Is Boris’ Name Really Mud?

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

The Twitter-headline roughly translates to “Piss off, Boris!” and the lead to this piece reads:

Boris Johnson, the face of the Brexit Campaign, develops into the most-hated man on the Island – since it is only now dawning on many Britons what he has made crumble away for them.

Boris
Boris Johnson is certainly the flamboyant target for hate among those on the Continent – most of us, in fact – for whom Brexit is an unalloyed blunder. But this piece by Thomas Hüetlin tries to make the case that his popularity is plummeting among UK voters as well.

It’s well-known that one voter whom he has lost is the famed chef/restaurant entrepreneur Jamie Oliver, who in a widely-shared Instagram post (scroll down to read), begged his fellow countrymen not to make Johnson the new Prime Minister. What is more:

London, the city that he ruled for eight years as Mayor, he can now only enter under strong police-protection. His bicycle, with which he used to love to ride to Town Hall, he now has to keep in the garage. “If we see him, we’ll knock him from that silly bicycle,” worked-up citizens said last weekend.

All that very well may be. You can check here the latest odds offered by the UK betting establishments as to whether he is to be the next Prime Minister or not; taking a look right now (i.e. around 13.30 hours CET on this date), some show him ahead, while others show Home Secretary Theresa May ahead. Hüetlin’s piece also does a rather good job of skewring the outright untruths in Johnson’s column yesterday for the Daily Telegraph, but that’s rather easy prey.

Yes, that “£350 million/week to the NHS rather than to Europe” pledge has turned out to be a lie – but people associate that much more with Nigel Farage, who pushed it more publicly during the Leave campaign. And yes, it seems some Leave voters are now regretting their decision, but so far those have occupied only the realm of anecdote, not data.

We’ve seen the TV reports about how Boris Johnson is currently unpopular in the city whose Mayor he used to be, but there are no doubt plenty of Leave fans out there in the English hinterland, and in Wales, who still think pretty well of him. You can’t help but think that this Spiegel piece falls into the same old trap of assuming that London is but a microcosm of the rest of the country – a delusion into which many analysts clearly fell during the whole Referendum campaign, and one which arose out of the political divide existing in Britain which the Referendum result did so much to reveal.

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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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A Toast to the Debates!

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

So the presidential debates are finally over! The third and last one – it was supposed to be about foreign policy – just happened, and now the candidates are back on the campaign trail for the home stretch.

As usual, there has been a flood of analysis about this third debate, domestically but also in the international press. But at EuroSavant we’re always on the look-out for the unusual angle, and I believe we’ve found it: Beer-mugs for Obama from Der Spiegel, by that magazine’s lady correspondent in New York, Wlada Kolosowa.

Yes, that’s a very Polish name (given name should be pronounced VWA-da), although Wlada turns out to be a quite pretty 25-year-old Russian (pictures here) who has moved to New York City to study “Creative Writing” at NYU and who while there apparently is Der Spiegel’s local stringer.

A 25-year-old foreigner, just arrived in-country, as a debate analyst? you might exclaim. Well, how about if Wlada investigates the drinking-game perspective? That’s what she does here, heading for a popular bar for NYU’ers in Brooklyn called “Galapagos” on Monday night.

That explains the article’s title, and Wanda does a pretty thorough job, despite actually going on-location to but one bar. Did you know that for many Americans “Where are you going to watch the debate?” is just as common a question as “Where will you watch the World Cup Final?” is in Germany? Or that there is an endless variety of presidential debate drinking-game regimes, each according to taste? Many newspapers publish them, she reports, and universities all have their own. These amount to lists linking key words with associated drinks: sort of like bingo, if you hear these words, then you’re supposed to take the associated drink. Or sometimes something else: the drinking game rules published by the feminist website Jezebel, for example, prescribe that upon hearing a candidate mention his mother, players should then promptly send their own mothers a “drunk SMS” either thanking them for the good times or else cursing them for the way they screwed up their daughter’s life. Or there’s the list from what Kolosowa calls the “macho site” BroBible that even prescribes smoking a joint if/when either candidate starts talking about “green jobs.”

All in all, pretty light-hearted stuff. But Wlada also takes the trouble to gauge the mood towards President Obama among her sample of young NYU’ers. As you can imagine, the euphoria of back in 2008 is by now truly well and gone, especially since all of these young people have major anxieties about landing jobs after graduation. (And have no doubt about it, NYU is an expensive school, meaning that most of them will leave there with significant debts to their names.) On the other hand, most are willing to give Obama a pass on the situation, recognizing that in reality there is little the president can do about employment.

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Watch Ur Palle (revised post)!

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Those Italians! Gotta love ’em, but be careful about getting to know their language a little too well and then going out on the strada to practice it. You’ll get in trouble if you say things like Sei senza uova nei pantaloni! Literally “you have no eggs in your pants!”, this phrase “is not only vulgar but quite clearly has an insulting dimension.” That’s a quote from the ruling of an Italian judge, in a case in which one cousin was said to have uttered this phrase against another (presumably male) in public. So: Not allowed! The utterer will be hit with some type of legal sanction.

Now, where did this all take place? In Potenza! I kid you not – you can check out the by-line of the report in Der Spiegel yourself if you like!

Update: Ah, now feedback is starting to come in from true Italians, which is revealing the shaky nature of the alleged phrase – gained, after all, through translation by way of German! Why did I think that might not involve problems?

The definitive article is here. (But it’s in Italian – as you would hope! Thanks to my friend Barbara for the reference!) It now seems that non hai le palle (“you’ve got no balls!”) is the phrase we’re talking about – nothing about pants, or uova. That’s what will get you in trouble (or just writing about it, it seems). Nota bene!

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Is Germany Allowed to Win?

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

As much as everyone may desire it, it may ultimately prove impossible to separate the Euro 2012 Football Championship from wider political matters of the real world. We already saw last Friday, with Germany-vs.-Greece, a football game already fraught from being a tournament quarter-final, after which the loser would be sent home, gain even more of an edge from geopolitical considerations, as the Greeks were especially anxious to gain a bit of revenge against the country whose financial hard-heartedness many of them see as responsible for their current economic meltdown.

Alas, they did not get their wish. But consider: now that we know the results of the first semi-final it is clear that, having already beaten Greece, the German team’s path to the European championship now lies in beating Italy, and then beating Spain in the final – “PIGS” countries all of them! These are the post-WWII Germans, though, you must remember, so that inevitably the question is arising: Given these circumstances, should Germany be allowed to win the 2012 European football championship even if it can?

Patriotismus-Debatte: Darf Deutschland Europameister werden?… http://t.co/nMRN8LhD

@SPIEGEL_Politik

SPIEGEL Politik


That’s literally the question Spiegel writer Jan Fleischhauer poses in the title to his opinion-piece. His lede:

The Left is again afraid that foreigners don’t find the Germans nice enough. Some even wish for a defeat of the national football team against Italy. But Germans are much more popular with foreigners than most think.

