A Little Incompetence Goes A Long Way

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

More #BrusselsAttacks here, what else? But I think you’ll be amused this time, if perhaps in a somewhat morbid way . . .

From recent personal experience, I’ve come to the view that the central taxi switchboard for Amsterdam – at least that in charge of dispatching cabs for the largest taxi company here, with the longest tenure – is hopelessly incompetent. It seems that might also be true for Brussels:

23MARHeureusement
“Luckily, the call center for the taxi company misunderstood the terrorists . . .” it reads there.

Taxis: If you have been following the whole #BrusselsAttacks thing closely, you’d be aware of the taxi story. Namely, the three fellows who carried out the attack at Zaventem airport were identified by the taxi-driver who had driven them to the airport. The funny thing about them, he reported, was that they refused to let him handle the baggage they were taking along. That baggage, of course, turned out to be the explosives that blew up within the terminal – or at least two of the three bags did.

23MARFeelLucky
(Actually, we now have further reports that that third bomb did ultimately explode – but only later, when police were in control of the arrivals hall and everyone else was evacuated, and no one at all was hurt when it did.)

Further, the same taxi-driver was glad to reverse-engineer the ride for the police’s benefit, so that that big raid that was reported yesterday evening (the evening of the attacks) in the Schaerbeck section of town actually was directed at the address from which the taxi-driver had picked these terrorists up.

But here is the rest of the story, as reported in one of the main French-language Belgian papers, La Dernière Heure (DH.be). As it turns out, the terrorists had much more baggage (i.e. explosives) than just those three pieces, as the police indeed found out when they raided that evening. They wanted to take all of their explosives to the airport, and so when calling for a taxi specifically requested a mini-bus (une camionette). But this is what was misunderstood; what they got was just a plain old taxi, with only a trunk to carry their luggage. So they could only take along those three explosive pieces – one of which, the biggest and most powerful, did not explode immediately – and not everything that they wanted, specifically a fourth explosive that was even bigger than the other three.

Indeed, says this piece, just that biggest fourth piece would have sufficed to completely blow up the entire departures hall there at Zaventem – or, alternately, “a fifth of all houses in Schaerbeck.” That last bit is definitely an exaggeration, to be sure, although there were some anxious moments during that raid as the bomb-disposal experts worked to disarm that largest, “unstable” charge.

Meanwhile, it seems that quite a few of the rank-and-file Brussels taxi drivers showed themselves willing to take stranded people home yesterday for free! But now they’re worried about all the lost business from the airport remaining closed, which it will also be tomorrow, Thursday. Also, the head of the local taxi association insists – quite rightly – that the identity of that driver who took the terrorists to the airport stay secret. That’s what the driver wants him/herself, and remember: s/he did his/her job, and then reported his/her suspicions, while it was the switchboard that demonstrated that admirable ineptitude.

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Press Predators

Friday, May 6th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cowtown Counterintelligence

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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Beauty Soothes the Financial Beast

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

We’re all back to work now, the Xmas and end-of-year holiday period is definitively passed, so it’s time once again to belly up to those nasty problems still leftover from 2010. For Europe, that means in the first instance the sovereign debt crisis, which now has a certain additional player, namely Belgium, by some accounts on a one-way trip to default city. For its debts are high – roughly equal, in fact, to national GDP – and there are no responsible adults around to do something about them. There haven’t been any of those since last June, for the country has been without a proper government since the elections then, and just recently set a new West European record for time spent in a government-less regime. Dr. Doom, for one, is not pleased:

Belgium is effectively on the way to political break-up. Will the political chaos lead to financial turmoil & banking/sovereign debt stress?

@Nouriel

Nouriel Roubini

. . . wait a sec – look, I’m actually not ready to deal with such issues! Please allow me here instead to join so many Belgians, both French- and Dutch-speaking, in just letting my mind fly very, very far away from any thoughts of state bankruptcy, to the refuge of young feminine beauty. Yes, as so many national media outlets were there to report, Justine de Jonckheere (below, and more pictures here) was chosen last Sunday as Miss Belgium 2011.

Quite apart from the event’s intrinsic appeal, the Miss Belgium pageant is certainly a tonic in these times because of its sheer status as one Belgian national institution that has not been ripped into separate French- and Dutch-speaking halves. Indeed, as La Libre Belgique points out, Sunday evening’s event, broadcast out of the casino in the sea-side (and thus Flemish) town of Knokke, was a killer TV-event. It actually attracted more than 1 in 3 of French-speaking viewers, while the Flemish audience-share, at around 15%, was also double what other top shows usually attract on a Sunday evening.

That’s all very nice, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no tension over the pageant’s results, considering so many native Belgians have such an interest in them. You can rest assured that, at any given time during the tournament, approximately half the country is encouraging – whether overtly or covertly – candidates from a French-Belgian (Walloon) background while the other half is rooting for the Dutch-speaking girls. It’s accepted that whoever wins needn’t necessarily know much about how to speak the country’s “other” language yet, but that one of her first duties (and those of the two runners-up) will be to start studying it to get up to a passable level of ability as soon as possible. Still, and as beautiful as she is, this year’s winner must have certainly induced a hard swallow among tournament officials, for her last name in particular – De Jonckheere – is almost at a slap-in-the-face level of Dutchness – most true French-speakers would have very little idea how to pronounce it! Nonetheless, year after year everyone is ready to accept any result – even that of 2008, when the winner was a Czech emigrée to Wallonia who could speak no Dutch at all – as long as the tournament process is, shall we say, free and fair.

