Archive for the ‘Belgium – Wallonia (French-speaking)’ Category

Haqqed!

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

That’s what happened yesterday to the Qatar News Agency (QNA), the official Qatari press agency, run by the Ministry of Information, as revealed in a number of reports, among which one from the Belgian French-language public channel RTBF:


Pirated by “an unknown entity” – who could it have been? Iran? North Korea? (The latter have been acting up quite a bit lately!) In any case, it was quite an impressive job, in that the QNA was hacked pretty much across the board: Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

An achievement like that at least offers one the opportunity to have a little fun. As a somewhat fuller EN-language report on the incident revealed, the hack also reached the QNA TV channel, resulting in the “chyron” of text at the bottom of the nightly newscast reproducing various non-kosher messages, such as that Hamas is “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and that there are tensions between the US and the Qatari governments. One should be able to think of even more humorous applications: how about a tweet from the QNA reading “Pardon, delivery-man wondering where to take that case of Johnny Walker Sheikh al-Thani ordered ?” . . . and the like.

The reality, of course, is that such hacks lead to nothing but trouble. Those chyron-statements may raise a chuckle, but they definitely caused red faces among Qatari diplomats. And someone was definitely trying to stir up trouble by messing with the QNA Twitter-feed – but that seems to be exclusively in Arabic.


Translation: The foreign minister confirms a conspiracy by Saudi, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait to smear the reputation of Qatar.

For those with long-enough memories, this episode will recall that time back in 2011 when hackers took over the FoxNews Twitter account and posted six tweets claiming President Obama had been assassinated. That definitely caused some turmoil, for a short while, on the financial markets. Must do better, QNA!

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Olympics: The Taxman Calls

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

Congratulations! You’re a 2016 Rio Olympics medal-winner! Quite the difference from being, say, merely a lottery-winner, gained from sheer dumb luck – admittedly in the face of odds heavily stacked in favor of the House – rather than years and years of training to get to the top of your chosen branch of athletics.

In actuality, though, there’s often no difference at all between the two. It simply depends on your country’s particular tax-regime You’ve just very publicly received a nice chunk of money, after all, whether via dumb luck or no. A government – often more than one – is likely interested in demanding a piece of it.

OLMedaille
As you see, the Belgian paper La Libre Belgique recently devoted a bit of space and one of its writers (no by-line) to this issue of the tax-status of the money its athletes gain win they win Olympic medals. First of all, such prizes are paid by the national federation of the athlete, so they differ by country. For Belgium the pay-outs are as follows: (for individual events) €50,000 for gold, €30,000 for silver and €20,000 for bronze; for team events, it’s €12,500/€7,500/€5,000. Further individual event competitors who place fourth get €10,000, fifth get €5,000.

You might think the government most interested would be that of Brazil, but no: another piece in the Dutch business newspaper Het Financiele Dagblad (behind a paywall) reveals that Brazil has waived any taxes on the amounts Olympic winners receive. (Is this a general rule among countries hosting the Games? You might think so; there is no information here either way.)

At least this means that taxation on these winnings will be determined solely by an athlete’s country of nationality. Here the anti-Double Taxation treaty Belgium concluded with Brazil back in 1972 prescribes that such finanical gains for Belgians operating in Brazil will be taxed according to the Brazilian authorities, and not again by the Belgian government. But, to repeat, the Brazilian authorities have waived any tax. So Belgian athletes are in luck.

The La Libre Belgique piece also claims there is no anti-Double Taxation Treaty between the Netherlands and Brazil – surprisingly. So Dutch athletes do have their winnings taxed, as income. And the HFD piece (behind paywall) also states that the prize-money amounts are less there: only €19,125 for an individual gold, €12,750 for silver, €9.350 for team gold. Of course, presumably there is support from the Dutch athletic federations (probably underwritten to some extent by the government) for training and being able to live without a day-job during that training, but that is surely the case in Belgium as well.

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A Little Incompetence Goes A Long Way

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

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.

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He Was Just the Piano Player!

Monday, March 16th, 2015

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

Monterrey
The lede:

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

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

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

And this was not the first time:

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

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

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

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Wouldn’t Miss It for the World!

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Those following yesterday’s gigantic Paris “Charlie Hebdo” solidarity march along at home picked up the presence of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu among that gaggle of official freedom-of-expression hypocrites:

Netanya
Now an interesting revelation from – among others – the Belgian paper La Libre Belgique – he was never invited!

InviteSelf
[S]‘est invité: he invited himself! Originally, France President François Hollande’s office had actually requested that he not attend. The reason was quite straightforward: President Hollande did not want to muddy the waters by introducing the whole Israel-Palestine mess into the occasion.

But Netanyahu insisted. According to this account, this is why he insisted: he found out that his foreign minister (Avigdor Lieberman) and economy minister (Naftali Bennett) had already arranged to go to Paris. There’s an election campaign going on in Israel right now, you have to remember, and while they are both currently part of Netanyahu’s cabinet, they also both belong to another, competing political party, Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) and, accordingly, have consistently been even more reactionary and outrageous in their statements concerning Palestine and the Palestinians than Netanyahu himself, if that can be believed.

But if they were going to be there then, by all that is Holy, Netanyahu was going to be there as well. As French President, what can you do? Well, you can be sure you invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well. And he was there, parading, even though he had originally had no intention to attend and in fact had sent his regrets, constrained by a combination of his schedule and heavy snow impairing flights from that part of the world. Then again, if Netanyahu was going to be there – well, by all that is Holy, he would be there, too.