Yes, apparently this continued feeling of shame and unworthiness is to be found primarily among Left- and Green-inclined German voters, some of whom have taken to stealing German flags sticking out of cars and leaving behind notes accusing those drivers of fostering nationalism.

This is comical stuff, although it does seem to be really happening. But it’s so unnecessary because, as Fleischhauer points out, in reality Germans are currently riding an extraordinary wave of popularity (which apparently goes for the kind of football they play as well). He cites a recent Pew Research Center study showing that Germans are admired by all other Europeans for their honesty and hard work. Chancellor Angela Merkel has profited from this to become rather popular throughout the continent herself – other than among the Greeks, that is.

But there is a larger point here, and once again it relates to “real life,” specifically the enormous financial crisis with which the continent is now wrestling. Everyone is now earnestly looking to Berlin to fix it! What, should we instead turn to Paris and François Hollande? Perish the thought! No, if anyone holds in their hands the solution to this financial turmoil and uncertainty, it’s the Germans (largely by being willing to pay to clean up other countries’ messes, it has to be acknowledged!). For Heaven’s sake, let them step up and do that – and should they win Euro2012 along the way, then that is no problem.

UPDATE: It’s no problem, alright: Germany 1, Italy 2!

One could opine that the clear assumption in Fleischhauer’s article that the German team would of course win the semi-final and go on to face Spain in the final reflected a certain German arrogance. But then we would be dealing here with a strange mixture of arrogance (“Of course we’ll win”) and humility (“But should we be allowed to?”).

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Schengen R.I.P.?

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Free movement of goods; free movement of ideas; free movement of money; free movement of people: these all used to be points of pride for the European Union, milestone-accomplishments as it succeeded in bridging national differences to create unprecedented levels of cooperation between European states. And along with that, unprecedented levels of trust; all of those freedoms required each participant state to have confidence that the others would not let them down and cause them to regret such openness.

Now “freedom of movement” once again seems to be under peril, as can be seen in today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung exclusive article Berlin and Paris want to bring back border controls. This is all about the EU’s Schengen Agreement, begun in 1985 and expanded since then to include most, if not all, member-states in a regime where travellers are not checked at “internal” EU borders between member-states but, on the other hand, “external” borders between member-states and non-member-states are policed ever more carefully, since someone getting past those then has free access to other states party to the Agreement.

Or at least those external borders are supposed to be carefully policed. In reality, doubts have arisen as to whether this really is the case, particularly when it comes to asylum-seekers making their way from North Africa across the Mediterranean, usually to Italy. When the pressure got turned up last year due to the Libyan civil war and many thousands more attempted this boat trip than usual, French confidence that the Italians were performing their proper border-control duties disappeared, to the point that border controls were reimposed for a few days on those countries’ “internal” common EU border – in violation of the Schengen agreement, of course. Denmark last year also chose unilaterally to reimpose controls on its border with Germany for a while. (more…)

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“Pre-Announced Failure”

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Yesterday the efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria finally seemed to make some forward progress. The UN Security Council voted to send 30 UN personnel there to enforce, or at least to observe, the cease-fire that is supposed to be in place. That vote was even unanimous, meaning that both Russia and China joined in voting “yes” after many months of obstructing anything to do with Syria at the Council.

Then again, you might recall that “observers” have already been sent there, namely last Christmas and by the Arab League acting alone. Those observers then departed again in fairly short order, as the Arab League formally suspended its monitoring mission on 28 January 2012, citing “a harsh new government crackdown [that] made it too dangerous to proceed and was resulting in the deaths of innocent people across the country.”

Spiegel Beirut correspondent Ulrike Putz has little more confidence that things will be any different this time:

Uno-Beobachter in Syrien: Scheitern mit Ansage… http://t.co/bgK9nAPf

@SPIEGEL_Politik

SPIEGEL Politik


That Scheitern mit Ansage translates to something like “pre-announced failure.” The key is that, once again and by the UN resolution’s terms, it is to Syrian government forces that the security of the observers is being entrusted. As the December/January observer experience showed, that’s a clear-cut recipe for rendering meaningless the Security Council’s insistence that they be able to travel wherever they want, and interview anyone (individuals only) that they want without those individuals then getting into trouble.

There is another dynamic in play as well. That NYT article referenced above mentions the element of a full 250 observers, also with permission to travel anywhere they want, that was an original part of Kofi Annan’s peace plan, but implies that the Security Council will vote to up the total from 60 to that level of 250 soon and so dispatch reinforcements. But Frau Putz sees the current 60 (first elements arriving in-country tomorrow) as a replacement for those 250, not a down-payment. Furthermore, the Syrian government has won the right to determine the countries those observers will come from.

Finally, there is probably not much of a cease-fire to observe anyway. Anti-government activitists report additional bombardment of Homs; and government media alleges that its soldiers have been attacked.

“So the observer mission in Syria stands ready to fail, before it even has begun,” Frau Putz concludes. Then again, what does she know? After all, her report includes the damning sentence “Above the city [Homs] drones crossed overhead.” But the Syrian regime hardly possesses any drone aircraft capability.

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Politics Without Proper Politicians

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Don’t look now – but Italy is no longer at the center of Eurozone fears. Indeed, the interest rates the government there pays on its debt are now back down closer to the “normal” rates of old. And this all has to do with Mario Monti, installed as the “technocratic” prime minister only some four months ago:

Neuer Politikstil in Rom: Monti und die Millionäre mischen Italien auf… http://t.co/hd2d9zW6

@SPIEGEL_Politik

SPIEGEL Politik


Yes, the grand-daddy of German newsmagazines, Der Spiegel is impressed – or at least writer Hans-Jürgen Schlamp and his editors there are. Could it be that, somehow, Italy is turning itself around precisely by becoming a bit more “German”?

Not really – unless you’re referring to “German” as in “Third Reich” (and we know you are not). For the striking thing about this article is how undemocratic that country has come to be. It’s the politicians in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies who were elected, after all; neither Monti nor the rest of cabinet ever were. Yet these days, they get what they want. Schlamp’s piece leads off with the tale of this government’s current attempt to curtail workers’ protection against being fired. Since forever that has been out of the question – the Left there, always strong whether actually in power at the national level or not, would never allow any such thing. Yet now it’s the Labor Minister, Elsa Fornero, who is warning the unions “We can’t negotiate forever,” meaning that they better finally show some “give” on the issue or the government will just take the measure it wants passed to the legislature anyway – and probably get its way.

The basic problem is that, while it’s true that these legislators were elected, it was largely they who brought the country to the brink of default and economic collapse in the first place. Voters know that they messed things up with who they chose.

Which then also means that there is going to be a problem when this “technocratic phase” comes to an end, which will happen at the latest when the next national elections come around next year. How do you profile yourself to your voters when you’re just giving the unelected government everything they demand – because you know full well that’s what those voters now want? It would be no use refusing: the country’s in trouble, haven’t you heard?, so you would just get yourself irredeemably in their bad graces. But everyone else is simply deferring to the government as well.

