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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Behind the Taksim Square Protests

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

One surprising thing that you may not know about the recent anti-regime protests that rocked Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past week (and which show every sign of continuing) is that the premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main target of the demonstrators’ wrath, was not even in the country as they erupted, but rather off on a state-visit tour. But he’s back now, as of Thursday evening.

Erdogan keert strijdbaar terug in roerig Turkijehttp://t.co/vhRT2T1wqJ

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


Roerig: “In turmoil.” Yep, that’s the scene to which he returned. But he was strijdbaar as he did so, “combative,” boosted in his self-belief by thousands who turned out to the airport to welcome him back. He showed no indication of taking anything other than a hard line on the demonstrations, terming them mere “vandalism.”

It’s all sort of strange when you think about it, all this “vandalism” – isn’t this supposed to be about whether they tear up a park in order to make a shopping mall? In other words, isn’t this at bottom just a municipal Istanbul dispute? Why is the prime minister getting involved?

Writing in the Volkskrant, the linguist and editor-in-chief of the Dutch political magazine De Republikein Rik Smits brings up some other, more significant things you also might not be aware of concerning these Turkish troubles. The title of his piece (quotes in the original): “On Taksim Square a giga-mosque will be erected.”

Taksim Square is of course the ground-zero of the dispute, the location of Gezi Park that is in danger of being razed. The general point here is that it’s not really the supposed new shopping center that is at issue, the authorities have more far-reaching ambitions for that location – ambitions which, by the way, even if the Turkish press were aware of, it would not mention given the notorious heavy hand that the State holds above it.

Smits has not come up with anything particularly new here, it’s just a matter of going back to the historical record – in particular, back to the mid-1990s when Erdogan served as Istanbul’s mayor. Then he also had plans to have a gigantic mosque built on Taksim Square. But Turkey has always had to maintain an uneasy balance between the secular and the religious, and he did not then get his way. Indeed: the military regarded him as rather a bit too religious, and jailed him for six months. But now, of course, he is rather more powerful as Prime Minister (having already taken his revenge on the military – sorry, that’s a blog-post’s worth of material by itself).

There’s even more to it than that, though: Why this spot, why must this particular park die? Is Erdogan perchance the ultimate anti-Green? No, Smits rather shows us how Taksim Square holds a special significance, to those Turkish citizens of a secular persuasion. You have there a big monument from 1928 commemorating Turkish “independence” – in reality, its conversion from the Ottoman Empire, the work of Atatürk. Right next door is the Atatürk Cultural Center. Presumably, according to Smits’ argument, these would have to make way as well for the new mosque – the perfect symbolism of the displacement of the secular by the religious that Erdogan has allegedly been searching for since his mayoral days.

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Misled Micturation

Monday, May 27th, 2013

It’s a tough, cynical world out there, and we all know to be a bit suspicious when someone claims to be taking up a collection for a good cause, even when what’s being collected is . . . um, urine:

Farmaceutisch bedrijf misleidde zwangere vrouwen jarenlang: http://t.co/8vHmvaUbzz

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


Wait, what sort of pervert would be interested in other people’s urine? Turns out, when it comes from pregnant ladies its hormone content is quite valuable, and so the pharmaceutical company MSD (= Merck Sharp & Dohme, better known in the US simply as Merck*) started a “Mothers for Mothers” program in Brazil, way back in 1986, to convince expectant ladies there to contribute their precious bodily fluids on a regular basis towards a campaign to manufacture drugs designed to ease pregnancy complications.

Reasonable, right? But it has finally emerged that all these contributions (from 6,000 women at the program’s peak) were instead being diverted to produce a drug called “PG600” used – controversially – to speed up piglet production in sows, i.e. to accelerate pork production.

The funny thing is that this “Mothers for Mothers” program was started in Brazil right after a similar campaign in the Netherlands had to be canceled in the mid-1980s, precisely because Dutch women stopped cooperating when similar misuse of their contributions came to light there. Time then to head for the Third World, to somewhere that doesn’t get news from Holland, eh? The word from this Volkskrant piece is that, according to a company spokesperson, “MSD is busy now developing a program in which women will be informed that human hormones are needed for the production of PG600.” Good luck with that.

