Archive for the ‘Belgium – Flanders (Dutch-speaking)’ Category

Klarafy Yourself!

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

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.

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Smoking Ruin

Friday, January 8th, 2016

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.”

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Head Down South for Blackface

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

Just a heads-up here to all my readers, as part of this weblog’s public service function, for the coming annual controversy over the Father Christmas-associated figure in Dutch culture of Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete.” As a rule this squabble only gets going around mid-November, when major Dutch cities stage elaborate “arrivals” of Father Christmas (Sinterklaas) from Spain, always accompanied by his multiple Zwarte Piet helpers, gaudily attired and in blackface with a curly black wig, preparatory to the Dutch celebration of pakjesavond on 5 December when Sinterklaas and his assistants visit houses to bring presents to well-behaved children and to chastise the naughty.

Of course, observers outside the Netherlands and even within have come to take increasing offence at what they take to be the implicit racism of Zwarte Piet. Things came to a head during last year’s go-round, what with an intensive level of international press attention and even street-disturbances in the city of Gouda on the occasion of Sinterklaas’ “arrival” there. Recently, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its (non-enforceable) judgment that the Netherlands should dial Black Pete back.

It’s possible that last year represented, to coin a (not easily repeatable) phrase, peak Black Pete, as Amsterdam and various other Dutch cities have taken steps to minimize that racial dimension, and have banned Black Pete entirely from their schools. Of course, we’ll have to see when the time comes – in a little over a month – just what the differences will be between the new Black Petes and the old. For there will surely still be Black Petes: there remains considerable resentment among man-on-the-street Dutch people at what is perceived as outside interference in cultural practices that (in their view) do not harm anybody and are ultimately no one’s business outside the Netherlands.

Make that outside the Netherlands or Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, where they also celebrate Sinterklaas (although their pakjesavond is on 6 December*).

ZPiet
“Come on down to Antwerp,” is the message. “We keep our Black Petes black!”

This bit of touristic promotional work comes from alderman Koen Kennis, who represents in Antwerp the N-VA or Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie party, a right-wing, strongly Flemish nationalist party whose key demand is for Flanders to secede from Belgium entirely.

Of course, the Netherlands certainly has its own parallel party to the N-VA, namely the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) headed by the notorious Geert Wilders – one which certainly books healthy gains in its electoral support with every such Zwarte Piet controversy. As one would expect, Wilders has been unyielding in his “Leave Black Pete alone!” attitude, but his party is nowhere strong enough in any municipality to push that through as city policy. Things are different – for now – in Antwerp.

* Note to children with family connections in both the Netherlands and Flanders: the two territories are of course adjacent, so keep in mind the “double-dipping” possibilities of presents north of the border on the evening of the 5th, then presents south of the border on the evening of the 6th!

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Journalistic Pluck

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Yes, there was that giant Charlie Hebdo march yesterday in Paris, as well as in many other cities, but times remain tough for newspaper staffs (in physical security terms, that is – quite apart from their long-term economic prospects):

ZalKnallen
“Le Soir, things are going to blow up on your editors” is what it reads there, which was followed down the telephone-line by “You guys don’t take us seriously!” OK, so it’s a bomb-threat, called in yesterday afternoon (Sunday) to the downtown Brussels offices of Le Soir (“The Evening”) when probably most of those present would have preferred marching in Brussels own Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration but had to work instead.

Can’t newspapermen and -women catch a break these days? I mean, the offices of the Hamburger Morgenpost were also firebombed yesterday – yes, after that paper had reprinted some Charle Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity.

I don’t think Le Soir had done even that, but that seems not to have been the issue in that case. For as that De Morgen piece goes on to report, the police managed to arrest someone for that bomb-threat the same day, some fifty-two-year-old from out of the “extreme left” who in fact had been convicted for actually blowing up a telephone-booth (remember those?) in order to intimidate in Brussels back in 1999.

The good thing about this story is that the Le Soir staff, when ordered to evacuate on Sunday afternoon, simply took their laptops to a local hotel and resumed their work, as you can see from their tweet:

LeSoir

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Just Not Cricket!

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Check out this photo, taken in Brussels, of a suspicious Muslim-type guy who for some reason is carrying under his arm what looks to be a rifle covered up in cloth. (Yes, I know that the surrounding text rather gives the game away, especially for those out there who can understand French.)

BrusselsTerrorist
There he was, waiting for a tram on a Sunday morning last August, on the Avenue Louise in one of the European capital’s most luxurious districts. This photo was taken out of the window by a security official at the Israeli embassy in Brussels who lives along the Avenue Louise, and who passed it on to the police – who in turn sent out an alert for the public to be on the look-out for this guy. (Wanted posters on post office walls and the like, one imagines, to the extent real-life post offices still exist in Brussels.) (more…)

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Giving Charity the Boot

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

This looked interesting when I ran across it. Schoenen-ophaalacties: OK, the Dutch means “shoe-gathering actions,” but whazzat all about? Whatever it is, now seems to be the time of year for it.

Schoenophaal
The first paragraph after the lead reads:

By now everyone knows about the shoe-actions. [Oh yeah?] You bring an old pair of shoes into the store and get a voucher for a new pair in exchange. The old shoes go from there to a good cause, so it is said.

Interesting! But incomplete: Is this only a Flanders phenomenon? (The “VRT” in “VRT deredactie.be” after all stands for the Flemish radio and TV network.) Surely the voucher one gains in exchange does not cover the entire cost of a pair of new shoes, right?

And then a question on the lips of those who are already familiar with this phenomenon: Is this on the up-and-up? That is, do those old shoes really get passed on to “a good cause,” to people who need them?

As you might expect, in these cynical times: Not always. A reporter from the VRT radio program De Inspecteur (yes, it means what you think, as in “Clouseau”) went investigating. Some of the shoe companies do indeed go on to work with “fair trade” organizations such as Oxfam which pass on the shoes for free to those in need. But quite a few of these shoe companies in effect sell them onward and pocket the profits.