Naturally, this situation is the worst of all for what is left of former premier Berlusconi’s party, considering the way he was driven from office in disgrace. According to Schlamp, those politicians are very confused: “Many see their political survival linked to the return of their former Leader [the article does actually use here the infamous term Führer]. Others consider that to be the worst of all [possible] variants.”

Nonetheless, decision-time will come, because Mario Monti and his Merry Men aren’t going to stick around forever. He has already made it clear that he’ll head back to his professorship at Bocconi University (Milan) after those 2013 elections. And anyway, Italy is a democracy: it’s supposed to have a proper, democratically legitimate government.

UPDATE: Whoops! Did Herr Schlamp – and, by extension, I – write too soon?

Italy’s largest trade union, the CGIL, says it will hold a general strike over plans to reform employment laws http://t.co/UWabccdF

@BBCBreaking

BBC Breaking News

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Renaissance Jigsaw Puzzle

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

In the midst of all these crises, how about a little good news – apart from Muammar Qaddafi’s death, I mean, which now seems to have been nasty enough to give serious pause.

Holger Dambeck writing in Germany’s Der Spiegel supplies the glad tidings: Mathematicians put together mega-puzzle full of holes. It has to do with a large Renaissance fresco painted back in the 15th century, the time of Leonardo, on a church-wall in Padua, Italy by the noted artist Andrea Mantegna. This particular church was even put on a list, communicated to the Americans in the middle of the Italian campaign in World War II, of places containing artistic treasures that they should try not to damage. Unfortunately, German troops did camp in the area – perhaps counting on being shielded from attack by being so close to a church – and sure enough, they were subject to air-attack and the fresco was destroyed.

That news that this priceless large (almost 1000 square-meters) fresco was dashed in thousands of tiny pieces is not the good news. Into around 88,000 piece, to be more precise – and we know that number because the authorities after the attack did try to gather up all the pieces they could find.

Now many of them are being put back together again to form part of the old fresco! This has been made possible, firstly, by those authorities’ act of collecting all those pieces and storing them in Rome, where in 1992 they were cleaned, photographed, and catalogued insofar as possible. Then all that was needed was some sort of device to figure out how they fit together, and that’s what a team from the Technische Universität at Munich around mathematician Massimo Fornasier provided: software to do that.

On the one hand, this is hardly the first time computers have been brought to bear to a task of this kind – author Dambeck reminds us that German experts came up with software which aided in reconstructing documents which the old East German Stasi had shredded at the time of the fall of the Wall. But on the other, this is only a partial triumph at best, since only less than 10% of the fresco has been recovered as only that many pieces were available. The photo at the top of the article gives you some idea of what they were able to get back. And the project even has its own website – but it’s written in Italian!

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Merkel Disowned?

Monday, July 18th, 2011

As turmoil continues to grip European financial markets at the prospect of a sovereign default by Spain or even Italy, the emergency Euro-summit scheduled for Thursday this week is looming large in importance. This is all the more true in view of the fact that European Council President had tried to get everyone together for a summit last Friday – but no one was interested then, even as market rates on Italian debt skyrocketed.

The key figure at the summit, as always, will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fresh and possibly even slightly sun-tanned off an official visit to various African countries. Just as she is preparing for Thursday’s meeting, however, scattered press speculation has arisen to the effect that Helmut Kohl – the German Reunification Chancellor, and probably the mentor who did most to make Merkel what she is today – now cannot hold himself back from criticizing her Eurodebt policy. Die macht mir mein Europa kaputt! is the catchy quote from Kohl – “She’s destroying my Europe!” – and it comes from a fairly reputable source, namely the German news-magazine Der Spiegel. Ed Harrison over at Credit Writedowns identifies this Spiegel article and provides his own translation. (more…)

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(Spelling-)Change We CAN’T Believe In

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

More Bin Laden, Bin Laden, Bin Laden . . . It may have been among the most incidental of occurrences in the media uproar following the announcement of his death late last Sunday/early last Monday. But that doesn’t mean that people didn’t notice, or don’t want to seize on it to make a point – even as far away as Germany:

Wenn man eine Aussage oft wiederholt, wird sie sich festsetzen, hofft US-Sender Fox40 und meldet: “Obama bin Laden tot” http://bit.ly/lGu2gMless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


That’s from Berlin’s Die Tageszeitung or taz. (That additional -gezwitscher part actually means “tweeting” in German – now you know!) Even if you’re not up with the language, you can still see that what’s at issue is the rather-too-many mistaken references to “Obama” rather than “Osama” cropping up in that same media uproar, perpetrated by Fox News.

Missed them? No problem. The following YouTube clip from the David Pakman Show – in English, of course – reviews them for you. There were more instances than you might have thought!

Depending on your own media diet, all this Fox flim-flammery might already feel familiar, in an alliterative sort of way. For most in Germany, though, it is unknown and so somewhat shocking. As the taz-reporter Meika Laaff explains:

Whoever watches Fox stations in the USA has an interesting view of the world. There demagogues [Einheizer – literally “fire-lighters”] like Glenn Beck explain the evil connection between Fukushima, the European financial crisis and the Arab Spring.

It doesn’t help that the taz is a leftist paper, based in Berlin, itself well-known as a leftist city, even in Nazi-times. And remember, this is the European Left we’re talking about here, meaning that the typical Fox News audience might as well be living on another planet – and that taz reporters will always be on the look-out for any opportunity to send derision it’s way. Here, Ms. Laaff repeats several times her assertion that the Obama/Osama mix-up is actually deliberate on Fox’s part and intended to undermine respect for the President by way of a subconscious association that sheer repetition can plant in the heads of the unwary.

But give Laaff and her editors some credit as well. It turns out that some German media were guilty of the same Obama/Osama switch, including no less than Chancellor Merkel’s own press secretary*, who Laaff claims issued a tweet that translates to “#Chancellor: Obama responsible for deaths of thousands of innocents, mocked the principles of Islam and all religions.” (Of course that tweet is no longer on-line in that same form, it has been corrected.) The Bild Zeitung and Der Spiegel committed similar errors. (Surprising for the latter, not so much for the former, which is a National Enquirer-style tabloid, but with more-attractive women.)

At the end of her piece Laaff even challenges readers to get in contact by e-mail if it turns out that her taz has made the same mistake. So again, give her credit – not least because all this evidence of Germans having trouble with that Obama/Osama thing rather dilutes her claim that Fox News does it all the time deliberately.

*Equivalent in the US administration to White House press secretary Jay Carney(val Barker).

BTW did you like the no-less-than-three embeds in this post? A new record! I’m actually going to see if I can keep adding them until, at some point, my posts are 100% embed and I don’t have to write anything at all myself!

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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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Guns for Drugs

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

For those of us living far away it offers the macabre spectacle of beheaded bodies found in the desert, of the patent absence of governmental authority over wide stretches of territory, of naive schoolgirls gamely stepping up to become municipal chiefs-of-police before quickly fleeing north of the border in terror. For those actually located there, it must be a living hell. But as Der Spiegel shows, it’s also possible to take the current Northern Mexican drug wars and cut through to their analytical essence:

Waffenschmuggel : Amerikanische Knarren für mexikanische Gangster… http://tinyurl.com/5u4g4gv

@SPIEGEL_Politik

SPIEGEL Politik

It’s fairly simple, writes New York correspondent Marc Pitzke in Dirty business with Death: it’s basically a straight two-way deal of drugs headed one way, weapons the other.

