Back to Doping Square One

Posted on January 12th, 2016 by MAO

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

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

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

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

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

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Polish Media: There’s More to Come

Posted on January 11th, 2016 by MAO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Smoking Ruin

Posted on January 8th, 2016 by MAO

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

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

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

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

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

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Just *Forget* Charlie Hebdo!

Posted on January 6th, 2016 by MAO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Volley-Boondoggle

Posted on January 5th, 2016 by MAO

This week sees the qualification rounds, to be held in Berlin, for the volleyball competition that will be part of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games later this year. The German team coach, Vital Heynen (himself of Belgian nationality, as you can perhaps tell by the name), has a lengthy interview in the leading German newspaper Die Welt.

StolzDeutsch
By all accounts, he’s done a good job, and the German team is confident about its chances. Then again, I’m not so interested in volleyball, German or otherwise. I would have passed this bit of news entirely by had it not been for that text-fragment in the tweet: “You Germans are not proud of Germany!”

Yes, the quote comes from Heynen. What would cause him to say something like that? Here is the wider context from the interview:

The problem of Germany is that it is no sports-country, it has no sports-culture. Hamburg’s decision to not apply for the [Olympic] Games [of 2024] hit me right in the heart. I cannot understand it. The Olympic motto for 2012 was “Proud of Germany”; I’m telling you now, you are not proud of Germany, when you have a country of which one really could be proud.

(That 2012 motto must have been in connection with Leipzig’s application to host those particular summer games. Leipzig got nowhere in the bidding, which of course was won by London, for whose Games the motto was “Inspire a Generation.”)

No “sports-country”; no “sports-culture.” Because the German taxpayer has picked up a new reluctance even to bid for the right to host Olympic games!

Heynen may think that his position gives him a privileged platform to comment on German athletic affairs generally, but he is likely wrong. The citizens of Hamburg voted last September to withdraw their bid, but those of Boston had done the same thing just two months earlier.

Indeed, is staging the Olympic Games – whether summer or winter – something any reasonably democratically run polity is going to want to undertake from here on out? It’s an awful big drain on public monies, all for a bit over a month of concentrated world-attention – and then the long hangover of an expensive collection of white-elephant athletics buildings for which permanent alternative uses are hard to find. The 2004 Games certainly gave Greece a good shove down the path of public insolvency, while there has already been and will certainly continue to be widespread dissatisfaction in Brazil over all the public money spent on this year’s Summer Games, especially given the recent sharp downturn in Brazil’s economic fortunes – and given the strong whiff of public corruption whose revelation has accompanied that downturn.

Clearly, staging the Olympics is a project not for democratic localities but rather for the undemocratic variety, where there is no public accountability for the vast sums of public money required. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics – the most expensive in history, by far – clearly had as their main function being a conduit for Putin to divert government money to his friends and supporters. The 2008 Peking Games, for all we know, fulfilled a similar function, as will surely the 2022 Winter Games, also to be held in that world-renowned center for winter sports, Beijing.

Of course, even if the democratic world sensibly starts to leave hosting the Olympics to the autocrats, that still means condemning a series of national populations to misappropriation of their tax monies. Far better to harken back to the Games’ original spirit, to the very name Olympics, and start hosting the Games (at least the Summer version) permanently in their spiritual country of origin, namely Greece, in Athens. There is a good collections of purpose-built buildings still there just dying to be properly used again.

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A Molenbeek Near-Miss

Posted on December 16th, 2015 by MAO

Salah Abdeslam: does that name still ring a bell? He’s the Belgian citizen thought to be among the attackers in Paris last November 13 – and the only one to have escaped alive, aided considerably by what appears to be his decision to shed the regulation suicide-vest he wore at the time and just get out of there. It’s been more than a month and he is still at large. You really have to think that, by now, he is somewhere in Syria, safe under ISIL protection.

There’s a new piece up on the website of the Luxembourg-based newspaper L’Essentiel claiming that the Brussels police came very close to nabbing Abdeslam shortly after that deadly assault. We’re talking here again about Molenbeek, that notorious quarter of central Brussels from which so many radical jihadis have originated, and not just many of those involved in the Paris attack.

Abdeslam
To be fair, L’Essentiel is just confirming a scoop first gained by the Flemish commercial television chain VTM, to the effect that Brussels police from Sunday, 15 November were fairly sure Abdeslam was sheltering inside a particular Molenbeek apartment known to be a jihadi safehouse. But they did not move in: they couldn’t, legally, because, according to this article, “House-searches are in fact forbidden by the Belgian penal code between 23.00 and 05.00 hours except in urgent cases such as fires or les flagrants délits,” that latter phrase I assume signifying cases when it is known that crimes are actually being committed there on-scene.

Neither was the case for Abdeslam hiding out there in Molenbeek, so the authorities had to wait until the next morning. By that time they went in, he had given them the slip. By the way, from the timing it is clear this report provides further insight into why Belgian authorities decided to raise the alert levels for Brussels to “Imminent Attack Expected” for that same Sunday and the following couple of days.

Very frustrating, obviously. But this is also very unfortunate from a civil liberties point-of-view. This sort of police-failure – an inability to use the powers they do have, which should be enough – inevitably will accelerate the erosion of citizens’ liberties towards the police that we have already seen too much of following those November attacks.

