Archive for the ‘Netherlands’ Category

Making Her Name in the West

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

A surprising summer TV ratings hit, in many countries, was the Women’s Football European Championship Tournament, just concluded this past Sunday and held at various stadiums in the Netherlands starting on 16 July.

As with all such tournaments, things only start to get really serious when it comes to the knock-out rounds, here the quarter-finals which were held on the weekend of 29-30 July. I tuned in then to the Germany-vs.-Denmark game, and was taken by surprise at the beginning when the stadium band played the Danish national anthem and – as is standard – the TV camera panned the line of starting Denmark players. One of them was definitely not like the others: not fair-skinned and blonde or standard brunette, but quite dark-skinned and dark-haired indeed. That was number 9, Nadia Nadim (also nothing near the typical Danish first or last name), who it turned out played as one of the forward strikers within Denmark’s 4-4-2 system.

Nadim actually scored, with a header, the goal that brought Denmark back to 1-1 against the Germans (cancelling out their goalkeeper’s terrible mistake that had allowed in a long-range strike for the Germans’ one goal), in a game the Danes would go on to win 2-1, a spectacular upset against the German women’s team that had won the last six such tournaments. She also scored Denmark’s first goal – an unstoppable penalty-kick – in the final against the Netherlands that the Danish team ultimately lost 2-4. And throughout the tournament (at least the games I watched) she was a dynamo of energy up there at the front of the Danish line.

But the equally interesting thing here is the back-story. Where is this lady from? This piece from The Local.dk explains things well enough, in English: She was born in Herat, Afghanistan, to a father who was an officer in the Afghan Army and was executed by the Taliban in 2000, whereupon she fled with her mother and siblings to Europe, to Denmark. (I believe hearing during a game broadcast that the original plan was actually to carry on to go live in England.)

Now 29 years old, she is starting striker for the Denmark women’s national team, as well as for the Portland Thorns in the (American) National Women’s Soccer League. But that’s not all: she ultimately will become a doctor, as she is also studying in Denmark towards her medical degree. (For those not in the know, that requires abilities in math and science.) PLUS, as this piece from the website of a Danish sports TV channel puts it, she speaks seven languages (Danish, English, German, French, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi) and can be interviewed in at least the first three listed. (Nadia quote from that sports-site piece: “I’m quite bright. You would hardly believe it – surprise!”)

Inevitably, then, she embodies themes that go far beyond the mere persona of Nadia Nadim herself, in several directions. There is the elevation of international women’s football in the general public interest that this particular tournament has helped achieve, with the related and important aspect that now, for once, girls interested in playing football finally have heroes there performing on TV to which they can relate, of their same gender. Except that these particular feats, of course, were pretty much achieved collectively by all the women players participating in that Euros tournament.

For Nadim, in addition, there is the refugee aspect, the fact that she certainly does not “look” very Danish – and indeed only became a citizen when she was 12-13 years old. I daresay, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone calling for her to be thrown out of the country, even among Denmark’s most rabid anti-foreigner rabble (all tattoos, piercings and Viking-horns). Denmark has certainly had a problem within the context of the Europe-wide refugee crisis that exploded in mid-2015, and it’s fair to say the country has mainly tried to keep its doors closed; it’s anti-foreigner party, the Danish People’s Party, has had strong influence on each government since the turn of the century. In Germany, similar anti-foreigner sentiment has to some degree been tamped down through nation-wide delight at the success of the men’s football team, which features stars of Turkish, Tunisian, Ghanaian lineage and the like. Might the same thing happen in Denmark via Nadia Nadim?

Yet I feel there is an even greater point to be made here, by looking back to where she originally came from. My thoughts were turned in this direction when I recently came across this piece from De Volkskrant:


“In some parts of Afghanistan women aren’t even referred to by name.” First paragraph of the article:

Women in Afghanistan are often indicated as “mother,” “daughter,” “wife” or “grandma.” In some parts of the land the name is not even denoted on birth-certificates, and on the marriage license only the name of the groom and the father of the bride are to be read. It even happens that the name of a woman who has died is not put on her gravestone, but she is rather referred to as “wife of.” Certainly within conservative circles, it is just not done to use a woman’s name within the family environment.

That is what Nadia Nadim escaped when she fled with her family. Does anyone think she would have played football (there is no Afghan national women’s football team), learned seven languages, become a doctor had she stayed in Afghanistan? We all know that the chances are overwhelming that she would have been kept illiterate and barefoot, restricted her whole life long to the usual roles of child-bearer and household servant. For we know that one of the things the Taliban are quite serious about is that girls are not to be educated – just ask Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala. (Admittedly, Malala herself is Pakistani, but the point still applies. By the way, that sort of outside-imposed upholding of women’s rights still does not justify the continued presence in that country of foreign military forces, nor the trillions of dollars or many thousands of lives – native and foreign – that have been wasted there since 2001.)

It was only by escaping to the West that Nadim could develop and display her quite impressive personal potential – and only in these comparatively rich (could one say: “comparatively civilized”?) countries where the society that took her in could also benefit from her many gifts. Why are these other countries so poor? Admittedly, it is a complicated question, which certainly involves somewhat of a history of colonial exploitation. But Nadia Nadim shows that an important reason they are still poor is their unwillingness to allow women to contribute to society in all the ways that they can; and this has to be specified as a very grave problem centered around a certain religion, namely Islam.

P.S.: For those interested in hearing her speak English, here is an interview she did in Oregon as a Portland Thorns player. (When I have time, I’ll see if I can embed that here in this post – thanks for making it so difficult, WordPress.)