These drug wars constitute a tremendous problem for Mexico – not to mention for any Americans who happen to be traveling there – but the clear implication is that the US bears much of the blame. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted as much two years ago in Mexico City, in a quote Pitzke features here (translated back from the German):

Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fans the drugs-trade. Our inability to stop illegal weapons-smuggling over the border causes the deaths of police, soldiers, and civilians.

Indeed, Mexican weapons-possession laws are among the strictest in the world – on paper. But that doesn’t matter much when, as is generally well-known, their American equivalents are among the loosest. In Texas, Arizona, California, etc. it’s fairly easy to go shopping for, say, AK-47s, in the particular variety and quantity of your choice, after which it’s then just a matter of getting them over the border to Mexican customers. The considerable political firepower (sorry) of the National Rifle Association, the NRA, makes sure this is so, and in fact it was that organization’s 2004 success in getting the national assault-rifle ban to expire that really lit a rocket under weapons-smuggling southwards.

Would that things could just be left at that! It’s the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) that is supposed to throttle this sort of thing, but a recent scandal has arisen in connection with something called “Project Gunrunner.” This is an ATF operation, undertaken since 2006, involving expressly allowing certain gun shipments to make it over to Mexico – in order subsequently to trace those weapons’ serial numbers to gain intelligence on where and with whom they end up.

Sound questionable? Well, grok this: recent undercover journalism (Pitzke mentions the TV network CBS) suggests that, in fact, “Project Gunrunner” lives up to its name rather too well, in that there is evidence (e.g. internal policies, clearly-excessive shipment quantities) that it is the ATF’s intention simply get those weapons to Mexico – for whatever reason – rather than really use them for any sort of investigation.

Meanwhile, as Wikileaks reveals, officials at the US embassy in Mexico City lambast Mexican government officials for their “corrupt” and “risk-avoiding” approach to the drug wars raging within their very borders. All very well, but the Americans should not lose sight either of their very substantial responsibility or the very little that is being done about that.

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Criant au Loup

Monday, February 7th, 2011

That’s supposed to be the French for “crying wolf” – I admit it, I had to go to an outside reference-source for that information and yes, it does seem suspiciously close to the English expression – but what brought that saying to my mind was this piece in Der Spiegel about the latest warnings of an imminent terrorist-strike issuing from the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI) or intelligence bureau of the French Interior Ministry (i.e. more-or-less their FBI).

Now that the American Department of Homeland Security has recently officially retired its much-derided color-coded (excessively-hyphenated) terror-alert system, could it be the French government which has now pulled into the lead in the Chicken Little stakes of driving its citizens crazy via repeated terror-warnings, until they just tune out and don’t listen anymore? After all, we heard this same sort of warning from the same source – and saw men in uniform with automatic weapons patrolling at the base of the Eiffel Tower, and all the rest – just last October, and nothing at all happened then.

Indeed, if you examine it closely this latest advisory is spiced-up with some new elements. It’s the recent revolution in Tunisia that is said to be one reason for the heightened alert; the DCRI claims to have intercepted a communication from Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQMI) urging attacks against both France and the US before they can get a chance to install new “vassals” in power there. More intriguingly, a second indication comes from the steep rise that the DCRI has detected in “Europeans” being trained in those infamous terror-camps located in the no-man’s-land between Afghanistan and Pakistan – that is, whites looking like any other native resident of Paris, or Lyon, or Frankfurt. So now it’s apparently not enough to be cautious around “Arab-looking” people, the next suicide-bomber could look like any other “European”!

That’s a sure-fire recipe for heightening the general climate of paranoia in France. What possesses the French authorities to issue such warnings? Even if they truly believe in what they are saying, can such proclamations really put the population on some sort of meaningful “alert” that will make any material difference in stopping an attack? You don’t see this sort of thing in Germany; the Spiegel piece is short and resolutely opinion-free, but you still have to think that its (unnamed) authors are wondering just what has gotten into the French as of late.

UPDATE: Whoops, the US authorities are back at it, color-coded chart or no: the terrorism threat there is now “at it’s most heightened state” since 9/11, says Janet Napolitano. FYI – and FWIW!

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Disreputable Presidency

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

It’s around this time of year (as well as at the end of June) that Euronerds’ thoughts turn to the EU member-state about to take over the six-month rotating EU Council Presidency. By most accounts I have seen, the presidency about to end – that of Belgium – has gone rather well, despite being the first one ever to be conducted entirely by a caretaker national government. Next up is Hungary, which has already publicized its intended agenda emphasizing topics such as treatment of the EU’s Roma population, Croatia’s membership application, and something called the “Danube Initiative.”

However, as we can see from a good summary in Der Spiegel, it looks like the rest of the EU might well insist on another item, namely Hungary’s new structure of state media supervision. That country’s right-wing ruling party, FIDESZ (the Young Democrats), gained a more than two-thirds majority in the national parliament in elections last April as the country threw out a detested, incompetent, and mendacious Socialist Party government. That enabled FIDESZ to alter the state constitution how it likes, and the new set of media laws are part of a series of sweeping changes the new government has introduced.

The problem is, it plainly looks like the new legal regime for media is designed to impose firm government control, of a sort strange to most free societies that more resembles the sort of Communist regime from which Hungary managed a peaceful transition more than twenty years ago. There is to be a Media Council, inevitably staffed by FIDESZ politicians, with the power to fine TV, radio, magazine and newspaper organizations as it pleases, presumably for any trumped-up charge it can come up with, with no possibility for appeal. Further, journalists from now on will be required to disclose their sources, whenever the matter at issue can be fit by the authorities within the flexible category of “national security.”

Already, even before Hungary has had a chance to assume the Presidency, there have been outcries against these new media laws from within the EU, such as from European Parliament members and even the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who publicly stated that Hungary risks putting itself in the same authoritarian category as Belarus. The Der Spiegel lede states the question baldly: “Can something like this be – in the middle of Europe?”

Unfortunately, this won’t be that easy to address. First, is it really true that the country’s FIDESZ government has in mind the creation of an authoritarian state? Even if so, what can be done? – especially in view of the awkward fact that Hungarian officials will be charged over the next six months with an important leadership role in guiding the EU’s business? The denunciations made public so far are fine, but in the institutional realm EU member-states are rather loathe to chide each other for their internal behavior. (As opposed to candidate states: both the EU itself and its more-powerful member-states see no problem in bossing them around.) I suppose the test-case here could be the shunning of Austria within the EU back in 2000 after Jörg Haider’s right-wing party entered the governing coalition there; I don’t recall that was very effective.