As a sordid coda to a sordid tale: One other thing Netanyahu did in Paris, after Hollande had graciously permitted him to come, is to tell a gathering of French Jews at the hostage-scene Jewish supermarket to emigrate to Israel, since they clearly weren’t safe in France! What a guy!

(He also apparently behaved rather boorishly during the solidarity march itself; this, and his emigration urgings mentioned above, are not in the Libre piece but you can read about them in English in this article from the Telegraph.)

UPDATE: Here we go:

JCole

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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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No Rwandan Christmas Cheer

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Looks like the Grinch has already stolen Christmas in Rwanda, as the Belgian state media are reporting.

Rwanda

Belgium will not release an amount of 40 million euros in development aid to Rwanda, an “incentive tranche” that the [Ministry for] Cooperation linked, in addition to other intended amounts, to the realization of a certain number of conditions such as good governance and respect for freedom of the press. Minister for Cooperation Alexander De Croo decided not to grant these 40 million euros, as the VRT [Flemish state broadcast network] reported Sunday.

So is this a Croo-el move? It’s hard to say. Rwanda should be encouraged to make the sort of progress in the behavior of its government of the types mentioned, but it’s hard for outside observers to reach any independent judgment as to whether this denial of money is justified. Perhaps there is too little international press coverage of the country generally; perhaps it’s also true that the progress being measured is a subtle thing. OK, we can recognize when freedom of the press has taken a hit, but remember that that is being judged not absolutely but relatively, i.e. in comparison to what it was before. Who other than the bureaucrats of the Belgian Ministry for Cooperation knows anything about that?

Probably more important to keep in mind is that this €40 million is just something extra to the development aid monies that Belgium is sending to Rwanda with no such strings attached: €160 million over the four years 2011 to 2014. In effect, then, that missed bonus is another year’s worth of payment.

Most important to keep in mind of all is Belgium’s history in Rwanda. From 1884 it had been a German colony, but was taken over by Belgium after World War I. Belgium authorities were after all right next door in the Belgian Congo which they governed in a particularly notorious and exploitative manner. That track-record could not have been good omen for Rwanda; a particular mistake on their part, though, was the identity-card system they introduced in 1935, which labeled people by tribe and so cemented and probably worsened the Tutsi vs. Hutu antagonism there. This would help lead to the infamous Rwandan Genocide of the mid-1990s.

So yeah, it’s good that Belgium assists Rwanda with some €40 million a year. You’d even think the Brussels authorities would cut them a break and give them their additional €40 million bonus, even if undeserved.

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Just Confuse the Bastards!

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

The ongoing outrage over special tax arrangements for big multinational corporations rightly centers currently on Luxembourg and on the brand-new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, under whose premiership all of those advantageous arrangements were agreed there. The accompanying open secret, however, is how Luxembourg is not alone in its guilt in this regard. Ireland was actually pressured to take (limited) measures to rein in its own concessions to tax-avoiding corporations even before the issue blew up recently with the Luxembourg leaks, and EU Commission scrutiny is also being increased on some similar Netherlands measures, particularly what that country may have done to attract Starbucks.

Add to that infamous list Belgium, as well. However, a new report from La Libre Belgique describes one rather unique – indeed, some would say typically Belgian – approach taken there.

InBev
As you can see, the affair involves AB InBev, now the world’s largest brewing company, headquartered in Leuven, just to the East of Brussels. They have plenty of clout to force through their own sweetheart deal with any country that would want to host them, you would think. Indeed in 2011 the Belgian fiscal authorities permitted them to set up a “nameplate company” to which, in the usual fashion, they could use various accounting tricks to steer responsibility for more than €50 million of profits actually earned elsewhere and so be very lightly taxed on them, in most cases not at all.

This organization was set up in Brussels rather than in Leuven, perhaps to provide a sheen of “arms-length” propriety. Imagine its surprise when, last year, it found itself under investigation for its fishy tax arrangements by the Belgian tax inspectorate, the Inspection spéciale des impôts (ISI)!

Clearly, the left hand of Belgium’s tax authorities often does not know what the right hand is doing! This article does not reveal the final resolution of this investigation; it might still be ongoing, although in any event it’s likely that those authorities will go for consistency and call off the inspectors – rather than seize the opportunity presented by this bureaucratic cock-up, that is, to claim back what are surely millions of sorely needed tax-receipts from a scandalous arrangement that some official was browbeaten into approving in the past.

Really, given the mounting public outrage over these sweetheart tax deals you would think the relevant Belgian officials would think again about whether they might just want to shut this one down. It would be very good publicity; AB InBev (originally a truly Belgian company, anyway) is firmly embedded in the country so that it would be costly to move. At least these officials have effectively raised the cost of such arrangements to tax-avoiding multinationals, in the form of the uncertainty that henceforth must be part of their calculus as to whether to deal with the Belgian state.

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Dying Eyes on the Prize

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

It’s that time of year again, so that this week the world awaits the series of announcements about those famous Scandinavian awards that people in various fields of the arts and sciences are just dying to win: the Nobels.

Except wait: scientists, writers, economists, etc. are in fact not dying to win their respective Nobel prizes (as they are doing, for example, to be buried in a certain renowned or favorite cemetery) since it’s in the rules that they can only be awarded to living people! That stipulation, however, as we read in this piece from Belgium’s La Libre Belgique, is increasingly causing problems.