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No Need to Dig Deep

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Got a body to dispose of? Maybe even your own – eventually? Then has Antwerp got a deal for you!

Antwerp_grave
Tweedehands graven – yes, that does mean “secondhand graves”! Belgium’s second city is selling off 5,000 grave-plots from its cemeteries – plots for which, of course, those representing their present inhabitants have failed to keep up with the payments. (That’s how it works in Belgium, and the Netherlands as well: you’ve got to have descendents willing to keep paying the charges, for time immemorial! Or at least until the Second Coming.) One can be yours for as little as €1,000 (the initial payment, N.B.), and the 5,000 that are being put up for sale are strictly “of cultural-historical value,” i.e. they are ornamented with some sort of noteworthy sculpture and/or other art-forms. (Not that any of that has anything to do with you or whoever the future inhabitant is going to be!)

Antwerp city officials have even put together a catalogue, it says in this piece from the Dutch news-site Z24. But for me that is not even the most grotesque element of this story; that is rather the advertising campaign the city has also undertaken to move (so to speak) these plots, of which they have sold only 120 so far. Eeeeeeeuuuuuw . . . they have put together a PDF brochure in which Norbert (aged 67) and Dirk (aged 56) hold forth on the joys of arranging for their last resting place among the cultural-historical bargains now on offer. (You can download the PDF here, but of course it is in Dutch.)

antwerpen-graf-te-koop-470x340That’s also Norbert there in the picture, together with the ad campaign’s slogan: “I’ve found my grave here! You too?” Isn’t that just bizarre? It’s the same kind of faux-enthusiastic, “Hey kids, come join us!” approach which, I can tell you, is more commonly seen in the Netherlands in other ad campaigns trying to get people to sort their plastic from their glass garbage.

Neither Norbert nor Dirk gets around to this particular detail, but let me fill you in on another amazing feature!! (“But WAIT! That’s not all!”) of this offer, and I’ll quote from the Z24 piece:

What is remarkable is that buyers of a grave don’t have to remove the earlier deceased [i.e. the previous occupants – yes, it’s plural!] per se. They can therefore simply “join the queue” [aanschuiven] with the others in the grave.

Turns out, the WSJ also covers this (in English) here, with some added detail.

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Father’s Lament for Conchita

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

You remember Conchita Wurst? She/he won the Eurovision Song Competition for Austria, held in Copenhagen two weeks ago.

Someone didn’t like that.

Conchita
“A girl with a beard. That is paganism unleashed.” This comes from Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Roman Catholic priest most known in Poland for the Radio Maryja station he founded and runs (yes, “Maryja” as in “The Virgin Maryja”), the voice of ultra-conservative Polish Catholicism: no divorce, no abortion, everything like that. (Still, you can listen to Radio Maryja on tunein if you like, it has 19,000 followers there! Be forwarned: It’s basically exclusively spoken-word in Polish.)

I seriously doubt Father Rydzyk was tuned in to Eurovision back on May 10. The result must have percolated to him slowly, probably further delayed by a wall of sheer incredulity. It’s still interesting to quote the good Father’s reaction here at length:

We must educate people, because look at what’s happening. Good Lord, we must educate people! Because look at what’s happening! This flood of paganism isn’t coming from this country. Really, look, is that normal, that a country-boy makes himself up like a woman, that boy there, I don’t know who he is supposed to be, with a beard, he performs and wins first place in Europe as a singer! Really, like he’s some Pavarotti!

Here Father Rydzyk had to pause: he was live-broadcasting these remarks to an audience in a church via a closed-circuit link, and everyone had started laughing. (more…)

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Play Well Together

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

The deep societal divisions between the two different halves of Belgium have long ceased to be much of a secret. I mean here of course the Dutch-speaking Flemings on the one (North) side and the French-speaking Walloons on the other (South; complicated by the mostly French-speaking Brusselers as third party). This was initially a sore point due to the long dominance of a Walloon elite over the entire country – so that, canonically, French officers issued orders to Fleming soldiers during the First World War that they could not understand. But the fissure was aggravated after World War II when Flanders became the region that was not only more heavily populated but also much more prosperous – and thus contributing more to the common governmental coffers. It’s the “conservative” party (i.e. friendly to business) which nonetheles has set as its goal the eventual secession of Flanders from Belgium – the New Flemish Alliance party – which now dominates the political scene in the North.

With all that intercommunal tension, then, it’s good to see this:

VlamingenWalen
“Flemings and Walloons surprisingly positive about each other.” Good to hear! – although I do also wonder how it would feel to be called a “Walloon”: “You Walloon!”

Flemings and Walloons underestimate the sympathy and overestimate the anger towards each other. That is the result from a multi-university study.

(-snip-)

The negative feelings of the other were always overestimated, as it turned out. “So French-speakers think that the Flemings experience feelings of malice and frustration, while Flemings think that Walloons are frustrated and jealous.”

All very fine, except for one thing: This study was carried out in 2010 and 2011! Now, the leading researcher justifies that in the article by pointing out that that was the period when Belgium was stuck in a particularly grating political crisis. Just to spell it out: From 26 April 2010 to 6 December 2011, a period of 589 days that set the record among developed-world nations, the country was without a proper head-of-government because the kaleidoscope of Belgian political parties (ranged left-to-right by ideology, but also cross-indexed by language) could not agree on how to form a government and choose one.

So it’s true that was an especially exasperating period, and it is good to see that the separate sides of the country did not hate each other as much as everyone assumed. But that was then; this is now. Surveys like that of public attitudes can’t be expected to have much of a shelf-life, before they begin to smell from the rot of past-sell-date.

Why do we see this now, then? It must be for some sort of propaganda purpose. For what it’s worth, it’s in De Standaard, considered to be the paper-of-record (i.e. the “New York Times”) there in Flanders.

But don’t worry: that same head-researcher promises us a new study, timed for “the elections,” by which she certainly means May 25, when Belgians will head to the polls to elect not only their representatives to the European Parliament, but also to the lower house of their own federal parliament, the Chamber of Representatives. (And they will head to the polls: voting is compulsory in Belgium!)