It’s an ugly situation, which I doubt will really ever be addressed in any substantive way. It’s potentially made even worse when you consider the financial dimension: Hungarian premier Victor Orban has been notably hostile to outside pressure to tighten state finances. Yet his country still has its own currency, the forint, and the amazing proportion of native debtors who have obligations denominated in some foreign currency instead (often the Swiss franc) makes them (and those who loaned them money) very vulnerable to any forint loss of value. Watch this space – that is, if you have the sort of morbid curiosity always looking for the next highway pile-up. This could turn out to be another Ireland, but an authoritarian one; that is, it could get very ugly.

UPDATE: Now what was I sayin’? Here’s Josept Cotterill of FT Alphaville on the Fitch rating agency’s downgrade today of Hungarian sovereign debt to BBB-, just one step above “junk” status.

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Washing Belgium’s Dirty Linen

Monday, December 13th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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He(brew) Said/Shi(‘ite) Said

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

OK, we know that a serious border incident took place yesterday between the Israeli and Lebanese armies. It involved some sort of tree [sic], and four people died: two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist who was with them, and an Israeli lieutenant-colonel. It seems the UN Security Council has even gone into session today to ponder things. But enough of all that – c’mon guys, who started it? Who was to blame?

You’ll get no credible answer asking the parties directly involved: each was quick to blame the other and to warn of “consequences” should anything further of this sort occur. Israeli officials even spoke of their troops being caught in an “ambush.”

No, the best bet for establishing further facts would seem to be finding some report from an on-the-scene but neutral observer. And we have one, from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, namely Ulrike Putz and her article Observers puzzle over the background of Mideast firefight. I mean, “Ulrike Putz” sounds like a name you can trust, right? She’s a female, and of course she’s German, and I think those two things combined amount to a mark of journalistic objectivity as good as any other.

Plus, you don’t have to scroll down too far in her article to find bullet-points that lay everything out as clear as it can presently be ascertained:

  • Where exactly was that infamous tree at the center of all this: on Israeli or on Lebanese territory? A UN spokesperson is willing to confirm that it was on the Israeli side.
  • So who opened fire first? We get UN testimony again on this: the Lebanese did. Then the Israelis naturally reacted, but by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, e.g. artillery, combat helicopters. But I understand Israelis tend to do that in the face of a provocation.
  • OK then: Why did all this happen? Well, there are some clues. You’ll note that among the casualties was a Lebanese journalist – well, what was he doing there just at the right place and time to watch something interesting happen? Also, according to Israeli sources the Lebanese brigade commander responsible for that sector is a Shi’ite with rather extreme anti-Israeli attitudes. So the suggestion is that he had just been waiting for an excuse to open fire on the IDF, operating entirely under his own authority. (Yes, I realize that with this analysis Frau Putz seems to go over to the Israeli side. But assessing motivations is the hardest task of all, and that’s the only source where she can get her information.)

Interestingly, up to now it has not been the Lebanese Army that the Israelis have felt they needed to worry about, but rather Hezbollah fighters. After all, they’re the ones that have the missiles to fire into Israel, and that month-long war there back in the summer of 2006 was really with them. So after the incident was over and the bodies removed, the real concern was that Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, would be annoyed enough with the incident (although it did not directly involved any of his personnel) to start attacking Israel again. Indeed, Nasrallah made a long and aggressive speech last night, in effect telling the Israelis not to try anything like that again or they’ll be very sorry, but that was as far as he went – so far.

Similarly, Frau Putz reports that the Israelis also seriously considered reacting to the incident by unleashing a general bombing campaign against Lebanese Army positions, but then decided not to. But don’t sit back and relax yet: this piece in today’s L’Express (with a couple interesting pictures of deployed IDF equipment) reports that both sides (meaning Israeli and Lebanese) are moving more troops up to the border.

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Moment-of-Truth Day for EU Banks

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Today is “Stress Day” – the day when the results of the “stress test” exercises performed on all major European banks will be released after the end of the European business day (but right in the middle of the American business day!). The Financial Times column Alphaville has a handy round-up of articles on the subject, compiled by Gwen Robinson. The most comprehensive guide – perfect if you’re still unsure of what these “stress tests” are all about and have some time – is by far the contribution from Anne Seith of Der Spiegel. (Rest assured: it’s in English. As for Alphaville itself, better enjoy that while it’s still free and available to all!)

Then there is the report by Anne Michel in Le Monde, also cited in the FT Alphaville round-up. Why is everyone so stressed about these “stress tests”? Mainly because banks can only “pass” them or “fail” them, and failure could carry a high price in terms of loss of investor confidence, for starters. Indeed, the impact is likely to be even greater than it was for the ten banks (out of nineteen tested) which “failed” during the American “stress test” exercise carried out back in May, 2009, for banks that fail by definition need recapitalization and there is a dwindling number of European governments still able to provide that. It’s notable, as Mme. Michel points out, that European authorities have staged such “stress tests” twice before, namely dry runs in August of 2009 and April of this year with a more limited selection of banks, whose results have never been made public.

But this time it’s serious, and all results will be released publicly. Naturally, everyone would love to jump the gun and get word of at least some of the results before they’re released to the unwashed masses (there’s potentially money to be made, for one thing). Mme. Michel does her best to oblige. It looks like all the French banks involved – namely BNP Paribas, Société générale, Crédit agricole and BPCE – have passed the test. Indeed, the failures are expected to come only from the usual suspect nations: Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Oh, and Germany, too – but the one German laggard is likely to be the Hypo Real Estate Bank, which already got into so much trouble back in 2008 that the German government fully nationalized it. (Note that this last bit does not come from Mme. Michel’s article, but from another of my on-line sources.)

Going back to the star banking pupils from France, such seeming across-the-board success inevitably raises questions as to the stress tests’ legitimacy. The article does go into some detail about how the tests’ parameters have been toughened up to include some degree of sovereign debt default, placed on top of a posited recession of 3% negative economic growth lasting over a year-and-a-half. But will this go far enough to convince the markets that all this has been a worthwhile, bona fide exercise? That is probably what most EU officials and bank executives are stressed-out about most of all.

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Opel: The Drama That Will Not Die

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

What is to become of General Motors’ European subsidiary? The European auto-market is overcrowded with suppliers, that’s clear; Opel needs a guarantee of money, from someone, in order to stay on its feet financially and be able to compete. Yet the source from which the company thought it could gain the guarantee it needed – the German government – has been growing cool to the idea in light of the many new demands on its money from elsewhere (e.g. Greece). Long-time readers will know that I’ve been covering Opel’s recent travails more-or-less consistently; you can update yourself on the situation from my last blogpost on the subject here.