NobelExige
“The Nobel requires patience, perhaps too much.” Put plainly (and alliteratively), the perceived problem is that too many who deserve the prize are dying before they can be awarded it. It’s hardly a new concern: perhaps the most famous case was that of Leo Tolstoy, acclaimed as one of the world’s best novelists of all time, including during his own lifetime, who nonetheless never was recognized by the Nobel committee by the time he died in 1910.

Then again, that was the Literature Prize (first awarded, along with most of the others, in 1901), for which the relevant authorities have wielded through the years rather unfathomable selection criteria that, if anything, seem to have most to do with spreading that prize most broadly around the world – after Scandinavian writers are first covered most generously – rather than with more reasonable considerations such as general literary acclaim (example: Philip Roth). With the Nobel prizes for the sciences one might assume a more straightforward process. (more…)

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State Aid Voyeurism

Monday, July 8th, 2013

“State aid”? Aaah . . . I do wish it was something remotely sexy (sorry, nothing like “marriage aids”) – but alas. It’s namely when an EU member state government provides assistance – usually €€€ – to a domestic company. And it’s a no-no under EU rules, since we’re all supposed to be in a great big unified Euro-area where all companies can compete on equal terms, and a helping hand from your government distorts those terms.

Well, State aid usually is a no-no, but sometimes it’s allowed. And the Belgian French-language business newspaper L’Echo has grabbed a bit of a scoop with its discovery that the EU Commission’s DG Competition is now shooting for “total exposure.”

LEcho

Here’s journalist Frédéric Rohart’s first paragraph:

Does the whole world need to know which company receives which State aid (loan, subsidy, tax advantage . . . ) and for what amount? The European Commission thinks so, and intends to require that by 2014.

How does “the whole world” get to know? From a website, silly! Or rather, “websites”: the idea is that each member state would be required to set up its own State aid website, presumably under “guidance” from the Commission. We already know from L’Echo that, at a minimum, the information to be posted would have to include name of company, its VAT ID number, and the amount of the aid. (more…)

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Snowden’s Moment of Truth

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Get ready!

LEcho_Snowden

That’s “Edward Snowden ready to leave for Iceland?”, from Belgium’s leading French-language business newspaper, L’Echo. And then the first paragraph:

A private jet paid by contributions collected by Wikileaks stands ready to take Edward Snowden to Iceland. However, the authorities of that country have not given the green light for the arrival on their territory of the ex-CIA agent [note: this is an incorrect characterization], responsible for unprecedented US intelligence leaks. As he waits, Snowden still is in hiding in Hong Kong.

“The plane can take off tomorrow,” is the further claim of one Olafur Sigurvinsson quoted here, an executive with an Icelandic company responsible for collecting funds for Wikileaks. As to the important question of “From where?”, the answer is apparently “already from China” (i.e. it does not have to fly there first from Iceland, or anywhere else), since it has been rented from a Chinese company.

Please note again: “a Chinese company.” For the key question here concerns the 10,000+ km journey that would take Snowden to Iceland: whichever way they take, there would be plenty of opportunities for interception by the US Air Force, should President Obama so order. And that fact of a Chinese plane adds a delicious dash of potential Sino-American confrontation to the mix; you might not recall, but those two countries already had a serious air-interception incident between them (that time the Chinese forcing down a US military spy-plane) more than ten years ago.

So, will Obama give that order? You’d have to expect so, meaning that Snowden will swiftly be diverted to the usual regime of pre-trial torture at a US military prison somewhere, à la Bradley Manning. Thankfully for him – for Obama, that is – his grand speech before that hand-picked audience at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate will already be in the past. The German public seemed remarkably content to ignore the latest NSA spying revelations during his visit there, but they could not ignore a slap-in-your-face gesture like that. Nor will the world at large, when it happens, sometime soon now.

By the way, there is also some uncertainty as to whether Iceland might not just reward Snowden for his long flight – even if they allow his arrivel – by promptly turning him over to American authorities themselves. As this L’Echo piece points out, in 2010 the Icelandic Parliament (a.k.a. the Althing) did adopt a resolution declaring the country a refuge for defenders of freedom of expression and transparency. Then again, in the words of Interior Minister Hanna Kristjansdottir (i.e. the official who would be directly in charge of the matter), “[That] resolution has nothing to do with the laws that apply to asylum-seekers.” Oh – well OK, then.

UPDATE: Nevermind. Snowden turns out to be too clever for that, at least when it comes to the means he intends to take to get to Iceland, if that is even where he is heading.

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Big Brother Speaks!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Charleroi_camsThe big contemporary story now on the civil liberties front is that of the recent revelations made via the Guardian and the Washington Post about the extensive program of US Government spying, on its own citizens and those abroad, and with the cooperation of most Internet institutions such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook. An up-and-coming related issue is the anger against US authorities coming from foreign governments and institutions – such as the EU – whose citizens are being spied upon in this way. Some press reaction has been “Nothing-to-see-here-folks.” (A terrible piece, but I feel it merits being pushed forward because of the national prominence of the columnist – yes, it’s Friedman.) Other reaction has been much more worrisome (in the same NYT issue), or even manic (none of which is to say that the mania in question might not be justified).

Still, here at €S we deal (mostly) with the European press, and we like to look for the small but telling new development within the greater picture. I believe we have just that today, from the Belgian (French-speaking) paper La Libre Belgique (and just hold on for a little bit more to appreciate the irony of that daily’s name), with Talking cameras land at Charleroi.