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Central European Money Laundering

Posted on December 8th, 2015 by MAO

I suppose Vienna has often been known as a depressing place – Freud’s hometown and all. Still, police there were taken aback last Saturday from witnesses reporting one person after the other jumping off a certain bridge into the cold waters of the Danube.

Danube
But these Viennois were not in dispair of life at all. They loved life, and in particular all the good things money can bring to it. Upon visiting the scene, the policemen discovered that numerous €100 and €500 bills were to be found floating on the water. (Strangely, no mention here of €200 bills.)

Naturally, further reinforcements and a boat were called to collect up as much of the currency as was left, and then to dry it all, as you see in that hilarious photo of the drying-rack. It was real money, all right; they just don’t (yet) know to whom it belongs. There haven’t been any recent reports of robbery in that area, for example.

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One That Got Away

Posted on November 17th, 2015 by MAO

I realize that the world in general is hardly in the mood to hear news about any more terrorist attacks. But at least this was one that was thwarted.

Tunisie
“Tunisia foiled a large-scale terrorist attack this month.” So at least announced today that government’s official in charge of security, Rafik Chelli. He claims they did so by discovering and breaking up a 17-man jihadist cell which was planning to execute a coordinated attack on hotels, security installations and politicians, “in order to sow chaos in the country.” Some of these people were said to have been trained in Libya – the country directly to Tunisia’s East – and some in Syria.

But if a bomb goes off, or a bullet is fired, in the Middle East these days, will people elsewhere necessarily care? You might have heard that ISIS suicide-bombers killed 40 at a South Beirut open-air market just the day before the Paris Attacks – or, likely, you may have not, as Paris soon overshadowed everything. It’s a shame, as the Beirut attack featured a heroic Lebanese man, Adel Tormos, who tackled the second suicide bomber and thereby gave up his own life to save those of many others, including his daughter.

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Head Down South for Blackface

Posted on October 3rd, 2015 by MAO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Germany Deals with Refugees (#Fail)

Posted on September 22nd, 2015 by MAO

This month’s European crisis has without a doubt been the waves of refugees trekking their way from Turkey, through Greece and then northwesterly up the Balkans, whose eventual desired destination has generally been Germany. Germany itself has changed before our very eyes: first taken aback by developments, then taking a welcoming attitude, but now dialing that greeting back somewhat, with border controls and other restrictions, as the full reality hits of what that welcoming attitude has wrought.

Here are a couple of “under-the-radar” articles from the German press on how that country has been trying to deal with circumstances. First: gut gedacht, schlecht gemacht (“good intentions, terrible execution”).

aChaos
The goal was a noble one, if perhaps also serving as good PR for reBuy.de, a German site that functions as an on-line marketplace for used goods of all types. But what better company to launch an effort to solicit and coordinate used clothing donations for the refugees, right? So it made an arrangement with the German Red Cross; donors could send in their used clothing for free, using labels provided by reBuy.de, via the Hermes package-deliver service.

There was a major misunderstanding, however. For the German Red Cross, this was supposed to be a local action confined to its Berlin Wedding/Prenzlauer Berg affiliate. But reBuy.de understood it to be nationwide – and improperly used the nationwide German Red Cross logo on its website announcing the action. The result was the rest of the German Red Cross’ branches throughout the length and breadth of Germany being inundated with clothes they never expected, before the whole national organization abruptly withdrew from the effort. reBuy.de employees all over Germany gamely tried to push on anyway, accepting, sorting and distributing the clothing themselves, but things soon broke down entirely, with many recriminations.

Then there is this other interesting development in Berlin.

ALuxus
Even beyond clothing, a major concern for the German authorities in dealing with all the refugees has been finding them sufficient acceptable shelter, particularly in view of the oncoming colder weather. Already Berlin officials have taken some decisive measures to achieve this. Last month they pressed into action an old town hall, that of the city quarter Wilmersdorf (capacity: 500), for housing refugees, and the Berliner Morgenpost piece also reports they recently confiscated a former bank in the same area for the same use.

But now those authorities are ready to take things up another notch. Specifically, another Berlin quarter, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (known for decades for its many immigrants and left-wing politics) now wants to make use of the many apartments standing empty within its boundaries. These are generally higher-quality residences, and the reason they are not being actively used is either because they are being withheld by their owners for speculation or because they function as second homes for well-off people who usually live elsewhere. They are estimated to number up to 5,000.

It does look like those apartments are going to be pressed into service. Will it be confiscation, or some sort of money paid to the owners as compensation? Likely the former. Here we encounter the age-old conflict between private property on the one hand and taking care of people’s urgent needs, in an emergency situation, on the other hand. Those owning those apartments really should not be surprised; the squatting movement has been particularly active in Berlin and Hamburg for decades, way before any refugee crisis.

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Guests of the Prime Minister

Posted on September 5th, 2015 by MAO

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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I Protest! Take My Blood!

Posted on August 19th, 2015 by MAO

Perhaps some of you in the UK will have already heard of the remarkable #polishblood initiative, but most have not. And it is all supposed to go down tomorrow (that is, Thurs., 20 August).

xpolishblood
This is a tale of the birth and growth of a special meme, largely via social media, in this case among the very many people of Polish citizenship living and working in the UK. It started out of the substantial accumulation of grievances held by this particular cohort against the country they chose to move to – basically, of the many instances of unfair discrimination against Polish people as being foreigners, as an unwelcome people coming to the UK to steal native jobs, to compete for resources, take up space on a crowded island generally, etc.