But now firm decisions are finally being made in this matter by the German authorities – or at least are seeming to be made. For those interested, and with the required German language skills, the ongoing saga can even be followed fairly closely on the @Deutschland_ Twitter-feed. I know: it’s that sort of thing that you are glad to leave for me to do instead, and I’m pleased to oblige. (One caveat: @Deutschland_ only follows material from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.) But for now, let’s go “over the jump” to this blogpost’s full article, since a couple of tweets from that @Deutschland_ feed need to make an appearance. (more…)

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German Medical Care Shrinks in Financial Crisis

Monday, May 24th, 2010

The word came in earlier this morning on the @Deutschland_ Twitter-feed that I follow for EuroSavant purposes (it’s only in German):

Studie: Wirtschaftskrise beschleunigt Krankenhaussterben: Schlechte Nachricht für Patienten: Weil Länder und Kommu… http://bit.ly/bRSpH3less than a minute ago via twitterfeed


The tweet refers to an interesting article in Der Spiegel, Economic crisis accelerates dying-out of hospitals, and normally is something I would gladly re-tweet.* But then I realized that, when it comes to news about any European country’s health system, I owe my readers a bit more than that in view of the couple of posts I wrote on that subject in the recent past, especially one on the same German system that astute readers will have perceived as particularly heavy in its irony. (more…)

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COP15 Revisited: The Behind-the-Scenes Debates

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Another behind-the-scenes revelation about the COP15 United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen last December has emerged, this time in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. This one is different enough from the secret report from the Danish government that I discussed in my last post that I felt a new entry was appropriate. It has to do with the leaked transcript of a crucial part of the climactic negotiations on the afternoon of the conference’s very last day – Friday, 18 December 2009. And it’s quite a bit juicier than the leaked Danish report, since it directly involves superstar national-leader celebrities such as Obama, Merkel, and Sarkozy – although not Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who had indeed traveled to Copemhagen but at this critical stage was deliberately cooling his heels in his hotel room, having sent a deputy (one He Yafei) to represent China in his place. (more…)

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Have Stress, Smoke Less

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

The Cologne Smoking Study (German only): An examination of why your after-shave seems to give off fumes? No; I’m afraid it’s nothing more lively than a study on smoking carried out by the Humanities and Medical faculties at the University of Cologne, covered here by Der Spiegel.

Still, it produced a surprising conclusion. Conventional wisdom has people smoking more the more they are under stress, but this study turns that on its head. How can that be? Silly, do keep in mind the wave of anti-smoking restrictions imposed in most EU countries from around 2005 on: these people are simply not allowed to smoke there in the office where they are struggling to meet deadline, and they don’t have time to get away somewhere where they may. So maybe they make up for it later, when the crisis is over? There’s no evidence for that.

Smokers should at least be relieved that this study stops well short of recommending any heightening of the stress-quotient among one’s employees as a means to get them to cut down on their tobacco consumption. Perhaps the thought in the back of their minds of the various diseases to which they are making themselves susceptible by their behavior – I won’t bother to list them here – has always been stressful enough.

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Nukes: Eradicate or Modernize?

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Ever hear of the B-61? Sounds like a US warplane, and that’s close but not quite right. Or maybe you’re not interested at all in the B-61, whatever it is – but, to modify the quote attributed to Leon Trotsky, the B-61 could well be very interested in you, at least in the event of nuclear war. For the B-61 is actually the leading thermonuclear bomb in the American arsenal, first designed back in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. And a there was a recent article in Der Spiegel (US Ministry wants to modernize old atomic weapons) about the drive that is now underway on the part of the US Department of Energy (which formally controls all American atomic weapons) and the Department of Defense to spend quite a lot of money to modernize the many B-61s still in stockpile.

Aside from being refreshingly arcane – anybody see any sort of coverage of this at all in the American press? I thought not – how is any of this important? In a couple of ways, actually. First there’s our old friend German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who explicitly campaigned during the last German nationwide election to have the Americans withdraw all of their nuclear warheads from Germany. It’s even a separate policy-point in the coalition agreement that undergirds the current CDU/CSU/FDP federal government in power in Berlin.

Obviously, though, if the Americans are seriously contemplating going forward with B-61 modernization, including for the many such warheads stored in Germany (the exact number is surely classified), then the German Foreign Minister can yell and demand all he wants, but it will remain painfully apparent that he has no say in the matter. Hey, they’re just devices sitting on German soil, each capable of annihilating a major city – but it’s highly unlikely that even Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel herself has any say, either, due to the web of defense agreements governing NATO military installations and US-German relations dating from back when Central Europe was a much more dangerous place.

It’s all something rather alarming to be made aware of, especially if you’re a German citizen, but this still is plainly the main message of this article’s author, Otfried Nassauer, even as he goes on in his article to describe – in what sometimes reads like rather unseemly detail – exactly what the proposed B-61 modernization plans entail. Right now there are five B-61 models, and that’s too unwieldy; those five are to be transformed into just two, namely Model 11 (which already exists and is said to be an atomic “bunker-buster” for tactical use) and Model 12 (brand-new, a multi-use model to take up the roles now covered by all the other models which are to be phased out). Further, in a yet more- explicit sign of the clear intention to keep these weapons in Europe for a long time to come, another aspect of the modernization will involve making sure these bombs are modified so that they can be delivered by the next generation of NATO tactical aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter.

There’s yet another point Nassauer intends to make as well, however. Didn’t President Obama, in his speech to the adoring crowd last April in Prague’s Hradčanské náměstí (Castle Square), speak of his ambition to abolish nuclear weapons entirely? What ever happened to that notion? It’s true that Obama gets the last word in this modernization decision, which he will present in the “Nuclear Posture Review” that his administration is due to deliver to Congress shortly. But – surprise! – no sort of radical move to put aside the proposed modernization entirely is expected. There is too much money at stake, i.e. too many vested interests pushing for it both in DOE and DOD. Indeed, the main point of contention currently is whether the envisioned modernization will end up paving the way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons or instead just serve as a substitute for that.

But as for the Germans? Forget ’em.

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Benedict XVI Feels Your Humiliation

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Thanks to last Christmas’ “Underwear Bomber” more and more airports all over the world have started digging deep into their pockets to purchase those insidious “full-body scanners” for screening passengers – starting, unfortunately, with Amsterdam’s own Schiphol Airport, where they probably are still feeling the embarrassment of being the place where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab embarked on his ill-fated flight to Detroit. The awkward privacy and civil liberties implications of showing people virtually naked this way – in addition to these machines not being guaranteed to actually work as they’re supposed to – have given rise to a lot of fierce criticism, but with no tangible result so far in discouraging these expensive purchases.

But now, unexpectedly, and as Spiegel Online reports, opponents of these machines have a noteworthy new ally: Pope Benedict XVI, who over the past weekend took the occasion of a visit by a group of airline-industry representatives to try to bring his audience back to some elementary first-principles, like “the primary asset to be safeguarded and treasured is the person, in his or her integrity” and “it is essential never to lose sight of respect for the primacy of the person.”

Spiegel Online’s report actually was prompted by this piece in the Guardian that is even a little bit better (quite apart from being in English), in that it points out that the Pope is himself in that VIP-class of people who never need to worry about any sort of screening no matter how much they travel. Then again, one can also suppose that empathy is an important element of his job-description.

UPDATE: Could the revolution have already begun? The London Times now has this story about how two Muslim women, set to fly to Pakistan, refused to undergo full-body scans (by those £80,000 “Rapiscan” machines! Is “Rapiscan” pronounced with a long “a,” by any chance?) a short while ago at Manchester Airport. (I first found out about the incident, however, from the Nederlands Dagblad, which is itself a religious newspaper.)