Also: It seems she mostly tweets in English, for whatever reason. Sure, that reason may be “because that’s not really her account” (it’s not verified), but take a look, it has pictures you imagine only she and her team-mates had access to, and the like.

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Protect the Planet!

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s personal traits – only occasionally noted – is that he is a mysophobe: that is, he is afraid of catching germs from other people, and thus doesn’t like to shake hands, probably keeps tubs of hand-cleaner all around the Oval Office, etc. I don’t know whether that is a good or bad thing, or even something particularly strange; what I do know, having had it just pointed out to me by the Dutch national news service, the NOS, is that for the right person this trait could turn out to be lucrative.


“NASA is looking for someone (male/female) to protect the Earth against other-worldly life” that tweet reads. Note well: We’re not talking here about the macro level (so no need to pass along word to Ironman, say, if you happen to be acquainted, that an alien-invader fighter is wanted), but rather the micro level. Yes, even though the official notice (which you can read in English here) lists “Planetary Protection Officer” as the job-title.

Stated simply, bringing back microbes from, say, Mars to the Earth could cause all sorts of serious problems. (Ask any immunologist for help if your own imagination is not up to the task of figuring out what this is all about.) But it goes the other way, too: It won’t do to bring any sort of harmful Earth-based microbes to places we explore (like, uh, Mars, or our Moon), for at least two reasons:

  1. Since 1967 there has been the Outer Space Treaty forbidding that (as well as the contamination of Earth by foreign microbes already mentioned, of course); and
  2. At a lower level of concern, it just wouldn’t do to unknowingly bring along some Earth microbe to another planetary body, then “discover” it there, believe it to be something new and remarkable because of the context in which you think you have “discovered” it, and then ultimately be embarrassed when the truth is discovered.

This all sounds very reasonable and necessary – but also difficult to master! How can one know for sure that no such microbes are being transferred, in either direction? It must require a lot of training, a lot of smarts. But if you are up to that, it’s well-rewarded: That job announcement lists a salary of between $124,406 [sic] to $187,000 per year, on a three-year contract (renewable).

Fortunately as well, even as the NOS picked up this job announcement from the USAJOBS.gov site, it also took the trouble to unearth an OCT 2015 article from the New York Times about NASA’s current Planetary Protection Officer, Dr. Catharine A. Conley.

Those of you interested in looking into this opportunity further can simply head on to there. (Note: There is no indication that whoever NASA hires would necessarily be replacing Dr. Conley.) Careful, though: As the NOS piece points out, this is a NASA appointment and therefore for US citizens only. (No doubt you would also have to gain a pretty high security clearance as well.) Then again, as it goes on to observe, the European Space Agency has a similar position, although there are no apparent openings there at present.

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Vierdaagse: Terrorist Target?

Monday, July 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gassing It From Both Sides

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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Clattering Clooney

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back to Doping Square One

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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Guests of the Prime Minister

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

Hey, forget Bob Geldof! Now it’s no less than the Prime Minister of Finland who is offering to house – personally – migrant asylum-seekers.

FinnPM
Prime Minister Juha Sipilä this (Saturday) morning made this announcement on Finnish state radio YLE, adding that all fellow Finns should follow his example.

As you might surmise, however, there is some fine print involved here (quite apart from the fact that he did not specify how many such persons he is willing to house – or at least reports I have seen so far do not so specify).

  1. This is Finland, a country not notable as one that asylum-seekers interviewed out of that . . . er, mob coming up from the Balkans through Hungary have mentioned as a desired destination. Indeed, remember that all these folks come from relatively hot lands – yes, “hot” in terms of conflict-ridden, that’s why they are trying to get away, too hot to handle, but here I mean more conventional “hot,” e.g. in terms of ambient temperature records recently broken in the Middle East with measurements of up to 140˚F. Finland, on the other hand, is rather cold. Among other things, this means that any who take up this offer will surely find themselves isolated from anyone else remotely sharing their background or values, as other migrants who aren’t able to take advantage of free accommodation – and who knows to what extent the Finns are truly ready to follow their head-of-government’s lead? – will not follow them there.
  2. Making things worse, the accommodation Premier Sipilä is offering is not his house in Helsinki, at least in Finland’s south, but rather his vacation-house at Kempele which, while not really in the far Lapland-North, is certainly at what you could call Finland’s “Middle.” At least it’s also rather close to the Gulf of Bothnia, that is, the sea – although the concept of “beach” at that Northern latitude is problematic at best.
  3. Finally, whoever takes up the Prime Minister’s generous offer will be obliged to at least keep trying to pronounce his name correctly – a difficult assignment!

Take another look at the Premier’s face in that photo, then – this couldn’t be some sort of elaborate Finnish practical joke, could it?

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Texas Shooting, Not Amsterdam

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

“What happened?” That was the gist of a couple of e-mailed enquiries I received in the wake of my previous blogpost about the visit of the famed Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard to Amsterdam for a “Free Speech” conference last Saturday.

(One of the enquirers added that I would have been much more precise, instead of headlining the piece “Charlie Hebdo in Amsterdam?”, to have referred instead to the shootings in Copenhagen last February, which had to do in a much more-analogous way with Westergaard’s Amsterdam event. That’s quite right: but where’s the corresponding phrase to “Charlie Hebdo” to invoke that incident to the reader’s mind in a short headline? Those Danes sometimes are so deficient in that essential modern PR skill of thinking up snappy descriptions, you know, the kind that are instantly hash-taggable!)