One of their natural champions in articulating and publicizing these grievances has been Polish Express, a Polish-language UK newspaper. This publication certainly does not hold back on its Twitter-feed:

xpol1
“20 thousand pounds reward for information on the affair of the degenerate who brutally attacked an immigrant” – Polish, of course.

xpol2
“Immigrant [actually, not Polish this time] does not pay a fine of 20 pounds, is deported.”

xpol3
“These UK firms cheat their workers! We publish the government’s ‘list of shame.'”

A few weeks ago, in the febrile atmosphere of the UK’s summer heat, resentment at this sort of treatment cropping up in the Polish Express’ on-line forum finally boiled over. “We’ll show them!” was the new attitude. “Let’s have all Polish people in the UK go on strike for a day, to show the Brits how their economy would collapse without us!”

That must have been a satisfying feeling, getting that off one’s chest and being able to look forward to a coordinated, nation-wide action designed finally to demonstrate the error of their ways to what UK-based Poles perceive as an often resentful native population, insufficiently appreciative of their contributions to modern-day Britain. Just how things went on from there, however, is not so clear.

For the evident down-side of such public action – assuming it really can successfully be coordinated on a wide scale in the first place – is that it could make British people angry even as it reminded them of how much they depend on the Poles. Indeed, it might make them angry precisely by making them aware how much they depend on the Poles.

Blood for Money

That is why we now have #polishblood, at least as Rzeczpospolita (which is of course one of the leading national newspapers in Poland) reports it. Don’t go on strike; instead, take some time from your work to go to the local hospital, or Red Cross center, and donate blood!

That’ll show those Brits! Ha! No regular Anglo-Saxon person will be able to donate blood his/herself that day, as all the slots will be taken up by Poles! In fact, according to the Rzeczpospolita piece, this new campaign took off among Poles so much that even they were having trouble arranging to go give blood on the appointed day (which is 20 August: tomorrow), so that many of them had to resort to booking times to do so even several days before. More »

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Male Leather-Strutting Misplaced

Posted on July 29th, 2015 by MAO

Here’s something you don’t see in the streets of the Chinese People’s Republic every day. However, if the Beijing police have anything to say about it, you won’t ever be seeing this type of thing again.

ABChine
What is going on? Is it perhaps a casting-call for a Chinese-studio remake of 300? No, as the accompanying RFI piece explains, this was a marketing stunt, by a Beijing restaurant called “Sweetie Salad” – a marketing stunt gone bad for those taking part, as the local police swiftly moved in and conveyed at least some of the make-believe Spartans to the slammer.

ABBeijing
On the other hand, it was a marketing stunt gone good for Sweetie Salad – if you take into account that old maxim that no publicity is bad publicity – which according to this RFI report generated enormous on-line buzz about itself within China and was punished only to the extent of feeling obliged to post this message:

We have humbly recognized that, as a start-up, we lack a certain experience in the organization of large-scale events.

Where did all those buff foreign males think that they were – Amsterdam? In fact, the timing couldn’t be better: all they need to do is get out of jail (those to whom that applies), scrape up the funds for a half-round-the-world flight and find a hotel (admittedly a challenging proposition at this late point), and they then can all enjoy themselves royally this upcoming weekend at the yearly Amsterdam Gay Pride celebrations. They’ll feel right at home there, walking around Amsterdam’s streets in their Spartan suits (I assure you, that sort of get-up often verges comparatively on the tame side); yet they might very well impress the locals enough to be invited to join a boat for the infamous Canal Parade that kicks off this upcoming Saturday (August 1) at 1.30 PM CET. More »

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Not for the Faint-of-Heart Tourist

Posted on July 8th, 2015 by MAO

It’s that time of year now for making travel-plans, and so we see this from Vox’s Matt Yglesias:

voxdebt
Ah, but click through to actually read the article! (You do take care to do that every time, right?) Surveying the arguments actually presented there for going to Greece now, what one comes up with is: 1) Greece is cheap; 2) It’s the “right thing to do”; and 3) Greece is pretty safe (here citing figures from, of course, some past, more “normal” period that did not feature closed banks and a full-blown financial crisis).

Actually, Yglesias’ piece inadvertently presents some good arguments why not to go just now. “Bring cash to Greece” warns one of his section-headlines, and rightly so. First of all, more and more places won’t want you to pay with plastic, because current restrictions mean they can’t get quick access to that money. And while it may be true that cash-withdrawals for those using foreign credit- or debitcards are not limited, it’s likely going to be a struggle to find an ATM that has not run out of money.

When you do find one, do not assume that the Greeks’ supposed love for tourists extends to allowing them to cut in front of the long lines in front of those ATMs – so that it may well be empty by the time it is your turn. And don’t think that your efforts towards making it emptier by extracting your foreigner’s amount will be appreciated, either. Then consider the happy hunting-grounds for muggers made possible by the knowledge that everyone is carrying around so much cash, for burglars and room-thieves knowing that everyone has to store all that cash somewhere. More »

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Hardly A New Drang Nach Osten

Posted on July 7th, 2015 by MAO

This ain’t 1941. This is actually good news!

zolnierz
“German soldiers go into Ukraine.” But not to stay: they’ll be in the western part for around 11 days starting July 20, near the major city of Lviv, participating in NATO maneuvers called Rapid Trident, associated with the separate Sea Breeze exercise coming in off the Black Sea.