* Company slogan (from website) = “Be well!” Perhaps something rather along the lines of “Pee well!” is in order.

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Dutch Party-Pooper!

Monday, April 8th, 2013

We’re now into April, the weather is finally going to start to warm up in the next few days (so they promise us – but with much rain initially), and it’s a fine April indeed to be in the Netherlands! We’ve got a big party scheduled for just next Saturday when, after a ten-year renovation, the Rijksmuseum will be reopened and will be free for everyone (for that initial day). Then there is another special party due at the end of the month. Yes, April 30 has officially been Queen’s Day for a long, long time, held to celebrate the birthday of Queen Beatrix, but this time Queen’s Day will officially and permanently turn into Kings Day as our new King, Willem-Alexander, is crowned that day in the Nieuwe Kerk on the Dam.

So what’s this discordant note that I see emanating from one of the country’s main papers?

‘Het is 2013. Hoog tijd om eens op te houden met de #monarchie#vkopinie http://t.co/nibO1bH2jN

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


“It is 2013 – high time to stop with the monarchy”! Can it be that the Dutch royal house enjoys less support among its native populace than is supposed?

Probably not – but that does not mean that there is not a good case for abolition nonetheless. The tweet links to the Volkskrant article laying out the republican case by Max Westerman, a former reporter for Dutch TV, but this time all my dear readers are in luck, as that is just a translation back into Dutch of the original English piece that was published in the Wall Street Journal.

I do recomment that you take a look at the latter, if you have any interest at all in Dutch affairs. For it is certainly true that the history of the Netherlands is by far that of republicanism, i.e. of operating without a king, and it was only the European Great Powers after Napoleon’s defeat who foisted a king on the nation, and at a relatively late point in the history of kingship (1813) at that.

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Old Man Sun: Just Foolin’!

Friday, January 4th, 2013

sunwink
See the face there, the wink? This is a NASA photograph, but it was recently brought forward to top an article in the Dutch Volkskrant*. And when was this particular sun-shot taken? Yes: on 22 December, just after the day when many claimed the Mayans had calculated that the world would end!

* Oh, and also in the Daily Mail, in case you’d like to read about it in English.

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What Is Romney’s Next Act?

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Maybe it’s a question you haven’t devoted much thought about. But the journalists at the Dutch paper De Volkskrant are on it:


“What does Romney do now?

Indeed: What do you do with yourself when you’ve basically spent the last six years running for president, but came up short at the finish line? “Spend more time with my family” – OK, of course, but once that starts to wear thin there aren’t really many firm answers about what comes next. Apparently wife Ann doesn’t want any more presidential campaigning, yet according to this piece “In the US there is a general consensus that the 65-year-old ex-governor will not disappear from the public eye.” There may nonetheless well be another attempt at the presidency; in any case, some future active role in the Republican Party seems likely.

BTW the Volkskrant web-editors have not been kind to Romney with their choice of picture to head this piece. Check it out: it’s Mitt smooching with Ann on-stage after he delivered his concession speech, but considering her expression it’s probably better described as an oscular assault!

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Romney’s Money Goes Dutch

Monday, November 5th, 2012

You can now add the Netherlands to the Cayman Islands and Switzerland in the Mitt Romney tax-avoidance Hall of Fame:

#Romney ontwijkt belasting door sluipweg via Nederland http://t.co/S1w4WKy2

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


“[S]luipweg via nederland” – you can translate that as “Dutch dodge,” through which Bain Capital managed to avoid €80 million in taxation on dividends in 2004 by channeling an investment in the Irish pharmaceutical company Warner Chilcott through a Dutch holding company that held the shares. He also avoided that way a substantial sum in Irish wealth tax.

Note that this is in the period after 1999 when Romney claimed to have cut connections with Bain. This tax-trick was uncovered through cooperative research undertaken by Gawker and a Dutch independent financial investigation website called Follow the Money, using public SEC filings, once-confidential documents made public by Bain, and data from the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. Note that it was apparently perfectly legal.

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Gay Marriage: Ho Hum . . .