Tell you what: Forget the surveys, show me a new Belgian prime minister being chosen reasonably promptly after the results of that federal election are known, and I will then agree with you that the Flemings and Walloons have learned to get along!

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Camp Shangri-La

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

The Syrian Civil War is now more than three years old, the death toll by now is surely over 150,000, while estimates of those who have fled the country run from two to four million out of a pre-war population of around 22 million. Worst of all, there is no end to the carnage (including most recently chlorine gas used in the barrel-bombs dropped by regime helicopters on defenseless cities) in sight.

How strange, then, to come across a Syria-related news article that is actually upbeat! This was in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen yesterday, and you can get some idea of its strangeness from the headline, Wifi and pita bars: In the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

ZaatariThe Palestinians can surely claim seniority when it comes to such tent cities, but the dire current situation in their home country means Syrians win on volume: that largest refugee camp is at Al-Za’atari, in the Jordanian desert just 12km from the Syrian border – in fact from the border to the Deraa region which, like Leipzig in the old East Germany, like Gdańsk in Poland, and indeed like Boston in the United States, will be able to claim pride of place as the cradle of that country’s revolution, if that revolution ever succeeds.

This piece by Gidi Heesakkers* cites the Jordanian proverb that “only the devil lives in Za’atari,” only promptly to controvert that assertion as she writes about the two-day visit a certain Dutch photographer recently paid to that teeming encampment.

Refugee camps, those mean long lines, rice and tears? Seems not. In the largest refugee camp of the Middle East you can find a great pita bar. Photographer Henk Wildschut enjoyed a tasty sandwich there, in a shopping-street smelling of waterpipes, where shoes, festive dresses, lipstick and TVs were also for sale. The camp has Wifi and two supermarkets, with special sales, competitions and shelves full of cola.

Wild, eh? And you may well want to click through and take a look at the photos there (not all by Wildschut): the children look healthy, well-clothed, and reasonably cheerful; and the supermarket aisles look orderly and well-stocked indeed. Credit-card payment is even planned to be made possible – for those carrying them – in about a month. (more…)

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Shocked at the Shock

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Pussyfooting In-Flight!

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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RIP For The Castaway

Friday, January 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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Southwest Airlines File: Still Flying

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

The Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws (which of course means “the latest news”) is a unique beast: tabloidy in the range of news items it chooses to cover, to be sure, but at the same time lacking that sleazy tinge common to most of the world’s gutter-rags. Even better, it can be relied upon to catch and publish those bizarre tid-bits flowing on the wires that more established papers usually choose to leave alone.

A case in point is the recent attention it has paid to the operations of Southwest Airlines, no less. That American low-budget airline would seem to have little of interest to residents of Belgium. Nevertheless, it is covered by HLN in some recent stories whose common denominator is the apparent resiliance of its planes towards a variety of threats.

Like a well-endowed female passenger displaying rather too much endowment. This happened at the airport in Las Vegas (where else?), where the lady wanted to board a plane for New York, but was told by Southwest officials that her bosom was just too visible. Somehow the woman (known only by “Avital”) managed to board the flight anyway – maybe she used them as a battering-ram – and later recounted the experience to the website Jezebel.com, exclaiming “And what do you know, the plane did not fall from the sky!”

Then, a little earlier, there was that other grave threat to flight safety: mobile telephone use. This involved a Southwest flight from Phoenix, AZ to El Paso: a man who rebuffed requests from a stewardess to switch off his phone while the plane was landing was promptly arrested once it was down on the ground. As the HLN article explains, “The [telephone’s] signals can create disturbances, and the pilot’s aids during bad weather can be influenced by a gsm telephone.” But this assertion has of course been debunked repeatedly, such as here.

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London To Lose 2012 Olympics?

Monday, November 21st, 2011

The World Anti-Doping Agency just yesterday added to the list it maintains of countries who do not comply with its guidelines . . . wait for it . . . Great Britain, which as we all know is no less than the host for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games! This word comes from an article in today’s De Morgen, a Flemish newspaper.

Now, at this point the report cannot be confirmed at source, namely at the WADA’s website. Yes, they do post the news there that the organization presented its “Compliance Report” to something called its “Foundation Board” yesterday (working on a Sunday; hmm . . .), at which point it also had its 2012 budget confirmed (frozen from 2011, apparently). But I could not find that Compliance Report available anywhere on that same website; it certainly is not on their “Publications” webpage, and there’s also no mention of who is now on the compliance blacklist and who is not on another page about something called the “Code Compliance Assessment Survey.”

The really remarkable aspect of this report – if true – is why the UK is now being put on this WADA blacklist – joining about fifty other lands – in the first place. It’s not that they have suddenly started to coddle athletes who cheat. Quite the contrary: the British Olympic Committee has voted to ban any athlete caught doping from competitions that it stages for life. In this it took up an idea from the International Olympic Committee – which the latter, however, never implemented after complaints from the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The British Committee, however, did; this ban is now in effect in competitions under its jurisdiction for anyone caught doping. But banning-for-life does not conform to WADA standards – as with the Court of Arbitration, it is too strict! So the British go on the blacklist; the article mentions that they could even lose their awarding of next year’s Olympic Games! Surely that latter prospect is purely theoretical, but WADA Chairman John Fahey still remarked for the press:

It’s a shame that things have had to come so far. To the Court of Arbitration’s decision we reacted in a correct manner and asked the British to review their viewpoint, but they refuse all discussion. It’s not for me to decide what must happen now. There are quite a few countries on the list and we will assist them all to come back into conformity.

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Naming Name(s)

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

OK, so you shouldn’t expect any new Belgian government just yet. That “breakthrough” I discussed in my last post still seems legitimately to have been just that, it’s just that a new government still has to be formed. The Constitutional Convention has done its work, you could say (by way of American analogy), but an actual government does still need to be cobbled together from a selection of Flemish and Walloon parties. That exercise should not present too much of a problem, now that the main issues that had separated Flanders and Wallonia have been dealt with.