This is good news as the token it is of German support for Ukraine in its struggle over the eastern provinces which, although now seemingly at a low burn, has hardly yet been resolved. US troops (and ships) will be involved as well in these exercises as well, of course; the Obama administration has so far shown itself willing to go even further in its support for Ukraine than the Europeans, to include training and even selling equipment (although, so far, the latter has remained “non-lethal”).

This German participation has also attracted public Russian attention, as Vice-Premier Dimitri Rogozin inquired on social media whether the Germans were there to tour the sites of their past “military successes.” There we are taken back to 1941, and clearly the Russians aren’t happy about this development. But just let Rogozin vent, or any of his colleagues: they surely still have credit on account from the 20 million+ dead of 70 years ago.

UPDATE: And speaking of 20 million . . . Here’s a new report that the German government is increasing its budget for Bundeswehr maneuvers outside the country by that amount.

Bundeswehr
Note that this is a budgetary supplement applying only for the remainder of this year. In fact, in terms of numbers of troops, slightly fewer German soldiers are going on maneuvers outside their country this year compared to last; further, the really big exercise – named “Trident Juncture” – actually is to take place on the Iberian peninsula from 28 September to 16 October.

Nonetheless, this monetary move is seen to be an explicit sign of resolve towards Russia.

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Students Gone to Pot

Posted on July 6th, 2015 by MAO

Greece, Greece, Greece! That is what is dominating today’s headlines, of course. As usual, though, my function here at €S is not to point out to you something you have probably already heard about from some other source, but rather to come up with material you likely would not ordinarily have run across (primarily due to language barriers).

There’s nothing along that line that I have found, yet, when it comes to Greece. Grease, though: that may be another matter. For who can resist this (well, if you read Spanish)?

Cannib
“Tribe of cannibals solicits more exchange students,” it says! And check out that picture – isn’t it a riot?

The Spanish press is not really known for parody publications along the lines of The Onion, but here you really have to wonder. To be sure, everything is laid out in the normal manner of an on-line news article. This one begins:

The chief of the Krilasha tribe of New Guinea, Mulumba Bra-Maldashiu, today asked the European Union to provide more support to exchange-student scholarships because, for some time now, “we have been getting less people, by which I mean fewer youths from abroad, and so it’s a shame that the scholarship system is breaking down.”

So far, so OK, although I wrote “people” there as a translation of género, which has many meanings, including “goods”; you wonder whether it might also mean “fresh meat.”

But then get this, the piece goes on:

“We are hungry. Hungry for knowledge,” the headman explained.

Really, don’t you start to doubt this story now? And then the chief continues, further down:

“They are new blood for us, and our tribe represents an unforgettable experience for them.”

And then:

“They don’t have to be brilliant students. Let them send us their most problematical ones, we will know what to do with them.”

The piece is topped off with a brief mention that this New Guinean tribe has put in an urgent request to meet with Angela Merkel, “to deal with this and other themes that are on the table.” Well, take a number: there are very many who want to meet with Chancellor Merkel these days, and about more urgent matters than feasting upon Western scholarly knowledge, or possibly just some Western scholars.

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Utrecht Doped Up for Tour de France

Posted on July 3rd, 2015 by MAO

It’s the beginning of July! It’s time for the Tour de France! But already there is trouble with the main sponsor of one of the competing teams.

Dopage
Right, check out that guy’s jersey: the team in question is called Giant-Alpecin after its two main sponsors, Giant bicycles (a Taiwan company) and the German shampoo manufacturer Alpecin. The trouble arises with Alpecin’s current advertising slogan, touting its concoctions as “doping for your hair.”

Oops. “Doping”: that’s an awkward word at the Tour de France. Alpecin executives quickly retreated, promising to suspend the slogan for the three weeks of the Tour. CEO Eduard R. Dörrenberg even promised on the company website “a team without any doping, without the slightest doubt. We are well aware of our responsibility and can clearly distinguish between promotion of the effects of a product and sportive trickery.” You can read it all here (if you read German: “No doping-advertising during the Tour”):

Alpecin
That’s very noble of Herr Dörrenberg, but it’s also naive. He has no ability to make such a promise. What is he going to do, have his Alpecin employees patrol the highways and by-ways around every Tour-stage looking into buildings, trailers, barns, etc. to see if anyone is transfusing blood?

More »

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Making Sense of China News

Posted on May 9th, 2015 by MAO

Making Sense of News: Isn’t that what we all want to be able to do – those of use (probably a minority) who are interested in news in the first place? Now there’s a free MOOC (= “massive open online course”), available on the edX platform, with that title.

MakeSense

Look closer, though: this is a MOOC with a difference. “The University of Hong Kong”! Teaching us how to “Make Sense of News”!

This six-week course will help you identify reliable information in news reports and become better informed about the world we live in. We will discuss journalism from the viewpoint of the news audience.

I know that the course is not restricted to the local audience – it’s a MOOC, it’s accessible to anyone with a computer who can access the edX.org website – but what sort of “news audience” do they have there in Hong Kong in particular? An audience that for 150 years had little trouble accessing reliable news sources – until 1997, when the expiry of a long-standing treaty with the UK meant that the People’s Republic moved in and made Hong Kong its “special administrative region.”