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Graph Theory Subway Trains

Monday, September 7th, 2009

U-Bahn.svgBeen to Berlin recently? Noticed how everything seems to flow particularly smoothly when you navigate the subway system (the U-bahn) there? But that’s just because it’s Germany, right? I mean, seemingly in exchange for exhibiting certain, shall we say, strict and humorless character-traits, and sustaining themselves on Sauerkraut and other tasteless food (at least according to popular imagination outside of the country), Germans can at least be sure that their trains run on time.

Actually, not really. I don’t mean that the subway-trains don’t run on time in Berlin, it’s quite likely that they do. Rather, it seems that they have recently addressed the entire issue of U-bahn efficiency – especially the problem of minimizing transfer times between one line and another – with a bit of higher mathematics, as Holger Dambeck recounts for us in Der Spiegel (Waiting faster).

Consider: you pull into a transfer-station in your one subway train and cast an anxious eye across the platform to where you rather hope the other subway-line to which you want to transfer has a train already waiting there for you. Of course, it’s rare that you’re so lucky; usually you’ll need to get out and wait for some period of time before that follow-on train ever arrives. And sometimes – oh, the frustration! – you do see the train there across the platform as your first train pulls into the station, yet the other train-driver can’t even wait a minute and instead pulls out of the station just as you are arriving! (more…)

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Netanyahu Takes Up Nazi-Talk

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

For all of the 60+ years since 1945, diplomatic relations between Germany and the State of Israel have been very ticklish, and they will no doubt continue to be that way for at least another 60 years – and if you don’t immediately realize why, then you are simply unaware of some rather basic history, involving figures like “6 million.” (OK, actually up until 1990 it was West German – Israeli relations that were ticklish, not East German, because the latter Soviet client-state had no patience with any concept of guilt from the Nazi-times, preferring to view itself as a victim of the fascists, and never established diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.)

That hardly means that German government officials are not welcome to conduct official visits to Israel, of course, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier did that earlier this week on Monday. Because Steinmeier is at the same time SPD candidate for Chancellor in the upcoming September elections, this was probably the last time he is to visit Israel (and Syria, and Lebanon) in that capacity. Still, in retrospect, the timing for the visit seems most unfortunate: on the one hand the topics for discussion could not help but include Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, which the US and Europe want Israel to put a much-tighter leash on (and that for starters), while on the other Netanyahu has lately been acting like the pressure is really getting to be too much for him – for example, as recounted in a report picked up on Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, calling both Rahm Emanuel (President Obama’s chief-of-staff) and David Axelrod (his senior political adviser) “self-hating Jews.”

Sure enough, as we learn in an account in Der Spiegel by Yassin Musharbash (How Netanyahu startled Steinmeyer with a Nazi concept), the explosion duly arrived. (more…)

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Denmark’s Rasmussen To Head NATO

Monday, April 6th, 2009

You likely missed it in the thick series of happenings and photo-ops that have flooded the world’s front pages since Barack Obama first took flight last Tuesday for London, but there was a bit of a mini-crisis brewing at the NATO summit (his next stop after the G20 meeting in London) even as he addressed all those German and French students in Strasbourg at that “town hall” meeting on Friday. It wasn’t very complicated: the current Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was lined up to succeed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO Secretary-General at the summit, but there was a serious monkey-wrench in the works: the top Turkish leaders did not want Rasmussen in that post, and they were ready to insist that he not get it and so exercise the effective veto they and every other one of NATO’s 28 members have on such a top position. (The Turkish complaints against him related to the late 2005/early 2006 Danish cartoons affair, plus a Kurdish-language TV station – “Roj TV” – that broadcasts in Denmark.) Things even reached the point that – horrors! – the news conference scheduled for 1:00 PM on Saturday afternoon did not happen until a good two-and-a-half hours later, which is when De Hoop Scheffer could finally appear on the stage shaking hands with his Danish successor.

As befitting its status as one of Denmark’s best-regarded daily newspapers, Berlingske Tidende has some good coverage of this affair (NATO’s declaration-of-confidence in Denmark), written by Ole Bang Nielsen. First off, Nielsen makes it clear just what this appointment means to the Danes themselves, namely a recognition that Denmark is no longer just a “footnote-nation and hesitant member of NATO,” as well as a personal vote of support to Rasmussen himself. To get there past the Turkish opposition, though, truly took a tremendous diplomatic full-court press – “the large European NATO lands finally threw in all their political ballast against Turkey,” as Nielsen writes. Breaking up that NATO meeting without having Rasmussen in place as the Secretary-General would have been a humiliation – especially for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who basically had announced the day before that Rasmussen would be named – so those European countries did indeed throw in everything, including Turkey’s prospective EU membership. Yes, EU matters generally do not belong being linked to NATO issues (the memberships of the two organizations don’t match very exactly, anyway), but Nielsen writes that certain threats were made nonetheless against Turkey’s EU membership process should it continue to hold out against the Dane. It seems even that the EU enlargement commissioner (Olli Rehn, a Finn) was on-hand personally to utter authoritative remarks toward the Turks such as “This does not look good from a European perspective, if Turkey does not give way.” There you have it: ordinarily Rehn did not even belong there at the NATO meeting at all, since he is an EU official, and because Finland is not a member of NATO anyway. (more…)

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Dissing the Vatican

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

euro_papstTwo recent reports in German (on-line) publications suggest that Pope Benedict XVI is due shortly to find life there at the Vatican to be a bit more difficult.

The first comes from Der Spiegel: Ratzinger authorized text for a right-extremist book. “Ratzinger” is of course the surname the present Pope was born with; this report concerns an article published back in 1997, when he was merely Cardinal Ratzinger. That piece appeared in an edition of the monthly magazine Aula called “1848 – Heritage and Mandate,” published by an Austrian right-extremist organization that a few years earlier had ignited controversy there by publishing a denial of the Holocaust. His secretary at the time, a Vatican official named Clemens, did provide permission in writing to Aula to publish the Cardinal’s article, even though a spokesperson for the Vienna archdiocese tried to deny this. Aula had previously been the house-organ publication for Austria’s Freedom Party, the one headed by the notorious (and late) Jörg Haider, but had been cut loose by that party at the time of the Holocaust controversy.

We’ll see if this story gains any further traction – after all, it was only this Clemens guy, rather than Cardinal Ratzinger himself, who can be shown as committing the mistake of dealing with these right-wingers. Still, this controversy comes at a bad time, considering the recent fuss over Benedict XVI revoking the excommunication of the English bishop, and Holocaust-denier, Richard Williamson.