That also means formateur Elio Di Rupo doesn’t have to be so diplomatic anymore. He seems a rather calm and patient man – indeed, such qualities were a prerequisite for making any progress towards resolving this intra-community stalemate – but even he couldn’t resist recently telling Flemish television – as picked up by the newspaper De Standaard – who he feels really got in the way of his work and made it take sooooooo long. No surprises: it was the Flemish N-VA party headed by Bart De Wever, a party whose stated goal is the eventual (and peaceful, and gradual) secession of Flanders from Belgium. Di Rupo claims to have gotten “zero results” out of De Wever during the long course of negotiations.

He also disputed De Wever’s claim that the new governmental accord serves to harm Flemish interests. After all, the other Flemish political parties* signed up to it. Surely four out of five parties cannot be wrong!

* If you’re interested, they are: Open VLD, SP.A, CD&V and Groen! Note that all punctuation, including Groen!’s exclamation-mark, is as found in the original name.

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FLASH: Finally, a Breakthrough!

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Word is coming out now via Flemish radio that Belgium’s long (indeed, record-breaking) wait for a proper government may finally be coming to an end. Not only have all relevant political parties now reached an agreement on how to proceed further, but what has been achieved indeed seems to take the form of no less than a major revision of the basic constitution under which Belgium is governed.

“The Belgium of tomorrow will look entirely different” announced today Elio Di Rupo, the formateur who had labored for months at the assignment of King Albert II to try to form a new government. But the political differences were so deep between the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of the country, on a number of issues, that nothing less than this sort of thorough-going transformation of the functions of Belgian government at all levels – in finance, in division-of-powers, etc. – was necessary to break the impasse. For example, apparently the Belgian federal Senate will be transformed a body designed more to represent as three blocs the three “states” – Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels – that make up the country.

If you’re as excited about this as I am, and can read Dutch, then the full text of the new agreement is available for you on-line. Otherwise, I’ll see if there is anything further to report on this development – i.e. that isn’t boring and/or overly provincial; there may be nothing else – and bring it up here.

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Pounding Sand in Paris

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

So, what the Flemish paper De Morgen calls Europe’s koningskoppel (“royal couple,” namely Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy) met yesterday in Paris to try to find some solutions for the ongoing European euro/sovereign-debt crisis. What did they come up with?

Precious little, by most accounts. Perhaps that was the best to be expected, given how hard it is to get anything done in most parts of Europe in high summer-holiday season, and the fact that both, in effect, had terminated their own vacations early to meet.

(And no, rest assured that Chancellor Merkel does not regard such trips to the City of Light as recreational in any respect. Still, from the various photos emanating from that summit – check out for example this one from the De Morgen piece – one could even get the impression that they have become more comfortable in each other’s presence, something that was a problem before, as has been noted in this space.)

Continuing the beach theme, here’s one reaction, from Het Laatste Nieuws:

#geld Merkel en Sarkozy strooien zand in de ogen van de mensen: De plannen van de Franse president Nicolas Sarko… http://t.co/1cJEZ9c

@HLNlive

HLN Live


“Merkel and Sarkozy throw sand in people’s eyes” – but who is saying that? The HLN editors? No, that comes from former Belgian premier (now in the European Parliament) Guy Verhofstadt. He’s sort of a nerdy political guy – there’s a great shot of him in that HLN article, together with yet another shot of Merkel and Sarkozy posing happily together – but has been a prominent figure on the Belgian political scene for quite a while, and on the European level is mainly known as a convinced federalist. (more…)

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Notional National Day

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Today is once again Belgian National Day! A day off work! Military parades in Brussels! General joy and jubilation!

Or not. At least not that last part, for it’s hard to get very enthusiastic about a country which a while ago broke the world record for operating without a proper, approved government after its last elections (which happened at the beginning of June, 2010). Instead we have newspaper editorials marking the day like the one impishly offered by Liesbeth van Impe in the Nieuwsblad, entitled Fear and Cynicism. And as the latest in a long line of formateurs (politicians appointed by the king to cobble together a workable governing coalition), a bow-tie-wearing dude called Elio di Rupo, finds himself having to deal with squabbling political parties and scheduled negotiation-meetings that fail to convene, the prospect continues to hang over the country that a split-up might be the only solution left.

Hmm . . . a National Day for a nation on the verge of separating roughly down the middle. Don’t know about you, but that reminds me of 150 years ago and July 4, 1861, when all of the states that were to make up the Confederacy had seceded, and blue and grey armies were headed towards each other on respective sides of the new internal border. Especially since that day was described recently in an excellent New York Times piece, one in its “Disunion” series marking that 150th anniversary. (more…)

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A Midsummer Night’s Toke?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Or maybe At the Toke of Midnight, anyone? As reported initially in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen, some South African researchers think they might have found a clue to one source of William Shakespeare’s inspiration, and it ain’t the evening sun descending on the Avon river: Scientists want to demonstrate that Shakespeare smoked grass.

That’s wiet in Dutch: grass, man, that Mary-Jane stuff. Oh, and cocaine as well. The evidence so far is a number of pipes found buried in 2001 in the garden of Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon residence, which even after around four centuries still showed traces of both narcotics, and even a couple others. (“The results were in keeping with that of a modern crack-pipe,” was the rather cruel remark of one of the investigators.)

Now this research team from the underside of the Dark Continent has petitioned the Anglican Church for permission to get into the Bard’s grave, despite his clear instructions that that should never happen. (“[C]ursed be he who moves my bones” is part of his self-chosen gravestone epitaph.) But wait, they say, we don’t have to move anything! We just want to check a tooth – just one! – to look for any grooves that would indicate that he actually stuck those pipes in his mouth.

Besides, it’s right there in his Sonnet 76, line 6: “And keep invention in a noted weed.” So is that the smoking gun (so to speak)? Doubtful; other Shakespearean scholars think that a reference to clothes instead, e.g. “in a noted garb.” Click through to the article itself if you’d like a reminder (in English) of what that Sonnet is about, and a chance to judge for yourself.