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

So President Obama last night put a halt to the “evolution” of his thoughts about same-sex marriage and finally came out in favor! Many Americans hailed his announcement as historic; many others, you can be sure (specifically, Christian evangelicals and African-Americans), were horrified.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, we say “What took you so long?” This country was the first to recognize same-sex marriage, more than 10 years ago on 1 April 2001. So Obama’s move is not going to dazzle many observers over here. Rather, some cool-headed analysis of just exactly what he did, why, and why he did it now is in order.

Waarom #Obama nu zo voor het homohuwelijk is http://t.co/OBIlneXh

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


As you can see if you want to click through to the Volkskrant article, journalist Pieter Sabel addresses three main considerations:

  1. Joe Biden: The Vice-President let the cat out of the bag by expressing his own support for same-sex marriage last Sunday on a TV talk-show. Attention then naturally shifted to the chief executive himself who, according to Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, had planned to announce his own support just before the Democratic National Convention in early September. But Biden forced him to accelerate that schedule.
  2. Voters: Here Sabel takes his eye off the ball somewhat. He cannot assert that US voters are by-and-large behind the President’s move, because that is not true. Rather, perhaps half are for, but then half are against, so that Obama could be taking a considerable political risk here to his re-election.
  3. Politics: How is this different from “Voters”? Beats me. But the point here is mainly about Romney who, predictably, has seized on the President’s new position to try to paint him as a “flip-flopper.” He needs to be careful, though; remember that he first made his name politically as governor of Massachusetts, as well as candidate for Senator from there (in 1994, against Ted Kennedy), so that it appears that there are materials from back in those times showing him much more supportive of “full equality for all homosexual Americans” than he claims to be today.

By the way, Sabel notes that Obama took care to say that this was his “personal” standpoint, which theoretically still leaves him with the rhetorical room to act against it in the future as “President Obama,” as opposed to “Barack.” More concretely, he also made clear that he views the issue as something for the individual states to decide.

In contrast, today’s NYT editorial, drawing the analogy with mixed-race marriage which was finally declared “one of the ‘basic civil rights of man'” by the Supreme Court in 1967, opines that same-sex marriage is something that should be instituted at the national level – probably by means of another Supreme Court decision, for which “President Obama” should instruct his Justice Department to argue in favor.

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No “European Spring”

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Politically, this has been a most eventful week in the Netherlands. As we head massively onto the streets today in our orange apparel to celebrate the QueensDay holiday, many of us will drink and dance in the sunny weather in part simply to forget the experience of the government falling, followed by the cobbling-together by a hastily-formed temporary coalition of a budget-cut package to meet EU demands.

So yes, it has been a remarkable past couple of days. This, however, just goes too far:

Paul Brill: ‘Begint in Den Haag de Europese lente?’ http://t.co/LgHpwSBb #vkopinie

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


“Has the European Spring begun in The Hague?” asks commentator Paul Brill – as in “Europe’s Arab Spring,” you understand.

Thank God for that question-mark, for actually going through his piece makes it clear that Brill is hardly sure himself that the answer is “yes.” (What we also might have here is a rogue third-party headline-writer; I understand that column-writers for periodicals – as opposed to bloggers – usually don’t write their own headlines.) What makes Brill (or his headline-writer) think of the Arab Spring is the series of “No!” gestures to the EU austerity regime – mostly being pushed by Germany – now in the cards. You have the French presidential election run-off next Sunday, which according to most polls will elevate François Hollande to that position, who will then reject the EU’s new Austerity Pact. On the same day there will be national elections in Greece, and polls there forecast a defeat for the PASOK and New Democracy parties – now ruling in a grand coalition, but for decades the two main competing parties representing (respectively) the Left and the Right on the Greek political scene. As of next week they will likely be superseded by brand-new parties, all of them promoting resistance to the terms of Greece’s bail-out from the IMF, EU and ECB.

And then the Netherlands: Once seen as reliably in Germany’s austerity camp – indeed, Finance Minister De Jager has made quite a name for himself as scourge and hector of those irresponsible, debt-ridden Southern Europeans – this country effectively made its first substantial anti-austerity gesture with the collapse of the government, brought about when the right-wing, populist PVV party would not go along with the budget cuts being proposed. Yes, as stated, enough budget cuts to satisfy the EU were ultimately approved anyway via a one-time reshuffling of the political deck, but the fact that the PVV was effectively part of the governing coalition (it “tolerated” it, i.e. promised not to vote against it on important matters) meant that there would have to be new elections (in early September), to form a new government.