Nothing happened, of course. Security at De Balie was raised to truly ridiculous levels, the likes of which I am sure that place had never seen before. Take a look at this great photo:

DeBalie
Deeper in that scene and to the right you have the Leidseplein, Amsterdam’s premier (but by no means only) party-square. Rigorous on-the-spot reporting by yours truly confirmed there was not a whit less of the sort of festive atmosphere there that you’d expect on a balmy May Saturday evening, despite that weird police presence just on the other side of the tram-stop.

There was another much-closer analogue than “Charlie Hebdo” to that Free Speech conference in Amsterdam, but that occurred subsequently. It was of course that Free Speech (or, indeed, “Provocatively Mock Mohammed”) conference in Garland, TX, a suburb of Dallas, that was actually the target of an armed attack. While Westergaard in Amsterdam received hardly any coverage outside the Netherlands – logically, for nothing really happened – I am sure you are already aware of that Texas attack via your own particular favorite news-source. The coverage I liked, however, was this:

TexasGuys
Amen, brother! Just imagine: It was the two attackers who had the AK-47 assault rifles –  this being Texas, there was no mystery or surprise that they had managed to get ahold of such – yet they were both killed by security wielding only pistols, having only managed to shoot one guy in the leg! In fact:

An officer who normally works on traffic was there as part of a heavy security detail for the event, and this officer shot and killed both gunmen using his duty pistol, said Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland police.

What a pair of losers! The gang who couldn’t shoot straight! Pitiful, particularly by Texas standards. Imagine: it’s your one chance at the big-time, the attack that will define your life (either by ending it, as occurred, or by getting you locked for life so that there can be no second act) – yet you mess it up this badly, at the hands of a traffic cop! Strangely, this Washington Post piece concentrates almost exclusively on how one of these gunmen, one Elton Simpson, had already been watched by the FBI for years, as if that were his big mistake! Well, all that surveillance apparently did not keep him from driving up outside the Garland convention center with his friend and their automatic weapons, did it? (more…)

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Downtrodden Down Under

Monday, May 4th, 2015

It may be on the entire other side of the world, but Australia (together with, of course, New Zealand) is popular among traveling European youth taking that “gap year” before university – or, more likely these days, spinning their wheels in a very bad job market and so willing to beg, borrow and/or steal the considerable sum for a round-trip ticket to Oz, to at least alleviate the boredom and frustration by traveling in a fascinatingly unfamiliar land.

Recent news indicates that might not be such a good idea any more.

Aussie
“Foreign workers exploited in Australia.” Many in that last (unemployed) group understandably want, and need, to find paying employment once they arrive there to offset costs, and the Australian government does meet them more than half-way with a liberal work-visa. But it doesn’t necessarily do so with the best interests of those visitors always in mind. The lede:

It is popular among European youth to travel and and work a number of months in Australia. That is also allowed by a work-visa, but from an Australian documentary to be broadcast Monday [today; Australian time is ahead, so this has already happened] it turns out that these foreign workers are regularly exploited.

Well, they’re a vulnerable population, aren’t they? Strangers in a strange land; and the quote says “European” youth, so for many the level of English used to understand and be understood may not be too high – not that the accent or vocabulary of the Australians necessarily makes it easy to understand them even for those who master the Queen’s own English!

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Charlie Hebdo in Amsterdam?

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

Take a look at this distinguished elderly gentleman! Would someone with a grandfatherly face like that ever hurt even a flea?

Westergaard
Don’t worry: I won’t tell you that he has ever hurt anything, whether a flea or otherwise. On the other hand, he’s the target of many. This is Kurt Westergaard, one of the most “notorious” of those “Danish cartoonists” whose work back around 2005 touched off riots, death and general destruction around the world in support of the absurd notion that the Mohammed of Islam is something that is beyond criticism or ridicule. And of course Westergaard himself was the target of an attack back in 2010, where only the padlocked door to the “saferoom” he had established in his house enabled him to fend off the knife-wielding attentions of some sort of crazed fanatic or another.

Well, it turns out that Westergaard will be the featured speaker at the Vrije Woord (“Free Word”) Festival happening tonight at Amsterdam’s premier venue for that sort of public presentation, De Balie, right on the Leidseplein. De Balie officials only announced his presence this very morning, out of security considerations; previously there had only been talk of some “mystery speaker” and, somehow, the attendant possible necessity for the screening of attendees as they arrived.

That’s still a little less than a full 12 hours’ worth of notice, and as we have seen (as in the assassination on US Election Day, 2004, of the film-maker Theo Van Gogh), Amsterdam has plenty of Muslim fanatics. Can they get their act together in time to make Westergaard sorry he ever even considered visiting the Netherlands’ delightful (co-)capital? There will be security there in abundance, of course; indeed, usually De Balie is open seven days a week, if only for its cafe, but the building has been closed today and will only re-open when the Festival starts at 19.30.

This piece in the newspaper Het Parool notes that there has been no withdrawal from tonight’s festival by anyone who bought a ticket, although De Balie made that option available. Apparently some employees at De Balie have refused to work tonight, however, for whatever reason. Also, according to this other Parool article, the Netherlands chapter of international writers’ organization PEN got early confidential word at the end of March that Westergaard would be coming and withdrew its co-participation – the event had “become too big,” according to its chairwoman.