Things have gone downhill from there, despite various guarantees made by China when it took back control. Dissatisfaction by Hong Kongers reached its peak with the extensive street-protests of late last year. It’s true that those were prompted mainly by violations of promised electoral law; the media there is supposedly mostly free from Mainland interference.

But for how long? Again, this MOOC (starting on May 19) cannot be your usual online course, just because of where it comes from and who offers it. Imagine a MOOC entitled “Making Sense of the Entire Range of News Available to You” offered by Saint Petersburg (Russia) State University. Another difference with this one: Usually edX promotes its upcoming MOOCs on its Twitter feed, but I see nothing of that for this course. I do see a MOOC addressing climate change denial which edX is happy to promote that way:
Nonsense
But not this one from Hong Kong. There might be a degree of nervousness involved here from edX.

Indeed, this is a MOOC one could well imagine that will be shut down before it is supposed to end, due to outside pressure. Alternatively, perhaps it is some sham MOOC that delivers People’s Republic-approved pablum that really doesn’t help anyone to move beyond the restricted approach to gathering news that Peking prefers its citizens to take – but I really doubt that, it doesn’t make sense, and for me edX is much too credible a platform to allow that.

“Making Sense of News” must be legit. Will it be accessible through the Great Firewall? Will it even be accessible to those in Hong Kong? Stay tuned. I’m signed up. You can be, too.

UPDATE: Uh-oh, trouble already, and the course hasn’t even started! What has happened is that the course instructors have issued a couple of e-mails with links to a number of video-previews, to give a foretaste of the lectures.

But there has been a problem and, yes, it involves China. From the latest e-mail:

After sending the e-mail with the course outline yesterday, we’ve received a few inquiries about the preview clips on YouTube from China where the video streaming platform is not accessible.
. . .
Please rest assured that this only affects the preview clips. All the actual instructional videos within the course should play back smoothly no matter which country you are from.

“[S]hould play back smoothly.” We can only hope so.

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Texas Shooting, Not Amsterdam

Posted on May 5th, 2015 by MAO

“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

Posted on May 4th, 2015 by MAO

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?

Posted on May 2nd, 2015 by MAO

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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A Troubling Failure to Explode

Posted on April 2nd, 2015 by MAO

Was it an April Fools joke? You would hope so; and this report from the official Czech ČTK news agency did come out yesterday:

Granaty
“Ministry of Defence wants 39 million [that’s CZK] back for allegedly faulty grenades.”

But no, it all seems serious. That said, the ČTK piece lags far behind a related one from the premier Czech newspaper Lidové noviny which provides many more vital details.

This all has to do with a 2009 contract to the Czech Army from the domestic firm Zeveta Bojkovice, a.s.*to deliver 3,000 “grenades,” actually meaning the explosive part delivered by an RPG personal anti-tank weapon. Several of these were found to be defective, and Zeveta has not been cooperative in its reaction. The Ministry of Defense started complaining back in 2011, but the firm has kept denying any defects and refusing any financial restitution, so that the affair has finally landed up in court. That Kč 39 million that the government is trying to win back amounts to around €1.4 million.

By itself, this sort of incident is not so surprising. Czech public procurement generally has gained an unsavoury reputation for mainly seeming to function to enrich insider businessmen, who deliver shoddy performance at high prices. The really interesting aspect here is that the Czechs discovered that this ammunition was faulty in Afghanistan, where back in 2010 they had a 700-man contingent under NATO.

That original ČTK piece just said “grenade,” which got me rather indignant; a hand grenade is a close-combat weapon whose failure to explode when expected easily results in serious consequences. But then I found out from Lidové noviny that this rather had to do with the RPGs. That’s a bit better, mainly because these are weapons that are meant to be fired at some range. Furthermore, given that the Taliban generally have no armored vehicles – i.e. the type of target one would expect to have to fire an RPG against in an emergency – these were likely generally fired under rather less urgent circumstances, probably against structures like buildings. One hopes that the defects discovered did not include any tendency for these munitions to actually explode when they were not supposed to. Still, even if we assume that – and even keeping in mind the rock-bottom Czech standard for government procurement – this sort of failure is deplorable.

* If you still are looking for a laughing matter, that link I provided previously was to the English version of the Zeveta Bojkovice website. This is the holding company that owns the ammunition firm, but anyway – what’s this appearing high-up on their homepage?

One can never capture every single moment in life. But it is possible to retain the moments which made it richer in some way, or just belong to the bright bits without which the colourful mosaic of the past years would not be complete…

For real! This is also no April Fool’s prank, I promise!

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Horror Flight 4U9525 On-Board Video

Posted on April 1st, 2015 by MAO

That story of that doomed Germanwings flight just will not die, and here is the latest revelation:

Mobilvideo
“Mobile video shows the last seconds before flight 4U9525 crashed.” Yes, while it is overwhelmingly likely that that Airbus 320 slammed into the side of a mountain at a typical airline-in-flight speed, it was still possible at least for a mobile phone’s removable memory-card (if not likely the mobile phone itself) to survive the impact and the resulting kerosene-fueled inferno (although the latter probably only by being thrown clear).