Notably, a couple of important parties held themselves aloof from those budget cuts, namely over on the Left in the forms of the Labor Party (PvdA) and the Socialist Party. The strategy here was clear: they won’t be tainted by those budget cuts in that election, so that a vote for the Left offers a means for the Dutch electorate to vote against budget cuts and austerity, and basically to join the likely French and Greeks “No!” against the EU austerity regime.

So that is what is really going on here. The Greeks and the French seem unlikely to accede to German demands for EU member-state austerity as the best way out of the financial and sovereign-debt crises. But the Dutch – the Dutch! those traditional lap-dogs of the Germans! – now seem quite likely to do the same. If they do that, however, they’ll do it in September, so forget about any “European Spring.”

For that matter, let’s give the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, etc. some proper respect for what they have accomplished/are accomplishing and simply drop any further hyperbolic talk about a “European Spring,” “Autumn,” or anything else. The Europeans have their own notable Days of Revolt to their credit in history, but they were back in 1789, 1848 and (to the East) 1989, and certainly not today.

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From Russia With Freight

Monday, August 29th, 2011

This is something that one is rather surprised has not received more notice – other than a mention in The Times (behind paywall), and of course my tweet a little while ago, inspired by a piece in the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita. Sarah Palin, rejoice! Not only can you see Russia from Alaska, in a few years’ time you’ll also be able to ship stuff there directly, as there’s going to be a 100km-long railroad tunnel built across/under the Bering Strait. This is from a recent piece in the Dutch paper De Volkskrant.

That’s the result of a conference that took place last week in Yakutsk, the middle-of-nowhere capital of the biggest chunk of Siberia, one that was attended by representatives of the US and Russian governments, but also the Chinese and the British. The total cost is calculated at €68 billion, of which the US and Russian governments will each cover 25% and investors and international financial institutions the rest. It will take between 10 and 15 years to build.

This is in line with the Russian plans to substantially broaden railroad coverage within Siberia, with a view towards further developing that region’s economic potential (and perhaps thus not leave it so devoid of people, and so such a temptation to Chinese encroachment). This mega-project will also (eventually) enable someone to travel from, say, London to Washington exclusively overland, by train – taking the long way eastward through much of the EurAsian continent!

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Dysfunctional Power Couple

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

De ongemakkelijke kussen van Merkel en Sarkozy http://bit.ly/oL54CI #merkozy

@volkskrant

De Volkskrant


One little-known roadblock to the EU’s ability to come up with a collective solutions to Greece and any number of other problems is the sheer antipathy said to prevail between the heads of the two most-powerful member-states, i.e. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Indeed, the dominating primacy of this “Franco-German axis” long ago reached cliché status among analysts of the European Union (though it’s no longer quite so true, naturally), meaning that the personal chemistry between the inhabitants of L’Élysée and the Reich Chancellery assumed a outsized importance to the two nations’ fortunes.

Unfortunately so, because Merkel and Sarkozy have apparently not been on speaking terms – at the personal level; their offices communicate just fine, thank you – for quite some time. Or maybe you don’t believe me and would like to see for yourself – well, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant now enables you to do that by presenting this fantastically-awesome photo-series compilation of thirty-six (yes! count ’em!) kisses, embraces and similar close encounters – all fully-clothed: s’il vous plaît, je vous en prie! – between the two, entitled “The uneasy kisses of Merkel and Sarkozy” (and soon to be a major motion picture!). (more…)

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Bin Laden Retrospectives

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” Europeans woke up to the news, while cheering Americans put off bedtime for a while to go congregate and rejoice. The killing of Osama Bin Laden dominates world news today, while analyses of the consequences and of Bin Laden’s extraordinary life are likely to occupy much print and many pixels in the days to come.

Naturally, such pieces are already forthcoming. One of the best I’ve seen so far comes from an expected source, Prof. Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment, although it does veer at the end to the realm of personal reminiscences. (The September 11, 2001 attacks were after all the inspiration for setting up that blog, as they were for so many other things e.g. US Army/Marines enlistments.)