Yes, “land” (débarquent), perhaps as if they were some sort of extraterrestrial. But that’s not as laughable as you may think, for these are indeed security cameras which have had added to them built-in loudspeakers for the watching police to use.

Use for what? To boss around the citizen whom that police-monitor has just spotted committing an infraction, that’s what, although the article prefers the tamer verb interpeller (“to speak peremptorily to”). This short piece’s final paragraph then reads, “The infractions these aim at are varied, from illegal dumping to badly-parked cars to paper discarded on the ground.”

Think of that, in light of what the US government (and soon, if not already, our own European governments) know about us and what we do. Just think about that, how far we have come and how far we apparently are going. “Badly-parked cars”; police bawling you out on the sidewalk from out of a security camera.

Yes, for now mention is only made of Charleroi, a city in southern Belgium, having this equipment installed. And that will only be at the beginning of next year. But it’s surely coming to us all, and soon, as is surely the landmark case that decides what happens to he who responds to such “peremptorily” being spoken to with nothing more than an upraised middle finger. I have abundant hope that such a case will be triggered early in this whole sad process; but I cannot offer much hope about the conclusion that will be reached.

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Best Job in the World?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

You might remember that was the publicity campaign undertaken back in 2009 by the Australian state of Queensland, when it opened applications for that “best job” of working as a blogging “caretaker” of an island on the Great Barrier Reef for six months, at a hefty salary.

How hefty? Hey: 53 thousand zlotys per month!

OK, he wasn’t actually paid in zlotys, probably in Australian dollars. But that’s simply the figure given in this treatment today by the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita:

Najlepsza praca świata: Poszukiwany kandydat do opieki nad rajską wyspą w Australii. Do obowiązków należeć będ… http://t.co/Ec5dPVxkNz

@rzeczpospolitaa

Rzeczpospolita.pl


My calculations show that that is just less than the equivalent of €13,000 per month – pretty good! But there was trouble in paradise. Agata Każmierska’s article also tells of how the winner (who beat out 34,000 other applicants), the Briton Ben Southall, was stung by a “un-large, but uncommonly dangerous jellyfish” just days before his “best job” gig was to end. As he recounted on his blog, at first he tried to tough it out with the increasingly severe symptoms he experienced – feeling light-headed, but then fever, rising blood pressure – but finally called a doctor onto the island, who saved him from a heart-attack just in time.

That Rzeczpospolita tweet actually reads like a job announcement (“Wanted: Candidate for a paradise island in Australia”), as if “The Best Job in the World” is set to go again. It’s a bit strange: Ms. Każmierska merely hints that that might be the case, and does so inaccurately, when she writes as the first sentence after her lede, “Unfortunately, the work is only for candidates from Great Britain and Ireland.”

In fact, “The Best Job in the World” is in fact on again, but for details you need to switch to a piece provided by AFP in the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique. (more…)

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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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American Women Are Easy

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

It’s just salacious, I know, but I just can’t leave the DSK story alone! (Part of that may be my complete lack of interest in that other current News International scandal.) I hope my readers will continue to indulge me when I bring to their attention this new piece from Jonas Legge at Belgium’s La Libre Belgique: “Three women in one weekend for DSK.”*

Which weekend was that? The one back in May that ended with his arrest in New York City for allegedly sexually assaulting the Sofitel maid. (But I don’t think that she counts as one of the three – that incident is still “alleged.”) This information comes from a friend of Anne Sinclair, DSK’s current wife, to whom he is said to confessed it.

I now yield to M. Legge’s account:

It would seem that DSK had the idea of “profiting” from one last moment of pleasure before announcing his participation in the Socialist primaries [for next year’s presidential election, which he was getting ready to fly back to France to do]. Two women were convened in the rented suite at the Sofitel. From surveillance-camera images, this information is confirmed. That same night the hotel’s receptionist supposedly refused the advances of the former IMF boss.

Wait, I’m keeping score here. If the receptionist was not concubine #3, nor the maid who went to the police, then who was? Well, at this rate that detail should turn up in public soon.

*Strangely, La Libre cites the French newsmagazine Le Point for all this information. I do prefer citing such an ultimate source above all, but in this case I could not find any mention on Le Point’s site. Maybe they’re reserving it for the (paying) print customers?

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Press Predators

Friday, May 6th, 2011

You’ve certainly heard of Médecins sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, the international medical-aid charity founded in 1971 by among others Bernard Kouchner, who not so long ago was Nicolas Sarkozy’s Foreign Minister. But there’s also Reporters Without Frontiers – a similar name, somewhat of a similar function, namely upholding the rights of news reporters to go about their work no matter where in the world they may happen to be. The Belgian paper La Dernière Heure now reminds us that Reporters Without Borders has released its annual list of “Predators of Freedom of the Press in 2011.”

No tweet here this time, sorry if you were expecting one, it seems La Dernière Heure is not on Twitter. You can follow Reporters Without Borders on Twitter, though, if that makes you feel any better, although they tweet – or is it pépier? – in French.

More to the point, though, they have their list of 2011’s 38 press-freedom “predators” on-line (and in English), although it’s in a one-webpage-per-predator format that enables a full treatment of each dictator but also makes it rather cumbersome to move from one to another. (At least the first one you encounter when you go to that webpage is Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, an excellent candidate for the head-of-the-class.)