And so there has been a mobile-filmed video discovered of Flight 4U9525’s very last moments, filmed by somebody – whether crew or passenger – in a back row. It confirms much of what the French prosecutor’s office has been able to reconstruct by means of other evidence, for example that the airplane’s captain spent some time desperately trying to get back in the cockpit, including by hitting it with an axe. And that all on board were aware of their impending fate fairly early on; the video records all manner of anguished cries, of “My God!” and variations thereof in a number of languages. There is a new bit, though: apparently the airplane first hit the mountain with one of the wings, so that it was violently jerked to the side, or maybe swung around at high speed, before ultimate impact.

One quite curious thing here is the sheer phenomenon of someone whipping out their mobile in such a dire situation in order to film it. One could just say “Isn’t that just 2015 developed-country civilization for you?” although in my opinion the incident would only have truly reflected contemporary mores if what had been produced was rather a selfie-video, turned back on the phone’s owner to capture for posterity’s sake the facial expressions of his/her last moments on this Earth. We must offer heartfelt, if posthumous, thanks to that protagonist for resisting the temptation, turning the phone’s camera forward and thereby helping to fill in facts for the record.

Even more interesting, though, is the prospect of what happens next with this fortuitous video back in this world upon which the rest of us are left behind. Word slipped out about it in the first place after journalists from both France’s Paris Match and Germany’s Bild Zeitung were allowed to view it. The choice of the latter was particularly unfortunate, as the Bild has been an icon of (West) German culture for decades as the premier tabloid newspaper, by which I am not referring to physical form but rather to the rather older definition of “tabloid,” i.e. catering to a sensation-minded readership, featuring nude women upon its inner pages – that sort of thing.

Clearly, we “all” want to view that video, just as no one in the end turns out to be self-disciplined enough to avoid at least sneaking a peek while slowly driving past the site of a particularly gruesome highway accident. Yet “decency,” “responsibility” and, I suppose, respect for those who died militate against it ever being made more public than it already has been.

Early indications are not good: here is Paris Match’s “exclusive” account from that mobile-phone video, and here is Bild’s – both in English, as both publications have made sure that they have German, French and English versions on-line.

Again I ask: How long before the video itself is accessible to all on-line, somewhere? Probably not long.

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US Army’s Wild Dragoon Ride

Posted on March 28th, 2015 by MAO

Throughout this past month NATO has been busy with its “Atlantic Resolve” set of military exercises in Poland and the Baltic states. These are something new, not occurring previously to the first such training deployments there starting last Spring, and, as is evident by the very name, are designed to bolster local morale in those lands against the increasing military misbehavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, military exercises under the same name, also involving American troops (that’s sort of the point), are now getting started in Romania and Bulgaria, and supposedly will include Georgia in May, with US troops set to cross the Black Sea by ferry!

But there is also something else rather new about that Baltic “Atlantic Resolve” as well, now that it’s time for the US troops who trained there to head back to base.

konvoj
“American convoy stopped in Krakow and Warsaw.” This is truly remarkable, for American troops stationed in Europe generally return to their bases by train – and then usually in the middle of the night, since such transports have lowest priority on any local rail network. Still, and especially for the heavy equipment, that remains the best way to transport these units over long distances.

All that is thrown out the window for “Operation Dragoon Ride,” however, whereby 120 military vehicles and the US soldiers that serve them – from their unit markings it seems they are of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment – are currently making their 1,800 km way back from the Baltics to their base at Vilseck (Bavaria), Germany along the local highways and byways. This article in České noviny discusses how they are currently traversing Poland with, as mentioned, planned stops in Krakow and in Warsaw. In fact, in the latter city (Poland’s capital, of course) they visited the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. And that’s not all their itinerary in Poland: these troops also met up with the inhabitants of the town Drawsko Pomorskie, which only has 11,878 residents in the first place and is way up in northwest Poland, near the Baltic coast – but, you see, the town also is host to a major firing-range and NATO maneuver area just to its South. More »

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Working for the Islamic State

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by MAO

OK, it’s clear the armed gentlemen you see in this picture don’t want to talk to the press, so let me step in and let you know about a new way to escape with your head still attached to your body after falling into their hands. (Although you may have heard of this already; the article says CNN also has coverage of this.)

extranjeros
Those 20 sanitarios extranjeros are foreign personnel ISIL soldiers recently captured while taking over a hospital; they are mostly Filipinos but also other nationalities such as Ukrainian, Indian and Serbian. They were told that “if they wanted to continue to live” then they would be expected to continue living in the area and continue their work at the hospital, which of course would largely be transformed into a medical facility for treating ISIL fighters.

Now, the first important stipulation to this report is that all of this took place in Libya, near the port city of Sirte which was ex-Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s home town and also where he was finally tracked down and killed. These militants are said here to be “jihadists” from the “Islamic State,” but we have to remember that the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL proper – the one operating in Syria and Iraq – has lately taken to franchising its operations, to Libya and to Nigeria: so these are but Islamic State franchisees.

Probably a bigger stipulation about this story is that it is ludicrous to believe that these hospital employees can just be ordered to continue their work, under ISIL occupation, and that everything can go on as before. Who pays them? How much? Who procures the hospital’s needed supplies? What happens when/if those opposing these “Islamic State” forces counterattack to take back this territory?

Some of these questions can no doubt be answered by looking at similar institutions in the captured Iraqi city of Mosul – although Sirte is quite a bit smaller than that, and the unique aspect of this story is the new way these fighters have come up with here to make these Libyan hospital personnel “loose” sorts of hostages – slaves, really.