Plus, as always Prof. Cole’s treatment is in English, which is not really within the remit of the blog you’re reading now. Let’s turn to Der Spiegel instead:

That link leads to an article entitled The Prince of Terror, by Yassin Musharbash. (Despite the name, a born-and-bred German journalist.) The photo-series you’ll find starting at the article’s head – basically a series of Osama TV-stills – is nothing to write home about, but what Musharbash writes about his historical background is quite interesting. For the world’s premier terrorist could very well have become its leading playboy instead; he was born into quite a wealthy Saudi family, which had made its money in the construction business. But no, he chose religion over worldly things, and became known over his lifetime for his qualities of patience, modest living, and friendliness – “friendliness” to a select few, at least, since he never was so enthusiastic about Westerners and his strict religious convictions kept him from shaking any female’s hand from an early age, as well from any music, photography, or television (except for the news).

Nonetheless, from a position as an outsider he soon became one of the leading heroes within the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation. Of course, it was from the (mostly Arab) fighting elements he assembled there for that original purpose that he would go on to build his “Al-Qaeda” network. (The name in Arabic literally means “network,” as well as a number of other things.) But Musharbash helpfully reminds us of another, later instance when the West’s and Bin Laden’s military interests coincided, namely in Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s: A nascent Al-Qaeda then supplied fighters to defend that break-away republic from Serb depredations long before Europe or the US had made up their mind what to do themselves.

The Dutch paper De Volkskrant is also quick off the blocks with its own Profile: This is how Bin Laden became the most-wanted terrorist on Earth. No photo-series this time – but really, by now haven’t we all had to gaze on his face more times than we have really wanted? – just a Bin Laden background, with a couple new and interesting facts. Supposedly he originally started working in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion there just to try to recruit for and supply the resistance, not take up arms himself, but he changed his mind one day when he happened to be attacked by some Russian helicopters. Also, although after his success there he returned to his native Saudi Arabia as a famous hero, he soon fell afoul of the authorities there by shooting his mouth off against them too often, to the point that they confiscated both his passport and much of his property. (Of course, that didn’t stop him from moving to Sudan, by way of Yemen, and thence back to Afghanistan.)

There’s just one strange thing here: the (unnamed) Volkskrant reporter writes about how, even after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Laden still managed to run Al-Qaeda – in a loose way – “with his satellite and computer.” I can easily imagine Bin Laden weilding a laptop (although the power-supply could have been problematic), but not a “satellite” as the world’s authorities keep careful tabs on what’s allowed up into space. Perhaps the author meant “satellite-telephone.”

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Fox Among the Nuclear Chickens

Monday, September 27th, 2010

The alert came today in a brief article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant: Pakistan has been picked as chairman of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, the Vienna-based international agency charged as the watchdog against any use of nuclear energy for military purposes, even as at the same time it is supposed to promote it for peaceful uses.

For anyone reasonably informed about recent nuclear weapons history, the name “Pakistan” does call forth many associations – but all of them related precisely to the sort of nuclear misuse that the IAEA is supposed to stop. Admittedly, the Volkskrant piece does devote a full three-quarters of its exiguous length to listing some of these doubts: Pakistan has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; Pakistan has been locked in a dangerous nuclear stand-off with arch-rival India ever since first conducting nuclear explosions in 1998; the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was primarily responsible not only for his own country gaining a nuclear weapons capability, but also (for a price) North Korea, Libya (since dismantled) and potentially Iran.

Still, the irony of another Pakistani being chosen to chair the IAEA’s governors was better captured by the lead paragraph in this report from the AFP (and not just because it’s in English):

VIENNA, Austria — Pakistan, which refuses to sign the nuclear [sic] Non-Proliferation Treaty and was home to a notorious nuclear smuggling ring, was named head of the UN nuclear watchdog’s governing board here Monday.

The AFP also judiciously supplements the previous reasons to doubt Pakistan’s anti-nuclear credentials with the additional fact that that country’s atomic weapons stockpiles are now the focus of widespread worry that they will somehow fall into Taliban and/or Al-Qaeda hands.