Really, La Dernière Heure’s analysis is itself sufficient to gain an appreciation of what’s going on with this year’s list. What’s mainly been going on – haven’t you heard? – is the “Arab Spring,” which has added some new entrants to this list as their true repressive colors were revealed amid the unrest, such as King Hamad Al-Khalifa of Bahrain. That has also tightened up the anti-press behavior of some of the world press’ perennial predators, such as in the People’s Republic of China and Azerbaijan, where authorities have felt the need to get even more nasty to try to head off anything like an “Arab Spring” happening where they live.

Otherwise, you’ll find the usual suspects here: Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Belarus’ Lukashenko, and so on. But there are also some unusual suspects: the Israeli Defense Forces, say, or countries like Italy, Spain, Mexico, and the Philippines where it is not the government per se but rather violent groups operating within the country (respectively, the Mafia and other organized crime, ETA, drug cartels, and private militias) that serve to make reporters’ lives hell.

And then – EU enlargement officials take note! – there is Turkey. It is not actually on the list of 38 predators, but rather gets an honorable mention on Reporters Without Borders’ own analysis page:

In Turkey (which received a Reporters Without Borders country visit in April), the problem is not just repressive laws, especially the counter-terrorism and state security laws, but also and above all abusive practices by the courts and judges due to their lack of knowledge of investigative journalism.

Think of this in, say, Standard & Poor’s terms: The outlook on Turkey has been set to “negative,” presaging a possible “downgrade” next year onto the “predators list” proper.

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Sucking Wind

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

Check out the first sentence of this piece in La Libre Belgique by Philippe Paquet: “For those who believe they have touched bottom when it comes to absurdity and political stupidity in Belgium, Malawi provides reasons for hope.” How? Well, obviously because there is even more absurdity and political stupidity to be found there! Curious, such an attitude – still, are we to allow it anyway, in view of the fact that the Belgians did not actually rape & pillage that particular African land over eighty years of colonial rule, but rather what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, located two countries away?

In any case, the article’s title is “The wind turns in Malawi,” but don’t get too impressed, Paquet is merely trying to be clever*. After a brief mention of that country’s intention to raise its official retirement age to 70 – that when life expectancy even for women is only 51 years – we get to the real subject: Get a load of this, he crows, the Malawi Assembly (i.e. parliament) is bringing back a law from British colonial times that makes it illegal to fart in public!

He then takes that theme and runs with it. I’ll leave most of its further ramifications to French-readers interested enough to click through to the original. But just to give you a trace . . . apparently one good thing about the dictatorship under Kamuzu Banda that ruled the country for thirty years after independence in 1964 was that people were much more discrete with their personal gas-emissions during that time. So does that mean that dictatorship always smells better? No, Paquet points out, look at China, where this particular aspect of personal behavior has been notoriously loose for centuries, under kings, presidents, and Communist dictators.

* Much as I also try to do all the time when crafting titles for the posts of this weblog, I have to admit!

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Cowtown Counterintelligence

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

One behind-the-scenes development when it comes to the European Union involves the transformation over time of Brussels, its capital. The EU certainly has not yet attained the degree of political, military, financial, etc. unity and resulting power enjoyed by the United States of America, and it’s quite possible that it never will. Then again, it has certainly made great progress in these directions since the signing of the original Treaty of Rome back in 1957, and in a parallel manner Brussels has also metamorphosed in that period from a rather sleepy if historical city to an international metropolis with many of the attributes of Washington, DC (most of them to be deplored, to tell the truth): horrific traffic jams, increasing swarms of lobbyists, a non-native population from everywhere in the provinces (read: member-states) with much higher-than-average levels of both education and (recession-proof) income, etc.

Yet another aspect of Brussels hitting the “big time” lies in the realm of security, intelligence, and spying. Yes, there are now important, vital secrets buried there which intelligence services from around the world would love to ferret out, as we are reminded by a brief yet fascinating recent piece in La Dernière Heure*: Belgium bungles a European listening affair. It seems that as far back as in 2003 signs were detected of bugging devices located no less than in the Justus Lipsius Building, which is the home of the European Council (i.e. the EU organization that directly represents the interests of the member-states). In particular, the “R Committee” – “R” for renseignement or “information,” as that is the body of the Belgian parliament that supervises the country’s intelligence services – concluded that it was likely that the French, German, Spanish, and UK delegations had been bugged – i.e. most of the big boys.

By whom? Well, the piece mentions the Mossad, the (in)famous Israeli intelligence service, but no one ever found out for sure. That was mainly because Brussels is still stuck back in the provincial capital age – or perhaps we could call it the “Inspector Clouseau stage” – when it comes to effective counter-intelligence. That same “R Committee” report noted how progress in following up the initial discovery of the espionage activities was very slow, while information supplied by the responsible officials to Justice officials was incomplete. The latter just recently decided simply to drop the entire matter, as they still didn’t have anyone they could indict!

*The Dernière Heure piece generously credits its Dutch-language counterpart De Tijd with initial reports over this affair. In such cases I like to go to that original source instead and use the material there – but this time I could not find it on the De Tijd site!

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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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Mechanical Learning

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

The Belgian paper La Dernière Heure just featured on-line a great article about an eye-catching educational development in South Korea: My teacher . . . is a robot. Yes, eleven robots are already in place in South Korean elementary schools, and that country’s government apparently intends to have all such public schools equipped with them by 2013.