In a related story, you may have heard how around 150 writers are now protesting the intended awarding of the “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at an upcoming gala put on by the American PEN. But really, now: what is it – among many other things – that Charlie Hebdo and that Kurt Westergaard are satirizing? It has to do with the very fact of all the fanatics out there that make it necessary to layer on the security, to make people fear for their lives, just to make the point that – exactly like the Christian God in, for example, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and countless other works of Art – the Muslim God and Mohammed are not to be immune to satire and ridicule, and that those for whom this is unacceptable had best start accepting it or move back to wherever it is they originally came from.

So all power and plaudits to Kurt Westergaard, and to Charlie Hebdo. But keep an ear out on your May Saturday night for word of the latest killings, this time in Amsterdam.

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Netherlands Imam Gala Under Threat

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Eagle-eyed Telegraaf journalist Alexander Bakker sends us advanced word of an interesting event happening next March 8 in Rijswijk (a suburb of The Hague), check it out:

Rohamaa
As you can probably make out, it’s going to be a sort of imam-extravaganza: the smaller-type bits there just under the date speak of “Readings | Films | Live translation | Anasheed* | Child-care.”

I won’t be there, unfortunately, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I can’t remark how the poster Bakker retweets reminds me too much of some WWE event; much better is this one:

Rohamaa2

I found this one, naturally enough, on the website for the event’s main sponsor, the Rohamaa Foundation (Rohamaa = رحماء = “merciful”). That second poster, just like the first one, takes care to note that there will be separate lecture-halls for males and females. The two posters also share the prominent slogan Zij Hebben Recht Op Ons or “They have a right to us,” meaning “They have a right to our help,” for it’s clear from their website that Rohamaa is mainly a charitable foundation channeling financial contributions and other assistance to hot-spots in the Arab world (and, Allah knows – Syria! – these places do stand in need).

The thing is, I feel quite confident in saying that the staging of such a clearly Islamic public event would not per se excite notice in the media – i.e. this sort of thing is normally “dog-bites-man” by now. But no, there is a problem: three of the headline imams are of the sort of reputation that the Dutch authorities have denied them a visa to come. In turn, this has prompted the local Rijswijk authorities (civil government, police, courts) to confer on the issue; the local government spokesman is unsure “whether there will be a decision.” What sort of “decision” could we be talking about here? The Telegraaf article does not say; but what could it be otherwise than to disallow the event?

Back to the Rohamaa website, and if you scroll down you can read (again, in Dutch) a press-release of two days ago telling of how the Foundation is “indignant” at the decision to deny those visas – apparently after they first had first been routinely granted, with no indication of anything untoward. Even more annoying: the top Ministry official in charge of the decision stated on TV that he knew nothing about the dossier.

Then this:

We fear that such decisions merely contribute to an increasingly polarized climate in the Netherlands. One could conclude from this that things in the Netherlands are measured by two different standards: freedom of expression is a great societal blessing, requiring guarding at all times, except when it has to do with certain minorities. This feeling has prevailed now for some time and is by this merely confirmed and enlarged.

Hear, hear! Vrijheid van meningsuiting, people! Freedom of expression!

* Anasheed is basically Islamic vocal music, mostly a capella.

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Don’t Make Germans Like They Used To

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Perhaps it is untoward to quote oneself, but in this case my tweet of a few days ago has to be revised and extended in light of further information.

Aldi
In particular, I put there “after complaints,” but in that I was just being faithful to the original article out of De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper.

Aldi received at the beginning of last week the first complaints. One customer asked them not to use anymore the mosque, a religious symbol, on the label. Then a discussion arose on the Internet, after which Aldi pulled the soap from the shelves.

Now another version of events has arisen, this time from an actual German source:

AldiSeife
According to this, it wasn’t “complaints”; it was one complaint about that mosque on the soap-label, from one guy on Facebook. This is backed up by this report from the local newspaper from the area where this Aldi store is located (North Rhine-Westphalia).

Shitstorm

The customer argued that the mosque and minaret of the Muslims were to be observed with respect and dignity. “And it is precisely for this reason that I do not find it suitable that one should put this illustration, so full of meaning, on just any consumer product.”

That was all that it took: off of the shelves those bottles of liquid soap flew! But in that last tweet you’ll perhaps have notice a recent addition to German public vocabulary: “shitstorm.” That is what ensued: Aldi promptly came under fire for its action (although I’m unaware that that has caused them to reverse it and start selling the soap with those labels again).

But that was last week – the first full week after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. This week saw something similar, in fact even more alarming. The usual Monday-evening march of the new, anti-immigrant PEGIDA movement in Dresden was canceled by the authorities – and of course the counter-demonstrations that had been planned for that evening as well – because of a threat that had been received against Lutz Bachman, one of the movement’s leaders until, just two days ago, he resigned after pictures of him posing as Adolph Hitler became public. (more…)

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Charlie Hebdo: The Stark Viewpoint

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

For any sort of publication that puts “Euro” in its name, it would now seem that some sort of reaction to the massacre of the staff at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is expected, even required. I think I do have something to offer along those lines, boosted by the usual multi-lingual monitoring of the European press that I have been able to do since yesterday. As usual, I’ll try to shy away from any conventional wisdom; I apologize that that probably means that my slant is on the pessimistic side.

1) The attackers will achieve their objectives. Well, they already achieved their tactical objectives, in that it seems they managed to kill all of the skilled cartoonists (I believe there were four of them) there at the magazine. They managed this via the simple expedient of research to connect names and faces, combined with what appears to be some skilled use in wielding AK-47s to overcome security guards armed only with pistols.