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Beauty Soothes the Financial Beast

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

We’re all back to work now, the Xmas and end-of-year holiday period is definitively passed, so it’s time once again to belly up to those nasty problems still leftover from 2010. For Europe, that means in the first instance the sovereign debt crisis, which now has a certain additional player, namely Belgium, by some accounts on a one-way trip to default city. For its debts are high – roughly equal, in fact, to national GDP – and there are no responsible adults around to do something about them. There haven’t been any of those since last June, for the country has been without a proper government since the elections then, and just recently set a new West European record for time spent in a government-less regime. Dr. Doom, for one, is not pleased:

Belgium is effectively on the way to political break-up. Will the political chaos lead to financial turmoil & banking/sovereign debt stress?

@Nouriel

Nouriel Roubini

. . . wait a sec – look, I’m actually not ready to deal with such issues! Please allow me here instead to join so many Belgians, both French- and Dutch-speaking, in just letting my mind fly very, very far away from any thoughts of state bankruptcy, to the refuge of young feminine beauty. Yes, as so many national media outlets were there to report, Justine de Jonckheere (below, and more pictures here) was chosen last Sunday as Miss Belgium 2011.

Quite apart from the event’s intrinsic appeal, the Miss Belgium pageant is certainly a tonic in these times because of its sheer status as one Belgian national institution that has not been ripped into separate French- and Dutch-speaking halves. Indeed, as La Libre Belgique points out, Sunday evening’s event, broadcast out of the casino in the sea-side (and thus Flemish) town of Knokke, was a killer TV-event. It actually attracted more than 1 in 3 of French-speaking viewers, while the Flemish audience-share, at around 15%, was also double what other top shows usually attract on a Sunday evening.

That’s all very nice, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no tension over the pageant’s results, considering so many native Belgians have such an interest in them. You can rest assured that, at any given time during the tournament, approximately half the country is encouraging – whether overtly or covertly – candidates from a French-Belgian (Walloon) background while the other half is rooting for the Dutch-speaking girls. It’s accepted that whoever wins needn’t necessarily know much about how to speak the country’s “other” language yet, but that one of her first duties (and those of the two runners-up) will be to start studying it to get up to a passable level of ability as soon as possible. Still, and as beautiful as she is, this year’s winner must have certainly induced a hard swallow among tournament officials, for her last name in particular – De Jonckheere – is almost at a slap-in-the-face level of Dutchness – most true French-speakers would have very little idea how to pronounce it! Nonetheless, year after year everyone is ready to accept any result – even that of 2008, when the winner was a Czech emigrée to Wallonia who could speak no Dutch at all – as long as the tournament process is, shall we say, free and fair.

The problem, dear readers, is that this year there are troubling signs that the Miss Belgium contest was anything other than that. For one thing, as La Dernière Heure reports, one contestant claims that the fix was in for Ms. De Jonckheere from nearly the beginning. Now, this whistle-blower is Maureen Lazard, a French-speaking contestant from Walloon Brabant, but she still alleges that Justine De Jonckheere had long been the favorite (in French: la chouchoute) of tournament director Darline Devos, for whatever reason, to the extent that everyone knew she was going to win and the selection process would be distorted to make that happen. (“Devos” is really a Dutch name – de vos, the fox, quite appropriate for a beauty-pageant director – so maybe that had something to do with it.)

Sour grapes from a loser – yes, that’s what all that sounds like. But there’s another, more serious allegation, this time reported in a Flemish newspaper, namely the “SHE” supplement to the Gazet van Antwerpen. Keep in mind that Ms. De Jonckheere is practiced in finding loopholes to rules – she’s a law student – and also that a certain weight in the decision about the winner is contributed by votes sent in from the general public as SMSs. SHE magazine cites evidence that the winner invested around €12,000 to buy telephone calling-cards to engineer a flood of incoming SMS votes in her favor. Again, the complaint has been lodged on behalf of – yes – another French-speaking contestant, a certain Lara Binet out of Liège, but the only answer tournament director Devos offers is that there could not have been any fraud, since she had monitoring personnel in place as votes were counted.

Sounds lame to me. And anyway: look at Justine’s picture again, at those shifty eyes! I have to conclude that the 2011 Miss Belgium Tournament has been tainted by scandal just when that sort of national institution that can truly draw the interests of the land’s Dutch- and French-speakers together was needed more than ever. There may still be the national football team; there may still be the national armed forces; but otherwise such institutions are falling by the wayside one-by-one, with grave implications for the country’s future and therefore for its solvency.

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Washing Belgium’s Dirty Linen

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Sorry to bother: Are you aware that Belgium last held national elections back on June 13 of this (soon-to-terminate) year, yet it still has only caretaker politicians in charge of its national government?

You might have a recollection of that somewhere in the back of your mind (unless you yourself are Belgian, in which case the memory is a bit more prominent). Yet why should anyone really care – unless, of course, they are Belgian? Maybe not even then: the country seems to run fairly well even without a formal national government in place and, indeed, currently carries out the duties of the rotating EU presidency. There’s really no threat of any sort of violence, despite the current high levels of frustration within the Belgian political establishment.

One reason is the enormous Belgian national debt, since one of the points of forming a proper government is to come up with a team willing to take on the responsibility of making sure it gets paid back, in the right amounts and on time. But a simpler reason may simply be fascination – of the pileup-on-the-highway sort – with the sloppy, sordid mess that the government-forming process has become over these long six months (so far).

Take the latest sensation, namely the interview given two weeks ago to Der Spiegel by Bart De Wever, head of the N-VA party that is the largest in Flanders (Belgium’s northern, Dutch-speaking part) mainly by virtue of its strong separatist tendencies. “Strong” I say, but apparently not “overwhelming” in that for much of the past six months (if not now) De Wever has consented to appointment by the King as bemiddelaar, i.e. the politician officially designated to try to form a new government. As the authoritative Flemish paper De Standaard points out today, however, the venting De Wever delivered to Der Spiegel clearly shows he is about out of patience with the whole charade:

If it were possible to set the necessary reforms in one Belgian state on track, I wouldn’t stand in the way. But that is not possible. The Walloons [i.e. the French Belgians], above all the Socialists as their strongest [political] party, are blocking all meaningful reforms.