They look human, of course (the one in the picture at the top of the article looks female; maybe they all do), but in human terms they are relatively small-sized (can’t intimidate the little ones) and dressed in bright colors. And their function does actually involve teaching, mainly that of languages where they perform interactive exercises like vocabulary drills.

As you would hope (or maybe as you would fear), they are programmed to be able to understand human emotions as well as language, and to respond appropriately. Or at least to those situations which their programmers were able to predict: journalist Kahine Benyacoub reports that they still occasionally are faced with some language, emotion, or general situation that just does not compute, in which case they boguer, meaning they act like their software has hit a bug. (Does someone from the principal’s office have to come in to reset them?)

And then there’s this quote that Benyacoub pulls out, from Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science: “The computer scientists’ intentions are not to replace flesh-and-blood teachers, but to aid them with the development and instruction of the child.” Sure they are: as is indicated in the piece’s last paragraphy, however, battle-lines are already being drawn with the teachers’ unions over whether this new phenomenon is really such a good thing for all humans involved.

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Dazzled by a Coffee Shop Chain

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Starbucks: there have already been whole books written about this international marketing phenomenon, and that should be no surprise. Perhaps only George W. Bush himself better illustrates how a product, however average, can successfully be sold to the masses if you just have the ad money to spend and get the promotional campaign right. For me, Starbucks’ success in making an outright fetish out of coffee – so that people are willing to line up at a counter to spend on the order of $5.00 for a single cup – is emblematic of the American go-go years of not so long ago, before the big Crash, as innumerable people stuck a Grande Caffè Mocha into the drinks-holder of their SUV as they set off to visit the properties they had bought no-money-down to “flip” for a profit as soon as possible.

The company’s progress within Europe is of particular amusement, especially Central Europe which, after all, originally introduced the café/coffeehouse and coffee culture in general to the world a little less than four centuries ago. It’s a bit as if GM were to establish a high-performance automotive division in Northern Italy, with the explicit mission of showing Ferrari, Lancia, etc. how the game should be played. Belgium, at least, has heretofore largely avoided this scourge, but apparently not for long, as we see from the recent article by Caroline Boeur in La Dernière Heure with the breathless title Soon a fifth Starbucks? (more…)

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Belgium’s Grand Plan to Save Music

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

On second thought, forget the Roman Catholic Church: it’s the music industry that is the institution really going down the drain these days! (Not only that, you just know that the latter has many more instances of depraved sexual abuse hidden away in its dark closets – but do you ever hear of journalists or the authorities getting upset about those?)

Not to worry, though: Belgium is on the case! Minister for Culture Fadila Laanan – that’s right, she’s of Moroccan extraction – has just unveiled a twenty-point plan for coming to the rescue, as the mysterious journalist “S.L.” discusses in La Libre Belgique. (You can get the 13-page PDF of Minister Laanan’s plan – in French, bien sûrhere. Yes, in the meantime the Belgium government has fallen, but it takes so long to put a new one together that you can be sure that Ms. Laanan will remain at least in a caretaker capacity for some time.) (more…)

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“Typical Germans” in Conspiracy?

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Writing in the Walloon (i.e. Belgian-French) business newspaper L’Écho, in a piece somewhat sarcastically entitled The euro, our Savior, Marc Lambrechts makes a brief macroeconomic survey of the current European scene and comes up with a couple paradoxes. It looks like everybody is feeling better now about the business conditions, as surveys carried out within the Eurozone among both businessmen and consumers show. But this might be nothing more than spring-fever; Lambrechts prepares us for the shock that first-quarter 2010 economic reports are going to bring, showing a marked slowing-down then (e.g. German GDP drop of 0.4%) caused mainly by the severe winter weather and the sharp drop in auto-sales from the expiry of all those national “cash-for-clunkers” purchase-subsidy schemes.

Surely recovery will come about eventually, although with regard to Europe generally economists at the OECD are not optimistic about that happening until the second half of this year. One way for Germany to expedite that for itself, though (since the Germans earn so much from exports), is to get the euro to fall in value against the other major world-currencies – a process to which nothing has contributed more lately than the continuing confusion in the financial markets over Greece’s fiscal problems, which German obstinacy and tight-fistedness at the EU level has only prolonged. “A curious paradox,” Lambrechts calls this.

UPDATE: Strangely, the performance-vs.-confidence balance seems to be reversed in the US, as per this article from the New York Times.

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“Is That a Parrot in Your Pocket, Or . .”

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Who knew? It looks like the French-Belgian paper La Dernière Heure is becoming the “go-to” destination for news on the silly side. First, a few days ago, we got word of new security concerns regarding surprise pop sensation Susan Boyle.* Today DH serves up Betrayed by her parrots at customs.

The tale is simple, and short. A Russian woman tried to cross the border back from China into Russia smuggling some parrots concealed in her special smuggling-clothes – fifty of them, in fact, worth the equivalent of €235. The one thing she forgot to do was give them some sort of narcotic birdseed beforehand to quiet them down, for at the decisive moment in front of the Russian officials silent they were not. “They woke up at that moment and started arguing [discuter] among themselves,” reads the police communiqué. “It was simply impossible for the customs-inspector and the tourists not to hear the parrots.” The authorities are of course commencing legal action against the perpetrator.

The main thing to me about this episode is how, despite its brevity, it has such comic potential (which I’ve tried to get a start on in the title). I bet we’ll be hearing more about his from one or more of the late-night comics that are left once their writers get wind of the incident. (Maybe some of them follow €S!) But I also encourage readers to have a crack of their own at formulating a joke, and to e-mail it to me: I promise to attach truly good ones – if any – in an UPDATE to this post.