But at least we are spared quite a few more grisly execution videos.

Side-note: It’s easy to see the two ISIL soldiers in the pictures are carrying very different types of weapons. In fact, the one on the left is carrying an M16/M4 type assault rifle (civilian version: the AR15) which characterizes American and American-outfitted forces. Hard to figure that one out, if these guys are supposed to be in Libya. Easier to figure out if they are ISIL in Syria or Iraq: the equipment was captured from the Iraqi Army.

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FN Derangement Map

Posted on March 18th, 2015 by MAO

The French edition of the Huffington Post, that media outlet’s first presence in a non-English-speaking country which dates from January 2012, is the “new boy” on the French media scene. That’s probably what makes it think it has extra license to come up with this sort of on-the-edge coverage of the upcoming regional (“departmental”) elections there:

derangeant
First, the tweet text: “The FN [that’s Marine Le Pen’s right-wing Front National] and its hundred-or-so repulsive candidates.” But how can they legitimately call them dérangeants (“disagreeable,” “repulsive”)?

Libération, L’Obs, Rue89, Le Figaro, France3, La Nouvelle République… All have worked hands-on to dissect the social media accounts of some thousands of candidates put forward by the party of Marine Le Pen, aided considerably by cybermilitants . . . more-or-less openly hostile to the FN.

In other words, a pack of researchers from the news organizations named above supplemented by interested “cybermilitants” have simply dug deeply into what these candidates have themselves been putting out to the public on social media.

The result is a Google Maps mash-up which you can see at small-scale in the tweet, and which you can examine in all its glory by clicking through to the article. But what do all those little flame-like marks mean? Here’s the Key to them; I think no translation is really necessary, other than “Combo” = “Combination”:

combo
And there you have your handy guide to the FN’s more distasteful candidates for those upcoming elections, and why they are distasteful. Now, it’s true that much of this can be merely a matter of opinion: again, it has to do with interpreting the language on various social media messages, although I should think that in many cases it’s fairly clear when someone is being anti-Semitic, racist, etc.

Although certainly partisan, this sort of enterprise is all the more a necessary contribution because French opinion polls show that the FN is the party most likely to gain the most representation from those elections. One would think this sort of mash-up technique cannot be copyrighted – wouldn’t we like to see the same sort of thing as well just before national elections held elsewhere, e.g. Israel, the US?

UPDATE: While we’re on the subject of innovative, informative maps of France, here is another one (this time from Le Monde which shows, again by département, the number of cases of “radicalization” reported since last April, basically incidents of people either succeeding or not in traveling to Syria to fight for ISIL. As you would expect, the Paris area takes the prize.

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Lethargy in the Air Defense

Posted on March 17th, 2015 by MAO

One’s first reaction might well be that this is hardly something you should discuss publicly over the national airwaves. Then again, Poland has certainly become considerably more transparent since the bad old days of the “People’s Republic” (Rzeczpospolita Ludowa):

Obrony
The tweet is from Polskie Radio, and as is the very function of their feed, they’re tweeting about some interview they will broadcast (or have broadcasted). “Minister of National Defense: we really need air-defense weapons fit for the XXIst century.”(!) And the lede:

As MON [= Ministry of Defense] Chief Tomasz Siemoniak said on Radio 3, it has not yet been decided that American Patriot rockets will be chosen for Polish air defense.

Now, it happens that some Patriots are due in Poland quite soon, at the end of March, but they don’t belong to Poland, they are American and will be there in connection with an ongoing series of military exercises with American forces that are clearly an explicit response to all the trouble happening on the other side of Poland’s eastern border.

And that is just it: especially given that strategic context, why are people hearing statements like the following?

We really need anti-aircraft defense for the twenty-first century, that’s been a priority for the last three years. It’s not only about the purchase of specific equipment, it’s also a matter of deep cooperation with other governments. You have to look at it as the complex affair it is.

Right, and against the American offer to sell Patriots, the Polish Ministry of Defense is also considering what he called in the interview the French SAMP/T air defense system, which would seem to be from out of the larger “Aster” family of military missiles developed jointly by France and Italy. That decision is due at the end of May. But to me, the whole tone of Siemoniak’s report here is that of wanting to excuse delay and inaction.

You’d have to assume that Russian intelligence does not require discussion on public interview programs to have a very good idea about the nature of Poland’s air defense weaponry. (Indeed, the reply-tweet you see there from @KajdasMarek suggests that what they have to work with for now is merely 23mm and 57mm guns from the 1960s.)

I guess what disturbs me the most about this news is the seeming lackadaisical attitude here in the face of a very real threat from the East, to which most Polish political actors, at least, have been quick to respond. But their efforts will have been in vain if/when the Russian air force gains air superiority over Polish territory through sneak-attack – and the nearest American air bases are far back in Western Germany!

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He Was Just the Piano Player!

Posted on March 16th, 2015 by MAO

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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Spain’s Low-Cost Miracle

Posted on March 14th, 2015 by MAO

After the glance back into Spain’s past last time, I thought a look into that country’s future might be in order. First off: you’ve perhaps heard of the new political party there Podemos, but have you heard of Ciudadanos?