By “objectives,” however, what I really mean is what we can presume were their more strategic objectives of deterring anyone who might want to insult the Prophet Mohamed in print in the future. (However, see also below.) Yes, I know that everyone is hammering on now about the need to protect free speech, in government pronouncements and in innumerable demonstrations around the world, most of them on some cold public square. But that is different from stepping up again to take up the flag of the “cause” of insulting Islam, one aspect of asserting one’s free speech. That sort of courage is rare; it’s the sort of courage that cannot reasonably be requested from anyone, including journalists or cartoonists who in most cases have not signed on to living every work-day with the dread of someone storming into their offices firing an automatic weapon. News reports from France today indicated that other big-name French newspapers (Le Monde, Libération, etc.) are ready to step in to provide funds and resources to get Charlie Hebdo back on its feet. That’s fine – but will they provide substitute writers and cartoonists to take up their places on the firing-line as well? I think not; I think those will be quite slow to come forward, if at all, since everyone will quite reasonably be intimidated – and so the attackers will win. (Indeed, at the personal level they may never even be caught.)

A related point: Let’s say that reasonably competent new writers and cartoonists with the right sort of attitude do come forward. What are the French authorities then supposed to do to protect them, and any other news publication which may want to indulge in offending fanatics? Post guards with sufficient firepower to have a chance against the next set of attackers to come along? No, we don’t want that as a society, we don’t want to be living perpetually in an armed camp. Nonetheless, something like that may happen anyway, and such incidents will inevitably provide further licence to government campaigns to further restrict civil liberties, to enlarge their surveillance over citizens (well, over everybody), and indeed possibly even to start torturing (or else to resume/broaden their torture activities – as in the USA, for example – if they have already been indulging). You can call this the “9/11 Effect”; people are scared again and, after all, you can’t exercise your civil liberties if you are dead. (more…)

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Academic (Journal) Revolution!

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

For those of you not of the higher education world, here’s a tip about one of the biggest scams plaguing it. For very many fields of study it’s the academic journals that make or break academic careers – publish or perish! – and those journals have in effect become monopoly providers. So they charge monopoly prices: universities pay incredible amounts yearly to leading publishers just for subscriptions. And as the cherry on the cake, those who write the scientific articles that are accepted for publication in these journals thereby give up all rights to them.

Doesn’t that sound like something that just shouldn’t exist in this glorious Internet Age, where “information just wants to be free”? I agree, but this piece from the Times Higher Education (formerly Supplement) shows that things are getting no better.

JournalSpending

[Researchers] found that the amount [for journal subscriptions] paid to Oxford University Press rose by 49.2 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The amount paid to Springer rose by 36.3 per cent and the amount to Wiley by 33.5 per cent. The smallest rise – 17.4 per cent – was in subscriptions to Elsevier journals. Overall expenditure increased by 23.9 per cent.

That’s interesting – but since when did EuroSavant turn into a higher education blog, rather than a European foreign press blog?

You’re quite right. But fear not: what I wanted to bring to your attention was a recent high-risk attempt by Netherlands universities to do something about that, reported by Martijn van Calmthout of the Volkskrant.

Elsevier
At issue is so-called “open access” (a phrase translated unchanged into Dutch), namely free access to such journal articles, whose publication would be financed by one-time university payments. Ironically, the first target is Elsevier, the (relative) best-behaver in the Times’ article, but also the only Dutch one. The consortium of Dutch universities, the VSNU, is pushing for open access as soon as possible and has proposed to Elsevier that its member-universities pay a year’s worth of subscription-fees to it one last time, but thereafter switch over to open access to the titles the company publishes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elsevier has rejected this offer; the company would prefer to keep getting the subscription-fees and charge extra for any open access. Talks have now broken off. These universities face the prospect, as of 1 JAN 2015, of having no more access to any new articles. (Old articles will still be available, though; furthermore, that is just on-line access that they will lose to new articles.)

The universities are not beaten yet, it would seem, as the State Secretary for Education in the Netherlands, Sander Dekker, has their back. He was publicly advocating back in early 2013 for the Netherlands to have een voortrekkersrol – that is, to be in the avant-garde – when it comes to open access. (Note that most Netherlands universities are publicly-funded; that scientific material scholars submit to journal publishers for them to make their monopoly profits on was likely heavily subsidized by the State.) The EU is also on the VSNU’s side – although, of course, the Commission has just changed regime, and scholarly journals are probably not top-priority for the new EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics.

Meanwhile, VSNU has taken up negotiations with Springer and Wiley. “These talks are proceeding more smoothly than those with Elsevier, insiders report.”

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Where’s the Ka-CHING?

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

You would hardly know it – I write this on a sunny Netherlands 1 November Saturday afternoon with outside temperatures at roughly 18°C, a new historical record for the date – but a new speed-skating season is about to start here, as reporter John Volkers of the Volkskrant notes:

speedskate
Still, check out Volkers’ particular take on the subject: that Tweet-text translates to “Gold does not translate to money [in Dutch: goud/geld; the similarity is etymological] for skaters.” And from the lede:

Barely eight months after overwhelming Olympic success, the conclusion is already dawning that gleaming gold has brought little to sport-skating.

I must have missed it – because, frankly, I didn’t care and didn’t want to give Putin the satisfaction – but the Dutch really tore up the speed-skating events last February in Sochi. Six individual medals, four team medals. Nonetheless: “Rich is what the skaters have NOT become from that success.”