The problem, dear readers, is that this year there are troubling signs that the Miss Belgium contest was anything other than that. For one thing, as La Dernière Heure reports, one contestant claims that the fix was in for Ms. De Jonckheere from nearly the beginning. Now, this whistle-blower is Maureen Lazard, a French-speaking contestant from Walloon Brabant, but she still alleges that Justine De Jonckheere had long been the favorite (in French: la chouchoute) of tournament director Darline Devos, for whatever reason, to the extent that everyone knew she was going to win and the selection process would be distorted to make that happen. (“Devos” is really a Dutch name – de vos, the fox, quite appropriate for a beauty-pageant director – so maybe that had something to do with it.)

Sour grapes from a loser – yes, that’s what all that sounds like. But there’s another, more serious allegation, this time reported in a Flemish newspaper, namely the “SHE” supplement to the Gazet van Antwerpen. Keep in mind that Ms. De Jonckheere is practiced in finding loopholes to rules – she’s a law student – and also that a certain weight in the decision about the winner is contributed by votes sent in from the general public as SMSs. SHE magazine cites evidence that the winner invested around €12,000 to buy telephone calling-cards to engineer a flood of incoming SMS votes in her favor. Again, the complaint has been lodged on behalf of – yes – another French-speaking contestant, a certain Lara Binet out of Liège, but the only answer tournament director Devos offers is that there could not have been any fraud, since she had monitoring personnel in place as votes were counted.

Sounds lame to me. And anyway: look at Justine’s picture again, at those shifty eyes! I have to conclude that the 2011 Miss Belgium Tournament has been tainted by scandal just when that sort of national institution that can truly draw the interests of the land’s Dutch- and French-speakers together was needed more than ever. There may still be the national football team; there may still be the national armed forces; but otherwise such institutions are falling by the wayside one-by-one, with grave implications for the country’s future and therefore for its solvency.

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Mechanical Learning

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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Dazzled by a Coffee Shop Chain

Monday, April 26th, 2010

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

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

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

Monday, February 1st, 2010

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

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

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

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

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SuBo in Danger?

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

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

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

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Has Michael Jackson Left the Building?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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Belgian Beauty Bust

Monday, November 17th, 2008

American beauty pageant organizers and participants, attention please! Time to break out the briefing-books! There is now a trend over on the European side of the big ocean that insists upon seeing from contestants at such events both beauty and brains – at least a bare minimum, please. This is originating from none other than Belgium, as we see from a report from that French-Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure (A future unpolished Miss Belgium?). (more…)

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Get ’em Young

Friday, September 12th, 2008

Eight years for marriage, that’s what the Belgian French-language paper La Dernière Heure wrote about in a recent article. No, that’s not the average duration of matrimony in Belgium, that’s as in a marriage for a girl of eight years of age, united in connubial bliss with a man in his fifties (Married at eight years? The judge “gives himself some time to reflect”). (more…)

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The Failed Brussels EU Summit

Sunday, December 14th, 2003

The decisive EU summit in Brussels this weekend to work out a final text of a Constitutional Treaty failed to achieve that aim. As had been expected, the principal stumbling-block was the question of the voting regime to be used for passing measures within the Council of Ministers by a “qualified majority”; both Poland and Spain stuck firmly to their demand that the current voting system, inaugurated by the December, 2000 Nice Treaty, be retained, while other states – principally the EU’s two biggest players, Germany and France – were equally as adamant that a new “double majority” system, proposed in the new Constitution, be implemented. But there were other points that had to be left for later resolution as well, as we’ll see. (more…)

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Belgium’s “Universal Competence” Law Finally Dies

Tuesday, July 15th, 2003

Belgium finally has that new government, after a month of negotiations between the various political parties following the general election of mid-May. And one of its first acts has been to put forward legislation which would replace the “law of universal competence” about which so much has been written in these web-pages – a somewhat extraordinary law which, back during its strapping youth, could be used by anyone, from anywhere, to bring suit in a Belgian court against anyone, from anywhere, for alleged genocide, violations of human rights, and that sort of thing. While it lasted, it provided for great political theater – with personages such as Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld wondering whether it was safe for them to even set foot on Belgian soil, and Belgium’s hosting of NATO headquarters thrown into doubt – but it has finally met its end – at least so it seems. (more…)

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Tommy Franks Accused in Belgium

Thursday, May 15th, 2003

EuroSavant is back, and so back on the lookout for interesting items out of the European news that you won’t find reported in the Western Hemisphere. Before embarking again on an examination of some larger theme – that “old favorite” of US-European diplomatic relations looks like it may be a good candidate to be taken up again, given Colin Powell’s arrival tonight in Berlin – here’s a tidbit out of Belgium, where a criminal complaint has been filed in a Brussels federal court against War in Iraq commanding general Tommy Franks for having permitted war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command in the recent conflict. (more…)

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