And that is hardly all. The interview is entitled “The sick man of Europe” (Europas kranker Mann), an epithet applied by De Wever himself (along with een mislukt land, “a failure of a land”) to the country in which he is an elected politician, one which for that matter he is sure “has no more long-range future.”

Since it’s apparent he operates under the assumption that no one in the French-speaking half of Belgium has bothered to take up the German language, De Wever goes freely on to reveal other tasty tidbits. Like he expects his N-VA party to be voted out of power in Flanders in the next election if it does in fact ever enter any new national government – because N-VA voters clearly never voted for that, but rather for some sort of intelligent separation process! Like he doesn’t feel he can trust King Albert II, since his sympathies so obviously lie on the side of the Walloons.

But it turns out that politicians from Wallonia actually are able to access German texts one way or another. Newscasts from Belgian radio today (yes, including those in Dutch) are crackling with their indignant French-speaking voices pointing out – with justification – how all this “hopeless” talk is about the last thing Belgian state finances need now that international bond speculators are starting to shift their jaundiced eyes from Greece, Ireland, etc. to pick out other possible sovereign-debt deadbeats.

Oh, and they also point out how outright rude De Wever is, considering the recent government-forming efforts by the current bemiddelaar, Johan Vande Lanotte – another Flemish politician, with the sort of funky Dutch/French name you can only find in Belgium, but from a different party – seem to be coming along so well. Yeah . . . right.

(BTW De Standaard also includes a link to De Wever’s Der Spiegel interview itself, and in a Dutch translation – not only because of its Dutch audience, but also since anyone who wants to read it in the original German needs an on-line subscription to access it behind Der Spiegel’s paywall!)

UPDATE: Sure enough, now we have this entry on the FT’s Alphaville blog reporting how S&P has shifted its outlook on Belgium’s sovereign debt from “stable” to “negative,” namely for the unusual reason of “political uncertainty,” i.e. no government. It further threatens a downgrade to the country’s AA+ rating if there’s no such proper government in place within six months – or if that “proper” government nonetheless seems to be ineffective in addressing the state’s worsening fiscal issues.

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How To Get Rich!*

Friday, November 5th, 2010

Here it is, 10 tips for hitting it big, passed along by the Belgian (Flemish) paper Het Nieuwsblad from a piece apparently originating from the Belgian job-listing site (bilingual) Jobat.

  1. Be attractive: Of course! Handsome men supposedly earn 9% more on average, hot women 4%.
  2. Have an above-average IQ: I guess they start with the obvious ones. Naturally, a disclaimer is added here – from some econ prof, Jay Zagorsky – that “not all geniuses end up rich.”

  3. Be popular in school: Really popular people earn on average 10% more.
  4. Be tall: Damn, men earn 4% to 10% more for every centimeter they are above “the average,” women 5% to 8%. But what can you do about this if you are disadvantaged? Wear high heels?
  5. Get married, and stay that way: Married couples allegedly see their net worth rise by 16% for every year of matrimony.
  6. Drink up!: This one might be a bit counter-intuitive. But if you drink, that means you socialize and thereby build up that all-important “social capital,” i.e. your business network. But all in moderation, of course . . .
  7. Be thin: Employers prefer to pay those with “ideal dimensions.” Every Body Mass Index point you carry above average lowers your net worth by 8%.
  8. Be blonde: Here the affect is apparently more indirect: the men whom blonde women marry earn 6% more than average.
  9. Don’t smoke: Good advice in any context, but non-smokers supposedly have on average 50% more money in the bank than smokers – and yes, the effect here is direct, it’s because cigarettes are so expensive.
  10. Buy property young: That way you show that you’re confident you’re going somewhere in life, and that prophecy then self-fulfills.

If we were ready just yesterday to accept advice on browser quality from a French newspaper, surely we’ll be interested in this path to riches as laid out from Belgium – because Belgium is so well-known for all its billionaires! (Actually, it’s true that the country does have a number of rather wealthy people, but they tend to live in the extreme northeast – they like to be on the Dutch border because they are tax-exiles from the Netherlands!)

*Official SEO-enabled blogpost headline! To go along with the official blog-tabloid-style entry! Is it all worthy of being #1001? We post – you decide!

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Financial Do-Over in Belgium

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Sorry: this has nothing to do with doing-over the financial crisis of late 2008-2009 to get another chance to deal with it right, even only as it hit Belgium. Rather, I noticed from a piece by Bert Broens in that nation’s business newspaper De Tijd that two of the biggest domestic banks, KBC and Dexia, will have undergo so-called “stress tests” all over again right after they thought they were done with all that.

What these “stress tests” are all about is an auditing exercise whereby banks’ balance-sheets are subjected to a standard scenario positing a business downturn, meaning theoretically that more people would not be able to pay back their loans, there would be lesser demand for new loans, and the like, and so you see how the bank would do in such a situation – first of all whether it would even stay solvent and so survive (at least without receiving some sort of state aid). And, as stated, both these Belgian banks already did the exercise and came through it with OK results. But the whistles have sounded and the competitors are being directed back to their starting-blocks to do it all again, and for a good reason: those previous stress tests did not include checking for any situation in which government bonds held by the banks might not be fully repaid. That’s rather an important omission: we’re talking in particular Southern European (or PIGS, if you like) government bonds here, and KBC Bank alone has €60 billion worth of them in its portfolio.

How then could anyone have considered the previous stress tests, which did not account for those public obligations, anything but a waste of time? Well, many cynics (or call them analysts) have felt that the real purpose of such tests was in the first place as a propaganda exercise meant to return a comforting “All OK!” for each such bank tested to calm investors’ and markets’ fears. This whole “stress test” idea was taken over in the first place from the American financial authorities, who performed them on the big American banks in spring-summer of last year, and ongoing coverage particularly from the Naked Capitalism financial weblog not only blew the whistle on that American exercise but also has found serious flaws in the European stress tests happening now. In fact a major complaint (also put forward in a related financial blog here) about the validity of the European tests was their alleged failure to take into account such sovereign risk.