Because, as we know, sports today are basically just another career choice, so that if you are really good at something then you go do it, and train hard to keep doing it, just to earn some substantial coin, right?

Now, it seems that speed-skating was a more reliable source of big money in the past, according to this piece. You see, much like professional bicyclists, skaters would join competitive teams that would gladly be sponsored by publicity-hungry commercial enterprises and/or entrepreneurs.

But that is no longer so much the case; old sponsors have withdrawn and insufficient new ones have come to take their place. More ad hoc paths to riches – and again, that’s apparently what it is all about – have to be found. Like that of Sochi Olympic champion (team pursuit) and current 1500m record-holder Koen Verweij who, although he continues to race for a sponsored team, also has picked up some lucrative TV gigs. But that is not so surprising, for as anyone who wants to click on the various links to photos of him I’m scattering around here can attest, he is unusually handsome – think a long-haired blond shark. Plus, he of course has the physique required of a champion speed-skater, featuring thighs that can be classified as “redwood.”

His less-photogenic victorious colleagues from Sochi, though – like that pair up there in the Twitter-picture, eh? – are having a rougher time of it financially. And to think they all could have simply studied hard and become accountants instead, and where would they be today – right?

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Next in the Intimidation Line

Friday, September 26th, 2014

New bad news for the Ukraine:

Hunguk
“Hungary stops gas deliveries to Ukraine.” Would that have something to do with the visit by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller to Budapest on Monday of this week to speak with Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán?

Not if you ask the Hungarians. From the lede:

According to the government in Budapest and the State company responsible for the pipelines, FGSZ, the step was taken due to the rise in domestic demand for gas. Satisfying Hungarian demand has priority.

Yeah, right. Like the rest of us Europeans, Hungary has been enjoying the usual global warming-induced prolonged summer September weather, with temperatures dipping below 15ºC (59ºF) only at night. Demand for gas there – for heating – is due to rise maybe end November, beginning December, and not particularly now.

The real story here can be clearly seen from a couple weeks ago, when Gazprom similarly forced Poland to stop the “reverse supplies” of natural gas it was providing to the Ukraine by threatening to cut off the Poles’ supply they were diverting from. It’s just that the latter were willing to be rather more straightforward about what was happening than the Hungarians. Indeed, this Telegraaf piece speaks of a €10 billion Russian loan Orbán’s government is hoping to gain. How is such a thing even possible after the EU has collectively imposed repeated waves of sanctions – including of the financial kind – on Russia?

I’d like to derive two remarks from this data-point, which we can call “Major” and “Minor”:

  • Major: Putin really likes throwing Russia’s geopolitical weight around using the threat of energy cut-offs. I believe I read somewhere that the dissertation he wrote for whatever higher academic degree it was that he earned back in his KGB schooldays had precisely to do with that subject.The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, while the Ukraine has of course already been shoved out into the cold (literally) for the coming winter when it comes to Russian natural gas, Putin would not dare to do that to the rest of the EU because of the revenue loss that would entail. Then again, he seemed indifferent enough to the food-price inflation the Russian people have had to suffer resulting from his embargo on EU agricultural imports. Make no mistake: this coming winter is when the EU will be confronted in the bleakest and most direct way possible with the problem of how to do without Russian energy supplies.
  • Minor: Notice here as well the common thread of the involvement of Gazprom, which is supposed to be a private company. Well, at least it is a private company to the likes of FIFA, which allows it to pay the mega-price to be one of the commercial sponsors of the Champions League. (It is also the shirt-sponsor of the famous German football club Schalke 04.) Inevitably, those watching Champions League games at home have to put up with repeated commercials extolling Gazprom as a reliable energy-provider; if you watch closely, you’ll even notice how the characteristic Champions League graphic used when heading into and out of commercial breaks, in which spotlights come on in turn around a circular stadium, precisely recalls the pattern of gas-jets lighting up on a stove! How many of those looking on for the football actually realize that Gazprom will be glad to let them freeze next winter, if only Putin gives the order?
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But Will He Give Russia Any Stick?

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

I managed to catch a short but significant piece in today’s on-line Telegraaf which that Dutch tabloid paper did not even tweet (I did check): Russia still welcome at G20 Summit. That’s the one scheduled for Brisbane, Australia in November, and the Australian Minister of Finance was captured on-the-record as declaring that the Russian delegation – presumably headed by Vladimir Putin himself: this is after all a summit – is certainly still invited, despite the rather extensive bout of recent unpleasantness involving Russia about which I don’t have to go into detail here.

This raises the obvious question: Who decides these things? Note that I lay aside here the issue of whether a government’s Finance Minister should have any say on foreign policy matters of this kind. Rather, let’s focus on Australia: just because they are hosting that summit, does that mean they decide who can and cannot attend? Isn’t there rather a G20 secretariat somewhere through which a country can be banned by the other members if it misbehaves too egregiously? After all, Russia is certainly not welcome any longer to join G7 summits to make them into G8.

But now a confession: What really caught my eye about this piece was the name of that Australian Minister of Finance: Joe Hockey! Isn’t that great? I have a great affinity for short, punchy, Anglo-Saxon names in the first place; previously Jack Straw (a Labour politician, former Cabinet member including as Foreign Secretary) was my favorite, but now Mr. Hockey certainly has that particular competition iced!

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Can Leopard Shed French Spots?