Yet, strangely, the tail-end of this AFP piece describes how many at the top levels of international nuclear policy find this new situation not to be at all unusual. “They are a member” of the IAEA after all, notes one diplomat, quoted anonymously. And the US ambassador to the IAEA declares that “The United States of America looks forward very much to working with the Pakistani governor as chairman of the board of governors.” In this light, appointing a Greenlander, say, to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization would be positively a breath of fresh air; at least no Greenlander has been known to go around burning grain warehouses to the ground.

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Terrorism: Learning the Dutch Approach

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

And now we have the proverbial bomb going off in the middle of a crowded Times Square in New York City – a rather crude explosive device, we’re told, but one that could certainly have taken many lives and caused who-knows-what other damage to the markets, to American Constitutional liberties, etc. had it not been for an alert sidewalk T-shirt seller who noticed something strange and notified the police in time.

Notice something? That tragedy (almost) happened, not in Baghdad or some exotic place like that, but in one of the most American of American places. And don’t forget Major Hasan and his homicidal rage at another bastion of the red-white-and-blue, Fort Hood, TX. What ever happened to President George W. Bush’s 2003 promise: “We are fighting that enemy [i.e. terrorists] in Iraq and Afghanistan today so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities”? I guess American soldiers are not fighting so much anymore in Iraq, at least; could that be the reason? (more…)

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Ash Takes Bloom Off the Dutch Rose

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

In case you were wondering how we were coping here in the Netherlands with the flights shut-down stemming from the volcano-ash, a recent article in De Volkskrant by Carien ten Have lays out all the effects pretty well. The executive summary would read: Dutch life has suddenly gotten a lot less romantic for a while, and just when Spring has come and the trees are in bloom!

Even if you don’t read Dutch, that article might be worth a click anyway due to the attractive, if “canned” (i.e. from one of those photo agencies, in this case Colourbox), photo of roses at the top. ‘Cause if there’s one thing everyone associates with Holland, it’s flowers, and that business is heavily dependent on air transport for product-delivery that usually has to happen within a span of a few days, at most. What may come as a surprise is that much of that flower product-delivery to buyers is within the Netherlands – or within the immediate vicinity in Northwest Europe – and sourced with flowers usually flown in from more exotic locales like Kenya and Ecuador. Those are of course now cut-off, and that is the main cause for the steep price-rises now seen here for flowers, whether for foreign ones that got here anyway (or were here before the Eyjafjallajökull volcano blew) or the domestically-grown variety. Still, never fear (if you’ve got the money to pay): “There are sufficient Dutch flowers to supply the European market,” declares Herman de Boon, who is the Dutch answer to Mr. Bean even as he serves at the same time as Chairman of the Dutch Association of Flower Wholesalers.

The situation is similar when it comes to other exotic things that have to be flown in: fruits & vegetables, for instance. There’s still enough in stock, just don’t expect to be able to take your Spring sweetheart to a restaurant to enjoy things like Peruvian asparagus or Egyptian green beans for a while. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical and medical sectors have also felt the flight-ban’s effects; for example, apparently some radiation-based medicines for fighting cancer must be used within 24 hours or they go to waste.

Here’s an informative English-language run-down from Global Post on how the Dutch flower industry has been dealing with a difficult week – including some good news at least for those hospitals, mentioned at the very end.

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No Wilders to LA

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Just a reminder here about a European political figure probably destined to become rather more important in the near future. That’s Geert Wilders, head of the rather recent Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV: “Freedom Party”). The party is mainly known for its anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views; the politician is often known as “Mozart” due to his uncommon hair-do, of an artificial blond coloring. You’re likely get a chance to take a gander at that fairly soon on some newspaper frontpage/homepage, since we now have a national election scheduled for early June here in the Netherlands and, unfortunately, opinion polls show the PVV poised to make major gains, even though no other party is willing to work with them to form a new government.

For now, though, Wilders’ anti-Islam stance has earned him top-billing in a documentary film, with his name even in the title, “Islam Rising: Geert Wilders’ Warning to the West,” produced by PRB films, an American company, in cooperation with the Christian Action Network. And, as both the Volkskrant and Trouw report, he was supposed to travel to Los Angeles to attend the film’s premiere on 1 May. (more…)

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And Now Playing in Kenya – Heeeeeeere’s Johnnie!

