could it at least get the spelling of the victims’ names on the plaque correct?

UPDATE: Here’s what I mean about the sheer “Je Suis Charlie” hypocrisy, from Glenn Greenwald: France Spends Last Year Crushing Free Speech.

In all the many years I’ve worked in defense of free speech, I’ve never seen the principle so blatantly exploited for other ends by people who plainly don’t believe in it as was true of the Hebdo killings. It was as transparent as it was dishonest.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)