Monday, September 15th, 2014

As I mentioned previously, the main tone I could detect within the European press in reaction to the announcement last week of the specific personnel and assignments of the new Juncker Commission team (to take office – barring any problems with confirmation before the Parliament – on NOV 1) was along these lines:

Seriously
And with that I thought that the topic was exhausted. Not quite, though: one of the Brussels correspondents of the leading Dutch business daily Het Financiële Dagblad, Ulko Jonker, points out a particular aspect of that “fox guarding henhouses” syndrome that I had not realized, and that is too full of import to be left unmentioned. (Link is behind a paywall with a limited number of articles free per month for non-subscribers.)

Right then, Jonker’s list of EU Commissioner oddities includes:

  • The British commissioner in charge of bringing London to heel with Brussels’ financial regulations;
  • “[T]he Greek who has to carry out migration policy” (Actually, this was very smart: Greece is one of the main EU member-states charged with holding the line against illegal immigrants – principally along its short border with Turkey – so why not put the Greek Commissioner in charge?);
  • “[T]he Hungarian who can explain about citizens’ rights” (Aha, I did note this puzzling paradox in my previous post, it seems at least some elements of the Fourth Estate are taking note of Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism.);
  • “[T]he German illiterate who is responsible for the digital economy” (Harsh, but again this is essentially what I remarked on in that previous post.); and
  • “[T]he Cypriot who will do ‘crisis management'” (That would be Christos Stylianides, of Humanitarian Aid; I don’t get why he would not be up to the job.)

Jonker’s explanation for all this is up top in his lede: “The biggest difference between him and his predecessor José Manuel Barroso is that Jean-Claude Juncker has a sense of humor.”

Frenchman’s Collision Course with France

It’s not always so funny though, because surely the biggest paradox among the new Commissioners is France’s Pierre Moscovici, put in charge of “Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs” – otherwise known as the “budget czar” since Moscovici’s DG is in charge of monitoring member-state budgets to ensure they adhere to the 3%-of-GDP-or-less standard – and to start proceedings for fining the EU government in question when its budget does not. And yes, it is France that looks set to be the greatest offender along these lines, with a projected 4.4% deficit for this year. (more…)

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Fishy Goings-On

Monday, May 12th, 2014

You remember that German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to Washington to visit President Obama at the beginning of the month. Just this past Saturday she touched base with another important ally, namely French President François Hollande, by inviting him to her home turf (i.e. the parliamentary constituency she represents) at the historic city of Stralsund in Germany’s far Northwest. But things did not go completely smoothly, as Der Spiegel reports with this rather colloquial tweet. (I certainly don’t know what this means here in its entirety. Butterfahrt?)

Spiegel_fishy
Fass, or “barrel”: that’s what we see Hollande holding up there. It’s a barrel of herring, a proud local product, and the article tells us that everyone who visits Merkel there gets a barrel of fish: George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin (about whom Merkel and Hollande of course had quite a lot to say), everyone.

The thing is, for President Holland they probably should have made an exception and given him, say, a nice Mecklenberg-Vorpommern necktie or something. For those herring are Bismarck brand herring; and anyone who knows anything about 19th-century history knows that “Bismarck” is not a name likely to endear anyone who is French. Hollande gamely posed – as you can see there – but then, as the Spiegel reporter Alexander Demling notes, quickly passed the barrel off to an aide.

The Dutch are also particularly interested in herring matters, and De Volkskrant picked up this story as well:

VK_fishy
This piece raised the obvious question of why Merkel had not gone instead for Hollandse Nieuwe (“Holland’s New”) herring, fished out of the North Sea by the Dutch (starting right around this time of year, in fact), acknowledged to be the very-best (at least by the Dutch) – and also matching well with the French President’s own surname! I guess no one in the Bundeskanzlerin’s office thought of that – or else EU “nationality-blind” procurement regulations do not (yet) apply to the gifts heads-of-state/government give each other.

You would think Merkel would be too canny to allow such a slip-up, in a land where apparently one needs to use certain numbers very carefully to not be accused of being neo-Nazi (h/t Jonathan Turley). Still, if you examine closely the top photo in that Volkskrant article, what you see printed on the barrel itself is “RASMUS.” Could that be “Erasmus“? Now, there’s a scholarly figure out of European Renaissance-period history that neither Merkel nor Hollande should have a problem with!

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Electoral Self-Absorption

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Let me offer you a pair of neologisms, if I may, the first of which you see right here:

stemfie

That’s “stemfie,” a Dutch neologism constructed from a mix of stemmen (NL: to vote) and, of course, selfie, a word which now stretches far beyond just the English language and whose meaning I don’t have to tell you.

Now, about the second one. “Selfie” – such a childish-sounding word! Indeed, it basically describes a childish act, but I’d like to bring forward a replacement for it that describes even better what is going on: narcissie. That’s right, don’t call them “selfies,” call them “narcissies.”

I have no hope that this will ever actually catch on, but I am glad to offer it here just the same.

But back to the Dutch stemfie: A mini-craze arose at the time of the municipal elections last March 19 to photograph oneself with one’s ballot-paper, and indeed in this picture you see no less a personage doing that than Alexander Pechtold, leader of one of the main Dutch political parties, D66. Wait a second, objected the NGO whose name translates to “Platform for the Protection of Citizens’ Rights”: it’s never been allowed to make photographs within the voting-booth or of ballot-papers!

Well, now a panel of judges in The Hague has ruled that that is perfectly OK. That is actually the same thing as what the current Minister of the Interior (i.e. responsible for police and law-enforcement) was assuring everyone at the time of that election.