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Away from all the headlines, there’s an interesting development now in relations between the United States and Kenya, reported in the Dutch press from an ANP report by, among others, the Volkskrant (US follows through with threat to Kenyans).

American relations with Kenya will always be of special interest during the term of the Obama administration because of Obama’s personal ties and family history there, as will be relations with Indonesia for the same reason. However, and very interestingly, so far this effect is operating in the opposite way that you would expect. It almost seems as if both countries need to suffer a little bit, just to show that Obama is not going to play any favorites. In mid-November, for example, the American president is scheduled for an important tour of Asian countries: China, Japan, Korea, of course, also Singapore – but not Indonesia. Of course, it’s merely the most-populous Muslim nation; perhaps Obama is taking a break now from his “Arab outreach” efforts that previously featured a speech to Iranians and a speech directed to the Arab World, given in Cairo.

And then there is Kenya and the ANP report. The US “threat” is namely directed against high government officials and other “high-earners” there, and amounts to a refusal to give them visas anymore to visit the US. That apparently really hurts; rich Kenyans just love to head to the States to spend their money. But in the judgment of the US government nothing has been done to bring about promised reforms ever since the mess of the disputed national election at the end of 2007/beginning of 2008, which led to violence in which around 1,300 people died. In fact, no one has even been prosecuted in connection with that violence. So a fire needs to be lit under some people there.

The thing that caught my eye here, though – other than that it involves Kenya, homeland of Barack Obama Sr. – was the US official charged with paying a visit to Nairobi to deliver the bad news: Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Of course he’s not the real Johnny Carson (also note the different spelling), or he would be showing up just to practice his golf-swing. He’s merely a distinguished American career diplomat, a multiple award-winner for his service (including for directing the US Government’s anti-HIV/AIDS efforts in Kenya), who previously served as American ambassador to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda.

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Dutch Cats Behaving Badly

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

kat_167928nEven as America is consumed with its health care reform debate – with the associated “Tea Party” mass-demonstrations in the nation’s capital, rants on Fox TV, etc. – rest assured that it’s not as if over here in Europe we’re living in some sort of public health paradise. Far from it, in fact, although at least the local press is willing to give problems the necessary public airing-out. Like De Volkskrant here in the Netherlands, for example, and its recent piece (credited to the Dutch national news agency ANP): “Half of all cats have behavioral problems.”

Really now – where does it end? You do your best to ensure a healthy and happy life for all your human family members, but then the inconvenient prospect pops up that the housecat may well be bonkers. Although it seems we have at least had canine psychiatric care covered here for a while now, at least according to one Sonja van Leeuwen quoted in the article, who states “. . . it is already quite normal to have your dog with behavioral problems treated, but for cats this is not really accepted yet.” Instead, too many cat-owners here (who among them own 3 million cats) still have to suffer from feline friends which become too aggressive, or which urinate inside the house as an expression of some problem they are trying to communicate. Or which expropriate the seat of the only family scooter and refuse to move from it.

Then again, perhaps Ms. Van Leeuwen has an interest in talking up the potential travails of cat-ownership, since she intends next year to start a new course in cat-behavior therapy, in cooperation with a local dog-training academy. If you’re interested, well, you’ll have to know Dutch, and then be ready to make yourself available over the year-and-a-half course – at Lelystad, in the relatively-new province of Flevoland – to attend a total of 43 lesson-days. You’ll get to know a lot about cats, of course, but you’ll also get some insights into human psychology as well since, as Ms. Van Leeuwen is at pains to note, “Many problems are caused or worsened by the owner.”

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Afghan Health Care from the Ground Up

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Now that the question of reforming the US health care system is high on the agenda of the Congress and the President, it is quite appropriate that people are researching the medical establishments in other countries to gain insights and try to determine “best practice.” But there is one such establishment – built entirely from the ground up, in fact, over the past few years – that seems to have fallen between the analytical cracks, despite its quite unique characteristics. For one thing, it’s run entirely by third parties from outside the country; for another, it’s even financed entirely by outside parties as well.