Broens’ piece shows that that at least is not happening in Belgium, although he doesn’t say why, like who decided to make these exercises a bit more bona fide and call back KBC and Dexia to do them “right.” His language is in the passive tense – “in the meantime it has been decided to expand the test” – although one first guess would have to be the Belgian financial authorities.

UPDATE: A new entry on Naked Capitalism tacitly concedes that these European “stress tests” will in fact include banks’ exposure to sovereign debt in their calculations. It then goes on to sketch the great worry resulting from that: What happens when these more-honest tests reveal that too many banks in fact stand in need of more capital, possibly from governments which in many cases are no longer in a position to provide the same?

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Dutch Keystone Kops/Kriminals

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

I came across this amusing piece while surfing through the European press today and immediately realized that compressing the tale down to 140 characters to send out as a tweet would in no way do it justice. Note that it’s from the leading Flemish newspaper De Standaard; it’s about a Belgian guy, to be sure, but it’s also easy to see other reasons why that paper would want to write about something like this, since the Flemings and Dutch like to make fun of each other.

There was this Belgian guy, see, living in the Netherlands, just above the Belgian border in Roosendaal, and he found that he had lost his Dutch residence permit and so needed visit the local police station to get a new one. Bad move: he was, after all, wanted for questioning in connection with his alleged assault with a knife on his then-girlfriend back in August, 2008, something the police officer there discovered rather easily while looking up his records.

So the Rosendaal police got to chalk up an easy win, with a wanted suspect falling right into their lap, right? Not exactly: he was able rather swiftly to escape “via the garden” – aren’t police-gardens against regulations? – so that an arrest order for him was issued yet again. Easy come, easy go.

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“Reformation Day” Coming Up in Rome

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Next October 31 (a Sunday, of course) should be a rather interesting day indeed in Vatican City. According to articles in both Gazet van Antwerpen and De Tijd (the latter is actually Flanders’ main business/financial paper, but nevermind) two American victims of past sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests will be organizing a march then on St. Peter’s Square.

They don’t intend to be alone there. Rather, the two (Bernie McDaid and Olan Home, who also challenged Pope Benedict XVI on priest sexual abuse during the latter’s visit to the US in 2008) have been busy recruiting other Catholic lay organizations to join them. Between those worshippers, other sexual-abuse victims, and reform-minded individuals showing up (including, hopefully, current priests), they expect to be leading a 50,000-strong demonstration seeking to show “that their Church is in terrible trouble.” McDaid and Home will also be pushing their own four-point reform plan:

  1. Establish an independent commission to supervise how the Vatican deals with priest sexual abuse;
  2. Screen seminarians, priests, and bishops effectively against this sort of behavior;

  3. Involve lay influence in the selection of bishops;
  4. Include mandatory instruction about sexual abuse at every seminary’s program of study.

You might be asking: “I know that these guys need some time to get the word out, but why are they waiting all the way until next October 31?” No, it has nothing to do with Halloween; October 31 is also historically famous as the day when, back in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and so effectively kicked off the Protestant Reformation.

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Papa’s Got a Brand New Grave

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I guess that, even in death, the great Godfather of Soul got Tired of Standing Still – He Gotta Move On! Maybe he took one look at the temporary crypt at his daughter’s South Carolina house where they put his body and exclaimed “It’s Too Funky in Here!” Maybe he just knew that if he stuck around he would Get Ants in His Pants (And Want to Dance).

In any event, according to a new report in Belgium’s Gazet van Antwerpen (“Body of James Brown stolen”), administrators of his estate are now in a Cold Sweat, singing Lost Someone together in heart-breaking harmony. For Brown’s illegitimate daughter, LaRhonda Pettit, has come forth with an allegation that her father’s body is missing from where it was supposed to have been deposited after his Christmas Day 2006 death.

Pettit has another message, too: Give Me Some Skin! Not only does she know that the body is not there anymore, she knows why: because Brown was actually murdered, by people after his money. (The official cause of death was a heart attack.) So any proper autopsy of his remains – if they’re ever recovered – would reveal all that and get the law going in pursuit of the killers.

There you go, South Carolina police. What are you waiting for? Get Up Offa That Thing and go find Brown!

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Father of Dutch Queen Was Nazi

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: Bernhard van Lippe-Biesterfeld, German-born husband of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, therefore father of the country’s present head of state, Queen Beatrix, known to his Dutch subjects as well as to the wider world generally just as “Prince Bernhard.”* He died back in 2004, after a quite eventful life highlighted by his marriage to Juliana in January, 1937, and then his exile in London during the War with Juliana and her mother, Queen Wilhelmina.

Actually, there were some other highlights as well, which Bernhard let everyone in on by means of an interview with the Dutch paper De Volkskrant, conducted a few years before his death but authorized for release only afterwards – basically, two illegitimate daughters, one of which everyone already knew about, but one of which they didn’t. Another “highlight” Bernhard discussed in that interview (which, believe me, everyone had known about for a long, long time) was the scandal that broke out in 1976 about payments he had received in the late sixties/early seventies from Lockheed in order to push the purchase by the Dutch government of their military airplanes. This affair came very close to causing a grave constitutional crisis, with Queen Juliana threatening to abdicate if her husband were punished too much for his indiscretions, and Princess Beatrix also pledging in that case to refuse the throne. In fact, a recent, and excellent, history I read about the Netherlands in the 20th century claims that Bernhard was in fact also bribed, for the same nefarious purpose, by the Northrup Corporation, and that the Dutch cabinet of 1976 knew about that as well but never disclosed this for fear that public outrage would become so insistent on punishing the Prince that the above-mentioned abdication crisis would then in fact ensue. (In the end it was avoided via some wrist-slapping measures taken against the Prince, like taking away his military offices and forbidding him from wearing the uniform.)