And then there is the coming blow to the Pope’s holy pocketbook, reported by Matthias Oden in the Financial Times Deutschland (Thou shalt not run riot). (more…)

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Opel Fans, Speak Up!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Parallel to the ongoing drama in the United States over the survival of two out of the “Big Three” automakers – whether to give GM and Chrysler the new money they have come back to the federal government to ask for, or just to cut off what looks like a never-ending money-drain but thereby administer a severe economic shock to the American Midwest – European auto-makers are also having a difficult time in the current economic climate, and so there has been discussion about various bail-out plans (and implementation of a few) over here as well. Of course, that comes as no particular surprise when the European auto-maker in question is actually a subsidiary of one of those American firms that are seemingly in terminal decline, such as is the case for Saab in Sweden (a GM subsidiary, which has already filed for bankruptcy protection) and Opel in Germany (full name “Adam Opel GmbH,” also belonging to GM, in fact since 1929 except during World War II, when its facilities were bombed instead). With Opel reported ready to run out of cash within a few months, the pressure is on to find some solution to save the firm, particularly given the fact that, as a foreign facility, GM is likely to afford it low priority as it scrambles to save its core operations in the US. Indeed, the current preferred solution is to detach Opel from its parent company entirely, possibly at that point to form a new multinational car company around it and Saab and Vauxhall (another GM brand, based in the UK). But that would be a complicated and contentious operation, given that GM is still the formal owner of not only the physical plant but other essential things like the trademarks and many technology-patents.

Nonetheless, it seems that a popular groundswell of sorts has arisen insisting that some solution be found to save the firm, one that goes beyond the Opel employees and shareholders who would be directly hurt by a shut-down, according to an article by Harald Blum in Der Spiegel (The Hour of the Fans). The lede tells me something that I didn’t really know, and still wonder whether I should believe: “Autos from Opel are for many grey and dull – yet hardly any other German auto-brand has the same loyal followership.” As proof Blum points to the website rettetOPEL.de (rettet Opel itself is German for “save Opel”), where you can find four separate 500-slide slide-shows of sentimental pictures sent in by Opel-owners of their cars and/or Opel-typical tableaus. And you do have to wonder: is anything similar happening in response to the seeming death-throes of General Motors or Chrysler, or at least in honor of any of those firms’ individual brands?

Of course, Blum’s claim about Opel’s “loyal followership” is still hard to credit when you remember that it is German cars that we are talking about here: I daresay that BMW, or Porsche, easily inspire at least a similar fanaticism among their owners, but then neither of those is (yet) in the same financial trouble as Opel. Still, he also uses his article to remind us of that auto-maker’s glory days: of the Rekord, for example, the long-time best-seller nicknamed “the Reliable,” or the GT, a sports car which provided a riding-thrill said to be second only to actually flying, and others. But he is also honest enough to make note of the firm’s disappointing recent performance, starting really right after it pioneered in the introduction of the catalytic converter in the early nineties (but such “green” features have never really been powerful arguments to buy any car), when its model-design lost its previous distinctiveness (its “identity”) and its market share dropped from 20% to around the 7% it enjoys today – “thereby lying under that of its arch-rival Ford, which especially rankles true fans.”

So why act to save it? you could therefore ask. The Ford German subsidiary regularly sells more cars and therefore, like Ford, Inc. itself, has managed (so far) at least to stay out of trouble enough to not have to ask for government money. Well, as Blum explains at the end of his piece, recent Opel models have been earning rave reviews from professional auto-testers and auto-magazines, so things seem to be looking up on the design front. And there are those thousands of Opel fans. But is all that enough?

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Toy Train Has Left the Station

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Sorry for the unrelenting bad news, but here’s a brand-new victim of the current financial crisis that you might be interested in. Märklin is bankrupt, Hasnain Kazim reports on Germany’s Spiegel Online. As his lede then continues:

. . . and millions of model-railroad friends grieve for the tradition-filled enterprise with cult-status. The majority-owner had announced a [financial] rescue not long ago. But now the firm has become a victim of the financial crisis, of management mistakes and of a societal shift.

I also looked at reports of Märklin’s recent demise from various other German on-line publications, but the Spiegel’s account is the best because of the interesting background information that it provides. Like how about this: the announcement that the firm would have to file for bankruptcy from Märklin’s chief executive Dietmar Mundil came yesterday, just prior to the opening of the annual International Toy Fair convention in Nürnberg. And this was only shortly after the company’s marketing head, already present in Nürnberg for the convention, had issued a statement for the benefit of his fellow convention-goers (i.e. worldwide toy industry professionals) that there was no bankruptcy on the horizon for Märklin. Embarrassing, that, but maybe top management should not be blamed too much here, since it seems the bankruptcy was also a surprise for them, something that suddenly became unavoidable after the recent unexpected refusal by the company’s banks to roll over the €50 million in credit it had outstanding.

Ah, but who was that management? Not the original families who had founded and built up this model-train manufacturing business over the course of 150 years (the Märklin family, yes, but also the Friz and Safft families); they sold out in 2006 to a consortium made up of Goldman Sachs and Kingsbridge Capital, a London-based private-equity firm. The company had been losing money since 2004, you see, and these new owners proceeded to do what such private-equity new owners do, namely make their new acquisition start producing profits again no matter what had to be broken in the process. Four hundred of the total 1,400 jobs were eliminated, along with two factories, toy retailers were instructed to pay their invoices more promptly, etc. But those new owners consortium also invested in developing the company and introduced imaginative new marketing wrinkles, such as model-train “starter sets” sold for €100 at the German low-cost supermarket chain Aldi, as well as the simple insistence that store-owners display the model trains more prominently. And indeed, turnover did rise through 2008, to €128 million by the end of the year, so that Kingsbridge head Matthias Hink could declare then that “Märklin is one of Germany’s best brands and has considerable potential,” and that they certainly never intended to sell it. From Kazim’s account, we probably need to take Hink at his word here; it does seem that the firm ultimately went under solely because it could not achieve a credit roll-over that would have been routine for it in normal times.

Out of Track in the Long Run?

On the other hand . . . maybe Märklin was actually doomed, sooner or later. Let’s face it: who plays with model trains these days? Kazim gets some interesting quotes on this subject from an expert, one Werner Lenzner, a toy-industry market researcher, who asserts that, starting in the 1980s, model trains were not for kids anymore but for adult collectors – typically male and between 40 and 60 years of age. The individual pieces were no longer relatively cheap toys meant to be kicked around; they had became expensive and were meant for display. This older cohort is now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, to be found according to Lenzner “rather sit[ing] during their leisure time in front of the computer [ed. interjection: reading EuroSavant!] or at the fitness-center.” Lenzner is even willing to say for the record that those who still sit around building elaborate miniature train tableaus are now generally viewed as schräg – which my dictionary defines as “slanting, oblique” but I think we can figure out that term’s slang (and probably not so complimentary) meaning.

Then again, what Matthias Hink from Kingsbridge said about the staying-power of the Märklin brand remains true, I think, and no brand really ever has to die unless for some reason it is explicitly put to death. Someone else will surely buy up that brand and the company’s other assets and carry on. Lenzner again: the main mistake was “to make very costly [train] models, in extreme detail, which only a well-to-do collector could afford.” So the new Märklin probably should go back to manufacturing true trains for the kids. Or maybe expand further the product-line to which it can apply its powerful brand: Märklin “train engineer” sunglasses, anyone?

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