* Comedian Craig Ferguson (Scottish, as is SuBo) had a bit of fun discussing that incident when “[s]he called the police after an intruder broke into her house, which must be terrifying. Imagine walking into a dark living room in the middle of the night and bumping into Susan Boyle!”

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SuBo in Danger?

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

John Lennon, thirty years ago; surprise Scottish pop sensation Susan Boyle next, i.e. to be shot down by some crazed fan? That’s what her family are worried about, specifically her brother John, after Susan returned to her council-flat home one evening earlier this week to encounter a young intruder rummaging around inside.

Belgium’s La Dernière Heure picks up the story here, but they originally got it from that shining star of British journalism, the Sun, so you can read all about it in English here. (And those Belgians didn’t even include the extra bits, like how she can dance like Michael Jackson!)

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Violence in Haiti – and Capability

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Four days on, and most of the world’s attention is still focused on the earthquake-disaster in Haiti. You’ll get no complaint about that out of me, and in fact I’ve finally come up with some things to pass on here that you might find interesting. Keep in mind, though, that I try only to do so when it’s material you probably have not encountered through the English-language press. Often, as here, that means it offers an unconventional, even perverse perspective.

For instance: Brazil is another country ready to assist the Haitians in their hour of need, as you would expect. But in Brazil’s case it is the Ministry of Defense that is taking the lead, as the Dutch newspaper Trouw reports: Brazil sends weapons to Haiti. Weapons? For sure: because people are getting so desperate there by this point that there is the very real threat of a complete break-down of public order, so the place stands sorely in need of some guns that shoot rubber bullets, and other crowd-control armaments.

We can see that from yet another Dutch report, this time from the Algemeen Dagblad: Dutch [team] break off rescue-attempt after gunshots. A Dutch “rescue-brigade” of four ten-man teams (and their dogs) specialized in finding and rescuing people from rubble is finally in Port-au-Prince, but they had to stop their first efforts to rescue people under a collapsed bank after gunfire came ever-closer, and now coordinate with local UN officials for an armed escort. And by the way, it’s a Brazilian who is in command of all UN troops in the country, many of which are Brazilian.

Then there is a rather controversial opinion piece placed today in the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique: Are blacks incapable? It’s quite interesting that I can’t find the author’s name anywhere on that webpage, although it does seem he is of African origin himself, as he writes of his “brothers of color” and how they are sure to let him know how they don’t like what he is saying. His lede is brief: “Haitians’ liberty has served for nothing but bringing forth tyrannical regimes.” The situation there is catastrophic now – but it was catastrophic even before the earthquake struck. Much the same applies to the countries of Africa, he writes, still trapped in backwardness and poverty, as they have been for decades since the departure of the colonial authorities. (Also, their own silence now when it comes to offering help of their own to Haiti has been deafening.) The mysterious editorialist attributes this state-of-affairs to black culture, for while all human beings have the same capacity for intelligence, the more “emotional” black outlook on life looks always for a strongman to take charge, and ultimately does not care about the corruption and elites-creation that must ensue. As a result, “we must have the courage to affirm that our culture does not favor [economic] development, it is indeed antagonistic to development.”

A low blow during Haiti’s time of Calvary? Or strong words whose uttering is made all-the-more necessary by the emergency? It does seem that Haiti is fated to be a ward of the US and/or the international community, a basket-case in state form, for quite a long time to come. Anyway, it looks like La Libre does not do comments, so I don’t know how this guy’s “brothers of color” are supposed to check in with their anticipated objections. As for you, dear readers, you’re welcome to do so here by e-mail as always, and perhaps then I could pass along any suitable comments to La Libre.

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Has Michael Jackson Left the Building?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

You’ve got to hand it to Michael Jackson – or, rather, to the executors of his estate, who seem to have digested well the lesson that Elvis Presley has made more money since he died in 1977 than he ever did during his actual lifetime. There’s already a new Jacko single out, released last week and entitled “This Is It,” and you may also be aware of the movie and soundtrack – both of that same name – due for release worldwide at the end of this month.

But wait – there’s more! As Serge Bressan of the Belgian paper La Dernière Heure now reports, there’s also a Michael Jackson novel due out next June. This news comes, naturally, out of the just-concluded 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the announcement was made by representatives of the American publishing concern Random House.

Bressan was able to get further details from an unnamed French-based editor returning from Frankfurt. The work will be entitled Fated, and it will be a graphic novel of 200 pages or so – that is, a comic-strip novel, in black-and-white, drawn by an Indian gentleman, Mukesh Singh. Apparently Jackson had been working on it for a couple years with Gotham Chopra, son of the medical author and lecturer Deepak Chopra. You won’t be surprised to hear that the plot deals with a pop-icon who can’t deal with all the fame.

What’s next? If Elvis is anything to go by, you can expect rumors to arise soon that Jacko really didn’t die – or that he did but has come back to life by the power of pop, why not? – followed by scattered claims by people of having seen him alive, at the grocery store, at the kindergarten, one white-gloved hand and all.

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Tide Gradually Turning Against Roman Polanski in France

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

After French/Polish director Roman Polanski’s arrest last Saturday night as he was trying to enter Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival where he would accept an award, the first public reactions from his countries of citizenship expressed outrage. More substantively, both the French and Polish foreign ministers issued a joint appeal to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene, which she declined to do.