A naughty guy, then, you could say. (Well, he also founded the World Wildlife Fund as well as Rotary International.) And also, it seems, a card-carrying Nazi. That is the latest Bernhard revelation, soon to be officially disclosed when the new book Bernhard: Een verborgen geschiedenis (“Bernhard: A hidden history” – pictured above) is presented next Monday by its author, Annejet van der Zijl. (Who has an excellent website, with even an English section. Strangely, though, this book-presentation will actually take place at one of the Dutch royal palaces, Paleis Soestdijk. Do they know what’s in the book?)

For now, the Flemish paper De Standaard has the story covered. Basically, in the course of her research Ms. Van der Zijl tracked down at Berlin’s Humboldt University Bernhard’s old membership-card for the Deutsche Studentenschaft. This itself was definitely a Nazi-sponsored organization, but of more interest were the other memberships claimed for Bernhard on that card, which included the NSDAP – that’s the Nazi Party, folks – and even the SA, or Sturmabteilung, who were the Nazi bully-boys who went around beating up people on German streets.

Yes, he’s dead now, so why don’t we all just leave him alone? That’s a reasonable proposition, except that, as the Standaard article notes, throughout his life Bernhard steadfastly denied that he had ever been a Nazi Party member, or that he even had any sympathies for that movement – even in that Volkskrant interview that he knew would be published only after his death. And there may very well be further revelations to come: I myself have run across allegations of some serious intelligence-leaks during World War II (i.e. to the Germans) that may have had the Prince behind them. I won’t get specific in this public forum because I’m not at all sure that they can be substantiated. But this latest revelation certainly does not make them any less likely.

*Although, if for some reason you just don’t care for “Bernhard,” he had a wide array of other official first names: “Bernhard Leopold Frederik Everhard Julius Coert Karel Godfried Pieter.” Take your pick!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I have now stumbled upon the fact that the Flemish paper De Standaard does not believe in “permalinks” but rather eliminates articles from its website after the passage of some (as yet undetermined) interval. Very disappointing! And not only because readers of this weblog thereby lose the possibility of clicking through to check out the original article, in the original Dutch. (Of course, since I’m writing for an audience that I assume does not understand any language other than English, I always try to pass along a healthy bit of what any given article says, but still . . .) No, this is also disappointing because De Standaard had been delivering so many interesting articles, especially lately.

My inclination is to write nonetheless about any noteworthy article that I come upon, even if it’s from De Standaard and therefore is sure to disappear shortly. Or does this violate some bloggers’ commandment? Could someone let me know?

FURTHER UPDATE: Never mind, the De Standaard permalinks are back. Sorry, I don’t know what happened, I just know that for a while they were dead.

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No Second Life for South Korean Three-Month-Old

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Unbelievable. Sometimes an article’s headline and lede simply say it all. From De Standaard:

Gamers’ baby dies of starvation
SUWON – A South Korean couple let their three-month-old daughter starve while together they were busy raising a virtual daughter on-line.

The villain of this particular piece was Second Life (yes, I’ve included a link to it there for you – for goodness’ sake, be careful!), which essentially is an on-line virtual world where you create your own character (“avatar”) and then wander around interacting with other avatars and doing various other things. Well, OK, I think we can agree that the actual villains were the parents, named Kim Yoo-chul and Choi Mi-sun, who the article says were given to spending up to 12 hours daily down at the local Internet café, living their “second lives” – which apparently included a virtual daughter – and in the meantime simply leaving their real-life daughter back home by herself.

Until the day when they came back home and found that daugher dead – of starvation (and also dehydration, of course), according to the autopsy. The two parents are now under arrest, and have sworn off playing any more Second Life – so they say.

South Korea is said to be the world’s most “wired” land, with the most operational high-speed DSL connections per-capita*. But maybe this isn’t always such a good thing – the Standaard article also mentions at the end another South Korean 28-year-old dude who recently died after playing Starcraft (yes, I’ve included a link to it there for you – for goodness’ sake, be careful!) for 50 hours straight, without eating or drinking.

*Of course, the parents here did not happen to have one of those many DSL connections at home, but had to go to the Internet café. One therefore wonders whether this tale could have had a somewhat happier ending had they been able to afford a home connection (you know, rousing themselves away from the computer to the child’s screams of hunger) – that Wikipedia article says it’s easy to sign up there for 100 mbps (!) downstream for less than the equivalent of $50.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I’m afraid the link to the original De Standaard article provided in this post no longer works – see my UPDATE at the end of this later blogpost if you want further discussion.

FURTHER UPDATE: Never mind, the De Standaard permalinks are back. Sorry, I don’t know what happened, I just know that for a while they were dead.

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Communist Poland Sheltered, Armed Palestinian Terrorists

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

An interesting revelation came to light just yesterday, in a program broadcast on the private Polish TV station TVN. So far – strangely – I have found the story picked up only by the premier Flemish newspaper De Standaard and by the Czech mainstream daily Mladá fronta dnes. (That’s right: nothing in the Polish on-line press, yet.)

Of particular interest in that program was the interview it included with former Polish general Czesław Kiszczak, who headed the Interior Ministry of that then-Communist country from 1981 through 1989 – thus for the entire period of martial law that was initiated in mid-December 1981 in response to the growth in popularity of the Solidarity movement. General Kiszczak was willing to openly admit that Communist Poland provided shelter and weapons to Palestinian terrorists on the lam during the 1970s and 1980s, including to Abu Nidal, head of the Black September group which was responsible for the hostage-taking and massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympic games in Munich, among other incidents. “We closed our eyes to the fact that they came to Poland to recuperate and equip themselves for further terrorist actions,” Kiszczak admitted. Poland was also quite willing to help with such preparations by selling these militants as many weapons as they wanted. Abu Nidal was even allowed to run a business in Poland – known by the name or abbreviation “SAS” according to the MFD account – for a while in the 1980s.

Former Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski (thus Kiszczak’s colleague and immediate superior) was also interviewed for the program, according to De Standaard’s account. He could not recall anything of the sort happening.

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