Which probably makes it opportune to remind ourselves why, under the “secret ballot,” it generally still is forbidden most other places to photograph inside the voting-booth. It’s all about some third party buying your vote, or otherwise forcing you to vote the way that this third party dictates: the “secret” in “secret ballot” means denying third parties any method to be able to verify that that vote has actually been carried out as they directed.

In the Netherlands that is again possible. Oh sure, people will claim that they are just having a laugh with that stemfie, but there will be no way to tell whether, in reality, they have been blackmailed or otherwise suborned to vote in a way that some other person wants them to. There has always been a reason, in other words, for that “No photographs!” prohibition; it’s unfortunate to see the Netherlands authorities throw that overboard in the cause of a passing fad.

Remember: “narcissie”! Far & wide may it spread, and you heard it hear first!

UPDATE: In today’s coverage of this matter on Flemish radio (VRT) they took pains to mention that the stemfie is certainly still illegal in Belgium.

LATER UPDATE: In the fast-moving world of social media, apparently yet another variant of “selfie” has come along: “belfie.” It means “butt selfie,” or “bum selfie” if you prefer.

But I’m cool with that, and can even offer my own recommended alternative designation: “rearcissie”!

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Dutch Scramble For Picketty

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

There’s just been an interesting entry on the nrc.nl>boeken blog which the leading Dutch quality newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, maintains over the subject of books.

Piketty_NL
Yes, this has to do with the French economist Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century – not broadly noticed in his native France, but a run-away best-seller in the US and the UK, which is said to break new ground in the economic treatment of the causes of, and remedies to, societal inequality.

Especially in today’s book market, there’s nothing that excites publishers so much as what seems to be a sure-fire hit, certain money in the bank, so that NRC reporters Hanneke Chin-A-Fo and Toef Jaeger can write here about the unseemly scramble that broke out among Dutch-language publishing houses to gain exclusive rights to this work.

In the first round of bids to the French publisher Editions du Seuil the bidding went up to €40,000, an especially high amount for a non-fiction work. Yesterday the second round closed.

It turns out we have a winner! In an update to the post, the journalists reveal that the fairly prominent Amsterdam publishing house De Bezige Bij (yes, the name means “The Busy Bee”) has crowed in a tweet that it has gained the prize, although the winning price was not disclosed (only 140 characters, you know). They promise the Dutch version for January.

According to Chin-A-Fo and Jaeger there were further reasons to go hard for this work, in that not only is it likely to be assigned to be bought en masse by students in higher education, but it also promises to be a significant “prestige project” and so likely in the future to attract other star economists to want to publish in Dutch there.

Well, to the extent economists – or any other foreign non-fiction writer – want to publish in Dutch in the first place. In my view, for all the buzz that De Bezige Bij discerned around this book, I strongly suspect that they will soon be suffering from some buyer’s remorse. I mean, January 2015: Surely the sensation around this work will have died out by then!

In any case, the sort of educated Dutch (and Flemish) economists, and sundry other intellectuals, truly interested in reading this are certainly able, in the vast majority of cases, to read it just as well in the English version that is already out. (Which is said to currently be hard to get ahold of, admittedly – but surely way before January! Indeed, I’d venture that quite a few of these people could also read Piketty quite comfortably in the original French.)

Then there is also the evidence that led some observers to opine that people are mostly buying Piketty to display on their shelves rather than actually to read him. (Yes, he has a very readable style, peppered with references to popular literature and the like; but the book is also some 700 pages long.) Dutch readers probably are subject to the same temptation – but then surely that grandstanding function can be better fulfilled with the English version or, again, even better, the French!

In any case, the funny thing is that Dutch publishers had the chance to buy the rights way back last September, when the original French version came out. Cheeeeeeeeeeeep! No inequality on show there: they all passed.

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Ukraine Crisis: What a Gas!

Monday, April 28th, 2014

There are some people – or institutions – that can’t help but look at the bright side of things. Over in Eastern Ukraine, seven European military officers working for the OSCE have just been put out for display at a press conference, unconvincingly insisting “We are not prisoners of war, we are guests of [Sloviansk] Mayor Ponomarev”; the Economist writes [subscription required] “Every day, incident by incident, the situation is deteriorating and moving towards major armed conflict of one form or another.”

Not to worry, though, at least if you read the Netherlands’ leading business newspaper Het Financiele Dagblad: The Ukraine crisis also has its winners. The lede:

The drift since the crisis in the Ukraine has been: Europe has to become less dependent on Russian gas. Who can profit from that?

Oh, a number of organizations can profit, and journalists Gijs den Brinker and Mathijs Schiffers have the run-down. (more…)

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You Can’t Go Home Again

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Not if you’re Volkert, you can’t.

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

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

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The Beatles: Keeping America Apart

Monday, February 10th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“It’s you!” At The Russian Games

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Olympic Cover-Up

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

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

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

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

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Sochi Anti-Dissent Façade Cracking

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

SochiProbsI

SochiProbsII

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Cold Sochi Comfort

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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

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

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

  • The Americans: They have posted two Navy ships just offshore in the Black Sea – the better to start evacuating American citizens should things start to go haywire onshore.
  • The French: They are actually sending special anti-terror police along to guard their athletes. And not just one variety, but two: the GIGN, “specialized in ending hostage situations” (OK, that’s a relief), and the RAID*, “an elite corps of the national police.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friendly Breaking-and-Entering

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

I stand corrected – for this:

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

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

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

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

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Enforcement Creature of Habit

Monday, January 20th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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Of Illusionists and Hostage-Takers

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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