OK, so on second thought maybe the example of Afghanistan has little to teach the US in the realm of health care after all. Indeed, the Americans (along with the Europeans, and the World Bank) are in fact the country’s medical paymasters. Nonetheless, an inspection may still be in order (to the extent hostile conditions within the country allow) of this nascent health structure that some do regard as “a minor miracle” because of the progress it has made. Reporter Rob Vreeken of the Netherlands’ De Volkskrant has taken on the challenge, in an account he entitles Come now, this isn’t Switzerland. (more…)

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The Baffled King Regretting “Hallelujah” . . .

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

. . . Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Halle . . .
oh, STOP already!

That’s also the attitude now of the artist who originally came up with that (admittedly beautiful and profound) ballad, as we read in the Dutch De Volkskrant: Leonard Cohen: Stop covering Hallelujah! “It’s a good song,” as he’s quoted in the article’s first paragraph from last week, “but too many people sing it.”

Cohen goes on: “I read a review of the film Watchmen where Hallelujah is used and the reviewer said ‘Can we please get a ban on the use of Hallelujah in films and TV shows?’ and I think about it a bit the same way.” Then again, he can”t resist adding “The Sony record company didn’t want to issue the album that Hallelujah was on. [That was his Various Positions album, issued instead in 1984 by Passport Records.] They didn’t find it good enough.”

Even if you don’t read Dutch, you might want to click through to this piece anyway for, in good twenty-first century multi-media style, the YouTube videos of five different treatments of “Hallelujah” are embedded at the bottom: Cohen himself (of course), Jeff Buckley, John Cale, k.d. lang – and Lisa Hordijk (known simply as “Lisa”), recent winner of the Dutch “X Factor” and whose own treatment of “Hallelujah” spent eight weeks in the upper reaches of the Dutch pop charts this past spring. But this could also make you stop and ponder: Why did the Volkskrant editors include these? Did they do it without thinking – in effect, unwittingly substantiating Cohen’s complaint – or in defiance of his wishes, or what?

Another thing: You’ll find that the YouTube videos are arranged vertically, with at the very bottom the version of Cohen – The Master – and at the top (i.e. accessible with the least scrolling) . . . yes, Lisa. I guess here in the Netherlands we’re sometimes just . . . well, a bit provincial (we’ve got twelve of ’em, in fact).

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The IAEA Gets A New Chairman

Monday, July 6th, 2009

This news deserves more coverage in the US than Google News tells me it is getting; hopefully the fault is merely in the timing, namely around the 4th of July holiday. In any event, as the Dutch Volkskrant reports (in an article credited to Reuters and the AP), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now has a new chairman to succeed Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, who has occupied that post since 1997 (and who together with his organization won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005). The new man is Yukiya Amano, currently Japan’s resident representative at the IAEA and who boasts a long record of service in the Japanese diplomatic corps, who last Tuesday (30 June) needed six rounds of voting among national IAEA representatives to finally (barely) gain the necessary two-thirds vote for selection to the post.

This has to be an important development, in the first place because of the vital importance these days of the IAEA, which is more-or-less the UN’s atomic power/atomic weapons supervisory agency. (It is formally an autonomous organization, but reports to both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.) Just think of all the countries where possession/non-possession of nuclear weapons is currently an issue: North Korea, Israel, Syria – and then, of course, Iran. It’s also important because of the very troublesome relationship the US has had in the recent past with the IAEA, particularly under the George W. Bush administration (e.g. over whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was really necessary), which actively campaigned against the re-election to the post in 2005 of Dr. ElBaradei.

Again, these days the main atomic trouble-spot is Iran (if only because, in North Korea’s case, the cat is already long out of the bag). So what is Amano’s view on the alleged Iranian ambitions for nuclear weapons? “I see no sort of indication of that in official IAEA documents” – that is, put him on the skeptics’ side (when even Dr. ElBaradei, in a recent interview with the BBC that the Volkskrant article cites, maintains that his “intuition” tells him that that is what the Iranians ultimately are pursuing). Amano’s attitude here will certainly go down rather poorly among most ranges of American public opinion but, again, it is the official attitude of the IAEA itself, i.e. of the impartial experts who are supposed to know (and whose expertise was blatantly ignored in the Bush Administration’s rush to war in 2003). For what it’s worth, it is also the long-held view of leading Middle East expert Juan Cole, who has also covered past American attempts to fool the IAEA into detecting an Iranian weapons threat by supplying it with forged evidence.

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