Now almost a week after the fact, however, attitudes seem to be changing about the case, to Polanski’s detriment. Jan Cienski of the Global Post has a pretty good summary of how that is occuring in Poland, while Doreen Carvajal and Michael Cieply of the New York Times posit the same development in France. (The NYT editors themselves take up the attitude to the case that seems to prevail throughout the American continent: Polanski must be returned to the US to face justice.)

A trip through the on-line French press does turn up indications that the tide has turned against the Oscar-winning director. (more…)

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Tamiflu Increasingly Under Fire

Monday, August 10th, 2009

The swine flu’s a-coming, it’s a coming! There’s no ignoring it now, not after today’s front-page story, top-of-the-fold and complete with color-coded maps, in the Washington Post. “‘The virus is still around and ready to explode,’ said William Schaffner, an influenza expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine who advises federal health officials. ‘We’re potentially looking at a very big mess.'”

Wow. You may wonder, as I did: “OK, we had swine flu in the spring, and now they say it’s going to come back soon. Where has it been off to in the meantime?” The answer: in the Southern Hemisphere! It’s winter there now, so I guess it has something to do with cold weather – although it has stuck around to an alarming degree nonetheless in the UK. That could be a function of the rather “un-summery” (i.e. cool, cloudy, rainy) summer we’ve mostly had here so far in Northern Europe.

Turning back to the Northern European press – i.e. to something you may not be able to just read yourself – the French-language Belgian paper Le Soir has picked up on those reports that we discussed here earlier about swine-flu cases being discovered that are resistant to Tamiflu. Once again with Le Soir, the article includes a brief mention of how “The Roche laboratory [maker of Tamiflu] had indicated that it expected a 0.5% rate of resistance to its antiviral [drug] according to results from clinical tests,” and that makes me see red. That’s just marketing propaganda; how can they truly know how widespread the resistance to their drug will be through “clinical tests”?

Here’s what Le Soir has that’s new about the swine flu, however (although they tend to call it the “Flu A/H1N1,” which seems standard for French media): the Tamiflu used to combat it also induces undesirable side-effects in children – “important” effects, according to the article, effects “quite a bit more than the preliminary studies done to get the medicine approved allowed us to guess.” This is evident from the unpleasant experiences of pupils at one particular elementary school in England where they all were given Tamiflu after it was found that one of them had returned from a vacation to Mexico with the swine flu virus, and it obviously argues against that kind of preventive prescription of the drug.

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Kiss Me, You Swine!

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Caroline Grimberghs of Belgium’s French-language daily La Libre Belgique gives notice today of what at first glance seems a rather strange new phenomenon: “swine flu parties” (“Flu evenings” for voluntary contamination – although she repeatedly misspells the event as “swin flu parties” in her text). Yep, these are supposed to be social occasions for which the guests of honor, so to speak, are people known already to be suffering from the “H1N1 pandemic flu,” better known as swine flu. The idea is for everyone else in attendance to do their darndest to catch the disease themselves, thereby gaining at the cost of a little discomfort for a while some bodily immunity against a second wave of H1N1 that is supposed to hit in the fall and be rather more deadly. (For now, national health authorities describe swine flu’s symptoms as basically indistinguishable from your garden-variety – why don’t we just call it “kosher”? – influenza.)

To be sure, Grimberghs does not claim this new wrinkle in festive occasions (could we call it a “cough-y klatch”?) is yet to be found in Belgium, just mainly in the US and the UK so far. But that may only be due to some lack of Belgian imagination: she also notes that her country recently had to switch from the “blocking phase” of health policy (i.e. trying to keep H1N1 out entirely) to the “attenuation phase” where authorities can only try to the limit the damage, and the total of Belgian swine flu-sufferers now stands at 126, although with no deaths (yet). Meanwhile, a vaccine against it is still only under development, while medication to counteract it (I assume she means Tamiflu here) is in short supply and thus allocated only to those most seriously at risk.

So indeed, why not go try and get it to give yourself the immunity? Studies of the great 1918 Spanish flu epidemic seem to indicate that those who came down with that early had much greater survival rates. And while “swine flu” does seem an intriguing new idea for a party-theme, I have to wonder just what sort of activities that is supposed to mean – what’s the protocol? “Get down, get funky, get infected”? Do you serve drinks in dirty glasses? What specific sort of physical person-to-person interaction is envisioned here? Does everyone sit on the living-room floor and play “spin-the-medicine-bottle”?

On top of that, we learn from the Washington Post that US summer camps are closing down out of fear for the H1N1 virus. Frankly, to me this signals a fading of the traditional American entrepreneurial spirit that may offer a clue to the US’ current economic troubles. No, you don’t cancel summer camps – in fact, you quickly set up and advertise new “swine flu camps” where parents can handily send their children both to ensure that they get the immunity and that others – medical professionals, optimally – have to put up with the kids during that messy, cranky period when they are sick. I can imagine it now: “Good afternoon, boys and girls, I’m pleased to welcome all 110 of you to Porky’s H1N1 Holiday Camp! As you know, we have 55 sleeping bags available to accommodate you – please submit your choice of “sleep buddy” to your assigned counselor . . . ”

UPDATE: Uh oh, don’t get confused: word from the other side of the Belgian cultural divide, i.e. from the Flemings, is that they like to refer to the H1N1 virus in Dutch as the “Mexican flu” instead. Kiss me, Julio!

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