Ciudadanos
The name means “citizens,” and that is another recently formed politial party there. The writer of this piece in the Spanish edition of the Huffington Post, César Ramos, is a politician from the mainstream leftist PSOE party (the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – formerly of Felipe González). Yet he sees potential in this new political formation, mainly to put an end to the monopoly of the Popular Party (Partido Popular, now in power under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) of the political space on the Right.

At least Señor Ramos, as a PSOE delegate, would wish for that to be true. From its Wikepedia page it seems that Ciudadanos is more of a regional party for Catalonia, founded to counteract the anti-Spanish feeling there. On the other hand, there is this:

PSOE
Ciudadanos is said here to be able at least to expect enough votes in the upcoming Andalusian regional election, not to win it, but to affect the outcome in favor of the PSOE. By the way, this particular La Información article is unintentionally funny in the way it writes the party name Ciudadanos just like a regular word – so that, for example, the picture caption (to the same picture you see there in the tweet) has the PSOE Andalusian Governor Susana Díaz meeting with ciudadanos meaning just ordinary citizens, when you’re tempted to think instead that it means that she’s meeting with members of the competing party! (OK, so it’s only me who finds this funny . . .) More »

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Monuments and Overdue Memory

Posted on March 11th, 2015 by MAO

Check out this statue:

Franco
If you were to ask me, especially with the hat this looks rather like Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. But you’ll actually find this sculpture in Spain, and – as you might have been able to make out from the tweet’s text – it depicts General Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator from April of 1939 to his death in November of 1975.

In fact, there are still a number of public works of art of this sort and other monuments to be found in Spain which refer directly to Franco and/or his “accomplishment” of taking over the country in a bitter civil war and then violently disposing of hundreds of thousands of political opponents. That sits rather uncomfortably with Eduardo Ranz, a Spanish lawyer and, at 30 years of age, much too young to have had any contact with Franco or his regime directly. Nonetheless, he filed suit last month against the mayors of 38 Spanish cities and towns to have them get rid a total of 86 specific such monuments to Franco.

As we know, it’s always an almost irresistible temptation to drag Hitler and his Nazis into almost any argument one undertakes, but here I think one can properly forgive Ranz when he points out that “It’s as if, in Germany, a victim of Naziism were to see a swastika in the street. It’s unthinkable.” So one might think, yet those many monuments to Franco remain there, in public, almost forty years after his death.

Topping the list is Franco’s tomb at La Valle de los Caidos, what is characterized here as a “pharonic” sepulcher, maintained at public expense and located not far from Madrid at the “Valley of the Fallen,” where the “Fallen” referred to are Franco’s “Nationalist” troops. It is joined by a Victory Arch, within Madrid and located near the prime minister’s official residence, and towering some 50 meters high. Once again, the “victory” commemorated there is that of Franco in 1939.

The very existence of such shrines must be a shock to the foreign tourists who go see them – those who are able to grasp their full meaning, anyway. Further, for anyone familiar with the extensive persecution and killing of regime opponents that went on during the Civil War and afterwards, Ranz’s Nazi analogy must ring true and lead to a certain incredulity that these are still there in Spain, available to be seen by one and all. Yet this phenomenon reflects the peculiar nature of Spain’s transition away from that dictatorship to democracy. It was swift: Once the caudillo was dead and his designated heir King Juan Carlos was in charge, everyone knew that the King was ready to move the country to democracy and that happened directly. It was also quite bloodless: as this piece briefly mentions, a key development in that movement to democracy was an amnesty law covering everyone associated with Franco and his crimes.

Spain basically gained instant relief from dictatorship in exchange for not making any fuss about those who had misruled the country for so long (indeed, many of whom who had committed what today would be termed “crimes against humanity”). Since 38 years had passed, so that most of those holding irreconcilable grudges against the Franco regime had died out, the country was glad to accept that deal. For about the next ten to fifteen years it was characterized both by the political predominance of the Left (understandable) and by free-wheeling, even dizzy cultural change as all the old legal barriers to behavior disappeared and society had to find new bearings in that Brave New World (including a new attitude towards the Catholic Church, a pillar of Franco’s regime).

Political Amnesia

Again, that Left (mainly Felipe Gonzalez’s Spanish Socialist Workers Party) was careful to continue in the spirit of that amnesty law and not stir up recriminations against villains of the country’s tragic past. Whether of the Right or the Left, subsequent Spanish governments have continued that policy to this day. But that has meant maintaining a deliberate black spot in the collective memory about the most terrible episodes of internecine savagery and cruelty in Spanish history, going back at least to the forcible expulsion of the Muslims that ended in 1492. And it has meant that you still see all those monuments to Franco.

Yes, people die out, but human memory is nonetheless a pretty long-term and durable thing (if not especially accurate, at least in its details). Such terrible episodes cannot be suppressed forever. Slowly, gradually, as (for example) new and revealing histories are written, published, and discussed publicly, a new willingness to reopen this history and come to terms with it is emerging.

No one without a more specific knowledge of how the Spanish courts work can know whether Ranz’s lawsuit is something serious, or merely symbolic. Furthermore, if he does win, then what precisely is supposed to happen with artifacts such as that victory arch and (especially) Franco’s tomb? But if things do come to that, surely the Spanish authorities will be able to figure something out. For now, Ranz’s audacious legal maneuver must surely be greeted as a token of how far things have come, and how far he wants to push them further.

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